Art Appreciation 101

Seeing Old Art With Modern Eyes

Leonardo da Vinci - Female head (La Scapigliata)
Leonardo da Vinci, Female head (La Scapigliata), c. 1508. Galleria Nazionale di Parma in Parma, Italy. [Public Domain].

I recently read the most fascinating quote from noted Leonardo da Vinci scholar Martin Kemp. While discussing the difficult questions art restoration poses concerning artworks’ original states, he made the following observation about the tricky nature of the “original”.

Even if we indulge in a rather extreme thought experiment (or envisage a brilliant digital reconstruction) that would somehow restore the Last Supper to its actual appearance in 1500, we would be seeing the ‘original’, but not in the original way. We are spectators from the second millennium. We know to varying degrees about the history of ‘Art’. We are likely to have acquired some knowledge of Leonard – most probably knowing that he was a universal genius. Inevitably we know something, right or wrong, about the Mona Lisa. This, and much other baggage, we inevitably bring to our looking. […]

The modern viewer of the Last Supper has different eyes from anyone in Leonardo’s period. One of the jobs of the art historian – perhaps the key job – is to set up criteria that enrich our modes of looking in terms that are analogous to those of the period itself. Ultimately, to look with a period eye is an impossible quest, but much profit and delight is to be gained from trying.

Kemp, Martin. Living with Leonardo: Fifty Years of Sanity and Insanity in the Art World and Beyond. New York: Thames & Hudson, 2018. P. 68-69.

This is such a fascinating idea. It seems obvious when I see it written in front of me, but I can’t say I had considered it much before. It’s impossible to look at a very old painting, sculpture, building, etc. the same way people did when it was new. Too much has changed since then.

Leonardo do Vinci, Virgin and Child with Saints Anne and John the Baptist, c. 1499-1500. Drawing on paper. National Gallery, London. [Public Domain]

As Kemp noted, knowledge and presuppositions about artworks are major reasons for this, particularly in the case of as famous an artist as Leonardo. Constantly changing tastes in clothing and hairstyles, architecture, and cultural norms also play a big role. A portrait of someone who is recognizably of our own era definitely gives a different experience than one in which the sitter is clearly from centuries ago. I imagine this has probably been equally true for people of any time period looking at art that came before them. Occasionally, one might find a painting or sculpture in which the subject seems very “modern”, despite being very old. That can be a very noteworthy experience, but it’s usually pretty rare.

Additionally, I think that innovations of the past 150 years or so have probably separated us further from an “original” view of old art. Photography, motion pictures, bright synthetic dyes and paints, and the general bounty of images made possible by modern technology have definitely changed visual expectations in the 20th and 21st centuries. I can’t even fully comprehend how different it would have been to view the world before these technologies. Twentieth-century artistic movements particularly abstract art, have also fundamentally altered the way we interpret at the art of the past.

As Kemp said, it’s impossible to look at old artworks the same way their contemporaries did. But it might be fun to try. For example, I might stand in front of a dramatic landscape painted from on high and try to imagine how different it would be if I weren’t so used to seeing similar views in the movies. Or, I might visit a Renaissance portrait and imagine that the sitter was dressed in the height of current fashion, and that myself and the people around me were wearing similar clothes. It’s also exciting to realize that future viewers won’t look at either historical art or our contemporary art with the same eyes we do today. In this way, art viewing has the cool dynamic of being a living tradition. Contrary to popular belief, it’s never static, and I don’t think people give it enough credit for that.

Update 2/25/19: I finished Kemp’s book, which is a memoir of his experiences as one of the world’s most important Leonardo scholars. You might think of an academic life and quiet and undramatic, but that’s definitely not the case when you’re one of the foremost experts on the world’s most famous artist of all time. Kemp talks about issues such as the restoration of the Last Supper, scientific testing and the role it plays in art history, the attribution controversies surrounding La Bella Principessa and Salvator Mundi, and the many elaborate theories (all false) surrounding the Mona Lisa. The book is a memoir, but a very focused one that mainly sticks to art historical adventures rather than running away into the author’s personal life like many memoirs do. Accordingly, it’s calm and very enjoyable. I strongly recommend it.

Learn to Enjoy Art More

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