Tuesday, November 9, 2010

Still Life with Yale and Unicorn

The depictions of animals in the classic bestiary style clashes with our modern perception of acceptable representation. That much is apparent. But our class discussion on Friday got me wondering how much realism actually matters, because there exists a glass ceiling for hyper realism in art – it can never escape the fate of its own representative-by-definition existence. And consequently, how much of a theoretical difference is there really is representation of animals in the middle ages and in still life paintings?

What is problematic is our perception of the former in light of the latter: it is difficult for a common observer to divorce the idea of realism from skilled artistry.  I concede that medieval artistry lacked a highly developed technical skill, such as near-perfect perspective. Medieval bestiaries portray animals in a style that we would probably classify as one dimensional, rudimentary, and even child-like. But I question why exactly this matters -- why does this reveal a lack of “truth” in medieval art? To answer my own rhetorical question, it depends of what “truths” the artists are trying to depict. For example, is it good or bad art if a painter portrays sheep as unrealistically small, in the interest of showing the size of a flock? There is no answer of course, except to say that this mode of art was the expectation at the time.

Medieval representations of animals are portrayed in a mode of societal convention. This is critical to understanding the connection and skill involved in depicting an animal in the middle ages, and this is also where I take issue with Flores’ binary and linear structural argument of animal representation. She argues that animal representations inhabit one of two spheres – the allegorical (religious) and the realistic (scientific, zoological). Moreover she asserts that there tends to be a shift from the allegorical to the more realistic throughout the course of the middle ages. It's my impression that Medieval artistry is conceived in a particular style, on purpose, and that the artificiality of bestiary imagery emerges out of different social framework than one that might value hyper realism.

This idea forms the crux of this post. I am not an expert on medieval culture, (lowly undergrad that I am...), so forgive me as I do my best here to articulate my hypothesis without a sophisticated understanding of the medieval European mind:

The society of Europe in the middle ages valued a certain portrayal of animals not grounded in anatomical accuracy, but in the idea behind the existence of such animals. For example, the depiction of an elephant is not based on exact realism, but on its size, its trunk, and its tusks. This is what an elephant is to medieval European society, and this is the requisite representation based on that convention. The prevalence of this paradigm, I think, is rooted in the religious  aspect of animal representation that Flores details. She culls a helpful quote from Lynn White Jr.: "In such a world there was no thought of hiding behind a clump of reeds actually to observe the habits of a pelican. There would be no point in it. Once one has grasped the spiritual meaning of the pelican, one lost interest in individual pelicans." This idea transcends symbolic application however, and the artistic convention it implied follows naturally.

How else could mythic creatures be included in the bestiaries, but under this societal understanding? The phoenix, the yale, the unicorn – all are animals based on a premise of existence, and not on literal manifestation. Thus, the goal of medieval artists was to conjure up the notion of the unicorn; whether or not the artists were privy to the existence of the unicorn (or really any of the animals they drew) is of less importance.

To reapply my hypothesis to the flock of sheep example: it is not the realistic accuracy of the sheep that matters, but the idea that such a flock exists. This kind of art does not require realism to get its point across, because the realism is implied in the mere existence of the unrealistic animal(s).

What is really interesting to me about the comparison of bestiary art and still life paintings is that these same aspects are used in both styles. As we discussed in class, still life painting employs symbolism in maximalist fashion. Objects depicted in early still life works are commonly "symbolic of some quality of the Virgin or another religious figure (for example, the lily stands for purity), while other objects may remind the viewer of an edifying concept such as worldly vanity or temperance (as in the case of Saint Eligius's mirror and scales). Moralizing meanings are also common in independent still-life paintings of the seventeenth century." (Source: http://www.metmuseum.org/toah/hd/nstl/hd_nstl.htm) Perhaps the Dutch still life artists owe some more credit to their medieval predecessors than we might at first assume.


1 comment:

  1. I think you are definitely on the right track here. Yes, medieval artists were (at least, in the period in which most of the bestiaries were produced) more concerned with conveying the idea of the thing represented than in making a "true-to-life" (a.k.a. perspectivally-accurate) representation; their perspective, as we talked about on Wednesday, was the sublime, not the visual vanishing point. What I find interesting is how the argument that Flores makes persists in the scholarship despite the fact that in the present day, we have so many examples of other ways of representing "reality" than just vanishing point perspective. Think of all of the cartoons that we read, for example. There, it is clear that something other than "what we see" is being shown (how does Dilbert's tie stay up? what dog walks on its hind legs like Snoopy? do stuffed animals talk like Hobbes?), but we don't tend to fault the artists for that. The technical test is always, "Can they really draw?", to which sometimes they succumb, if only to show that they mean to draw in this other way. (Scott McCloud has a good discussion of this in his Understanding Comics). We assume (probably correctly, given the technical context) that medieval artists could not work in vanishing point perspective, but this should not mean that we assume they did not mean to represent the natural world in the way that they did, i.e. pointing to the sublime.