Art – The Means Of Expression In Architecture, Sculpture, And Painting

WHEN a man has protected his body against heat or cold with clothing, has provided for a supply of food, has invented ways to transport himself or his goods from place to place, to communicate with his fellow-men by speech or by the written or printed word, to ease their spiritual or cure their bodily ills, or to regularize their quarrels by process of law, there is still left in the world a vast plexus of industries directly related to Architecture; for the art of building is inclusive of those numberless trades, crafts, arts, and occupations, that complete the roll of man’s activities.

Architecture is so close to us, is so much a part of our everyday life that we, most of us, grow to be quite unconscious of it, take it as a matter of course. We rise up from our beds in it, we break our fast in it, we leave it to go to our work only to pass through streets created by it and framed in it, and we return to it again at night; we repeat this round, day by day, and year by year, and scarcely see it. Surrounded on every hand by miracles of constructive genius, by the ugly and the beautiful, we are, with few exceptions, insensible to them. We are conscious perhaps of an especially tall building, or of a particularly big building, but they move us to no special wonder—wonder, in the sense that we should like to know how they came to be there; wonder, that they are the product of the human imagination. Of all the arts of man none so completely reflects his peculiar genius, nor should so influence the race, as that by which he houses himself or commemorates his civic or national importance. A building that has been lived in, worshipped in, has been the mute witness of human events trivial and great, seems to the sensitive observer to have acquired a soul. The successive tides of humanity lapping the base of a monument for ages leave their traces upon it, and something of the dignity, nobility, and pathos of their ebb and flow passes into it, for a lesson and a legacy to future generations of men.

Ignorance of the principles of architectural design, or of the processes of design, is no doubt responsible for the general purblindness; but the principles of design in Architecture are, as we have shown, the same as those in any other art ; and there is no reason why a student of literature should not, if he has learned to analyze a work of literature and trace out its plan and superstructure, apply the same processes of analysis to a work of Architecture and come to a clear understanding of it, and a just estimate of its worth. Precisely as there are limitations which govern the expression of an idea in a novel and the use of the materials of a story, so there are limitations, and very stringent ones, in a piece of Architecture. The site ; the aspect, whether sunny or the reverse; the use to which the structure is to be put; the number of stories required on a plot of a given size freely to permit the use desired ; these are some of the elements which determine width and height, and the relation of the size of window openings to area of wall surface. These voids of the openings and these solids of wall surface are two of the most important means of architectural expression. A building may be made expressive of its purposes and use, even eloquent, by the mere disposition of the openings in the walls, without a column, without a moulding, without an ornament. Mass and proportion, heights and widths, walls and openings, mouldings and ornament, are the simple elements of the language of Architecture, capable of infinite modulation and variety, plastic to the expression of an individual temperament or of the genius of a nation. We must add to the limitations of use the limitations of structural necessities; the enormously thick walls required for a very tall structure would so cut down the floor area as to limit automatically the heights of buildings unless steel is used for vertical supports; the physical limitations imposed by materials upon great spans automatically limit the size of covered spaces unless steel is used to span them; the use of steel for such purposes is a development of the present generation. We have become accustomed to regard a building in which the old principles of masonry construction with heavy walls are followed, as the “monumental” type, and suitable for important public buildings; although steel is freely used in these also for many purposes, it is associated at present chiefly with commercial structures of considerable height; and our modem cities in America are becoming picturesque in consequence on a colossal and stupendous scale. We have not yet worked out a solution of some of the problems in our commercial buildings that satisfies the eye, and, through the eye, the judgment; the demand of the shopkeeper for the utmost possible area of show-window has resulted all too often in a building supported to all appearance, in the first story or so, entirely upon plate glass; and the judgment, through the eye, rejects the solution as unsatisfactory. For a sense of structural stability, without an appeal to a belief in the supernatural, is essential to a satisfactory architectural design. When we evidently have great weights to support, the eye and the mind demand adequate visible supports for these great weights. We find this principle observed in all the great buildings of the past.

Then we must reckon with the possibilities and limitations of brick and terra-cotta, stone and marble, their durability, color, texture, and suitability for the structure in question. Each of these has qualities peculiar to it and a treatment proper to each. Moreover, the use of one or the other establishes at once a certain range of possibilities of treatment for the building as a whole which must be respected under peril of failure.

We have thus indicated that in Architecture we are dealing with three dimensions, with ponderable masses—rough and heavy materials like stone and steel and brick—which must be wrought into a thing of beauty and utility, and that this is done by so disposing weights and supports, voids and solids, light-and-shade-producing elements like mouldings and ornament, as to give good proportion of mass to mass, of openings to walls, of openings to other openings, of solids to other solids, of light to shade, of interior spaces to other interior spaces; to give Harmony, Rhythm, Balance; to express the individual style of the designer, and to create the type of building proper to its destined use under given conditions of light in a given climate.

In Sculpture, also, we deal with ponderable substance; with three dimensions; with mass; with the play of light and shade which modulates the forms and the transitions from form to form; with an actual rather than an apparent Balance, such as the way a statue stands well poised on its feet; with Rhythm, Harmony, always a general Design, and Beauty. In many of its qualities it is closely allied with Architecture, and in some with Painting. It is always a nice question how far a sculptor may go in the direction of a treatment of form by which light and shade are handled in a measurable degree as in Painting. It may be answered, I think, by the statement that the more closely a piece of Sculpture is related to a work of Architecture, the more it must partake of the qualities of Architecture, have more repose, be modelled in well-marked planes, be less realistic; be, in short, architectonic; the isolated group or figure with nothing architectural near it except the pedestal, which is in this case subordinate to the Sculpture, may very properly on the other hand approach reality, be accorded a much freer treatment and a modulation of form that will cause the light and shade to interfuse somewhat as in Painting. One law would seem to have been very definitely established in the long history of Sculpture—the necessity for Repose; violent or arrested action is never to be found in the greatest work; the repose may be absolute, or the figure may seem to be quivering into action, or to have just that moment reached repose; the sculptor of judgment and taste selects the instant when every line, every form, is in one of those exquisite states of equilibrium. There is in Sculpture nothing more tiresome than arrested action, or over-dramatic action. We have all seen the statue of the orator, hand in breast, one aim extended in menace or exhortation, and subconsciously wished that he would put it down and rest. On the other hand, we have seen figures rigid as stakes, which look not only as though they never had moved, but never could. On the Pincian Hill, in Rome, there is a modern group representing two brothers, one prostrate and presumably wounded, the other standing astride his brother’s body in a dramatic attitude of defense and defiance; it is not a sculptural conception; the sculptor did not choose the moment in the story that would have made it possible for him to create a great piece of Sculpture; the moment he chose was one that might conceivably have been successfully treated in Painting. I would not be understood as saying that Sculpture must not be dramatic—far from it. But the sculptor must know how to dramatize the moment or the story. Nothing could be more dramatic, more poignant, more moving in its repose, than Rodin’s group representing the despairing, starved-out Burghers of Calais delivering up the keys of their beleaguered city.

In good Sculpture one is not conscious of arms and legs, because they are arranged in such a way that they contribute to a sense of Balance, Rhythm, Unity, and Repose; especially Unity, for nothing cuts up a group of figures into an agglomeration of unrelated parts so much as the liney, leggy appearance an unskilful use or treatment of the limbs creates. Good Sculpture also avoids the use of intensely dark shadows for accents—technically called blacks—because such blacks cut up a figure or a group and destroy the sense of Unity; it also avoids “holes” or spaces between forms through which we may see beyond the group or figure; this requires much study, skill, and resourcefulness, for most Sculpture is to be seen from every side and from an infinite number of points of view, far off or close by, higher or lower, and yet from every conceivable view-point it must always be agreeable if it cannot always be beautiful. The competent sculptor, therefore, arranges the arms and legs, the drapery and other adjuncts, to avoid holes and make the elements of his design fall into agreeable relations.

Up to this point we have been discussing Sculpture “in the round” or fully detached. A word as to Sculpture in high relief but attached to a background, alto relievo, and Sculpture in low relief, basso relievo, or bas-relief. In these forms of Sculpture the degree of relief governs the appropriate treatment of the forms; the closer it approaches low relief, the more it must be treated in planes; and the lower the relief, the more closely it approximates the effect of a drawing, the forms being so treated that they cast shadows, or receive the light, or modulate the shade, as these would appear in a flat drawing. Drawing is a term constantly used in discussing Sculpture; good drawing, that is, a fine sense of line and light-and-shade, is an inseparable property of good Sculpture.

The materials used for Sculpture are various; each has its appropriate treatment, and each, as in Architecture, imposes a definite character upon the work. Basalt, granite, marble, limestone, sandstone, bronze, terra-cotta, and wood, are all materials in which great Sculpture has been wrought. Much Egyptian sculpture was done in granite and basalt, both of them extremely hard, especially basalt, which is so difficult to cut that the utmost simplicity of form was necessary to avoid untold labor; a source of that wonderful simplification and unity found in so much Egyptian work. Upon the other hand, there are Egyptian carvings in fine-grained sandstone that are like jewelry in their exquisite refinement and elaboration of detail. Marble has always been a favored material for Sculpture, is far more tractable than granite, easily worked, and has a crystalline structure which permits the light to penetrate somewhat below the surface and make it translucent. The treatment proper for marble is simpler than that for bronze, wherein a greater degree of elaboration of detail is permissible. Terra-cotta, also, cast in clay from the plaster casts of the sculptor’s clay model or modelled directly in terra-cotta clay, and baked, is susceptible of great freedom of treatment; while wood has its own technical limitations and resources, due to its color, grain, and tendency to split.

Modem Sculpture has denied itself a resource of effect in the use of color of which the sculptor of the past made superb use. The earliest Greek sculptural forms were painted, and they were modelled in such a way as to prepare for the addition of color to fully express them. At the height of Grecian culture there were numbers of chryselephantine statues, consisting of plates of ivory, bent or shaped over a wooden or clay form, to represent the flesh, and plates of gold wrought into the folds of the drapery by bending or beating or casting; with laudable thrift the gold was made removable so that in time of national stress it might be converted into currency. The eyes were undoubtedly colored, sometimes set with sapphires; and the most famous one, the statue of Athene Parthenos, the tutelary goddess of Athens, in the Parthenon on the Acropolis, wore an actual cloak or peplum, woven by the women of Athens; the subject of the Frieze of the Parthenon is the procession in which this peplum was carried from the city and solemnly presented to the goddess. Egyptian and Assyrian Sculpture was brilliantly colored. Much of the sculpture of the Middle Ages was polychromatic, particularly that destined for the interior of buildings; and in the Renaissance terra-cottas of the Della Robbia family, the color was applied as glazes. Chinese and Japanese sculptors have ever delighted in the use of glazed porcelain and earthenware, in lacquers and gilding upon wood, and in patines on bronze of various colors. A revival of the use of color in Sculpture is much to be desired. Some sculptors believe that no actual pigment or glaze should be used, but that color should be suggested by textures, by the treatment of surfaces, by light and shade. There is no question but that in unskilful hands many horrors might be added to the sum of those already in the world; but handled with tact and discretion, and with a sense of the proper conventional coloration to adopt, the addition of color to form is very beautiful. Sculpture to-day frequently repels the average person because mere form, in the absence of the technical knowledge to appreciate it, and divested of its familiar color, seems cold and lifeless.

Sculpture, then, has plastic form, mass, light and shade, and color, at its command, as means of expression of the thought that lies behind it.

Architecture, too, may avail itself of the resources of color in several ways : in mural or wall painting and decoration; in mosaic work, a design or picture executed in small cubes or tesserae of marble, glass, or tile; in colored terra-cotta or faience; in stained and painted glass in windows; and in the use of colored Sculpture. It is to be observed that the kind of color, the choice of colors, tones, or tints, to be used in the enhancement of either Architecture or Sculpture are precisely similar in principle; the color must not be naturalistic, must not simulate that of natural objects. It must be in practically flat tones. The colored forms must be highly conventionalized; that is to say, simplified, and made to count as Pattern. This applies to all forms, human, animal, or vegetable. Precisely as Sculpture must take on architectonic character as it becomes intimately related to a building, so must colored decoration, whether painted with pigments, made up of colored tesserae as in mosaic, applied in glazes as in tile or terra-cotta, or used as colored light as in stained glass.

In Painting, we do not deal with bulk, with the three dimensions of height, width, and thickness, in the same sense that we do in Architecture and Sculpture. Painting represents bulk and indicates the third dimension upon a flat surface having only two dimensions, namely: height and width. Primitive painting, as a general rule—in which we will, for the sake of simplicity, include drawing—owing to lack of skill, took little account of the third dimension, or attempted its representation in crude, and what now seem to us to be amusing, ways. Greek vase painting is merely flat drawing in one or two colors. But, judging from the stories told of the work of Apelles and Zeuxis, Greek painting other than vase-painting was far advanced toward realism, a representation of natural objects to simulate reality by the use of natural colors; but nothing has survived to us of the great masters. We may only believe that a race as sensitive to beauty of line and mass and to the most subtle refinements of light and shade as the Greeks, must have had a color sense. The tender color of the little figurines dug up at Tanagra in Boeotia, and in some parts of Attica, indicate that Greek color was not as barbarically crude as some archeologists would lead us to think. Greek buildings were undoubtedly colored, but they could not have been as ugly as some modern restorations represent. I believe that the Greeks and the Egyptians had discovered the secret of broken color—the juxtaposition of small areas of two pure colors side by side to produce the effect of a third, as: red and blue to produce a purple or violet.

It is evident that the means and modes of expression in Painting must differ radically from those proper to Architecture and Sculpture. These may borrow one or two of the elements which go to make up the art of Painting, such as Color and Drawing. But Painting, in order to give the impression of relief, of depth, which Architecture and Sculpture possess in their own nature,, makes use of a tributary science, that of Perspective, by means of which any object, or any scene, may be portrayed in correct relation to other objects, in size or shape, from a fixed or assumed point of view. Upon analysis it is found that straight lines converge to one or more points, called vanishing-points; these points are in a line, the horizon line, coincident with a horizontal plane passing through the eye of the observer whether he is lying down in a valley, or erect upon the summit of a mountain. The simplest illustration of this simple law is a straight railroad track on a plain of considerable extent. Standing midway of the rails they seem to meet at a point opposite the eyes; upon slowly bending the knees, this point will be seen to lower with the eyes; climbing a box, or a stepladder, this point opposite the eyes, the vanishing-point, climbs with us. If we move from between the tracks toward the left, the two rails will pass from our right side and meet as before, at the height of the eyes, to the left of the track; and if we move to the right, then the rails will run from our left to our right. This principle is applied to any object or group of objects of any shape or size; for instance, indoors, to every object in the room : chairs, tables, boxes, books, vases, everything. And to everything out of doors also. When many objects stand at all sorts of angles to each other, they will all have their own vanishing-points, but the vanishing-points of all of them will be in one horizontal plane at the height of the eye, wherever the eye is, or is assumed to be. If one person is seated, and another is standing directly behind him, and both draw the same object, say a table, the representation of the object in their respective drawings will be different in each, because the person standing up has a higher horizon line than the one sitting down. And if they draw more than one object from their respective points of view, the relations of these objects and their apparent shapes in the drawings will be different. The person standing up may be able to see something on the other side of the table which the table hides from the seated one. Architecture and Sculpture do not have to borrow this science to produce the effect of the third dimension, because they possess all three dimensions in themselves. But they both make allowance for its laws—as to which let two simple illustrations suffice : roofs apparently flatten out when seen in perspective, and to make them appear of the desired height in relation to the rest of the building, they have to be built much higher to allow for this apparent flattening; a statue to be seen from below must have a neck longer than nature, or the head will seem to be sunken between the shoulders.

The science of Perspective was no doubt known to the Greeks, in some of its simpler aspects; they used it to a limited extent; and it was known to the decorative painters of Graeco-Roman times, as the wall paintings of Pompeii testify. But with much else it lapsed, was forgotten, and then was rediscovered in the days of the Renaissance. Before that, and perhaps leading to it, the secrets of light and shade had been discovered-chiaroscuro, as the Italians called it, from chiaro, light, oscuro, dark.

Up to the time of Cimabue, painting had been flat colored drawing, done by formulas handed down in the painters’ guilds, or from father to son; he first dared to look at nature and follow her—very timidly to be sure—but he broke the ground and sowed the seed. Giotto, following immediately after, went farther, although his work looks flat enough to us modems; and from the work of these pioneers to the last refinements of the present, is one steady progression in the discovery of the resources of Painting, and the use of its elements of light and shade, color, and perspective.

With drawing, color, perspective, and light and shade, the painter is equipped to express anything that may be ex-pressed in Painting, from the most sublime vision to the most trivial incident of daily life, from dawn to dawn again.

These are the means, the things Architecture, Painting, and Sculpture are done with. The modes, the way these things are used, are many.

One principle is universally recognized now—that Painting is a kind of translation of the appearance of an object or of a scene, a representation, not imitation. The man who paints a dollar-bill so that it might deceive a bank teller has wasted his time. As a work of art his imitation is worth-less. As currency it is useless. To paint a tree with every leaf accounted for as far as may be humanly possible is not to paint the tree but the leaves. To show every hair upon a person’s head is not to paint his hair but his hairs. More and more, as the laws of light and of color are better under-stood, it is seen that a truthful rendition of a subject is a rendition of that subject as seen in a given light at a given moment, and that the truth is therefore purely relative. An object fully and brightly lighted has not at all the same appearance, even may not seem to be the same shape, and certainly has not the same color, as the same object seen in deep shadow. As a matter of fact, when one looks at a tree, or the hair on a man’s head, one sees, not the leaves and not the hairs, but the play of light and shade on masses of leaves and masses of hair; and by painting this play of light and shade and the way it modifies the actual color of the subject—which is called its local color—one paints the subject.

In a painting, besides the general characteristics of all works of art, Design, Proportion, Balance, Rhythm, Pat-tern, and so on, we have to reckon with others, applicable, like Perspective, especially to itself, such as Tone, Color,Value, Key or Pitch, Vibration, Atmosphere, Envelope. Denman Ross defines Color as the Quality of light in a Tone, and Value as the Amount of light in a Tone. Key, or Pitch, is applicable to the picture as a whole : when there is much light the Key or Pitch is high, and vice versa. Vibration is that quality in a painting which makes the light seem to shimmer and the air to be full of dancing motes. Atmosphere and Envelope are interchangeable terms; when there seems to be air in the picture, that is Atmosphere; when forms are bathed in Atmosphere they are said to have an Envelope, or to be Enveloped.

Not all of these are availed of in all kinds of painting. Modem paintings are broadly divisible into two general classes, Easel Pictures and Mural Paintings. By an easel picture is meant a picture of a size that may be painted upon a painter’s easel, and be easily transported from place to place and hung up anywhere; and by association and inference is assumed to deal with the natural aspects of things or of human beings; portraits, landscapes, still life, genre —meaning paintings illustrative of the homely incidents of everyday life—are all, if portable, in the category of easel pictures. A mural painting, on the other hand, is intended to be permanently fixed on a wall, is sometimes painted directly upon the wall; ceiling paintings are included in this category, but are susceptible of a more airy and atmospheric treatment, due to their position and the very necessary avoidance of any appearance of heaviness.

The aims in a Mural Painting are quite distinct from those in an easel picture. The easel picture deals primarily with the actual, the Mural Painting with the ideal. It will be recalled that the moment Painting and Sculpture come into close relation with Architecture their nature changes, and they must be treated in a conventional—in the sense of conventionalized—architectonic, manner. In an easel picture one seems to be looking through the frame, as through a window, into a space which the painter has filled with figures or landscape, with light or with gloom. Whatever other qualities a Mural Painting may possess, it fails of being a true one if it seems to pierce an opening in the wall through which one may look into a space beyond the plane of the wall. The Plane of the Wall, the feeling that the painting is painted on the very wall, must be preserved. The ways in which the solution of this problem have been managed will be treated of in the chapter dealing with the Technique of Painting. Suffice it to say here, discussing as we are only the means and modes of expression in a general sense, that Mural Painting dispenses with Envelope or Atmosphere, and, so far as Vibration relates to Atmosphere, dispenses with that also. Drawing and Pattern are of paramount importance, and the greater of these is Pattern. A mural decoration will be agreeable if the Pattern is good, although the Drawing may be bad. Good Color is of course an element of good Pattern; the best of Patterns may be destroyed by offensive and discordant color elements.

There is no place in Mural Painting for the melting lights and shadows such as we see for example in the work of Murillo. The aim of realistic painting is to destroy the sense of the surface upon which the painting is made, in order to create an illusion of depth, roundness, relief, an approximation of reality. Such effects are alien to the nature and aim of Mural Painting. The primary purpose of a mural painting is to decorate a given space or surface; but it has another function—to record the events of history, the progress of the human mind and spirit, and so to teach and to elevate the human soul. In this function mural work has a literary content or meaning; and all too often the meaning, the story-telling quality, is given precedence over those essential qualities lacking which it is not worth the doing—Design, Pattern, Color.

The expression of individuality or of emotion by the play of feature, is of questionable propriety here, where all the elements are to be so disposed and arranged as to direct the emotion or the thought of the observer in a certain desired direction. To take an extreme example for the sake of illustration : if, in a Mural Painting, a man were to be seen escaping from a bear, the expression of his face would count for very little at a distance, but the expression of the action of his body would be very important and the speed of fear should be instinct in every line of it. Of course, unless this act of escape from the bear contributed in an absolutely direct and positive manner toward the meaning of the picture as a whole, it would be irrelevant and disturbing. And if, for another example, an individual is seen welcoming other persons, his whole attitude must be one of welcome that may be seen and understood from a long distance, a distance at which a sweet smile would be quite indistinguishable.

I am trying to state the proposition that in a Mural Painting there must be a large general idea that must be conveyed to the observer by large means, and that all trivialities of gesture or expression, everything irrelevant to the large general idea, must be suppressed.

We have thus seen that, while in Architecture, Sculpture, and Painting, the materials, means, and modes of expression appropriate to each vary widely, the same principles and qualities are common to all—and this cannot be too often repeated nor too strongly emphasized. Design, Proportion, Balance or Symmetry, Rhythm, Pattern, Harmony, Contrast, Style, link them in an essential unity.