The artist and his time
To pretend to understand a work without having a certain knowledge of the artist is, for Joukhadar, a very slippery ground. An art critic who has a good knowledge of the artist and his intentions is certainly one step ahead of a critic who does not have one, assuming he knows how to make good use of it. All too often the artist is given intentions which he does not possess; in reality we then speak of the impressions of the one who views the work, not of the work itself. Obviously, this can be considered a legitimate freedom – so be it – but one must be aware that it is something other than the work in itself. We have the opportunity to know the authors of a large part of the works in the history of art; Chinese works have a well-known seal to identify the artist, and the more one advances in the centuries, the more numerous are documents.
Similarly, one cannot claim to understand a work without having a certain knowledge of the culture and the codes of its time. A remarkable study by Schwarzenberg shows how out-of-context analysis can distort understanding; he gives as example the famous psychoanalytic interpretation that Freud made of the Virgin and St. Anne of Leonardo, where he thought he detected the representation of an eagle as a sexual symbol linked to a childhood memory of Leonardo. In his subconscious, Leonardo would have represented his biological mother and his adoptive mother. In reality, it is easy to demonstrate that during the same period, many artists reproduced symbols in their paintings, yet they did not all have Leonard’s experience. For Joukhadar, this approach is truly extremely farfetched.
What about the paintings of Jerome Bosch, which are almost impossible to decipher without knowledge of the proverbs and adages of the time?
Let us take as an example the famous Virgin of the Annunciation of Antonello da Messina, with the hand of the Virgin in front, seen foreshortened. This foreshortening, for the time, was fascinating; today it hardly attracts our attention. An artist, even an amateur, understands the difficulty in rendering such a foreshortening. It is important to know that this challenge of foreshortening was an obsession of some of the great painters of this time, for example Mantegna (the Dead Christ), but also Leonardo da Vinci, who was enthralled by Antonello da Messina, the only artist in Italy who knew the secret of the Flemish painters, painting in oil. Leonardo painted the same foreshortened hand in the Virgin of the Rocks.
The pitfall of the contemporary taste for novelty
In his conversations about art, Joukhadar has also often revolted against the effects of fashion, which can overnight bring certain artists, hitherto despised, to the skies, while giving others, hitherto appreciated, the cold shoulder. We have seen works reach a prohibitive price overnight.
In reality, Europe cultivates the attraction of novelty, as a flight forward, and a contempt for what has just preceded, and this from the Quattrocento. The Chinese, for their part, have painted the same paintings for several millennia and are not weary. This constant need for renewal translates into peaks of excess, a passionate mechanism that ultimately generates a reaction / counter-reaction dynamic in time. At the beginning of abstract art, the figurative was considered a heresy, then hyperrealism appeared. We may also point out that the nineteenth-century academy rejected Impressionism; as a result, Italian museums were very poor in this area at the end of the 19th and early 20th centuries. For several decades, the Italians have now been buying everything, passing from one extreme to the other.
For Joukhadar, one of the causes of this insatiability is the need to express a personal point of view. It is true that in its beginnings, art was intrinsically linked to the Absolute. Until the beginning of the Quattrocento, civilization was established on a true tradition, with a profound knowledge of the Absolute and of the sacred, and not the sacred as something exotic. In the Renaissance, art became local, temporal and therefore subjective. The same goes for classical music which has taken a turn causing people to get tired of it and simply abandon it. When innovation becomes the first criterion, this leads to what we see on the pictorial plane.
Joukhadar notes that Asian art, for the most part, has not engaged in this vicious circle, which deviates towards the material, the temporal, the present. He cites for us the example of authentic Chinese art, where the pictorial elements and the subjects are not really temporal. They are human and representative of a state of soul, of a sensibility, of a poetry that is not bound to one decennium or to two. In contrast, Western art, after the Renaissance, became in general “easily identifiable”: a specialist can, at a first glance, situate a work of art in a bracket of two or three decades, by means of certain temporal and local elements. This is the general direction of Western art which is obviously not totally local, temporal or linked to an event. The non-temporal and universal part certainly exists, to different degrees according to the times, although it is practically lost today.