Tuesday, October 08, 2019

Gombrich,  "Evolution in the Arts", in  Evolution and Its Influence: The Herbert Spencer Lectures 1986 , ed Alan Grafen, Oxford, 1989

From the very year of this momentous competition in Rome, which was muted by Raphael's death in 1520, another incident can be documented which illustrates even more sharply the emergence of the new function of the altar painting as a work of art in its own right. It involved the greatest of the Venetian masters, Titian, and one of his principal patrons, Duke Alfonso d‘Este of Ferrara. Titian had been commissioned to paint an altar painting for the High Altar of the Church of St Nazaro and St Celso in the North Italian city of Brescia. it is still in that church (Pl. XXXIX). Titian painted in the centre the risen Christ, and on the wings above, in half-length figures, the Annunciation, with the Angel on one side and the Virgin on the other. Below he painted the donor, the papal Legate Bishop Altobello Averoldo who is seen kneeling in prayer under the protection of the two saints to whom the Church is dedicated. One is St Celso, the soldier saint who points to the hope of salvation embodied in the risen Christ. On the wing opposite we see St Sebastian, a saint whose intercession was thought to be particularly powerful against the omnipresent perils of the plague.
Some nine years earlier Titian had also included St Sebastian in an altar painting specifically dedicated as a prayer against the plague (P1: XL). It shows St Mark, the patron saint of Venice, flanked by the two medical saints, Cosmas and Damian, holding  medicine boxes, St Roch who points to the wound which is his emblem, and St. Sebastian having suffered martyrdom tied to a tree as a target for the arrows of his torturers. It goes without saying that here the arrows sticking in the body of the young man is indeed an attribute, a pictographic sign as in Giotto’s picture of Stephen. Nor need I enlarge on the contrast between the way the martyrdom is visualized in the Brescia altar-piece.  The Change from symbolic rendering to dramatic evocation was not lost on the Venetians. In fact the master’s new version and new vision of the event caused an equally dramatic reaction. My final story starts with a letter of December 1520 from Venice to Ferrara addressed to Duke Alfonso by the duke’s agent, one Tebaldi.
 The agent had been to Titian’s studio where he had seen the St Sebastian on an easel (Pl. XLI). He tells his master that all visitors praised it as the best thing Titian had ever done. And to give the duke an idea, he appended a description which is worth quoting in full, for we don’t have many such opportunities of hearing whar a sixteenth-century layman thought of a particular work of art:
The aforementioned figure is attached to a column with one arm up and the other down and the whole body twists, in such a way that one can see the whole scene before one‘s eye, for his is shown to suffer in all parts of his person from an arrow which has lodged in the middle of the body. I have no judgement in these matters because I am not a connoisseur of art, but looking at all the features and muscles of the figure It seems to me that it resembles most closely to a real body created by Nature, which only lacks the life.
            Nor did Tebaldi hide from us or the duke what conclusions he drew from this display of mastery. He reports that he waited till the crowd had left and then told the painter to send this painting not to Brescia but to the duke, because, as he candidly and significantly put it, ‘that painting was thrown away if he gave it to the priest and to Brescia’. The original function, the purpose {or which it was demanded and painted, to stand on an altar, was irrelevant in the eyes of the duke’s agent. The days of the collector had arrived. It was simply too good for a liturgical role and should be treasured simply as a work of art. 
The agent reinforced his plea with a strong economic argument. Titian had been promised 200 ducats for the whole altar, but the duke would pay 60 for the Sebastian alone.
Titian replied that to yield to this request would be an act of robbery, though there are indications that he was not altogether disinclined to commit this act. In the end it was the duke who got cold feet, for he found it diplomatically inadvisable to offend a powerful bishop and legate of the Pope. The painting was left to serve its original function. .
And yet, we may feel that it is no accident that it was over this painting that Titian had become involved in a momentous conflict of loyalties. For in a sense it was he who had courted this reaction precisely by the change from symbolism to narrative. He has discarded the last remnant of the medieval heritage for the tradition rediscovered and valued by the Renaissance, the demand for dramatic evocation. His drawings bear witness to the fact that he, like Leonardo before him, was aiming at a masterly solution (Pls. XLII, XLIII).
Art historians have linked these drawings with what was then the most famous statue of antiquity, the Laocoon group recently discovered in Rome in which the beholder is made to witness the agony of the innocent victim and his two sons. The most admired artist of the age, Michelangelo, had taken up the challenge of this group in his images of the dying slaves intended for the tomb of Julius ll (Pl. XLIV). It is with such works of intense dramatic evocation that Titian evidently entered into competition, indeed one might say that the dominant demand which the image was now expected to meet, was to stand up to comparison to that canon of excellence. In other words art had created its own context, its own ecological niche, once more, as it had done in the ancient world, and it was this autonomy, this emancipation which led in turn to its survival in a new and hostile climate.
For consider the dates. The year is 1520—the time of the Reformation in Germany and in the Netherlands which was to sweep the images from the altars as merely serving idolatrous heresy. The blocking of this outlet which had provided so many artistic workshops with their livelihood might well have led to the decline and extinction of the image-maker‘s skill, and there are regions such as Germany where this came close to happening. If it did not happen where the tradition of artistic production was as vigorous as it was in the Netherlands this was due to the fact to which I have alluded, the fact that art had lodged itself in a new ecological niche, the painter’s skill was admired for its own sake and the admired specialists in mimesis had begun to supply an eager export market.  
There is a famous painting of the collection of the Regent of the Netherlands Archduke Leopold Wilhelm (Pl. XLV) on which we recognize many of the treasures now in the Vienna Kunsrhistorisches Museum. Quite a number of these paintings were originally intended for altars and private devotions. They had now become Art with a capital A, as it were, they had been cut loose from their roots and flourished in a new environment. And yet the historian remains aware of those roots I have briefly traced in this lecture. Most of them, of course, are easel paintings, a form of art which is peculiar to our Western tradition. If we visit in our mind some of the great national galleries of the world which have
extended the chronological span beyond the works collected by the seventeenth—century collector, we discover that the earlier rooms are also devoted to easel paintings, including a number of panels on golden backgrounds dating from the thirteenth, or more probably the fourteenth centuries. They were of course intended to stand on altars in churches or in the home and it is from the moment of their production that we can trace the unbroken evolution of painting in the West to the present day. To quote the words of Otto Demus from his book Byzantine Art and the West: ‘Had it not been for the transformation of Hellenistic panel painting into Byzantine icon painting, and the transfer of this art
form to the West, the chief vehicle of Western pictorial development would not have existed . . .’.  Thus, I believe, it is true to say that even the artist today who is, as the saying goes, facing the challenge of the empty canvas or hardboard on his easel, owes his  predicament and his joy to the demands made on his predecessors some 700 years ago.



---
The editor is protege of Dawkins. Richard Herrnstein (The Bell Curve)  has an essay as well
"Darwinism and Behaviorism: Parallels and Intersections"
The doctrine of evolution by natural selection was in hot water from the start. Charles Darwin defensively called his voluminous first book on the topic, The Origin of Species, an abstract. Quite an abstract it was: hundreds of crowded pages about variation and inheritance of traits affecting survival, about prolific reproduction winnowed down by the hazards of life, about similar but not identical races and species scattered across the globe and in the fossil record, and about the creation of new life forms by artificial selection of domestic animals and plants.
Gombrich was a friend of Popper from 1936, thanked in the first edition of The Open Society, and later wrote a preface.

The poverty of positivism.
more later

No comments: