Sequence is a fascinating methodology for approaching history. “One bl**dy thing after another” as it has been described. Wikipedia is so often just a rip off of other sources and by using that as the ‘go to’ all sorts of much more interesting things can be missed. By way of a digression, search for ‘George Lansbury’ (the Socialist and leader of Poplar Council) and read everything you can find, and then read the Wikipedia entry. The latter is weedy and without any guts or spirit. But surely such things which cannot be weighed or counted are among the key characteristics of the human experience. The Wikipedia approach to sequence reminds one of the spoof Private Eye entries on ‘Notes & Queries’. But these are minor things. Is it the pretense of objectivity which jars?
Compare Cranach the Elder’s painting of 1535 with Holbein’s ‘The Ambassadors’ of 1537 below.
However, historical sequence should be of great interest particularly in relation to the fine arts. What are these seemingly imperceptible changes, almost invisible, which turn out to have such weight?
All galleries have physical limitations in terms of their holdings, space and proximity to each other. To view all of Vermeer’s paintings (for example – and there are only around 30) would require trips to The Hague, Berlin, Vienna, Dresden, London, Frankfurt-am-Main, Washington, New York, Dublin, Paris, Amsterdam. Using public transport this would take some time. And if one was to do this by date, a fair amount of zig-zagging around. This is not going to be resolved any time soon as the paintings are physical primary objects and can only be in one place at one time.
One might suggest that a future world would resolve this by zapping people from one place to another using some sort of teleporting technology. But what would be the fun of that? A better future society would be one in which machines and computers and robots do all of the necessary production (work as a word would disappear) and people could enjoy the key elements of life, which, as Fourier pointed out are sex, food and the enjoyment of aesthetics. It would be marvelous just to travel. A pleasant and enjoyable walk from Amsterdam to Berlin as there would be no reason to rush the journey. Perhaps via Hamburg to gaze again at Flora. And then to Dresden. And beyond.
But in the here and now, there are some interesting ways to curate paintings which can reveal all sorts of things which are not always apparent when the only source is books or galleries. And that of course is the internet. Given the massive amount of nonsense that there is on the web it is all too easy sometimes not to see the good. And the good in terms of art can be very good indeed. Not only are most of the world’s great galleries online but many offer virtual tours, access to libraries, talks and presentations, detailed information about the paintings themselves and their provenance. There is also JSTOR which takes a little getting used to but can be brilliant for decades of art criticism and hard to find ideas (which are generally the most illuminating and extraordinary).
When I get a mo’ I go through the online galleries and download the artworks by date. I have now created my own database with a basic metadata application profile. This means that I can open up the sixteenth century (or any other century from the thirteenth to the twentieth) and browse through the art works in a chronological order. This is immensely interesting. The early 1500s include the Italian Renaissance and Durer, Cranach the Elder, Hans Baldung Grien, Matthias Grunewald, Altdorfer and so on (a liking for the Rheinish and mittal German meisters is revealed).
Then Hans Holbein appears, and in English eyes, a certain type of Tudor noble. New types of people appear across Europe. At first in the same space as bishops and donors, but then separate and apart. They show fewer and fewer references to religious symbolism. There is war, burning buildings, burning flesh, strange apparitions and demonic figures in Bosch and Bruegel. And then things take a sharp erotic turn with Jan Massys and others. The piety of the church is broken and new senses, sensations, political, economic and social forces appear.
It is the ability to move from one painting to another – regardless of physical space – which I find so fascinating . To look at 1500 – 1510 and then to 1520 and 1530 in more and more detail. As the number of paintings in the database increases the overall effect has become richer (and also one gains a little knowledge and insight on the way). Gradually, and all at once, something is noticed which didn’t seem to be there before. Or perhaps existed some time ago.
How else can Jan Van Eyck’s ‘Ich Als Kann’ be explained? Surely it’s of 1534? But no, it’s of 1434. It is the constant challenge of one’s understanding of history that to me, at least, makes it revolutionary. But that’s not just art creating revolution, but revolution creating art. What happened in those hundred years between Van Eyck and Holbein’s ‘ambassadors’?
Look carefully, what can be seen in terms of similarities and difference? The men so serious, the women almost laughing. But dare they? How was that cloth cut and made, what social forces determined style and fashion, what occupations did these people work at, what ideas and how, did they discuss?
I am reminded of Arthur C.Clarke’s story of the 5,000 Names of Wah. And once they had all been collected, the stars started to go out, one by one. Is there a cosmic pattern in seven hundred years of western art, and what might happen if it is ….revealed?
And that’s only western art. Surely the task is to incorporate the centuries of the art of the world. I wonder what we might find.