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Historic Art Periods - Part 1

[Art Periods - Part 1]  [Art Periods - Part 2] 

( Originally Published 1920 )

Life is action; its result is evolution, and out of this ceaseless activity comes man's universal impulse to create. Mental life is constantly changing. Environment also is subject to constant variation; hence man's needs are continually presented in different forms. Because of these conditions, both physical and mental, man's creative impulse finds its natural outlet in the satisfaction of these needs. He is impelled by his instinctive appetites to provide for himself food, drink, shelter and air. By his mental desires he is urged to create such things as will satisfy his aesthetic sense or his appetite for beauty, which is as universal an instinct in man as are the physical appetites.

As states of civilization have changed and different conditions have evolved different needs man has adapted his creative work to the approximate satisfaction of these needs, so that in all times the works of man have spoken eloquently of his ideals, his interests, his necessities and his desires.

This makes art objects, so-called, of vital human interest to him who sees them as man's psychological expression. The objects of art that remain express two distinct elements in man's life-fitness for use and beauty. Their adaptability to our needs may or may not be expressed in their fitness for their own time, but the degree of beauty they reveal is perceptible now and will be forever, for the quality of beauty is eternal.

There are two ways of looking at a period in art: first, from the viewpoint of its fitness, or the fitness of its various objects to fulfill the requirements of modern comfort and convenience. While an art object may have adequately expressed this fitness to the generation in which it was created, it is often quite impossible to satisfy our conception of fitness with the same object. Its adaptation without loss of character is the problem of modern usage.

Looking at it from the second viewpoint, an art period must be considered with regard to its value or its power as a decorative expression in the furnishing of a modern house. A due regard to these distinctions will ensure such a choice and arrangement of furnishings of any period as will not only conform to modern conditions, but will form with these conditions a harmonious unit. This subject will be further considered.

History is a record of life. It is a record not only in words but in stone, metal, wood and other materials, and takes the form of architecture, sculpture, ornament, furniture, clothes and the like. We learn much of how the Romans lived from the fragments of architecture which are left. More eloquent than words are Greek sculpture, the Gothic Cathedral and the French palaces. In no way can the ideals and practices of a people be so definitely embodied as in those objects which they in their time create to represent their various needs and desires. To regard history, then, as a mere matter of word record is to miss entirely the intimate relation that exists between art objects and the people who create them. This viewpoint of periods as a historical expression is important and will be considered throughout this work.

A period in art may be described as a period of time in which one dominant influence controlled the various expressions of some nation's life interest. Perhaps no one person more completely dominated the art of any period than did Louis XIV in France. The political situation which he created, the religious ideas which he promulgated, and the social regime which grew out of his ideas and practices found their concrete expression in the gorgeous, pageant-like forms characterizing the period of Louis XIV. This expression was by no means a crystallized fact in the early days of the reign of this sovereign, neither did it remain intact until the day of his death. It was modified by outside influences, which perhaps for the time being were stronger even than his or those of his associates who dominated the royal thought. There is always the transition from the last period to the one under consideration, and the transition from the considered one to the one which follows. Each of these will be marked by conflicting ideas.

In the study of periods it is most desirable that one should have the clearest possible conception of the idea for which the period stands when it is at its highest degree of perfection. Study all kinds of objects made during those periods for the discovery of common elements. Analyze those elements for ideas or qualities which they represent and then interpret all other parts of the period and all associated periods by these quality ideas, rather than by set dates, set terms, or crystallized forms.

In discussing a period one must always consider all that has gone before, that is, all influences that are hereditary and that have affected the local period by contact. Then there are national characteristics influencing the period creation, individual preferences and desires which are associated with the dominating person or persons of that period, and the general needs of the civilization which, after all, furnish the keynote to the art of every well-defined period.

It is better in this brief discussion to take the broadest possible conception of period art and to try to establish in a limited way a relationship between man, his ideas or aims, and the materials with which he expresses these. This will establish at least a fundamental working basis for period study and further investigation.

Eliminating Asiatic influences, there have been, broadly speaking, three great manifestations or types of expression out of which have been formulated lesser ones at various times under local conditions. Each of these three dominating influences has in turn been preponderant in the various periods. These three influences may be named, for the sake of clearness, the Classic or Hellenic, the Gothic or Christian, and the Humanistic or Materialistic Natural.

In the working out of these three ideas man has been moved or impelled to create by three distinct impulses. The highest and most important of these may be called the religious or spiritual impulse. Because of his desire to embody his highest ideals of religious duty we have the monuments of Egypt, the beautiful temples of the Greeks, and the cathedrals of the Gothic period. When the second, or political impulse prevails, man's greatest energy is bent toward the creation of imposing public structures with accessories which will embody his ideas of political power and will tend duly to impress others with their national strength and importance. The Roman period is perhaps a good example of such domination.

The third impulse to create is found in man's social ideal. Whenever the social idea has been dominant-as it was in the days of the High French Renaissance -then man's energies have been directed toward the creation and expression of all those things which social intercourse and refined social practice seem to make essential.

In this era we live in the grasp of a commercially social impulse, with the leading idea, commercial advancement, dominating even the social quality. This, of course, is the lowest and most inartistic viewpoint possible, since the creation of beautiful things demands a love for those things which is stronger than any mere material gain which can result from their creation. The art standard of the modern period is in consequence less sensitive, less clearly defined and less exalted than perhaps any that has previously existed.

In treating of the three great influences-Hellenic, Gothic and Humanistic-it is essential to get the clearest possible idea of what each of these periods sought to embody. The ancient Greek lived for centuries with one idea in mind-namely, the expression of divinity in perfect material form. Education and practice were both planned to develop the highest standards and the highest ideals of physical expression in the human body and in all material forms that men produced. Greek statuary did not happen to be what it is. Each piece is the concrete embodiment of an idea, the development of which took centuries of inheritance and a nation-wide devotion to the idea that beauty is God.

Certain qualities must be held supreme in consciousness in order to bring out those qualities in the materials which man touches. This short treatise cannot point out the analogies which exist between the objects of visual art and the literature or music of the time, but it can indicate some of the qualities of mind necessary to the realization of this perfect, intellectual, unemo tional and restrained period expression. With beauty and truth as an ideal expressed in material, the Greek would naturally follow in ideal at least the same plan in the development of the body, in architecture, in ornament, in the utensils commonly used and, in short, in all things which he handled.

In order to accomplish this perfect representation of material beauty, temperance or restraint in all things is a fundamental virtue. "Never anything in excess" is the law which makes the successful handling of material objects possible. No other people ever came so near to a realization of this ideal as did the Greek. Greek expression shows restraint, unemotional expres sion and perfect form. These qualities are readily seen in sculpture but should be just as apparent in the long lines, the simple arrangements, the perfect adaptations and the consistent combinations in architecture, ornament and the lesser arts.

It has been said that three descriptive words are enough to summarize the Hellenic Ideal and that, having grasped these three words in their full meaning, the quality of everything classic may be tested by them.

The first word is "simplicity." Whatever savours of unnecessary display is entirely foreign to the Greek idea. The simplest expression when adequate is always best.

The second word is "sincerity." How terribly have the nations of the earth departed from this idea, even in their adaptations of classic art. The ancient column with its beautiful proportions and wonderful materials was created as an honest support to a weight above. The juttings, the friezes and the architraves are essen, tial elements in the decorative idea of the buildings but are first a part of the constructive necessities of the building. To superimpose these parts in stucco, plaster or tin, upon a steel structure or a brick wall, is not only a defamation of the noble Greek idea but is a farce in the field of modern architecture and decoration.

The third word is "consistency." This quality may be a little more difficult of perception at this point but not so difficult that it may not be grasped for application to all cases. When the Greek designed a column he considered this column a unit, and its shaft and capital were made in the same material, appearing as one piece when complete. If statuary occupied space within the gable of the temple or in specially designed niches, this statuary seemed to take its place in size, scale, form and line within its enclosure in such a way that the building as a unit expressed repose. Much of this was due to the perfect scale relation between the enclosures and the figures. Ornament, in consistent amounts, was consistently applied in the right places. During the highest development of the Greek ideal violations of the principle of beauty through inconsistent relationships are not found.

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