Assignment: Learning to Look at the Visual Arts

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  • 1. Undergraduate Certificate in the History of Art Name: Anthony Toole Assignment 1: Learning to look at the Visual Arts ID no: 2772764 Ecce Homo - Christ Presented to the People (The Small Passion) Albrecht Dürer, 1509-1511 The thirty seven woodcuts in Dürer's Small Passion series1 present a pictorial biblical narrative that begins with the Fall of Man and concludes with the Last Judgement. It has, at its centre, the story of the birth, death and resurrection of Christ. Ecce Homo is a print that depicts the scene when Christ is presented to the people prior to his crucifixion. The woodcuts were created between 1509 and 1510 and the first edition was published in 1511. The original blocks are now in the British Museum and the impression of Ecce Homo being evaluated here is from the 1511 1 Karl-Adolf Knappe. Dürer - The Complete Etchings and Woodcuts. (London 1965). Images 254-290. 1
  • 2. Undergraduate Certificate in the History of Art Name: Anthony Toole Assignment 1: Learning to look at the Visual Arts ID no: 2772764 Latin edition, currently in a private collection. The image above is shown actual size (12.7cm x 9.86cm) and the original is a Meder (d) impression2 on laid paper. The dominant lines of organisation in Ecce Homo are vertical and horizontal, combined with strong diagonals in a matrix of mainly equilateral triangles. The overall layout is formed as nested golden sections, both vertical and horizontal (Appendix: Figures 1-5). The bold horizontals and verticals in the picture are defined by the building and reinforced by the figures and their clothes. Christ is presented by Pilate on a balcony and viewed by the people as though through a proscenium arch. This, together with the attitudes of the main figures, gives the impression of a tableaux; appropriate, perhaps, for a key moment in the classical portrayal of the passion of Christ. The composition of the picture is dominated by a single strong diagonal starting from the lower left hand corner. This diagonal progresses through the sword, clothing, arm and hand of the main left hand figure; is extended by the fold in Pilate's coat, and ends on the forehead of Christ directly between the eyes. The drama and pathos of Ecce Homo was encapsulated by Dürer in the simple inclination of Christ's head which aligned his nose with the dominant diagonal connecting him to the person who was holding the cross. An expression of inner peace completes the image. The linear geometry that structures the composition is relieved by the perfect half-circle of the proscenium arch which is mirrored below by the arm and hand of Pilate drawing back the cloak of Christ. This lower arch forms a completed circle through the figures to the right foreground and the 2 Joseph Meder. Dürer - Katalog. (Wein 1932). p141-142. 2
  • 3. Undergraduate Certificate in the History of Art Name: Anthony Toole Assignment 1: Learning to look at the Visual Arts ID no: 2772764 seated figure with the halberd (Figure 4). Relief is also provided by the graceful curve of the figure in the left foreground which cuts through the vertical, horizontal and diagonal cues that the same figure contributes. The harmony and balance of the composition is significantly enhanced by the use of double nested golden sections as illustrated in Figure 5. The plane of the proscenium arch has horizontal and vertical golden sections and is nested within the picture plane which is sectioned in the same way. This compositional structure reinforces the 'tableaux' nature of the picture. Geometrical space is an important feature of the picture. Linear perspective applies and although the vanishing point in Ecce Homo is obscured by the building from which Christ is being presented, there are sufficient indicators from the lines of the building to suggest that the horizon is a little below the top of the balcony where he is standing. The cross piece of the second crucifix and the unusual angle of the arm of the leftmost figure are amongst the other aspects of the picture that add to the impression of perspective. A series of receding planes also contribute geometrical space. From the picture plane there are planes at the step with the seated figure, the ledge behind the figure, the balcony, the pillar behind Pilate and then the door behind that. Figure 3 in the Appendix shows the matrix of equilateral triangles that articulate space and add depth. The main triangle arising from the two bottom corners of the picture and peaking at Pilate's chin creates the greatest impression of depth between the picture plane and the plane defined by the balcony wall. This is accentuated by the figures to the left and right foreground that contribute to the triangle through the fact they angle into the centre of the picture. 3
  • 4. Undergraduate Certificate in the History of Art Name: Anthony Toole Assignment 1: Learning to look at the Visual Arts ID no: 2772764 The spatial effect of this triangulation is reinforced by the seated figure in the bottom centre who appears to be in his own glass pyramid, seen through the slanting front triangle. It might be argued, in fact, that the picture plane is actually the proscenium arch and that the observer is amongst the 'people' to whom Christ is being presented. This view significantly increases the perceived depth of the picture as it brings into play the space between the observer and the main foreground figures. The shading effects employed in the woodcut contribute to the impression of space and form. The darker and lighter areas of the picture, created through different levels of hatching and cross-hatching, create depth with lighter areas coming forward and darker areas receding into the picture. This chiaroscuro effect is particularly apparent in the two figures to the left and right foreground with the highlights projecting out of the picture. The same effect is employed much more delicately in the figure of Christ who is in partial shadow from the light from the left. The chiaroscuro effect, complementing the compositional design, also renders solid form in the picture. This is again exemplified by the figures in the foreground in the way highlighted areas and shadows combine to give them a convincing three-dimensional presence. The clair-obscure technique used in the robes of the figures to the right foreground adds a level of subtlety to the shading. A further shading effect that generates the impression of depth and form is in the direction of the woodcuts themselves. This can be seen in the contrast between the flat surfaces, where the cuts are across the plane of the surface or uniformly cross-hatched, and the receding surfaces where they are cut in the direction of that recession, reinforcing the effect. 4
  • 5. Undergraduate Certificate in the History of Art Name: Anthony Toole Assignment 1: Learning to look at the Visual Arts ID no: 2772764 The lintel above the proscenium arch (though not easy to see in the reproduction here, but quite apparent in the original) is a good example of the woodcuts contributing to the linear perspective, whilst the woodcuts articulating the folds of the clothes of all the figures demonstrate how the technique contributes to form. The light and dark tones in the picture also create a dramatic contrast between the menace in the overall scenario and the serenity in the face of Christ. The darkest area under the Proscenium arch is the doorway at the rear which promises danger and uncertainty. The triangle reaching in to Christ from the picture plane seeks to push him into the dark background. The enigmatic dark shadow on the shelf behind the seated figure seems to be symbolic of the crucifix with which Christ will be soon united. There is an anxious dynamic about the whole picture epitomised by the figure and face of Christ who, half absorbed already in the brooding darkness, is reflecting on this necessary process and only too aware of the ultimate outcome. Dürer used a variety of tonal techniques in his woodcut to create shapes and shades; space and form; atmosphere and a way of expressing the context for this moment in the classic story. In the Small Passion he was addressing the task of convincingly articulating plastic groups of figures and, where appropriate, providing them with the impression of movement, in a format limited to 5” x 4”. Central to his approach was the creation of a middle tone of grey to provide a consistent contrast to the deep shadows and the white highlights elsewhere in the picture. This is demonstrated in Ecce Homo on the front wall of the building where the middle grey can be seen to extend from the top to the bottom of the woodcut. It is known that Dürer adopted the clair- 5
  • 6. Undergraduate Certificate in the History of Art Name: Anthony Toole Assignment 1: Learning to look at the Visual Arts ID no: 2772764 obscure style of ‘white-on-black-on-grey’ for his woodcuts after his second trip to Venice in 15073 and his first woodcut using the technique was produced in 1509, the year he began the Small Passion. The subject matter of the Small Passion was biblical and covered the story of the fall of man, the birth, death and resurrection of Christ, and concluded with the last judgement. It was published in 1511 as book to be used for devotional purposes. Each of the 37 images, including Ecce Homo, was accompanied by a Latin inscription, hence the reference to the 'Latin edition' of 1511. Albrecht Dürer (1471 - 1528), who was born and brought up in Nuremberg, has been described as the 'greatest German artist'4 and was central to the Northern Renaissance. He was a renowned graphical artist, as well as an outstanding painter, and was strongly influenced by his immediate predecessors and contemporaries from the Italian Renaissance, particularly Mantegna5. As with others at the time he was occupied by the renaissance problems of perspective, proportion and harmony and he published as an art theorist6. His graphical work retains iconic status to this day. Tony Toole 4th November 2009 3 Erwin Panofsky. The Life and Art of Albrecht Dürer. (Princeton, 1971). p133. 4 E. H. Gombrich. The Story of Art.(London, 2008). p342. 5 Harold Osborne. The Oxford Companion to Art. (Oxford, 1993). p338. 6 Erwin Panofsky. The Life and Art of Albrecht Dürer. (Princeton, 1971). pp242-286. 6
  • 7. Undergraduate Certificate in the History of Art Name: Anthony Toole Assignment 1: Learning to look at the Visual Arts ID no: 2772764 Appendix: Compositional Features Figure 1. Verticals 7
  • 8. Undergraduate Certificate in the History of Art Name: Anthony Toole Assignment 1: Learning to look at the Visual Arts ID no: 2772764 Figure 2. Horizontals 8
  • 9. Undergraduate Certificate in the History of Art Name: Anthony Toole Assignment 1: Learning to look at the Visual Arts ID no: 2772764 Figure 3. Diagonals 9
  • 10. Undergraduate Certificate in the History of Art Name: Anthony Toole Assignment 1: Learning to look at the Visual Arts ID no: 2772764 Figure 4. Circles 10
  • 11. Undergraduate Certificate in the History of Art Name: Anthony Toole Assignment 1: Learning to look at the Visual Arts ID no: 2772764 Figure 5. Golden Sections 11