The Art of Arts: Rediscovering Painting

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9780375400995: The Art of Arts: Rediscovering Painting

There was a time, five hundred years ago, when science was regarded as an art, and art as a science. And in the contest between the senses, the ear, through which we had previously received all knowledge and the word of God, was conquered by the eye, which would henceforth be king. A new breed of painters aimed to reconcile the world of the senses with that of the mind, and their goal was to conceal themselves in the details and vanish away, like God. A new way of perceiving was born.

Anita Albus describes the birth and evolution of trompe-l'oeil painting in oils in the fifteenth, sixteenth, and seventeenth centuries, focusing her attention on works by northern European artists—both major and minor. As a scholar, she stands in the tradition of Panofsky; as a painter, she is able to see things others have not yet perceived; as a storyteller, she skillfully describes abstract notions in a vivid and exciting way. Like the multilayered technique of the Old Masters, her method assumes an ability to distinguish between the different levels, as well as a talent for synthesizing them.

The first part of the book is devoted to the visibility of the invisible in the art of Jan van Eyck—his visual effects, perspective, artistic technique, and philosophy. The second and third parts are taken up with descriptions of the genres of "forest landscape," "still life," and "forest floor." In the midst of butterflies, bumblebees, and dragonflies, Vladimir Nabokov emerges as final witness to the survival in literature of all that was condemned to vanish from the fine arts. After a glimpse into the continuing presence of the past and some conjectures as to the future, the book's final part throws fresh light on the colored grains of the hand-ground pigments that were lost when artists' materials began to be commercially manufactured in the nineteenth century.

The Art of Arts is thus both a dazzling cultural history and the story of two explosive inventions: the so-called third dimension of space through perspective, and the shockingly vivid colors of revolutionary oil paints. Albus makes abundantly clear how, taken together, these breakthroughs not only created a new art, but altered forever our perception of the world.

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Review:

The lovingly crafted little tome The Art of Arts might become a cult classic if there are enough Jan van Eyck fans out there--or enough readers who can chew their way through 775 footnotes--to make this work of special genius even an underground bestseller. It is filled with delectable details (for example, that an image of a mill in a landscape connotes a wanton woman, complete with a page of explanations why) and myriad perspicacious observations. In discussing such masterworks as van Eyck's Madonna of Chancellor Rolin, author Anita Albus draws the reader into a vanished world of alternative perspectives, painterly depths of color and atmosphere, and the mesmerizing minutiae of late-medieval and Renaissance symbolism. The last chapter of the book, "Of Lost Colors," combines metallurgy, history, meticulous scholarship, and the author's passionate comprehension of colors in a discussion of antique pigments and their physical properties and pictorial uses.

The book's mostly paragraph-long sentences may put off some readers, and the warm, wry, even sly prose--its liveliness, in other words--may raise the hackles of the dowdy art-historical crowd (not the stylish, open-minded one). But this miniaturist's view of the northern Renaissance will copiously reward those who peruse it slowly, especially artists. Although it is possible to become lost in some chapters, as Albus tiptoes unhurriedly toward some arcane, elusive point, in the end it's hard to resist the sort of book that declares of the late 17th century: "Research into arthropods was in the air." This volume is a work of art, complete in itself, meticulously ordered according to the artist's unique vision, and handsomely "framed" by a sensitive designer. --Peggy Moorman

From the Inside Flap:

"I haven't seen such a fascinating work in years. Nobody has ever studied Erwin Panofsky so accurately and sensitively as Anita Albus has here."—Gerda Panofsky

"With Albus's book, we have been given a masterpiece. The author is a versatile genius, and this mighty work is unique in its highly original combination of knowledge of art history and technical experience."—William S. Heckscher, coauthor of Art and Literature: Studies in Relationship

"This book enchants me with its revelations. I do not think anyone has ever succeeded so well in making clear that--contrary to popular belief--painting does not consist of taking three-dimensional objects and representing them in a two-dimensional way, but rather in the transformation of three-dimensional objects into another object which also has three dimensions--namely, the picture itself."—Claude Lévi-Strauss

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