Thursday, February 24, 2011

Little Pin of Low Mimetics

                  Borrowing from an excellent source for clear-thinking, Northrop Frye, one can find a useful division in literary art into “high” and “low mimetics”. Let us apply this division to representational painting.
High mimetics would fit paintings where objects and situations presented were idealized, as if air-brushed of all extraneous accidental imperfections .They are presented to the viewers at their very best of possible appearances. That usually is true throughout the image: it seems to convey an ideal state of the shown world. Leonardo and Raphael painted in the High Mimetics.
Seems to me that the taste for Low Mimetics arose in the Northern painting first and mostly remained there. Surely there would be some exceptions to be found elsewhere but the true seat, true hub of Low Mimetics is in the North.
In the “Deposition” by Rogier van der Weyden notice that the figure of Saint Anne is wearing a white scarf held in place by a pin. The entire painting is filled with crying mourners and still Weyden felt an obligation to install the little pin as if to show that reality is demanding this detail of practicality, no matter how drenched with tragedy is the subject. It strikes me as the spirit of Low Mimetics.

Can you imagine such attachment to the truth of daily life in Leonardo or Raphael? Italian art had to wait for almost one hundred years to see realistic, mundane elements in their art, brought by Caravaggio.

However bountiful and lush is this display he also included holes eaten out by insects and a wormy apple, because the passion for the real was so much stronger than the outside expectations of the ideal of high mimetics. Another example of low mimetics is in those true to life dirty feet of a pilgrim below, also by Caravaggio::

 Returning to the Northern art of the era [around 1600] we find low mimetics thriving to unprecedented degree. It prompted  a book by a painter Gerard de Laresse warning  painters against the abominable habits of depicting ,with obvious glee interior scenes of brothel trade, lecherous drunks cavorting in country pubs, lewd scenes with an overwhelming air of approval, paintings containing men relieving themselves in some shaded part of an interior, fondling eager hussies, gambling, fisty-cuffs and worse. Commentaries written now analyzing the meaning of those Dutch paintings are searching everywhere to support  rather pious idea that these works were honestly meant to be in fact stern warnings against debauchery, fornication, gambling, drunkenness and gluttony and other sins so lovingly depicted, I forgot to include.

Adriaen van Ostade: how is that for low mimetics?

And here is Rembrandt’s etching with his splendid chiaroscuro.
Thinking about mimetic arts: painting, sculpture, poetry, plays and prose I see that across ages the proportions of high and low mimetic are always adjusted not by tenor of the times but rather by individual taste of the artist. What sort of the world he wants to show to us- how close to reality he actually knows he will create his reportage on the world? Or, almost frightened by that possibility would he rather present us with another, alternative world, much improved wish or day-dream of elevated perfection would he unveil?


  1. Thank you for your fine comments as they have helped clarify this divide in painting. In poetry I began to see it after discovering Villon and then Baudelaire; later,Rimbaud. All three could soar to the high mimetic,but the starting point is most often the low--as compared say, to Valery. But what I was really wondering was if in painting you could also argue that the low mimetic is the starting point of a collapse in technique as aesthetic, profundity of content aside.

  2. I see your suggestion,I think:high or low aesthetics that would parallel historically the decline of art? There is something in it,but I also see examples of the opposite,perhaps because in the past there were no painters who did not know how to draw or paint very well.For the idea of the decline in technique to follow the change from high mimetics to low we would have to observe that the secularization of the subject matter in painting was bringing ever more sloppy,cursory,neglectful technique.There are some examples for it ,like Brouver or Ostade,but there are opposite examples where great technique and extreme of aesthetic attainment is treating very banal,mundane subjects-elevating,ennobilizing them as if to some sanctity of the every-day life.Vermeer,Fabrizius, Dou,Metsu,Mieris and Velasques painted scenes of low mimetics as if they were holly rituals.So-inevitably the message of those very carefully executed paintings is : your daily life is valuable,the chores you are pursuing are noble,the pleasures you enjoy are not shaming you but are shown with the air of gleeful approval

  3. Thanks so much for your answer. Thinking about my question I began to suspect as much.I would not be expert enough in painting to suggest otherwise.I was thinking of someone like Jean Dubuffet, who I admire. Does low art in his case mean a loss of technique; better yet, do the images themselves create the condition for that loss.

  4. Who and why would deliberately paint like a three-years old child or a severly retarded person?Now,after a hundred years of seeing such paintings in books,museums and other public places everywhere we are used to it,but fact remains-those are elements of upside-down,crap-as-greatness insanity! What a pitiable sight to see a grown man paint like a toddler,or make music like a baby in a playpen,or poetry like a drooling mongoloid.Why is it so hard to see straight and judge Dubuffet work as pathetic? I can just imagine what the authors of those splendid bison and deer paintings in caves of Lascaux would say about Dubuffet work!They would think that our culture was destroyed by barbarians with smallest IQ,judging by the extreme primitivism of artworks of our times.

  5. I wonder could you please let me know which Caravaggio painting you have used as I can't make it out. I am writing a chapter of my PhD on dirt on feet in the 16th/17thC... Are these pilgrims? The most explicit example of dirty footed pilgrims that Baglione Caravaggio's biographer complains about is the Madonna of Loreto, so I'd be interested to see which one this is for comparison.