Saturday, July 11, 2009

True impressions

"A modern man registers a hundred times more sensory impressions than an eighteenth-century artist."
-- Fernand Léger, 1914.

I came across Léger's statement in Art in Theory and wondered -- is it true? (Unfortunately this is how my mind works nowadays. The first question I ask myself on reading anything is, is it true? Because if it's not true, that alters my perception of the writer as a reliable source of information and as an artist, and I often don't read further. Life is short, time is short, and for me personally untruth is a waste of precious time.)

Back to sensory impressions, then and now, and whether Léger's claim is true. He was writing in the context of the speed, machinery and new inventions of the early 20th century, so it would have been true to say that the kinds of external stimuli experienced by a modern man were different from those in the past -- noises, smells, factories instead of trees. But in quantity a hundred times more? Hardly likely. People's senses are recording impressions constantly while they're awake and there's no evidence that the anatomy or physiology of the human sensory system has changed in any way in the past two hundred years. it could even be argued that eighteenth-century man was better able to observe, register and fix his sensory impressions because of having more time and space and quietness to reflect. So that, while 18th-century man and 20th-century man experienced the same number of sensations, 18th-century man may actually have been more consciously aware of his. (I'm not claiming this as a fact by the way, it's more of a hypothesis. )

Jan Davidsz De Heem, Still-Life with Lobster and Nautilus Cup, 1634, from

Jean Baptiste-Siméon Chardin, Water Glass and Jug, c. 1760,

Supporting evidence might be found by comparing actual paintings. Sure enough, paintings by De Heem and Chardin from the 17th and 18th centuries show very much more detailed observation and sensory impressions than a typical still life by Morandi from the twentieth century. Of course De Heem and Chardin and Morandi were after very different things, but on the single question of the quantity of sensory impressions, the older guys can hold their own, thus putting Léger's assertion in doubt.

Giorgio Morandi, Still Life, 1956, from the Met

I'm suggesting that these paintings are valid choices to support the hypothesis because they're rated by the experts and are part of the unofficial canon. Other selections might show a different story.


Casey Klahn said...

I think you are on to something. Chardin, et al, do give us much more to look at. But that takes time.

Do you suppose the Modernists (apropos to the date of the quote - 1914) are painting for their sensory dep. audience? Less time? Okay, I'll paint a picture that goes in quicker.

What do you think, Mary?

Mary Adam said...

Hi Casey, I suppose it might be that, pressure of time, more hustle and bustle and less time for contemplation. And too, maybe the complexity of modern life makes us appreciate simpler things. The more I look at the Morandi still life the better I like it -- it's a strange contrast, don't you think?

Duncan Astbury said...

I think I agree with your original point but not convinced that you have identified the right evidence.

Léger's statement seems flawed to me in that any increase in external stimuli does not imply any increase in an artists cognitive abilities.

But in looking at the details captured in a painting are we considering 'output' rather than 'input'? It is possible for a painter to be selective in what is recorded and to what level of detail. There is an analog in photography where a surface texture may be visible in great detail but that surface be captured as a silhouette, reduced to a high contrast abstraction. It doesn't mean the texture was not sensed, rather that it was not a characteristic that was chosen for reproduction.

I like your examples, especially “Water Glass and Jug” but suggest that the still life by Morandi may not in fact prove any lack of sensory perception. To get some measure of the original perception I think it would be better to look at earlier stages in the production process. So comparing preliminary sketches and working drawings may be more revealing here?

Mary Adam said...

Yes, agreed, the detail in the 17th & 18th C examples is output rather than input. But it's output of the kind that requires incredibly sustained and sensitive input in order to be expressed.

Agreed too that Morandi's piece does not prove lack of sensory perception. But I chose my words carefully, and said only that "on the single question of the quantity of sensory impressions, the older guys can hold their own" -- I did not say that Morandi did not sense as much as they did. He may very well have done but chose (as you suggest) not to focus on those things. He was after something else instead, more the abstract formal qualities, very different to de Heem and Chardin.

I've often thought that still life is the area of painting that best charts the course of art through all the ages and movements, and this post, slightly by accident, tends to support that idea.

Duncan Astbury said...

Your right, the older guys can certainly hold their own and you evidence that with a couple of impressive examples.

I guess we are saying we can't really tell what level of sensory perception was present or required on more abstract outputs is it is likely that it was more than is finally evident?

And to add further confusion, it is possible for an artist to depict something extra to the original scene, perhaps present elsewhere or at another time etc. I'm thinking works such as maybe Van Eyck's The Arnolfini Marriage with its mirror.

Mary Adam said...

That's a really interesting point about sensory perception and abstract outputs, sets one to thinking. I think I'll do some digging around on it, possibly looking into Morandi himself, his preliminary studies as you also suggested. He did a number of drawings and etchings which are quite detailed but in a different way to de Heem and Chardin, they're more graphic. And he chose different material too, simpler, and that's a significant factor in itself. It should be interesting.