Sunday, March 12, 2017

The Definition of Classical

Antoine Coypel, detail from the ceiling of the Royal Chapel, Versailles, 1716

"Le dessein elegant de l'antique sculpture, Joint aux effets naifs que fournit la nature" - Antoine Coypel
The above quotation was brought to my attention by Susanna Caviglia in her essay "Roccoco Classicisms" that accompanied the 2017 "Classicisms" exhibit at the Smart Museum. ( I discuss that exhibit here )
As the catalog pointed out,  "Classical art" deserves scare quotes because it has been far from a singularity.   The term itself did not appear until after 1810 - a century after Coypel had  died.
But since I use it prescriptively , that is exactly how I would define the profession of Classical art. Like any language,  it stands upon a foundation of tradition. But in a way that defines the Greco-Roman-Western European tradition, it attempts to naively engage with nature.
In the visual arts -- that engagement is called life drawing.

In the same catalog, Rebecca Zorach offers a similar formulation:  "In Vasari's account of the relationship between Masaccio and Masolino working on the Brancacci Chapel,  or the competition of Brunelleschi and Ghiberti over the Florentine Baptistery doors, the classical constitutes itself as a matter of volumetric and ordered forms freely inspired by Greco-roman sculpture yet naturalistically animated" (note: Vasari wrote that Masaccio "gave a beginning to beautiful attitudes, movements, liveliness, and vivacity, and to a certain relief truly characteristic and natural; which no painter up to his time had ever done")

I  admire the detail shown at the top of this post - but unfortunately, Coypel (1661-1722)  cannot survive comparison with his incredible contemporary,  Giovanni Battista Tiepolo (1696-1770).  Online, most of Coypel's work looks like it was done by a Disney cartoonist.