“Mark” Chuck Close. 1979.
(Museum of Modern Art, New York)
Copyright © Edward Riojas
It is something which artists rarely intend, but it happens.
Every artist loves to make marks, and making a mark in history is every artist’s dream. Becoming a reliable source for historical reference, however, isn’t exactly a high priority among the artsy-fartsy. There is a nomadic side of the artist that wants to follow every creative vein in sight and live the Bohemian life, and producing reference material doesn’t fit too well in that mold.
But time happens. Eventually, everything man touches becomes dated – art included. Becoming associated with a place in time isn’t necessarily a bad thing, but eras tend to harden and cure over time like concrete. Then they become immovable; they become repositories of history.
“Boomtown” Thomas Hart Benton. 1928.
(Memorial Art Gallery, Rochester, N.Y.)
Chuck Close’s photorealistic piece, “Mark,” could have been done by any photo-copying knucklehead today, until the viewer actually looks at the piece. Then they ask, “Where did the subject get those glasses, and – wait a minute – is that shirt polyESTER?” Like it or hate it, the piece has been firmly placed in history.
The further back one travels in time, the more significant those artistic details become to historians. A Thomas Hart Benton cityscape of a Depression-era town might simply be a pleasant painting until we realize the place was dozed long ago for a strip mall. It is only then that we set aside esthetics and look at the painting for the placement of buildings, checking out their architectural details.
“White Cloud, Head Chief of the Iowas”
George Catlin. 1845.
(National Gallery of Art, Washington D.C.)
Early frontier artist George Catlin approached his subjects with a much keener eye on preserving a place in time when whole nations of people were disappearing. With near-scientific observation, the likenesses and details of Native Americans were recorded for those who might otherwise forget. We view Catlin’s images, lament the passing of cultures and appreciate the historicity of his paintings.
Taking a giant leap back in time, Gothic and Renaissance artists unknowingly left historians a valuable store of knowledge. Nowhere else is this more obvious than in Sacred art from those eras.
While ancient Rome and Greece were held with high regard in the Renaissance mind, the Holy Lands were not. Without having accurate information and reference when painting religious subjects, early artists deferred to images of the dress and lifestyle they did know. Hence, the Virgin Mary may be depicted wearing a cotehardie or a houpelande or some other European dress typical of the day, but not a frock indigenous to the Holy Land.
“Altarpiece with the Passion of Christ” (detail)
Unknown German artist. c. 1490.
(The Walters Art Museum, Baltimore, Md.)
The same is true when artists depicted Roman soldiery. While speaking the languages of antiquity were marks of a Renaissance man, having equal knowledge of their weapons cache apparently was not. Gothic and Renaissance paintings are a prime reference source for armor and weapons of the Renaissance, including flamberges, falchions and halberds, but one won’t find in Renaissance art an example of a Roman gladius or pilum – both standard issue for the Roman foot soldier. And the viewer doesn’t really care. Or notice.
Average museum-goers are so used to these incongruities that viewers of old paintings translate the costumes and accoutrements as authentic. They are authentic, but only to the time and culture in which the work was created. It is the same thing as a modern artist producing a painting of Mary and Joseph wearing jeans and t-shirts or top hat and hoop skirt. Well, sort of.
Of course, we needn’t chastise artists long gone for their lack of authenticity. These artists have put a clear time stamp on their own works, and have certainly created timeless pieces in the process. Thus, we inherit a double blessing in our own day.