I ended my last blog by stating that I didn’t want to know the story behind the Chinese painting entitled, Three Hermits Laughing at Tiger Stream. It has set me thinking about how great visual artworks have to survive the meanings, describable in language, that may have been vital to their creation. I remember wondering a long time ago why there was the decapitated head of an ass in the foreground of Titian’s Bacchus and Ariadne. Eventually, I came across the explanation, which I have since forgotten. But it makes no difference whatsoever to my love and appreciation of the work.
I am old enough to remember Edgar Wind’s Reith Lectures Art and Anarchy. In the fourth lecture, entitled The Fear of Knowledge, he claimed that we get a profounder understanding of a work of visual art if we know the background ideas. ‘The eye,’ he states, ‘focuses differently when it is intellectually guided. At the time, I wanted to believe him. In the expanded, published version of the lectures, I see I have underlined his sentence ‘Masterpieces are not so secure in their immorality as Croce imagined.’ I would argue now, at least where visual art is concerned, that it is almost the definition of a masterpiece that it is not dependant on its original message. My favourite work on the Virgin and Child theme is the one by Mantegna in the Ehemals Staatliche Museum, Berlin. It is very obviously a young mother with her baby. I do not need to believe any nonsense about virgin births to appreciate it. The best art on religious themes will survive in a secular age. Two works that I admire greatly, illustrate the lives of two Christian saints, but I have no particular interest in these historical figures. Masaccio’s St. Peter Distributing Alms, I regard as one of the best Social Realist paintings ever, Raphael’s tapestry cartoon of St Paul Preaching, as a supreme example of figures composed in an architectural setting. Those works that require allowance for religious belief, counter-reformation propaganda for example (see my blog Theology versus Art) or are there to force us to our knees, do not interest me and indeed bore me. Which is not to say that I cannot ignore a halo or two or some other convention or stipulation of the day in a work of real merit.
What holds for religious work is also true of that other great literary source for Renaissance artists, the Greek myths. Mantegna’s complex composition Pallas Expelling the Vices from the Garden of Virtue, is a great favourite of mine. It is self-evident that the figures fleeing in terror from the armoured goddess are meant to be evil but I don’t read them like that. I prefer to think of them as unfortunates, perhaps underclass figures, and only need to think of any narrative vaguely. What draws me to this painting is the complexity of the imagery, controlled in a composition of complete clarity, which can lend itself to multiple explanations.
No painting can be rescued by iconographic interpretation, if it does not please in the first place. I have a great love of the work of Poussin and enjoyed Panofsky’s essay where he points out that the master’s title Et in Arcadio Ego, is usually mistranslated: it doesn’t mean ‘I too lived in Arcadia.’ He illustrates by reference to other paintings with the same title (one of them by Poussin himself) showing a death head on the tomb, that it is death who speaks, saying, ‘Even in Arcadia, I am present.’ Not being expert in Latin grammar, and accepting the mis-translation, I admit that the work was a bit of a puzzle. Yet, despite enlightenment, the painting remains, for me, one of Poussin’s dullest works, with none of his usual compositional inspiration.