This week’s lecture was particularly interesting to me, given my background as a studio art major. I have learned about the Italian Renaissance from an art history perspective, but I have never heard the term mimetic used in the in-depth context that Professor Plesch used it in. I also had no idea that the meaning of the word has changed so much since its first uses as a reference to the rituals and mysteries of the Dionysian cults. According to the definition from the Dictionary of the History of Ideas that Professor Fleming encouraged us to read to prepare for class on Tuesday, mimesis initially was a word used in reference to acts that priests of the Dionysian cult performed as cult rituals. (http://xtf.lib.virginia.edu/xtf/view?docId=DicHist/uvaBook/tei/DicHist3.xml;chunk.id=dv3-27) Only later, in the 5th century BC, did mimesis come to denote the reproduction of an internal reality in sculpture and theater arts. With Plato and Aristotle, the meaning developed again, splitting into either referencing a direct, literal representation of external nature – the Platonic understanding – and the Aristotelian understanding of mimesis as a depiction of a beautified, edited nature that is open to the artist’s interpretation. According to Professor Plesch, the meaning of the term continued to develop throughout the Italian renaissance, though pivotal turning points can be seen in the work of Giotto, who essentially began the Italian Renaissance, and later with Leon Battista Alberti, who invented one-point perspective. Professor Plesch devoted most of her lecture to the mimetic works that were created during this time period, specifically focusing on the work of European artists such as Pietro Lorenzetti.
However, when I think of “mimetic” or representational art, I don’t automatically think of Italian Renaissance painters, but the more modern movement in the art world called “photorealism.” Photorealism evolved as a popular art form in the late 1960s, arguably as a continuation of the pop art movement, and in contrast with the abstract impressionism and minimalist art movements that were occurring around the same time. Interestingly, although the photorealism movement developed during the same time period that cameras and photography were becoming more commonplace, photorealists set themselves apart from photographers by combining technological advances with traditional painting techniques. One well know photorealist, Chuck Close, even airbrush developed techniques that influenced the development of the ink jet printer. In high school, I worked as an intern at the National Gallery of Art, and one Chuck Close piece that is exhibited there, a huge black and white portrait, is so realistic that even after viewing it up close, I still had visitors argue with me that the painting had to be a photograph, because it was too realistic to be anything else!
Although photorealism could be seen as a continuation of early trends within mimetic art, the movement differs from Italian Renaissance art in many ways, namely its reliance on technology (the actual photographs that are reproduced are a modern invention – by definition, photorealistic artists almost never work directly from live observation) and also in the strict adherence to the scene. Although Plato and Aristotle differed on the terms of what constituted true mimesis, all of the mimetic works that Professor Plesch discussed in her talk had invented elements, to varying degrees. Pieces that included a baby Jesus descending into Mary’s womb, or the altarpiece depicting the crucifixion clearly deviated from nature, in that the artist could not possibly have witnessed those scenes and captured them exactly as observed. In that sense, today’s photorealism adheres more closely to Plato’s definition of mimesis – that true art should passively and perfectly imitate the beauty of nature without editorializing or attempting to improve the subject.
Chuck Close’s portrait of Lou Jacquard (unfortunately this isn’t the one form the National Gallery, I couldn’t find a decent image of that portrait)