Botticelli - Birth of Venus Leonardo da Vinci - Mona Lisa

Both of these works started out as serious and respectable paintings. Both of them were turned into kitsch by the purveyors of pralines and underwear. (The fact that those gentlemen in fact succeeded in turning these works into kitsch in itself says quite a bit about the relationship of an artwork to the viewer's environment. Another subject.) We should be thankful to those generous merchants, however, for forcing us to concentrate and think about what is really important about these two works.

Well, as a matter of fact, these two paintings by two people who lived more or less in the same time and place, and who presumably knew each other, represent the two poles which have been pulling art in opposite directions for as long as anyone knows.

It's a cliche that the mainstream of Western art, and quite a bit of non-Western art, has been a chase after the imitation of 'reality'. When the imitation failed, as for technical reasons it always did until the invention of photography, the artist felt himself pulled in two different directions. One solution was to imitate nature as well as he could. The other was to exaggerate his original inaccuracies in whatever direction his aesthetic drew him.

By the late Fifteenth Century, the artist had decided that the world was built out of a three-dimensional space, and was always seen by means of color and light which were infinitely shaded along three axes. Problem was, he could not reproduce these media very well, since he was used to thinking in terms of imaginary lines and very limited continuum of color. And though his attempts at reminding us of the three dimensions were improving fast, they were a still a long way behind what we imagine we see around us.

Botticelli's approach was to make the best of a bad business. If he couldn't give us color and light, he would give us the most beautiful of lines. If he couldn't give us space, he would give us the plane with a vengeance. If he couldn't give us solidity, he would give us sinuousity. A person might have many reasons for constantly painting lithe young women with a minimum of clothing, but the fact is that it's a wonderful subject for a painter who has no choice but to make these substitutions. Leonardo took the opposite tack. He might not have all the solutions for space, but aerial perspective was a good addition what had gone before. Both his medium and his habits may have made light a problem, but he would give you a larger color space than you were used to seeing. And if you think that the lady's solidity is purely a matter of taste in women, don't forget what Raphael was doing at the same time.

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