The Art of Arts: Rediscovering Painting

The Art of Arts: Rediscovering Painting

by Anita Albus

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In this utterly original book, Anita Albus tells the story--in the birth and triumph of oil painting, the creation of perspective, and the very nature of paint itself--of how, when, and why the eye became king of all the senses.

Albus's subjects are the inventors of easel painting in oils, the van Eyck brothers and their followers. It was in the fifteenth and


In this utterly original book, Anita Albus tells the story--in the birth and triumph of oil painting, the creation of perspective, and the very nature of paint itself--of how, when, and why the eye became king of all the senses.

Albus's subjects are the inventors of easel painting in oils, the van Eyck brothers and their followers. It was in the fifteenth and sixteenth centuries in northern Europe that oil painting radically changed the way we perceived the world: the ear, through which we had previously received all knowledge, was replaced in importance by the eye. A painter of distinction herself, Albus re-creates this revolutionary time in all its intricacies, its familiarity, and its strangeness.

The Art of Arts is thus both a dazzling cultural history and the story of two explosive inventions: the so-called third dimension of deep space through perspective, and the shockingly vivid colors of a new kind of paint. Albus makes abundantly clear how, taken together, these breakthroughs not only created a new art but altered forever our perception of the world.

Editorial Reviews
In The Art of Arts, Anita Albus explores the ways in which distinct and disparate disciplines influence each other -- how a development in the world of science, for example, can alter forever the way art is made and perceived. Albus focuses on Jan van Eyck and other trompe-l'oeil painters of the 15th, 16th, and 17th centuries whose work was enlivened by the use of perspective and breakthroughs in the creation of vividly colored oil paint. Claude Lévi-Strauss wrote of The Art of Arts, "This book enchants me with its revelations."

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University of California Press
Publication date:
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5.00(w) x 8.50(h) x 1.25(d)

Read an Excerpt


Earth, Apple, and Fly

Five hundred and thirty years before the Lunar Orbiter sent back from the icy, lifeless reaches of space the first images of the shining earth rising into the sky above the moon, Jan van Eyck painted a cosmic panorama, an image of the world as seen from flight, from the bird's-eye view. No bird could have flown so high that its gaze would encompass the three continents in van Eyck's painting, and as one looks out of an airplane window, the landscape shrinks gradually into geometric patterns, before even this patchwork vanishes from sight beneath the endless, barren banks of cloud. Van Eyck, the Duke of Burgundy's court painter and valet, depicted mountain ranges, hills, forests and oceans, cities, rivers, streets, and lakes with a topographical exactitude that produced an impossible visual effect of simultaneous close-up and distance. It was still several hundred years before either the telescope or the microscope was to be invented. But an awareness that the earth is round had been handed down since antiquity -- and every traveler who carefully observed the stars on the horizon could confirm it from experience. The oldest German geographical treatise, dating from the twelfth century, compares the earth surrounded by the seas to the yolk floating in the white of the egg. A century later, in his poem Mappemonde, ou image du monde, Gautier de Metz wrote that a man could walk round the globe like a fly around an apple. In the Middle Ages, Jerusalem was regarded as the navel of the earth's apple -- the place of pilgrimage, the battlefield of the lost Crusades. To the east of the Holy Land, world maps depicted Paradise. With the earthly sphere sufficiently far off for the Deluge not to have touched it, Paradise, with its four rivers -- the Ganges, Nile, Euphrates, and Tigris -- lies filled with the scent of flowers and the song of birds, concealed from the human race behind walls of mist and impenetrable wildernesses.

On this side of the lost Paradise, the world beneath the moon is the center of a cosmos of hierarchic order, the realm of mutability, to which the sublunary elemental spheres of water, air, and fire also belong. The immutable structure above the moon reaches from the courses of the planets to the sphere of the fixed stars in the firmament, with its ultimate boundary lying in the primum mobile, which contains the divine spark of creation and communicates its movement to the other spheres.

The earth had not yet been surveyed by geodesy. The only gauge in medieval world maps is the sacred history of salvation. Until the end of the fourteenth century, exact measurements were available only in portulan charts -- sailing directions for coastal shipping.

At the behest of Philip the Good, the Duke of Burgundy, Jan van Eyck took part in voyages to various countries between 1426 and 1436. In 1427, he was the portraitist accompanying a delegation to Spain whose task was to court the niece of King Alfonso V of Aragon on the Duke's behalf. The delegates negotiated in Valencia for two months, in vain. Isabella d'Urgel was not to become duchess of Burgundy, and the princess was never to be immortalized in a portrait by the painter from Bruges.

The father of countless bastards, but lacking a legitimate heir, Philip the Good sent his envoys and his court painter to Lisbon a year later, again to court a bride. It was an age devoted to splendor, and one can imagine the two ships, magnificently decorated, setting sail from the port of Sluis in Zeeland on 19 October 1428. It was a stormy day, and the long swallowtailed pennants, decorated with Philip's coat of arms, would be flapping wildly from the top of the gold-plated mast. After spending several weeks in England to repair storm damage, the ships reached Lisbon in mid-December. It was almost a month before the Burgundian nobles were received at the court of King John I in Aviz, but after four more weeks Jan van Eyck had painted two portraits of Isabella, the King's eldest daughter, on whom the choice had fallen. For safety, the small portraits of the thirty-two-year-old beauty were sent to Philip the Good by two different routes -- one overland, the other by sea. The portrait confirmed the Duke's resolve to extend his influence through a marriage to the Portuguese princess. In regal fashion, he celebrated his wedding by founding the chivalric Order of the Golden Fleece. Its emblem was a flintstone with steel whetter and spark, and its motto was "Aultre n'auray" -- I shall have no other. In fact, Isabella was his third and last spouse, and she had to share him with thirty-three mistresses. "What his eyes desired delighted his heart, and with the greed that was in his heart, his offenses multiplied. Whatever he desired, that came to pass," commented his chronicler, Chastellain. Playing the troubadour was only a minor role for him, however. He preferred his chroniclers to style him the last Alexander, a second Hector, a Hercules. The Grand Duc d'Occident hoped for recognition as the savior of Christendom. He planned to liberate Jerusalem, to reconquer Constantinople, to drive the Hussites from Bohemia. Long in preparation and loudly proclaimed, these crusades were later abandoned without further ado. The more distant the likelihood of the project's being fulfilled, the more elaborate the pomp and splendor with which the sacred vow to undertake the expedition was celebrated. Ships were commandeered, magnificent fleets assembled, banners of the Cross were unfurled in solemn processions, and diplomats reconnoitered the terrain on secret missions.

Jan van Eyck joined two of these clandestine journeys. Certain motifs in his paintings -- snow-covered mountain ranges, cliffs, a depiction of the Mosque of Omar (the Dome of the Rock) in Jerusalem -- have been regarded by one art historian as indicating that the painter crossed the Alps to Italy, and made a pilgrimage from there to the Holy Land. But no lost paintings or documents, suddenly rediscovered, were produced to support this assertion, and it was not long before it was contradicted; the two sides have been passing the burden of proof back and forth ever since. No matter where the painter traveled, it seems likely that his covert journeys were connected with Philip's chimerical crusades, and that he turned cosmographer for reasons of strategy. The measurable distances on his world map show an awareness of the Ptolemaic network of parallels and meridians, coordinate lists, and projection procedures, which had only been discovered in Byzantium shortly before, in 1400.

Eyck's mappa mundi has been lost. We know of the painting only because it was described by a Genoese humanist, Bartolomeo Fazio, who was chronicler and secretary to the King of Naples, Alfonso V of Aragon. In 1456, in a small volume entitled De Viris Illustribus, Fazio described van Eyck's world map as the most perfect work of its age.

Excerpted by permission of Random House, Inc. Copyright © 2000 by Alfred A. Knopf.

What People are saying about this

William S. Heckscher
With Albus's book, we have been given a masterpiece. The author is a versatile genius, and this mighty work is unique in its highly original combination of knowledge of art history and technical experience.
Gerda S. Panofsky
I haven't seen such fascinating work in years. Nobody has ever studied Erwin Panofsky so accurately and sensitively as Anita Albus has here.
Claude Levi-Strauss
This book enchants me with its revelations. I do not think anyone has ever succeeded so well in making clear that--contrary to popular belief--painting does not consist of taking three-dimensional objects and representing them in a two-dimensional way, but rather in the transformation of three-dimensional objects into another object which also has three dimensions--namely, the picture itself.

Meet the Author

Anita Albus is a writer and artist based in Munich and Burgundy. Her publications include The Botanical Drama, The Garden of Songs, and the translation into German of Flashlights by Jules and Edmond de Goncourt. She has illustrated The Passionate Gardener by Rudolph Borchardt and The Jealous Potter by Claude Lévi-Strauss. Michael Robertson is a freelance translator based in Augsburg, Germany. Previous translations include Ralph Wiggershaus, The Frankfurt School (1994); Anne-Marie Bonnet, Auguste Rodin: Erotic Drawings (1995); Thea Vignau-Wilberg, Music for a While: Music and Dance in 16th-Century Prints (1999).

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