Eleonora di Toledo
Oil on wood, 59 x 46 cm
Národní Galerie, Prague
Modeling doesn’t necessarily mean less autonomy. Your thought reminds me of Gauguin who told his friend Daniel de Monfried, ” …beware of modeling. The simple-stained-glass window, attracting the eye by its divisions of colors and forms, that is still the best.” And I agree. So in other words, it can be said that the icon is to be arranged as if it was a stained-glass (in fact, it functions optically like one, as light passes through the color and bounces back to the eye from the gessoe), an arrangement of color fields conforming to the picture plane. But within these fields you will have restrained modeling, kept in check by hieratic frontality, geometry, linearity, etc.. You can model form in ways that its complexity becomes resolved in simplicity (As Brancusi would say), into essential abstract shapes, thereby maintaining an emphasis of pictorial flatness. The key I think is to be careful about exaggeration, the tendency of “poking holes” on the picture plane by excessive modeling.
View of Nihonbashi Tori-itchōme (1858) by Utagawa Hiroshige. On the right of this Tokyo street view is Shirokiya Gofukuten, which in Hiroshige’s day was a dry goods store and in fact is one of the longest running retailers in Japan, founded in 1662. The modern-day company still uses the logo you see on the curtain in the Hiroshige drawing. Photograph: Halley Docherty
Grant Wood - “Return From Bohemia” 1935
Grant Wood, Appraisal, c. 1931
There are two extreme poles in icon painting: on the one hand, abstraction/autonomy; on the other hand, naturalism/illusionism.
Either extreme will tend to shatter iconicity if they occupy a central place. The first forsakes nature in search for things intelligible the second over emphasizes sensation. The opposites are resolved in the incarnational aesthetics of the icon. In the icon we don’t have a tearing apart of sense from the intelligible realm, but rather an affirmation through anagogic pictorial forms of the “continuum of conginiton,” that is, the noetic apprehension of things intelligible through objects of sense.
As you mentioned, the icon is incarnational and so pure abstraction, as just mentioned, can be interpreted as dualistic, since it undermines the importance of corporeal Nature, the fact that what we apprehend by the senses, although fallen, is good and ultimately grounded in divinity. Yet, a crass illusionism, which is concerned solely with the surfaces of beautiful bodies, would strip the icon of its anagogic function, that is, the fact that its pictorial language is meant to uplift us into an awareness of Nature in its transfigured state. Therefore a tension must always be maintained between the two poles, hence relative autonomy. A concept that is clearly incarnational.
Photios Kontoglou, Maria Kontoglou, 1928. Egg-tempera. Caption: This work is a good example of Kontoglous “folk” inspired work with some similarities with the naive portraiture of the French painter Henri Rousseau. Unfortunately this photo does not include the frame, which is in fact decorated with foliate and star motifs, details that, as professor Zias points out, “link the work to the popular, folk tradition.” Also notice the fact that the face is starkly frontal, there is minimal and subtle rendering, all is predominantly flat, as if pressed against the pictorial plane.
Piero della Francesca (Italian, Sansepolcro ca. 1412–1492 Sansepolcro). Saint Jerome and a Supplicant (detail), ca. 1460–64? Tempera and oil on wood. Gallerie dell’Accademia, Venice
NOW at the Met:
Piero della Francesca
January 14–March 30, 2014
"Poorly advertised (most of the guards and staff couldn’t help me locate the exhibition) and tucked into a small corner, this exhibition affords the chance to be in a truly devotional space with paintings that were created for exactly such a purpose."
In ‘The anxiety of Influence,’ Harold Bloom argues that artistic practice changes because younger artists must willfully misinterpret the work of their masters. I would suggest that we all must do so, that we are always looking for what we want. If we find it in an image, its there, at least for the purposes of argument.
Caravaggio was hired to celebrate and lend credibility to the problematic lives of the saints. To do this, he fell upon the novel device of portraying ordinary people, naturalistically, as characters in his imaginary narratives. The historic consequence of Caravaggio’s device, however, had nothing to do with the lives of the saints and everything to do with the way we privilege and attend to the visage of ordinary humanity. Caravaggio and his masters would have wished it otherwise, but they were outvoted. That’s that.
David Humphrey, Proust’s Doodle, 2013, Acrylic on canvas, 72 x 60 inches
In his essay on Ensor, Humphrey begins:
"Misreading pleases me almost as much as mishearing. The read or heard phrase arrives into consciousness seeming to belong to someone else, but then converts into one’s own when the mistake is realized – an idiocy dividend….In a book review describing Nietzsche’s thoughts on revelation I read “flesh of light” as a description of ecstatic understanding. Perfect for the Ensor text! Oops, no – it was “flash of light.” But, yes – the rosy surround of Ensor’s portrait subject is the color of radiant flesh. Augusta and her tormentors emerge from the same corporeal hue in which illumination and inflammation mingle to make a picture."
James Ensor, Portrait d’Augusta Boogaerts, 1939, Oil on panel, 22 x 16 cm
"Portrait of Augusta Boogaerts, 1939, asserts a tangle of two subjectivities – Boogaerts’ self-possessed otherness within Ensor’s noisy ‘flesh of light.’ The painting is a force-field of conflicting languages and subjects – civility and barbarous imagination, the desire to communicate and a possibility that no connection is possible. Augusta maintains an expressionless composure surrounded by the conceivably harmless threat of James’ incomprehensible ambivalence. Maybe the reputedly misogynist James Ensor has found a weird way to say ‘I’m sorry.’"