Swords and Weapons as Brushes

Weapons as symbols for an artist’s brush are the single most overlooked characteristic of Western art. The world’s museums are full of masterpieces in which ‘artists’ are secretly at work ‘killing’ their subjects, often themselves. In fact, so successfully have great masters hidden their underlying theme that scarcely any of them have ever been recognized. There are, however, hints in the literature and in prints about painting. In the 15th century L. B. Alberti had suggested a connection between archery and painting.1 In other treatises and allegories on the subject it has been noted that ‘armor and battle are frequently associated with the artist and the Art of Painting’.2 A 16th century critic described Michelangelo’s brush as a ‘lance’ while Rembrandt and others donned military armor in their self-portraits. Vasari likewise used terms with military connotations to illustrate Michelangelo’s approach to painting the Sistine chapel and eventually announced that the sculptor  had ‘vanquished’ the medium. 

A eminent art historian describing a 1527 woodcut of Michelangelo sculpting wrote that the sculptor handles his chisel ‘as if it were a sword or knife.’3 It is an apt metaphor that spans cultures. In China battle is a known allegory of art. The brush, for instance, was often compared to a battlefield weapon and in a colophon attached to Lady Wei’s 17th century  treatise, Battle Array of the Brush,  “the paper is the battlefield, the brush is sword and lance".4 The images discussed under this theme will arm you with a multitude of examples with which to confront and interpret the next masterpiece.

1. ‘Let no-one doubt that the man who does not perfectly understand what he is attempting to do when painting, will never be a good painter. It is useless to draw the bow, unless you have a target to aim the arrow at.’ L.B. Alberti, On Painting [orig. pub.1435] trans.Cecil Grayson (London: Penguin) 1991, p.59

2. Perry H. Chapman, The Image of the Artist: Roles and Guises in Rembrandt’s Self-Portraits, PhD diss. (Princeton University), 1983, p.115

3. The woodcut is from Sigismondo Fanti’s Triompho di Fortuna. Paul Barolsky, Michelangelo’s Nose: A Myth and its Maker (University Park: The Pennsylvania State University Press) 1990, pp.128-9

4. Cited in Images of the Mind: Selections from the Edward L. Elliott Family and John B. Elliott Collections of Chinese Calligraphy and Painting at The Art Museum, Princeton University (Princeton University Press) 1984, p. 183

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