The Art of Arts

by Anita Albus
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Last Updated on May 5, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 1765

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.

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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 plant products that were used to create these early pigments needed to be ground by hand, the sizes of individual particles varied considerably. At the very least, they were no less than twice the size of particles used to make modern paint. The result was a far more luminous, translucent color, with light reflected by large, distantly spaced, irregular particles of pigment rather than the minute, rounded, perfectly consistent particles found in modern paint.

In addition, the limited palette of the Renaissance artist also caused early oil painters to be innovative in their approaches to color. Modern artists either select a premixed color that is as close as possible to the one they need or blend the desired color before applying paint to the canvas. For Renaissance artists, having precisely the color required was rarely an option. Certain hues, such as the greens of nature, were notoriously difficult to obtain using the limited palette of the Renaissance. Other tones were either unstable or available only in small quantities. The result was that painters such as Jan van Eyck thought of colors more analytically than do most modern painters. They constructed their compositions in carefully planned layers, the accumulated effect of which was to deceive the eye into seeing a color that could not be attained through actual pigmentation. In other words, the greater translucence of oil-based paints helped fill a need created by the Renaissance artist’s restricted palette. Painters were able to construct colors in much the same way that they constructed complicated patterns of light and shade: by building up their canvases with layer upon layer of translucent images.

Albus’s extensive research into her subject is apparent as she analyzes the different pigments available to the Renaissance artist (white lead, malachite, alabaster, vermillion, ultramarine, azurite, cinnabar, orpiment, realgar, and verdigris) and the effects that these pigments have in the different media used by early painters (various types of oil, albumin, egg yolk, vegetable gum, and animal glue). The challenge to the modern scholar, as Albus points out, is that few of these substances remain unchanged over time. The most obvious cases of chemical reaction may be seen in those numerous painted statues of the Madonna whose flesh tones have gradually darkened over the centuries. Nevertheless, even when a color remains stable, it is often difficult for its chemical composition to be determined because of changes on the molecular level. It is particularly difficult to isolate the specific binder used by individual artists as a liquid medium for their pigments. Most of the binder evaporates in the course of drying; the rest inevitably changes through interaction with the pigment. As a result, many of the formulas used by Renaissance artists are unknown today and are unlikely to be isolated in the future.

Once artists began using commercial, premixed paints in the late eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries, the art of painting changed forever. This is why Albus subtitles her book Rediscovering Painting: The approaches to perspective, color, and image taken by Renaissance artists were so different from those of today that Albus believes they must be “rediscovered” before they can be understood at all. Many of her observations have been made possible only recently by the introduction of electron microscopes to the study of early paintings. By using these devices, Albus finds that Renaissance artists approached their compositions, like their colors, quite differently from their successors. Their sense of design was analytical, achieving a unified whole only when a work’s numerous layers were eventually complete.

The same microscopic analysis that allowed Albus to understand the pigmentation and composition of early paintings also enabled her to observe painters’ gradually changing conceptions of their works. Moving through the layers of a painting, she occasionally found evidence of an artist’s revision: the shape of a head was changed; the direction of a figure’s glance became shifted; minor images in the distance were added or removed. The slow-drying nature of oil paint provided the artist with an extended period to perfect the final product. Small changes in design as a work was already under way gave Albus an insight into the artist’s vision and approach to each work. What “went wrong” that needed to be corrected? How was the final work improved by seemingly insignificant changes occurring throughout the long process of creation?

The Art of Arts: Rediscovering Painting has been issued by Alfred A. Knopf in an unusual format for art books. Its dimensions are only 5 inches by 8.5 inches by 1.5 inches. This size has both advantages and disadvantages. On one hand, the book is far more portable than most comparable surveys of Renaissance painting. Moreover, its compact size gives the book a nice heft and makes it feel like a “work of art” itself (more like a book of hours than a textbook). On the other hand, the book’s small size creates a serious drawback for a work that is supposed to address sight, perspective, fine detail, and proper dimensions. All of the color illustrations are provided in gatefolds having a maximum size of 8.5 inches by 8.5 inches. As a result, unless a photograph is studied separately from the text, it may be seen conveniently only while a single, small page is being read. Even then, there will inevitably be a fold through the middle of the painting, rendering it almost impossible to observe whatever point of detail Albus has just described. Worse yet, there are only eleven gatefolds in the entire book, plus a reproduction of Friedrich Brentel’s Paradise which has been adapted as the work’s endpapers (an idiosyncratic choice since it relates only peripherally to the subject of the book), three black-and-white illustrations, and twelve pages presenting the various crystals used as pigments in Renaissance art. The result is that, for a book that describes so eloquently how one sees images and how early artists composed the colors and perspectives of their paintings, Albus has created a rather “unvisual” book, heavy on text and light on images.

With this single exception, however, Anita Albus’s The Art of Arts will cause its readers to reconsider what a painting is, what an artist is trying to represent when developing a composition, and how Renaissance artists incorporated their age’s view of God and humanity into their paintings. Although it is a challenging book filled with much technical detail, readers will find it worth the difficulty and, after reading it, will approach the paintings of van Eyck and his successors with new eyes.

Sources for Further Study

Library Journal 125 (September 1, 2000): 200.

Publishers Weekly 247 (October 16, 2000): 64.

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