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
All Articles (Alphabetical by Artist, then Title)
More evidence that even at a very early date Lichtenstein was on the path of the Old Masters
Once again, see how the hilt of a sword signs the artist's name
Learn how "every painter paints" himself makes logical sense of even the most confused compositions
If an artist's first and last initials are the same, or his initial matches that of his hometown, like Lucas van Leyden's, it is more than likely to appear in his work as well.
This early painting by Manet has always troubled interpreters because it seems to make no apparent sense. Its explanation here, though, will help you understand paintings by Manet, Velazquez and other artists too.
This curious painting by Manet makes little sense until the viewer uses the idea that every painter paints himself
Art scholars have sometimes wondered why the execution squad in Manet's Execution of Emperor Maximillian are so unrealistically close to their target. Indeed, on close inspection, their rifles are aimed as though they would miss.
There is more to the Tragic Actor than meets the eye. Find out what's there that others cannot see.
See how Mantegna like many other masters uses the Execution of St Sebastian to convey the idea that 'every painter paints himself.'
In this 1490 version of Saint Sebastian in the Ca' d'Oro, Venice, Saint Sebastian has one leg in the "picture", so to speak, framed by the marble, with the other stepping forward out of it into our space.
Arrows in art are often "brushes", especially with inconsistencies on the literal level
A mysterious drawing that has never made sense is now explained simply
There is yet more meaning in the drawing as we see in Part 2 of this analysis
David is not difficult to understand as long as you use the correct perspective
Michelangelo’s Last Judgment is a composition so full of incidents inconsistent with an orthdox reading of the Last Judgment and theology that experts often have trouble explaining them.
The theme of an executioner with a decapitated head as a visual metaphor for a painter continues to this day.
Indian art though always separated from Western art, in both museums and scholarship, may have more in common with it than ever thought before.
Peale's American portraits have more in common with great European art than is generally accepted.
In this early painting of St. Sebastian by Perugino the artist signed his name as though it was the arrow: "Opus Peruginus Pinxit."
Picasso kills a bull with his own paintbrush while indicating his divinity.
Learn how Picasso used swords as "paintbrushes", "etching needles" and other tools of the trade
Yet more evidence that the adolescent Picasso understood the self-referential paradigm of art
Learn how Picasso used another artist's name to represent his own identification with the great masters of the past
A resurrection by its very name suggests two realities: the old and the new, the illusory and the real.
We have seen elsewhere how artists use the arrows of St. Sebastian, the saint's identifying attribute, as symbols for their own paintbrushes.
See how Rembrandt turned an anatomy lesson into a scene in his studio (in his mind).
How the setting is so rarely what you think....you must think differently
See how Rembrandt concisely expresses the underlying idea of art in a Roman myth
Several clues, easy to spot, reveal the true underlying meaning of two similar masterpieces
How Rembrandt's method, and that of great artists in general, is present in his earliest extant painting
The presence of a mystery in an artwork, intentionally made mysterious by the artist, does not mean that the mystery cannot be solved. Mysteries are made to be resolved.
Discover a common way how artists demonstrate their identity with their protagonist. You can use the method to interpret other paintings by other artists.
The Inner Tradition as practised by a Catholic artist....
See how Rubens turned a variation on a Leonardo composition into a scene of creative struggle in his own mind
Learn how one artist copies another and makes it his own
How even in the 15th century an artist thought of himself as Christ...and said so.
One of Titian's masterpieces, it was destroyed by fire in 1577 but recorded in this engraving. Its secret, though, lives on.
Even in the remaining fragment of a much larger canvas there is still much to see
Look for the artist's initials where you might expect them
A spiritual journey is one of the basic plots of literature and a common metaphor in both philosophy and religion. Why not art?
See how Velazquez portrays the artist and his art and then apply the lesson learned elsewhere
This picture uses so many of the themes and methods explained on EPPH that I can note only a few. Try exercising your own perception on the rest.
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