(Literary Masterpieces, Critical Compilation)

Anita Albus is a Munich-based author and artist whose previous works included Farfallone: ein Roman in Briefen (1989; butterflies: a novel in letters) and Liebesbande (1993; love bonds). The Art of Arts: Rediscovering Painting is a sprawling, encyclopedic work that moves effortlessly from careful aesthetic analysis of various Netherlandish paintings, to the chemical composition of oil-based paints, to Renaissance and early modern philosophical views of the human condition, to the effects of asinometropia (the condition of being far-sighted in one eye and near-sighted in the other) on the perceptions of the art historian Erwin Panofsky. In all these areas, Albus demonstrates broad knowledge of her discipline and demonstrates how consideration of each subject is essential to a proper understanding of early oil painting, how Renaissance painters achieved such a high degree of luminescence in their works, and how contemporary spectators “see” early paintings in a completely different manner from that of the works’ first viewers.

Using Jan van Eyck’s masterwork The Madonna with Chancellor Rolin to launch her discussion, Albus proceeds to examine the entire foundation of late Renaissance and early modern painting. She notes, for instance, that, while The Madonna with Chancellor Rolin is an impressive painting when seen in the original, efforts to photograph this work have always proved disappointing. It is not merely that the characteristic gloss of oil-based media cannot be duplicated by photography but also that, as Albus discovers, the work loses detail, texture, and depth when photographed; the result is a flat image rather than the apparently three-dimensional “world” that is the original. In order to explain why this flattening occurs, Albus examines van Eyck’s use of perspective and finds that the artist treats space in a way quite different from that of most modern painters. As early as 1904, the art historian G. Josef Kern had noted that The Madonna with Chancellor Rolincontains not one vanishing point but four. A similar use of multiple vanishing points may be detected in nearly all of van Eyck’s surviving paintings. Nevertheless, while Kern was disappointed that van Eyck “got perspective wrong,” Albus regards the viewer’s shifting sense of perspective while examining a van Eyck painting as a major source of the work’s visual interest. The painter’s unique approach to space is also one of the features that tend to be altered when the dimensions of the painting are changed in photographic reproductions.

Albus argues that van Eyck’s multiple points of perspective give the viewer a “divine eye-view” since, among the painter’s philosophical contemporaries, God was regarded as the one being who could encompass all perspectives simultaneously. Albus then broadens this discussion to trace how artists may have been influenced by the idea of humanity’s relationship to nature and the universe by the philosophical works of Nicholas of Cusa and his disciple, Charles de Bouelles. As occurs throughout the book, issues that arise from the author’s examination of a particular artistic technique quickly expand to include social, cultural, intellectual, and cultural matters. In Albus’s narrative, nearly the entire history of ideas ends up playing an unexpected role in the early development of oil painting.

One of the most interesting discussions in the book occurs when Albus examines the pigments used by van Eyck, Rogier van de Weyden, Georg Flegel, and their contemporaries. She notes that early oil painters approached pigmentation from a completely different perspective than that of modern painters. Nowadays, artists use paint that is homogenous, consistent in color, and intentionally opaque. Most modern paint is, however, produced by companies that have their primary interest in dyes and industrial applications, with only a minuscule portion of the business devoted to art supplies. The emphasis for these corporations is on consistency and one-coat coverage, not on the individual needs of the artist.

Paints in the late Renaissance, on the other hand, were individually prepared for each artist. The grinding of pigments was a responsibility usually assigned to the artist’s youngest apprentice. Because the minerals and...

(The entire section is 1765 words.)