Evidently one cannot look for long at the Last Supper without ceasing to study it as a composition, and beginning to speak of it as a drama. It is the most literary of all great pictures, one of the few of which the effect may largely be conveyed - can even be enhanced - by description.
However much the various phases of the French Revolution may have modelled themselves on Roman history the early phase on Republican virtue, the later on Imperial grandeur the fact remains that classicism depended on a fixed and rational philosophy; whereas the spirit of the Revolution was one of change and of emotion.
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The nude gains its enduring value from the fact that it reconciles several contrary states. It takes the most sensual and immediately interesting object, the human body, and puts it out of reach of time and desire; it takes the most purely rational concept of which mankind is capable, mathematical order, and makes it a delight to the senses; and it takes the vague fears of the unknown and sweetens them by showing that the gods are like men and may be worshiped for their life-giving beauty rather than their death-dealing powers.
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I believe order is better than chaos, creation better than destruction. I prefer gentleness to violence, forgiveness to vendetta. On the whole I think that knowledge is preferable to ignorance, and I am sure that human sympathy is more valuable than ideology. I believe that in spite of the recent triumphs of science, men haven't changed much in the last two thousand years; and in consequence we must try to learn from history.
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In the early twelfth century century the Virgin had been the supreme protectress of civilisation. She had taught a race of tough and ruthless barbarians the virtues of tenderness and compassion. The great cathedrals of the Middle Ages were her dwelling places upon earth. In the Renaissance, while remaining the Queen of Heaven, she became also the human mother in whom everyone could recognise qualities of warmth and love and approachability... The stabilising, comprehensive religions of the world, the religions which penetrate to every part of a man's being-in Egypt, India or China-gave the female principle of creation at least as much importance as the male, and wouldn't have taken seriously a philosophy that failed to include them both... It's a curious fact that the all-male religions have produced no religious imagery-in most cases have positively forbidden it. The great religious art of the world is deeply involved with the female principle.
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Antique art has come down to us in a fragmentary condition, and we have virtuously adapted our taste to this necessity. Almost all our favorite specimens of Greek sculpture, from the sixth century onward, were originally parts of compositions, and if we were faced with the complete group in which the Charioteer of Delphi was once a subsidiary figure, we might well experience a moment of revulsion. We have come to think of the fragment as more vivid, more concentrated, and more authentic.
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Great works of art can be produced in barbarous societies in fact the very narrowness of primitive society gives their ornamental art a peculiar concentration and vitality. At some time in the ninth century one could have looked down the Seine and seen the prow of a Viking ship coming up the river. Looked at today in the British Museum, it is a powerful work of art; but to the mother of a family trying to settle down in her little hut, it would have seemed less agreeable as menacing to her civilisation as the periscope of a nuclear submarine.
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Only the bad artists of the nineteenth century were frightened by the invention of photography; the good ones all welcomed it and used it. Degas liked it not only because it provided an accurate record, but because the snapshot showed him a means of escape from the classical rules of design. Through it he learnt to make a composition without the use of formal symmetry.
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Gargoyles were the complement to saints; Leonardo's caricatures were complementary to his untiring search for ideal beauty. And gargoyles were the expression of all the passions, the animal forces, the Caliban gruntings and groanings which are left in human nature when the divine has been poured away. Leonardo was less concerned than his Gothic predecessors with the ethereal parts of our nature, and so his caricatures, in their expression of passionate energy, merge imperceptibly into the heroic.
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Ruskin's much-derided moral theory of art was part of an attempt to show that this human activity, which we value so highly, engaged the whole of human personality. His insistence on the sanctity of nature was part of an attempt to develop Goethe's intuition that form cannot be put together in the mind by an additive process, but is to be deduced from the laws of growth in living organisms, and their resistance to the elements.
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No nude, however abstract, should fail to arouse in the spectator some vestige of erotic feeling... The desire to grasp and be united with another human is so fundamental a part of our nature that our judgement of what is known as 'pure form' is inevitably influenced by it, and one of the difficulties of the nude as a subject for art is that these instincts cannot be hidden.
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The difference between what we see and a sheet of white paper with a few thin lines on it is very great. Yet this abstraction is one which we seem to have adopted almost instinctively at an early stage in our development, not only in Neolithic graffiti but in early Egyptian drawings. And in spite of its abstract character, the outline is responsive to the least tremor of sensibility.
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Our universe cannot even be stated symbolically. And this touches us all more directly than one might suppose. For example, artists, who have been very little influenced by social systems, have always responded instinctively to latent assumptions about the shape of the universe. The incomprehensibility of our new cosmos seems to me, ultimately, to be the reason for the chaos of modern art.
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