Monday, September 3, 2012

Italian Reactions: It Takes Two to Tango

Art Historical Reflections no 3. The celebrated Rosa di Pomplona argues eloquently that innovation in Italian art springs from the fortuitous combination of ingenious engineering and an excellent cuisine.  Great art arises from the union of opposites, ultimately the physical and the metaphysical, she says, as is exemplified in Les Mademoiselles d’Avignon by Picasso. The act of its painting metaphorically is a form of cooking and practically of engineering: this act transforms the raw model into an object of culture. The painting itself is a sublime union of opposites inaugurating and epitomising a new style in art.
Initiated: 3 September 2012
Written by: Bert Witkamp

Rosa di Pomplona is, as one might expect of the leading Florence based Instutio della Bella Artes, a renowned specialist of the Italian renaissance. She knows, however, also her way in the tempera painting that preceded oil painting.
Figure 1. Rosa di Pomplona, celebrated art historian and great granddaughter of a model that posed for Picasso when he painted his classic Les Demoiselles d'Avignon.
"The problem of what brings about innovation in art is a fundamental one," she affirms, "and I have pleasure in voicing my appreciation for professor Heinrich Von Schwaben and professor Craigh Cleavens for bringing this topic up in international popular and academic fora. In my contribution to this debate I shall scrutinise innovation in Italian art and that what brought it about. First, let me comment briefly on what my colleagues have put forth. Cleavens attributes innovation in British painting to rationalism and empiricism as grounded in the British philosophical tradition and in the British way of life. Unfortunately, both painters who he presents as illustration for his contention hardly, if at all, can be considered rational in a philosophical sense; though indeed one must concede that they were empiricists in that they learned from experience." 

Rosa notes, in reference to Bacon, that we may indeed say that for a man who has no money it makes sense rationally to steal a loaf of bread as that action, if successful, shall satisfy his hunger. Similarly, it was rational for Turner to paint for the wealthy as they could pay for his work, and they did it well. Whether the wealthy would have paid for pictures of starving children, emaciated mothers or exploited labourers is doubtful. It is not clear, she states,  whether such opportunistic rationalism gives rise to creative innovation.
In philosophy rationalism and empiricism must be guided by moral principles which are not necessarily rational themselves; or may be rational for some but not for others. “Craig,” she concludes, “does not go deep enough.”
"As far as Von Schwaben is concerned," she continues, "his theory of physical determinism, has certain merits and demerits. Surely, the demerits are the most obvious. How could one hold seriously, for example, that a physically large painter would become a great painter; or is likely to develop an appetite for large paintings, or would be inclined towards the painting of grandiose scenes? If, however, we incorporate the self-perception of the artist in this theory we might arrive at something more sensible. The artist who perceives of himself as small might be inclined to compensate for this by huge paintings; or obey his self-perception by the painting of miniatures; or develop a predilection for grand imagery or grand subjects." She notes, however, that if a theory keeps giving you multiple options in similar situations a label such as “determinism” is a misfit. "I should say," she observes, "that Von Schaben’s theory should be expanded to include the mental aspect of the body and subsequently more aptly be labelled the Psychosomatic Theory of Innovation in Art."
Italians, according to Di Pomplona, generally attribute innovation in art, and actually, of all spheres of human endeavour, to two factors. The first factor is technical. It is a question of technique, of engineering, that opens up new ways of artistic construction and hence of expression and perception. Rome could not have been built without its engineers, she argues convincingly. Rembrandt could do what he did because he did it in oil paint. And, she admonishes, he could do that because he had good eyesight and not, as Von Schwaben suggests, because he lacked good eyesight! Oil painting is painting in layers; and these layers may have substantial thickness causing unique kinds of reflection of light and perception of reflected light by the observer. He could not have created these perceptions in tempera, she emphasized, though tempera also is applied in layers; but those are thin and lack the body of an oil paint paste. This gets us to the second factor. The second factor is the national cuisine, and more precisely that what the artist eats and drinks. It is well known that the Italian cuisine is excellent and that is a fundamental reason why our artists produce such appetizing art. It’s our pasta, olive oil, chianti, not to mention the cheeses and meats. The idea that great art is produced on an empty stomach is pure non-sense. Good food is the basis for our physical, sensory and intellectual well being; and our personal well-being is a precondition for our ability to do good for others, i.e., our social well-being.
If there were an art of the gods” Rosa proclaims powerfully, “it would be the art of cooking, as in it all things are combined that sustain life and make it worthwhile. It is technical, it is sensory, it is a skill, it requires good taste, it is social; it is culture sprung from  agriculture and hence ultimately from the land, the seasons and the cosmos.”
Readers, it is clear indeed that Rosa speaks with the wisdom and authority of what chronologically was Europe’s second great civilisation, the Roman Empire, and arguably its greatest state ever. And she has more to say. The fate of Italy, she says, as of its earliest days, has always been determined by the balance between the arts of engineering and of cooking; of the technical and the sensory. Too much engineering is exemplified in the philosophy of amoral political expediency named Machiavellian; too much cooking in gluttony, debauchery and hedonism. A poor state of cooking usually leads to excessive engineering; and a poor state of engineering leads to overcooking. Present society has too much of both; as demonstrated by excessively engineered food and its massive consumption. The technical and the cooking need to be in harmony. It takes two to tango. Heaven and earth, male and female, life and death, light and darkness, saints and sinners, movement and immobility, determinism and the random, ruler and ruled, the wise and the ignorant: one can’t do without the other.
"Lastly," she confides, "let me tell you a funny anecdote to illustrate the fundamental importance of multiple coinciding inspiring forces to bring about innovation; be these contrary, supplementary or complementary. My great grandmother was a model who posed for Picasso when he did his trailblazing work “Les Mademoiselles d’Avignon.” She, the great grandmother, had said: “Pablo was cooked when he painted that thing and I was raw. He was cooked to the point of double vision, and I was raw to the point of being in my natural state. The painting is the combination of the raw and the cooked; a sublime union of opposites inaugurating and epitomising a new style in painting.”

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