Kant and the Critique of Judgment

KANT’S SYSTEM of JUDGMENT

Beauty, Taste, and Indifference

In the eighteenth century, art and beauty were considered synonymous. During Kant’s time, the criteria for the “beautiful” was a simple—and specific one—based upon and derived from the supposed Greek ideal of nature perfected. The spell of classicism had long been a part of the Western criteria for art, but the discovery of Pompeii and Herculaneum in the middle of the century provided the artists and designer with a historically accurate glimpse of the way Romans lived in antique times. The result of this encounter with the past was, at first, expressed in terms of fashion and design from the architectural masterpieces Robert Adam in England to the emergence of the “empire” high waistlines in women’s clothes. But the idea of the classical went beyond passing trends in furniture design and expressed the concept of that which is timeless, transcendent of historical phases because of its perfection that defied change. Among the early articulators of the historical implications of artistic apotheosis was Johann Winckelmann who inspired art theorists of the eighteenth century to believe in the superiority of classical art. It was Winckelmann who developed an early art historical methodology of studying the past and posited the theory that the ancient Greek artists had started from nature and perfected its imperfections, creating, through the medium of art, a sublime, and perfect beauty. The role of art and the artists was to follow the lessons of Greek art, attempt to emulate it, and achieve the Greek standards of “perfection”. According to the first art historian, Johann Winckelmann, “To take the ancients for models is the only way to become great.”

To fully appreciate the impact of Winckelmann’s writings on antiquity in Germany, it is important to note the timing of his writing. His first significant book, the one that allowed him to make his mark, Thoughts on the Imitation of Greek Works in Painting and the Art of Sculpture, was published in 1755, during his formative years working in Dresden he was able to visit the paintings, many of which were Italian, of the Dresden Gemäldegallerie. Thoughts on the Imitation of Greek Works was both so widely read and so controversial, that Winckelmann wrote no less that three follow up books. It was also in 1755 that Winckelmann went to Rome as the librarian of the Cardinal Alessandro Albani, a move from his native Saxony that allowed him to visit the archaeological excavations around Naples. On four visits, he was able to view and critique the excavations of Herculaneum and Pompeii and Stabae, through 1764. in his introduction to Johann Joachim Winckelmann on Art, Architecture, and Archaeology, David Carter stated that Winckelmann visited the “best preserved Greek temples in Italy” at Paestum. He wrote four books on ancient architecture based upon these Italian observations. Although Winckelmann’s knowledge of antique art was based upon a combination of belated works of classicism from the seventeenth century, Roman copies of Greek originals and preserved examples of Greek classicism, his 1764 book History of the Art of Antiquity, was enormously influential not just to the discipline of art history and archaeology but also to the gradual formation of modern Germany as a united nation with an indentity tied to Greece. When he stated, “The only way we can achieve greatness and if possible to become inimitable is the imitation of the ancients and what some say of Homer that whoever has learned to understand him learns to admire him. The same can be said of the art of antiquity,” he was writing in German to a German audience, possibly referencing more than art. In his recent 2012 book, Winckelmann’s “Philosophy of Art”: A Prelude to German Classicism, John Harry North discussed the cultural changes in Germany during the eighteenth century:

Politically and socially speaking, there was a slow shift from a strictly hierarchical to a more egalitarian configuration of authority, accompanied by a marked increase and widening of the spread of literacy and of economic power to the professional and free-thinking citizens..The positive reception of Winckelmann’s classicism was partly due to the emphasis placed by him on pagan models of ‘nobility’ and ‘freedom’ that he found in pre-Christian society and which he thought found expression in Hellenistic art.

In writing, “His language is almost entirely German, which is a radical statement in itself, since access to the courts and the German nobility would have been in French and to the learned community mainly in Latin. The language he used and further developed was the basic Saxon version of the German language as used by Luther in his translation of the Bible, a language that was familiar to Winckelmann from his Protestant religious upbringing and from the dialect used in the region of his childhood,” North seems to be suggesting that the art historian was participating in the building of a national identity for the Germany to come. In fact, earlier on the author wrote of the role of Winckelmann in inspiring an ideal of freedom and self-actualization in Germany based upon his misinterpretation of Athenian Greek culture:

Interest in Winckelmann and his œuvre began with his first publication in 1756: ‘Thoughts about the Imitation of Greek works in Painting and Sculpture’.1 This work was of importance among the literary elite of Germany and it continued to be read beyond his death in 1768. Winckelmann was one of the originators of the illusion that there had been in late antiquity democratic government in Greece; a government that fostered the freedom of the individual citizen and of the artist. The idea of such a cultural homeland, i.e. Griechentum, spread through the succeeding generations of German philosophers and historians, resulting in a second illusion: the notion that classical Greece was somehow ancestral to German culture, to Deutschtum. This theory of an imagined German Hellenism persisted for centuries and came to a close only with the end of the Third Reich.

In building a nascent theory of analyzing art, Winckelmann also established the theory that the art of a particular culture rises, peaks and then declines. Today, we understand Winckelmann’s hierarchy for artist phases to be imposed upon what were stylistic evolutions and changes connected to shifts in culture. Contemporary art history examines art, not from a superimposed theory of “rise and fall,” but from an appreciation for each phase as an entity in itself. But two hundred years ago, the fields of art history, art theory, art criticism and aesthetics were in their infancy, and, for these early writers, the starting point of emulation was Greek art. Winkelmann’s books were coded messages, writing to an educated audience in his German homeland, a place that was experiencing the Enlightenment and longing for freedom, while bent under the yokes of princelings. The art historian’s message to be like the Greeks would have had a wider meaning in Germany than in France, where the classical antique would have been more of a recipe for art making than an account of an early democracy where art flourished. The idea of copying the Greeks, the ancients, is also stated by Quatremère de Quincy in “An Essay on the Nature and Means of Imitation in the Fine Arts” (1823). De Quincy wrote that the final perfection of art is to reproduce, not things as seen with all their faults and imperfections, but as objects refashioned into an ideally beautiful nature. In this fashion, nature became art, never experienced in the actual but “corrected” by the Greeks into “superior beauty” which is the goal of all art. The equation of the art of the ancient Greeks with idealized beauty would establish a standard, or a canon, that would be challenged by the later generation. The quarrel between the old generation and the new will be termed the “Quarrel Between the Ancients and the Moderns.” The new generation, the Romantics, would not only reject the ancient as subject matter but would also refute the notion of idealized ‘beauty”.

Whatever the political subtexts of Greek art may have been, at the beginning of the nineteenth century, the idea of “beauty” as being an attempt to renew the artistic quest for perfection of the natural, based upon Greek models was firmly entrenched and frozen into academic dictum and practice. However, in practice, as could be seen in any academy, a slavish reproduction of classicism quickly turned sterile. Academic practice had confused great art with great ideas and great subjects with large works of art whose merit began to rest more and more upon the excellence of technique and morals rather than upon inherent greatness. Writing decades after Winckelmann, in the Critique of Judgment in 1790, Kant, a Prussian subject, thought in universal, rather than in Germanic terms. In his book The Idea Of Nationalism: A Study In Its Origins And Background, Hans Kohn wrote that “Kant has sometimes been regarded as a Prussian in a deeper sense than that of a mere subject. Prussian emphasis upon duty and discipline and Kant’s primacy of duty seemed to reveal a certain affinity between their ethical attitudes. In reality, the similarity is purely superficial and is confined to one point; in their origin and enhance the two attitudes, were not only different but opposed. Prussianism centered in the state, for which Kant’s philosophy showed hardly any understanding or love. Prussia was founded upon authority and subjection; Kant’s philosophy, upon equality and autonomy..”

In his appreciation of human freedom, Kant was a typical Enlightenment philosopher. Like Gotthold Ephriam Lessing, a close associate of Winckelmann, who as Kohn noted, “represented a synthesis of the spirit of Enlightenment and of the new humanism.” The author continued, “Kant’s ethics never knew any other horizon than the universal one of mankind..Kant visualized mankind, a universal society of free individuals, as the goal of all human development.Kant thought exclusively in the concepts of a rational order for mankind. The principles of the French Revolution were enthusiastically welcomed by him.” It is in relation to the Enlightenment principles of universality and transcendence that Kant’s final volume can be read. Kant established the grounds for judgment about art on the basis of “disinterest,” writing, “Everyone must admit that a judgment about beauty, in which the least interest mingles, is very partial and is not a pure judgment of taste. We must not be in the least prejudiced in favor of the existence of the things, but be quite indifferent in this respect, in order to play the judge in things of taste.” Kant divided judgments into the categories of “the pleasant, the beautiful, and the good” which “designate then three different relations of representations to the feelings of pleasure and pain, in reference to which we distinguish from one another objects of methods of representing them.” He concluded that “We may say that, of all these three kinds of satisfaction, that of taste in the beautiful alone a disinterested and free satisfaction; for no interest, either of had sense or reason, hence forces our assent..” Therefore, Kant stated, Taste is the faculty of judging an object or a method of representing it by an entirely disinterested satisfaction or dissatisfaction. The object of such satisfaction is called beautiful.”

Conceptually, Kant had to separate worthy subject matter from a worthy work of art, because subject matter or content cannot be timeless. Subject matter that is meaningful in one era may be meaningless in another. The worth of any work of art must be transcendent and universal, allowing the viewer of any time and place to appreciate the work of art in its own inherent terms which, for Kant, were excellence of drawing (line) and design (composition), without consideration of color which was subjective and emotional and content which was extrinsic to form. The role of color was solely to enhance form. The argument over line or color was somewhat related the Quarrel Between the Ancients and the Moderns, as the Ancients, Line and disciplined behavior were linked to strong ruling régimes and color and feelings were related to the new and dangerous ideas of freedom and democracy. From Kant’s perspective, however, color is secondary to preserve the universality of line, which is unchangeable and, supposedly, beyond interpretation.

Kant sought a universal standard for judgment in the realm of art, a set of values that would be independent of personal likes and dislikes, of subject matter which was bound up in its own time, of morality or fashion or passion. Upon what can universal judgments that are timeless and absolute be based? Kant wove certain prevailing ideas into a coherent system, which differentiates the Judgment of aesthetic pleasure from other pleasures. Aesthetic judgments are both subjective, that is, not provable in any scientific way, and also universal, that is, agreed upon by everyone. A thing can be “proved” to be beautiful because it belongs to a certain class of things or characteristics. A phenomenological judgment is the result of a direct aesthetic experience. The subjective aesthetic judgment is the feeling or the response of the subject when the object is apprehended, contemplated, and then judged.

Even though subjective (not empirical), the aesthetic judgment is opposed to a relativistic doctrine in which beauty is dependent upon individual likes and dislikes. Kant was quite opposed to such relativistic judgments, for they are based upon personal responses, which are tied to a particular place and time as well as to the individual. Kant also rejected the concept of “interest” as the basis for determining beauty and art. Interest is desire, a concern for the existence of a thing; it is a utility judgment: this thing is “good” for something, especially sensory pleasure. Kant excluded sensory pleasure: “That taste is still barbaric which needs an added element of charm and emotion in order that there may be satisfaction and still more so if it adopts these as the measure of its approval.” He denied aesthetic pleasure or value to beautiful tones in music and to the beauty of color in art.

Kant advocated disinterest and indifference to content or subject matter and appreciated only design and composition. Purity in tone or color make form more definite and clear and easily intuitable. Form, clearly and purely delineated, sustains attention to the object itself. Thus, Kant puts forward the concept of “free beauty,” or pure aesthetic beauty, which has its own internal or inherent or intrinsic purposiveness: “The beautiful is that which pleases apart from a concept.” For the judgment of the beautiful to be universally valid, it must be detached from individual and personal feelings. For this aesthetic judgment to claim to be correct, it must not be singular or unique to a particular object. “Art” must rest upon the principle of disinterestedness. This judgment, from a universal standpoint, assumes the existence of common sense, which is universally communicable.

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The French Academy

THE ACADEMY IN FRANCE

The seventeenth century was the century in which the modern idea of “nation” or of a modern “state” came into being, based upon the idea of absolute rule. The territory under the absolute despot might be disparate and disjointed, but there was now a core from which tyrannical governing would be done with the intent of keeping the boundaries intact and under total control. Only in England did a constitutional monarchy exist, a king with clipped wings in an otherwise united British Isles or Great Britain. The British had no trouble putting down rebellions within its sphere of interest, smiting Scotland and Ireland on a recurring basis until the threats subsided into sullen passive resistance mixed with outbreaks of guerrilla warfare. While other nations were establishing the quintessential rule under one individual, the British contented themselves with consolidating an empire. Elsewhere in Europe, for the next two centuries, the modern nation was constructed under the dominance of one individual, a King–the many Louis, as in France, or a Empress, Catherine, as in Russia. Perhaps the most magnificent and the most cunning and canny of all of the so-called “benevolent despots” was Louis XIV of France, the Sun King. It was he who put paid, once and for all, any lingering power of the Medieval lords. It was he who understood that a “nation” was more than territory or borders and that a country was a state of mind, gathered together under the will of one person who would create and construct the “image” that reflected the personality of its leader. Louis XIV, on his better days, was a typical “benevolent despot,” on his bad days, and there were many of those, a frightening ruler who maintained totalitarian control over even his most insignificant subjects.

Louis XIV chivvied the hereditary nobility out of their ancient strongholds and corralled them into Versailles where the King co-oped them with artificial “honors” which included serving him in the most humiliatingly trivial and personal ways at his Levée and Couchée. From the moment the King was awakened, the Levée to the moment of his Couchée, his retirement for the night, each movement of his day was carefully choreographed and witnessed only by the privileged few. The more private the activity, the more honored the entourage. Once great lords and powerful nobles vied for the odd benefit of watching the King wash his face or hold a towel as Louis relieved himself on his throne-like toilet. Just as Louis XIV surrounded himself with an array of servile courtiers, just as he created himself as the Sun King, the rays of his control stretched widely, encompassing the arts, the main platform for advertising the King, and he controlled visual and verbal communication with a strict censorship. The practice of controlling what could and could not be published or publicly distributed was called “peer review.” Through this mechanism of control of what could be uttered, the French government became the main propaganda arm for a nation determined to dominate the rest of Europe militarily, politically and artistically.

The centerpiece of the lair of the Sun King was, of course, Versailles, the palace in the suburbs of Paris. The headquarters of the King, Versailles was the orb from which the tentacle like rays emanated. Everything in Versailles was a work of art–not just the palace itself–but also the rituals inside its elegant walls. By ten in the evening Grand Public Supper or Grand Couvert an affair of twenty to thirty dishes was attended by the royal family and certain nobles, accompanied by elaborate performances to entertain during the hour and a half daily event. These ceremonies were not trivial nor were they were for pleasure: they were an integral part of the shaping of a monarchy. A French pastry served beautifully on a French dish was as important as the King’s robes or as the grounds of the château–every detail contributed to the aura of control and to the command of spectacle. The artist became an important partner in the enterprise of Making the Monarch. As Peter Burke recounted in The Fabrication of Louis XIV (1994), the man in charge of artistic quality and artistic execution was Louis XIV’s minister, Jean-Baptiste Colbert. Working with a report from Jean Chapelain, Colbert devised a plan in 1662 “for preserving the splendor of the king’s enterprises.” As Burke noted

..it is extremely interesting to have this documentary evidence of a grand design so early in the history of Louis’ personal rule and in the career of Colbert as a royal counsellor. The plan was put into practice in the next decade, when we can observe the ‘organization of culture’ in the sense of the construction of a system of official organizations with mobilized artists, writers and scholars in the service of the King.

Over the next few years, numerous “académies” of “Danse,” “Peinture et de Sculpture,” “Sciences,” “Architecture,” “Musique,” and so on were set up by the State in order to ensure high quality. Even tapestries and other forms of “crafts,” such as Gobelins, founded in 1663, were under Royal control. All of these academies were founded for he purpose of glorying the King and the State and the importance of the visual arts as propaganda is signified by the fact that Charles le Brun not only founded the Académie Royale de Peintue in 1648 but also directed Gobelins and was also was in charge of decorating the King’s palaces. The King of France was the main patron, not only for the French artists but also sough the services of artists from other nations, such as Gian Lorenzo Bernini, who did a famous bust of the Sun King in 1665. There was no concept of “artistic freedom” in this environment. All the artists and their productions were under government supervision and control. As Burke pointed out it was “the king’s image” not artists’ creativity that was the main concern of small committees who made sure, under “peer review” that all text and objects of any kind, large or small, fulfilled the stated purpose: the glorification of the Sun King.

As in all things, other nations were mindful of the ways in which Louis XIV seized control of the arts in France and noted that the centralized command stretched to all crevices of the territory. Modern academies and modern totalitarian sovereignty over cultural production spread across the continent. The original model for artistic education and supervision, the French Academy, was established in 1648 for the purpose not just of controlling art in terms of its content but also in terms of its quality. For those in the hinterlands, the Academy obligingly extended a network of provincial schools in Rouen, Marseilles, Dijon, and Tours. The careful encouragement of excellence in the arts was intended to establish a hegemony in the arts and crafts as part of a program to extend the power of France in the arts to equal its political dominance. By the time the French Revolution toppled this “Royal” Academy, replacing it in 1795 with the Institut, France had become the international center for the arts, a position the country would maintain well into the twentieth century. The “Royal” aspect of the Academy died on the scaffold of the guillotine along with many of its members. The revolutionaries declared elite arts and letters to be of no use to the new nation but by 1795, the value of arts was reiterated, and in August in the Third Year of the Brumarie, Year IV, “a National Institute, charged with the collection of discoveries, with the improvement of the arts and sciences” was established. An up and coming young military hero named Napoléon Bonaparte was made a member of the Institute where, no doubt, he learned of the importance of the arts in supporting a regime.

Meanwhile, other major cities followed the lead of the French. In London, the Royal Academy was established in 1768. By 1790, over one hundred academies of art or public schools of art were flourishing: Vienna (remodeled) 1770, Dresden 1762, Berlin 1786, Copenhagen 1754, Stockholm 1768, St. Petersburg 1757, Madrid 1752, Dusseldorf 1767, Frankfort 1779, Munich 1770, Genoa 1752, Naples 1756, Mexico 1785 and Philadelphia 1791/1805. The increased importance of academic training in the arts coincided with these cultural centers taking part in the development of each modern nation state, and the ambitious governments’ growing awareness of the usefulness of art in an international contest for prestige.

1698frontis

Sébastien Leclerc’s 1698 engraving L’Académie des sciences et des beaux-arts.

By the end of the Eighteenth century, the Neoclassical style was the official style of “Academic art,” regardless of country. This “official” style of the academy was based upon the foundations of classical art and art theory, as expressed by Johann Joachim Winckelmann in Thoughts on the Imitation of Greek Works of Painting and Sculpture (1755). According to Winckelmann, contemporary art should not copy Greek art but to should imitate the Greeks in their “noble grandeur and calm simplicity,” by attempting to think about art as they did. This new frame of mind or mental state was hostile to that of the Rococo and put Antiquity forward as the only model to be followed. “It is easier to discover the beauty of Greek statues than the beauty of nature,” Winckelmann stated, “imitating them will teach us how to become wise without loss of time.” The selection, if one could call it that, of classicism as an official style of so many nations was not just an accident or a coincidence. The association with ancient history gave classicism and by proxy the new French government a veneer of prestige and a sense of origin and an aura of power. So for the Americans, an evocation of order and harmony through architecture was well suited to a fledgling nation. Incidentally it was Thomas Jefferson who imported classical architecture, which he had studied in France, to America, providing gravitas for the new nation. For the French, a reiteration of origins and of roots in the antique lent the roughly born regime an air of legitimacy.

Winckelmann’s well-meaning volume of art history led to a formulaic copying by artists of classical models. The academic learned response to the designated “ideal” beauty became a dictum to be followed as much for political as well as artistic purposes. Requiring artists to reproduce ancient art was a way of keeping the aspirations under control and by rewarding them based on the accuracy of their imitations guaranteed that the needs of the State would be well served. Copying a pre-given object/objective led to the academic stress on drawing (disegno) because the pure outline was more faithful to the image. Unlike fleeting, conditional and changeable color, drawing sought the essential and distilled the form into purity, a purity, which would have a moral character. The moral character of art was definitively addressed by the German poet and philosopher, Friedrich Schiller, who stated that art, and only art, could lift the human being up from his/her natural state into a moral state. Art alone produces harmony between our sensual instincts and formality and between life and order. Still, there were problems with teaching art, for speaking prophetically, Schiller asked in 1783, “Do you expect enthusiasm where the spirit of the academies rule?” Schiller foresaw the coming struggle between what his compatriot Emmanuel Kant would posit as artistic freedom, a necessary component of the genius who “played” with forms to invent new art. But Kant’s ideas of freedom and play were an anathema to the Academy where the watchword was oversight and control over the artists and a unquestioning respect for tradition.

The struggle between the French artists and the French government would be occur much later and it was not until well after the French Revolution that the modern Academy was able to take its definitive shape. When he came into Imperial power, Napoléon reorganized the Institut in 1803 and increased its membership. The members were given exclusive rights and unprecedented power to admit and honor the works of art allowed to be shown in the Salons or public exhibitions of the visual arts. Napoléon’s gift of control to a handful of individuals was part of his plan to ensure total dominance of art now yoked to his propaganda machine. The Salon, now in its modern form, showed the works of all artists, deemed worth of admission, not just the members of the Academy. The Institut also awarded the Grand Prix de Rome to Beaux-Arts students (males only), a mode of guaranteeing good behavior, for only those who adhered to the rules were rewarded. When Napoléon fell from power in 1814, the Restoration government sought to reestablish the historical link between the old Royal Academy and the Institut, which also managed to control the École de Beaux-Arts, even though the two bodies were theoretically separate. For the rest of the century, the Academy sought to continue the basic foundational purpose of the Louis XIV–the state would be the main patron for the artists and could, therefore could keep art in check and guide artistic production for the purposes of the ruling class.

The strength of the connections between the Academy, the École, and the government varied with the ruler in power who could intervene or not in the affairs of the art world. Nevertheless, the Academy exercised a great deal of power over the world of French art, and by extension, over all other serious art worlds, for French art had established an hegemony in Europe in the seventeenth century and maintained its monopoly on the quality of the visual and literary arts. The forty members of the Academy held fourteen chairs in painting, eight in sculpture and in architecture, four in engraving and six in music and controlled the Beaux-Arts curriculum and the contents of the annual Salon exhibitions until the mid 1860s when the fortress that was the Academy began to crack.

Also read: “The Artistic Revolution in France” and “The French Academy: Sculpture” and “The French Academy: Painting”

Also listen to: “The Academy and the Avant-Garde

If you have found this material useful, please give credit to
Dr. Jeanne S. M. Willette and Art History Unstuffed. Thank you.
[email protected]

Podcast Episode 8: Formalism and Romanticism

ROMANTICISM AND CHANGING METHODOLOGIES

IN ART HISTORY

What is the impact of methodologies of art history upon the recounting of the history of art? A methodology is a way of telling or constructing the past. This act of re-construction is, in fact, as Hayden White expressed, “a tropic of discourse.” However, a trope can be so completely absorbed into the accepted discourse of received wisdom that it become invisible. When the actual documented history of art is filtered through the invisible trope, this lived history is reshaped according—not to events or to objects—but to the trope itself. In the 1980s, the familiar methodology of formalism, which had presented a very particular account of Romanticism, was challenged by a new method, one which stressed the social and historical context for artistic production.

This podcast delineates the connections between the art historical methodology of Formalism, as developed by Heinrich Wölfflin (1864-1947), and the concept of Romanticism. Romanticism was the movement in which the concepts of painting changed from “academic” to “modern.” Until New Art History reintroduced the importance of context, the approach of “art history without names” reigned supreme. How did the uneasy mix of history and methodology change the history of art? What recent corrections were made to retell the history of art history?

Also listen to: “The French Romantics: Gros and Girodet, Part One” and “The French Romantics: Gros and Girodet, Part Two” and “French Romanticism, Ingres, Part One,” and “French Romanticism, Ingres, Part Two” and “French Romanticism, Delacroix, Part One” and “French Romanticism, Delacroix, Part Two”

Also read: “French Romanticism: The Historical Context” and “The French Academy: Painting” and “French Romanticism: Subject Matter and the Artist” and “French Romanticism and the Avant-Garde”

 

If you have found this material useful, please give credit to
Dr. Jeanne S. M. Willette and Art History Unstuffed.

Thank you.
[email protected]

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The Origins of Neoclassicism

NEOCLASSICISM AND THE ANTIQUE

The Rediscovery of the Past

Classicism, since the Renaissance, had been the foundation of an expression of all that was superior and exhaled in the fine arts. Capable of morphing, the classicism of the Renaissance, of Raphael and Michelangelo, became the Mannerist distortions of Pontormo and the drama of the Baroque and even the eroticism of the Rococo. By the eighteenth century, “classicism” had become so overridden by the new styles and the new demands of the new patrons that its distinguishing characteristics were nearly invisible. The idiosyncrasies of Mannerism and the drama of the Baroque were alien to the internal calm and self-sufficiency of the classism of ancient Greece and Rome. During the Renaissance, classical sculptures were unearthed and provided the basis for a fifteenth century reinterpretation of the antique. But no authentic example of painting, beyond vases, was available, allowing the classicism of the Renaissance and the Baroque to flourish iwht invention but without discipline. What made Classicism “new” again in the late eighteenth century was a discovery of a new authentic source of Classical painting at Pompeii and Herculaneum, two resort towns near Naples and far too near to the looming volcano, Vesuvius. Buried since 79, these towns were the ancient equivalents of the Hamptons on Long Island, and the wealthy inhabitants had commissioned wall paintings to provide decorations for the unbroken expanses of walls, illustrating ancient and fanciful myths and events of everyday life in antiquity. The significance of the uncovering of the ancient murals is that, after centuries of basing “classical” on sculptures, now there were, amazingly, actual paintings (almost certainly provincial) for contemporary artists to study. These ruins inspired the beginnings of archaeology, however primitive, that fit in well with the practice of scientific analysis and the new respect for empirical knowledge. Throughout the eighteenth century Pompeii (discovered in sixteenth century and excavated in 1748) and Herculaneum (discovered in 1701 and excavated in 1738) were being excavated, a process that continues to this day.

Early archaeologists and artists and architects explored and discovered the remains of classical civilizations and these recoveries were made available to the public and to artists through carefully engraved reproductions. In addition to the significant public displays of the remarkable specimens of classical art from the long buried cities was the circulation of drawings of ancient architecture, also in Italy, through portfolios of drawings, such as Bernard de Montfaucon’s 15-volume work, L’Antiquité expliquée et représentée en figures (1719-1724)and Le Antichità di Ercolano (The Antiquities of Herculaneum) (1744 and 1792). The former was translated by Davy Humphreys (one of the early experimenters in photography) as Antiquity Explained. Even more remarkable was the work done by the English architects, James Stuart and Nicholas Revett who, thanks to the easing of travel restrictions to Greece, were able to make careful measurements and beautiful drawings of the ruins of ancient Athens. The years after their field work, they were able to publish The Antiquities of Athens in 1762. Books such as these, combined with an increase in tourism, the English Grand Tour to Italy, and the support of the French government of artists who lived and worked in Rome, suggested the very real possibility of a “return” to a more authentic, historically rooted form of “classicism.”

The Roman ruins were especially compelling as crumbling lessons of morality. Roman virtue was more than a dream, for Rome–ancient Rome–had become the climax point of every Grand Tour. Politically, the example of antique virtue, as seen through eighteenth century eyes, provided an example to the French Revolution, which could serve as a call to return to the “roots” of the proper moral and ethical government that existed prior to the imperialism of the Roman Empire. Artistically, the new interest in ancient cultures fired the imagination of artists, who, in the beginnings of Neo-classicism, used ancient Rome as a kind of fashion statement. Joseph-Marie Vien reimagined pretty people, usually women, dressed (or undressed) in diaphanous draped gowns, posing for genre scenes of life in antiquity. Indeed the long named catalogue of the 1972 exhibition at the Victoria and Albert, The Age of neo-classicism: a handlist to the fourteenth exhibition of the Council of Europe [held at] the Royal Academy and the Victoria & Albert Museum, London, 9 September-19 November, 1972, pointed to Vien as the tastemaker of his time and the father of Neo-Classicism. As Alice Mackrell pointed out in her book, Art and Fashion. The Impact of Art on Fashion and Fashion on Art (2005),

The 1770s in France were notable for the re-emergence of costume books hat conveyed a specialist antiquarian knowledge of dress. Michel-François Dandré-Bandon spent the years 1726-31 studying in Rome..A vivid draughtsman and theoretician, he wrote and illustrated a number of books, including his magnum opus, Costumes des ancient peuples. Published in six volumes in 1772-74, he dedicated it to the marquis de Marigny in recognition of his encouragement of le goût grec. André Lens’s book, Le Costume des peoples de l’antiquité appeared in 1776.

These simple new fashions for the aristocrats, especially the women, who obligingly clad themselves à la grec were well suited to be both a statement of that which was “natural” and politically wise, given the rising political criticism of insensitive displays of wealth. Scholars and tourists inspected the ruins, and artists, such as Hubert Robert (1733-1808) and Canaletto, responded to the demand for Italian vistas with view paintings. For his part Canaletto (1697-1768) provided veduta paintings of Venice to tours who had reached their Italian destination, but Robert satisfied the desire to contemplate the past. The crumbling and romantic ruins of Robert (“Robert des Ruines”) were a painted mix of modern fantasies of the meaning of the ancient world and past grandeur and accurate descriptions of actual remaining buildings. Antiquity, from the reading of Homer to the use of the ancient as a suitable subject for artists, became the order of the day from the mid-eighteenth century on.

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Joseph-Marie Vien. La Toilette d’une jeune mariée dans le costume antique (1777)

Preference for classical art was articulated by Johann Winckelmann (1717-1768), the first modern art historian, who recommended copying the ancients in order to study nature more thoroughly. In 1755, Winckelmann, the secretary and librarian to Cardinal Albani in Rome, published Thoughts on the Imitation of Greek Works in Painting and Sculpture, which was an attack on Rococo and an assertion of the superiority of the art of the Greeks. Winckelmann established the idea that art was created within a particular cultural and social context. The writer concluded that the temperate climate of Greece and the Athenian emphasis on outdoor sports as performed by the young males (in the nude) fostered ideals of “noble calm and simplicity.” Using Cardinal Albani’s collection of antique art, Winckelmann wrote his History of Ancient Art in 1764 in which he conceived of the development of Greek art in successive phases within a political, social, and religious context. Winckelmann put forward the idea that art evolved within a society in a teleological fashion, reaching a peak of perfection. For the art historian, the peak was the antique art of Classical Greece, and the modern artist could do no better or no more than to emulate the Greeks. In 1755 Winckelmann wrote,

The only way for us to become great, and, if indeed it is possible, inimitable, is through the imitation of the ancients, and what someone said of Homer, that the man who has learned to understand him well learns to admire him, is also true of the works of art by the ancients, especially of the Greeks.

Two years later, an Englishman, Sir William Hamilton (1730-1803), envoy extraordinary to the court of Naples, published a four-folio volume of antiquities as a result of his participation in excavations (and unabashed looting). Hamilton’s post as ambassador did not pay well and he created a side line as an art dealer, excavating Greek vases from ancient sites of colonial settlements in Italy, inflating their value, and selling them to the British Museum. One group of vases arrived safely to England but the another batch of antiquities sank with the HMS Colossus in 1787. Hamilton’s discoveries, including the famous Roman cameo vase, the Barberini Vase, sold to the Duchess of Portland, provided additional information about the drawing style of ancient potters. The luxury folio which presented exquisite illustrations of the vases was titled Collection of Etruscan, Greek and Roman Antiquities (1766-1776). Although the text was in English, the line drawings, strict and plain, created a series of illustrations that were influential internationally and studied by potter Josiah Wedgwood, artists John Flaxmann, Henry Fuseli, Jacques-Louis David, and Jean-August Dominique Ingres for inspiration and information. Continuing his efforts to revive interest in ancient art, Hamilton published another set of folios, Collection of Etruscan, Greek and Roman Antiquities from the Cabinet of The Honble. W. Hamilton, illustrated by Johann Heinrich Tischbein, director of the Naples art academy, in 1791-95. The folio drawing were flat outlines that deftly handled details without becoming orange or cluttered, giving the illustrations a restrained and severe appearance.

This burgeoning historicism allowed identification with an ancient past that could be understood in relation to contemporary political goals. To Europeans, Rome was far more accessible as the source of ancient art than Greece. Greece, dominated by the Ottoman Empire, was cordoned off, making it difficult to travel to the territory of Plato and and the Parthenon. Actual (ancient) modern Greece was virtually unknown to most Europeans. But in a remarkable act of cultural imperialism, an ambassador to the Ottoman Empire, a native of Scotland, Thomas Bruce, the 7th Lord Elgin, convinced the Sultan in charge of the Parthenon, an ancient temple of incomparable beauty and perfection, to allow him to take all the sculptures, external and internal to England. On the surface this stripping was nothing less than an act of vandalism, but there was a counter argument. The Athenians were using the stones of the Parthenon to build their own houses and the building was being slowly dismantled. But Elgin was not interested in saving the building; he wanted the sculptures, because the French wanted the sculptures. Due to the shifting alliances during the Napoléonic wars, the French were shut out of Greece long enough for Lord Elgin to spring into action and was granted permission through a series of firmans or letters of instruction to acquire the art of the Parthenon.

The Muslims in charge did not care about Western relics and watched while the priceless works of art were removed from the building and shipped to England. Even at the time of these actions, cries of “vandalism” could be heard, but Elgin claimed he was protecting the sculptures for their own good. The cost of removing the sculptures and transporting them to England was astronomical and bankrupted the Bruce family. The British government, which eventually acquired the sculptures, never paid Elgin back for his troubles, giving him only half of what he had demanded. As was pointed out, the “acquisition” of the marbles played out during the war against France, led by the tyrant Napoléon. As Ian Dennis Jenkins wrote in his 2007 book The Parthenon Sculptures, “Against a background of British post-war patriotism and a new-found sense of self a liberator of Europe, a Parliamentary select committee sat in 1816 to investigate the prospect of acquiring Lord Elgin’s Athenian marbles for the nation..They went on show at the British Museum in a temporary makeshift gallery that opened to the public in 1817. From the time of their arrival in London until the present day, these sculptures of the Parthenon have been objects of exceptional fascination. Even those, moreover, who revile his actions must admit that Lord Elgin’s acquisition of them is now and irreversible part of their history and, indeed, has to a large extent made them what they are.” The English public was stunned at the realism of these actual works by the workshop of Phidias himself. It would take years before the artists could reconcile the abstraction of the Greek vases, as illustrated by Tischbein, and the physicality of the “Elgin Marbles” still on view in the British Museum today. In her 2012 book, The Modernity of Ancient Sculpture. Greek Sculpture and Modern Art from Winckelmann to Picasso, Elizabeth Prettejohn wrote of the divided reception of the Elgin Marbles, pointing out that their condition was (predictably, given their exposed condition and lack of maintenance) fragmentary and rough, disconcerting to those used to the line drawings of Greek art. “Interestingly, the draped figures of the female figures were much more difficult than the nude males for most witnesses to accept: the broken folds of the drapery appeared incompatible with the notions of the wholeness and serenity of the classical ideal.”

But as Pettijohn noted, the surprising sculptures had an eloquent and very early defender in Georg Hegel in his series of lectures on Aesthetics, beginning in 1818. By the 1820s, he had taken up the issue of the Elgin marbles and their place in antiquity, breaking away from Winckelmann who had seen only Roman copies of Greek sculptures. “The whole body, except the head, witnesses to the truest treatment and imitation of nature. Even the accidental feature of the skin are imitated and carried out excellently with a marvelous handling o f the marble; the muscles are strongly emphasized, the bone structure of the body is indicted, the shapes are constrained, by the severity of the design, yet reproduced by such knowledge of the human organism that the figures almost deceive is into thinking that they are alive, why! even that we are almost scared by them and shrink from touching them..” Hegel wrote, “..even the minutest detail has its purpose..and yet it remains in continual flux, counts and lives only in the whole. The result is that the whole can be recognized in fragments, and such a separatated part affords the contemplation and enjoyment of an unbroken whole.” As Pettijohn explained, “Ingeniously, Hegel has managed to produce a theoretical justification for appreciating the Elgin Marbles in their fragmentary and fractured condition, perhaps the greatest sticking-point to their reception.” In retrospect, it is interesting that Neo-Classicism, as a style, would be identified as “French,” not English, despite the absence of authentic examples in Paris, largely due to the work of Jacques Louis David, a painter.

Also read: “French Neoclassicism: Sculpture and Architecture” and “French Neoclassicism”

Also listen to “Neoclassicism” and “Jacques-Louis David”

If you have found this material useful, please give credit to
Dr. Jeanne S. M. Willette and Art History Unstuffed.

Thank you.
[email protected]

Podcast Episode 5: Romantic Aesthetics, Part Two

AESTHETICS AND TRE RISE OF ROMANTICISM

Emerging in the mid-eighteenth century, Aesthetics is a branch of philosophy which seeks to define “art.” The formulation of aesthetics as a separate aspect of Enlightenment thinking was a project of British and German writers on the arts. One of the new concepts developed by these thinkers was the modern idea of “disinterest,” which meant that art was to be contemplated for itself on its own merits, not for its content or subject matter. With the lessening importance of the patrons, this new mode of looking put the artist and his or her at the center of the art making process.

Now on display in public salons, the artist had to have a recognizable style and a new identity for the modern artist began to take shape. By the end of the eighteenth century, Emmanuel Kant consolidated “aesthetics” into a coherent and influential book, the Critique of Judgment, which would impact the intellectual world of the Romantic artists. Due to this important discourse in aesthetics, the artist was remade into a “genius,” who was independent of the public and who made art for art’s sake.

 

 

If you have found this material useful, please give credit to
Dr. Jeanne S. M. Willette and Art History Unstuffed.

Thank you.
[email protected]

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