Click on photos to enlarge.

Sunday, October 16, 2011

The First Art Historian

As artists, most of us have a general knowledge of art history. For some it's little more than a spotty list of names and dates forming a "hit or miss" chronology and a sort of instinctive feeling for the gradual evolution of art and art forms. We've put this together through the visiting of museums and perusing art books in stores, libraries, and the occasional boring class in art history/appreciation. Others who are fascinated by history in general, and art in particular, have a bit more detailed understanding of what went before and what came after. We tend to fall into two groups, those with a linear view of art, and more recently, those with a cyclical view. As one wag put it, the linearists conclude that art is,"just one damned thing after another." The cyclical view is that art is "the same damned thing over and over again."

Orestes and Electra, c. 50 BCE.,
Whatever the case, we all know where the history of art began--cave painting, right? Okay, now, where did art history begin? The same thing? Nope, the difference is between prehistoric and historic. His name was Pasiteles. He was a Greek-Italian sculptor. He was also quite likely the very first art historian. Strangely, for a historian, he neglected to record the year of his birth but we can deduce, given the average life span of the time, and by the fact that he became a Roman citizen in 89 BCE, that he was born probably between 125 and 100 BCE. As a sculptor, his specialty seemed to be Roman generals from the then recent civil wars and copies of Greek antiquarian sculptures the Romans so loved. He seems to have been a very personable, well-traveled, and highly educated young man as well. And, had he been "merely" a sculptor, he'd be, at best, a footnote on the written pages of some other art historian.

Castor and Pollux,
first century BCE., Pasiteles

However, his five-volume opus, The Noble Works of Art Throughout the World, goes down in history as the first ever attempt to catalog, classify, and critique art. Despite its grandiose title, the work dealt primarily with Roman sculpture and more specifically sculpture in Rome. But that in no way minimizes its importance. Given the time and place, Rome was one gigantic museum of Greek and Roman sculpted images. Yet a museum is virtually worthless without some systematic guide to its contents; and that's what Pasiteles provided. Artists then used his writings as a study guide in developing a sense of style and aesthetics. Artists now use his work as a priceless guide through the maze of styles and aesthetics of the time. Pasiteles even went so far as to theorize on a spectral range of styles spanning what he termed "Attic purity" to "Asiatic license" --what we today might term realism to abstraction, or perhaps conservative to liberal. He went on to found a school of sculpture that combined the best of Greek grace and beauty with the daring and technical virtuosity of Roman stonecutting. He left a legacy of broken bits and pieces of carved stone, coupled with a written text making sense of it all that would inspire the likes of Michelangelo, Caravaggio, and El Grecco fifteen hundred years later.

No comments:

Post a Comment