Analytical Essay on Periodization of Art History

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Schapiro: ‘By style is usually meant the constant form – and sometimes the constant elements, qualities, and expression – in the art of an individual or a group’.

Barthes: ‘Style excuses everything, absolves us from everything, notably any historical reflection; it imprisons the spectator in the servitude of a pure formalism’.

The above two quotations give, firstly, a working definition of the term style as used in art history in the 1950s; and secondly a firm repudiation of its use from the 1970s. Although the tone of the quotations is different, and Barthes was referring to theatre rather than painting, both quotations place style as an internal quality of art; one that separates form from function, and from history. It is therefore interesting to note the use of style in the construction of art history as a narrative; the periodisation of art history where stylistic labels are aligned with dates, as in Alfred H. Barr’s 1936 flowchart Cubism and Abstract Art which documents the development of Modern art from 1890 to 1935 [1]. This duality of application, where the style of art is seen as a purely formal quality estranged from history whilst simultaneously being used to label historical periods, reflects Wölfflin’s ‘double root of style’ where both the formal, internal ‘mode of representation’ and the external expression of ‘individual, periods and peoples’ shape artistic development.

This dichotomy leads to questions regarding the uses and limitations of the concept of style for the practice of art history, particularly in relation to stylistic labels, periodisation and contextual versus narrative art history, that this essay will address with reference to the writings of Jás Elsner, Williband Sauerländer, Heinrich Wölfflin, Meyer Schapiro and Svetlana Albers, and to two paintings, Claude Monet’s, Boats in the Pool of London, c.1871 [3] and André Derain’s, The Pool of London, 1906 [4].

Elsner defined the ‘basic stylistic reflex’ as ‘the grouping of like with like and the disjunction of unlikes, on the basis of…formal analysis’. This feels like a scientific process of classification, with close examination of the formal features of an artwork at its core; but many choices are required. Which art works? What formal attributes? What connections? Elsner accepts? that stylistic analysis is ‘subjective and judgemental’ but others such as Schapiro saw style as a function of the date and place of origin of works, and, ‘a means of tracing relationships between schools of art’. Stylistic analysis can be a tool utilised by archaeologists and connoisseurs for categorising and dating artefacts, and is most useful when exemplars can be firmly dated either by contextual historical data or scientific analysis such as carbon dating. Unfortunately overreach in its use without supporting data has resulted in style being seen as ‘the keyword for the bridge leading from visual perception to historical insight’. While Elsner felt that the move from ‘object to history’ based on style was ‘speculative’, Sauerländer went further in his criticism, the ‘notion of style is only too easily transformed from an instrument of description, classification and rational understanding into a medium of revelation’. It is clear that art historians must be careful in their use stylistic analysis so as not to make unsupported leaps from art to history, but this is not to say that stylistic analysis does not have a place in the modern discipline.

Stylistic analysis led to stylistic labels; those relating to 16th and 17th century Italian art such as ‘Renaissance’ and ‘Baroque’ were retrospectively applied to what was seen as? the normative art of the period. But, by the 20th century artists were much more aware of these labels, and indeed some, such as the Futurist Marinetti, established and advertised labels in ‘manifestos’ that set their work apart from both the past and current styles they hoped to supersede. This artistic consciousness of the stylistic label, as both a descriptive and categorising term led Gombrich to suggest that style could only be used expressively when the artist consciously chose to use one style over another. However, this is problematic for a number of reasons; firstly, artists of the 16th and 17th centuries who painted in the Renaissance and Baroque styles would not have recognised the labels, even though the forms they describe were apparent and normative, secondly much art of the period was produced for patrons such as the church, the state and the aristocracy, and the freedom of artists to ‘choose’ a style of painting is therefore uncertain. Even in the modern period where artists were familiar with stylistic labels they may have been directed to a particular style by the market or by patrons, that is, the choice of style might be economic rather than expressive.

Another issue inherent with stylistic labelling was identified by Alpers, who found it so problematic she avoided its use altogether; ‘Stylistic labels are treated as 'attributes of the works or groups of works' as though they are 'possessed by each object'. That is, the label is no longer a descriptive term but rather a quality of the work itself. Gombrich described how style labels could be used ‘as a laudatory term denoting a desirable consistence and conspicuousness that makes an…artwork stand out’. Labelling a work as, for example, Impressionist imbues it with a marketable value without addressing the basic question of quality; is the painting good, bad or mediocre?

The mapping of stylistic labels against time leads to periodisation, where stylistic labels become synonymous with temporal periods. Again, this can be a useful tool for classification when used in conjunction with other historical evidence; but simplification and concentration on the art of the West, privileging dominant areas, art forms and artists at the expense of the art non-Western and minority artists is a major limitation. While Schapiro may have believed that, ‘the values of modern art have led to a more sympathetic and objective approach to exotic art than was possible fifty or a hundred years ago’ it is clear that the borrowing of formal characteristics from non-western art excluded context, meaning, value and attribution.

Krauss denounced the Modernist view of periodisation as, ‘a series of rooms en filade. Within each room the individual artist explored, to the limits of his experience and his formal intelligence, the separate constituents of his medium. The effect of his pictorial act was to open simultaneously the door to the next space and close out access to the one behind him’. This is one of the strongest criticisms of both periodisation and formalist art history; the one way system of artistic development where the artist works alone, isolated from history and influence, exploring his medium with only his genius to guide him in his act of pure expression, ignoring the possible significances of context, content, meaning and history.

Contextual or social art history began in the 1970s and 80s when art itself became more socially aware. It attempts to map arts connections to society at large, both at the point of production and via reception studies throughout its afterlife, and add significantly to our knowledge of the meaning and purposes of works of art. Functions, patronage, institutions are investigated through the lenses of gender, politics, religion and geography, amongst others, to reveal more about both art and its uses in society.

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Narrative art history, on the other hand, has a long history; from 1568 when the second edition of Vasari’s Lives was published the biological cycle of growth, bloom then decay has been mapped onto the progression of art from ancient times This notion of art history as evolutionary progress was persistent; though by 1915, when Heinrich Wölfflin used close viewing and formal analysis to support his formalist view of narrative art history, the development he proposed was internal to the art being reviewed. Wölfflin’s book Principles of Art History documented his ideas about five pairs of fundamental concepts based on the differences between the ‘classical’ art of the 16th century and ‘baroque’ art 17th century, designed to reveal the development of style over time. It is important to reiterate that style labels were attached to art retrospectively, and that the art used to construct the narrative of development and periodisation was chosen to support the view of progress.

In order to investigate further? the usefulness of style based art history using Wölfflin’s fundamental concepts as a starting point for formal analysis of modern paintings I have chosen two paintings of the Pool of London, both painted by French men some thirty-five years apart. These paintings were chosen to exclude content and nationality from the comparison, and to aid the focus on the formal aspects of the works. The first is generally categorised as an Impressionist painting, and the second a Fauvist work.

Using Wölfflin’s fundamental concepts we could describe Monet’s Boats in the Pool of London as painterly; distant buildings and bridges are shrouded in a haze of fog mixed with smoke from the chimneys of factories and steam boats, and clusters of ships are barely discernible in the mid-distance. The thin, pale light that filters through the dimness catches the water to the left of the picture plane, leaving the right hand-side in the shadows. Depth is implied by aerial rather than linear perspective, and is emphasised by the recession of boats on a diagonal from bottom right to upper left, a diagonal reinforced by the angled masts of docked boats. The open form of the painting gives a feeling of space beyond the edges of the canvas particularly to the right where buildings are cut off rather than contained within the picture space. The groups of boats, ships and buildings are welded together displaying unity rather than multiplicity, and while no individual element of the painting shows absolute clarity, taken as a whole there is relative clarity.

Using the same fundamental concepts to analyse Derain’s Pool of London gives similar results. Despite the bold outline visible on the large boat that dominates the picture plane, overall the composition is painterly rather than linear. Distance is again described by a combination of aerial perspective, with the distant Tower Bridge appearing faint and blue, and a strong diagonal motif, in this instance the large boat angled from bottom right towards the top left. The boat is radically cut off at the bottom right hand corner evidencing an open form, and again the composition works as a whole rather as distinct parts, displaying both unity and relative clarity.

It is clear that significant differences in the appearances of these paintings are missed and unexplained in this analysis. Firstly the basic issue of scale, as examination of these paintings reveal significant differences in size, the Monet is 470 x 730 mm while the Derain is larger at 657 x 991 mm. Secondly, colour, the Monet is a naturalistic depiction and has a limited tonal palette reflecting the atmospheric conditions on a foggy day. Derain on the other hand has used a range of saturated colours, predominantly reds and oranges, for the boats, set against the complementary greens of the water and blues of the distant buildings and bridge. In order to explain these differences we need to look to the context of the painting, pure formal analysis is not sufficient.

Monet aimed for a real or naturalistic image, he painted what he saw. ‘What I like most of all in London is the fog. How could English painters of the 19th century have painted its houses brick by brick? Those fellows painted bricks they did not see, bricks they could not see.’ Henry Pether’s View of the Thames, Pool of London, from Billingsgate to London Bridge, c.1862 [2] is an example of the type of painting that Monet was referring too, an idealised version of the Pool of London, linear with vertical and horizontal motifs with no smoke or fog distracting from its almost classical style; this painting is constructed from nature by correcting nature in the way Joshua Reynolds taught at the Royal Academy.

Derain on the other hand was updating Monet’s successful painting in the new Fauve style at the request of his dealer, M. Vollard. The use of strong, non-naturalistic colour freed from its descriptive role and used instead as a mode of expression, complementary colour theory and simplified forms resulted in a more abstract painting. In a letter to a fellow Fauve painter Vladminck, Derain stated, ‘We didn’t do this on purpose solely for the sake of colour. The design runs parallel’. Vladminck painted The Seine at Chatou [5] the same year as Derain made The Pool of London and we can see the same strong, non-naturalistic colours and juxtaposition of complementary colours in both paintings.

Interestingly the link between Monet and Derain is not included in Alfred H. Barr’s famous flowchart. Further evidence that periodisation of styles can be a simplification evidenced by selective choice of examples.

M. Vollard’s involvement in the commissioning of Derain’s Pool of London, dictating both subject matter and style, ties in to Svetlana Alpers comments linking of stylistic labels and value, ‘ the art market…drives us on in stylistic placing. Often the value of an object depends on assigning it a ‘stylistic’ identity’. It is reasonable to suggest that the dealer’s aim was to maximise the worth of his painting ,and that he had buyers in mind.

It is clear that style based art history with its formalist focus and Western-centric viewpoint is insufficient to explore the myriad arts throughout global human history. The historical context of production, the social functions of use and its changing reception over time are all legitimate areas of enquiry that add to our knowledge and understanding of art. Art history is moving towards a more holistic method, it is a multidisciplinary field and stylistic analysis is but one of many methods open to art historians in their examination and analysis of works of art. Art is not a ‘glittering mirror’ reflecting history, and it is important to be aware of, and compensate for, limitations in stylistic analysis; but as a vehicle for close looking, for description rather than judgement, and used in conjunction with contextual, social and if appropriate scientific analysis, it brings us closer to the art work and allows us to experience what is unique about visual art.

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