JF Ptak Science Books Post 1943 (Part of the series on the History of Blank, Empty and Missing Things.)
"Where is abstract without solids, I ask you?" -- William Gaddis, on the solids in Uccello, The Recognitions, 1955
Actually, I think that there's plenty of abstract without solids, so long as you've seen solids before.
I've returned to a slightly recurrent theme in this blog dealing with the great Paolo Uccello (1397-1475) and his study of perspective--but most directly as he was observed by William Gaddis in his Great American Novel The Recognitions. (I am forever grateful to my brilliant Patti Digh for really hooking me into Gaddis so many years ago--Patti was long intrigued by Gaddis and wrote her UVa master dissertation on his Big Book. Gaddis' book can be found here.) Among other things Uccello is recognized as being one of the greatest and among the earliest artist to re-discover the science of perspective, and was throughout his life a passionate student and practioner.
[Much of Uccello's work can be found at Paolo Uccello Complete Works website, here.]
"Painting is exquisite as the punishment for the thinker."--William Gaddis, The Recognitions
The “solids’ recognized by Gaddis (and not really discussed, and mentioned only twice in the book I believe) are incredible to me. Looking at his painting Battle of San Romano (1457) we see Perspective in her place; but when we look at, say, the rumps of the horses, we see almost no detail, just a mass of color, a solid, with spectacular plainness. What in the world was he thinking? He could certainly have painted the horse and the other solids with texture and detail, but he didn’t, and to me it seems antithetical to the painting. What in the name of all motherly things was he thinking? And who else on earth was using such huge amounts of plain solids in their paintings? I’m not aware that anyone else was, and I am relatively clueless as to why he did it, abandoning detail in order to raise awareness of the surrounding parts of the painting, or perhaps heightening a sense of the not-yet-existent abstract, or drawing attention to the perspectival aspect of the work?
But the solids are not just limited to Uccello, though they may have appeared there first, especially as the "exhibited" variety of this thinking. Jacopo Bellini (ca. 1400-ca. 1470) was a contemporary, living pretty much during the same period of time as Uccello, and who was responsible as much as anyone else for introducing oils in painting and establishing the Venetian style. He was a brilliant artist, the teacher of Mantegna, ran a fabulous studio, and was the father of two great artists. (One son, Giovanni, was a highly regarded artist who was also the teacher of Girgione and Titian.)
In looking through two volumes of Jacopo's drawings, I was struck by the number of times that horses and other objects appeared without detail, as solid solids, or mostly solid, quite outside the way in which these things were painted in the 15th century. Pacing though the books flipping through the open pages is like looking at a pop-up book in reverse--each set of pages opened are like looking into, looking through, the book, into space. They are collections of perspective. And they are populated by those other solids, which was surprising.
His horses appear very much like those in Uccello--except of course that these images were personal, workbooks for the artist, idea-machines and memory devices. There was plenty of detail in other aspects of these drawings, but the lack of the detail int he Uccellian manner really struck me.
And here it is, Bellini's solids, an example:
Perhaps they were just place-keepers, to be filled-in as neededm just a shrt-hand expression of a horse rather than a transcendental imperative. After all, Bellini knew horse muscles, and decided in his workbooks that he just didn't need to draw them, or that in the sense of Bartleby the scrivener that he'd prefer not to.