My idea of the visual art of composing changed a lot over the last month, thanks in no small part to the excellent resources at the Clark Art Library here in Williamstown. During this time I read a great many in-depth art historical studies on the topic of composing, and, also read numerous copies of letters from artists, especially Poussin, but also Rubens, Leonardo, Bloemaert, and many of their contemporaries. One focus of these studies is to learn from the artist how they conceived of their artmaking, in specific the arrangement of all of the elements that created their imagery, with as little as possible of the many accretions of criticism and of art theory surrounding their work.
Bloemaert’s The Four Evangelists, 1615
(Princteon Art Museum, image source: Wikimedia Commons, U.S. public domain.)
And one simple fact of this study is this: often and for many years I had things wrong. Time to make corrections. Some of the simpler corrections:
- In general, artists of the past didn’t think like us about their pictures; we bring an undeniably 20th and 21st Century viewpoint to the analysis of imagery, often using ideas and tools that would’ve been completely foreign to artists of the past. Some of these tools might be quite good and useful, but it’s easy to forget just how different our methods and ideas are from the artists of the past. Sometimes I felt like it seemed we contemporaries are from a different planet. We are foreigners looking through the tiniest of fuzzy time-travelling telescopes to what those ancient artists did and thought with, little scopes that can only look at their art, preparations, and writings, and then only sometimes.
- Example: 20th Century applications of geometry to the arrangement of shape and color across the picture plane. These are not the ways that prior generations conceived of their picture-making. Artists in the 20th Century and later certainly do use geometric devices for composing; no doubt of it, and therefore such methods are still useful. But it is a category error to apply them to other types of art.
- Example: artists had no access to photography until the the mid 19th Century, and as such any photographic ways of thinking about composing (pan, scan, zoom, tilt, rotate, crop, frame, focus, etc.) are mostly foreign to the artists’ discussions of the most important composings of their art (although ideas of framing and viewpoint related to linear perspective are common).
- The act of translation changes meanings of the art. It is difficult to read Poussin’s French, in that it’s not quite like today’s French, and contains many idioms and sayings that seem odd. Same with old English, German, Dutch. Old Italian and the other languages that you have to slog through if you wish to read artists’ actual words. And, damn I’m lucky: my first college degree, with an emphasis in German, was in Modern & Classical Languages… which included learning a bit of many languages. Thank goodness I had that experience, it has saved the day on many occasions of art historical studies. I can’t speak these languages worth a damn, but can read well enough to puzzle things out, whew. But the fact remains that concepts like humor are terribly difficult (for me) to understand in other languages, which means missing a lot of nuance. And because the words associated with making pictures vary greatly from culture to culture, you can’t just look up variations of the word ‘composition’ and expect artists of the past to mean what we mean by the term today.
Bloemaert’s Wedding of Peleus and Thetis, 1638
(The Hague. Image source: Wikimedia Commons, US Public Domain)
- Disposition is just as important, if not more important, than Composition, and a third and simpler issue, is Position. Position is easy, and fairly informal: select a location on whatever surface you might paint; such is the informality of most portraiture, sitting the subject more or less centrally. But for much of the Renaissance, especially in France and Italy, the very idea of a picture, that has a boundary and a frame, is quite foreign to the artist’s and the audience’s expectations about major works of art, such as seen in churches of the time. Up until about the 1600s, in fact, artists and art theorists rarely thought of themselves as composing anything in our modern sense, and instead, are concerned with accurately distributing all of the most important elements of the painting’s narrative (Alberti’s term for the narrative, the story-history is istoria) in order to dramatize the story so that it is lively and believable. This loose distribution of characters and props, whose roles and props are already well-established in rich narratives and fully required by church patrons who commissioned the artworks, is called disposition, which is the closest we come to the modern idea of composing.
- Disposition is something so structured and expected, that artists often weren’t engaged with it very much — for example, if you were hired to depict the story of the Last Supper, you had to have a table, and likely had to place the main character in the middle of the painting, with secondary characters all around, often with a bit of symmetry and no unnecessary extras; no spaceships or other fantasies floating around the image (i.e., no parerga). The disposition was dictated to the artists by the story and the demands of whomever commissioned the art. Composition, on the other hand, was used to refer only to the making of the individual figures within the narrative of the disposition. In other words, artists apply their creativity when drawing and painting individual characters, not entire pictures.
- Disposition is unifying in its own way, but involved spreading out across whatever spaces were alotted for the story; whereas Composition was unifying in that it brought all the parts of the image together into a harmonious whole, most commonly the single image of the single person. As a result of this distinction, almost all treatises on composition deal with the varying ideals of proportions of the human figure; and not with the arrangement of subjects within the larger disposition of the artwork’s intended story. Art theory and artists in Italy and France simply don’t mention other kinds of composing. What we see in most such imagery is a primary subject matter (like the figure of the Madonna), set centrally and drawn proportionally so as to look like a believable human being, surrounded by rings of other characters.
- This changes by Poussin’s time, and he should be credited with being among the first artists in French and Italian traditions to claim the right to select all aspects of BOTH the disposition and composition of his artworks.
4. Often an older artwork doesn’t have beginnings and endings, and is best thought of as an unending or neverending image.
- Think of walking into one of the great churches in Rome, perhaps St. Peter’s Basilica. It’s ornate, it’s full of artworks in every corner, nook and cranny. It’s astonishingly dense with imagery, and often beautiful. The entire building is an ongoing, and changeable arena for all of the stories within biblical narratives, plus the tales of various saints and popes, and some artworks are veiled only to be seen during certain times of year, and so on — in a way, it’s a never-ending epic set of imagery. Where does it begin and end? Depends on which door you enter or exit, and when, and then, outside, there’s more: layers of statuary, mosaics, various kinds of architecture with its own images too, layouts of courtyards and streets and causeways — it’s impossible, I think, to establish that such a multi-tiered set of images, layered and juxtaposed with each other, actually has a distinct beginning or ending. Similarly, artists of the time developed their imagery in relationship to such large-scale, dynamic, ongoing narratives and multiple viewpoints: if you think in terms of centering focal points of a specific story within this large-scale arena, you begin to get the sense of how they thought about images. Some artists didn’t like this kind of image-making, and as linear perspective grew, they found sometimes it didn’t make much visual sense: Leonardo da Vinci once complained about these uses of multiple perspectives and many viewpoints… “This universal practice which is adopted by painters on the walls of chapels is very rightly to be censured, inasmuch as they execute a narrative one one level… then go up a tier and do another, varying the viewpoint from that of the first one. They then proceed to the third and fourth tiers, so that one one wall there are four different viewpoints. This is the height of foolishness in such masters” (as quoted by Martin Kemp, Leonardo on Painting, 1989 p.217). Maybe Leonardo was being bombastic, but his words show just how common a polyphonic (polyimaginal?) art sensibility was in the Renaissance: many pictures, many stories, many viewpoints positioned together all at once:
Giovanni Paolo Panini, Interior of St. Peter’s, 1731
(location: St. Louis Art Museum, image source: Wikimedia Commons, US Public Domain)
And the exterior continues the artistry, with hundreds of statues, inlaid pavements, quotes of architectural ideals and beliefs embodied throughout…
(Francois Malan, Panorama of St. Peter’s Square, 2005. Image Source: Wikimedia Commons, GNU Free Documentation License, free to share with attribution)