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Art as Drama

By Eli Siegel

The best actors in the world, either for tragedy, comedy, history, pastoral, pastoral-comical, historical-pastoral, tragical-historical, tragical-comical-historical-pastoral, scene individable, or poem unlimited; Seneca cannot be too heavy, nor Plautus too light.      —Hamlet


Art shows the drama in things seen. The roundness and weight of a chestnut are in a state of drama; as are the lines and color. As conflict and reconciliation, struggle and resolution, surprise and continuity are essential things in the drama of the stage, so contrast and harmony, clash and relation, thrust and blending are essential in painting. The largeness of sameness and difference, as we find these in reality, comprehends the drama of light and brick red, sun and stalk, and the drama of Hamlet and Ophelia, Nora and Torvald.

      Once reality is seen as continuous—as it is—and inclusive, a never-failing drama is also seen in it. Painting shows that drama, is that drama. It is no bit of lawlessness that scene means something a painter looks at, something always in a play, and also something that is more heightened, more intense, more meaningful than is usual.

      The terms that Polonius used so engagingly in Hamlet, and which I have quoted in the motto of this paper, all concern painting. Composition with severity is akin to tragedy: Aeschylus and Piero della Francesca are not so far apart. Corot and Watteau are of comedy; with a touch of the pastoral.

      Giotto has within his work the tragical-comical-historical. Giorgione has the tragical-pastoral. The heaviness of Seneca has its likeness in painting; as does the lightness of Plautus. Breughel goes for the "poem unlimited"—the painting whose unity is not the first thing apparent. The "scene individable," or the work whose unity is maintained conspicuously, is represented by Ingres. I do not mean this to be taken as anything but an affirmation that art, as a depiction of reality, is as much drama as the customary play.

We Should Ask

We should first of all ask why the words drama and dramatic are used so frequently by critics and historians of art. Is this only a whimsy of destiny? Let us consider a statement by Helen Gardner in her Art through the Ages (1936); Miss Gardner is describing a Cretan fresco, of perhaps 1500 B.C.:

The Toreador Scene shows how well these painters could represent a dramatic moment, fill it with spirit, with instantaneous poses, and still, as it were, keep it on the wall.

The question, for the moment, is, Can two flowers make for a dramatic instant, too? Can a stone and a fruit? Can a man and a weasel? The history of art seems to say, Yes.

      Miss Gardner has some interesting sentences about the lines in Botticelli's The Birth of Venus. What is said about Botticelli could serve piquantly well for a description of a comic actress and a swift, well-made comedy:

While the lines model, in so far as they express the essentials of form, still they have a quality of their own. Now they are long and quiet, now short and capricious, now whimsical, and always rhythmic.

Something that was "long and quiet," then "short and capricious" and "whimsical" and "rhythmic," could make for an adorable scene of comedy, and adorable, stirring acting, too.

Botticelli: Almost a Stage Director

What Botticelli had, drama wants to have, and now and then has had. Botticelli, however, stands most for what Polonius called "historical-pastoral." To use the hyphens of Polonius, his deep—soft—charm distinguishes him; but in a picture, Calumny, Botticelli is almost a stage director of allegorical tragedy and satire. Miss Gardner's description of this picture would serve as well for a scene in an old morality play:

Calumny and Envy accompanied by Treachery and Deceit drag the innocent victim before the Judge into whose asses' ears Ignorance and Suspicion are whispering; at the left, naked Truth protests in isolation while Remorse looks to Truth as she moves toward the vindictive group.

      A moment later, the critic says that the painting is "an excellent example of a freer asymmetrical balance"; yet it should be noted that what "asymmetrical balance" is, is present in the subject matter, too, and is present, deeply, in drama in the theatrical sense. Asymmetrical balance is one of the happy vicissitudes in the conflict and harmony, difference and sameness of objects and selves.

The Painting Lacks Something

The Gonzaga Family of Mantegna is commented on by Miss Gardner. What she says of this painting, depreciatingly, could just as well be said of the structure of a play, or for that matter of an instance of stage direction:

But while each portrait in itself is an astonishingly forceful characterization, as a whole the group lacks unifying formal relationships.

Reality is something in which the painter finds "unifying formal relationships." As the painter finds such relationships among people and movements and plants and walls and metals and skies and horses and shadows and lights—the dramatist finds them among people and actions and furniture and states of mind.

      What we should see is that the formal relationship in a painting is basically like the formal relationship in a play. Mantegna's painting of the Gonzaga Family, Miss Gardner feels, lacks something—the people are not brought together enough that is, they exist, formally, too much as separate persons, even while seemingly together; and this may be just the thing wrong with people having to do with each other in a drama.

Where Drama Begins

Miss Gardner finds, rightly, "two sets of opposing diagonals" in Giorgione's tranquil Fete Champetre; and she notes the presence of varying verticals and horizontals. This means that diagonals are in a dramatic arrangement among themselves, as are the verticals and horizontals. For drama begins where reality opposes and reconciles, contrasts and joins. If this opposition is present in Giorgione's quiet work, we see the drama in what Polonius called the pastoral. There must be some fighting, contrast, clash, conflict in drama; and so, just as there is the meeting of opposing diagonals in Giorgione's work, two shepherds, otherwise gentle, could disagree in an efficacious pastoral.

There Is Drama in Constable

If some pictures seem to lack drama, it should be remembered that many dramas have been said to lack drama. The word drama accents the fight, the contrast, the opposition in things. Some artists have seemed to be more for the ensemble effect of things, their reconciliation. And so Constable may seem less dramatic than Turner: but there is drama, contrast and togetherness, in Constable. Ingres may seem less dramatic than Delacroix, but without the drama of things where they begin, Ingres would now be with the unwritten of.

Frequently in the history of art, two artists of greatness come together, with one seeming more "dramatic" than the other. In the Italian Renaissance, the most important duality of this kind is perhaps that of Michelangelo and Raphael—Michelangelo is more energetic, fiery, dramatic than Raphael. A comparison of this kind is made by Miss Gardner between Titian and Tintoretto:

As distinction and poise, even in movement, and elegance and grace, even in tragedy, were a manifestation of Titian's individuality, so dramatic force, impetuous movement, and vivid contrasts of color reflect the vehement Tintoretto.

      It is true that Tintoretto has the "dramatic force" that Miss Gardner ascribes to him. But there was no painter of any account who ever lacked it. Titian had "dramatic force," too: he simply didn't show it first: with Tintoretto it can seem first.

No Composition without a Fight

All painters have been dramatic with things and have been reconciling of them. It is the "dramatic" aspect of drama that has been most observed; but the reconciling aspect is just as important. Drama is the clash of things, colors, lines, people, weights, appearances; it is their composition, too. Indeed, there can be no composition without a fight of some kind, or drama. What point, after all, is there in composing things already in agreement? It would be like curving the circle.

      How things are opposed and made one—even while the opposition is tinglingly felt—can be seen in the painting of all times. Hogarth energetically opposed, even while he brought together. Blake made forces fight, even while they were brought together on a surface. Delacroix obviously is fond of the belligerence of things, but he makes belligerent things merge. Cezanne saw drama and togetherness in the rough hilltops of a hot France. Picasso saw the drama between a sweet face and the angles and straight lines of geometry.

      The drama goes on. Reality is an opposition and a reconciliation. It is "tragical-pastoral." It is tragical-comical in the garden, the road, the lake, clothes, faces, walks. Art makes us see it that way, beneficially, delightfully.


Copyright © by Definition Press 1960, 1962, 1974


NOTE. "Art as Drama" was published in The Right of Aesthetic Realism to Be Known, Number 883, March 7, 1990.


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