In the 1960’s, a fashionable subject of conversation among the Russian intelligentsia was Mikhail Sholokhov’s plagiarism. Sholokhov, it was alleged, had found the manuscript of And Quiet Flows the Don among the personal effects of a certain Cossack, published it as his own, and eventually pocketed the 1965 Nobel Prize for Literature. Just look at that amazing novel, our sleuths were saying, and compare it with the stuff the man really wrote, propagandist rubbish like Virgin Soil.
Yet Sholokhov had began publishing his tales of Cossack life in the early 1920’s, and his epic of the River Don belonged to the epoch. The rubbish he started writing in the 1930’s, and continued publishing until his death in 1984, belonged to the Union of Soviet Writers, together with all the rubbish that everyone else in Stalin’s Russia, including the supposedly irrepressible and otherworldly Pasternak, had begun to write. So, in accusing him of dishonesty, our sleuths were missing the point completely, rather like a person who would assert that the ancient Maya had plagiarized their temples ’cos just look at dem injuns now, they ain’t building that kind of crazy stuff no more in Guatemala.
The fact was that, like Sholokhov’s generation and the still earlier generation of Pasternak, our sleuths—that is to say, the intelligentsia of the 1960’s—had become barbarized themselves, degenerating intellectually to the point where the only thought they could afford to entertain was that “socialist realism” was a bad thing. They could no longer recognize the finer details in the total picture of cultural propaganda, pressing as it did on their collective brain like a malignant tumor. Making subtle distinctions, at that point in their lives, would have been tantamount to realizing just how far they themselves had fellow-traveled down that rubbish-strewn road to mediocrity. For it was of their journey that the young Pasternak had written prophetically: “O life, our name is dispersal.”
I recount this somewhat autobiographical parable, which, on the face of it, has little to do with the history of art, for a couple of reasons. First, I think we should ask ourselves: If, in the course of a mere half-century, the intellectual elite of a nation can so lose the plot and reveal itself to be quite so incapable of understanding what has gone on a mere generation earlier, what hope have we today—five, eight, or ten centuries after all the great cataclysms in religion, taste, and art had revolutionized and re-revolutionized the world 20 times over—to understand the difference between a giftless propagandist, a talented hack impelled by his worldly appetites, and a selfless genius on his way to the poorhouse? And secondly, I think we need to ask: Is the history of art a knowable chain of causes and effects—very much like our customary view of world history—or is it a series of unrelated, self-contained, apodictic episodes that every generation of historically minded people links together ex post facto, each in its own self-serving way, to form a reassuringly rational, ego-preserving logical progression?
Ordinarily I would not bother with such lofty questions. But, as we have seen, my autobiographical parable foreshadows the answers.
Last year, a renowned and not altogether untalented British painter named David Hockney published a book entitled Secret Knowledge: Rediscovering the Lost Techniques of the Old Masters. Coming from a California-based artist of fashionably ambiguous sexuality and impeccably modernist credentials, the richly illustrated volume created a huge stir. In the words of the dust-jacket blurb, Hockney “examines the major works of art history and reveals the truth of how artists such as Caravaggio, Velazquez, van Eyck, Holbein, Leonardo and Ingres used mirrors and lenses to help them create their famous masterpieces.” Or, in Hockney’s own words,
The thesis I am putting forward here is that from the early fifteenth century many Western artists used optics—by which I mean mirrors and lenses (or a combination of the two)—to create living projections. . . . Many art historians have argued that certain painters used the camera obscura in their work—Canaletto and Vermeer, in particular, are often cited—but, to my knowledge, no one has suggested that optics were used as widely or as early as I am arguing here.
What I want to take note of at this juncture is the subsequent fate of Hockney’s thesis, which haunts me as a kind of nightmarish echo of the Russian intelligentsia’s obsession with Sholokhov’s plagiarism. For here is a typical representative of the Western intelligentsia at its best, engaged in fruitful and informed debate with his peers—art scholars, museum curators, and historians of science—and not one voice in this otherwise lively chorus will descant upon the sad truth that they are all missing the point. Indeed, it is as though some malignant tumor, pressing down on their collective brain, prevents them from glimpsing the landscape of fundamental issues that lies just beyond the “sensational discoveries” under discussion. Could it be that glimpsing it would be tantamount to realizing just how far Western culture—the culture whose handlers and caretakers, if not heirs and successors, they surely are—has progressed along the road to mediocrity and extinction?
Western cultural discourse has become so barbarized that the question of whether or not, or to what extent, the painters of the Renaissance employed certain optical tools in their work can now totally obscure the question of what it was that art ever sought to achieve, by whatever visual means, before, during, and after the Renaissance. All of us in the 20th century have been brought up on the didactic and clumsy fable of progress in everything, not excepting art. That broadly historical fable is based on evolutionary analogies, of which Darwinism, Marxism, and the history of locomotion and armaments are ready examples. A jet is faster than a turboprop, which is faster than a train, which is faster than a horse, which is faster than legs. Crossbows can kill, muskets can kill more, machine guns still more, and a hydrogen bomb can kill everybody.
According to the fable, in the Dark Ages that followed the fall of the Roman Empire, man’s renewed struggle to represent nature—like his struggle to conquer it—went badly, then better, and then as well as was humanly possible. This culmination was the High Renaissance, its enduring achievements rather like the trains of today, still running on the rails first laid in Queen Victoria’s time. Whereupon man spent a couple of centuries fooling around, experimenting with this, toying with that, and fiddling with a third thing, eventually arriving at the TGV stage in the evolution of Stephenson’s locomotive. This was all to the good, however, and became known as Mannerism. Finally, as though realizing that once attained, the fundamental perfection of a Michelangelo or a Leonardo could not be surpassed by conventional means, he invented a sort of nuclear reactor of artistic expression, which is the Modern movement from the Impressionists to the present day.
In keeping with the accepted notion of progress without end, the moral of the fable was kept deliberately inconclusive, a warning to any pessimist T.S. Eliot types out there who “have heard the mermaids singing” that the opera ain’t over, and that what is actually taking place is merely the conclusion of one glorious cycle and the start of another, potentially even more glorious but, at any rate, more advanced.
The barbarization of which I speak—a process of regressive metastasis in the thinking classes, where the ideology of progress plays the part that “socialist realism” played under the Soviet regime—has not always been so pandemic. To demonstrate this, I shall quote at some length from a once-famous book entitled The Modern Movement in Art, written by art historian R.H. Wilenski in 1926. A point Wilenski makes about Ingres, for instance,
is that we see the influence of the daguerreotype in the technique of his last period and that thereby a twist was given to the naturalistic technique used by [many] derivative artists in the venal descriptive popular art which they evolved to meet the demands of the new French bourgeois created by the Revolution, and that it was the same twist as that which . . . led the English Pre-Raphaelites to the mistaken notion that the camera could completely and perfectly record forms, and that it was the artist’s duty to rival the camera in purely mechanical non-selective vision.
. . . Other French artists soon discovered that the camera’s lens recorded not the generic character of physical objects and concrete things as perceived by representational descriptive artists, but that it recorded only effects of light; and by 1850 the French artists had started on attempts to contract their perception to the camera’s true vision—attempts which were destined to debase pictorial technique in ways quite different from the way it was debased by artists who failed to understand the camera’s eye.
And of the Impressionists:
The Impressionists set out to evolve a species of painting in which specific forms would be suggested purely as the camera suggests them, by records of their effects in light. . . . [T]he celebrated palette of the Impressionists and the still more celebrated “pointilliste” method of breaking colours into their ingredients and allowing them to fuse at a certain distance to the desired tint, was in fact merely an attempt to evolve a system of colouring which it was thought would be that seen in photographs if the camera could record its vision of colour.
On the invention of photography, he is still more forceful:
To-day everyone recognizes that the camera cannot comment; that it cannot select; and that the variation between the shortest time and the longest time which it can behold its “subject” is, in daylight, extremely limited. There are still, however, many people who imagine that the camera can record the forms of physical objects and concrete things, and the formal relations of such objects and things to one another.
Both these last activities are . . . as far beyond the camera’s powers as the other activities just mentioned. The camera records degrees of light, obstructions to light, reflections of light and relations of light and shade. It cannot record a house, a tree, or a man. It can only record the momentary effects and degrees of light as affected by such physical objects and concrete things.
What emerges from Wilenski’s pages is a deeply unflattering picture of the 19th century. More importantly, what emerges is a portrait of a scholar and thinker determined to see things in his own way and to look beyond the iron curtain that is the received wisdom of an epoch. And, if we measure the intellectual distance from such a man to a man like Hockney, we may find that it is exactly equal to the aesthetic distance between, say, Corot’s middle period and the Coca-Cola photographism of Andy Warhol exactly one century later.
The hidden agenda of Hockney’s Secret Knowledge is to exonerate photography, cinema, television, computer graphics, Warhol, conceptual art, and modern progressive literalism generally, by pointing to the past and co-opting the great masters from the 15th century to the 20th—they all did it, didn’t they?—to advance the cause of the present. The open brief of Wilenski is to pour scorn on much of the century that preceded him, accusing its great masters of degeneracy and of betrayal precisely because they had embraced that cause and the very technology that Hockney now thinks he discovers America by identifying.
I want to take up the English writer’s critical approach to the art of the 19th century to retreat still further into the past—sweeping like Stephenson’s locomotive through the five centuries upon which Hockney bases his thesis—and to end up in the ages that, strangely enough, are called “dark.” Is that because their artists used neither artificial light, nor theatrical illusion, nor computer enhancement to say what they wanted? Because, as we shall see, the true watershed in the development of Western art is not the artists’ reliance on optics—nor even, more generally, on the aesthetic sensibility that the introduction of optics made commonplace—but another scientific development that had taken place even earlier. In the final analysis, it, too, had to do with the artists’ use and abuse of light.
My guide through all that terrible darkness is Pavel Florensky. Along with his friend Vasily Rozanov, Father Florensky is among the most important Russian thinkers of any epoch, not just the 20th century. Like Rozanov, who died of hunger a few years after the Bolshevik coup, Florensky, an Orthodox priest, died the death of a martyr in the camps. Until recently, his name was practically unknown in the West. But when, a few years ago, an Italian publishing house brought out a translation of his book Iconostasis, it went through more than 20 printings and became a kind of highbrow bestseller. Here, I am going to draw on another essay of Florensky’s, a work of unparalleled intellectual boldness that, as far as I know, has never been translated. Entitled Inverted Perspective, it was written in 1919.
People who look at icons are often struck by the oddness with which their authors treated perspective, which becomes particularly clear when the objects depicted are rectangular or flat-sided, such as houses, tables, or books, especially the often-seen Holy Scripture. In addition to the façade, for example, another two sides of the building will be shown; the Scripture will have three, and sometimes all four, of its cinnabar-colored sides turned to the viewer; a face will show all its features at once without foreshortening. So great is the violation of what are now thought to be elementary rules of perspective that the modern viewer cannot but conclude that the authors of these 13th-century masterpieces were pictorial illiterates.
Another way in which iconographers distorted perspective is by making it multicentered or multifocal, so that one part of the interior of a building, for instance, seems to have been seen from one person’s point of view, another from a second person’s, and yet another from a point of view apparently incompatible with the other two. The same approach is evident in the iconographer’s treatment of light and shade, or chiaroscuro, as it is called in the West, which again seems self-contradictory, polyvalent, and lacking a single focus.
The modern spectator’s reaction is that the authors of these works were primitive artists who had not yet progressed to the kind of mastery of their medium seen in Italian painting, for instance, as it begins to approach the Renaissance. Of course the modern spectator does not deny that these pictures are great, or wonderful, or important. After all, he has admired Balinese sculptures, and African carvings, and Australian cave paintings. Why should he not appreciate Byzantine or Russian icons? But he knows that deep down within himself is the sense that all this is the raw material of progress, to be reworked by Western civilization into something definitive and correct. Come the Renaissance, he reasons, all the errors will be set right, the good bits will stay and the silly stuff will be dropped, the boys will grow up to be men, and the lowly abacus will become our computer.
History and logic, alas, are not on the modern spectator’s side. Florensky points out that, while the ancient Egyptian reliefs show no trace of perspective, the mathematician Moritz Cantor has written extensively (in Vorlesungen uber Geschichte der Mathematik, 1907) of the Egyptians’ achievements in the study of geometric proportionality. “It simply never occurred to them,” confirms Cantor, “to think of a pictorial image as a plane inserted between the eye and the object depicted, connecting by means of a straight line the points of intersection of that plane with light beams directed at that object.”
It is equally unhistorical to suppose that the ancient Greeks, who did not use perspective in their painting, were ignorant of it. Florensky points out that Ptolemy, in his treatise on geography of the second century B.C., discusses the cartographic theory of the projection of a sphere upon a plane. Elsewhere, he discusses pole projection onto an equatorial plane, the kind that became known in the 17th century as “stereographic,” and solves a variety of other complex problems of projection geometry. Is it conceivable, considering that the problems posed by representational painting are elementary by comparison, that Greek artists did not use perspective because there was no one to teach them how?
Geometry, after all, is a Greek word and practically a Greek invention. On the opening page of his treatise on perspective published in 1525 (Instruction in the Means of Measurement), Albrecht Dürer says that, as “profound Euclid” has already laid down the fundamentals of geometry, “what follows will prove quite superfluous to those familiar with them.”
As it happens, it is to the Greek philosopher Anaxagoras (500-428 B.C.)—a kind of Galileo of his day, exiled from Athens for blasphemy, who professed that the sun was a white-hot stone and the moon was made of earth that reflected the sun’s rays, a thinker whom even Aristotle criticized for his overly mechanistic view of the universe—that Vitruvius, the Roman writer on architecture and architect to Augustus, attributes the invention of perspective. Not for painting, mind you, or what we would call “pure” art, but for what we, after the Greeks, call ”scenography,” that is, the “applied” art of designing stage sets for the theater. According to Vitruvius, around 470 B.C., when Aeschylus was putting on his plays in Athens, the painter Agatharchus executed the set designs and published a commentary on them, whereupon, for the first time in history, Anaxagoras decided to address the whole question of geometric illusionism scientifically. Thus the threadlike line binding the spectator to the object was first drawn, the gossamer thread that, with the passing of time, would become an indestructible chain of truly totalitarian proportions.
Perspective, writes Florensky, did not emerge from pure art and, from the very start and by its very nature, sought to draw art away from its original function, suborning it and redirecting its energies to achieve its own applied ends. What was that original function? Whatever it was, it was not to mimic, reflect, or counterfeit reality, but to gain a deeper understanding of it. By contrast, an artfully decorated theater set aims to falsify reality, to replace the substantial with the make-believe. In other words, a theater set is conceived as a fiction, whereas a painting is born as an attempt at the truth of life, an attempt that in no sense compromises the integrity of the original.
Taking for granted that the theater spectators, like so many inmates of Plato’s cave, would be chained to their seats by the spectacle of utter verisimilitude unfolding before them, Anaxagoras developed what amounts to the first scientific construct of modern propaganda—the promulgation of a lie that is accepted by the multitude as the truth, even though it is known to be a lie. The multitude is held in place—total immobility being essential to the illusion—as much by political and social barriers to spontaneous movement as by their own appetites and aspirations. Glassy-eyed, the audience stares at the ever wider screen.
If the screen upon which an invention is projected is a fiction that, once interposed between ourselves and the world, blocks out its light, then the artist’s symbolic homage to reality is a window onto that world, an opening through which God’s light may freely enter, continues Florensky. In the Orthodox rite, an iconostasis is the sanctuary screen that, during periods in the liturgy when the “kingly gates” are shut by the priest, isolates the altar from the congregation. This screen is entirely decorated with icons that are always open to the eyes of the faithful like windows onto the world of the spirit. They are symbols of real life, not lifelike imitations of reality.
There is no deeper conflict in history than that between these opposing views of art. “Is art to serve reality and the individual under God, or is it to serve realism and the masses under communism?” That is the question that the obsessively rationalist current of Western civilization—of which both French Jacobinism and Soviet communism are characteristic, if comparatively recent, tributaries—should have paused to ponder sometime in the 14th century.
The 14th century is the century of Giotto (1266-1337). Like St. Francis of Assisi (“whom they decided to canonize,” writes Florensky, “for the simple reason that they had missed the chance to burn him at the stake”), Giotto is as famous as he is today—far more famous than, say, his teacher Cimabue (master of mosaics at the Cathedral of Pisa)—for a very good reason. “More than any other artist,” thrills my 1975 Columbia Desk Encyclopedia, “he may be said to have determined the course of painting in Europe.” What endears him to Western public opinion is his aura of “liberal humanism,” sustained by the shrewd way in which he put his art at the service of the Franciscan forerunners of the Renaissance. According to Vasari, he was what he is now happily viewed as, a kind of proto-Leonardo, a rationalist thinker whose conception of life was the continuum of progress—especially scientific progress—in the direction of an earthly paradise, where the inventors of the useful and the creators of the beautiful would have the pride of place. It was in such a paradise, of course, that Florensky lived and died the death of a martyr.
And again, according to Russian art historian Alexander Benois, it was Giotto’s experience of theater design—specifically, his painting of sets for mystery plays—that had given him the mastery of illusion so crucial to the “new realism” of the Assisi frescos. From that point on, the baton passes to Florence: Bruneleschi (1377-1449), Uccello (1396-1475), Andrea del Castagno (1423-1457), Alberti (1404-1472), Piero della Francesca (1420-1492), Donatello (1386-1466), Masaccio (1401-1429), Benozzo Gozzoli (1420-1498), and Filippo Lippi (1406-1469) all made important contributions to the newly condoned—nay, newly obligatory—practice of illusionism. Key examples are frescos in the Florentine Duomo by Uccello (1436), Castagno’s “Passion of Christ” cycle in Sant’Apollonia (1445), and books on perspective by Piero della Francesca (De perspectiva pingendi) and Leon Battista Alberti (On Painting).
With the appearance of Leonardo (1452-1519) in the following generation, the practice gains full scientific backing and philosophical support. Realism is the way of the future, concurs Raphael (1483-1520). And when, finally, Michelangelo (1475-1564) blows into town with his bovine hyperrealism, one can no longer mince words. Art now serves the people—which, at this particular juncture in history, means the Medici.
Although the fundamentals of perspective had been universally understood for millennia, refining the new discipline and emptying its bottomless bag of tricks absorbed the finest minds of the epoch for almost five centuries—the same centuries that Hockney now ransacks for evidence of the uses of the lens, the prism, and the mirror. Of course the artists bent on illusionism used these optical tools! They would have used the blood of Florentine virgins if it would have made the floor tiles in their paintings more stereoscopic, the walls of houses more receding, the faces of models more lifelike. They would have sold their souls for a day in the photo department of Macy’s.
And yet, argues Florensky, we see time and again that, despite the ever-increasing sophistication in the uses of perspective they evidence, each one of these undisputedly great masters of their craft repudiates and casts off the discipline whenever he wishes to impart to his painting an emotion commensurate with its visual ambition. Florensky cites a number of examples, starting with Leonardo’s Last Supper, where the event involving more than 13 human figures takes place in a room less than two human figures high and three human figures wide, an iconographic device hearkening back to ancient Egypt, whereby different units of scale are applied to living beings and inanimate objects.
Florensky points to Raphael’s School of Athens and to his Vision of Ezekiel, to works by El Greco (such as his Burial of the Count Orgaz) and Rubens (his Flemish Landscape in the Uffizi). Veronese, in his Marriage at Cana, used no fewer than seven different viewpoints and five horizons. Dürer—author of the treatise on perspective that teaches how to “beguile the eye”—decides, in his diptych The Four Apostles, to make the heads of the two standing farther away bigger than the heads of those in the foreground, giving his painting the perspectiveless flatness of a Greek relief.
In Dürer’s books and engravings we find at least four different mechanical drawing devices, optical and others, of the sort that excites Hockney (including one that can be used by an artist who is literally blind, in the sense that it does not require eyesight, and where the final image is made up of thousands of dots, very much like those on a Pointillist landscape, or a children’s game like Battleship, or on a computer screen), but, when apostolic push comes to emotional shove, Dürer throws it all out the window and wants his saints to look like saints, not like a couple of Germans on holiday.
Finally, Florensky points to Michelangelo’s Last Judgment, where the size of the figures increases the higher the viewer’s eye climbs the plane of the fresco and the farther away they are from the viewer, who is consequently given a sense of his own human space incommensurate with the divine vastness “which expels him forthwith like a sea of liquid mercury.”
What does it all mean? It means, says Florensky, that the perspective model of the world—like all scientific or rational constructs—is not a revelation of nature but a gradually acquired, laboriously cultivated, and, finally, forcibly imposed apperception of reality, which it has taken the civilized eye five centuries to accept and which, given the freedom to choose, it would still rather reject. A layman without special training, called upon to produce an image, will violate the dictates of perspective as a matter of course; a master like Dürer or Michelangelo will do the same as soon as he feels that he needs to be true to the conscience of his genius.
What realism really means is that the same person who accepts as “real,” and is emotionally or otherwise moved by, the figure of Sharon Stone three inches high on a television screen, will argue that the image of the Virgin on a Russian icon is not “real” because the size of her body is out of proportion with the size of her face. He accepts the convention that he has been trained to accept, and any convention that he has not been trained to accept seems laughably naive.
Perhaps the most famous among conventions in Byzantine iconography is the use of gold leaf to depict light. Here is something quintessentially irreproducible: not on a television screen, not on a color photograph, not on an engraving. The visual effect of gold leaf can only be reproduced by using gold leaf.
Chemists are only now beginning to understand what gives gold its unique color. A recent article in Chemistry in Britain took issue with the assertion that “most of us would not have noticed if Einstein had not unified time and space” by pointing out that even quantum theory, whose equations govern the subatomic world, is not enough to understand chemistry. Chemists need Einstein. In particular, relativity shows that, as the speed of an object increases, so does its effective mass. The fast-moving electrons in heavy elements have high masses, and hence they tend to huddle closer to the nucleus. This leads to mercury, for instance, being a liquid at room temperature, and this is what gives gold its miraculous properties. Prof. Geoffrey Bond, the author of the article, concludes that the luster of gold is nothing less than the unity of space and time.
So, in the view of the iconographer, realist painting is incapable of expressing the notion of Divine Light, just as it is incapable of depicting a working magnet. After all, how does one depict magnetism by naturalist means? A cartoonist, on the other hand, has a suitable convention at his disposal. He would simply draw wavy lines “representing” the action of the lump of iron on another lump of iron, and everybody would understand what was happening in the picture.
As with magnetism, so with Divine Light, Presence, and Being. And so with a whole range of metaphysical concepts that so-called “realistic” painting cannot even begin to attempt to convey and, thus, has ended up dropping altogether from its visual vocabulary. Thus light, in Western painting, does not come from God, illuminating what He wants to illuminate in the Gospels. It comes from the open window, a lamp, or a candle, and illuminates what the artist wants to illuminate. Some will argue that such is individualism, and I agree. But, as Florensky objects, such “individualism is but the mechanical stamping of divine reality with one’s own arbitrary cliches, ultimately content-less and always based on a yes-no dualism.” Yes, light falls on this portion of the dress; no, it does not fall on that portion, decides the artist, and before long, we are back to Dürer’s blind “digital painter,” to mass-edition engravings, and to the binary code of the computer and of the television screen.
To the rationalist—which is to say, to the “socialist realist”—of the last five centuries, the iconographer’s light suffusing the heavens with gold is simply not the way the sky looks. To the iconographer, the light that seems to emanate from the body of a Rubens nude is as unreal as the phosphorescence of rotting wood. Once you mistake this St. Elmo’s fire for heavenly light, how surprising is it that pornographic images on a flickering screen will excite you physically? How surprising is it that you will accept the fake, the counterfeit, and the illusory in everything—in love, in liberty, in politics, in personal salvation?
And so, there we have it. A fallen, naked art, an art expelled from heavenly paradise, credulous and gullible, falls for whatever ideology will offer it shelter and for any earthly power that will clothe it with its own political aims. An art that no longer wished to serve God—and, hence, art—will henceforth serve the masses, and therefore, ultimately and inevitably, their totalitarian rulers. This I have personally seen with my own eyes, during a period of world history that is now fashionably supposed to have passed away like the French Revolution, but which I believe to be the logical terminus of the story of man in which the history of art is only a chapter.
While the technological potential of mankind—from the discoveries of optics and projection geometry to the cybernetic revolution and the digital image—has been augmented a thousand-fold, mankind’s wisdom—in particular, man’s ability to see beyond conventions, to know himself, and to master his own desires—has not followed suit. In the