Msnowe's Blog

The Ocular Renaissance

Posted in Uncategorized by m.snowe on December 15, 2008

This weekend, M.Snowe found herself at her other apt. overlooking the park (yeah, right!): the Met. (Note: M.Snowe isn’t trying for pretension here, but merely suggests that given the amount of time she’s there, the docents could justifiably start charging rent). Like any reasonable perspective tenant, M.Snowe surveyed the newly renovated space, which this month consisted of an exhibit, “Art and Love in Renaissance Italy.” What first struck M.Snowe was the deep, rich color of the walls that housed this new installment, and sadly or otherwise, the depth of the walls was almost as impressive as the first few rooms’s art, which was largely marriage goods (such as plates and jars). While some of the jugs and starter plates looked like recent acquisitions from a Medici-themed Pottery Barn, the dark cobalt blues of the wall washed over the art. The red of the next room was that of creamy indulgence–an intense red with brown undertones, a color similar to the tint of someone’s blood as it has just begun to dry. The high ceilings made the rooms impossibly enveloping, and for the first time in a gallery, M.Snowe realized the empty walls are just as much of a canvas.

As the exhibit progressed, the walls got drabber, or at least unnoticeable–but the paintings increased in number and intensity. The paintings increased in a way directly proportional to the number of naked women on display, which isn’t entirely unexpected in Renaissance art. M.Snowe takes great satisfaction in the idea of people in the “dark ages” and the Renasissance that came afterwards appreciating realistically portrayed women’s bodies, if nothing else (because to be a woman in the Renaissance, like most ages, was a bum deal). This isn’t to say the women weren’t idealized–but somehow the definition of beauty seemed a bit more broad than today’s version.

Browsing the paintings and their respective titles and artist names, M.Snowe was faced with a very general observation–the Met, or more likely whoever comes up with the titles of pictures, are just a little bit sexist, or at least a bit unbalanced. Not talking specifically of this exhibit, M.Snowe understands that curators often give names to paintings that are otherwise untitled by simply describing the major factors of the painting, for example: “Portrait of a Man,”or “A Bouquet of Flowers in a Crystal Vase.” Many, many pictures, especially in the European paintings rooms of the Met, were the simple “Portrait of a Woman”–many more than the men. Why are the men more accurately labeled? Was it due to some lack of records on the female paintings, because they were females and Renaissance painters didn’t feel the need to give names? Perhaps they were more fictional women, making naming unnecessary? Unless at least minor nobility, the “real” women often remain unnamed, and though men in portraits also were sometimes unidentified, the anonymous women outnumbered them sizeably. M.Snowe wasn’t shocked or surprised, as the same situation happens in literature, etc., but what struck her most this time was the way that some unidentified women were described. For instance, M.Snowe came upon a captivating portrait of an anonymous youthful woman with a pale face, and fresh eyes, in the Renaissance exhibit. Her eyes seemed to leap out at you–they were alive. But looking at the caption, it said: “Young Woman in a Green Dress, Holding a Box.” M.Snowe had to look again–and sure as the label, she was wearing a green dress (at least you could see the emerald neckline) and she held up a small metal casket, very Portia-esque. But the fact was M.Snowe had noticed neither of these attributes. The woman had been measured by her accoutrements–as if she was a vase or tapestry. It was nearly impossible to find any male portraits that described them “in blue suits” or “wearing pointy hats,” etc.

M.Snowe is most definitely over-analyzing, but she can’t help it–given a person’s way of viewing art is often how they view beauty, and that translates into desire, which further develops and speaks to everything we are and do–it is blatantly Darwinian. The Renaissance artists valued the human form, the eyes, the pose of lustful anticipation–and they were less concerned with the outer shell of insignificance–more concerned with the emotional connection formed between art and art-viewer. Are we more worried about dressing up or analyzing what is already naturally beautiful? Have we lost focus?

PART 2 : Ocular Communion
Renaissance (and to some extent Medieval) artists believed that art was a form of transcendence for the viewer–that paintings were not a one-sided transaction, but a mutual communication that allowed the viewer to be inwardly effected by the external triggers engineered with the piece of art. Scoff if you will, but the concept still exists in a lesser form today–most believe that art has some emotional, philosophical, or other-mental effect on the viewer. But Renaissance thought held that when viewing an erotic portrait, the viewer could literally enter into raptures. Talk about hard-core porn. And funnily enough–the same raptures were said to take place when viewing religious iconography. In today’s world, we are so used to, bombarded, and gorged with images that they no longer take any effect. They are commonplace–completely unspecial. These paintings were singular and unique to the Renaissance viewers, they held power and sway over the audience unlike most things could do today. In a sense, this kind of art has become the marijuana of our generation–it gets us hungry but we’ve moved onto much harder drugs sometimes just for shock-value (which also explains the deterioration of good taste). M.Snowe thinks the test of good art and good life is when something, or someone, is able to force a rapture by the simplicity of ocular communication–eye to eye consumption. Who would’ve thought just looking could be so sexy?

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