Monday, November 25, 2013

Neoclassicism (pt. 7)

Neo-Classical art, arriving by no mere coincidence simultaneously alongside a period of national revolutions and political uprisings, sought to revive the ideals of Ancient Greek and Roman art.  The prefix "neo" means "new"; so you can think of this as "New Classical" art.  It is characterized by balanced compositions, flowing contour lines, and noble gestures and expressions.  Artists looked back to Classical forms to express courage, sacrifice, and patriotism.  New governments, such as the one in America, took inspiration from older political models, like those from Ancient Greece and Rome (the idea of a "senate," for example), and in turn celebrated the re-birth, so to speak, of those Classical ideals in their art.  French Academies endorsed art based on Greece and Rome, and in fact Napoleon himself wanted to supersede the Roman Empire.  His reign as emperor effectively ended the Holy Roman Empire which had been governing since the Middle Ages and which was basically the successive extension of the Ancient Roman Empire itself.
Demonstrating this as clearly as possible for us is The Apotheosis of Homer, painted in 1827 by Jean-Auguste-Dominique Ingres.  (An "apotheosis" is the elevation or exaltation of a person to the rank of god).  Homer, the great Greek poet, sits here in the place of honor, enthroned and being crowned by a figure representing the Nike of Samothrace.  The two women sitting on the steps (wearing orange, on the left, and green, on the right) are the Iliad and Odyssey.  Contrary to the former French Rococo style, which painted flowery and soft images, the artist here paints with harsh lines and rigidly geometric exactness in order to demonstrate the structural precision and symmetry of the artistic works from Ancient Greece and Rome.  Instead of natural, pastoral landscape scenery we transition back to the architectural façades of buildings like the Acropolis.  To adequately portray the Ancient Greeks' devotion to symmetry, use of line had to be employed properly, with great attention to structure and form.  For Ingres, it was the most important element in the painting.  Note that the austerely linear geometry lends greatly to the painting's feeling of gravity and solemnity.
This painting brings to mind Raphael's School of Athens, which was also Classically inspired.  It pictures an impressive assembly of immortals representing the arts.  This painting, like Raphael's Renaissance masterpiece, is an expansion of the Renaissance concept of sacra conversazione (in Italian, "sacred conversation").  A sacra conversazione was originally the idea behind many religious paintings of Heaven, where all the saints were pictured together in communion with each other and with their Lord, but the idea disseminated to more secular artists who painted great scenes of various important historical figures assembled in one location, like a party, for discussion and communion.  It is a gathering of history's greatest intellectuals, come together to discuss matters of art, philosophy, and politics.  The figures surrounding Homer in this painting are other poets, philosophers, and artists including: Phidias, Virgil, Fra Angelica, Aeschylus, Racine, Molière, Raphael, Dante, and Shakespeare.  The sacra conversazione concept is a fun one, because you can imagine in your own mind which historical figures you would like to have a conversation with if you could meet with anybody from the past.  Hmm…

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