Romance of an Old Woman
Wolfflin explains that the aim of artists since the renaissance has not been “the clumsy notion of the imitation of nature.” Instead, each style that emerged since then was a matter of exploring “different visual schema,” or priorities. He continues by saying that 15th and 17th century art are primarily different because of the deliberate stylistic emphases that belonged to each period, not because of increasing sophistication in rendering nature. While Wolfflin acknowledges that the works of the 16th and 17th century consist of “no homogeneous production,” and that the titles High Renaissance, and Baroque “mean little and must lead to misunderstanding in their application…;” He proposes a list of characteristics that boil down the crux of methodologies that distinguish each style. In the case of Orazio Borgianni’s Head of an Old Woman, a work of the 17th century, the majority of the characteristics Wolfflin attributed to 17th century works apply but the painting poses important exceptions to his list. The 1st of Wolfflin’s principles reveals a trend of the gradual shifting from a predominance of compositional and contour line in Renaissance work to what he calls the painterly sensibility of the Baroque era in which line does not govern the canvas. He describes line acting as “the path of vision and guide of the eye,” by which he ostensibly means that the composition of elements in a work function to suggest a controlled, linear path that directs the viewer to encounter one element and then successive elements in a controlled fashion; resulting in a linear reading of the elements. Line’s other role is of distinguishing forms by “outline and surfaces;” in other words, contour. Head of an old woman is a portrait, however. As a result, the painting avoids the consideration of the role of line acting as a compositional mediator between different objects since, though there may be regions of different matter in the painting, there’s only a single figure. The painting has moments of heavy contour, such as around the woman’s mouth, in the folds of her white shirt and head wrap; particularly on her forehead where her brows are in a deep furrow. The tenebristic light play on her create such a distinction between light and dark that the furrows act like lines scrawled deeply into her face. The shadows, since they create glaring contrast between light and dark regions, cause certain patches of colors to end abruptly as they meet instead of blending and yielding form in a manner that Wofflin would call painterly. This often produces sharp perimeters around each patch of color and, though these are not outlined, they clearly resemble rigid color fields that are akin to the fields contour lines make. Observing the head wrap, one may notice how harshly distinct it is from the background in its highlighted areas. Wofflin’s next stipulation is that “Classic art reduces the parts of a total form to a sequence of planes, and the Baroque emphasizes depth.” Additionally, the action of line as contour creates planes by distilling contoured areas from one another; therefore “with the discounting of the contour comes the discounting of the plane,” according to Wofflin. The Old woman, because of her heavy tenebrism, would defy her Baroque categorization under a strict reading of this statute since, as afore mentioned, the sharp distinctions in light and shadow form distinct patches of colors which behave like color planes. The action of color in this manner is a direct result of the tenebristic light that is a tenant of Baroque style. The work owes its planar elements to the intentional application and rational understanding of harsh light play. Wofflin would claim a renaissance work would be planar independent of light play. Though that technicality does not waive the Head of an Old Woman from adhering to Wofflin’s second stipulation in a strictly visual audit, it should serve to illuminate that strict categorization of...
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