“Ut pictura poiesis” by the Roman poet Horace (1st century B.C.) – showing the values common to Poetry and to Painting – was the leitmotif used to elevate the status of Painting, that in the Renaissance was essentially concerned with docere et delectare, et imitatio Naturae. The concept of mimesis (imitation) is inseparable from Painting because one of the biggest challenges of Painting was always the representation on a bi-dimensional surface of tri-dimensional objects just as they appeared to our eyes. The dominance of the visual pyramid and the discovery of the oil painting were revolutionary conquests for the Painting of the 15th century and of the centuries that followed. But the most important legacy of the Renaissance was leaving us the idea of the Painting being una cosa mentale (Alberti, De Pictura).
If until the 19th century we are able to number with some precision the various possibilities of material and form of the Painting, from the 20th century on this becomes an almost impossible task because there no longer exists rigid boundaries between the various artistic expressions; and the means of production became almost infinite, depending only on the will and creativity of the artist. Even so, traditionally, in terms of material, the support can be of stone, ceramic, wood, metal, papyrus, parchment, ivory, plaster, canvas and paper of various densities, colours and textures. Nowadays, Painting may also be made from tri-dimensional supports, like wooden structures, paper mache and acrylic or wood cut and exposed on the wall and on the floor.
The chromatic layer may be made up of various paints, like oil paint, gouache, watercolour, etc., applied in small brushstrokes or big blotches of colour, with or without a contour, aiming to obtain transparencies or the saturation of layers, presenting the colour plain and smooth or blended. Not only can chromatism be realistic as it can be artificial, adding at times other layers of meaning to the images.The canons used in Egyptian painting (for example, the man’s body is darker than the woman’s), in Medieval painting and in religious painting (the Virgin’s blue cloak) denounce the important symbolical function of colour in the Painting.
The materials used or the actual technique end up defining the type of painting. Thus, in the differentiation of the materials we have oil painting, watercolour painting and gouache painting. In the differentiation of the technique we have fresco painting, tempera painting, etc.
Concerning the formal elements, Leon Battista Alberti (1404-1472), axial figure of the Renaissance theory, in his treatise De Pictura, divided painting into circumscription, composition and reception of lights, relating the first two with the drawing and the third with colour. This would be the beginning of a long debate between artists. For Vasari and for the Florence school, the drawing is chosen as an intellectual activity by excellence, as opposed to the Venice school led by Ticiano. The vital adherence to colour gains a new defender in the disputes of the French Academy, his name Roger De Piles, and an essential step for the full autonomy of colour felt in Matisse’s work.
These lines and blotches are handled in order to represent a theme, or no theme, as many times it happens in the abstract paintings entitled “W/o title”, because from the 20th century on the Painting frees itself from the representation of the visible reality and even of the bi-dimensionality. The theme of the painting – historic (Fig. 2), religious, allegoric, mythological, exempla, etc., nature – is at the basis of differentiation of the Painting in the various genres: Portrait, Landscape, Still Life, Painting of History, of Customs, of Battles. For example, in the landscape genre it ceases to be the background of its compositions, platform of the unfolding of an action, to transform itself in the central reason of reflection.
But the truth is that the Painting, more than any other art, always revealed an enormous capacity to reinvent its universe of references, revealing this division in genres inadequate for the questions of the contemporary Painting.
In abstract Painting the importance of theme is clearly subordinated and makes any attempt of a figurative reading by the normal canons of representation fail. The absence of Iconography, in these cases, does not rule out the possibility of an iconological reading, as sign of a certain culture. Consequently, a Painting is a private reading of the world, at the same time that it reflects upon the historical and cultural, ethical and poetic memory of the culture of each period in its multiple possibilities of meaning, from literal to iconic.
Os painéis de S. Vicente de Nuno Gonçalves (MNAA)
Retrato da Família do 1º Visconde de Santarém de Domingos António de Sequeira (MNAA)