Uccello’s battle of San Romano consists of three paintings (the central one being in Florence, the other two are in the National Gallery in London and the Louvre) depicting a clash between the Florentine army and the Sienesi. Interestingly the three pieces, though equal in size and constant in structural composition, are composed in totally different colour schemes: the one in Florence being predominantly dark brown, the one in London I think of as pink and silver, and the one in Paris is black and red. And even though these paintings are hailed as the greatest achievements in perspective drawing of their time, a start in striving to make the world appear as your eye would see it as pure projection on the retina – like a photograph really, it is still the wilfulness of the composition that wins the overhand.
What I mean is that perspective is introduced as an experiment. Broken lances are laid out on the floor as to the rules of perspective, slain horses are shown from their underbelly which is not easy to draw, but these paintings are constructed rather than seen and its elements arranged to depict the dynamics of a clash, but not its realistic experience. If you just look at it from afar, all you see is vectors, lances, banners, legs that point in directions that almost alone describe the impact; you wouldn’t need to see the details.
=> Roy Lichtenstein’s Whaam!: It has a similar size, shows a similar impact and, too, uses heavily vector driven abstraction in depicting a horrific event.
Uccello’s representation, though, is more complex in its structure. There is a good deal of social representation: The leading figures show themselves off, their armour, their banners, trumpet players in the background. There is a lot that is going on.
[1991: The year of the First Gulf War, reported in striking computer game like images emphasising the supposedly precision guidance of missiles.]
Fragments / Montage
Dealing in fragments allows taking an in-depth look at things without immediately trying to integrate them to a new, static image of the world. Instead, the montage keeps things open, in flux, an architecture for walk-throughs, re-takes and (re)examination. It allows respondents to find their own path and requires them to define their own position should they wish to communicate about it.
I had to realise, though, that small scale reproductions of Uccello 91, as a whole, don't seem to work. The quality of the painting, if any, appears to be in the quality of the details and arrangements in the montage: between them. There is no overall focus and in the small scale the details get lost.
Showing just details, however, segments that focus on an aspect but leave it clear that there is more to discover, comes closer to the actual experience of observing the painting - in time - or even helps to suggest a reception that is driven by letting yourself be exposed to the details.
The Painting - a Body
Unresolved, with gaps and cracks in the narrative, yet a heavy, thick solid body of organic material - breathing. In pieces. The loss of the central perspective. / The gain of complex networks, options, opportunities, chances and choices to make - as a challenge. The viewer in the centre - liberating... The painting: a quarry. To take what you need.
The inside/the outside: painting as projection of maps in an attempt to (re)locate yourself in your environment.
I first saw a reproduction of the centrepiece of Uccello’s Battle of San Romano in May 1991 on a train ride from Milan to Florence. Italian train carriages used to have pictures of Italian landscapes, places and works of art in them to advertise the country, and it worked. As I arrived in Florence I went straight to the Uffizi to see the original.
Back home after seeing the painting for the first time I started to copy it. Not as a whole, but I wanted to understand its details. So I commissioned 99 wooden blocks of about postcard size, roughly 3 cm thick, and started to copy a segment at a time, enlarging it from a postcard size reproduction to what I imagined to be its real size.
This copying, I think, has multiple aspects. One is that you learn when you copy. It sharpens the senses and you start to understand how things are built. You take on somebody else’s rhythm, sense of form or imagination and see what it does: How does it work? What do I want from it?
But I also wanted to understand more generally what interested me in that painting. What choices would I make if I impose an arbitrary rule on selection, restricting it to fragment sizes, and what will it leave me with? For the first such painting I even asked friends to do some of the blocks, see what they pick out.
In any case, there was something in that fragmented approach that worked for me and I re-used it on several other paintings. Over the years I did all three Uccello paintings in that manner.
I think one thing that did make it work was that copying that way, using mechanic restrictions, helps to expose yourself to the original as a foil from which you choose what catches your eye to redraw it in your own fashion. And what you have chosen and what you made of it will give you a chance to learn about yourself.