Arts: Professor Janson’s Big Art History Book

For anyone who has immersed himself or herself in a one-semester college survey course on the whole history of art, you probably have owned or come into contact with a copy of H.W. Janson’s History of Art, A Survey of the Major Visual Arts from the Dawn of History to the Present Day, published by Prentice-Hall Inc., of Englewood Cliffs, N.J. and Harry N. Abrams Inc., New York.

From its first printing in 1962 to my copy, the sixteenth printing in July 1971, Janson has been the ultimate source for millions of Art History 101 aficionados. Like an excursion to the Louvre, the study and appreciation of art can be seen either as a serious long-term commitment or a short-term elective. And for most who have read Janson – or acted as if they had read it, or dozed through it or skimmed it – it today remains the quintessential text for those grappling with the big question: Why should I care about art?

And the answer is: Because art is all of history compressed into one cultural niche.

And art is fun.

Throughout Janson’s 578 pages of text, 883 black-and-white illustrations, 87 color plates, and chronological tables of the various eras in political history, religion, literature, science, technology, architecture, sculpture and painting, History of Art is one-stop shopping for the essential facts about, for instance, what Mannerism was (“More recently, the cold and rather barren formalism of (the Mannerists’ art) has been recognized as a special form of a wider movement that placed ‘inner vision’, however subjective or fantastic, above the twin authority of nature and the ancients.” (Atta go Janson!)); what two Greek temples were built side-by-side in southern Italy (The Temple of Poseidon and the Basilica, at Paestum); and why the French painter Delacroix and his Romantic school gave way to the harsh social realism of Millet and Daumier (because Delacroix was seen as detached from the tribulations of contemporary life).

Beginning with the well-known cave paintings at Lascaux, France alleged to be from 15,000 BC, Janson surfs art history in an engaging way, painting a picture of civilization in constant flux as reflected in its most enduring artifacts. What is most notable is that many of the forms remain essentially the same, while some have been repeatedly upgraded, redefined and refined according to the standards and practices of the day, sometimes driven by outside forces, but mostly done in the name of artistic progress itself. 

If one were to peruse Janson and to try and pick the major demarcation lines of art history, one might choose ancient Egypt; then jump 2,000 years to the Classical period of Greece; segue a few centuries into inferior Rome; experience the politically violent but artistically nascent period of the Middle Ages, which included one major innovation in the muscular Romanesque style of architecture (rediscovered in the 19th century by H.H. Richardson); leap with joy into the Renaissance (which was a revival of Classical Greece); and then stride onward into the very active 500 years since during which the established societies of Euro-centric art history maintained relatively high levels of stability, productivity, prosperity and year-after-year historical relevance to our modern times. 

But what is most fascinating about flipping through History of Art is not necessarily the periods of great art, which are well known, but the slack periods in between. For instance, following centuries of Greek dominance by legendary artists from Calamis (460 BC, maker of the famous Poseidon bronze) to Chares (creator of the supermonumental and probably mythical Colossus of Rhodes (280 BC) and ending in Apollonius’ ultra-expressive bronze The Prize Fighter of 100 BC, the Western world became focused in Rome.

And unfortunately Roman art spiraled down into a pantheon of relatively dismal and hideous sculptural portraits of dismal and hideous emperors, while relying on domestically produced copies of Classical Greek masterpieces to give beauty to an empire known more for its brutality and its engineering expertise than for its aesthetics.

Four great Greek sculptures in Janson's text all are Roman copies

In fact on two succeeding pages of History of Art discussing the Classical Greek era, we see pictured four of the great figurative marble sculptures The Apollo Belvedere, Apoxymenos, The Barberini Faun and Dying Gaul. But each sculpture pictured is not original, but is a Roman copy of a Greek original, few of which exist.

So obviously the Romans’ most noble service to the world of art was not in their indigenous works but in their preservation of Greek ideals through copies, itself more of a feat of mechanical precision than of artistic originality and profundity. Thus in the case of much Greek sculpture, we would not even know Greece without Rome. Lucky us.

Leading up to and following the fall of Rome in 410 AD, Europe descended into centuries of chaos dominated by rampaging Goths, Vandals, Huns, Franks, Norse, Lombards and more, a series of marauding, conquering and thieving peoples wandering across a rural continent that lacked any physical focus beyond the ruin of Roma.

Paris was but a wide spot on the Seine, and London was a faraway outpost, centuries from realization as a city. Searching through Janson, one notes that named artists simply disappear from art history for 1,300 years(!) from the late Greek period all the way to 1180 AD when Janson chooses Benedetto Antelami as the first named artist in a full 102 pages of text, picturing his King David from the west façade of Fidenza Cathedral and calling him “the greatest sculptor of Italian Romanesque art”.

Janson continues: “What makes Antelami exceptional is the fact that his work shows a considerable degree of individuality, so that, for the first time since the ancient Greeks, we can begin to speak (though with some hesitation) of a personal style.”

To us studying today, the question is more likely “Benedetto who”? But perhaps we should once again point to the overwhelming authority and standing of Greece’s four centuries of glory to comprehend this chain of events. In other words, it is an astonishing commentary that we should even remember, much less know with certainty, the individual identities of artists from the Classical Greek period 2,500 years ago since most of their original work has disappeared from the face of the earth, most likely buried somewhere on the rocky peninsula of Hellas, or sunk in the “wine dark” Aegean Sea.

Thus throughout the artist-less Middle Ages interim, the wall paintings and mosaics, religious manuscripts and their gold, bejeweled covers, sarcophagi, cathedral sculpture and reliefs discussed in Janson are largely Christian in nature, are simply anonymous and are somewhat homogeneous, sometimes even primitive in style as if the reigns of the various tribal leaders from the Visigothic king Alaric I (who lived 370-410 AD) to the all-powerful and legendary Charlemagne (who ruled 768-814 AD) through the First Crusade (1095 AD) show a continent with promise and growing religious fervor, but struggling to right itself politically, economically and culturally.

This detail of the Lindau Gospels cover of 875 AD shows that artistic output in the Middle Ages was largely the work of Christian monks and other religious figures who had little formal training in art.

It would seem appropriate therefore to recognize that the artistic output of that era thus was limited to the only social sanctuaries of the times, the Christian monasteries and churches that took root as Europe coalesced around the Christianity that Frankish king Clovis first officially accepted in 498 AD. This moved the faith, and its coinciding stability and cohesion, far beyond the Rome of Emperor Constantine, the first Christian monarch. 

But any student of history knows that the real focus of “our” civilization after Rome simply shifted east to Constantinople (today Istanbul, Turkey), which for 1,000 years was the capital of Western wealth, commerce, religion, art and culture under the umbrella of Byzantium. History of Art shows us a vibrant social, artistic and economic order centered at the nexus of land and water trade routes. And in a tribute to the power of the evolving anti-papal church, the new Eastern orthodoxy was certified in 753 AD with the overthrow of Roman iconoclasm, or rather with the acceptance of images in religious worship.

Centuries earlier, however, in 537 AD, the die was cast by Byzantine Emperor Justinian, the Constantine of the new Eastern faith, who saw to completion the original, and one of the most astounding Christian cathedrals of all time, Constantinople’s monumental Hagia Sophia which came to symbolize a whole new dimension in art and architecture. Named for Saint Sophia, who was martyred for sacrificing herself and her three daughters rather than renouncing her Christianity, this massive church, says Janson, “achieved such fame that the names of the architects too were remembered – Anthemius of Tralles and Isidorus of Miletus,” an interesting commentary considering that history’s tyrants seem always to be remembered best, or that the Parthenon’s architects Ictinus and Callicrates are better known to us from almost 10 centuries previous.

Hagia Sophia in Istanbul. The minarets were installed after the Muslims took the cathedral following their conquest of the city in 1453.

More daring than the staid Romanesque style back on “the continent”, Hagia Sophia was a conglomeration never seen before, like an earthquake of forms rising from the soil and thrusting skyward. It took advantage of Roman advances in engineering to create the most spectacular house of Christian worship in the first millennium of the faith, with the highest dome in the world (184 feet) representing a structure more revolutionary than any other since the pagan Parthenon itself.

Janson refers to its soaring interior: “…the dome seems to float… because it rests upon a closely spaced ring of windows, and the nave walls are pierced by so many openings that they have the transparency of lace curtains.”

So astounding an achievement was Hagia Sophia that the Mosque of Ahmed I, built nearby in 1609-1616 after the Ottoman Turks took power from the Christians in 1453, is directly based on Hagia Sophia’s design, and the two might even be confused, both today even surrounded by minarets which the Muslim Ottomans installed around Hagia Sophia to convert it too to Islam.

Janson’s pictures of the two buildings, 20 pages apart, might look like a misprint, but in fact is one of the quirks of art/architectural history that this excellent text reveals, the two structures just similar and dissimilar enough to slyly evoke the side-by-side Greek temples at Paestum from 2,000 years previous.

Thus from the Pyramids to the Parthenon to Hagia Sophia, we see in Janson the stages in the evolution of form in architecture that is more telling than the more predictable forces in painting or sculpture in the same 3,000-year period. From minimalist triangular geometry (the Egyptian pyramids) to elegant post-and-lintel Greek architecture refined over 500 years of temple-building, to the domed beauty of Constantinople, Hagia Sophia marked a demarcation point after which the churches of Europe are easily as representative of cultural identity as the religious imagery inside them that came to dominate art for another millennium.

“The origin of no previous (architectural) style can be pinpointed as exactly as the Gothic,” says Professor Janson with certainty. “It was born between 1137 and 1144 in the rebuilding by Abbot Suger, of the Royal Abbey Church of St.-Denis, just outside the city of Paris.” And so the next phase of Janson’s History of Art begins with two words that have become synonymous with European Christianity, supremacy and progress heading into the Renaissance: Gothic Cathedral.

The names are legend: Reims, Chartres, Gloucester, Notre Dame, Salisbury, Milan and finally St.-Maclou in Rouen, which was a style called Flamboyant Gothic and is best known to us through Monet’s series of Impressionist interpretations. The rising power of the Church was reflected in monuments that soared all over Europe consuming massive wealth and man-years in their construction, and Janson treats them as technological marvels of European progress, capped by God-bound spires and dependent on new architectural advances including the daring innovation called flying buttresses that shore up their seemingly impossible new generation of engineering.

But where there are cathedrals, there is sculpture, and huge amounts of it, in every nook, cranny, pulpit, pilaster and portal. Some of the names noted in Janson – Pisano, Dalle Masegne and Maitani — are much less well known to us than the Renaissance masters like Michelangelo, but still they represented a step forward in the momentum of the growing Christian millennium.

And as the early Renaissance dawned, the new era introduced us to a new and more historically important phase in the long lost art of painting, that of the religious image transmuted to the secular world. While authentic Christian icons picture elongated, angular and stylized figures, fingers, toes and robes in order to distinguish their holy pedigrees, the late Gothic-early Renaissance period saw the transformation of Christian art into the echelons of “high” culture of Europe. The works of masters like Giotto, Cimabue, Massacio and Duccio, who worked around and beyond 1300 AD, has come down to us as a new generation of highly theatrical representations of Christianity’s birth replete with sprawling narratives, crowd scenes, facial expressivity of every type, glorious color, cityscapes, palaces and thrones that offered the growing religion a newer and wider interpretive berth.

By 1423, Gentila da Fabriano has taken us well over the edge with The Adoration of the Magi, a multipanel extravaganza of gold, gilt, silver, jewels, drapery, halos, horses, leopards, and camels never before seen in art. “The Holy family on the left almost seems in danger of being overwhelmed by the gay and festive pageant pouring down upon it from the hills in the distance,” says Janson.

With the dawning of the Renaissance, we encounter our old friends Michelangelo and Leonardo, rivals in art and in life, both working around 1500 AD and producing masterworks like The Virgin of the Rocks a rare painting by “lazy” Leonardo, and Michelangelo’s Moses, a seated depiction of the Old Testament star in San Pietro in Vincoli, Rome.

Janson devotes a full 16 pages to the duo, with deep psychological and formal analyses of each… “This dualism of body and spirit endows his (Michelangelo’s) figures with their extraordinary pathos; outwardly calm they seem stirred by an overwhelmingly psychic energy that has no release in physical action,” Janson opines on Michelangelo’s Dying Slave and Rebellious Slave.

Or of Leonardo’s Mona Lisa: “The smile too may be read in two ways; as the echo of a momentary mood, and as a timeless, symbolic expression” that goes back to Archaic Greek sculpture. “Even the landscape in the background, composed mainly of rocks and water, suggests elemental generative forces.”

Is there life after the The Dynamic Duo?

Yes, there is. Plenty of it

Along comes the greatest printmaker of his time, Albrecht Durer whom Janson describes thus: “After the breadth and lyricism of the (watercolor) Italian Mountains,  the expressive violence of the woodcuts illustrating the Apocalypse… is doubly shocking… In his hands, woodcuts lose their former charm as popular art, but gain the precise articulation of a fully matured graphic style.”

We then move into Mannerism and its exponents Tintoretto and El Greco (“perhaps the greatest Mannerist painter”) and art also goes north into the canvases of Hans Holbein the Younger and his portly, robed and jeweled Henry VIII of 1540.

As Janson whisks us through the Baroque, we see the arts exploding into decorative effect of stifling intensity. Baroque’s original meaning of “irregular, contorted, grotesque” which Janson ultimately rejects, sometimes seems appropriate.  Dominikus Zimmermann’s Interior, Pilgrimage Church in Upper Bavaria with its profusion of lacy, curly, ribbon-like moldings reminds us what we have come to regard as Baroque and Rococo in the first place. Perhaps combined their true meaning is “over the top”.

Franz Hals' The Jolly Topper (detail) of 1627

Peter Paul Rubens is seen as the figure who “finished what Durer had started a hundred years earlier – the breakdown of the artistic barriers between North and South.” 

Van Dyck, Franz Hals and Rembrandt soon are everywhere. “The Return of the Prodigal Son, painted a few years (in 1665) before (Rembrandt’s) death, is perhaps his most moving religious picture,”  professor Janson claims, “a humble world of bare feet and ragged clothes”, he adds, perhaps a paean to mortality itself. Jacob Van Ruisdael’s The Jewish Graveyard of 1655, is even more foreboding.

By the mid-18th century, we see a new nation emerging in the arts… America. John Singleton Copley is among the pre-eminent figures in painting, represented by works like Watson and the Shark (1778) which Janson describes this way… “The shark becomes a monstrous embodiment of evil, the man with the boat hook resembles an Archangel Michael fighting Satan.”

The romanticism of The Death of General Wolfe by Benjamin West shows that America is not untethered from Europe. And architecture has an innovative talent named Thomas Jefferson who will make waves politically too. His Virginia home called Monticello of 1770-84, with elements of Greek order coupled to unpretentious and minimalist American innovation, perhaps demonstrates that the new nation indeed is prepared for singularity. 

But Europe is not to be outdone. By the early 1820s, Theodore Gericault is making revolutionary art at the age of twenty-one (Mounted Officer of the Imperial Guard) while Delacroix is recalling Greece anew in The Massacre of Chios of 1822 concerning the Greek war against the Turks, and the coming Greek independence.

Throughout the late 19th and 20th centuries, we see what appears to be a postscript, an as-yet-unwritten history that is not yet vetted by the centuries. ‘Modern’ painting still seems fresh on its easel and far from thoroughly examined. And while some of it seems destined move us for the ages, like Mondrian’s startlingly frank intuitive grids, other of it appears forgettable, like Pop Art, which looks fabricated and crass.

But the architecture of the 20th century has revolutionary fervor in the work of Wright, Gropius and Mies, a restatement, perhaps, of the essential conceptual and structural ideals seen at the side-by-side temples at Paestum?

What Janson teaches us throughout his text is that art is fun. His book is like a romp through millennia of visual treats, authentic masterpieces achieved by history’s most distinguished minds. The good professor’s prose is extraordinarily informative, and at the same time accessible and entertaining. What more could we want to know about Jan Van Eyck’s 1434 Giovanni Arnolfini and His Bride (the pregnant bride and the bulbous mirror on the wall are both highly rounded) than “the single candle in the chandelier, burning in broad daylight, stands for the all-seeing Christ.”

A good reading reveals, however, that it too is professor Janson who is all-seeing. He awakens us to the foibles, restive details, labyrinthine rationales and inscrutable intricacies and sensibilities of world art in a fluid and digestible manner.

Art history, considered by many to be best left on the shelf, is not ponderous and heavy in his hands, but in fact is a gossamer veil that the good professor lifts for us with wit, precision and darned good writing. So if you’ve put your copy of History of Art aside for 30 years, take it down and look it over. You will be glad you did. In its world-inside-a-world, you will find it is like an old friend rediscovered, one who you always knew you loved, and could trust.

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