A Brief History of the Artist from God to Picasso
Publication Year: 2011
Published by: Penn State University Press
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In the large sweep of time, the emergence of the artist is a very recent phenomenon. Although human beings have been making works of art—by which I mean primarily painting, sculpture, and architecture— for approximately thirty thousand years, it was less than three thousand years ago that they began to be identified as individuals who matter to us. Even in ancient Rome and in the Middle Ages artists were usually ...
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Despite the brevity of this work, it is a synthesis of a lifetime of thinking about the idea of the artist. My debts are huge. Countless friends, acquaintances, students, and colleagues have offered advice, suggestions, ideas that I have assimilated here. A list of all of these individuals who have been so helpful would approximate the length of a telephone book. ...
1. The Art of God from the Beginning of the World Till the End of Time
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As scholars, we usually strive to achieve complexity and profundity in our analyses, both of which require theoretical sophistication. I will aspire here to superficiality—as in the simple consideration of what one sees on the surface of a painted roof or enjoys in a tall tale. I contend that interpretation, which is usually overinterpretation, should be suggestive. ...
2. Homer, Hephaistos, and the Poetic Origins of Art History
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Throughout the history of literature in the West—from Homer to the present—authors have sung or written extensively about what are called the visual arts. Such arts can be defined in various ways. It can mean the arts of design, the interrelated spatial arts of which Vasari wrote in his monumental sixteenth-century Lives of the painters, sculptors, and ar- ...
3. Ovid's Protean Epic and Artistic Personae
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I know of no work of literature more wonderful than Metamorphoses. Even those who have never read Ovid or have read but fragments of his poem are familiar with many of his stories: Apollo and Daphne, Echo and Narcissus, Pyramus and Thisbe, Icarus and Daedalus, Orpheus and Eurydice, Venus and Adonis. Ovid’s book is about the causes of things, ...
4. Dante and the Modern Cult of the Artist
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Well over a millennium after Ovid and less than a millennium ago, circa 1300, there began to emerge in Italy, specifically in Tuscany, a new consciousness of the artist—a development that eventually led to the publication in Florence 250 years later of Vasari’s Lives. A monumental series of biographies of painters, sculptors, and architects from Cimabue to ...
5. Vasari and the Quixotic Painter
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Let us now descend from the sublime heights of Dante’s paradise to the ridiculous—to the purgatory of art history, in which we encounter one of the most delightful of all artists. I speak of Paolo Uccello. We all know him. He’s the lovable fifteenth-century Florentine painted who pictured Sir John Hawkwood, ‘‘that ghostly chessman,’’ as Mary McCarthy called ...
6. Leonardo, Vasari, and the Historical Imagination
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Although Vasari’s Lives of the artists is the foundational text in the formation of modern art history and has consequently inspired a huge body of criticism and scholarship, the investigation of his fecund work remain spartial, some might even say superficial. Aspects of his book have been carefully examined, such as his use of sources, his theory of art, and his ...
7. Vasari and the Autobiography of Michelangelo
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In the history of the autobiography of the artist, Michelangelo occupies a central but still shadowy place. This is so because although he did not write an autobiography as such, he did respond to Vasari’s biography of him by influencing the biography written a few years later by Condivito set the record straight. Commentators generally agree that Michelan- ...
8. Balzac and the Fable of Failure in Modern Art
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Although Michelangelo began his life in art so brilliantly with his marble Faun and the stunning forgery of an ancient Cupid, among other works, he ended badly—at least that is what he thought. For in old age he rejected the errors of his art, which he condemned as a form of idolatry. Glorified by Vasari for the perfection of his art, Michelangelo was never- ...
9. Myths and Mysteries of Modern Art
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Ever since Homer, nearly three millennia ago, told the tale of the shield made by Hephaistos for Achilles, writers and artists have been telling stories or writing fables about art. Sometimes such fables are passed on as matters of fact, as when Picasso, who was born at 11:15 p.m. on October 25, 1881, according to birth records, would later tell the charming ...
10. Toward a Mock-Heroic History of the Artist
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At the very beginnings of our story, the artist is a figure of grandeur or magnificence. In the Hellenic tradition, Hephaistos is the great artist with Homer or earlier. In the Hebraic world, God the Creator is a glorious figure who creates a masterpiece when he fashions Adam. In both cases, however, the divine artist can also be seen as ridiculous or mock-...
11. The Metamorphoses of Picasso
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I have chosen to conclude my brief but highly selective history of the artist with Picasso because he typifies in so many ways the basic themes of the history of art we have stressed from the beginning of our story through the dramatic rise of high Modernism. Picasso concludes my meditation precisely because of his self-consciousness, his sense of his ...
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This book has been a kind of experiment, an essay in which I have attempted to suggest or flesh out just some of the basic patterns in the history of the artist in the Western tradition. There are of course many others. There are different narratives of the artist to which my own is related, stories that have yet to be told. There are quite obviously many ...
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As I hope I have made clear, my greatest debt is to the artful example of Peter Whiffle, especially to Whiffle’s sense of brevity. More than any other writer on art, he has shaped my thinking. For Whiffle’s thought and theory of art, I refer the reader to Carl Van Vechten’s engaging biography (1922). At the same time, however, I am, as in my previous ...
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Page Count: 168
Publication Year: 2011