A Guide to Better Vision

March 24, 2011 § Leave a comment

How to Read a Painting: Lessons from the Old Masters (de Rynck, Patrick)

The Old Masters were European painters of stature, usually masters of an art guild or studio, where they would train novices and wannabes in their style. These men (and most, not unnaturally given the times, were men) flourished in Italy, Netherlands, Spain and France between the 15th and 18th centuries, and were well-read in the scriptures, Greco-Roman myth, local legends, and art theory. They picked their stories from the first three, and used every trick in the theory book to ensure that their art communicated directly with its viewers, without the need for words.

To do this, they used an elaborate system of visual conventions, a collection of symbols that worked like a sign language. The viewers of their time, especially the moneyed patrons who sponsored and collected these works, were familiar with this language, either consciously or subconsciously, and so they comprehended at a glance exactly what the painter meant to convey. With the passage of time,  societies changed, traditions evolved, cultures mutated – and the symbols that the Old Masters used centuries ago lost their meaning. They now resemble snatches from songs in a long-forgotten language; they are still much-admired for their pleasant form, but no one knows what they mean any more, or even whether they ever had any meaning.

In addition, most of these paintings no longer adorn the private drawing rooms of the manor born, where a hereditory passion for art and culture could have been passed from generation to generation; these days, the paintings are hung on museum walls, widely accessible to the lay public, and, well, this stuff needs to be explained to us. We don’t intuitively speak this language. We demand subtitles.

The Art of Painting by Diego Velasquez (Las Meninas, courtesy Wikimedia Commons)

And so, for our benefit, de Rynck decodes some of the most famous paintings of medieval times in this book, acting at times as art critic (Michelangelo couldn’t be bothered with landscapes, he sniffs; Claude Lorrain, on the other hand, could barely draw a man), and sometimes as philosopher (for example, where he explains the significance of the distorted skull in the foreground of Hans Holbein‘s ‘The Ambassadors’). But most of the time, he is an astute political, social and art historian, pointing out little-known factoids, educating us on mythological detail, drawing our attention to a tiny thimble on the floor in one painting, a nail on the wall in another, a tiny cow in the distant background of a third, a face in a crowd that is looking directly out of the picture in a fourth. These paintings abound in detail – stray dogs, monkeys, discarded slippers, curtains, candles, busts of Venus, skulls, globes, apples and lemons litter the real estate of the canvas. We post-moderns are used to a proliferation of meaninglessness, and so gloss over details automatically, but with the Old Masters, no detail is accidental, de Rynch tells us; everything is a symbol, and is there for a reason; every detail deserves explanation.

An expert is defined by his ability to see truths hidden from the layman in plain sight; truths that when revealed, transform our understanding of what we see. de Rynck’s finest moment, I thought, is when he analyzes Joachim Beuckelaer‘s The Vegetable Market. To the untrained and unsuspicious eye, it appears to be a straightforward depiction of a fruit-seller, surrounded by her wares, and looking at prospective customers. de Rynck points out, however, that something is very wrong in this painting: cherries, grapes and cabbages are never available at the same time of year, and so this is no ordinary market, but a veiled reference to something else. We are then told that every item on display in the shop is either a known aphrodisiac or an allusion to a Dutch sexual euphemism. Now look at the painting again, says de Rynck, somewhat mischievously; don’t you think that customer on the left has a lascivious leer? And from the belt he’s wearing, he’s a bird-catcher by profession. A bird-catcher (nudge, nudge, wink, wink). It puts an entirely new complexion on things.  Is it a plausible explanation? I think so. But is it definitely what the painter meant? I don’t know. Does it matter? Probably not.

One must always apologize for talking about painting, as Paul Valery‘s admonition goes. No medium can satisfactorily be transposed into another. No verbal description of a painting, a piece of music, or a dance could ever evoke the same emotions as the original work of art – and the more verbatim the description is, the worse, generally, is the effect. This is why some of the best commentaries on the art of painting are often paintings themselves – I am thinking of Diego VelasquezLas Meninas, Johannes Vermeer‘s The Artist’s Studio, Giovanni Batista Tiepolo‘s Alexander the Great and Campaspe in the studio of Apelles, Angelica Kauffman‘s The Art of Painting: Colour – all paintings featured in this book – plus, of course, much of Rene Magritte‘s self-referential output in modern times.

Yet the book under review talks about nothing but paintings, and manages to do so without being superfluous. How does de Rynck manage that? Susan Sontag had noted, in the last book I reviewed in these pages, that painting, like music and dance, does not signify in the verbal sense: what you see is what you get. This book, wisely, does not try and tell you what you will get from these paintings; it merely trains you to see better.


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