an obsession with optics (part 2)

by Leanne Ogasawara

640px-Jan_van_Eyck_008 (1)His boss was known for his mad pranks. Yes, in the good old days, people valued playfulness, remember? Kings and dukes were known to play around, and this means that an artist working for Philip the Good, Duke of Burgundy say, might be asked to lend a hand in the fun once in a while. Or maybe job titles were more flexible back then; for in addition to spying missions made on behalf of his liege, Jan van Eyck also almost certainly had a part in creating decorative items for the Duke's fabulous parties and as part of his unending practical jokes. From rainmaking devices that squirted water on ladies from below, to books that sprayed soot on whoever tried to read them, the Duke of Burgundy was even known to have used magical mirrors.

Mirror, mirror on the wall….The history of the late Renaissance has been called by some as the history of optics-– and mirrors show up all over the place. We see this both in science and in art. And yet where art is concerned, most books used in college survey courses in this country at least do not feature the word “lens in their pages,” I have read.

Last month, I wrote the rise of optics in late Renaissance science and the 2012 book, Baroque Science. The book is highly recommended as an absolutely fascinating account of Europe's “estrangement of the senses” vis-à-vis the rise of optical science in the 17th century. While the book was about scientific innovations (microscopes and telescopes), art history loomed large– and so I ended the piece mentioning the famous quote by art historian Erwin Panofsky which suggested that van Eyck's eye functioned “as a microscope and a telescope at the same time.” It was an interesting quote, and this all eventually led me to re-visit the infamous the Hockney-Falco Thesis, where van Eyck also plays a pivotal role.

The British artist David Hockney began his notorious crusade in pure disbelief. How was it possible that the Old Master painters had been able to draw so realistically? In his book Secret Knowledge, he has several examples, which are so perfectly drawn that he suggests it would be absolutely impossible to draw like that today. Look at the chandelier above for example, the arms, Hockney and Falco suggest are simply too perfectly proportioned for having been done by the human eye alone.

But there are countless cases of certain technologies lost in time. One of my favorite examples of a “lost art” was the short lived ru ware ceramics, made under the glorious reign of Huizong Emperor (around 300 years before van Eyck). My beloved emperor loved painting in blue. In fact, you could almost say he was obsessed with the color. And, while– like me– he loved all shades of blue-green– one shade in particular fascinated him:


Ru ware“Close your eyes and imagine the color of the sky, in early morning after a rain shower…”

So an emperor dreams of blue. And being the wish of an Emperor, his wish was everyone's command and it wouldn’t take long for the ingenious potters at nearby Ru to provide him with exactly what he was looking for:

The most beautiful porcelain in the world

Because Ru ware was created with the Emperor’s particular taste in mind and then disappeared so mysteriously without a trace after the fall of his dynasty, it has been forever after associated with Huizong's reign. And, with less than 100 surviving examples, a very small piece was sold several years ago at Sotheby’s in New York for approximately 1.5 million dollars. The National Palace Museum in Taipei holds the great majority of the remaining pieces, with a fairly large number held in British museums as well.It is absolutely splendid– and although countless artists and even scientists have tried to re-create it, its exact method of production remains a mystery.

Researcher, Fumito Kondo, on assignment for Japan’s NHK, visited the Ru kiln site not all that long ago, and he describes his meeting with a Chinese researcher, a certain Mr. Zhu, who had been working for over 20 years en-situ, attempting to unlock the glaze’s secrets. Kondo writes (my translation from NHK book),

On the day we arrived at Ru to begin filming, 30 pieces of celadon were being fired. The color in celadon glaze is extremely delicate –and so slight changes occur depending on where the vessel is placed inside the kiln. Mr Zhu, carefully removing each piece, upon examining
them, discovered that not one piece had turned out! Mr. Zhu then
exclaimed that 20 years at Ru together with all the advances in
modern technology had been unable so far to bring back that very
mysterious color blue.

A shimmering blue-green-lavender that has somehow been lost forever. The old tapestries of the Middle Ages, like the ancient Chinese bronzes and tenmoku teabowls of Japan also come to mind as being lost technologies.

Back to David Hockney though.

Hockney is not happy imagining that the great Old Masters of the past had a skill that he and his generation simply no longer possess. The more he thinks about the problem, the more he becomes quite convinced that they were somehow helped. Covering his studio walls with hundreds of photocopies of famous paintings, he is able to scan the entire history of European art. And what does he come up with? He comes up with a date. In around 1420, he says, everything changes. Yes, it all happened with van Eyck. It was at this point that he formulates the argument that the Flemish masters–starting with van Eyck– used optics to help with their pictures.

The BBC documentary is wonderful and highly recommended.

Crown w pearlsAs mentioned above, this happened very early compared to what we saw in the sciences, but Hockney believes that the artists were mainly using camera obscura and camera lucida to capture the images in order to basically trace outlines of subject, of which they would later turn into masterpieces in oil. It was both the precise geometrical details in the paintings, as well as the almost impossible-to-believe reflections –from images found reflected in mirrors and portraits hidden in glasses of wine; to reflections of the room glimpsed in the shiny jewels of his paintings–one can easily wonder along with Hockney about however he managed it!

An honest question after all, but Hockney's thesis produced a tremendous reaction in the art world. The maelstrom that insued says more about art historians than anything else, I think. For the reality is, art was not viewed the same way back then and in all probability van Eyck, like Vermeer did utilize instruments in order to trace outlines of paintings. Does this somehow take away from their genius, though? And if so why? There, after all, is no real historical or textual evidence to back him up as far as I know. But the reaction of the public was fascinating (for we have a modern need for artists to execute their work alone and preferably with no tracing, thank you very much).

In what was perhaps the most interesting aspect of his thesis, Hockney suggests that with the invention of the lens (leading to the celebrated microscopes and telescopes of Baroque Science), a photographic realism suddenly came to be held up as the ultimate ideal. Like we saw in early science, it was something which occurred mainly north of the alps and which sought to bypass the senses vis-a-vis philosophical mind-body duality. Photographic images based on optical science (rather than what the eye sees or the heart feels) came to dominate–and this is something that dominated our aesthetic sensibility in the West, says Hockney–till the invention of photography.

In his book, the artist describes asking a Chinese lady “of very refined taste,” why there are no shadows in Chinese painting; to which she sensibly responds, “because they are not necessary.” And they are not if one is aiming to depict the “truth” of a landscape. At least for me, a photograph of a natural scene is less what I see when I am walking in nature than say the traveling perspective and emotion as depicted in a Chinese picture. And for me, a Flemish oil is less “life like” than many of the art done by the Impressionists, for example.

Has anyone read Joseph Alsop's wonderful and quirky tome on art collecting? A fascinating man, his book Rare Art Collections is a gem. (Here is a review of the book by Ernst Gombrich).I mentioned the book here last year in talking about the statue I had fallen so deeply in love with. I have long been fascinated by the way people in Los Angeles love to go to the Getty but never look at the art. Alsop would explain this as being a byproduct of our changing tastes in art. And that is certainly true. In his book, he goes to some pains to paint the sad fall from grace of the The Apollo Belvedere. Bought by an art-collecting Pope, the statue was practically enshrined in the Vatican's Cortile del Belvedere. And for the next 350 years, the Apollo Belvedere was to remain the “statue of all statues;” and the “most admired sculpture in the world.” During Victorian times, people of means, as part of their liberal arts education, went on tours to visit the great sights of France and Italy. Called “The Grand Tour,” these trips abroad were thought to be like the crowning of a fine education; providing real life experience which could not be learned from books (read 10,000 books and travel 10,000 li, said Dong qichang 讀萬卷書,行萬里路).

Not only was the Apollo Belvedere part of the Tour– it was the main attraction. Goethe claimed to have been “Swept off his feet” by the sculpture while 18th century archaeologist and classical historian J.J. Winckelman said that the Apollo Belvedere was “the consummation of the best that nature, art, and the human mind can produce.” It was indeed the must-see for anyone on a Grand Tour. A description of the wig worn by amateur Cellist Count Mateeuz Wielhorski is described in a book I am reading right now as being “curled a l'Apollo Belvedere.” The statue had a profound influence during its day.

SUBMUSEUMS-master675What happened? As Alsop says, “Few make the lonely trip out to look at the Apollo Belvedere any longer.” And for those that do, what do they see? Are we even capable of really looking at ancient sculpture any more? In an age of Asian art and impressionism, the classical sculpture and Flemish oils seems somehow remote and unengaging to most people, it seems.

My astronomer (who is an optics expert and fellow lover of Old Master painters) says,

In the age of van eyck, art had a sacred purpose: to re-present sacred scenes and beings in a contemporary context; to construct tableaux juxtaposing actual persons and religious figures; to real-lize scenes of profound spiritual import as if they were happening now, with living people, familiar places, fashionable clothes. It would not then surprise us to learn that they would use the techniques of the new science to elevate these paintings to the highest level of beauty. These paintings are articles of devotion and their gloss of hyper reality could hope to echo the beautiful vision of God and the radiance of heaven.

In our time, we have lost our sacred traditions and search for new icons of worship. For some, art has become a consumer item. High art, celebrated as a pinnacle of human achievement, and enveloped in the mystery of lost genius and technique, has become the object of our new secular pilgrimage. Or maybe it is just something to consume (devoid of the elevating aspects that fueled those on the Grand Tour, for example). Either way, I think it is safe to say that the cultural obsession with optics during the Baroque period utterly transformed both science and art–and these effects continue to be strongly felt down to today, literally shaping the way we see the world. And, as my astronomer would argue: It would be ironic and even tragic if these revelations also drain these icons of their sacred power.

— See part 1 (on baroque period science here):

— Recommended viewing: Ru Ware at the Palace Museum and Hockney and Falco's site Art Optics

For more on 3QD: Playing Around / Leonardo in the Gilded Age / Falling in Love with a Beautiful Bronze

Also: Mona Lisa: Art in the Age of Digital Consumption; Vermeer and Mirrors in Vanity Fair, by Kurt Anderson (also this old one by Anderson on our fashion design rut)

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