Baroque Art

Baroque Art

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Definition of Baroque art

Baroque period is an international style that emerged in Italy at the beginning of the 17th cent. and flourished in other countries roughly until the middle of the 18th cent.

Term baroque has an obscure origin that is often discussed. According to one, most common, version it derives from French “baroque” – that is for “irregular”. It in its own turn came from Italian “barocco”, which in Medieval philosophy defined an syllogism, sophisticated form of logic. Another possible variant is the connection with Portuguese word “barroco” (Spanish barrueco) – a effected, irregularly shaped pearl. The third assumption determines the word’s root to Latin “verruca” – a wart in a precious stone. Finally, some specialists believe the style owes its name to famous Late Renaissance painter from Urbino Federico Barocci.

Up to the end of the 19th cent. this term was used with critical inflection to describe certain tendencies in art – bizarreness, divergence from the conventional rules. For art critics, who appreciated Renaissance heritage, the exaggerated, sometimes hyperdecorated architecture, painting, and sculpture of the 17th cent. was the way too anti-classical. It was first mentioned as an appellation of a style only in 1888 in the monograph “Renaissance and baroque” by famous Switzerland art historian Heinrich Wölfflin.

Historical background and formation of main aesthetical principles

By the end of 16th cent. Europe was grabbed by difficult religious controversies, caused by break up between Catholic and Protestant church. Protestant reformation didn’t recognize papal power, catholic dogma of soul’s salvation through “right deeds” (that’s prayers and charity), cult of saints, celibate of monks etc. They believe Bible was the only veritable source and they were first to translate Bible from Latin into local languages, making it closer to vast masses. It occupied such countries as England, Scotland, Netherlands, Switzerland and part of Germany, where bourgeois class was generally very influential. In the states with absolutistic monarchy (like France, Spain and in Italy as a center of Catholic church) the reactional Counterreformation started, affirming through such influential institutions like Jesuit order the power of catholicism.

Artistic conception of baroque put wittiness at the forefront, forestalling cult of irony in Romanticism. The ground for this was formed by the defeat of humanistic ideals that revealed multiplicity and ambiguity of the Universe. The baroque wittiness laid in ability to meet diversities. This is the reason why baroque masters paid so much attention to metaphor, parable, signs, making them more artistically delicate than medieval symbolization. They embodied their passion for circumlocutions both in words and in stone. Baroque art appreciated imagination, ideas that amused and stoke with novelty. To startle a viewer they accepted grotesque and deformity as a part of their creative toolset.

The baroque principle of combining contrasts in the art replaced the Renaissance sense of proportions: a heavy material could look lighter-than-air, architecture could be dynamic, comedy could turn into tragedy. The aesthetic of the 17th cent. for the first time mixes the layers of metaphysical, mystical and naturalistic. Creators of romanticism and surrealism would later follow analogical way. Theoretical thought of baroque distanced itself either from the renaissance notion of the art as a form of science, shaped by the desire of cognition. Baroque emphasized on the fact that art was profoundly different from scientific logic. They believed wit was a sign of geniality. Artisitc gift was heaven-sent and no theory could help in getting it. It’s not theory, but inspiration that guides poets, musicians or painters.

The 17th cent. experienced not only dramatic shift the perception of the world, but lost the feeling of its integrity and harmony. Discoveries of heliocentricity of our solar system, development of optics that gave us ability to see the macro- and microcosms, interaction with new cultures while settling up in America or trading with Asia – all that simply shattered the universal picture, which had seemed to be persistent. Human wasn’t the “crown of creation” anymore, but only a part of huge and incomprehensible mechanism of reality. Such frame of mind led to dominating of two excesses in the atmosphere of the epoch – boisterous zest for life and immanent foreboding of catastrophe. Only theatricality of tricky spatial compositions, dramatic and impetuous character of gestures were able to visualize this mental upheaval.

Renaissance VS Baroque

For deeper understanding of explosive effect new baroque visual language made in the 17th cent., it’d be logical to cast back to the problem of its correlation with the proceeding Renaissance. At first glance, transition to baroque wasn’t as revolutionizing, as it used to be in case with change-over from medieval artistic system to Quattrocento. Technically, baroque even inherited practically all of the achievements of the 15th and 16th cent.: classical themes were still very popular; painters continued using linear and aerial perspective; architects worked with antique orders. As a matter of the fact, the key differences was made by adaptation of these elements. Already familiar to you Heinrich Wölfflin singled out five pairs of stylistic oppositions between these two artistic epochs. They’re (in each pair the first definition is a renaissance feature, the second – baroque one):

  • Linear (dominating of drawing, clear-cut lines) – painterly (dominating of color, chiaroscuro effects);
  • Plane (elements of the painting are located on several planes parallel to the main picture plane) – depth (figures are place at an angle to the main picture plane to underline its depth);
  • Closed form (composition is highly balanced and limited by the frame) – open form (composition provides feeling of the space beyond the canvas, often using close-ups and);
  • Tectonic form (statics, achieved often by strict horizontal or vertical compositions) – a-tectonic form (motion, achieved often by diagonal compositions );
  • Absolute clarity (clearly outlined figures and shapes) – comparative clarity (shapes are fused together).

Science and art

Whenever High Renaissance artists revealed erudition in the spheres of philosophy, humanities and engineering, the level of science of the 17th cent. was much harder to grasp, so the direct connection between it and art was interrupted. But still innovative ideas about the Universe structure were dimly felt in the air and reflected in the culture. Sometimes latest technical attainments were even applied by artists. This was the case with optical devices. European painters resorted to their help from early Cinquecento, specifically speaking – to camera obscura (literally “dark room”). Typically it was a room with a hole in the wall, through which images were projected reversed. Portable camera obscura used a lens and an angled mirror to reflect an image on a paper. Improvement of the technique of producing lens made the derivable projection sharper, with lucid contours and colors. It allowed masters to depict all details, perspective with overwhelming realism. Some art historians believe that this was the secret of the oeuvre by Vermeer and Caravaggio. However, the only evidence this painters used this equipment are their canvases, as some peculiar effects produced solely by the camera obscura are evident on them.

Another trick common in monumental (and sometimes easel) baroque painting is so-called “anamorphosis” – a special method of distortion of the image, so its shapes become recognizable only with a help of special devices (like mirrors) or from a certain vantage point (perspective anamorphosis). Simple anamorphosis were already created during Renaissance, but the 17th cent. really appreciated it. Such works were fulfilled with baroque love to inscrutability and reticence. Anamorphosis embodied the “natural magic” and scientific rationalism. Paris occurred to be the center for the studying of such kind of optical illusions, that were cultivated in royal court.

Religion and baroque

Despite of all scientific discoveries, baroque era remained remarkably religious. Even Newton, who formulated the mechanic theory, saw in all his investigation primary confirmation of theological thesis and greatness of the divine plan.

When comparing the art of the 17th cent. in protestant and catholic countries, one would mention their similarity and diversity at the same time. What made artists in Italy, for instance, produce grandeur temples, lavishly decorated temples, pompous frescos, while Dutch masters preferred sober and austere style? This differences were evoken by conceptual split between this two congregations. First of all, the popes had not only ecclesiastic, but also secular powere in Rome. So, like monarchs in France, they used their patronage to spread and demonstrate their fame and power, within the Apennines and out of it. Huge sums were spent on desining and realization of architectural projects, paintings and sculptures, and enlarging their collections. Sometimes it seemed that popes and their families had an unannounced competition in erecting and commissioning true masterpieces of art. Very often artistic trends were established this way new.

While the Catholics aimed to attract and impress their parish with the temples and their interiors, protestants, as their antagonists, manifested temperance and ideas of bourgeois morality. That explains their concentration on more down-to-earth themes of genre, landscape and highly individualized portrait painting. Protestant art wasn’t more secular, then catholic one, but here didacticism and symbolism was presented in much more moderate and less sumptuous way. It wasn’t dramatic and expressive, but rather sympathetic and closer to human emotional experience. That suited tastes of the merchant class – the main artists’ customer.

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