With more self-proposed questions sniping at me than ever, asking how to provoke outside interest and participation in the cultural sector, I can’t help but conclude that there’s something innately, cautiously human about having to understand something in order to truly like something, even in shadows of degrees inside the boldest explorers and thinkers among us. And in the spirit of cultivating wider comprehension, perchance active admiration, of the arts I find it compelling to write accessibly from time and again about the core methodologies used in art analysis.
Institutional and academic-speak made friendlier and “proper” ways of viewing art in plainer terms, in the hopes of more shared interests, thoughtful disagreements and productive advocacy around creative work of all ages and genres.
So I find it fitting to begin with one of the ripe old great granddaddies of art history, Giorgio Vasari, a mouthy Italian Renaissance man best known for his biographical writing about other artists and their perspective-shifting masterpieces than his own forays into the finer points of architecture and painting. His Lives of the Most Eminent Painters, Sculptors and Architects, first published in 1550, remains mandatory reading for students of art theory and anyone maybe curious to know a little more about big guns like da Vinci and Donatello and many, many of their lesser-known brothers-in-arms.
Vasari’s three-part saga starts out with the life and deeds of Giovanni Cimabue, but just Cimabue will do — the distracted student perpetually doodling on his schoolbooks turned God-sent prophet of painting who shone the first-needed light on Italy during a time of creatively-exhausted, post-Roman Empire decay.
He wraps up with tales of and accolades for the all-stars of his own High Renaissance era. But before doing so and ultimately bro-ing out hard over Michelangelo, Vasari also doted upon dozens of other artists he deemed of note across many generations along the way, and never refrained from injecting his sassy and dramatic nature into his facts, anecdotes and scrutiny.
I find some of the *cue sarcasm* more-tactful excerpts to include his frequent-enough inclination to berate the “rude manner of the Greeks” from which Giotto, Cimabue’s shepherd-born pupil, delivered us all; his conclusion that the works of Duccio “are in these days much less than passable, [but] were then much extolled, according to the standard of knowledge of these men”; and his quickly escalating tirade about Paolo Uccello, who “would have been the most gracious and fanciful genius that was ever devoted to the art of painting…if he had laboured as much at figures and animals as he laboured and lost time over the details of perspective; for although these are ingenious and beautiful, yet if a man pursues them beyond measure he does nothing but waste his time, exhausts his powers, fills his mind with difficulties, and often transforms its fertility and readiness into sterility and constraint, and renders his manner, by attending more to these details than to figures, dry and angular, which all comes from a wish to examine things too minutely; not to mention that very often he becomes solitary, eccentric, melancholy, and poor, as did Paolo Uccello.”
He also unhesitatingly pulled back the sheets on and sort of high-fived Fra Filippo Lippi, of whom Vasari relayed, “if he saw any women who pleased him, and if they were to be won, he would give all his possessions to win them; and if he could in no way do this, he would paint their portraits and cool the flame of his love by reasoning with himself. So much a slave was he to this appetite, that when he was in this humour he gave little or no attention to the works that he had undertaken; wherefore on one occasion Cosimo de’ Medici, having commissioned him to paint a picture, shut him up in his own house, in order that he might not go out and waste his time; but after staying there for two whole days, being driven forth by his amorous—nay, beastly— passion, one night he cut some ropes out of his bed-sheets with a pair of scissors and let himself down from a window, and then abandoned himself for many days to his pleasures. Thereupon, since he could not be found, Cosimo sent out to look for him, and finally brought him back to his labour; and thenceforward Cosimo gave him liberty to go out when he pleased, repenting greatly that he had previously shut him up, when he thought of his madness and of the danger that he might run. For this reason he strove to keep a hold on him for the future by kindnesses; and so he was served by Filippo with greater readiness, and was wont to say that the virtues of rare minds were celestial beings, and not slavish hacks.”
The heart of what Vasari assembled was a collection of stories, simple as that. First presenting the origins of each artist, who range from representatives of well-bred families to orphans forced into holy orders like hot to trot Lippi up there, he repeatedly goes on to construct the same arcing narratives of study, labour, lots of frescoes, and ultimately, death and epitaphs. Art’s story is read as the human story, as a process of birth, adolescence, maturity and decline, and it’s ubiquitously relatable.
The fable element of Vasari’s approach, and what has since developed into biographical art historical analysis, grants both tinges of darkness and sparkling light to the methodology. Like the humans who created the art over which we obsess, it’s plainly flawed but deserves more credit for its redeeming qualities.
Some might too readily accept what they are being told about a particular artist or composition without ever pausing to consider how the storyteller’s choice of words affect the beginning, middle and end unfolding. Especially when confronted by a fiery, leonine narrator like Vasari.
And a purely biographical stance could be laughed off as too obvious; of course the character of an art object somewhat hinges on the essential makeup of the person without whom it would never exist. What about the popular iconography, widely accepted symbolism, political movements, generational attitudes and messy historical context that engulf the small whirling sphere of the individual?
Yet for those whose spheres spin in universes far outside university systems, boozy temporary exhibition openings and the nebula only inhabited by critics, lively storytelling offers one of the most familiar, captivating and graspable vistas for viewing art.
It was the only means of recording history for thousands of years. It’s how we’re taught on the knees of our forebears, what we screamed for at bedtime and the saving grace amongst the fresh hells of kindergarten. Stories are the fairytales we wait our whole lives to see come true, the focal point of the wisecracks we wait all working week to rub in friends’ faces over sweating pint glasses a plenty. A type of learning much more like the gossip we jump on our smartphones to spread across an ecosystem of social apps, and that sticks to the mind much more easily for future repetition, than dry toast facts. When art is seen in such personal terms, even those utterly clueless about or stubbornly hostile towards highbrow culture can perhaps be rendered more able and willing to take a first series of baby steps through the cat flaps of elitist castles in the air.
Giorgio Vasari, Lives of the Most Eminent Painters, Sculptors and Architects, 1550, republished as Vasari’s Lives of the Artists, Dover Publications, 2005
Eric Fernie, Art History and Its Methods: A Critical Anthology, Phaidon Press, 1995