PRINT February 1970

Uses and Misuses of the Recent Past

. . . It moves one to compassion indeed . . . the simplicity of the artist who would bestow so much labor and pains to acquire that which all others seek with so much care to avoid.
—Vasari, Life of Pontormo

. . . The object of Mr. Barber in these engravings is not to make pretty pictures but to enforce moral truth. Everything is made with studied simplicity to bend to this purpose. Hence they have a peculiar power.
—Henry Howe, Introduction to Barber’s Picture Preacher

EVER SINCE VASARI’S LIVES OF the Artists we have been made aware of the task of the artist: to rescue the art of his time and place from barbarism, refining it, and carrying it to new heights of skill and sensibility. But, beginning with Vasari, critics were bewildered by paths other than the straight and narrow one pointing to accomplishment, fame and fortune. Pontormo baffled Vasari, who, though himself a Mannerist, could not understand Pontormo’s decision to make paintings out of his enthusiasm for the distortion and eccentricities (from the Italian viewpoint) in the engravings of Dürer. Earlier Italian artists had worked in the van of curious eccentric or primitive styles. When the 15th-century Siennese chose to continue painting in a tradition that was no longer modern, they did so out of respect for local social, religious and artistic traditions; the choice of Sassetta and Giovanni di Paolo was not a willful, personal one. But there was nothing primitive in Dürer: to Pontormo and his generation, Gothic art provided an exotic formal system which could be opposed to that of the High Renaissance.

One aspect of Pontormo’s development is particularly germane. For him, and for his generation, the proportion of the human figure was an expressive device, a sign of the artist’s personality and thought. It is against the background of consciousness of expressivity in the proportion of the human figure that, in the 17th century, a taste developed for the representation of dwarfs and hunchbacks. These were meant to amuse by parodying grotesquely the gesticulations, dances, activities and emotions of normally proportioned men. Such artists as Jacques Callot and Sebastiano della Bella, through their prints in this convention, reached all levels of society.

It is not very difficult to maintain a normative and believable human proportion when dealing with figures in a shallow space. In the 18th and 19th centuries, though, the illustrations of chapbooks, produced by the uncultured for the barely literate, too consistently maintained for all their figures the bigheaded convention for it to be explained away as mistakes in drawing. The bigheaded figure seeps over into popular painting and sculpture, where technical flaws and failings should be expected, but it is no easier to paint a bigheaded figure than one of normal proportions.

Caricature, too, had its origins in the 17th century. The drawings of the Carracci include a group of bigheaded caricature drawings of their friends and acquaintances. These differ from the work of Callot and della Bella in that the subjects are recognizable personalities whose physiognomical peculiarities have been exaggerated.1 Rowlandson and Gillray, the English caricaturists, were master practitioners of this kind of caricature. Their caricatures were graphically the strongest and most convincing of any national school of their time and were admired and influential all over Europe. It was because of the use of the bigheaded proportion for comic and satiric ends that it began to “look right” to the middle class (particularly the American middle class)and to the lower class man who saw it as a representation of himself. It was unideal, unclassical (classical imagery had become identified with pretensions to nobility) and had a somewhat comical and self-assertive air about it. It was the half-serious, self-assertive image of the provincial middle class man who didn’t want to be (or be represented) any better than he was. There were exceptions to its use, however. The beautiful woman, even of the provincial middle class, filled out a stereotyped ideal form. She remained in a rough approximation of normal proportion (as shown by the anonymous The Sargeant Family and the Derain illustration to Rabelais’s Pantagruel, 1943), even though the man in both cases is shown in all his large-headed self-assertion. It is a striking fact that the symbol of England, John Bull, is one of those bigheaded figures, while Uncle Sam, who did not get his final form until Thomas Nast gave it to him in the late 19th century (long after the development by Cruikshank of the romantic, elongated caricature figure), is of normative or elongated proportions.

J. W. Barber was an American engraver of the 19th century who made most of his money publishing books with “views” of every city, town and village in the states of New York, New Jersey, Connecticut, etc. He was not extraordinarily skillful as either an engraver or a draftsman. The best that can be said of his views is that they were (apparently) topographically accurate. His drawing tended to be conventional, including the convention of the bigheaded figure. His most interesting works are his didactic, moralizing books. In his own introduction to The Picture Preacher he described the utility of the fable: “The true fable, if it rise to its high requirements, ever aims at one great end and purpose—the representation of human motive, and the improvement of human conduct, and yet it so conceals its design under the disguise of fictitious personages or characters . . . so the reader shall receive advice without perceiving the presence of the adviser.” For his chosen audience (the young) his calculated, primitive simplicity and bourgeois anti-idealism were transformed into positive, homely (in two senses) moral quality.

Of all the 20th-century artists who have purposefully used this “primitive” proportion system redolent of the virtues and vices of the folk, Balthus, in his illustrations to Wuthering Heights, seems most aware of the meaning of the originals in the new use to which he puts the formula. The proportions suggest the primitive and provincial at the same time that the scale of the head emphasizes (as it did in the best work from which it derives) the expression and the emotional relationships of the characters. The early Beckmann also seems aware of the traditional meaning of the large-headed proportion system. Derain’s formal humility toward the art of the past, the acceptance of earlier styles as material for reinterpretation, does not adequately deal with this problem of style. The proportion of the figure is not a formal concern alone but expresses a module of social and philosophical attitudes. Thus, while Derain’s glosses do not (like Picasso’s) deface the forms with which they deal, when he ignores the psychological reality of the style with which he is involved he does not successfully keep the kernel of the past alive. His activity sometimes parallels that of Pontormo, marble quarrying in the past, in different times and places,in order to produce new forms with which to identify his sensibility. This is the unrecognized modernist logic behind some of Derain’s seemingly conservative restudying of past painting.

Seen this way, Derain is one of the unrecognized fathers of Pop art, but with one important difference. Even when he did not respond to the emotional and philosophical overtones of the forms in art which intrigued him, he responded masterfully and with the greatest sensitivity to the plasticity of the forms from which he drew. The contemporary cartoon, and even contemporary packaging and advertising design, have their formal Iogic, their sense of style, and their emotional and philosophical overtones. These are not the obvious ones, that is, the ones obvious to us. It is obvious to us that everything that is medieval, Gothic or Renaissance has hallmarks of hand, taste and style which locate its manufacture in time and space. But the hallmarks of contemporary comic strips? Curiously enough these develop directly out of that same 19th-century plebian tradition. The contemporary comic strip artist is not a historian, but he is a part of a tradition which has its own formal and pictorial concerns, conventions and qualities—so much so that the comic strip artists dismissed Lichtenstein because his simplifications made the comic strips look as if they were drawn in terms of comic conventions which had been outmoded by developments of the last few years. He was also derided for his lack of invention (here used in the same terms it would have been used in the 19th century, to mean construction of figure compositions that tell stories). We are not far enough away from the comic to see what intrinsic qualities this low art of our time has which distinguishes it from our other art. Thus, when we superimpose an abstract design over a comic strip by cropping, and all the other changes which leave what we take to be the image unchanged, we err in assuming that the original structure was non-existent, accidental or inferior—it may very well have been better and produced by an artist who, because he understood his role and his tradition and developed his skill within this understanding, is a better artist.

Similar problems appear as soon as the photograph, commercial or other, is used as anything but a sketching device. Either the photo is a work of art—high art or low, it makes no difference since they all have their conventions, both formal and emotional—or it is an artifact. In the first case, it must be redrawn with an understanding of its artistic means and meaning if it is not to become less than it was originally. In the second, like all other artifacts represented in painting, such as chairs, tables, houses, etc., it must be responded to as a form or a group of forms through the sensibility of the artist if it is to make any artistic sense. If it is neither an art object nor an artifact, but a part of nature, then it becomes even clearer that the level of abstraction of the artist’s operation, the experience of the photograph and its reconstruction as form are responsible for the quality in the final product. The photograph is instant history, is art, is social report and statement, but it becomes less than it was when its historic, emotional and formal qualities are quarried by the superimposition of a formal sensibility extrinsic to it, no matter how subtle this sensibility, no matter how deadpan, no matter how humorous.

The present, with its social and political problems, can be a source of subject matter or, conversely, a spur to the painting of its idealist Utopian opposite. Low art, the photograph, schlock art, are all too close to us in time and are too much a part of our social environment for us to gain sufficient distance to use them productively for the formation of valid new statements. Intelligent study of the recent tradition of abstraction should provide the artist with a sense of a procedural pattern for reaching out toward a valid artistic statement. Past art exists not only to provide formal standards, but, if rightly understood, to furnish us with forms whose very structure implies social, psychological and philosophical positions which are usable today.

Our time is unlike Pontormo’s. The high art of the past few generations cannot easily be built upon to achieve figurative excellence. The abstract art of the past twenty years continues and exaggerates the artist’s search for images with which to identify himself. The sensibility bred of exposure to the art school and the art world cannot produce valid figurative work without violent transformation. To us at this moment, every figurative style is exotic. The artist who chooses to immerse himself in some tradition or traditions, groups of images from earlier art, high, middle or low, and who, as an artist, through exercising his eye, hand, and mind, learns to understand the inner meaning, psychological and social as well as formal, of the forms with which he deals, is in possession of a catapult to a personal figurative style.

Gabriel Laderman



1. The drawing referred to in the text is no longer given to A. Carracci. The one reproduced, however, continues to be accepted. To Bernini goes the honor of the first caricature of a known individual. This is discussed in an unpublished article by I. Lavin. The big-headed stereotype, however, was invented by A. Carracci.