There are a lot of really fascinating things about how art changed from the time of the Roman Empire into the Middle Ages and finally into the Renaissance. The Roman Empire became this part of art history where, while imitating the Greeks, Romans made these vivid and beautifully rendered classical sculptures and works of art. These works marked a period of idolatry of gods that, once the Roman Empire collapsed, really completely ceased to be relevant to the early Christian era. What this means for the art is, unfortunately, destruction. Many works of art from the Roman Empire were completely destroyed and forgotten. "We call these ages dark, partly to convey that the people who lived during these centuries of migrations, wars and upheavals, were themselves plunged in darkness and had little knowledge to guide them, but also to imply that we ourselves know rather little about these confused and confusing centuries which followed upon the decline of the ancient world and preceded the emergence of the European countries in shape, roughly, in which we know them." Gombrich further describes how much change was really happening within art during this mysterious time. It's especially fascinating because you have these incredible works of art, like the Venus de Milo, and then it seems, over some arbitrary amount of time, that kind of refined work of art is so lost to many civilizations during Medieval times. This means strange art. Gombrich pulls us through time, and through varying and growing knowledge of perspective, or lack thereof.
It's time to go to the MET. Fisk was doing some research for a project, and I was in this dark age in the Story of Art, so we somehow needed to be in this certain part of the museum, where, baby Jesus has a face like a man, and there are other strange things happening in various works of art from this period before the Renaissance...
It's especially strange, because it's not like there is some conceptual foundation for this digression of aesthetics and composition, it just happened. Don't let me lead you to believe that I appreciate this work any less. I think there is something very special about the strangeness that comes out of this period. In this last sculpture you can see the reference to Greek sculpture, you can really feel the artist grasping for some history of what was before. "Painting was indeed on the way to becoming a form of writing in pictures; but this return to more simplified methods of representation gave the artist of the Middle Ages a new freedom to experiment with more complex forms of composition (com-position=putting together). Without these methods the teachings of the Church could never have been translated into visible shapes." Gombrich.
Then really great painters showed up to scene like Giotto, who pretty much blew everyone's mind because he was so darn good at painting things like nature. Then, oh my god, Jan Van Eyck showed up and pretty much Medieval art was over. Everyone began to look backwards into time, and suddenly realized the Greeks made stunning work, so they became obsessed with making things look like reality.
"The artists, however, wanted to go one better. They were no longer content with the newly acquired mastery of painting such details as flowers or animals from nature; they wanted to explore the laws of vision, and to acquire sufficient knowledge of the human body to build it up in their statues and pictures as the Greeks had done." Gombrich
I'm sure at this point, you might be thinking, this is all well and good, but all this imagery is kind of boring. We really have no way of knowing how the artist felt about it either, they might have even agreed. Believe it not, the notion of an artist making something simply because they themselves had wanted to, was an idea that did not exist before the Renaissance. Paintings were simply not made for fickle reasons like, I want to paint this tree, so here I go. Paintings were commissioned, and you learned from a master, and you were the apprentice for many years. So I wouldn't go around feeling guilty that you're not in love with a period of time where all artwork had nothing to say beyond it's religious implications, because, for the most part, it didn't.
Can you imagine though for a moment that all this art was lacking in the expression of self? A cliche sort of notion that is married to the idea of being an artist today? It's kind of nuts, but also really cool to think about the progression of ideas, and what the meaning of art is or was.