In the northwest of Kyoto, in the Temple of the Dragon at Peace (Ryōan-ji), stands a garden where only the viewer grows. It is a rock garden— the greatest rock garden in the world. Since the late 1400s it has been tended daily by Zen monks in the service of those who go there to see what is or is not to be seen.
The monks rake the rocks into straight lines where the large stones are absent, and they rake them into concentric circles where the large stones are present. The net effect is of an ocean's regular waves lapping gently against every shore in a tiny archipelago, except that nothing is moving.
A rock garden such as this is an example of the art of karesansui, which is often translated "dry landscape" but which etymoliterally means "dry mountain water"; the evocation of land and sea is explicit.
There are many ways to interpret this garden and its elements.
The Roettgen Pietà, a painted wooden sculpture about three feet high, tells us a couple of important things about Christian devotion in 14th-century Germany.
In German, this subject is called a Vesperbild, an image for use during ritual devotions at sundown. More broadly, it's an example of an Andachtsbild, an image intended to stimulate meditation. For this reason, the holy figures are isolated from their narrative context and presented in a pose and a moment that amplify the statue's emotional import.
The body of Jesus has been removed from the cross, and Mary now holds her dead son on her lap and laments his passing. The poignancy of the statue resides in a cluster of double meanings. Just as Mary once held the baby on her lap, she now holds the man. Before, he was brimming with new life; now he is beyond life's end. Once he was beautiful; now he is ugly. Once perfect and intact, now distorted and destroyed.
The anonymous sculptor captures these antinomies in visual and tactile form. Mary is straight and rectangular: her knees and hips bend at ninety degrees so that her lower legs and torso form a visual rectangle that establishes the basic order of the artwork. In contrast to her rigid, vertical, rectilinear form, the body of Jesus spreads in a zig-zagging diagonal from upper left to lower right. He bends at the ankles, the knees, and the hips, while his arms extend limply, one dangling straight down and the other resting on his mother's forearm. His enormous, heavy head falls back, bending his neck at an impossible angle and casting the thorns of his crown in sharp profile against the negative space. In macabre harmony, Mary's oversized head tilts slightly off center, toward his, as she stares blankly at the space before them and contemplates the horror of the moment.
The weight and angle of his head, his gaping mouth, his dangling arm, and his broken pose emphasize that Jesus is dead. Amplifying this point, the artist presents the wounds in his feet, hands, and side as plump blossoms of gushing blood held constant. Red paint describes the course of blood that once dripped down his arms, and rivulets of red make a maze of his forehead where thorns have harmed him. His near nudity and the gore of his wounds stand in contrast to the splendor of his mother's blue garment, once partly gilt. Continue reading This Is My Body→
In the first post in this series, I discussed ways in which the space around a single figural sculpture becomes a tacit part of the artwork by virtue of the moving viewer's interpretive act. In the second post, I considered how the spatial relationships among multiple figures in a more complex figural sculpture can provide interpretive clues and cues that lead to a rich understanding not only of the fiction's virtual space, but also of its mental, social, and emotional spaces.
Now I would like to consider immersion, which I will treat as a set of visual, spatial, and kinetic opportunities afforded the viewer of an artwork by virtue of its scale, situation, and referential complexity. I will offer two examples, one which invites the interpreter to go around and upon and another which invites the interpreter to go within and beneath. Continue reading Immersion→
In the previous post in this series, I considered how the pose and three-dimensionality of a figural sculpture support its interpretation. I noted that representational sculptures reside at the intersection of what is actual and what is virtual. Because it is there and we can regard it in many ways, a statue shows us part of a projected fictional world and implies or suggests even more, unrealized in the sculpture, about that world. The artist leaves its underdetermined fictional details to the viewer's imagination.
I described how different vantages on Michelangelo's David yield somewhat different understandings of the figure, and I explained how Bernini later carried vantage-based variations to an energetic extreme in his own David. From these observations and others, I drew a conclusion: although we typically think of movies in relation to photography and painting, film (like its cousin, theater) is more akin to sculpture.
Asserting a close kinship among sculpture, theater, and film raises issues of technology, so I would like to recommend a way of thinking about technology and to illustrate how it can inform the interpretation of art. Continue reading Technology→
Poor Agostino di Duccio. He had learned his craft under the most innovative and imaginatively expressive sculptural master of the quattrocento, Donatello. But Agostino could not have been happy on the mountain in Carrara as he oversaw the quarrying of a shallow, broad block of marble some eighteen feet long. Over the course of his career, Agostino had taken to bas-relief work of the sort one finds on the façade of a church or a palazzo. He had created grand works in terra cotta, too, but clay is a thing far different from stone.
Nevertheless, here he was, perhaps because the elders in Florence had decided to make good on a fifty year old plan to erect a huge statue of Donatello's making on a buttress of the cathedral. Then in his late 70s, Donatello was no longer in a position to give more than nominal attention to such a project. To Agostino fell the labor. Continue reading Diegesis→
In his op-ed on Monday, David Brooks revisited the father of our country and paid wistful attention to the mythic figure's concern for dignity.
When George Washington was a young man, he copied out a list of 110 “Rules of Civility and Decent Behavior…." They were designed to improve inner morals by shaping the outward man. Washington took them very seriously…. In so doing, he turned himself into a new kind of hero. He wasn’t primarily a military hero or a political hero.
What kind of hero was Washington? Brooks adopts the words of a historian:
[Washington] "was acclaimed as a classical hero because of the way he conducted himself during times of temptation. It was his moral character that set him off from other men."
To be a political or military hero, one need only win; to be a moral hero, one must seem worthy of the victory. By 1796, largely thanks to the efforts of Thomas Jefferson, the French neo-classical sculptor Jean-Antoine Houdon had captured this dignity in stone:
Here the gentleman farmer and surveyor, the commander and citizen, stands erect with chin up and rests his left arm on a fasces, a symbol of the Roman republic. Washington's sword-bearing hand now guides a cane. His weapon, the sheathed sword of state, hangs opposite on the symbolic post. One can well envision this Washington declining to become emperor, as the story goes, and choosing instead to step down after his second term for the sake of this nascent democracy.
The conventional wisdom about George Washington is that he was all three: a great general, a beloved statesman, and a prudent, self-governing man. Nowadays, we still have victorious generals and accomplished politicians. But dignity, the quality that demonstrates wise self-regulation, has vanished from the scene:
…the dignity code itself has been completely obliterated. The rules that guided Washington and generations of people after him are simply gone.
Brooks mentions a few politicians who have become all too familiar to us in ways George Washington never was. He has a point; it is difficult to think of any figure in the public square who maintains that sort of dignity and commands that sort of respect. To find a suitable analog, we have to turn to contemporary fiction. Science fiction. Interlarded with heavy doses of science fantasy.
We have to turn to Admiral Adama from Battlestar Galactica. As the BattlestarWiki explains:
Adama has the rare combination of qualities that make up a good leader: insight, the ability to naturally command respect, a common touch that enables him to relate to the enlisted personnel under his command as well as his officers, intuition, intelligence, a strong belief in his own abilities, and the ability to take the advice of others. These qualities are reflected in the fact that personnel of all ranks aboard Galactica hold him in high regard….
Sure, Adama has his issues. However, he keeps them in his quarters and always presents a dignified face to his people. He believes that they deserve nothing less than a steady hand at the helm. And sure, there are those in his fictional world who question Adama. There are even some who rebel against him. But most are fiercely loyal to him. Even some sleeper agents planted in his crew by the enemy find his character so compelling that they choose to stand with him, come what may. This loyalty attaches neither to Adama's military victories nor his political maneuvers, but to his virtue. One close colleague explains the allegiance of Adama's people this way: "They're doing it for the old man!"
When it comes time to stir up dissent, Adama's insidious adversary, the community organizer Tom Zarek, compares Adama's return to that of a Greek god: "Zeus has returned to Olympus." The comparison is cynical. The gods are capricious, mad with power, and all too human; their dignity is a sham. Of course, in the world of Battlestar Galactica, most humans believe in these gods. The humans are hellenistic polytheists, while the robots and cyborgs are monotheists– an intriguing domain for thematic development in the series. So when Zarek compares Adama to Zeus, neither man believes in Zeus but both understand that most of Adama's followers do. Aiming to offend, Zarek implies that Adama is imperial rather than democratic, the de facto god of his people.
Here, the comparison between perceptions of the real George Washington and projections of the fictional William Adama becomes strained. For it was quite reasonable to present the founding fathers of the United States by way of Roman republican iconography that reinforces our most cherished political values, representative government and the rule of law. Right? But no crackpot would ever, ever compare Washington to Zeus. Certainly not in earnest. Certainly not in the form of a gigantic, fantastically expensive, state-commissioned sculpture intended for display in the nation's most hallowed halls. Right? RIGHT?!
The plot thickens, but I need a drink. Let's continue in a separate post.
About a week before Christmas, on a particularly slow news day, Drudge posted a photo of Hillary Clinton that had the blogosphere all abuzz. Ann Althouse gathered and summarized the relevant lines of commentary. It seems that some were shocked by Hillary’s weathered appearance, but some were shocked that others were shocked. Some, like Volokh, liked her look, but others didn’t and poked around in search of a double standard. Still others maintained that attention to unflattering photos is nothing new and not aimed only at candidates who are women. By way of contrast and context, Althouse also reproduces a photo provided by one of her readers.
Those lines of inquiry and speculation are interesting, but seeing this photo reminded me of an article by the art historian Sheldon Nodelman. In “How to Read a Roman Portrait”, Art in America 63 (Jan/Feb 1975), pp. 26-33, Nodelman turns to the heyday of Roman portrait sculptures and asks why some of them seem strikingly naturalistic and unflattering while others seem notably idealized. What he has in mind is the contrast between the portraits such as this anonymous bust from ca. 80BC, now in the Palazzo Torlonia in Rome, Roman Republican portrait bust and this bust of Caesar Augustus from 50 to 70 years later, now in the Herbert F. Johnson Museum of Art at Cornell University.
Nodelman argues that the unforgiving portrait style was strongly tied to Roman Republican values, while the idealizing mode was a mark of Julian, Imperial values. He writes
Through emphasis on the marks of age, these men call attention to their long service to the state and their faithfulness to constitutional procedures, in intended contrast to the meteoric careers and dubious methods of the individualistic faction-leaders– men like Marius and Sulla, Pompey and Caesar, later Antony and Octavian– whose ambitions and rivalries in the quest for personal power were rending the fabric of the republic.
The notion here is that the naturalism of the Roman Republican portrait suggests the battle-scarred character and immanent service of the person thus portrayed, while the idealism of the Roman Imperial portrait hints at the superhuman character and transcendent origin of the person shown. Age well earned stands in contrast to perpetual, effortless youth.
We’re a far cry from ancient Rome, of course. Neither the cultural conventions nor the political circumstances make a ready match with the United States of the early 21st century. Still, I couldn’t help but wonder whether some such ideological mapping makes sense in the current political season’s wash of portrait imagery.
Among the currently viable candidates for the presidency, only McCain directly thematizes his worn and weathered condition. His self-description as more scarred than Frankenstein[’s monster] suggests a connection to values such as those the pre-imperial Roman elite chose to emphasize. In contrast, much has been made of Romney’s corporate polish, and the candidate himself has emphasized jokingly the importance of not mussing his carefully sprayed hair. On the Republican side, then, the McCain/Romney competition might be understood to break out on lines analogous to those that Nodelman defines.
If, on the Democratic side, Obama seems to fit the role of young, polished, and glowing, perhaps an emphasis on the somewhat wizened Hillary rather than the airbrushed, pore-free Hillary would serve well her goal of drawing a rich contrast.