In 1846, the 25-year-old French poet Charles Baudelaire published a 72-page, pink-covered book reviewing the Paris Salon. It was his second attempt at art criticism, and he was feeling bold enough to commend very little of what he had seen. He paid tribute to Delacroix and Ingres and a few others, but went as far as declaring his hatred for the work of Horace Vernet. “We are in the hospital of painting,” he said. “We are probing its sores and its sicknesses.” And he identified these sicknesses as the “chic,” the “stereotype” and the “eclectic,” concluding with his now familiar assertion that the “great tradition” had been lost. It is the paradigms of this tradition that, in the main, I propose to examine in what follows. I shall also comment further on Baudelaire and his review.

Let me emphasize at the start that the “paradigms” refer to painting rather than to “art;” for painting and painters existed long before the wider concepts “art” and “artist” we use today—concepts that are scarcely 300 years old and appear for the first time in a dictionary, in France, in 1755 (Lacombe’s Dictionnaire portatif des beaux-arts) but, astonishingly, in no English dictionary before 1880 (2). Michelangelo, for instance, was known simply as a painter, architect or sculptor, depending on what he was up to at the time, and French texts still referred to him as an “artisan” in the 18th century (3). When his younger friend, the painter and self-styled historian Giorgio Vasari, wrote his account of Michelangelo and their predecessors, he therefore called the book The Lives of the Most Eminent Painters, Sculptors and Architects, not The Lives of the Artists. Yet this latter is the title under which it is often misleadingly translated. Similarly, the French Academy began as L’Académie Royale de Peinture et de Sculpture, and did not become became L’Académie des Beaux-Arts until 1816—the Beaux-Arts having been “reduced to a single principle” only 70 years earlier, by the Abbé Batteux (just nine years prior to the “portable” dictionary). So my subject is not “art” but painting, and, since the significant paradigms of painting developed over a period of 500 years, I shall move back and forth over the centuries to demonstrate their waxing and waning.

An occupation known as painting

In the Middle Ages, it was commonly supposed that a painting would be carried out “in the accustomed manner.” Paintings were useful objects, tendentious, didactic and ritualistic, and paid for according to their size, the amount of lapis lazuli or gold leaf specified in the contract, or the number of figures to be painted—and their production was regulated by the local guild, if indeed a painters’ guild existed; if it did not, painters were usually required to join the local saddle makers’ guild, since their occupation was frequently that of painting saddles (as late as the 16th century even Holbein, who had painted the portrait of Henry VIII, was commanded to design a cradle for the anticipated birth of a son to Anne Boleyn). And as for aesthetics, Johan Huizinga, in his Waning of the Middle Ages, and Umberto Eco, in his Art and Beauty in the Middle Ages, agree that if Medieval writers experienced anything like what is today called “aesthetic,” they thought of it as communion with God and expressed it in terms of amazement, rather than beauty, and even when theories of beauty figured in their writings it was entangled with the pleasures of interpreting symbols, with the cosmic proportions of the universe, with Platonist “divine light,” with “goodness” and moral harmony, and sometimes even with size—but not with the hedonistic pleasure provided by richly embellished objects, which was recorded at length by Abbot Suger, at St. Denis (and denounced, predictably, by Bernard of Clairvaux). It is not until Poussin, in the mid-17th century, that we find a painter claiming that the aim of visual art might be “delectation”—a statement that Erwin Panofsky regarded as revolutionary (4). Eco concludes that “the medieval philosophy of beauty was cut off from its artistic practice as if by a sheet of glass.” It would have been more correct for him to have said “artisanal practice,” for the reason I have given; but, that apart, he is obviously correct—the artisans were too lowly for anyone to want to get inside their heads, whether they were weavers, shoemakers, jewelers or painters.

The evolution from “painters” to “artists” was slow, and for our purposes may be said to have begun in a manuscript book written around 1400 by the Italian painter Cennino Cennini (none of whose actual works have come down to us). This book he called Il Libro dell Arte (correctly translated as The Craftsman’s Handbook because, to underline the point again, “arte,” like the word “craft” in Germanic languages, in those days meant “skill”). Cennini tells us that he is writing about “an occupation known as painting.” This occupation, he says, “calls for imagination and skill of hand”—and he goes on about the “aim” of such skill, which turns out to be “to discover things not seen, hiding themselves under the shadow of natural objects.” I interpret this as a statement about the noumenal, or spiritual—or, about ways of signifying these (I realize that “noumenal” is a term invented by Kant, but Cennini’s reference to “things hiding themselves under the shadow of natural objects” is surely close). Equally important, Cennini moots the word “imagination” for the first time since antiquity, even though “imagination” by no means then implied that the painter could depart from the traditional repertoire of images (given free reign in that regard, imagination was seen as potentially diabolical and likely to produce what today we might call “the return of the repressed”). The appeal for “imagination” was simply for more freedom in the composition of the prescribed images, which Cennini connected to something he called “individual style.” He says that, having acquired the manner of one master, the painter, if he has “any imagination at all,” should be able to proceed to a style individual to himself—curiously enough by “copying from nature.” Exactly what he meant we can never know, though it sounds like an embryonic version of what we mean today. Nevertheless, set in their 14th century context, these prescient assertions, evoking “imagination,” “individual style,” and “copying from nature” (as opposed to using pattern books), create a nice paradox: the painter is supposed to copy nature, but his aim in doing so is to signify something supernatural or noumenal that nature obscures from everyday vision. Cennini thus stands, Janus-like, at an end and a beginning—for the idea of copying from nature was to gather momentum so rapidly that talk of “things not seen” was largely eclipsed within 30 years of his book. True, it would return briefly at the end of the 1400s as Neoplatonism, and again in the 19th century in the doctrines of Swedenborg, Blavatsky and Steiner, to give us The Symbolist Manifesto of 1886 and the subsequent Symbolist Movement, but for the best part of the 500 years following Cennini, painters would work within variants of the notions of “imagination,” “copying from nature” and “individual style” that Cennini himself could never have foreseen.

Cennini also promoted the opinion that painting deserved better than its classification among the so-called “Mechanical Arts,” where saddle-making was itself only a sub-section of armouring, and where it was often painting’s dismal fate to have to look up to both. And his solution was ambitious—he packaged his new theses as an appeal for painting to be reclassified among the so-called Seven Liberal Arts of the universities (by the side of rhetoric, dialectic and grammar and, above all, geometry). Such a move would have stood to raise the social status of painters nearer to that of poets, although it would not have found much support among poets themselves (who were often wealthy amateurs) or among the theologians and philosophers who had entrenched the medieval division of labour in terms of a numerology laid down by their classical forebears. As far as they were concerned, there was an absolute barrier between the intelligentsia of the seven liberal arts, who worked with their heads and communicated in Latin, and the rest of the world, including painters, who worked with their hands and spoke and read, if they read at all, in the vulgar tongue.


However, the status of painters was to take a significant jump due to something Cennini had not foreseen—for within 20 years or so of Cennini’s handbook, the architect Brunelleschi was to announce the first unified method of monocular perspective. The fact that unified perspective should have been rationalized by an architect has never been adequately explained, for painters themselves had long struggled unsuccessfully to achieve it. However that may be, by 1435 the elements of perspective drawing had not only been invented but laid out theoretically in a treatise by Leon Battista Alberti, in complete opposition to Cennini’s assertion that the role of painting was “to make visible the invisible.” The aim of painting now became the reproduction of the visible. Thus, on the very first page of his treatise, Della Pittura ( “About Pictures”) Alberti states specifically that “The painter has nothing to do with things that are not visible.” And he adds, “a picture is nothing other than a cross-section of a visual pyramid upon a certain surface.” Painters, he says, take a surface and “present the forms of objects on this surface as if it were transparent glass.” This new paradigm of the canvas surface as “transparent” came not only with a perspective formula for creating the illusion, but with much more. For instance, Alberti took up Cennini’s assertion that painters should have the status of poets, and, going further, launched the idea of the “learned painter”—learned in geometry and perspective, but also in classical mythology and the Christian stories.

In contrast to Cennini, Alberti wrote from a philosophical point of view that may be called Aristotelian, or even positivist, in its emphasis on observation and experiment—and if we look at the rejection, 450 years later, of his view that “painters have nothing to do with things that are not visible,” that rejection (by the French Symbolists whom we have already noted), was accompanied, predictably, by polemics against positivism and materialism—and even for hierarchy, as opposed to democracy.

Perspective drawing, then as now, relied upon a fictive monocular peephole, through which the painter was assumed to be regarding the world as he built up an illusionistic representation of it. So, to experience the illusion perfectly, the viewer should really have stood at a peephole with her eye in a position replicating the painter’s. However, although in St. Ignatius, in Rome, there is a disc on which the viewer is supposed to stand to see the painted dome in correct perspective, painters generally took little regard of the fact that such a spot was necessary to avoid a distorted, or “anamorphic,” view of the representation, even though anamorphosis had been understood and compensated for prior to Alberti, in the Gothic cathedrals where sculptures to be seen from below were often elongated. However, we have all had the experience in the movies where our perception quickly compensates for the anamorphic distortions that occur when we sit at the side of the screen, and it would have been odd if the early perspectivists had not understood it too. Indeed, by 1550, highly distorted anamorphic images began to proliferate just for amusement—and 200 years after Alberti the Baroque muralists even solved the anamorphic problems presented by painting on the inside of a dome, as in St. Ignatius. However, it is likely that no painting, however ambitious, conforms to every last refinement of perspective theory—which would mean not only the precise positioning of the observer but also a specially conceived concave surface to support the painting at a constant radius from the eye.

Of course, there is no such thing as binocular perspective (though Cézanne seems to have attempted a kind of binocular painting with shimmering contours), and perspective was not really a science, though it was often called such. Perspective was an invented tool. Still, its raison d’ètre was, like that of science, to provide ordered representations of the phenomenal world, and until the invention of photography it remained, in this, supreme. Nor did the advent of photography end its utility—for it became something called “engineering drawing” without which the design of the machinery of the industrial age would have been impossible—an ironic ending to what began as a humanistic triumph of the intellect.


However, the Renaissance conquest of the phenomenal world did not immediately eclipse the medieval concept of “things not seen, hiding themselves under the shadow of natural objects,” a concept which gained new legitimacy on the formation in Florence, in 1457, of an academy for the study of the manuscripts arriving there after the fall of Constantinople. This academy expanded a notion from Plato, dear to various medieval philosophers, that the final aim of human existence was a vision of beauty and light—a notion that evolved into a species of sun worship that even seems to have been behind the theory of the heliocentric universe proposed by Copernicus (one of the great paradigm shifts of all time). Michelangelo attended this Neoplatonist academy from the age of 15, and, like Botticelli, derived from it the inspiration for some of his more bizarre imagery (as in the tomb of Giuliano de Medici). Leonardo, in contrast, defied the trend and effectively backed Alberti, insisting that truths must be tested by the senses (“all else is clamour,” he is supposed to have said).

As the Catholic Church’s Counter-Reformation began, however, Neoplatonism waned for several centuries, until the Symbolists resurrected it. For instance, Gauguin’s adoption of Symbolism was coincident with his encountering a circle of younger artists who claimed to be reading Plotinus and the Cabala and adopting the cult of Mithras. Hence the appearance of dreamscapes and of the Tau cross in his paintings of that time. The circle also read fragments from the self-styled 18th century mystic, Emmanuel Swedenborg, who had borrowed from Plotinus a theory of “correspondences” which held that all things in the phenomenal world have a corresponding echo in the spiritual. This convenient discovery had been taken up by Baudelaire in an essay of 1855, and elaborated in a poem by him, actually called “Correspondences,” in 1857. Indeed, Baudelaire was so intrigued by the ideas of Swedenborg that the hero of his early novel Le Fanfarlo was cast as actually keeping a copy of Swedenborg’s writings by his bed; and Baudelaire’s poem, whose Swedenborgian first line states, “Nature is a temple—with living pillars,” thus became an anthem for the Symbolist Movement. In the same poem Baudelaire also confirmed his interest in synaesthesia (the idea that colours could be heard and sounds be seen as colours, and so on), something that Kandinsky was later to claim he actually experienced (hence Kandinsky’s woodcuts called Klange: “Sound”). The poet Mallarmé, who succeeded Baudelaire among the Paris intelligentsia, also espoused the noumenal, which he thought could be achieved by, among other methods, what he called “vagueness.” Hence the vagueness of formal definition in faux naïf paintings of that time by Vuillard, Bonnard and others, and hence the later co-opting of Monet to the symbolist camp at the time of his almost unreadably “vague” paintings of the façade of Rouen cathedral (a complete turnaround from the earlier casting of him as a “positivist” with the other impressionists). Ultimately, the theory of vagueness amounted to offering a poem or a painting as an object open to a multitude of shifting perceptions: an object that supposedly carried intuitions of the noumenal by its very manner of being in the world. This idea still clings to the arts, in spite of the critique from semiology which asserts that what we really see or hear are the signifiers of a theory, and it is surprising how many abstract painters have rationalized their work this way: not only Kandinsky, Malevich and Mondrian, but also Rothko and Barnet Newman, and, most recently, the American painter Brice Marden. Commenting on this in the 1890s to his son Lucien, the aging socialist vigilante, Camille Pissaro, saw it as “the bourgeoisie restoring superstition to the people,” while the great 20th century skeptic, Marcel Duchamp, one of the few people of the past century who actually made a study of perspective, began a monumental work in 1912, The Bride Stripped Bare by her Bachelors, Even, which displays astonishing perspective skills in order to collapse the tension between noumenal and phenomenal in sardonic laughter. As you may know, Duchamp then went on to invent a method of creating stereoscopic illusions for persons with only monocular vision—something that until then had been thought impossible.


The institutions within which these old paradigms eventually evolved were, of course, the academies. The first academy of visual arts came about in Florence in 1563. It was a product of complex motives. For one thing, the guilds had been increasingly undermined by the issuing of “letters patent” in England, and “lettres de brevet” in France in which the monarch granted “master” status to individuals who had been denied it by the closed-shop guild system. More specifically, the first academy came about in response to appeals by the aging Michelangelo and his friend Vasari (he who wrote the Lives), who together persuaded the Medici family to do for painting, sculpture and architecture what their earlier “Academy of Letters” had done for the Tuscan language. The result was a drawing academy (the Academia del’Disegno) emphasizing perspective, mathematics, geometry, optics, and the study of the human frame. Indeed, the emphasis on geometry in the drawing academy was so strong that one of the two chairs of mathematics in the University of Pisa was transferred to Florence, and in 1610 Galileo himself moved there. This was encouraging: painters and sculptors now met with practitioners of the liberal arts on a more equal footing, and with the official sanction of the state. Indeed the title of “academician,” conferred on selected painters from time to time, became a minor order of nobility. However, the academies did not teach painting. You learned to draw in the academies, but to learn to paint you had to enrol in the studio of a painter, preferably a member of the academy, very much as the medieval apprentice had been indentured to a master painter of the painters’ guild—and your experience there would have been similar. After all, the academicians needed cheap labour too.

Silent Poetry

Needless to say, academic theory leaned on Alberti’s Della Pittura, since it is there that we first read that the aim of painting should be to retell the history and myth found in biblical or classical writings. Indeed, soon after Alberti, it was popular to quote the Greek Simonides, who had decreed that painting should be seen as “silent poetry” and poetry heard as “a speaking picture.” Leonardo, standing aside from his contemporaries, as usual, and actually attempting to raise painting above poetry, made fun of this and called poetry “painting for the blind.” But the academies made it a doctrine, and seeking other snippets from the past came upon an essay, Ars Poetica (“The Art of Poetry”) by the Latin poet Horace, which produced the phrase ut pictura poesis (“as painting, so poetry”) (5). They also adopted Aristotle’s Poetics, where, in his section on “the objects of imitation,” Aristotle says that poets, like painters, imitate men in action and make them better or worse than average—a statement taken to mean that the human body in action gave a picture of the human soul—so well accepted across Europe that by 1605 we even find Don Quixote lecturing on it to Sancho Panza!

As these bits and pieces were distilled over the years, they were assembled into a theory formalized around the time of the Drawing Academy by Ludovico Dolce. This formalization of the paradigm ut pictura poesis produced five restrictive precepts that were to serve the academy for almost 300 years. The precepts concerned “instruction and delight,” “imitation of classical models,” “invention,” “decorum” and “expression,” and I shall discuss them in that order.

The first restrictive precept, that of “instruction and delight”, came from both Horace and Aristotle—it meant that the aim of the chosen story, the istoria or “history painting,” as it came to be called, must be to instruct the viewer in noble and decorous behaviour, though in a manner that would please the eye, as poetry pleased the ear. This marriage of “instruction” and “delight” survived for 200 years, and began to falter only after the death of Louis XIV of France, when “delight” was severed from the equation during the period of the French regency by such theorists as the Abbé du Bos, to become an excuse for hedonistic and erotic indulgence, as portrayed for instance in the works of Watteau, and later actually realized in the paintings of Boucher (what the theorists of the rococo period called divertissement). You can follow this hedonistic element through revivals of the rococo, like that which produced Renoir’s Bathers, through Gauguin and art nouveau, and then through Bonnard and Matisse—the latter writing his own hedonist manifesto in 1908. After World War II, the New York critic Clement Greenberg even appealed for a “bland Apollonian art” (a way of characterizing Matisse’s hedonism). It can be argued that to some extent his appeal was successful, but the existentialist temper of the time frowned upon it and painters were always averse to seeming “merely decorative” (something Matisse managed to transcend).

However that may be, the didactic component of “instruction and delight,” though increasingly ignored, was not entirely discarded, since a travesty of it remained in the state propaganda machine of the courts of Europe, particularly in the form of portraits of high society. Furthermore, aristocratic hedonism was to provoke a bourgeois moralist reaction that produced the sentimentality of Greuze and, eventually, a return to themes of Roman republican virtue, in the work of Jacques-Louis David, which helped to bring about the downfall of the aristocracy itself. And, of course, a version of “instruction” continued through the 19th century, both for and against the various regimes, producing Goya’s attacks on corruption and war, Courbet’s “Realism,” the journal Le Réaliste and, as the newspaper industry flourished, a mountain of caricatures dominated by Daumier. Later, in Stalin’s Soviet Union, Zhdanov transformed it into Socialist Realism, and a variation is alive today in the tendentious works of Hans Haacke, and text pieces by Les Levine, Barbara Kruger and others—but not really in painting.

The second restriction within ut pictura poesis, that on “imitation,” followed from the “instruction” idea. It was pointed out that, for instruction involving ideal human nature, it was no use looking to living people—and the painter should therefore look to classical sculptures. Hence the portrait painter’s sitter would be posed after an image from the antique and hence David’s quotations from such sources—and hence also the well known practice in art colleges of drawing from the antique that continued through much of the 20th century, where students were to be found, drawing from casts of the antique, whose instructors were ignorant of the high-minded reason for which the practice had been initiated.

The third restriction was on “invention,” which had remained unchanged since Cennini declared that it could apply only to the composition, not to the subject, of the painting. In other words, Christian stories and classical myths were supposed to provide the themes by which “instruction” would take place, and painters were not encouraged to provide themes of their own, unless they chose inferior subjects. In fact the academies for this reason created an actual hierarchy of subjects based on the antiquated notion of a “Great Chain of Being”—antique stories, or “history paintings,” coming at the top, along with portraits of the monarch, then portraits of the nobility (often with poses taken from classical sculpture); then animal paintings; then landscapes (because trees were lower in the Great Chain than animals); then still life paintings; and finally “genre” or “low life” paintings not fit to be seen in a palace. The ideological implications of this are obvious to us but were not, of course, to the painters themselves, although, not surprisingly, painters of prestige bridled under such restraints. For instance, when Veronese was brought before a tribunal of the Inquisition in Venice, for being over-inventive in his portrayal of The Last Supper, he not only pleaded that painters had been granted the same license as poets, but, when ordered nevertheless to alter the work, he avoided doing so by changing its title to Christ in the House of Levi, a theme where the same restraints did not apply! Thus was the way prepared for Baudelaire, in his reviews, to actually give marks for “invention.”

It is the fourth and fifth of these restrictions that are the most interesting. The fourth, that of “decorum,” forbade excesses, exaggerations and repulsive scenes, and required that every gesture of limb and drapery be appropriate to the purpose of the story portrayed. Horace, in The Art of Poetry, had insisted on similar limits, though his examples seem odd. For instance, he warned against joining a human head to a horse’s neck or spreading varicoloured plumage over the limbs of animals; all of which sounds like a tract against 20th century surrealist imagery (after all, the so-called “surrealist marvelous” was supposed to come exactly from the “chance encounter” of such incompatible things). However, although the concept of decorum had been elaborated more subtly by Leonardo, its testing began early (think for instance of the controversy over the nudity in Michelangelo’s Last Judgment, or of Carravagio painting St. Matthew with dirty feet) and its erosion, though slow, was continuous. According to Walter Benjamin, as late as 1830 de Vigny’s translation of Othello failed because it was unacceptable for a handkerchief to figure in a tragedy! However, de Vigny was still alive to see Baudelaire make his notorious and calculated break with decorum by the publication in 1857 of his collected poems, Flowers of Evil. Baudelaire’s poem “Carrion” in that book already sounds like something from Salvador Dali: “Flies swarmed over the putrid belly / From which emerged black battalions / Of maggots, which flowed like a thick liquid / Along those human rags...,” and, of couyrse, the success de scandale of Surrealism came from similar breaches of decorum. Indeed, without a principle of decorum, scandale would be impossible—just as, with few taboos left to be broken today, scandals have become an uphill task for painters and poets alike.


Charles Le Brun, 1619-90:
Horror / fright / sadness, engravings, 1702

The final precept in the doctrine of ut pictura poesis concerned “expression” a matter closely linked to “decorum.” In its earliest form, “expression” was a matter of getting right the gestures and facial emotions in the painted images so that viewers might read, according to Leonardo, whatever emotion was in the mind of the person portrayed. According to later theorists, if this was well done, viewers might even experience those emotions themselves, through an assumed “sympathetic” faculty (something that psychology has to some degree confirmed—pointing out that if you contort your face to look sad you can actually find yourself feeling sad). However, in artistic practice it is not so easy. Alberti was the first to see this where, in Della Pittura, he had discussed the problems that arise in depicting emotions: “Think,” he says, “how, if you try to paint a laughing face, it can come out as a weeping face” (a most indecorous result !). Leonardo da Vinci seems to have thought this could be resolved by more stringent empirical observation but, in spite of his contribution, the problem remained. It was so pressing 200 years later that the first president of the French Academy, Charles Le Brun, following Descartes’ The Passions of the Soul of 1649, created in 1702 an illustrated text for his students called “How to learn to draw the passions.”

Like previous attempts, this also assumed that emotions could be communicated directly—after all, our faces do contort in different ways depending on the emotion of the moment and at first glance Le Brun’s examples seem astonishing: “rage” really seems to communicate rage. But then you find that so does “fright,” and you begin to see why he needed to label each one. In fact, of course, he had unwittingly devised a code, with his book as the key, and unmediated pictorial communication remained as problematic as ever. It was still in dispute only 25 years ago, when the editor of the journal Modern Painters, the late Peter Fuller, referring to the classical sculpture depicting Laocoön and his sons being strangled by serpents, argued with historian Grizelda Pollock, asking her, “How do we know that Laocoön is supposed to be in pain?” and she replied, “Because we have studied the mode of production prevailing in Greece at the time, and the signifying practice to which it gave rise.” “But,” responded Fuller, “Laocoön is being strangled by a sea monster!” To which Pollock’s reply was, “Yes, but just by looking at the sculpture we have no way of knowing he is not enjoying it.”

Marble, Greek, 2nd Century B.C.:
Laocoön and his Sons Strangled by Serpents
variously restored by Bernini and others (Rome, The Vatican)

Fuller seemed to think that she had thereby reduced her case to absurdity, but he was not necessarily correct. Suffice it to say that, seemingly unknown to the disputants, the matter had been largely cleared-up in Charles Darwin’s The Expression of the Emotions in Man and Animals. Written after his monumental Origin of Species. This book, the result of twenty five years of research using all the empirical methods available, determined that although there are gestures and facial expressions that are universally interpreted without the mediation of words, there are others that need a verbal label (pace Fuller, readers may test this for themselves by re-labeling the sculpture just discussed as “The Ecstasy of Laocoön”). Modern psychology concurs: although certain visual forms may be seen as “expressive,” it helps to have cues to tell us what they are expressive of (tears of joy, or tears of sorrow?). I am reminded of an experience I had years ago when, glancing at a muted television, I saw a crowd of obviously Arabic people waving white scarves and dancing in what appeared to be a jubilant parade—then I turned up the sound and learned that they were people from the village where President Sadat of Egypt had been born, who were mourning his assassination in a fashion customary to Egypt. I should have remembered Alberti! 

Needless to say, the various connotations of “expression” resonate through all the arts, and remind us of just how much “expression” in painting owed to “expression” in the theatre, the pulpit and even the courtroom—venues where the performer’s whole body was often kinetically involved. So Le Brun was by no means alone in writing as he did, and just as he concentrated on the human face, so his contemporaries in the theatre examined what the various inflections of the hands and even the fingers were supposed to communicate through unmediated expression—while, like him, still labeling each one.

In the above discussion we have attempted to treat “expression” as far as possible within the bounds of Ut pictura poesis, but the reader should note that in his extensive analysis of the term in Languages of Art (Indianapolis 1976), the philosopher Nelson Goodman begins by emphasising that, in everyday talk, “we play fast and loose with the word ‘express’,” and shows it to be far more problematic than we have treated it here.


Vincent Van Gogh, 1853-90:
Starry Night, Oil on canvas, 1889
(New York, The Museum of Modern Art)

However, the limiting of “expression” to the figures portrayed was to die in the late nineteenth century with the advent of the temper­amental painter van Gogh, who, when he encountered the colourful impasto found in works by the Provençal painter Monticelli (the main reason for his move to Arles having been to acquire works by Monticelli for his brother’s dealership), married Monticelli’s impasto to the Impressionists’ brush stroke, and came to think he could convey his own state of mind through clashing colours, writhing contours and the ostensibly emotional application of the paint. Thus began the view that “expression” need no longer be confined to the figures acting out their theatrical roles within the picture, as decreed by ut pictura poesis. Instead, “expression” could be extended to the painters themselves through the colours and marks on the picture surface—colours and marks which by their lurid nature and agitated handling, in paintings by Van Gogh, Munch, Vlaminck, or Nolde, could supposedly transmit the painter’s own exacerbated emotional states.

However, it has to be said that claims to communicate emotional states directly by colour and the handling of paint are at least as problematic as Le Brun’s efforts to do so through physiognomy. It can be shown here too that such claims are often mistaken and that Expressionism turns out to be a “second order image repertoire,” relying on external sources, contexts and cues—such as the letters that Van Gogh wrote to his brother Théo, or the private journals in which Munch once wrote “Art is your heart’s blood.”

“Race, Milieu and Moment”

It is no accident that Expressionism, as a movement, became fashionable just as the Nordic/Teutonic countries of Europe were creating new national identities. Germany was unified in 1871, the composer Sibelius completed his Finlandia Suite in 1899 just prior to the independence of Finland, and Munch’s Norway separated from Sweden in 1907; and it is no surprise that an important part of the nationalist agendas of these countries was to disengage from the “cultural imperialism” of classical Greece, Rome and the Italian Renaissance as enshrined in the doctrine of ut pictura poesis, and to replace it with the more emotional heritage of the Gothic—seen by the young German writer Goethe, as early as the 1770s, as the “true” German art.

This cultural reversal, warranted perhaps by what we now call “seasonal affective disorder” common in the countries of Northern Europe, followed from theories of cultural relativism set afoot by the (significantly self-styled) German “Storm and Stress” movement of the late 18th century to which Goethe had belonged—theories that were later condensed into the snappy catch phrase, “race, milieu and moment,” by the French theorist Hippolyte Taine, professor of art history and aesthetics at the Ecole des Beaux-Arts in Paris from 1863 (a significant date, as we shall see). And it applied to all the arts: The Swedish novelist Pär Lagerkvist, writing “anguish, anguish, is my heritage” as the epigraph to all his books, can scarcely be confused with Rabelais. Baudelaire himself seems to have failed to see the approach of this cultural sunami, even though he had noted the contrast between Northern and Southern temperaments in his Salon of 1846. His dandyism seems to have persuaded him that the determinants of style were the rather insipid l’èpoque, la mode, la morale, la passion. (7).

The “Grand Manner”

Hyacinthe Rigaud, 1659–1743:
Portrait of Louis XIV, Oil on Canvas, 1701
(Paris, The Louvre)

But to return to pre- Revolutionary France: as we have already said, the paradigm “ut pictura poesis” determined the ranking of painters within the academy, where the highest ranked painters were always the painters of the istoria (the “history” painters)—and not without justification, since the skills involved in the design of a grand figure composition were considerable, and the demand for such works in public places, palaces and churches was heavy. “We measure a king by the grandeur of his surroundings”, said Jean-Baptiste Colbert, soon after the French Academy was formed. This was a sentiment understood later by both Napoleon I and Napoleon III, as well as by Louis XIV’s successors, and dozens of petty tyrants since. Colbert, who was both the Controller General of Finance and Superintendent of Buildings under Louis XIV realized early in the construction of the palace of Versailles that to fulfill his agenda of aggrandisement it would be helpful to create even more academies—so, besides the Académie Royale de peinture et de sculpture, he created academies of music, dance, architecture and science and even an academy of medals, as well as a French Academy in Rome and the famous Rome Prize to go with it. And, with Charles LeBrun, whom he appointed the first Director of the Académie, he then determined a style suitable for his project—the style known as “The Grand Manner.”

Needless to say, the (now hilarious) subject set by Colbert for the first Rome Prize competition turned out to be “Fame Proclaiming the Marvels of the Reign of Louis XIV and Presenting his Portrait to the Four Corners of the Globe,” while six years later it was “The King Granting Peace to Europe.” It is interesting to note that the Rome Prize competition was not to be abandoned until 1969, following the French campus rebellions of 1968—when it was replaced by letters of recommendation similar to those used for Canada Council grants today.

There was trouble in the French Academy from the start. Le Brun’s chief rival refused to join at all, and others joined mainly to object to Le Brun and his promotion of Poussin. These were the followers of Rubens—led by a theorist called Roger de Piles who produced an assessment of the great painters of history in order to give high marks to Rubens and lower though not disrespectful marks to Le Brun and Poussin. Le Brun, the leader of the Poussinistes, held views so rationalistic that he had not only drawn up the physiognomy of the emotions that we have noted, but had refused even to discuss colour, because it was not determined by reason—a somewhat extreme version of the attitude of formalist painters down to the present day who recognize that every colour added to a painting disturbs its equilibrium.

Inspired Genius

This lengthy quarrel, between the Poussinistes and the Rubenistes, was to end in favour of the Rubenistes with the redefinition of two ancient concepts—those of “inspiration” and of “genius.” The Greeks had understood “inspiration” (being “breathed into” by your muse) mainly as it affected actors and professional rhapsodes—the reciters of poetry. But Plato, with his distrust of poets, had laughed at it in his dialogue Ion, and, since it was also held that inspiration could not be taught, the academy, like Plato, had given it a back seat. However, with the redefinition of the word “genius,” as the word we know today, “inspiration” also got a lift (6). In classical times, that is to say, “genius” had referred simply to the “spirit of the family,” or the genetic makeup that fathers handed on to children, and for the medievals it had even been associated with the demonic because of its link to concupiscence. However, as “inspiration” was rehabilitated and “genius” redefined, they were, as we shall see, not only to encourage the more painterly, sketch-like approach of the Rubenistes’, but were to undermine the notion that rigorous training was necessary to become a painter. They were also to encourage the hyperbole of Shelley, who had actually translated Plato’s Ion yet in whose essay “The Defence of Poetry,” we find the claim (cribbed it would seem from Samuel Johnson’s philosophical novel Rasselas) that poets and, by implication, painters, are “the unacknowledged legislators of the world” who, like the ancient seers, are able to read “the shadows which futurity casts upon the present”—a notion amplified from Aristotle’s identification of poets as melancholics pondering the human predicament from a lofty mountain top, disdainful of the world below. This theme was also available from the Latin poet Horace who had coined ut pictura poesis. Horace had dismissed the common people with the phrase profanum vulgus—an expression that two thousand years later lay in wait for Shelley’s contemporary Delacroix to repeat in his journal.

Genius and Sketches

The paradigm that equated inspiration and genius with the painters’ sketches was less lugubrious, and became enormously influential. Its traces survive even today. It too was first mooted in Vasari’s Lives, where he observes, “Many painters achieve in their first sketch a boldness as if guided by the fires of inspiration while, in finishing, the boldness vanishes.” But, in this, Vasari was once again ahead of his time, and the idea only took off during the 18th century mutation of the word “genius” that we have just described. This occurred alongside the emergence of art criticism—so that an early critic, Denis Diderot, having been electrified by watching the painter Greuze make sketches (and almost certainly recalling Vasari), could write, “A sketch is the artist’s work when he is full of inspiration and ardour, before reflection has toned things down. It is the artist’s soul expressing itself on canvas.” If the word “authenticity” had been around in those days Diderot would no doubt have used it too. Diderot’s contemporary, the German art historian Winckelmann declared the same about modeling in clay, saying, “Modeling in clay is to the sculptor what drawing on paper is to the painter: [for] in the soft clay, the genius of the sculptor is seen in its utmost purity and truth.” Diderot, of course, had been the principal editor of the great Enlightenment project, The Encyclopaedia, where it is explained for everyone to see, that “genius” and “enthusiasm” are innate—that they are “natural” and therefore cannot be taught, any more than “inspiration” could be taught in classical times. Such thinking added fuel to the dying embers of the quarrel between the Poussinists and Rubenistes—the Rubenistes arguing for the marks of “genius” inscribed during the sketch, or what the Academy called the “generative,” phase of the composition, while the Poussinistes believed that the “generative” phase must be followed by an “executive” phase in which the work would indeed be completed.Thus the quarrel between the Poussinistes and the Rubenistes became transformed into a new dispute, during the 19th century, between the so-called “sketchers” and the “finishers.” Delacroix’s Death of Sardanapalus was not only condemned for lack of decorum but also for his “failure” to distinguish a painting from a sketch,—though his critics were to moderate their language later as the tide began to turn in favour of the “sketchers.”

Sketch and Salon

The dispute was particularly exacerbated by the method of examination for the Rome Prize (9). This required that a painted sketch be completed on the first day of the competition and a tracing of it left with the examiners—the student being expected to research the project over the next weeks and produce a “finished” painting that exactly matched the sketch. Students thus spent time rehearsing the all important “generative” or “sketch” phase of the process, at the expense of “finish.” The chief promoter of this method of examination was the painter Geurin, significantly the teacher of both Géricault and Delacroix—both in their different ways Rubenistes. However that may be, the situation permitted students with less and less training in “finish” to enter the competition, and encouraged well-trained artists to entrench themselves against the sketchers—so that the conflict quickly embroiled the juries of the annual Salon (the annual exhibition of the Academy, was called the “Salon” because it was at first located in the Salon Carré in the Louvre Palace).

From its very beginning, it had been important for a painter to get work into the Salon. And from the beginning the juries had manifested bias—both political, and art-political. So much so that, after his rejection in 1769, the painter Greuze was to boycott the Salon for the rest of his life, and to prosper without it. The event caused such turmoil that the French Revolutionaries declared an unjuried “Open” Salon in 1791, which was followed in 1806 by a Salon des Refusés (an exhibition to show the rejects). Later, there was a show of rejects in a dealer’s gallery in 1827, and during the 1848 Revolution 5,000 works were shown in another “Open” Salon—all of them setting a precedent for the famous Salon des Refusés of 1863 when the jury for the official Salon was to reject roughly 4,000 paintings, among which were works by Manet, Cézanne, Jongkind, Bracquemond, Pissarro, Fantin-Latour, Legros and Whistler—the last three of whom, all admirers of Delacroix, were to found the first explicitly avant-garde group of painters, the Societé des trois (“We three, we shall be the front runners,” wrote Legros to Whistler). The protests that followed this massive rejection, were so vociferous that they persuaded Napoleon III not only to decree that the refused paintings should have a show of their own, but also to decree that instruction at the Ecole des Beaux-Arts, with its insistence on “finish,” had suppressed the “creative genius” of students and that the Academy would therefore lose its control of the teaching there. The “decree of 1863” may thus be said to mark the triumph of the “sketchers.” Not surprisingly, Ingres, who had himself boycotted the Salon for the preceding 30 years, called the decree “the destructive language of Romanticism which expects to know everything without an effort to learn anything.”


James Abbott McNeill Whistler, 1834-1903:
Nocturne in Black and Gold: Falling Rocket,
oil on panel 1874-77 (Detroit)

Napoleon III, himself, might never have sponsored these changes (the “sketchers” were not exactly Bonapartistes, and portraits of Napoleon III and his family were painted mostly by Winterhalter, an expert in “finish”), but Napoleon was in the process of a liberalization of his regime, partly as the result of a series of articles by the architect Violet le Duc, who had pointed out that the British World’s Fair of the previous year had revealed the Brits ahead of France in numerous sectors of the economy, and also in design. It is true that after Napoleon III was deposed in 1871, the Academy regained control—but things were never to be the same. The “sketchiness” of the late works of the British landscape painter Turner, advocated by John Ruskin, became popular in France, and were to influence not only Monet (whose “sketchy” Impression: Sunrise came eight years after the decree), but also Whistler, the first painter to pour liquid paint onto a horizontal canvas and the first to appeal to the public to look not through the painted surface, but at it—exactly reversing Alberti’s “transparent glass” metaphor of 400 years earlier, and stressing instead the “opacity” of the canvas surface and the “foregrounding” of the medium. 

Whistler, as you may know, was to sue the critic John Ruskin, over the question of whether his paintings could be called “finished,” and though he was awarded only a penny in damages, he nevertheless did win his case, his success confirming in law, as it were, the paradigm of the sketch—a paradigm where temperament alone, or even eccentricity, could be seen as the sufficient basis on which to produce a painting, eventually persuading even the novelist and art critic Emile Zola that art was simply “nature seen through a temperament.” It is worth adding that this “foregrounding of the medium” was also vindicated by the Italian Giovanni Morelli who created from it his influential theory of connoisseurship, by taking photos of the least “finished” details in paintings, such as ears or fingernails, where he theorized that an artist’s personal calligraphy would show best. In this way, from 1880 onwards, Morelli was actually able to reattribute a series of old master works in galleries throughout Europe (though not perhaps as many as he claimed to have).

Silent Music

Eugene Delacroix, 1798-1863:
Portrait of Frederic Chopin,
Oil on canvas, 1838 (Paris, The Louvre)

The mention of Whistler brings us to the paradigm of music. During the 3,000 years when painting was regarded as mimetic it was easy enough to claim its parallel with poetry, because according to the ancients, they both “imitated” human action (Greek poetry not being published in books, but in public forums where it was declaimed theatrically by the reciter, or rhapsode—he whom Plato had mocked in Ion). Aristotle had even discussed music as mimetic, though he did not marry it to painting as he married poetry. Then, too, in a quite other dimension we find that the Seven Liberal Arts of the classical period placed music side by side with geometry—a classification so firm that 1,500 years later, on the Royal Portal of the cathedral at Chartres, there is a depiction of Pythagoras himself holding a musical instrument. And he appears again in Raphael’s School of Athens, working on the mathematics of musical intervals. This was because the Pythagorians had investigated the relation of musical pitch to the length of the monochord in single string instruments, and had thereby bequeathed a musical substratum to all geometric proportions—including those of architecture and painting. Thus, Poussin quoted Greek musical parallels and Joshua Reynolds, the first President of the British Royal Academy, held that “architecture applied itself directly to the imagination, like music,” because it came without the mediation of subject matter. And, just prior to Reynolds, there was a chapter in the composer Charles Avison’s Essay on Musical Expression, of 1771, that affirmed the parallel of music and painting not only by expounding on the Pythagorian references to geometrical proportion, but also by adding a concept of “expressiveness” which, according to Avison, had the power of “exciting the most agreeable passions of the soul.”

The heavy duty philosophers of the following century were to identify music with Kant’s noumenon—as “the thing in itself,” where all else was “merely appearance.” Music, according to Schopenhauer, represented the “will” (or life-force) directly; and Schiller asserted that “The plastic arts at their most perfect must become music, and move us by the immediacy of their sensuous presence” (my emphasis). So the key, as Reynolds had said, lay in music’s “immediacy,” something that painting lacked because its subject matter (its “iconicity” or “mimesis”) supposedly got in the way. Thus, in 1834 the critic Gustave Planche, writing on Delacroix’s highly mimetic Women of Algiers, was to see in that work “the art of painting itself, reduced to its own resources without the aid of a subject.” It is significant in this regard that among Delacroix’s friends were the great musical virtuosi Paganini and Chopin, and that Delacroix had painted sketchy portraits of both, naming music as the source of his deepest artistic experience. 

Thus he, Delacroix, could write in his journal of “an arrangement of colours, lights and shadows…that is called the music of the picture,” and add, “before knowing what the painting represents you can be caught by this musical harmony.” In his “Salon of 1844,” the critic Théophile Thoré took up the same theme in reviewing Delacroix’s work, asking, “What is the dominant note in the harmony of the picture?” and replying, “Velasquez would have said, ‘I am in the silver-grey tones,’ and Delacroix, ‘My symphony begins in purple major and continues in green minor’.” Similarly, Baudelaire, an admirer of Delacroix, as we saw earlier, wrote in his Salon of 1846, “A good way to tell if a painting is melodious or not is to look at it from a distance too great to understand its subject. If it is melodious, it already has meaning.” These references all suggest that the paradigm of painting as silent poetry was about to be replaced by the paradigm of painting as silent music—an absolutely radical change brought about as attention was drawn to the colour and facture of the paint on the canvas surface, by the quarrel between “sketchers” and “finishers” that we have just discussed. In fact, the new paradigm was made explicit in 1859, in an article in the Gazette des Beaux-Arts by the critic Louis Viardot, who coined the phrase ut pictura musica to replace what he now saw as the outmoded paradigm of ut pictura poesis. Soon after this, Whistler began to call his paintings “symphonies,” “nocturnes” and “arrangements,” and in 1890 Seurat, in a now well-known letter to his friend Maurice Beaubourg, outlined a quasi-scientific theory of how to create mood in painting by the use of line and colour.

“Abstract Language”

However, it is the English essayist, Walter Pater, to whom we turn for an ultimate definition, which we find in his 1877 essay “The School of Giorgione.” In this essay, Pater asserts that all art “aspires to the condition of music” and he even speaks of an “abstract language” and of “abstract colour” (words then only beginning to gain currency). However, it is significant that in this epoch-making statement Pater speaks of the condition of music—he is not suggesting that paintings become music, since he insists that “each art has its own peculiar and untranslatable sensuous charm - its own special responsibilities to its material”—and he adds that the function of criticism is to “estimate the degree to which a given work fulfils that responsibility.” Seventy five years later, the New York critic Clement Greenberg was shamelessly to claim these insights as his own by rephrasing them as the “area of proper competence of the medium,” and demanding from criticism the same measuring rod, without mentioning his source in Pater.

The musical analogy was continued in the 20th century, André Derain even taking a cue from Schoenberg’s “emancipation of the dissonance” of 1906 and announcing the same dissonant principle was to be found in the painting of the Fauves (a derogative term meaning “wild beasts” that the group appropriated for themselves). The broader paradigm spread to North America at the time of World War I, and the American critic Clement Greenberg used it somewhat obliquely during World War II. I shall come back to that in a moment. Meantime it is worth noting that the painter Jackson Pollock and the sculptor Anthony Caro, endlessly discussed by Greenbergians, have both invited the viewer to see their work as “music,” and in 1989 Gerhardt Richter, for whom Greenberg had not the slightest affection, said the same. It seems they understood music as a surrogate for the idea of the aesthetic object as “autotelic,” as the thing that is an end in itself—that has no purpose other than its own existence. It was a way of avoiding further speech.

Medium Specificity

Edvard Munch, 1863-1944:
The Scream, Oil on Canvas, 1893
(Oslo, National Gallery of Norway)

These notions of Pater’s and Greenberg’s may be said to take up a discourse on “medium specificity” begun in an essay of 1766 by Gotthold Ephraim Lessing. This essay, written at the very time that Avison’s musical analogy hit the streets, actually sets out to attack the theory of ut pictura poesis by another route—by criticizing an interpretation of the sculpture we have already visited in our discussion of the semiotics of expression: that of Laocoön and his sons being strangled by serpents. The subject is found in just a few lines of the second book of Virgil’s Aeneid, and Lessing points out that there, in the poem, Laocoön makes a cry of anguish as he struggles (some translations say he “bellows”), whereas in the sculpture he seems only to sigh. Here, says Lessing, is an example of sculpture (and, pari passu, of painting) not doing what poetry does—the explanation being that they exist in different media. In a medium like poetry, he says, you can have someone scream, because the scream requires only a fragment of time in an unfolding story, whereas a wide screaming mouth in an art like sculpture remains fixed for all time, looks hideous and does a disservice to the artist’s aim. It may well be said that while Lessing here successfully attacks ut pictura poesis, he is at the same time inadvertently defending its principle of decorum by his assertion that a screaming mouth, in visual art, is beyond the limit. 

Certainly Edward Munch saw it this way, because it was after reading a new translation of Lessing that Munch set out to make a painting of a “scream” in defiance of both arguments. Following the trend of the time that we have already noted in Taine’s “race, milieu and moment,” Munch evidently set out to create the signifier of the Nordic-Teutonic expressive temperament, by theorizing that a scream can be portrayed without a breach of decorum—so long as the painter is Norwegian!

The fact was, however, that what Lessing also wanted to do was to start a debate on the semiotics of different artistic media by contrasting the signs of which pictorial art was, in his day, composed (what today we call iconic, or “motivated” signs—which look like what they signify and therefore exist, broadly speaking, without language barriers), and the signs of which poetry is composed (what today we call “semantic” or “arbitrary” signs—which bear no ressemblance to what they signify and differ from country to country, creating language barriers). In fact, in that way, Lessing’s essay makes an excellent introduction to the high cubism and papiers collés of Picasso’s and Braque’s, where the two types of sign (the iconic and the verbal) are welded together—except that Lessing is a century and a half too early.

The combination of Pater and Lessing, both of them demanding respect for what Clement Greenberg came to call the “proper competence” of the medium, resulted in an essay of Greenberg’s of 1940, significantly entitled “Towards a Newer Laocoön,” where he identified progress towards “the area of proper competence” as the task of Modernism itself, and in an essay of around the same time, “Avantgarde and Kitsch,” he draws on semiotics to reinforce the point, taking on even Aristotle himself, over Aristotle’s view that music imitates the state of the soul “immediately.” Here, Greenberg points out that Aristotle omitted to say that the Greeks used music only to accompany verse (9) and that the words of the verse therefore actually mediated the meaning of the music. Greenberg quotes Plato’s earlier saying that “when there are no words it is always difficult to recognize the meaning of the music or to see that any worthy object is imitated by it,” and he, Greenberg, goes on to say that as this function was abandoned, as the words and music got separated, music was forced to withdraw into itself to discover its own raison d’être—as has been the case with painting of the modern period. This withdrawal of painting into itself, he says, has meant that the best artists become “artists’ artists” and are cut off from a public unwilling to become initiated into their esoteric discourse—with the result that the survival of culture is threatened as the field is left to “kitsch.” This, with significant qualifications (for it is really too simplistic), is still true, though it is not my intent to elaborate upon it here. It may be added, however, that a species of “reductivist” painting was to follow Greenberg’s theory, though without his blessing, further restricting the idea of “proper competence” to the processes by which the paint might be applied—a paradigm still functional in North America today.


Some artists of whom Greenberg thought well, particularly Barnett Newman, evoked an old paradigm that he did not espouse. This was the “Sublime,” a concept of the late 17th century that had grown from an examination of ancient writings on rhetoric, especially where rhetoric discussed the kind of elevated speech that produced “marvelous” effects (early translations even contained the word “marvelous” in their title). By the mid-18th century, however, the notion had been developed, particularly by Edmund Burke, into an aesthetic of the terrifying—applied to such events as shipwrecks, volcanic eruptions, hurricanes, sharks and so forth, that over-awed the viewer by their incalculable power, size or violence—whether portrayed or actual. The concept was made fun of by the poet Alexander Pope, whose formalist aesthetics were opposed to it (10), and there are critics today who view it as reduced to the “ridiculous” by advertising. Nevertheless, when one realizes that the hypnotic horror of the events of 9/11 exactly fit Burke’s definition, the sublime bears further thought. Like the notion of genius, it was a timely idea for the Romantic movement and its breaches of “decorum,” and it gave permission for everything from “Gothic” novels to the nightmare paintings of Fuseli and the molochism in Delacroix’s Death of Sardanapalus. At the end of the 18th century, indeed, the philosopher Emmanuel Kant found it necessary to discuss the sublime as an issue apart from the beautiful—which for Kant was always experienced in front of things bounded or contained, and never evoked by the vast and unbounded. Kant’s account (in an attempt to synthesize the several variants of a new philosophical notion—that of aesthetics—which had emerged in the previous hundred years) is complex, but the fact that he tackled it at all helped to perpetuate Burke’s more available concept. This in turn, in the 20th century, became the “Futurist marvelous” when applied to the love of danger, war, speed, electric tram-cars and confrontations with the public, and the “Surrealist marvelous” when applied to the indecorous results of various chance procedures, becoming briefly respectable again in the New York of the 1940s, as the “abstract sublime,” from which was eventually to come that Canadian cause célèbre Barnett Newman’s Voice of Fire.

Curiously, according to the French philosopher of aesthetics, J.-F. Lyotard (in Critique No. 419, 1982), it is in the aesthetic of the sublime that modern art finds its impetus, since he sees modern art as that which seeks to present the fact that the unpresentable exists. Modern art, he holds, is the coming to maturity of the sublime. To shore-up this idea he leans on Kant, who suggested “formlessness” as a possible index of the unpresentable. On examination, however, this turns out to be a version of the symbolists’ preoccupation with the noumenal indulged by Kupka, Kandinsky, Mondrian, Malevich and Delaunay whose works were far from formless. Certainly the noumenal of the symbolists was an important source of the modern, but it was by no means a sufficient source, for modernism derives not only from Baudelaire’s “Correspondences” (via the then current notions of Theosophy), but also from his appeal for an injection of modern life, to which we will now turn.

“Modern Life”

The Absinthe Drinker, by Edouard Manet
Edouard Manet, 1832-83:
The Absinthe Drinker, oil on canvas, 1859
(Copenhagen, Carlsberg Glyptotek)

The “great tradition” that Baudelaire had pro­claimed lost, in his Salon of 1846, was essentially that of ut pictura poesis, or what he called there “the habitual, everyday idealization of ancient life.” Of course, by “lost,” he meant, as much as anything, “enfeebled;” and, though he had espoused the musical analogy that would later feature in the shaping of abstraction, he suggested, as the remedy for this enfeeblement, a dose of “modern life.” Unfortunately, the only exponent of modern life that he could find was the tepid, minor painter-illustrator, Constantin Guys. You might have thought he would have mentioned Gustave Courbet, just two years his senior, who by 1853 would paint his portrait. But Courbet’s heart was with the peasants of Ornans with whom he had grown up, while that of Guys’ was with the great faubourgs of Baudelaire’s Paris.

In the end, the painter who would come to fill the bill was Edouard Manet; but he was just 14 in 1846, with no idea that he would be inspired by Baudelaire, on meeting him in 1859, to produce his first mature work. This was a sketchy, “low life” painting called The Absinthe Drinker, in seamless lineage with the “great tradition” but viewed today as signaling the modern period—the promised land that Baudelaire, who died in 1867, was not to see.

Milling About?

So, what remains today of the old paradigms? Obviously, some survived, somewhat transformed, throughout the modern period and some did not, while some were “partially eclipsed” (a phrase that Malevich in 1914 actually inscribed on a collage that displayed the Mona Lisa). Their history may be seen as that of the rewriting of earlier achievements in new terms—terms which, once established, modified the template taken for granted in the production of paintings, the template of what was “given”. It was this that Marcel Duchamp understood in 1912 when he began the notes towards his so-called “Large Glass” with the phrase “Etant Donnés” (“Being Given”). In Duchamp’s eyes, the rate of paradigm change had so accelerated by 1912 as to make nonsense of the current definitions of art, and to make this point the “Large Glass” was to become a portmanteau into which he stuffed various old paradigms, however disjunctive—to disrupt once and for all the race for the new and introduce a definition of art that would accommodate his “Readymades.” Once the implications of this were understood some 50 years later, it became possible for Hegelian philosophers like Arthur Danto to declare the history of art to be over—which seems to suggest that the old paradigms might be made available again, if only through a rear-view mirror in a Looking-Glass world ruled by irony.

This seemed to be a cause of consternation among young painters on the panel “Issues in Abstract Painting,” promoted by the Dalhousie exhibition “Hungry Eyes,” a part of the city-wide exhibition “About Painting” for which this text was written. The panel several times repeated the view that words like “pluralism” and “post-historical” define the current situation. They gloomily surmised that “forward-looking trends affiliating several artists” were dead, and that, instead of “movements,” what we had now was a “directionless milling about” that left no scope for originality, except through nuanced reruns of paintings from the past.

But the paradigm changes that were once called “progress” can equally be seen as the creation of an expanding universe of texts, all “nuanced reruns” from the past (there really isn’t an alternative to that): a view that still leaves viable the old formula “instruction and delight,” that does not limit the scope of painters to raise our consciousness of some issue, private or public, with enough freshness, subtlety or éclat to hold our attention; nor limit intellectual enterprise, or forthright, hedonistic works—though there, of course, the painter, skating around obstacles of taste, between high art and kitsch, will find thin ice. But that is every artist’s lot, remembering that kitsch (what Baudelaire complained about in 1846 without that word to hand) need not be held at bay only by novelty, transgression or scatology, although some artists, following Bataille and “desublimation” (11), and seeking the last possible breach of decorum to achieve it, seem to believe differently. And as for the “sublime,” it begs for rehabilitation in the face of current theories of the “abject” ; for paintings also can be made, like those of Anselm Kiefer’s, that speak the rhetoric of tragedy, of guilt and solitude and desolation, as no other medium can. We might all ponder that.