Tuesday, October 02, 2012

Timescale approaches in figurative paintings

I visited Hampton Court Palace today and saw many paintings from the fifteenth and sixteenth centuries.  This prompted me to think about why artists today don't reflect more on the scope for different ways of formatting timescale within figurative paintings.

A notion about figurative art and distortion
In many respects figurative art can be seen to act as the opposite to abstract art, which distorts figures and objects so that they are not strictly representational.......With the human form employed by an artist as a sign of personal/social and ideological belief, figurative art acts as a key vehicle of expression and reliable source of historical documentation.
Art Education - Figurative Art
The above quotation assumes that all figurative art is faithful and representational and does not distort the real - whether that's figures, animals, and other natural or man-made objects.

I don't think that's always been true and reference paintings in the sixteenth century below to explain why.

Timescale in figurative paintings from Hampton Court Palace

Here's a couple of examples from the paintings in the Palace which I saw which confound that notion of figurative art.  Both clearly distort figures in both time and space.

They served to remind me that this is nothing unusual for paintings produced at this time - and yet we don't often see this approach to figurative art today - and I wonder why not.

Henry VIII and the Field of the Cloth of Gold

Henry VIII and the Field of the Cloth of Gold (c. 1545) by unknown artist
Oil on canvas, 168.9 x 347.3 cm
Royal Collection
This painting - presumably commissioned for King Henry VIII - records a very important meeting between King Henry VIII of England and King Francis I of France on what has come to be known as the Field of the Cloth of Gold.  The meeting took place between 7th - 24th June 1520.

In the painting, King Henry is show both entering in the bottom left hand corner

King Henry VIII in procession - within "Henry VIII and the Field of the Cloth of Gold"
Plus the meeting between the two Kings - is also recorded at the top of the painting - which means he's in two places at the same time!

King Henry VII and King Francis meeting at the Filed of the Cloth of Gold
at the top middle of the existing painting
It's not unusual for paintings at this time to compress a story or narrative over time into one painting.

The Family of Henry VIII

Here's another format for a painting which we rarely - if ever - see today.  It demonstrates the inclusion of people in family portraits from different time periods.

The Family of Henry VIII (c.1545) by unknown artist
oil on canvas, 144.5 x 355.9 cm
Royal Collection
When this large painting was painted, King Henry VIII was actually married to his last wife Catherine Parr.  However she doesn't appear in the painting.

The Queen in the painting - to the left of Henry VIII - is his favourite wife Jane Seymour, despite the fact she had died at Hampton Court Palace of postnatal complications two weeks after the birth of her son Edward who is shown in the painting to the right of the King.
This important dynastic portrait of Henry VIII and his family shows the king seated in the centre beneath a canopy of state flanked by his third wife, Jane Seymour and Prince Edward, later Edward VI. On the left is Princess Mary, later Mary I, the king’s daughter by his first wife, Catherine of Aragon, and on the right Princess Elizabeth, later Elizabeth I, his daughter by his second wife, Anne Boleyn.Royal Collection - The Family of Henry VIII
It also struck me that we don't often see a panoramic format used in portraiture.

Incidentally, the chap through the archway on the right is Will Somers, the King's Jester or Fool, who was allowed to be very familiar with the King without the customary deference of the time.

Maybe this particular configuration happened because this is a painting of the King's concept of who his real family is?

Timescale distortion in figurative art today

I have a question - if you'd like to respond please use the comments function below.

Why do I we see so few large contemporary paintings that both record contemporary life AND indicate distortion in timescales (e.g. by showing the same protagonist at different points in the painting)?


katy gilmore said...

Hi Catherine - what an intriguing question you pose! I can't answer it but can say, being a Yank in the throes of an important political campaign, I picture a White House background with varied timescale! But really, I am writing because I so loved seeing these paintings from Hampton Court - I've just finished reading "Bring Up the Bodies" Hilary Mantel's second book in the terrific Wolf Hall trilogy - and there they are - the characters brought to life in perfect askew timescale! Thank you! Katy

Mona Diane Conner said...

A delightful post! I imagine it was done in art for historical narrative and documentation purposes, but whatever the reasons, it's a wonderful idea we may have forgotten about. For me it brings to mind how it must be in the spiritual world which lies outside time.

The modern movie, "Places in the Heart" does this in it's memorable and moving final scene, where all the characters, friends and enemies alike sit peacefully together as if in a church and pass communion to one another.

Making A Mark said...

For me it's all about how narrative painting seems to have completely lost its place in contemporary art.

Only rarely do I see art which aims to record important events on a national or personal scale. I think it's a great pity.

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