We have the date of 1915 for the publication of Heindrich Wolfflin’s ground-breaking book “The Principles of Art History”. My essay is an inquiry into who is most responsible for the consequences of the ground on which Art was founded, breaking-up – the artist or the critic?
Picasso is a convenient hook on which to hang the artists’ smock but in truth we need to acknowledge that Rodin was the first to take major liberties with the unwritten rules of western art. Rules by which marks made on a two dimensional surface can be read as solid masses existing in three dimensional space. Rodin’s early drawings leave us in no doubt that he fully understood those rules, yet in later life he went on to take liberties with the rules of drawing as he did with the classical rules of good manners in sculpture. (His sculpture has rules of it’s own.) Many artists in Paris followed Rodin’s example but Picasso went further than anyone else.
Looking at Picasso’s Blue Period drawing we can again say that he fully understood the rules. Indeed he operated with amazing skill within those rules. I am looking at a dry point dated 1905 “The Washing” in which a Saltimbank mother is engaged in washing her child, watched by the father. The cat rubs himself against the back of the father with a movement around his body that is more than convincing, it is utterly cat-like. Yet the cattiness must have been the result of many separate observations rather than the prolonged view from a fixed viewpoint we would normally associate with this quality of drawing. The embrace of the mother and child is another instance of the same quality, drawn from a mixture of memories and observation. The achievement takes ones breath away.
Dry-point is a technique requiring a firm hand to scratch the surface of a plate of copper or zinc with a steel point. It has the advantage over etching that if necessary one can take as long as one likes preparing the design on the plate. With etching the surface is covered with a thin film of wax on to which one can scribe from a preliminary drawing but the wax is easily damaged so corrections have to be done with the etching needle through the wax. Whereas with dry point one could temporarily cover the naked copper with a layer of guache and go on drawing and correcting until one is satisfied. Then scribe through to the copper, leaving the impression of dazzling, first-time, virtuosity.
I doubt whether history will ever know whether Picasso used a similar method for this work. What is certain is that he never again produced such a complete masterpiece under the old rules. There are isolated passages in his later work that remind us of his brilliance but never again the continuous modeling of solid and space displayed here.
Picasso and Braque went on to invent Cubism in which the third dimension is taboo. Cubism argues that a drawing or painting takes place on a two dimensional surface and should stick on that surface, not break through to the third dimension as tradition suggests. (Cubism is an extreme version of the then current “Functionalism” in architecture.) Picasso quickly out grew this constricting dogma but it left a stain on his art. From then on there were flashes of brilliance mixed with an entertaining richness of invention, handling and sexy subject matter but sadly not the old ambition to give form to the complex wonders of the visible.
Picasso was brought up in an artistic family. He absorbed the rules of art instinctively, so much so that he may have had no idea they existed. I myself had an art training as an adult and therefore, maybe have more consciousness of the unwritten rules. Indeed I have made an attempt to codify the rules in my DVD on “Syntax”. I believe I have defined the key role Rembrandt played in the development of syntax in art since his time. Picasso had an enthusiasm for the adventurous quality of Rembrandt’s drawings, which I share.
After his initial seriousness Picasso became more and more playful as he himself recognized “I wanted to become a painter but I became Picasso”. His art is entertaining, inventive and very conscious of the debt he owed to the past. As an educator I find some of his sculptures useful and witty in making a point. Picasso had every right to behave as he did but I regret the huge influence he has exercised on the course of art for the last century.
We all enjoy play; all salute the idea of liberty but if we offered complete freedom from the rules to chess players not one of them would be interested. Chess is a game that requires intuition, foresight, flexibility and inventiveness but take away the rules and it becomes a game for infants. Sadly art has become a far less serious game since Picasso.
Where does Wolfflin come into this picture? He wrote a very earnest book. He had had an art school education which may have impressed his art historical colleagues but his book horrified me when I first read it around 1975. He did not seem to have the least appreciation of the will to explore that is the driving force behind most serious art. He and his followers gave a strong push to the 20thC band-wagon which had gone off the rails. His influence on art criticism is as big as Picasso’s on art. As a result connoisseurship has evaporated.
Wolfflin focuses his attention on superficial style without appreciating the depth of serious exploration that prompts the marks artists leave behind on the canvas or paper in the process of giving form to the particular experience. Any practitioner could have told the experts that surface style changes largely according to what tools or materials are being used. To associate changes of style only with the development of the artist (as in recent Rembrandt scholarship) is a mistake that could only have been embraced by a mafia of heedless dilettante.
I have been offering advice to Rembrandt scholars since 1974 when I made the definitive discovery, that yes, Rembrandt used models to act out his Biblical scenes before he drew from them. This rediscovery happens to match with what his contemporaries had told use; “he would not attempt a single brush stroke without a living model before his eyes”(Houbraken). His student Samuel Hougstratten advised “take one or two of your fellow students and act out the scene, some of the greatest masters did the same”.
But the experts continue with their absurd study of style, summarily dismissing what does not match their misguided expectations. By now they have so disfigured the image of Rembrandt that he is quite unrecognizable to those who knew him of old. They have de-attributed over half his paintings and drawings.
How is it possible that modern trumpeters are valued more highly than Rembrandt, the artist who has done more to educate our senses to the expression of human feeling than any other? We are a culture in headlong decline.
We have come to value the recognizably new because we have lost touch with the qualities that make art valuable. Art historians generally seem to value the products of the imagination above observation. They do not seem to realize that what we see has necessarily to be interpreted by the imagination using previous experience as a guide – that is how traditional art creates vibrations in the soul by quoting echoes from the past. Absolute newness precludes deep communication. I blame Wolfflin and his critic followers, a lot more than Picasso. They have seized the reins of power that guide establishment art and subconsciously perverted it to something they feel capable of commenting on (see “The Painted Word” by Tom Wolfe). Recent Rembrandt scholarship is a disgrace that Art History should never, ever be allowed to forget. Art History does not self-regulate.