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Having reviewed over 1200 books on this blog, I have now written two myself. Motherdarling is a story about a search for a missing Will which reveals long-hidden family secrets. The Kids of God is a thriller set in a dystopia ruled by fascist paramilitaries. Both are available as paperbacks and on Kindle through Amazon. I live in Canterbury, England. I lived for more than thirty years in Bedford. Having retired from teaching; I became a research student at the University of Bedfordshire researching into Liminality. I achieved my PhD in 2019. I am now properly retired. I love reading! I enjoy in particular fiction (mostly great and classic fiction although I also enjoy whodunnits), biography, history and smart thinking. Follow me on twitter: @daja57

Tuesday, 9 April 2019

"How art made the world" by Nigel Spivey

This wasn't in the least what I expected. I was expecting a book about how art developed. Instead I got what it says on the cover, a book about how art has affected the world. Spivey isn't even an art historian but a classics scholar. I must read titles more carefully!

So, for example, Spivey claims that the Creative Explosion of the Upper Paleolithic c40k - 10k ago “marks the ascent of a particular biological species, Homo sapiens.” (C2) In Europe such art comes to an end c12,000 years ago. Spivey speculates that art shifted to decoration of megaliths such as those found at Uruk In modern Turkey and wonders whether the creation of this art with the need to feed many people may have been responsible for agriculture. (C2)

He suggests that the typical images in cave paintings may reflect shamanic practices: “the thousands of Bushman images ... are best explained as ‘shamanic’: derived directly from the hallucinatory experiences of shamans while in an altered state of consciousness. There are, to begin with, clear signs that physiological effects of the trance dance are depicted: figures doubled up with abdominal spasms; figures with red lines (blood) streaming from their noses. The marked elongation of many figures may reflect the reported sensation of being stretched." (C2) Some stone age cave paintings show regular patterns of dots such as migraine sufferers might see: “It is a common symptom of an altered state of consciousness: the sensation of brightness, often framed in kaleidoscopic patterns” including spider’s webs and honeycombs. (C3)

He is particularly interesting when it comes to considering the psychology of art. He suggests that images are typically distorted rather than drawn from nature and that the distortions reflect the idealisation of the object. This is something that he calls peak shift:
  • “Michelangelo painted ... huge-shouldered hulks, colossal types that would dwarf even the extreme bodybuilders of today ... it is highly unlikely that any of his models even approximated such broad proportions ... Michelangelo would also stretch his figures beyond normal length.” (C3) 
  • “One of the problems posed by the Venus of Willendorf is that she looks conspicuously obese as a time when it was undoubtedly rare or difficult for any individual to build up stores of fat.” (C3) 
  • “No one, however athletic, will ever look this way. The division between the upper and the lower body has been emphasized by raising the edge of the so-called iliac crest, a band of muscle and ligament most men failed to find on themselves. At the front of the body this contour may not be anatomically impossible, but its continuation around the back is so powerful as to strain belief. The suspicion dawns that what matters here is not faithfulness to reality, but geometric symmetry. An implausibly deep groove runs up the centre of the chest. The length of the legs has been extended to match the length of the upper body. The muscles of the back are tense and over-defined. And as for the channel of the vertebrae - not only is it deeper than would ever be seen on an ordinary mortal, but it descends into the cleft of the buttocks with no interruption from a coccyx, the bone at the base of the spine that helps us to sit down.” (C3)
He then looks at art as a way of telling tales and wonders whether literature influenced art. He points out that Egyptian painters depicted people without emotion whereas classical Greek sculpture shows empathy and he wonders whether this was because “The illusionism of Greek art was rooted in the illusionism of their storytelling style.” (C4) “What Homer did with a story was unparalleled in any previous literature. Effectively, he anticipated Aristotle's principle of suspending disbelief.” (C4)

He also looks at landscape art, at the relationship between art and power, at art in the service of religion and at art and death.

Other points of interest:
  • Egyptian artists used a grid pattern to draw people: “ figures shall be 19 squares tall ... two squares are allowed for the face ... the pupil of the eye should be placed in one square of the central axis ... ten squares are allowed from the neck to the knees, and six from the knees to the soles of the feet ... the feet shall be two and a half squares in length” (C3)
  • “The earliest Greek efforts at the full-sized male figures seem to copy from Egypt the striding left leg, and the clenched fists held at the side. There are differences, of course, the most obvious being the Greek preference for nudity.” (C3)
  • Chiastic balance (aka contrapposto): “If one knee was low and relaxed, then a rise and tautness must be caused across the axis of the opposing hips and legs.” (C3)
  • “We speak of ‘virgin’ territory, as if the position of cultivation of land by human beings were an act of coupling or rape.” (C5)
  • “The Amazon ... is densely clustered with species of fruit, nut and edible palm trees planted there by humans several thousands of years ago.” (C5)
  • “Consider the operations of power that affect us on a daily basis - the tax bills, the traffic wardens, the signs that say ‘Keep off the Grass’.” (C6)
  • Alexander’s image: “A dense mane of hair swept back from a broad and slightly frowning brow; intense, liqueous eyes; and the muscles of the neck always setting the royal head at an angle, as if gazing heavenwards ... It was rumoured that he made his mane more leonine by sprinkling it with gold dust.” (C6)
  • Marcus Aurelius felt that marble “was no more than a ‘callous excrescence of the earth’; gold and silver were merely dust and sediment, the purple dye of his imperial cloak was simply organic matter squeezed from some mollusc.” (C6)
  • “William James (1842 - 1910) reduced the varieties of religious experience to ... ‘an uneasiness’; then we attempt to resolve that uneasiness.” (C7)
  • “One of the ancient Greek words for a statue is agalma, which can be translated as ‘something that gives pleasure to a deity’. The ‘jealous god’ of Moses took offence at a golden calf that was set up on an altar in the Sinai desert; by contrast, any deity of the Greeks would have been delighted. As one Greek philosopher reasoned, ‘the Greek manner of honouring the gods recruits whatever is most beautiful on earth, whether in terms of raw materials, human shape or artistic precision’. Marble was deemed a finer material than clay, wood or limestone. Bronze may have been considered better than marble; but the greatest esteem was undoubtedly reserved for amber, ebony, ivory and gold.” (C7)
  • “Xenophanes wanted people to recognise the partisan nature of their anthropomorphic customs. ‘If horses or oxen or lions had hands,’ he noted, ‘or the power to paint and make the works of art that humans make, then horses would paint or carve their gods in horse-like forms, and oxen theirs in ox-like forms, and so with each, according to kind.’ Similarly,Ethiopians had deities with Ethiopian characteristics, and the Thracians made theirs Thracian-looking: logically, Xenophanes implied, how could such local or ‘ethnicized’ deities be conceived to wield absolute power?” (C7)
  • “Many Christian basilicas were built within or upon old Classical temples - therefore with a longitudinal axis pointing east, towards the rising sun (which is what ‘orientation’ literally implies).” C7)
  • “Orthodox churches were fitted with a screen to separate the altar from the nave: whether the screen was a low barrier or a high wall, it served as a hanging space for icons, and was known as an iconostasis (icon stop).” (C7)
  • Pope Gregory the Great said that ‘paintings are books for the uneducated’ (C7)
  • “Compunction ...means a pricking of the flesh, a mingled feeling of discomfort, pathos and remorse ... it is the Christian conscience.” (C7)
  • “In Kandinsky's yearning for an art unimpeded by objects we may sense the disdain of an Indian holy man for material things.” (C7)
It might not have been what I was expecting but it was well-written and there were plenty of serendipitous discoveries.

April 2019; 280 pages

This is one of a selection of books I am reading to help me understand more about art. Others reviewed on this blog include:

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