Notebook, 1993-

Ut Pictura Poesis - Lee, Rensselaer W. Ut Pictura Poesis, The Humanistic Theory of Painting. New York: W. W. Norton & Co., Inc. 1967

IX. The Unity of Action

The preceding parts of this study will, it is hoped, make it clear that antiquity furnished the Renaissance with a body of doctrine intended in particular for dramatic and epic poetry, which the theorists of the sixteenth century cavalierly applied to painting, unaware, to invoke Lessing once more, that there might be difficulties in transferring the criticism of an art of words succeeding one another in time, to an art of figures coexistent in space. Now, in point of fact, sixteenth-century criticism of painting in Italy is singularly free of those anomalies that later arose from the unfortunate attempt to impose correspondences [p. 61] of form rather than of content upon two arts whose primary media were totally different. The logical and dogmatic twist that Gilio da Fabriano in the late sixteenth century gave to the theory of decorum, belonged after all to a different category of criticism, and might be laid at the doors of the theologian and moralist rather than of the critic per se. It was merely an unfortunate extension of the humanistic habit of identifying the content and the high seriousness of poetry and painting, not the result of any consistent attempt of aesthetic criticism to discover relationships of form between the sister arts; and the same might be said of the theory of the learned painter, for only through learning could the painter's productions carry equal weight with poetry and history among scholars and theologians. And the Italian critics of the late sixteenth century, despite their grievous faults of prolixity, unincisiveness, and indiscriminate appropriation of the thought and language of their ancient or immediate predecessors, did not, like some of the more systematic than perceptive exponents of the humanistic theory of painting in seventeenth-century France and England, make the enthusiastic but mistaken attempt to discover, it would seem at any cost, analogies of form between the sister arts.^ To say, for instance, in the late seventeenth century that the painter like the dramatic poet had observed the unities of place, time, and action was perhaps to pay him as high a compliment as the doctrine ut pictura poesis could sponsor,^ and we have already seen that this particular development of the comparision of painting with poetry was a natural accompaniment of the Cartesian passion for clarity and order.^

But the Aristotelian unity of action is not a critical concept which has any real validity for the art of painting. And this will be apparent if we take a moment to consider some further aspects of the discussion reported by FÚlibien of Poussin's Fall of the Manna in the Wilderness [Fig. 1],^ a painting in which most of the persons represented are watching the falling manna in attitudes of wonder or thanksgiving, or are gathering it up from the ground. A critic of the picture had remarked that Poussin had violated the facts of history when he depicted the manna falling by day, for in reality the Hebrews had found it in the morning spread upon the ground like dew; and that he had also erred when to exemplify the hunger and wretchedness of these people he showed a young woman who suckled her aged mother instead of her child, for according to Scripture the Hebrews had the night before fed on quails which had been sufficient to satisfy their worst hunger [wherefore this episode, the critic means to say, could in reality have taken place only before the quails arrived].^ To this Le Brun answered that a painter is not like an historian who by a succession of words represents a progressive action; but since he may depict an event as taking place only in a single moment of time, it is sometimes necessary for him to join together many incidents in order that people may understand the subject which he treats. For if he did not do this, they would be no better instructed than if an historian instead of conducting his narrative from beginning to end, contented himself with merely giving the conclusion.^ Painting then is closely related to the art of story-telling, and Le Brun justifies what he takes to be Poussin's method on didactic grounds, as one might readily expect of a theorist who heartily endorsed the Horation monere et delectare. [p. 62]

We must forego a discussion of Le Brun's ingenious attempt to prove Poussin an accurate historian in the face of this telescoping of events, and proceed to the remarks of another speaker who according to FÚlibien brought the discussion to a close. For it is here that Aristotle's doctrine of the unity of action is pronounced to be as valid for painting as for dramatic poetry, and that painting is virtually declared to be, like poetry, an art of time. That did not, of course, prevent its being in the eyes of the Academy a spatial art as well, which since it represented a single event at a single moment of time, of necessity observed in pictorial fashion the other dramatic unities--those of time and place. But if this were true, as it obviously was, there was something inconsistent in interpreting Poussin's unity of action in temporal terms.^

The Aristotelian theorist begins by observing that if the rules of the theatre allow poets to join together several events that happened at different times in order to make a single action of them, provided there be no inconsistency and that probability ["vraisemblance"] be strictly observed, it is yet more right that the painter should have the same freedom, for without it--and the present speaker, it will be noted, bases his argument on aesthetic not on didactic grounds as had Le Brun--his compositions would be less admirable and his genius displayed to less advantage. Now in this regard, continues the theorist, one cannot accuse Poussin of having put in his painting anything that might impede the unity of action, or anything that is counter to probability or, for that matter, too far removed from historical truth. For if he did not entirely follow the text of Scripture, he could have found the main elements of his story in the Antiquitates Judaeorum of Josephus, who relates that after the Jews had received the quails, Moses lifting up his hands prayed God to send them other nourishment, whereupon the manna fell from heaven like drops of dew which grew larger as they descended and which the people took for snow until they had tasted thereof.^

Here, at least, was a highly respectable text that, even if it did not have the infallibility of Scripture, might guard Poussin's reputation as an historian; and the speaker now proceeds to develop the idea of the unity of action, remarking that "as for having represented persons some of whom are in misery whereas others are receiving relief, it is here that this learned painter has shown that he is a true poet, for he has composed his work according to the rules which the art of poetry requires one to observe in composing plays for the theatre. For to represent his story perfectly he needed those parts that are necessary to a poem in order to pass from ill to good fortune. That is why we see that the groups of figures whose actions are different are like so many episodes that serve for what one calls peripateia, and as a means to make known the changes that came upon the Israelites when they emerged from their extreme wretchedness, and entered into a happier state. Thus their misfortune is represented by people who are languishing and beaten down; the change in their fortune is depicted by the fall of the manna, and their happiness may be seen in their possession of a food that we see them gathering with unbounded joy."^ [p. 63]

This is something new in the doctrine ut pictura poesis, for hitherto in our discussion we have seen that if the painter fulfilled the requirements of invention, expression, decorum, and the like, which the doctrine imposed upon him, his art would resemble poetry in content rather than in form, for the painter's disposition of his objects was never supposed to be governed by temporal considerations. But in the case of Aristotle's unity of action we have to do with a formal concept designed for dramatic poetry, which the critics of painting sometimes attempted to apply to an art for which, as we shall see, the unity of action was indeed a legitimate concept, but not in the Aristotelian sense.

Now it is obviously impossible to judge French painting of the seventeenth century fairly unless one understands and respects, however strong his disagreement, the view that the great painter is an edifying teacher, and unless one remembers that at no time in the history of painting did critics assume more completely that good painting gathered in subjects and its content from poetry and history. And one must recall as well that in an age when the painter was acknowledged to be moralist, poet, and historian, it was not unnatural that a learned man looking at a picture should read it like a text, as in fact Poussin, although he never admitted the didactic function of art, had actually advised him to do.^ Nevertheless it is straining the possibilities of expression further than the medium of painting can bear when Félibien's theorist reads the beginning, middle, and end of a drama, considered as developing in time, not the actions and expressions in Poussin's picture. For granted that one knows its biblical source, as he must if he is to understand and judge it for its human as well as its formal content, what the Fall of Manna tells us is what Poussin the painter, not the unknown theorist of the Academy, meant it to tell us: that here is a group of Israelites, male and female, young and old, who react with various emotions to the fall of the manna if they are aware of it; or if they are not, are so portrayed as to illustrate the state of hunger which the miracle of the manna was intended to relieve. This is in effect what Le Brun pointed out in his earlier discussion of the picture, when he remarked on the way in which the actions and expressions therein all bear on the principal subject,^ and when he might have legitimately added that in this respect the picture showed unity of action. For the unity of action so understood is based squarely [granted that one has the necessary minimum of biblical knowledge] on what the picture itself reveals, not on the temporal concept of the unity of action as Aristotle applied it to the drama. Yet it is the latter with which Félibien's theorist mistakenly, though with very complimentary intention, credits Poussin when, as an enthusiastic disciple of the doctrine ut pictura poesis, he seeks to apply a law indispensable to the writing of good drama to an art in which the unity of action must in the very nature of the medium be governed by spatial, not by temporal considerations. To the dramatist the unity of act ion is invaluable as a principle of criticism, for it points to a standard of abstemious concentration, and warns against the inclusion of the casual and unrelated in an art in which the succession of events in time must move consistently to an inevitable end. But for painting, once the continuous method had been generally abandoned,^ it could have, in the Aristotelian sense, no meaning, for the counterpart in painting of Aristotle's unity of action--the representation of an event in such a way that all pictorial elements would be simultaneously functional to the expression of a single dramatic action-- [p. 64] could of necessity [such was the requirement of the medium] include only a single moment of time. Once this is understood, it becomes clear that any attempt to apply to painting the principle of the unity of action in the manner in which Aristotle applied it to the drama, is aesthetically fallacious. And this tendency to think of painting in the temporal terms of literary art leads not only in Félibien's time but sometimes to an appalling degree among later critics of art to the bad habit of finding in their favorite works, "what," as Reynolds observed, "they are resolved to find," as an example of which one might cite Le Brun's psychological analysis of the mingled feelings of the woman in the Fall of Manna who in order to give her mother nourishment, has had to deprive her child of his rightful due.^ "They praise excellencies," Reynolds continues, "that can hardly exist together; and above all things, are fond of describing, with great exactness, the expression of a mixed passion, which more particularly appears to be out of the reach of our art."^ When Reynolds objects to the critics who read mixed passions into a painting--and by a mixed passion he means what we have just remarked in Le Brun, the expression of several emotions in a given figure at the same time--or when he later suggests that the painter himself "may have attempted this expression of passions above the powers of his art,"^ he strikes with the axe of sound common sense at the root of that mistaken tendency of the Aristotelian critics to obscure the legitimate humanistic relationship of the sister arts by declaring in effect that painting, like poetry, is an art of successive events in time. It is both shocking and amusing to contemplate the faults committed by the critics of painting in the name of Aristotle, wherein, it may be observed, the English critics especially outdid themselves. Even if one admits that the original creation and understanding of the figure arts have seldom been the particular forte of the English nation, and if one makes all due allowance for the dominance of ut pictura poesis in the late seventeenth century, it is still not easy to understand how a man of the acute critical sense of John Dryden could, in comparing literature with a painting, fall into such absurdities as when he compares the subordinate groups gathered about the central groups of figures in a painting to the episodes in an epic poem or to the chorus in a tragedy, or the sketch of a painting to stage scenery, or the warts and moles in a portrait to the flaw in the character of tragic hero.^ These analogies can scarcely be said to be illuminating, and they show again the confusion that arises when an enthusiastic but befuddled critic naively attempts a comparison of the sister arts that a little reflection on the possibilities and limitations of their media would have shown to be inconsistent with aesthetic truth.

There are occasional hints in Italian criticism of the sixteenth century of trouble to [p. 65] come,^ but no such gratuitous and strained analogies between poetry and painting as the northern critics finally produced. Some of these have been cited here by way of defining a serious confusion of thought that developed in the later history of the paragone, and to show how this confusion was largely the result of the powerful influence of the Poetics which in determining the formal character of French classic drama, easily extended itself through the current habit of comparing the sister arts to the criticism of painting as well. It was, of course, the tendency to think of painting in temporal terms, along with the tendency which he was better equipped to oppose, to think of poetry in pictorial terms, that was to provoke the corrective criticism of Lessing in his brilliant attempt to define the limits of poetry and painting.

We are now in a position to see how Lessing's narrow and unsatisfactory conception of bodily beauty as the highest end of painting, which we discussed in an earlier chapter,^ not only reflects his Neo-Classic taste but also adapts itself readily to his theory of the limits of the arts. For a painting in which clearly-defined physical beauty provides the chief content--in which expression is given but a subordinate place--is unlikely to set the spectator or the critics to dreaming in a literary manner of the thoughts and feelings of the figures as if they were characters in a novel or drama. It is far less likely to do this than an historical painting with its variety of gesture and facial expression, to which Lessing objected precisely because it failed to subordinate expression to bodily beauty. "Beautiful shapes in graceful attitudes," then, since they provide immediate aesthetic satisfaction to the mind which apprehends them in spatial, not temporal terms, are not likely to tempt the imaginative onlooker to undue temporal speculation.

It should not be forgotten, however, that Lessing himself made an important concession to the temporal imagination in his doctrine of the most fruitful moment, according to which the painter who confines himself to a single moment of time must choose that moment in action or emotion--always a moment of relative restraint in which expression will not quarrel with beauty--that will be most suggestive of what is past and of what is still to come.^ Unfortunately Lessing does not seem to have realized the implications of this doctrine for anything but ancient art. Had he possessed the knowledge or the inclination to apply it fairly to modern art, he might have taken a more charitable view than he did of the element of expression in historical painting. Nevertheless one will note his willingness to consider art not merely as an objective realization of beautiful forms, but in its effect on the imagination, and no critic will seriously disagree with the doctrine of the most fruitful moment, provided it is understood that those images of the past or future which are evoked in the mind are always implicit in the work of art itself, and that they do not expand into actual speculation on the inner life of the figures, or on the temporal stages of the action, that soon leaves the work of art far behind. And Lessing would have been the first to challenge all those for whom the fruitful moment had been entirely too fruitful.

[pp. 61-66]

* Symbol for the phonetic accent in this word not available on the computer.

[Lee, Rensselaer W. Ut Pictura Poesis, The Humanistic Theory of Painting. New York: W. W. Norton & Co., Inc. 1967.]



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