Some Synoptic Comments
Gulam mohammed Sheikh
Booking at Jan Van Eyck's Amolfini's Wedding Portrait is a revealing experience. For many of us whose very notion of painting is formed by oil painting and 'realism9, it may be a bit unsettling to know that this work, which happens to be one of the first oil paintings, was painted as recently as 1434 A.D. That is to say, both oil painting and its attendant 'realism5, or illusionism, are no more than five hundred years old1 which is a mere fraction in the millennia of world history.
Illusionism was born of special conditions of life in Europe, perhaps in the interior (of a studio). Hence its prime properties of form were identified through defining a source of light (often that of a window or a door)2 and darkness or, to be more precise, through cast shadows.3 The form of an interior is subliminally present in the format (rectangular or square) of illusionist paintings and in the projection of a spatial cubicle it casts upon the viewer. John Berger extends the question of illusionism on another plane by putting the invention of oil painting in the historical context of capital accumulated through colonial trade. As the new technique of oil painting made appearances more tangible, Berger says, it aroused in its owner a sense of possession of what was painted. It also served the purpose of displaying surplus wealth. Thus there was a conspicuous increase in paintings on food, property, land and nude women with the advent of oil painting.4 The frame (often gilded) provided an exclusive area of private consumption of the commodities depicted and by neatly packing them up the paintings also acquired the look of one. (Are n't notions of the exclusive nature of a work of art, of an unparalled, singular masterpiece, related manifestations of this phenomenon?)
Journal of Arts and Ideas 43