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Fables of Art

ISSUE:  Spring 1995

The recent appearance of The Faber Book of Art Anecdotes is a delightful reminder that the history of Western art from Apelles to Jackson Pollock is filled with an abundance of fables that are themselves artful, highly entertaining, and instructive reenactments of art and life and of their profound interrelations. Poetical to the very core, these amusing tales are the life-blood of art history because they vividly portray the creators of art as colorful, complex, and compelling characters. Such stories, spanning the artist’s life from birth to death, including countless episodes of artistic virtuosity, are highly metaphorical and comment tacitly on the character of art itself. Whether found in history books, biographies, or even treaties of art, these fables are so many playful and witty novelle and, as such, they are often rooted in the tradition of Boccaccio. Like all fictional writing, which is implicitly historical, and all history, which is inferentially fictional, these tales mingle fact and fiction, and part of the pleasure we take in fables, whether we know it or not, whether we are even willing to admit it, lies precisely in their ambiguous location in an intermediary, imaginative shadow-land somewhere between fact and fiction.

The artist’s birth is often a momentous occasion. Witness the birth of Michelangelo, sent to earth by God as a Messiah of art, as it was said, or that of Benvenuto Cellini, whose splendid advent was, as his very name suggests, “Welcome.” Picasso reported on many occasions the extraordinary circumstances of his own birth. Born on Oct.25, 1881, he claimed once to have been born at the primal hour of midnight, whereas his birth certificate reveals the time to have been 11:15.According to Picasso’s story, the artist was delivered stillborn and was left on a table, where he would have died if his uncle, a doctor, who was present, had not blown the smoke of his cigar into Picasso’s face. The tale reveals how death, “so forcefully present at birth, worked in Picasso’s imagination through his life.” Or did Picasso’s sense of death shape the way he chose to imagine his own birth? Is it merely a coincidence that Picasso’s uncle was named Salvador, which means “saviour,” or do we find Picasso’s artistic imagination at work to some extent in his fashioning of the story? Might the account, rooted to some indeterminable degree in fact, be a form of poetical invention, through which Picasso imagined the extraordinary circumstances of his birth? We will never know what is fact here, what fiction, but we might well recall the words of the wise Dr. Johnson, who once said, “Seldom any splendid story is wholly true.” By blowing into his mouth, Picasso’s “saviour,” dramatically inspired him, bringing him back to life from the dead with a miraculous afflatus or “breath.”

Artists are forever revealing their virtuosity during childhood. The young Giotto, a shepherd boy, who drew pictures of sheep in the ground with a stone, was discovered by the painter Cimabue, who recognized his extraordinary talent —or so the story goes. The fable, which portrays the naturalistic painter emerging directly from primordial nature, is a tale of the pastoral origins of art. If Giotto first drew sheep, the young Antonio Canova, “Tonin” or “Tony,” as he was called, first carved a lion out of butter in the home of a nobleman, who thus discovered his genius. Try to imagine carving butter, hard or soft, and you will wonder whether the boy ever, in fact, carved such a work. This story of youthful virtuosity, discovered by a person of high station, may be excavated from similar, earlier fables—for example, the story Michelangelo told of how, carving a Faun in his youth, in imitation of a classical work, his talent was recognized by the illustrious Lorenzo de’ Medici.

The fable of Michelangelo’s discovery by Lorenzo is surprisingly similar in at least one respect to a seemingly different tale told earlier about himself. According to this fable, when his disciple, the stone-cutter Topolino, “Little Mouse,” carved a statue of Mercury, Michelangelo pointed out that the legs were too short. Hearing this criticism, Topolino added marble to the limbs, concealing the joints with the figure’s leggings, which provoked Michelangelo’s laughter at such artlessness. This tale presages the story of Michelangelo’s Faun, which Lorenzo criticized because the young artist in his simplicity showed him with all his teeth. Old fauns, Lorenzo explained, do not have all their teeth, so Michelangelo knocked one of them out and drilled a hole where it had been. Lorenzo laughed at the naïve revision by the ingenuous artist, just as Michelangelo ridiculed his own protégé’s naiveté.

Topolino’s tale partakes of the mythic. When he makes his Mercury too little, Topolino is essentially rendering the statue in his own image, since, as the diminutive ending of his name, suggests, he is a little fellow. Little Mouse has carved a little Mercury. The idea that “every painter paints himself” became proverbial in the Renaissance and was inevitably linked to the myth of Narcissus, since the fair youth was said to have been the first painter when he saw his self-reflection on the surface of a pool. There is thus a resonance of Narcissus in Topolino, who, in a sense, sees himself in his own diminutive Mercury, but there is also a touch of farce in the allusion. Too pleased with his own ridiculous, dwarfish statue, Topolino is, we might almost say, a bit of a narcissist.

Artists like Giotto, Canova, and Michelangelo are not only discovered, they also purposefully reveal themselves with dramatic effect to their fellow artists and patrons. Apelles left on a panel a brush stroke so subtle that Protogenes knew it coudl only have been made by Apelles himself. Giotto made an O so perfect that the Pope recognized his talent, and Michelangelo fashioned a hand in pen and ink so skillfully that it revealed his remarkable talent and identity. Dürer, it is said (and all of these accounts are fables), demonstrated his skill by painting wavy tresses of hair with such virtuosity that Giovanni Bellini, filled with wonder, confessed he would not have believed the report of such ability if he hadn’t seen Dürer handle the brush with his own eyes. Hair produces hair, as the very painter’s brush paints itself!

There are countless tall tales of this kind, most of which are variations on the fable of Apelles’ self-revelation to Protogenes. None is more wonderful than the novella about Van Dyck’s visit to the house of Frans Hals. Van Dyck coyly asked Hals to paint his portrait, after which the visitor praised its merits. Concealing his identity, Van Dyck then offered to paint his host’s portrait. Hals saw from the way in which the unknown painter skillfully worked that this “Ulysses in disguise” would soon reveal himself as a prankster. When Van Dyck completed his portrait, Hals proclaimed, “You are Van Dyck,” since he knew that nobody else could have painted such an accomplished portrait. He then fell upon Van Dyck, showering him with kisses.

Van Dyck had tricked Hals, reminding us that art is itself a deception. These deceptions are illusions, tricks that fool the eye, reminding us further that the word “illusion” is rooted in the Latin, ludere, to play. We read of play or illusionism in the life of Mabuse, the Northern artist who painted a large piece of white paper with flowers to look like a special costume in silk damask. This beautiful material drew the attention of the Emperor, who, reaching out to touch it only to feel paper, realized he had been fooled and laughed at the painter’s trick. In a variation on this tale, the Dutch artist Adriaen Brouwer, having been robbed and without a penny to his name, made a garment out of a piece of canvas that he covered with flowers. His garb attracted the attention of the women of Amsterdam, who asked where one could obtain such fine Indian stuffs. The painter responded by taking a sponge and washing the flowers away, revealing the trick of his virtuoso touch. Acknowledged to be a fine painter, he was nevertheless thought to be ridiculous.

Artists are forever performing tricks with sponges. When the 14th-century painter-prankster Buffalmacco was not properly paid for a Madonna and Child, he secretly painted a bear cub over the place where Jesus reposed, and only when the dispute with his patron was settled did he sponge off the bear, revealing the Babe once again. When Giotto was sentenced to death by the Pope, according to a related tale, the pontiff asked that the artist first complete an unfinished painting of the Crucifixion. Unbeknownst to the Pope, Giotto concealed the painting with a thick coat of varnish and agreed to replace the “lost” painting only if his life was spared. The Pope agreed and Giotto, taking a sponge, wiped away the varnish and unveiled the original painting in all its splendor.

Giotto had been sentenced to death (it is said) because, after inducing a man to be bound on a cross as a model for the very Crucifixion he would varnish over, he stabbed his model in the heart in order to study the agonies of death directly from life. Although this tale has classical and Renaissance roots, it came to the fore in the 19th century in a book called The Percy Anecdotes. The artist had traditionally been considered a man of virtue, a saintly person, but the Romantics increasingly painted a picture of him as somebody outside the bounds of society, beyond the conventions of morality. He was now often an immoralist, even a murderer, and Giotto was made to exemplify the type. Like a character out of Boccaccio, he used his wits and saved his life.

The type of artist as criminal emerges alongside the idea of the artist as primitive, who also exists outside the boundaries of society. George Eliot portrayed the Renaissance painter Piero di Cosimo as a primitive in her novel Romola, following the Renaissance fable of Piero as a sort of Wild Man. Modern “primitives” also emerged in “real life” in the person of Paul Gauguin, who fled to Tahiti, and the Douanier Rousseau, who played the fool. Primitivism is itself one of the great myths of modern art, since the very idea of primitive art is an oxymoron. Art is either good or bad, sophisticated or not, but primitive? Never! Gauguin and Rousseau were no more primitive than Piero, whose art was steeped in Ovid and other classical poets. The Douanier cunningly manipulated the ideal of the primitive, convincing his dupes that he was a simple man. Often witty in their sly allusions to modernist art, including the “primitivism” of Gauguin, Rousseau’s works were highly sophisticated, despite their “primitive” veneer.

In his journals, Gauguin tells us that when his Tahitian works were exhibited in 1891, two friends of Degas did not understand his paintings. Degas, he says, enlightened them by reciting Aesop’s fable of the wolf and the dog, observing that Gauguin was like the wolf. When the dog tells the wolf what his life is like, the wolf informs his canine companion that he prefers his freedom to the dog’s chains. Gauguin clearly delighted in the allusion to Aesop, which functioned as a sort of parable of art, explaining his own preference to remain wild, primitive if you will, in order to be free. The painter was thus a sort of Wolf Man—or that was the mask he now happily wore. The primitive, if not bestial, artist is a first cousin of the artist-criminal because, like the criminal, he acts on his own impulses.

The modern artist is also obsessive, modern art an obsession. Balzac invented the supreme example in his story, “The Unknown Masterpiece,” which tells of the painter Frenhofer, who attempting to paint a perfect picture, worked obsessively for many, many years on a single painting only to leave it upon his death an inchoate jumble of forms, in which one saw but a small detail that revealed the overall perfection to which he had aspired. Frenhofer’s failure stands for the heroic futility of the modern artist, sometimes driven to despair and even suicide by his inability to achieve an ever elusive perfection.

As Piero di Cosimo was the Renaissance ancestor of the primitive modern artist, Paolo Uccello was the Renaissance antecedent of the obsessive modernist. Perspective was his idée fixe.So lost was he in perspectival pursuits, according to a beloved fable, he would not even come to bed when called by his wife. No wonder Marcel Schwob, in his Imaginary Lives, rewrites the story of Uccello by following the plot of Balzac’s story. The modern French writer portrays Uccello as a Renaissance Frenhofer, whose final study in perspective is an incoherent jumble of lines. Not surprisingly, since directly or not, Balzac had already absorbed Uccello’s story. According to tradition, Uccello’s obsessive studies in perspective had resulted in failure: Donatello was said to have mocked him for having descended into the very depths of “uncertainty.” Living in isolation as he futilely pursued perspectival perfection, the obsessive Uccello was also traditionally thought to have become, like Piero, a bit of a “savage” —in this respect also a modern artist avant la lettre.

At the very heart of modern art, obsession became the obsession of Freud, who found its roots in sexuality—a sexuality that gave definition to the modern artist. Painters had always been lusty: in antiquity the painter Arellius fell in love with countless women, during the Renaissance Filippo Lippi’s lust became legendary. In the modern period, however, the relations of art and eros reached in new pitch, particularly in the life and work of Picasso, who famously shaped himself in conformity to the model of his legendary compatriot, Don Juan, himself the very type of sexual obsession.

It is one thing for an artist to make love to his model. It is quite another, however, to make love to one’s own art. In a brilliant tale apropos, when a woman asked Jackson Pollock how he knew when he had finished painting one of his pictures made by flinging or dripping paint, the painter cutely answered, “How do you know when you’re finished making love?” Annibale Carracci may have called art his “mistress” in the 17th century, but now Pollock metaphorically asks us to imagine him in a sexual frenzy of artistic activity, culminating in the orgasm of his masterpiece. No wonder so many people are repelled by the modern artist. Not only is he by turns a criminal, a savage, and obsessive, his sexuality is also seemingly unbounded. Playing on this idea or on Freud’s professed key to the whole business, Marcel Duchamp claimed that his artistic goal was “to grasp things with the mind the way the penis is grasped by the vagina.” Phew!

It is time, clearly, to bring down the curtain on the artist’s scandalous life, to bring his life to a close. Now hastily to his deathbed we proceed. When the 17th-century painter Alonso Cano, died a priest brought him a crucifix carved by a mediocre artist. At this, the artist told the priest to remove it. What? Is our artist now abandoning religion too? Not quite. Caro explained to the priest that the crucifix was so poorly done that all he needed was a bare cross and this would suffice to help him venerate his Lord. And so Cano died an exemplary death. In a related tale, when Antoine Watteau was given a crucifix by a curate during his final illness, he asked that it be removed at once. “Get rid of it,” he insisted, “it grieves me to see it; is it possible that my Lord is so poorly served?” Watteau also required an art worthy of God.

Such stories are rooted in a Renaissance fable about the sculptor Nanni Grosso, Big John. About to die in the hospital, Nanni was also brought a poorly made crucifix, to which he responded by urging that another from the hand of Donatello be brought him instead of the ugly one—insisting that if this exchange were not made he would die in despair, since he so detested ugly work in his art. Big John does not even bother to mouth the pieties that we hear later from Alonso Cano and Watteau about how art serves the Lord, about how it functions in the veneration of God. Nanni’s attention, at the last, is focused on the beauty of the object alone, not on its devotional purpose. Despair comes not from the fear of being abandoned by God but from the absence of beauty. In this originary tale, we encounter one of the first artists to articulate implicitly the modern credo of “art for art’s sake” —the supreme fiction of modern art, indeed its most radical fable.


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