Wednesday, April 18, 2012

All Hail Jan Van Eyck

When I say "Jan Van Eyck" to you, no doubt you immediately think of the so-called Arnolfini Wedding:

Portrait of Giovanni Arnolfini and His Wife, 1434

I actually think of the Annunciation, of 1435, mostly because I've had a chance to see it - it's at the National Gallery in Washington:

With all of this discussion of rock and roll painting lately, I think an important point has gotten obscured: I'm not proposing a unified field theory of art. I'm not telling you that rock and roll is the one valid path. Art is multivalent - there are lots of different worthwhile paths. The suppression of paint-as-paint is worthwhile too. To me, it represents a noble effort, even an essential effort. It is a rebellion against matter, the rage of reason against the limitations of our estate. Which is to say, a confabulation of mud one day awakens to itself, and names itself Human, and its analytic faculty produces a model of the world formed not from mud, nor even from color and light, but from concepts and their logical interrelations. This model is so compelling, so powerful in its application, that the Human assumes this model is in fact the true nature of the world. Now here comes the misshapen, bloody world, and the Human remembers that it is composed of matter. The Human rebels - it says, "Absolutely not - I do not accept it - I reject it." This rejection is fundamental to humanity, this ability to distinguish between what is and what not only could be, but what our reason demands must be.

Like all technologies, this idealism is dangerous. On the one hand, it leads to Galileo, but on the other, to Robespierre.

For all that, it is a mighty technology, and our human nature not only compels us to use it, but inspires us to invent it, again and again, each time it is forgotten.

The effort toward the perfect painting, the dematerialized painting, is one manifestation of this recurrent technology. And there is no master of it like Jan Van Eyck. Consider the famous Arnolfini chandelier:

What else is this but an expression of total discipline, of unyielding striving, not toward any tawdry object composed of metal, but toward an Object, a mathematical necessity, made visible in shape and light, but not of them? It does not wish to be the work of some miserable 15th-century Netherlander, but of a blazing seraph.

For me personally, the principle stands out most strongly in the ludicrous wings of the angel in the Annunciation. This is the best image of it I could find on the Web:

Van Eyck here takes nature and perfects it - the wings are meticulously and naturalistically detailed. But they are also geometrized, each feather aligned with a flawless curve, sized in exact proportion with its fellows, and in just the right place. And, moreover, he has declined to participate in the muddy colors of the pigeons of Bruges. He has formed a glittering jewel of a wing from the spectrum itself. There are no stray brushstrokes, no expressive passages. He has ruthlessly suppressed the physicality and the character of the paint and of his own hand. He has come so close as he can to making matter invisible, in the service of the image.

Can this project succeed? Of course not. Consider the insight of Henry Baker (whose comments are ascribed to Robert Hooke in Neal Stephenson's The Baroque Cycle). In 1745, a time of lax attitudes toward copyright, Baker brought out the Micrographia Restaurata, a new edition of Hooke's revolutionary book of microscopic observations. Annotating Hooke's prints, Baker says the following:

...the first Object he [Hooke] lays before us, comes the nearest to a physical Point of any artificial thing we are acquainted with; I mean the Point of a small Needle, made so sharp that the naked Eye is unable to distinguish any of its Parts. This, notwithstanding, appeared before his Microscope as in the Figure at a a, where the very Top of the Needle is shewn above a Quarter of an Inch broad; not round or flat, but irregular and uneven.

How uneven and rough the Surface! How void of Beauty! And how plain a Proof of the Deficiency and Bunglingness of Art, whose Productions when most laboured, if examined with Organs more acute than those by which they were framed, lose all that fancied Perfection our Blindness made us think they had! Whereas, in the Works of Nature, the farther, the deeper our Discoveries reach, the more sensible we become of their Beauties and Excellencies.

...a Needle has the most acute Point Art is capable of making, however rude and clumsy it appears when thus examined. But the Microscope can afford us numberless Instances, in the Hairs, Bristles, and Claws of Insects ; and also in the Thorns, Hooks, and Hairs of Vegetables, of visible Points many Thousands of times sharper, with a Form and Polish that proclaim the Omnipotence of their Maker.

Of course Van Eyck must fail. No perfection of art will ever reach to Perfection. But, possessed in our reasoning humanity of awareness of Perfection, we can never cease trying.

Also, everything I'm saying here goes for Rogier van der Weyden too.

Rogier van der Weyden, Portrait of a Lady, c. 1460

1 comment:

  1. The Eastern Icons have a lot of this to them .... you can't really tell from the cheap digitals, the wings on the best icons - and faces, brows, pillars, clothes, feet- all have this geometric quality to them, and this technique is repeated generation to generation. The reason I've been told of this is that - including the weird and inverted perspective - it is an attempt to represent the ideal or heavenly in paint.

    This is most apparent to one when he enters a temple and looks up in the center of the nave and the eight-times-lifesize pantocrator Christ is impassively hovering over them blessing them... one man uttered, 'Oh, sh*t!' (probably his last time cussing in Church, but anyway..) when seeing it.

    There is one St. John the Baptist in Washington D.C. that is painted from floor to high multi-domed ceiling in such icons,

    when one is done being arrested by the fact that they're not naturalistic, one gets to the notion that they are not intended to be naturalistic at all.

    As with all the western icon styles, Eyck's Annunciation is to me at once amazingly beautiful but at the same time cringeworthy when I consider the main flaw of the western way to 'get around the material' - all of the angels look like odd girls when they are supposed to look like frightening young men.