This critical essay is one of many that Rudolf Arnheim wrote about the psychology of art. In this one, Arnheim puts forth the idea that to truly understand art, it is necessary to have an aesthetic experience before beginning analysis.
Art speaks to us, but it is hard to reply suitably, especially in an analytic form. One can’t truly analyze a work of art without understanding the inherent art of the piece. The difference comes when one looks at art aesthetically instead of intellectually.
Most critics lack this skill. It is hard to describe the beauty of a painting to someone who would rather intellectualize it or see it in a different way; however, there are visual clues in the technique of a painting that make the symbolic meaning accessible in a way that merely talking about the subject of a painting will not.
Arnheim uses Giovanni di Paolo’s “Adoration of the Magi” as an example of how one might go about having an aesthetic experience with a painting. This is a work of art that used to be critically dismissed, but Arnheim hopes others will use the clues he gives to then understand the greatness in other paintings.
The story of the painting comes from the story of the three wise men that travel across the desert guided by the star of Bethlehem to see newly born Jesus and bestow gifts. Although a painting is limited in that it is removed from time in such a way as it cannot portray its passage, this painting assembles all the aspects of the story to suggest movement through time. The story of the magi takes place over quite a bit of land and in different locales, but a painting cannot show them all. Without crunching, Paolo puts all the characters in front of us and suggests their roles in the story by their placement. This is done so skillfully that we do not think of the painting as a two-dimensional space, but rather, we are allowed to imagine different people coming into the scene from different places.
Arnheim suggests the varying importance of the characters with the layout of the scene. The most important people are layered in the foreground with Jesus on top and Mary right underneath. The buildings are layered behind all the people, and the landscape is in the very rear. Arnheim also uses primary colors to show the importance of Jesus, Mary, and Joseph.
The lines created by the placement of people tell us to read the painting from left to right. Not only is this a natural action, but the left to right motion of our eyes also suggests we see the characters coming into the scene from their journeys. The action is read like a musical score in how the people are spaced from one another with varying degrees. The eyes of the characters look to the left to signify that is the direction from which arrivals are coming.
To see the whole picture created by the artist, we must marry the subject matter descriptions to the technique. The eye doesn’t just see what is really there; it also has an aesthetic experience. In successful art, the structure of the painting will represent the overall theme to make this possible.
In Arnheim’s painting, the content relates very well to the form it takes. The rock formation containing the birth cave points directly to the star of Bethlehem, which is placed right over Jesus’ head. This tells the story again, but in such a way as to put forth the main theme: the birth of Jesus was a marriage of heaven and earth. The two versions of the story are told complimentarily, one ephemerally and one ethereally.
There are many other ways to analyze a painting, of course, but the viewer must first experience the painting as art to do any analysis justice. In analyzing art, it is not enough to understand the artist’s technique. We must also put it into a human context so that we may have an emotional experience with the painting.