Shards of Babel

fragmentation and pictorial language


Although we often don’t notice, paintings speak to us using many different languages. The first to come to mind is oddly rather esoteric, the language of symbols. While the painting’s most direct language that of the material, is often overlooked. There are other languages, as well; those of patrimony and derivation for example but those languages are so hermitic as to prevent all but the most specific and individualized dialogs.


In some ways it is not really strange that the language of symbols takes precedence over the language of materials; in our everyday life, we bestow the spoken and written languages with dominance over pre-verbal languages (often called body language.) Since written language, which is given so much weight in our culture, and the symbolic language of painting shares so many similarities it is hardly unusual that this should be the case. However, I think painters (especially painters of the 20th Century) take exception to this undemanding hierarchy. This too seems natural, as it is the artists’ love of the material that has motivated them to choose painting as their key form of communication. Painting over the written word.


The Belgian surrealist, René François Ghislain Magritte’s witty painting “La trahison des images” also know as “Ceci n’est pas une pipe” (or “This is not a pipe”) addresses this frustration succinctly. As does Marcel Duchamp’s equally witty, although bitingly sardonic rebuttal: the readymade. I say Marcel’s rebuttal, although of course, he presented his “Fountain,” a urinal turned upside down and signed with his pseudonym, R. Mutt as a candidate for artistic approval in 1917 and “La trahison des images” would not be painted until 1928. The brilliance of Duchamp is that he not only could he anticipate a rebuttal to a declaration that would not be made for another dozen or so years, he, quite possibly, has anticipated rebuttals to arguments not yet made.


The fissure between the language of the symbol and the language of the material has not always been in such a predicament. Indeed, if we can look back to the art of 11th, 12th and 13th centuries, indeed all of the way up until the end of the 15th Century and we will see that these two idioms not always at odds. In fact, they possessed an appealingly symbiotic relationship. We need only look at the gold encrusted icons of the Byzantine or to the illuminated manuscripts throughout Europe to notice how closely material and symbol worked to form a single complete proclamation. It cannot really be a surprise that art (both painting and sculpture) was the greater of the communication tools of the time and more prevalent then the written word. Although these paintings are often dismissed as being unsophisticated and naïve because of their lack of perspective it is precisely the lack of this illusionistic space that allows these medieval paintings to present a single unified front.


Nor should these paintings be dismissed as being unrealistic because they withhold the mirage of great depth: I sincerely doubt that anyone has ever painted a more realistic or righteous housefly then the Quattrocento painter, Carlo Crivelli or that anyone ever will for that matter.


Beginning around the 15th Century, another equation was, quite literally, being added to this painterly mix – mathematics or more specifically algebraic geometry. The Islamic mathematician, Abu ‘Ali al-Hasan ibn al-Haytham (known to the western world by the Latinized version of his first name “Alhazen”) wrote the first correct explanation of vision titled “Kitab al-Manazir.”


His work would be translated into Latin in 1270, under the title “Opticae thesaurus Alhazeni” and would become a major influence in the understanding of perspective and illusionistic space in painting.


The connection between mathematics and painting was so strong that by 1306, we already see Giotto di Bondone beginning to introduce systematically informed space into his frescos at the Cappella Scrovegni in Padua. No longer does he line his figures up full formed and in full view as previous artists had done, allowing the observer to do with as he likes. Rather he begins to position one behind the other; he begins the tradition of the artist telling the viewer how to see and from what vantage point.


By the middle of the 15th Century and continuing on throughout the Renaissance many of the most prominent artists; Filippo Brunelleschi, Piero della Francesca and Leonardo di ser Piero da Vinci to name a few were also recognized during their time, as serious mathematicians and/or scientists.


Al-Haytham’s contribution to the introduction of perspective in painting is important beyond the obvious scientific ramifications though; Islam has been the only one of the Abrahamic religions to firmly adhere to the prohibition on representational imagery. Unlike the iconoclastic sects of Christianity and Orthodox Judaism however, Islam also has a long and rich history of visual arts, due a great deal to the focus on Geometric rather than representational symbology. It is ironic to say the least, that Al-Haytham would have probably found his contributions towards creating a convincing representational space distressing if not completely profane.


It might have been a good idea if painters had heeded Mohammed’s warning; the seduction of perspective and the desire to create the illusion of three-dimensional space on a two-dimensional surface would overwhelm all other painterly concerns fully for the next four hundred or so years and would continue to a great extent to attract a certain fascination even to the present.


The previously unified languages of symbology and material were torn apart. The material language was subjugated to the language of the craftsman, the worker, as it were; still the structure and support of the painting but pushed into the background and made nearly mute in its own language.


On one hand the language of the symbol was given supremacy over all other languages in painting. So much so that even today when asked to describe a painting the viewer will almost always describe the symbols first and will often be completely unaware of the material or other aspects of the canvas. But on the other hand it suffered as well; codified through perspective, painters ceased to investigate and mine the symbolic language of art and instead used mathematical equations to convince the viewer of the paintings correctness or success.


It is not surprising then that during the Renaissance while artists focused more and more on creating representational space their subject matter moved away from the spiritual and religious and towards the scientific and mathematical. Throughout these times the knowledge and understanding of space, vision and volume were tremendous but by the 17th and 18th century artistic goals were no longer in sync with mathematical and scientific interests. It is easy to imagine Piero della Francesca and Leonardo da Vinci consorting with the scientists of their days but it is difficult to comprehend François Boucher, Jean-Honoré Fragonard or even Jacques-Louis David doing so. With perspective firmly in place, the language of the symbol’s largest concern had dwindled to whether or not to ornament; symbolic language was drowning in a decorative pool.


Revolution was on the horizon, of course. This was true for humanity as well as for painting. Workers who had long been under foot, expected to carry the heavy burden of labor while being silent and invisible began to revolt against supreme monarchies and sun kings. Artists interestingly began to incorporate workers rather than rulers as their subject matter. More importantly artists began to contemplate the neglected language of material in new and fresh ways. One has only to look at Vincent Willem van Gogh’s “Red Vineyards near Arles” (1888) or “La Montagne Sainte-Vistoire vue des Lauves”(1902) of Paul Cézanne and know that the language of the material was no longer content to sit in the shadows and be at the beck and call of the symbolic language.


It was another scientific discovery that would really take the wind out of the sails for perspective: the camera. While perspective had once been in the realm of great thinkers and mathematicians, the camera now made it possible for anyone to create convincing representational space at the click of a button. What had been for four hundred years the artist’s greatest feat would now become a common parlor trick; artists were now forced to reevaluate and relearn so much of the artistic language of the past. We see this beginning clumsily, as early as, the 1780’s when Jacques-Louis David and the neo-classicists turn towards ancient Greek and Roman art, but it is not until after horrific devastation of the First World War that artists and indeed all of society could break with the convention of the supremacy of the western world and really begin to embrace the ideas of the past.


It is interesting to note how nearly every major artist of the post WWI world would begin eschew illusionistic space and how so many start to embrace non-western culture. Perhaps one of the reasons Pablo Picasso has been considered such an important artist of his time is that even in his earliest work it is obvious he has no interest in creating illusionist space and as soon as he is able to free himself from its bonds he begins to create an incredibly rich world of symbolic language.


Modern artists continue to sift through the remnants of painting’s various languages, looking for those various shards of Babel. Many contemporary artists such as Anselm Kiefer, Joseph Beuys and Antoni Tàpies attempt to resurrect the once powerful language of material, making scale and medium the primary subject of their works. The irony that painting once spoke to us in tones of gold and silver and now speak to us in the muted timbre of felt, lead and dust should not be lost.