What is art? If somebody asked you, what would your response be? Perhaps, some allusion to classic portraiture and the glory of the human body. Maybe a traditional view that, as Durer wholeheartedly agreed, nature is the only subject fit to be made immortal. You may say that emotion is beautiful and meant to be recorded. But is that the only answer?
A trip to the Philadelphia Museum of Art reveals that art is a conflicted idea. You can see room after room of canvases with only stripes of color on them. Galleries filled with twisted and contorted sculptures. Realistic humans, nudes and portraits and people going about their everyday life. Landscapes, religion, history, fantasy. But to some, the realistic body pales in comparison with, for example, Botticelli’s The Birth of Venus. And look at poor Venus, she’s got a neck the height of her head and sadly twisted arms.
Or look around online; on the internet digital art abounds. Artists use photo manipulation and painting programs to create art in every shape or form. In fact, Tims Vermeer, a movie centered on just the question “ What is Art?”, is the brain child of graphic designer and inventor, Tim Jenison. The Texan sets out to take a closer look at a famous late 17th century artist, the painter, Jan Vermeer.
Widely recognized as one of paintings’ great masters, Vermeer’s work features everyday scenes bathed in light. His paintings are coveted in almost any major art museum, and his pieces are taught about and respected. Vermeer’s masterpieces include the famous Girl with a Pearl Earring and The Music Lesson. Although you may not know the names, you would most likely recognize the works on sight, as they are unbelievably famous. But there is a problem lurking.
The problem has been in the back of art historians’ heads for years, surrounding many works of art and, most famously, Jan Van Eyck’s painting, the Arnolfini Portrait.
First of all, what is the Arnolfini Portrait? A couple, holding hands in a lavish room. The man is draped in furs, holding hands with a round woman in a layered green dress. Although she appears pregnant she is not, in fact she is dressed in the latest (slightly unflattering) fashion. The two are standing beside their bed, fruit on the window, a pair of shoes by the wall and a small dog at their feet, the work may be a wedding portrait of a middle class family. It is a calm and masterful work, down to the details on the drapery hanging of their bed. On the wall, a major moment in art history is marked, one of the first signatures is penned above a small curved mirror. The signature, although revolutionary, is not the problem. The convex mirror it is written above, is, at a glance, just a mirror. It reflects the back of the couple towards the viewer of the painting, and two other people standing in a doorway. They are not in the painting, and are believed to be a self portrait of the painter, and perhaps an assistant. This reflected portrait, although interesting, is not the real problem. It’s the mirror itself that is.
Many people, art historians and others,have commented on Van Eycks sudden jump in painting style. From the late medieval western works which are almost exclusively religious, comes a domestic portrait. These religious works were primarily symbolic, and not focused on realism so much as whatever divine message the artist was trying to convey. Although many historians think it is covered in religious symbolism, there is no obvious focus on the church in the Arnolfini Portrait. Instead it is an extremely realistic portrait of a couple.
As a young man, Van Eyck, with little training, succeeded in creating paintings so realistic that they appear, at a glance, to be alive. In fact, the skillful artworks have prompted discussions about the integrity of Van Eyck’s and others’ work, including the debate about whether or not many of their works were really a product of the skill of the painter.
Included in the debate, Jan Vermeer, a 17th century painter dedicated to domestic scenes, mostly set in his own home.
The Hockney-Falco thesis, developed by David Hockney, an artist, and Charles Falco, a physicist and professor of optical sciences, were main critics of Vermeers. The thesis questions the validity of many (and most) advances in realism during the renaissance and make a lot of artists and art historians very angry. The two men point to the camera obscura and camera lucida as the real reason that artists like Jan Vermeer could paint the way they did. Both devices are mechanical and were common knowledge in the era preceding and following Van Eyck. They use mirrors and tricks of light to reflect the artist model onto a surface, which could be then copied. Hockney and Falco, of course, raised a valid point. What if the leap from semi-realistic art to hyper-realistic and detailed paintings and drawings were actually the result of the invention of a sort of camera?
Of course, this controversial suggestion has raised questions concerning the validity of renaissance art, and Tim Jenison decided to take a second look at it. Tim spent years recreating the setup of Vermeer’s painting, The Music Lesson, almost identical down to the paint on the piano. He then built his own machine based on the mechanisms alluded to in the Hockney-Falco thesis, sat down behind a curtain, and with no painting experience created an almost exactly correct reproduction of The Music Lesson.
So what does this all mean? Tim Jenison, in the end, proved very little. Except for creating a working camera obscura, which had already been theoretically proven, Jenison had no revelations concerning Vermeer’s art in particular. Yes, it is possible that Vermeer “copied” to create artwork. But given the time period and it’s focus on realism, such methods would not be dismissed as lowering the value of art. In fact, Durer is known to have used similar processes to create his realistic art. He left us with many diagrams of the different ways he “traced” scenes and models, aiming to create photo realistic artworks. The real aim of most of that era’s artworks was to recreate nature, as exactly as possible. And using help would not have been considered at all out of the question.
And then again, has that really changed? New mediums have emerged, including photo manipulation and digital art. We can create art so realistic that it looks like a photograph, and we consider photography and film to be art as well, despite them being direct recordings of reality.
Does it matter that Vermeer may have been aided in his work? For some artists, their work is purely emotional, and is meant to represent something other than the physical. For Vermeer and others, both during the renaissance and today, their focus was documenting reality, and was primarily physical in conveying only what was on the surface of their subjects.
So what is art?