Wednesday, July 18, 2012

It isn't a renaissance unless it happens

Until recently, this Madonna and Child from Duccio was on view at The Metropolitan Museum of Art. And nearby the painting was a placard that said, in part,

Perhaps painted about 1300, this exquisite painting inaugurates the grand tradition in Italian painting of envisioning the sacred figures of the Madonna and Child in terms appropriated from real life. The parapet—among the earliest of its kind—connects the fictive world of the painting with that of the viewer. As with his younger Florentine contemporary, Giotto, Duccio has redefined the way in which we relate to the picture: not as an ideogram or abstract idea, but as an analogue to human experience.

So what does this mean, that the way we relate to the picture has been changed? And what is the difference between this painting and "an ideogram or abstract idea"? It might be helpful to look at some contrasting examples.

This icon, which is housed in Saint Catherine's Monastery in Sinai, is perhaps the oldest surviving example of a painted Virgin and Child theme, dating as it does to the end of the 6th century. What is the difference between this piece and the Duccio above? Well, the faces in the older painting seem flat and generic. These are not people so much as representations of people. Broad abstractions. You would never look at that man on the left and think, "hey, he looks just like my uncle Barry," or any such thing. These are stand ins for people in the same way that stick figures are stand ins for people. Their bodies are simplified, and they are not really resting on their feet. The space they inhabit isn't any kind of space that you or I could walk through. There is little sense of depth, and you get the feeling that the inhabitants might be bothered by the neighbors standing on top of them if those neighbors had any weight in their shoes.

But what I also notice about the earlier painting is the icy relationship between the mother and child. The Madonna stares outwards, and not at the child, with blank eyes and a flat expression. The child evokes little personality and even less of a relationship with his mother. The tenderness that is evoked in the piece by Duccio is lost here.

Closer to Duccio's own time, and to his idea of a tender relationship between mother and child, is this painting by Bonaventura Berlinghieri, the Madonna and Child with Saints and Crucifixion, dated to 1260-1270. This painting, now housed in the Uffizi Gallery in Florence, shows an affectionate mother holding her child. But otherwise it is rather astounding to think that only 30 years separates this picture from the Duccio painting above. Berlinghieri has depicted simplified forms that can be understood as human but not mistaken for one, and in a setting that is everything but seemingly real.

What Duccio did was break from a world of abstraction and paint people that he hinted could be in our own world. So what does it mean that he left behind abstraction? An abstraction is saying to someone "cherries." This implies the basic idea of every cherry everywhere. Instead, you could present some cherries. Particular cherries, cherries that you are holding, are no longer generic. They are not every cherry. Duccio started to hint at particulars.

And what Duccio did was help put us along the path to this sort of painting, also a Madonna and Child, from the mid-fifteenth century. And here we have figures that look like people from our world, however idealized, and a child that stands on the parapet that might instead separate us from his place.

We have also been told that Duccio presented a painting that was not an ideogram. An ideogram is a graphic symbol that represents an idea. Here is an ideogram that you might see every day:

The symbol on the left is an ideogram. An ideogram isn't a word, it is a graphic or symbol that is specifically not a word. That is what makes ideograms helpful when trying to communicate with people who may speak many different languages. Ideograms aim for the universal instead of the particular.

Here is another example of an ideogram: 91 as in 91 points. And now we have gotten to wine. It is common to see abstractions and ideograms in the world of the Wine Tasting Note. But that world, it seems to me, shares little space with our own world, our world where wine is consumed and becomes part of us. Where wine tasting notes aren't human stories I think they miss the point(s). This is something that we do, that we make, and then that we drink. Why did we start looking at wine like it was something else, something different than our own experience? I know because I have seen it happen that a wine can be described as an icon. But why can't we describe a wine as a particular moment, and maybe one more full of emotion? Why do we decline to do this?

I've made an attempt to describe wine this way before and other people do as well. But I wonder if we couldn't try a bit harder. Why is it that we think human stories can illuminate for us the nature of love, but not the nature of our love for wine? And why do we expect people to yearn for notes of generic cherry?


Anonymous said...

So what do you make of FĂ©libien, arguably the most important writer in the 17th century on European art?

stephen said...

a really interesting post.

you can describe wine in terms of human experience, but it also has raw, aesthetic, sensory characteristics that can be attended to.

my theory of why we try so hard to turn wine into words with any sensory responsibility is that it helps us improve contrast detection and appreciate the acquired tastes of wine.

a cherry is just an object comparison, but there are so many other strategies as well. i outlined them here:

so much of the language we also use is just pure rhetoric because even if we are not conscious of it, we are marketing wines...

however apt the metaphors, harmonic language gives us a motivational drive to find the sensory side of the wine harmonic. the sensory world of a wine and its symbolic side are bridged by the theory of cognitive dissonance. i tried to explore this idea here:

great stuff. i can't wait to read more. cheers! -stephen