Look at a painting from the 16th century by Albrecht Altdorfer, then one from the 17th century by Fragonard, and then one from the 19th century by Corot. You notice that the concern for salience (clear and informative edges) has changed over 400 years. Altdorfer was one of the first Europeans to paint a landscape without figures. They were small, palm sized (see example one with St. George). His energy went into amassing a thicket of edge information, leaves. By Fragonard’s time artists realized that the effect of clustered foliage was more persuasive when blended with less edge information. By Corot’s century we were able to see nature, experience nature in a painting with only smudges to suggesting areas of leaves. Paintings were approaching the way we see. Artists were able to conjure an experience of representation through deft blurring with few clear edges. The schematic idea has endured; a small window through thick flora.
Ernst Gombrich contributed the title to this blogpost. Before he wrote “Art and Illusion” he had been thinking about how artists learn traditions, vocabularies of design and marks as well as palettes. They also learn suitable subjects as required by their respective markets. Art changes as the purposes of art changes. Purposes change because cultural needs change. We see how the vision of the artist painting a forest changed from the 15th to the 19th century. It is still changing. Technology changes, markets change. Artists answer the call for change just like doctors have changed in their roles. But, we all come from tradition. Historical templates can help explain who we are and what we are trying to do.
Today not only can I use photographs as 19th century artists did. I can manipulate those photographs to resemble the way vision blurs or focuses. Furthermore, you and I have learned to experience the world through cameras, through the appearance of photographs. We believe their reality to be like our vision which it is not. Today many naively think think they complement an artist by saying that their painting looks like a photograph. But today’s photographs no longer look like past photographs. Their standard appearance also continues to mutate just as the history of paintings has mutated.
In my first example I am responding to Altdorfer’s landscape by building one of my own but, I use a squeegee instead of a brush. The image appears more graphic, more like a staged cutout. Example 4 presents my original photograph. Example 5 represents step one and, example 6 represents step two.
In the next examples I take my photo (example 7) and then present you with two different responses. the first is an oil and mixed media on 140 lb. arches (example 8) and the next is a oil on brushed silver anodized aluminum ( example 9). I use my fingers, brushes and squeegees on each. Notice how the two images evolved in separate directions even though they began with the same initiating photo.
In the 20th century we began to cut and rearrange the photo with collage. This tradition continues to be explored. With the aid of personal printers we can make large scale multiples and redefine collage as you see in my example 10. I used a 13 x 19 printer. I printed multiples of the same image then, cut it into fan patterns and reassembled an extended image using different versions of the same image.
We don’t have to wait for centuries to elapse before witnessing the evolution of painting. We can do it ourselves. Example 11 is a small oil on paper demonstration of a crowd in New York’s Grand Central Terminal. Example 12 presents its evolution as I enlarged the idea and changed it.