Friday, December 8, 2017

Herculaneum Frescoes, Anonymity and Ego

I've been enamored with Italian frescoes since studying abroad in Florence over 10 years ago.  Visiting what seemed like every tiny cathedral and town within a couple hours and seeing Masaccio and Giotto and Piero pretty much floored me to the ground for a long time.  It was so revelatory for me, I barely made anything for the year after, but then when I did start working again, I worked with an understanding that was honestly just much better.  The scale, the surface, the history of eyes that had come to study these things...being in their presence is as close as I have come to a spiritual experience in a religious space in my life. 

I look at those images a lot.  The image can never do justice to the physical experience, of course, but I think it can remind, if experienced in person at some point.  Early Renaissance has had me for a long time for its organization of space, the strength in shapes and value that compose the picture plane, the flat color.  And while I appreciate the later high Renaissance fresco work, it never had the same resonance for me.

Only recently I started looking to fresco that pre-dates these heroes, as so many of the books and research concentrate on this high time.  But these images above, from Herculaneum, around 50-80A.D. bring up much that I love about the early Renaissance work.  And they are of such simple subjects.  I would really like the see these in person, without that experience it is hard to fully appreciate.  But I can imagine the surfaces must have that same power.  

I think I respond too to the pure randomness and anonymity of their survival.  These are preserved only thanks to the volcanic activity that froze bits of time.  It is unknown who painted them (as far as I am aware?) and that is actually refreshing.  

So much of painting is wrapped up in the ego of the painter.  This has always been true I guess, the personality and persona of the maker figures its way into the work.  As years go by, those particulars are less of a factor, but still the maker is central to the work, at least in much of western art history.  As a painter I know there is something about trying to outlive your mortality that making exquisite work promises.  But somehow I think the relationship of maker and work is in danger of being reversed in contemporary painting.   

Right now so much mediocre work gets attention for the maker's digital presence.  So little time spent on the actual object made, but so much time spent on shopping it around and the virtual aura surrounding that person.  The simple repetition of seeing the same thing on multiple social media outlets makes it seem like it is important and worthwhile and therefore of value.  But really much of the time it is vacuous and boring and makes me want to live in a treehouse without wi-fi.  And I have felt the trappings of this myself, but I try to stay on high alert, committed to what is visually meaningful to me, my own judgement.  

These frescoes serve as a reminder that obscurity is a relief and maybe allows for truer looking.  As a recent friend wrote to me there is such a necessity for the 'quiet dignity of simple things' today.  So maybe it is even more beautiful and startling to future lookers and makers if a painting can live on completely unmoored from its maker.