Friday 15 December 2017

Leonardo Salvator Mundi sphere

After a long (too long) gap, I have been drawn to posting again by the nonsense that it being written and spoken in the public forums about the optics of the sphere held by Christ in Leonardo's Salvator Mundi. The text below is adapted from emails I have been sending to many correspondents who have sent messages to me.

That this question should have arisen at all is based on a misunderstanding of the nature and functioning of Renaissance art in general and Leonardo’s art in particular.
We should remember that Leonardo was drawing on his documented knowledge of rock crystal to devise a large sphere for Christ to hold, as an iconographical invention. He was not making a “portrait” of an actual sphere. Indeed spheres that large were not known at that time. Nor was he following all its optical consequences to their logical conclusion. I have been asked on many occasions why the drapery behind the sphere is not radically affected by what is in effect a large magnifying glass. The answer in a word is decorum; that is to say “pictorial good manners”. Leonardo observed many visual effects in the real world, such the blur of very fast-moving objects, that he would never have incorporated into paintings. He said that such extreme effects belonged to the world of “speculators” on natural phenomena rather than to the art of painting. He and other artists knew about refraction in water, but he certainly would not have portrayed Christ’s legs as optically bent in a Baptism. Leonardo’s paintings re-make nature not only accordance with natural law but also in obedience to the rules that governed functioning images for his patrons. He would not have disrupted the efficacy of the painting as a devotional image. His painting drew on his knowledge of optics and how the working of the eye (e.g. MS E) affected the clarity of objects at different distances, as in the Salvator Mundi, but they were not raw demonstrations of optical science, any more than they were stark demonstrations of anatomy. In the Mona Lisa for example he does not follow the visual implications of looking at a woman inside a balcony against a bright landscape, although he know precisely what the actual effect would have been.
Many of the things in the press (such as Leonardo never using a frontal pose) have been very poorly thought through. But de-bunking a $350 million painting gets column inches.
I have a book on the Salvator coming out next year with Robert Simon and Margaret Dalivalle. There is also a chapter in my personalised Living with Leonardo, published by Thames and Hudson in March.

Thursday 17 August 2017

University courses, student loans/debts

Back after a long break, more or less resolved to blog at more regular intervals (thank you Walter!), but not at all optimistic.

Today the English and Welsh A-level results are out, determining university entrance. As well as the stock media debates about standards, fairness etc., this year there is much discussion of the massive debts incurred by students and the poor rates of repayment (determined by subsequent income). The interested parties - experts on education, school teachers, students, politicians of various hues - trot out their opinions on a ritualised annual basis, looking to score points rather than really thinking. No-one seems to be stepping back and asking radical questions (at least not those who obtain media time).

Let's ask some basic questions. Why is it that at age 18 (or so) we have determined that teenagers should embark on monolithic studies of three years (or four in Scotland) in highly defined areas in a way that determines much in their future lives, and more or less ensures that they will thereafter undergo no further formal education.

Why three or four years at this point in someone's life? There is no good basis for this "rule". If there is one single lesson I learnt over the course of my many years in the education world, it is that people develop at very different rates and ways, and have very diverse forms of intelligence and skill. Our current system cannot handle this diversity and fails most 16 to 18-year-olds to greater of lesser degrees.

My suggestion is that we think of scrapping the current assumptions about further education.

At school leaving age (itself open to revision), each student would be given a set number of further education credits (perhaps equivalent to a 3-year course) that they could take up at any point in their lives. Each credit would be "spent" on a course in a particular area of activity, ranging from carpentry to chemistry. This might be taken immediately following school, or after some kind of work experience. Subsequent credits could be taken in a continuous batch of studies over the same kind of period as now (above all for people of an academic inclination, who might move on to post-credit, "graduate" work), or at any time and after any interval of years. Someone might, for instance, gain some work experience in the law or in the building trade immediately on leaving school, and decide that they need to to upgrade their formal qualifications (ideally in collaboration with an employer).  Or they might decide to study something different, having gained some experience and a broader perspective. Or they might study for 2 years, leaving for employment, with the equivalent of one year's credits still available for future use. Someone else might want to change direction at any point in their life, either radically or re-tooling in their present area of activity to master new directions which were not apparent during their initial training. The requirement of jobs are not static in the present age of rapid technological and other changes. Someone who missed out on schooling, not having engaged with study, would have the opportunity to re-engage and gain valuable credits. None would be cast on the rubbish heap at 16 or later. Practical intelligence would be given as much chance to flower as academic intelligence.

No-one would be obliged to take up their credits. Someone who went straight into employment may achieve what they desire without further formal study. Someone who retires with, say, a year's credits still available might seek a fulfilling direction in the many years that will remain for many retirees.

Higher education providers would need to re-thing what they teach, how they attract students and the relationships of the qualifications to the worlds of employment. Students would be able assess the trajectory of their lives from a broader perspective. Schools would need to think about what diverse students need to launch themselves on worthwhile lives. Less exams and more actual teaching.

This flexible system might seem like a recipe for chaos in not knowing how many are going to be studying what. But the Open University has taught us that such numbers are forecastable on statistical basis. The system would settle down quite quickly.

The finance dimension needs thinking through. It may be that the equivalent of a year's study is met automatically by the state. Subsequently, courses could be financed by a cocktail of official and private support, the latter involving employers and perhaps direct loans. It may be that employers would contribute to a central pot of funds for later qualifications and re-tooling courses.

I have been the beneficiary of the present system. It suited a clever state-school boy of the 1950s and 1960s. There are increasingly few that it really suits over the full course of their lives. Let's seriously ask, "why three or four years in a row?'.