The Drama of Hardness and Softness in Painting

By Eli Siegel

(1953)

I will aggravate my voice so that I will roar you as gently as any sucking dove; I will roar you an ’twere any nightingale.

—A Midsummer Night's Dream

Piero della Francesca and Jean Baptiste Camille Corot are, at this moment, both of art: their work is true to art. The immediate effect, however, of a painting by the fifteenth-century Italian is different from that of the nineteenth-century Frenchman. One could be critically elaborate about the verticals, the restraint, the severity, the containment of, say, The Baptism of Christ; and critically elaborate about the curves, the gentle blendings, the diffusiveness, the suggestion in placidity of, say, Corot’s Mantes. Somewhere, a careful critical evaluation of the qualities and artistic procedures in the work of Piero della Francesca would meet and go along with the first, simple feeling that it was “hard”; and somewhere such an evaluation of the painting by Corot would go along with the feeling that it was “soft.”

Hardness and softness are things we meet because we’re alive. We all have memories of the softness of handkerchiefs and the hardness of tables; and we can renew these memories any hour. Even as we think of a four inch cube of steel and a pulsating pigeon, we are having different—though related—experiences. The ideas of hardness and softness belong to art; they also belong to physics, to ontology; and to the commonest happening of the commonest hour.

All art tries to show hardness and softness working as one. I have said that the immediate effect of a painting by Piero della Francesca is that of hardness; but Piero, being an artist, uses his severe visual presentations to get to the suggestive, the haunting, even the melting: that is, the soft. And out of the mistiness and suffusion and shadowed roundnesses of Corot, emerges something of form, something stable, definite, self-contained: that is, the hard. We, ourselves, are a constant interaction of hardness and softness; and if the interaction is not so accurate, we are in a state of misfortune.

In Every Aspect of Art

Softness and hardness are in every aspect of art. A point itself, being both sharp and a circle—so it has to be, visually—is a presence of hardness and softness. Dots, another way of saying points, are severe dots and suggestive dots: are hard dots and soft dots. Lines, when curved, make for softness; when straight, hardness. A powerful line is both wavering and assertive. Planes maintain the drama of hardness and softness. It is quite clear that a circle is softer than an oblong tipped at an angle. It may be mentioned here that one of the things Vuillard does is to take planes, most often thought of as angular or hard, and give them softness through their context in a picture; and through color.

Color as to line, is as softness is to hardness. The making one of reality as color and line is also the making one of reality as softness and hardness. Every painting, according to Aesthetic Realism, is an exploration of ontological possibility. When a painting succeeds, reality is once more shown in its newness, contrariness, diversity—yet as inevitable, orderly, one.

Within colors, there are hardness and softness. The blending of colors is really a blending of hard and soft effects or possibilities; of arrest and continuity. And we all of us can feel a rigid brown or a nicely floating soft blue.

Volumes, quite clearly, have hardness and softness. A cube of bread does something dramatically other than a cube of steel, colored brown. Pliability and rigidity are dramatic in physics: and they are in art.

Composition, itself, is a presence and interaction of flow and precision, diversity and oneness, expansion and fixity—all of which pairs comment on the meaning of softness and hardness.

Expression has in it, too, hardness and softness. This can best be seen in portraiture. The face is a constant presentation of hardness and softness. Of course, body itself is.

The simple hardness and softness of physics, or of ordinary reality, is to be seen in the full implication of words, phrases, and sentences used in the history of art criticism. Of course, the terms hard and soft, and hardness and softness, themselves are used.

One of the things we can gather from the history of art and art criticism is that hardness unaccompanied by softness or flow makes for unsuccessful art; and that softness unaccompanied by hardness or definition likewise makes for unsuccessful art.

Cubism and Surrealism

Cubism, in its use of geometrical figures, accurately and intensely related, brought out a flowingness or “softness” of relation among rigidities. Surrealism, when watches were made soft, and typewriters mingled with viscera, likewise attempted to present objects or reality as soft and hard at once.

Primitive painting, most often, uses “hard” immediate effects to make for a meaning that is soft, wide, and deeply lingering; Giotto, where he can be seen as “primitive,” is a most meaningful contrast to the floating, soft mobility of Correggio, who, as an artist, still has his definition or hardness.

It would be interesting, I think, to note the presence of hardness and softness in one way or another, in some effective and representative criticism of our time. I believe it would be useful to employ Thomas Munro’s Great Pictures of Europe (1930) as a source for our inquiry.

Munro (page 178) points out the hardness of Venetian art before Bellini. He writes:

Alvise Vivarini, Madonna and Saints—stiff, cramped, wooden, sharp-edged figures, basically sculptural; they show the state of Venetian art before Bellini. Mantegna, St. George—small but concentrated in lustre and grace of line.

Here Munro points to something “soft”—“grace of line”—in Mantegna and to something “hard”—“stiff, cramped, wooden, sharp-edged figures”—in Vivarini.

However, elsewhere in his work, Munro comments on Mantegna’s Calvary. Here we find that Mantegna has something more than “grace of line”; he is both hard and soft. This is clear in the following sentence: “The distinctive element here is the use of long, sharp, flowing lines.” The fact that Mantegna’s lines are both sharp and flowing shows that there are both hardness and softness in his work.

One of the Many Dramas

Then Munro says that later Venetian painting “softened” the lines of Mantegna. We have seen that Mantegna did not avoid grace, or flowingness, or softness as such. The following passage is about one of the many, many dramas of hardness and softness which, in all kinds of combinations, we find in the history of art:

Their basic structure is firm: tall verticals against intersecting, receding diagonals. Over them the small details engrave a winding scroll-work of unnatural clarity, emphasized by long linear streaks of light. Later Venetian painting softened such lines with richer color and melted them into plainer masses. The direct effect on the eye is somewhat edgy, acrid, cramped, ungrateful. But such qualities are more consistent with the pain, the agony and pity represented than are the suavity and sensuous richness found in later treatments of the same subject.

So just as Mantegna added grace to Vivarini, later Venetians added softness to Mantegna. The passage I have quoted contains a continuous facing, mingling, and antagonism of “hard” and “soft” notions. The soft is served by such words as receding, winding, scroll-work, softened, color, melted, suavity, sensuous, richness; the hard by such words as structure, form, tall, verticals, intersecting, diagonals, linear, edgy, acrid, cramped. A word like light is of both hardness and softness; however, it may be said that light is harder than shadow. Then there is the word clarity: clarity to unclearness is as hardness is to softness.

Munro accents the softness in Constable (p. 13). The critic compares Constable’s Haywain to Hobbema’s Woody Landscape:

The Constable is far more colorful, rich and luminous, with a soft iridescence that seems to penetrate deep into the inner substance of trees, grass and soil.

Further, Munro writes:

He is not interested in brilliant, direct sunlight, or in bright decorative color; but in merging all parts of his landscape by soft transitions into one deep, continuous whole.

In this last passage, the relation of deep to continuous is as hard to soft. But the word whole with its clear unity is what brings the necessary hardness or definition to Constable’s grace, luminosity, softness.

Rembrandt: Hardness and Softness

Rembrandt has been long seen as the sober, enchanting master of light and shade. (As I have said, in reality, as in art, light corresponds to hardness and softness to shade.) Munro’s work contains a critique (page 246) of Rembrandt’s The Man with the Gold Helmet, which is a striking, almost a bravura making one of hardness and softness. Munro, I think, is saying in the following passages that Rembrandt made rigidity and flowingness, hardness and softness one:

Rembrandt is akin to Leonardo da Vinci...in his reliance upon soft, mysterious shadows as the basis of his form.

“Soft, mysterious shadows” as to “form” is, I think, as softness is to hardness. In other words, Rembrandt has shown that hardness and softness are part of one artistic purpose, one artistic conclusion.

The shadows are never drab and dead, the modelling never hard and sculptural, the transitions from dark to light never flashily theatrical—all faults common in Leonardo.

Said otherwise, what one might expect to be only hard or soft are both in a rich manner: the shadows move, are not “dead,” even while they are clearly shadows; the modelling, while being undoubtedly modelling, is never “hard and sculptural”; the transitions from dark to light, while definitely transitions, are never “flashily theatrical.” Munro’s statement implies that the relation of hardness and softness in Rembrandt’s painting is rich and continuous, as that of dancers gracefully taking each other’s places in a dance around the Maypole. The continuous mystery of hard and soft, the grandeur in subtlety of hardness and softness—as of light and dark—are felt with beautiful justice by Rembrandt.

Another passage of Munro with the friendly opposition of hardness and softness in it is: “The face is stern, rugged, worn, but with a hint of kindly softening in the lines about the eyes.”

However, the whole comment of Munro is concerned with how in a picture of a soldier with a gold helmet the yieldingness of the world has been seen by Rembrandt as at one with its resistance. The soft beard, for example, merges with the hard helmet. Something like this is going on everywhere in the painting. And Rembrandt’s purpose and technique are reflected in the critic’s words.

Reality is hard and soft. The meaning of these two adjectives is endless. They are like matter and space; they are like rest and motion; death and life. Art shows that the immediate significance of the hard and that of the soft, and the permanent significance, are one. How lovely this is, how important this is, I think we have yet to know.

 

NOTE: "The Drama of Hardness and Softness in Painting" was printed in The Right of Aesthetic Realism to Be Known, Number 846, June 21, 1989. This issue was reprinted in 2012.