Art In History Art Blog
The rich interaction between painting and theater is something I have touched on in an earlier post on David and the French Revolution, and I will end by looking into that extraordinary moment of symbiosis at the end of this post. However, another moment of rich interaction occurred in the Italian Renaissance, and it is difficult to claim that either art form was taking the lead.
The lead image, Botticelli's "Story of Lucretia", may be a surprise to those who know his "Birth of Venus" and "Primavera". However, this is one of many works in which he essentially paints an elaborate stage setting and fills it with dramatic action. There is little question that the elaborate architectural frame with its described deep space reflects the stage design of the time. And it is also clear that the great catalyst is Alberti's discovery of the rules of one-point persepective.
The need for a true stage for human action had been felt for a generation or more. The fully formed figures of Giotto and Massaccio were living uncomfortably in the "space" provided for them, a space less real than the figures. If we compare Massaccio's "St. Peter giving Alms" with Botticelli's "annunciation", the progression is very palpable. Massaccio is reaching for a way to describe a space for his figures, using the lines and planes of architecture as a device; Botticelli has grasped the power and possibilites of mechanical perspective to create an independent, believable space. The shock value of this sudden heightened sense of reality was irresistible to Botticelli and his contemporaries, and just as irresistible to set designers.
I'll show two examples by Piero della Francesca, who was the true heir of Giotto and Massaccio in his monumental figures. In his "Madonna Enthroned" he chooses not to stray too far from the established frontal tradition, but within its limits he sculpts a totally believable niche of space, realistically lit, in which is figures can be equally real. His "Flagellation" is much more radical in its spatial design. The presumed main action is back in the space, away from the painting surface, a fact which is emphasized by the group of contemporary Florentines in the foreground.
It remained for Caravaggio more than a century later to add the next "theatrical" touches: the aggressive intrusion of the picture space into our own, and the development of dramatic spotlighting. Did he do this on his own, or was he aware of developments in theatrical presentation going on at the same time? I don't know the answer, but I suspect that what is preserved in painting may have been developed more quickly - and as quickly lost - in theater.
I'm going to jump forward to the period of the French Revolution, and the bombshell painting by Jaques-Louis David, "The Oath of the Horatii". I have discussed in another post how this painting was seen as a call to arms by his contemporaries, and served as a rallying point for the calls for revolution. But it also has a fascinating interconnection with theater.
The source of the subject is "Les Horaces", a play by the great French classical playwright Corneille. The play dramatizes extreme patriotic virtues, including mortal combat between two groups of brothers, the Horatii for Rome and the Curatii for Alba, families that were linked by marriage. When the surviving Horatio is rebuked by his sister for killing her husband, he kills her in turn for her lack of patriotism. The brother is defended passionately in front of the Roman senate by the father, the elder Horace. Macho stuff!
In his choice of a moment from the story, David settles on one that is not found in Corneille's play, or in any earlier version of the story. He chooses it on the basis of a precept from theater of that time: the "pregnant moment". It was a principle of dramatic writing at the time that action should culminate in a perfect moment which sums up everything that has gone before and everything that will follow. And the actors would pause, forming a "Tableau Vivant" (living painting) as the curtain falls!
David's "Oath" is just such a pregnant moment, frozen in time with the full implications of the story contained within. It was so powerful that a young contemporary playwright wrote his own version of the story, and included David's oath as its climactic moment, staged to replicate the painting!
David never again achieved the same perfection of moment in his revolutionary paintings. I'm showing his presentation works for the following two years, the "Death of Socrates" ands "Brutus receiving the bodies of his sons". In each case we see him struggling to define a particular moment which has the same force as the oath, and falling short. We also see a progressive realization of the true price of revolution, a movement from sacrifice as a splendid idea to sacrifice as a reality.