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Getting the Picture

Only Connect…Art and the Spectator in the Italian Renaissance

by John Shearman
National Gallery of Art/Princeton University Press, 281 pp., $49.50

A few years ago I visited the Accademia in Venice in the company of a friend, an excellent painter and highly successful teacher at one of our leading art schools. As we were standing in front of Titian’s Presentation of the Virgin, which covers a large wall, I happened to remark, after a period of silence, how touching I found the lonely figure of the young Virgin standing on the steps of the Temple. “Where is the Virgin?” asked my friend. I couldn’t help asking him how he could possibly have failed to recognize her in the very center of the composition, but he assured me that he never looked at the subject matter; what interested him were mainly the negative shapes resulting from the representations on the canvas.

It was hardly a failure on the part of the painter to obey the injunction “Only connect…”(the title of the lectures under review) that was responsible for this blindness. My friend had simply been conditioned to make inappropriate connections to abstract shapes even when confronted with the evocation of a Christian legend. If there are still lovers of art who are similarly conditioned, this book should present a welcome corrective. It is true that the obsession with formal analysis has long given way in art historical teaching to iconology—an inclination, that is, to connect works of art with philosophical symbolism. But this approach has inevitably led to a bias for secular topics and has proved less rewarding for the study of religious paintings, which form, after all, the vast majority of works of art in the Italian Renaissance.

It is indeed to this field that Shearman’s book makes the most valuable contribution. His discussion of a group of paintings by Raphael, Michelangelo, Pontormo, and others which represent the Entombment is a case in point. He is wholly convincing when he reminds us that “never in Renaissance art is it more necessary that we read attentively, and realistically, what is described as happening, narratively and before our eyes; and never is the failure to connect as an engaged spectator more misleading.” In guiding our concentrated attention to the action that unfolds in these compositions the author has taught us to make the relevant connections and thus to see these deeply moving works with fresh eyes.

The author would never claim to be the first to perform this kind of service to his readers. It was only at the turn of our century, when the term “anecdotal” became a dirty word, that close attention to the subject matter was considered infra dig. Though the reaction against this taboo was slow in coming, the author is able to refer to a long list of more recent writings which concern the role of the spectator. (Thomas Frangenberg’s Der Betrachter, Studien zur florentinischen Kunstliteratur des 16 Jahrhunderts,1 which contains many relevant texts, obviously came too late to be considered.)

In contrast to some of the authors he quotes Shearman obviously prefers to teach by examples rather than by theoretical considerations. For this is essentially an autobiographical book, in which the author tells of his personal response to some two hundred works of the period that have engaged his attention during a lifetime of study. The only brief excursion into theory the author permits himself is the proposal to use the grammatical term “transitive” for the kind of relation between the work of art and the spectator that interests him, quoting the Oxford English Dictionary for the definition of the term as “taking a direct object to complete the sense” (etc.). Not everybody will find this application of the term apposite. It is true, for instance, that the word “to paint” in its transitive use demands an object but not an addressee. When I say, “I paint my bedroom,” I may speak of redecoration or of an emulation of van Gogh, but in neither case is a spectator implied.

There is a term in rhetoric which comes a little closer to the meaning the author has in mind: it is the term “apostrophe,” which was defined by Quintillian (in a speech at the Law Courts) as “the diversion of our words to address some person other than the judge.” But apart from the awkward possibility of it being confused with its more familiar meaning as a grammatical indicator, the device does not necessarily imply a living addressee. “Milton! thou should’st be living at this hour” is specifically addressed by Wordsworth to a poet of the past.

It may be useful at this point to step back a little and to consider the topic in a more general context: there are cultures in which the work of art is intended to act as a spell or a prayer addressing the spirit world or supernatural powers; there are also conceptions of art in which each creation is entirely self-sufficient, regarding any outsider as an intruder or worse. Traces of these positions have occasionally surfaced in later centuries, including our own, but by and large the historian of any art is entitled to think that composers and playwrights intended their works to be performed, that authors hoped to be read, and that architects, sculptors, and painters had a public in mind that would appreciate their inventions. It is within this general assumption that we may try to differentiate, however crudely, between the various devices that may serve this universal aim.

Anyone devising a message in whatever medium will first be concerned with its sensory form, which allows it to be clearly perceived. Speech and music must adjust to the facts of acoustics, the visual arts to optical conditions. There are notoriously musical compositions in the Renaissance and in our century that disregard this demand, since their complexity is bound to elude the listener, and there are many works, especially of decorative art, that cannot properly be seen by the unaided eye. By contrast many artists have carefully calculated the optimal position from which their work is seen to the best advantage. The sculptor’s concern with the best aspect from which his statue should be viewed first comes to mind, a concern which gives way to the aim of allowing the spectator to walk around and to experience the intended transformations. A refinement of this calculation is mentioned by Plato, who tells us that the sculptors take account of the high positioning of their statues by stretching their proportions, which will right themselves when seen from the ground. The calculation of effects due to distance is mentioned by Vasari for sculpture and was a commonplace in the discussion of paintings where the beholder was supposed to step back for the picture to come to life.

In the Renaissance artists must have found that the tricks of perspectival representation that were universally adopted raised as many problems as they appeared to solve. What is the ideal place from which such a painting is to be viewed? Leonardo discussed this matter and in the seventeenth century Pozzo notoriously marked the place in S. Ignazio in Rome from which the illusion that the church has a dome became perfect. A limiting case is the device of anamorphosis which only looks right when viewed sideways, preferably through a peephole. Nor must the alternative trick be forgotten, paintings which appear to move with us as we change our position. Mantegna’s Christo in scurzo may be a case in point, where the wounds of Christ always appear to face us, to enhance their spiritual appeal. A more sophisticated device was used by Vasari on the ceiling of his own house in Arezzo: he represented Virtue trampling on Envy and, seizing Fortune by her hair, hitting both of them with a stick; “and what gave much pleasure at that time,” he writes in his autobiography, “was that if you walked around the room it sometimes looked as if Envy was above Fortune and Virtue, and then again Virtue above Envy and Fortune just as it often happens in real life.”

It may be useful to distinguish these sensory or optical devices from psychological methods intended to ensure the receipt of the “message.” What is needed is clearly to ensure the listener’s or the viewer’s attention, a need that admittedly also has its sensory component, witness the toastmaster’s ritual call, “Pray silence for…”Without the physical condition of silence, attention would be impossible. Equivalents in music are the loud chords sometimes preceding the first movement of a composition, often and rightly described as “a call to attention.” In the visual arts it is the conspicuous frame or other means of isolating the message from its distracting surroundings which serves this purpose. The study of the advertiser’s art would reveal any number of further ways of grabbing attention.

Since we are all egocentric, we are more likely to pay attention to a message addressed to us than to anybody else. The rhetorical figure of apostrophe mentioned above has often been used for this purpose. In literature, of course, an address to the reader has been commonplace throughout the centuries, never more effectively than in the epitaph at Thermopylae: “Stranger, tell the Spartans that we lie here in obedience to their laws.” What makes this text so poignant is the fact that the reader is asked to transmit the message because the fallen cannot. Religious discourse has always addressed the individual, as in the “thou shalt not” of the Decalogue, but it needs a master such as John Donne to give it new force: “Never send to know for whom the bell tolls; It tolls for thee.” Any number of changes have been rung on this device in literature; it took the wit and daring of Laurence Sterne to precede his account of his own conception in Tristram Shandy with the injunction “Shut the door.” Needless to say it is again the advertisers who have introduced further variants by “personalizing” their circulars, inserting the name of an addressee for the traditional “dear customer.”

These varieties are worth mentioning only to underline the resources of language which the unaided image cannot match. Witness a popular print of the seventeenth century showing four donkeys captioned “Siamo Cinque” (we are five), implying teasingly that the spectator is also an ass.

It may be convenient to distinguish such “framing conditions”—the envelope, as it were, in which the message arrives—from that message’s intrinsic capacity to arouse the recipient’s emotions. Little need be said about this universal concern of all the arts except that the notorious formula “sex and violence” did not have to wait for this century to be discovered. In addition to this universal disposition the sender of any message is also likely to rely on expected personal or topical associations, which are bound to vary with the cultural context. Social satire and political cartoons gain their effect from such ephemeral allusions.

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    Berlin: Brüdermann Verlag, 1991.

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