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Historic Art Periods - Part 2

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

( Originally Published 1920 )

It is a grave mistake to believe that all things are classic which seem to represent the forms or shapes or motifs of the classic period. Nothing can be further from the classic ideal than the misuse of the three orders, the various decorative motifs, and the Greek figures as they are used in this country to-day, although a great change for the better is noticeable since the invasion of this field by the great architect, Stanford White.

It is not in the copy of these forms that the classic idea is expressed. It is in the sincere and consistent choice and application of them as well as their adaptation to period needs. The artist should realize and make a part of his mental equipment the wonderful idealism as shown in abstract proportion that dominates all Hellenic expression.

From time to time great men in all the fields of period expression have studied the classic for inspiration, and their work has been just as near the classic ideal as their realization of the qualities of form which the classic expressed would permit. The adaptation of the classic has been influenced in all times, more or less, by local conditions as well as by the state of mind of the man who interpreted the idea.

The sensing of fundamental quality in period study is the only way to gain an understanding of what periods are and to become anything but a slavish parrot copyist, always missing the essential idea.

The second great art influence came from the birth of the Christian religion. The pagan Greek had in mind the idealization of the body and other material things. The Christian religion took "no thought for the body, what it should eat or drink, or wherewithal it should be clothed." It directed its thought energy to the soul and its preparation for a future state.

This difference of ideal brought about the wonderful change in art expression which found its full flower in the Gothic cathedral of the thirteenth and fourteenth centuries. To grasp anything of the meaning of this ingenious, imaginative and emotional symbolic art is the work of years. Well-focussed action brought about an expression of the ecclesiastical idea, first moderately, but finally in the flamboyant Gothic spirit. All feeling, joy and gratitude became one concentrated mass or hallelujah expression in which stone, metal, wood and glass vie with each other to express the wonderful story. As this period reaches its highest point of development it seems almost to eliminate material and to leave a vast network or lacelike fabric of symbolic spiritual expression.

To attempt to compare this great period with the classic is impossible because of the entirely different point of view. To endeavour to unite the two in spirit or expression without or within the house is well-nigh impossible. Each has its place and each is the expression of a type of life which has never been repeated and probably never will be. To restore or rebuild a Gothic cathedral under the conditions of modern thought is as impossible as for man to create a world. But one or two persons in this century have made even an approach to such an achievement.

The period last discussed used nature and naturalistic motifs as symbolic of Christian ideas, and treated them in a conventional manner more or less suited to the material into which they were translated. This treatment, however, was not as conventional as it might have been had the state of civilization and the methods of expression in other fields been developed as they have been since.

The third influence, which I have called the humanistic influence, is the one which proceeded from the Italian Renaissance and has been a ruling factor in the development of all subsequent period ideas. This influence was nature with all its manifestations in the life of man, affecting all those things which he uses. It differed from the Hellenic idea in just this particular: the Greek saw nature as God's expression of beauty in creation; the Humanist saw nature as belonging to man for man's personal gratification.

The danger in this viewpoint can be appreciated by the simplest mind. So long as man's thought was Gothic or Hellenic, there was no risk in the use of nature in all its forms, so soon, however, as the humanistic idea took firm root its abuse began. The ascetic, fragile, spiritual beauty of the Gothic period gave way before the naturalistic, human ideal of the High Renaissance. The luxurious display of nature's symbols perished in the decadent conception of those who saw in sensuous beauty only an appetite gratification.

This decadent naturalism has served as a source of inspiration for artists in various periods and for those in this country who have been addicted to the selection of such materials as the only expressions of art.

If one remembers the two viewpoints of nature discussed above and the expression of spiritual beauty in which the Gothic stands supreme, he will perceive the three influences which have dominated men in the evolution of the so-called periods in art history.

No attempt will be made in this book to treat of the Italian Renaissance which is a subject far too broad to attempt in a small space. It may be possible, however, to suggest the filtration of these three great influences through Italian life, which really gives the key to the interpretation of all modern periods in France, England and the United States.

The Italian Renaissance expressed itself in three great epochs-namely, the Early, High and Decadent. The Early period was the expression of humanism in Greek forms filtered through a Gothic consciousness. The result was a dignified, strong, sincere, consistent return to nature and to the structural principles that governed the expression of man's requirements. This period is wonderfully beautiful in its conception and in its material expression.

The High period represents the same idea, but the civilization of that time called for a wider social expression, a more vigorous and versatile life, more luxury and a less formal adherence to the traditions of the past.

The Decadent period abandoned itself to fantastic conceptions and combinations of structural and decorative objects. Consequently impossible versions of nature's forms appeared, a various and incongruous treatment of these ensued, while structural proprieties were disregarded.

The inordinate display of this period is responsible in no small degree for the tawdriness and vulgarity that has characterized much of our social expression for the last one hundred years. If this is not directly traceable to the third period of the Renaissance it is so indirectly, for the worst phases of this period that showed themselves during the reigns of Louis XIV and Louis XV have been admired and frequently copied. Being accepted as representing the best in French art, they have had an influence out of proportion to their merit. The average tourist, and in fact some so-called artists, have found in the examples of this decadent style their only source of enjoyment in Italy and France, and have returned to us not even guessing the importance of what they have missed in the less obtrusive and more refined expressions of the same period.

The value of knowing thoroughly the fundamentals of any period may be recognized through the analogy in learning a language, in the study of music, and in the acquisition of knowledge in any field where expression is possible to us. From time to time, in the discussion of various periods, it will be necessary to speak of these Italian periods and of the three great influences which made them, referring to them by name or by the qualities for which they stand. The principal reason for having treated them in this way is to arouse in the mind of the reader the desire to study them carefully before attempting to know later periods or trying to interpret them as mere matters of structural form and ornamental treatment.

The more thoroughly one realizes the qualities which each period and each part of it represents, the more adequately is he informed as to the material from which he may draw in solving his problem, whatever it may be. The longer one studies the more convinced he is that, after all, the really vital things are very simple and few in number. The failure on the part of any of us to create a truly adequate expression of our ideas is largely due to the fact that we have missed in our research and study the fundamental truths which each object embodies.

To summarize, then, let us remember that a period has no positively definite time limit marked by the birth and death of anybody, but that three great ideas have dominated peoples, and the expression of these ideas has been their art.

Let us also remember that each period at its highest point of development is the most adequate possible expression of the ideas which dominate that era. It is necessary to keep in mind the difference between the form and the spirit of a thing. If the external form only is understood, one never knows whether a copy expresses the idea or not. It may vary in proportion and relations in such a way as to have a totally different meaning from that which it expressed when originally created. The qualities which the original embodied are permanent and, whether the same forms or different ones are used in the new creation, the qualities of the old should be apparent.

With these things clearly in mind, we may look briefly at the expressions of the French and English periods, and then we should try to see the relation of these to our own clearly defined Colonial period. Thus we may consider the modern problem, which is not the copy or reproduction of any period but the knowledge of the forces and qualities of all periods and the adaptation of these to modern social, political and religious requirements.

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