For a long time, the unquestionable principle that guided the theories and artistic practices consisted of the following concrete formulation: art imitates nature and, for that, its objective consists of representing the reality faithfully. Such idea would remain until the XIX century even, in the basis of all artistic projects, until its special statute was lost when it was substituted by another no less powerful dogma, the one of originality, expressiveness and creativity. The history that leads from one paradigm to the other is not, however, linear. The concept of imitation includes multiple variants and different meanings and, moreover, it never rejected the presence of an inventive element in its most intimate origin. In effect, it can be affirmed that besides the imitation of nature, there has been always another aspiration, apparently contradictory, that of overcoming nature itself.
Since the formulation of the classic idea, according to which art imitates nature, until the Kantian thesis stating that «the beautiful art is only possible as product of the genius» and that «one has to completely oppose genius and the imitation spirit» more than twenty centuries have passed. Despite the temporary distance separating them, these ideas can be understood as expressions of the two larger traditions which have been guiding and dividing the history of art. The first embodies the mimetic tradition that, supposedly, establishes art as a faithful servant of nature and of reality; the second, on the contrary, implicates the assumption of the priority of the creative gesture, inventive and “original”, which coincides with the end of the paradigm of imitation, and the beginning of the paradigm of expression. It could still be affirmed, with Blumemberg, that the artistic creation appeared as an answer «to the overpowering weight of the axiom of “imitation of nature”» .
But not everything is so simple. Adorno affirmed that «to eliminate imitation, as an aesthetic category, is as complicated as accepting it» , having, in this manner, perhaps formulated the best expression of the complex history of this concept. The fact is that, when making a small incursion through the different connotations of the theory of imitation, immediately we verify that it cannot be confused with a trivial extreme naturalism. As Gadamer wrote, the imitation of nature doesn't implicate that «imitation, for being a mere imitation, has to be less than nature» .
In effect, since its preclassical uses it’s clear that the idea of mimesis doesn't configure a mere realism. In its original meaning, in a context defined around the rites of agrarian parties and other cultural and religious traditions, imitation didn't appear as fiction or spectacle, but as the creation of a reality in which the representation, accompanied by suggestive potency, reached the statute of incarnation, whether of gods, heroes or animals. It was meant to show man's true meaning, of things and of nature and, for that, as Valeriano Bozal affirms, in that context, «mimesis is a fact before being a quality of an object or an image» .
Only when later appears the theatrical representation, can one can speak of a fictional meaning of imitation, where the need of increasing likeness is included. Thus, it’s important to retain the idea that, in the classical and preclassical antiquity, as well as in its Renaissance form, the concept of imitation has always been accompanied by the concept of overcoming nature. If Plato, on one side, criticized artists and expelled poets from his ideal city, because they produced copies – artistic images – of copies – real objects –, withdrawing, in many levels, from the Ideas, on the other hand, he also defended the politician's real mimesis or accepted a certain selective imitation, as that of geometry.
When Aristotle presents the theory of imitation, postulating its more usual meaning, art as faithful imitation of nature, he will not hide in any case its relationship with the possible and the verisimilar, with the standard of poetry, in opposition to the concrete, the particular of historical narration. After all, Aristotle defines a dynamic and creative imitation, a mimesis that evokes a previous universality and essentiality, configured in the representation.
Surely, especially in the Renaissance, considering the visual arts as imitation of nature was a dogma. However, the selective imitation or the imitation correct of Alberti, that is, the clear need of a nature reviewed to allow the beautiful to shine, demands the participation of the creative moment in the mimetic development. The same type of elements can be deduced from Leonardo's obsession in presenting the essence of objects through painting, in showing the painter himself transposed in the nature, or in considering his mind as “a reproduction of the divine mind.”
In this manner, the changes that happened in the theory of imitation, after the presentation of classical and Renaissance ideas, assume, one way or the other, the ambiguity implicated by imitation since its origin. Winckelman, and with him all the neoclassical tradition, will insist that the only way to be inimitable, «if such a thing is possible, will consist of the imitation of the Ancients» , a fact that would be considered fundamental in the theories of imitation. It is the imitation of ideals – Greek, of course – that insist, above everything, on the theme of truth and whose reach is purely moral and pedagogic. The terror of the French Revolution, when revealing the end of such disposition, also brings with that fall the collapse of the imitation of the old.
It is not strange that the neoclassical revolution and its failure have turned into a perfect mediation between Leonardo's or Alberti’s theories and the romantic theories. These insist on the elevation of the spirit over nature, whether with theory, with Hegel, for instance: «The highest imperfection living in imitation is its lack of spirituality» , whether with practice, with Caspar David Friedrich: «Close your bodily eyes so that you can see your painting first with the eyes of the spirit» .
Such romantic dreams quickly led to an explicit contempt for nature, that crosses the whole XIX century, and that the avant-garde painters will transform into pure hate, like Franz Marc will affirm: «I was full aware of the hateful character of nature» -, or, emulating Leonardo, in pure envy, as it is read in Mondrian: «We don't want to copy nature or imitate it, what we want is to configure something in the same way nature configures a fruit».
Of course everything is explained by the insistent modern quest for the work of art as a world of its own, and not as an imitation of another world, the obsession of the work of art as being something and not as meaning something. Nevertheless, perhaps that pretension, that original world, magic, impossible, has never been more present than in its first sense, in the original meaning of imitation.