Botticelli And Progressive Interest
( Originally Published 1921 )
BOTTICELLI made a series of drawings to illustrate the works of Dante—the " Inferno," the " Purgatorio," and the " Paradiso." The " Inferno " appears to have been too fierce a subject for the suave and gentle spirit of the artist, who, while not shrinking from it, treats it in a curiously untouched and naif manner, as something far off and not realized, quite unlike the text. There are, to be sure, flames and thorns and devils, all rather bogeyish and quaint ; so that the torments of the damned, as he shows them, are calculated to wring a smile, rather than a sympathetic twinge, from the spectator, as they hardly convey the idea of suffering or terror. A Chinese torturer would think little of them, and any illustrated version of Foxe's Book of Martyrs would put them in the shade. A normally humorous mind with a dash of brutality rather than of polished cruelty may find something lacking which it would itself have to supply.
His devils and the sufferings of the damned are simply fancies ; his imagination and his sympathies are expressed rather in the way in which he follows the effect upon Virgil and Dante in their passage through the many scenes of suffering depicted. In these two figures he becomes almost realistic at times, and in this, probably unconsciously, displays his own pitiful attitude.
He introduces them again and again in the same composition passing through varied emotions from one incident to another ; in one drawing they appear as many as seven times. Their appearance and reappearance in this way give a curious sense of continuity, not only to the somewhat slack composition of the separate designs, but to the whole series. Interesting as these drawings are as a sidelight upon Botticelli's art and mind, they are hardly to be taken as objects of study for composition or method of presentment ; they have the appearance of being only partially thought out by him, and cannot be regarded as final in their form. There is a lack of economy of space ; figures are scattered and sprinkled about higgledy-piggledy by simple multiplication without condensation of interest, predominance or subordination of one thing to another.
The result is flatness ; the attention is squandered on the bundle of hay in its search for the needle in it.
The device of introducing Virgil and Dante several times processionally in one composition is interesting as an example of the effort to overcome the natural limitation of pictorial art to a given instant in time, and to a single point of view, which appears from a literary review (Saturday Westminster, Sept. 18th, 192o) to have been common enough. " . . . . a portrait, though it betrays character, and often has what painters, speaking technically, call movement, cannot really speak, and except in the primitive days when one saint could be and often was shown being eaten and disgorged by the same dragon in the same picture, a portrait does not show its subject in more than one place."
In modern days this progressive interest has been generally disallowed by purists as hardly proper to pictorial art. There can be no doubt that it is inadmissible if the subject is realistically treated ; but in the presentation of an idea the same objection cannot hold with the same force.
The qualification " at a given moment of time " must be pressed home as marking in the main the difference between the art of the illustrator and of the narrator or musician. Literature and music are progressive and cumulative, while pictorial art is static.
In so far as it aims at producing an emotion as nearly as possible similar to that received by the artist through the eye from life itself, it will give a result not far removed from that of an instantaneous photograph ; yet with certain important modifications. In the case of the camera an instantaneous exposure is made comparable to the opening and immed iate closing of the eye ; and in the momentary interval between the two a complete image of all the facts in front of the lens is recorded. The brain is not so rapidly receptive a recorder as the camera, and does not, having received an impression, dispose of it as rapidly as it has been received. In the case of an impression from rapidly moving objects there is an appreciable period of time in which their appearance is still retained upon the retina, even while the vision is recording fresh impressions, so that overlapping of memory and active vision takes place, and a certain confusion results between the two—the memory remaining after the action has taken place.
The reader can prove this for himself by moving his hand up and down from the wrist so rapidly as to see a hand at each end of the movement and a blurred succession of hands in between. The slight pause at the end of each movement gives the brain time to grasp the appearance of the hand, but the intervening movefment is so rapid as to be recorded only as a semitransparent blur, where an indistinct and rapidly fading streak is left upon the retina, and the background is only half realized. Suppose a camera to be exposed while the hand is midway in its movement, the hand will appear, not as it does to the eye, partially only, but distinctly ; more distinctly even than the eye records at the moment of the slight pause when the movement of the hand is reversed, and moreover, the background will be comparatively unaffected. It is worth pointing out that in this matter the camera does not show the artist to be in error in his observation, as is popularly supposed to be the case, but only that the camera and the brain record at different speeds, and that the camera has no memory to complicate the impression.
In such a case the artist will probably choose for record the hand at the moment when his eye records the completest impression , that is, at the moment of arrested movement, when the hand is at the turn.
In the case of a galloping horse, he has been accustomed to use a convention based upon a series of impressions received at more than a single instant of time, so that each limb is shown at the moment of arrested movement.; and the artist's convention frequently goes nearer to visual truth than the camera's record of a fact too momentary to be fully recorded individually by the brain, but only as an infinitesimal component part of an indistinct blur or streak.
It has been unusual for the artist to go out of his way to make attempts at recording such impressions, though it has been and is done ; and it yields a certain interest to observe how the problem is solved, as this affords a clue to the artist's preoccupation with the relative significance of the object that is moving, and the , appearance of its movement. A fluttering bird frequently gives the impression to the eye of having four or more wings, and I remember being struck with the truth of a representation of this impression in a picture by so very conservative an artist as the late Lionel Smythe. In certain " futurist " pictures I have seen attempts scientifically to record such impressions of movement. One of these was a highly interesting and ambitious attempt at recording on a large scale the effect of a crowd of dancing figures. But such attempts, no matter how the skill of the artist may be called upon to analyse and execute them, deal rather, perhaps, with the science of optics than with aesthetic vision. To the curious they are full of interest, and, because they may open up new paths of delight in beauty or interest, are therefore not lightly to be dismissed or discouraged. At the same time, it is amusing to notice that so honest an attempt at recording a quite ordinary vision of moving objects is apt to stir the derision of critics and ignorant people alike, who are unaccustomed to the analysis of their own most ordinary sensations, and look at life always through some convention that has been imposed upon them. The present trend of art, however, seems to be away not only from exact recording of appearances as in a group of still life, but even from the more subtle record of the impression made upon the eye, which had so filled the artistic horizon.
This tendency expresses itself in various ways. The artist has found that no amount of labour can compete in literalness with a simple snap-shot, and that his business lies not in a full or even direct recording of the external facts observed by him, so much as in the manner of their presentation. Fulness of record for its own sake has ceased to yield any interest, and the labour involved, which at one time was a cause of admiration, is now rather provocative of a certain pitying wonder at its obstinacy. Selection of essentials, involving the rejection of all that is insignificant, and their effective and appropriate presentation, is having its turn again after a long period during which the public was inclined to look rather for the trivialities and trimmings of " likeness " or prettiness than for its firm grasp of truth or beauty. " Likeness," in fact, even in inessentials, and a falsified Prettiness, had become synonyms for Truth and Beauty.