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The School of Athens: A detail hidden in a masterpiece (bbc.com)
41 points by animalcule 11 days ago | hide | past | favorite | 14 comments

> a simple ink pot teeters precariously on the corner of a large marble block, an elbow-twitch away from falling, shattering, and opening a black hole at the heart of Raphael’s work. That unassuming object, and it alone, transforms Raphael’s fresco from being a two-dimensional tribute to rational thought into a far deeper and more mercurial meditation on the mysteries of existence.

Er, no...? It doesn't look in a dangerous position to me.

What it really does, combined with the human figure, is hiding the desk border, dispensing the artist from dealing with a few awkward issues of perspective. The composition is a late addition, after all, and its front perspective is already suspect.

This seems the sort of critique that gives the art world a bad name.

This colorful language is also used by artists to describe their own works. e.g. the artists description of the Tilted Arc (https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Tilted_Arc):

"The viewer becomes aware of himself and of his movement through the plaza. As he moves, the sculpture changes. Contraction and expansion of the sculpture result from the viewer's movement. Step by step, the perception not only of the sculpture but of the entire environment changes."

The only thing the "viewers" were aware of was the fact that a large rusty slab of scrap metal had blocked free movement and become an eye sore. Art is a strange thing. Not every vision or idea will be apparent to the observer.

Though I do agree that this kind of language comes off as condescending, as if the author has some form of superior artistic analysis and introspect. It's almost as if they are on the same level as conspiracy theorists, proud of the fact that they "understand" some arcane idea or fact that doesn't exist or isn't true.

You have to realize the metagame being played here. The game that art collectors are playing is tax evasion. They want to buy something for $100 from a depressed cigarette smoker in tight jeans, then 20 years later say that it's worth $100 million and donate it to the Metropolitan Museum of Art for a mega tax writeoff. If they buy a 1 inch cube of 18/10 stainless steel, they can never claim that it's worth $100 million because the IRS would just say "you can buy that off McMaster Carr for $100." But with the above paragraphs attached, they get to claim that it's unique and not replaceable and therefore worth whatever they say it is.

Sadly true. It's often more about the 'artist's statement' than the art itself, not least because it gives art collectors and dealers something to talk about at cocktail parties.

While I am always quite interested in what technique or effect an artist is pursuing I share your contempt for the sort of marketing fluff you describe. Real artists' statements (eg in interviews or casual conversation) tend to be unpretentious and focus on the search for meaning, but then get rewritten into this pseudo-scholarly language by, well, BS artists.

Not surprising. Modern art is full of sophistry, gnostic "secret knowledge", and in-group signaling. It's hard to tell when some charlatan is consciously trying to con some rich rube by making him feel unsophisticated and when the charlatan in question has been inhaling the fumes of the Delphic latrine.

Certainly, some people are more perceptive than others. Some are as dead as door nails. But art must ultimately be intelligible, even if abstract (and thus possibly only of niche interest). Would Raphael speak in that pompous, hollow way? Would he describe his art, if at all, by employing puffed up banalities or incomprehensible blather? I doubt it. If you pressed the person writing that stuff, he'd probably accuse you of being an unsophisticated rube, not because you necessarily are one, but because it's a nice Derrida-style tactic of evasion through insult. It only works on those with egos, though. Insecure rich rubes wishing not to be seen as Beverly Hillbillies are jackpot.

Let's take that wonderful excerpt you've given us (responses directed at the "artist")...

"The viewer becomes aware of himself and of his movement through the plaza."

The only thing I'm becoming aware of is my anger and annoyance.

"As he moves, the sculpture changes."

Oh, really. The sculpture is changing. Was I supposed to eat that piece of blotting paper before coming here?

"Contraction and expansion of the sculpture result from the viewer's movement."

It's called perspective. Congratulations. You have grasped Art 101.

"Step by step, the perception not only of the sculpture but of the entire environment changes."


> This seems the sort of critique that gives the art world a bad name.

Yes, and the remainder of the article twirls around and around and around, until saying it could be Michelangelo, but some people think the hair looks like Heraclitus. Nobody knows, yet the author ignores that and assumes it's Heraclitus and then just drives into multiple conjectures to construct an imagined artistic premise behind an ink pot.

> Remove the ink pot from the epicentre of Raphael’s fresco, and the work dissolves into a fiasco of confused and confusing forms. Heraclitus’s profound, if overlooked, ink pot is the very well-spring from which the elastic energy of Raphael’s masterpiece endlessly emanates.

:-/ I don't really buy putting this much on the ink pot. If the ink pot were missing, no one would notice. As is, most reproductions of SoA just show Plato and Aristotle and cut everyone else out. I think a better statement would be "the pen in Heraclitus's hand adds unity to the picture by showing that the anachronistic crew are united in their literary ambition."

If the ink pot were missing, no one would notice.

Mystery in the Masterpiece: Raphael and the case of the missing inkpot


Far from being a careless omission, the missing inkpot is a metaphor for the mystery of the creative process, whereby the artist extracts the image, stroke by masterful stroke, from beyond the veil of imagination. When the viewer has become so absorbed in the reality of the painting that the missing inkpot stands out, it is as if Raphael silently announces his own creative divinity.

I've written those sort of sentences before, only to look upon my euphoria with a degree of embarrassment the morning after.

I've seen photographies of this fresco dozens of times, even studied it (superficially) in some art history class, but for the first time I've realized that ancient Greeks did not have paper, much less books.

I imagine Raphael and his contemporaries didn't know as much about ancient Greece as we do today. OTOH the printing press was still fairly recent so Raphael must have been conscious that books were not commonly available centuries before him.

My point is that this depiction of ancient Greece might have been deliberately fantastic which is something I had never thought before about Renaissance art.

I actually enjoyed the artistic summary (although it does go a bit long) but I wish the writer would have stated the factual point earlier: the figure with the ink pot is Heraclitus

Kind of clickbaity. I was waiting for some huge delivery about (spoiler alert!) there being an inkpot, but it never really materialized.

Like they said, the figure didn't appear in previous drafts. Some student probably made the observation "hey, where's Pen Man getting his ink from?" and it wound up squeaked in on the edge of the desk.

If you want to find things hidden in masterpieces get Charles Bouleau's The Painter's Secret Geometry and learn about the scaffolding which gives imagery its underlying structure and guides the eye around it.

For some reason the entire article reminds me of the artwork descriptions in Rimworld. For example:


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