Why I'm Still a Classicist, Part II
Updated: Apr 12, 2019
An architect today can decide to become a classicist, and rather quickly become competent at it. But an artist who wants to be a classicist has a longer road, and less support from books or a community of like-minded artists. So, I might say that I am still becoming a classical artist, after more than three decades, although my early years produced some credible classical works. But I’m interested here in distinguishing what makes me a classical artist, good or bad, instead of a realist or a “classical realist.” It’s not that I’m not interested in representation per se, but for me as a classicist it’s a means to an end. The end is what Leon Battista Alberti called istorie—stories or narrative painting. And accurate depiction of what one sees is not necessarily the means to that end—indeed, it may even get in the way. Because istorie largely involve mythological or historical figures, for whom we may not have ready models at hand; and those stories are meant to transcend mundane reality to function as exemplary lessons, rhetorical arguments, or allegories. Which means they have to actually detach themselves from ordinary people and the ordinary world. Their world should be credible, but not excessively “real.”
Why is that preferable to the depiction of the real? Our culture naturally characterizes the real as authentic, and the rhetorical or idealized as false or pretentious. But in that we’re confusing what might make a person likable and what makes art beautiful and meaningful. For art to be meaningful to an audience beyond the artist him or herself, it has to speak to those things that are common to the human condition, understandable beyond the idiosyncratic or particular, and capable of operating outside its own temporal condition: human rather than personal, general rather than specific, timeless rather than timely.
But, since art is visual, not verbal, these kinds of arguments only work if they can be tied to beautiful manifestations of them. And for that we have virtually the whole of Western art until the nineteenth century and the movement known as Realism (with its consequences in Impressionism, Post-Impressionism, etc.). The frescoes of Raphael and Michelangelo in the Vatican, the sculpture of Bernini, the syntheses of the Carracci and the ceilings of Cortona, all the great paintings of the Grand Manner from Naples to Paris, the final flowering of Tiepolo and the Gandolfi. As perhaps the last representative of the Baroque tradition, Mauro Gandolfi—who came briefly to America after the Revolution, seeking work—returned to Italy because he couldn’t abide the requests for portraits with all their minute attention to buckles and epaulets, which would make him “die of boredom.”
The grand manner of classical painting was broad, generalizing, often painterly (pittoresco)—in part because the noblest art was that done on walls and in public places, for which buon fresco painting was the preferred medium. And buon fresco almost precludes fussiness and fastidiousness.
I am classical in that sense, then: in the tradition of the grand manner of public painting, a painter of frescoes, of classical allegories and istorie. I practice plein air as practice, a form of tuning, and research for the settings of studio paintings. Like the Old Master painters of that tradition, I do the occasional still life and portrait; like Carlo Maratta I draw incessantly, even after other artists, although I have long transcended my “student” phase. I paint broadly, loosely, with figures based on idealized types.
There aren’t, as far as I’m aware, many painters today who work in a similar manner. My “community” is made up mostly of predecessors. But I don’t consider it a dead culture, since it is still capable of lively reinterpretation. And I, at least, am confident of what I mean when I call myself a classical painter.