Art Theory – Action Past, Present, And Prospective

Not merely, however, if nature is truly to be represented, are motion and action, and also continuous action to be portrayed, but that which has not only immediately, but which has for some time passed; and that which is not only immediately, but which is for some time prospective, as well as immediately past and present action, must be described. Different arts differ extensively as to their capability to effect this end; and some of those which appear the least adapted to represent motion, such as painting and sculpture, exhibit to us with the greatest clearness that which is past and prospective ; while certain arts, such as music and acting, whose peculiar province it is to express motion, are here, to a large extent, unsuccessful. Suggestion is, of course, in many cases, much more potent and more efficient in the representation of action, past and prospective, than is direct description, inasmuch as its sphere is far more extended.

By the skill of the artist in some of the great efforts in historical composition in painting, we have represented to us with perspicuity and energy, not only the transaction which is in actual progress and continuous, but that also which has recently happened, and that moreover which is about to take place, and which are more or less independent of and unconnected with the event that is immediately occurring. Thus, in the cartoon by Raphael, of ‘The Beautiful Gate of the Temple,’ we behold not merely the action in progress of commanding the lame man to rise, but are informed of what has lately been done by the principal objects in the scene, and of the sacrifices about to take place. Raphael’s cartoon. of The Death of Ananias,’ is also a fine illustration of the successful representation by pictorial art of action at once past, present, and prospective ; where the past acts of Ananias are denoted by his position, and the attitude and expression and demeanour of those about him ; while the approach in the background of the persons who are to carry him to his burial, and of his wife who is soon to follow his example and his fate, narrate to us no less forcibly what will shortly happen.

Poetry and eloquence have, however, here the greatest power to accomplish the desired purpose, as their range is as unbounded as is the extent of the subject they describe. That, moreover, which painting and sculpture can effect only by suggestion, they attain by literal narration. Architecture can do nothing directly as regards the representation or record of action, either past or prospective. Indirectly, indeed, it may attain this object so far as it serves to raise trophies of achievements which have happened in times past, or to usher in those about to be performed.

Gardening is also, of course, wholly inadapted directly to re-present action, either past present or prospective. In one respect, indeed, it may be said indirectly to narrate action, both past and prospective, so far as the fading of the flowers and leaves tells us of the glories of the summer that has passed away, and of the rude blasts and storms of winter that are approaching; while the buds and early shoots proclaim in turn the coming spring. This circumstance may, moreover, serve to remind us that a valuable hint as to the mode of narration in historical composition, may be obtained from nature herself in many of the scenes she displays, especially those of the kind just alluded to. So in observing a storm, we see at once the devastation which has ensued, and also what is threatened, as well as learn the condition of the objects represented before it broke out. A. ruin, too, tells us alike of the decay now progressing, and of the former state of the impaired edifice.

Costume can only be said to represent or typify past or future action, so far as it is either emblematical of certain customs or actions which were performed in past ages ; or as it serves, as in the case of armour, or costume adapted for dramatic purposes, to suggest those particular actions in which it especially adapts the wearer of it to partake.