In the artistic chaos of these last years, when the absolute liberation of the individual instinct has brought it to the point of frenzy, an attempt to identify the harmonic disciplines that have secretly, in every period, served as foundations for painting might well seem folly.
But this folly is in fact wisdom. It is the way to a kind of knowledge essential for whoever wants to paint. Essential, too, for whoever wants to look at pictures. The framework of a work of art is also its most secret and its deepest poetry.
But this study—so important that it is strange it should have been left so long unattempted—was not an easy undertaking. It is a dangerous quest, one in which the seeker’s mind must be always on guard against itself. Charles Bouleau has had need of a great deal of humility; he has taught himself to abandon many of his initial ideas, to renounce various seductive hypotheses that had given this or that branch of his researches its first direction, in his determination always to be true to the reality of the work of art before him.
The aesthetic theories which he expounds in this book are never arbitrary ones. They are those of the period under discussion: they have always a firm historical basis. Charles Bouleau does not single any of them out for partisanship. Advancing step by step through the vast mass of work produced by the painters, he has had the skill to separate out the new contribution of each period and each artist. He has carried his analysis through with strict method, seeking, in the case of each work studied, to recreate the intellectual atmosphere of its time.
The result of such long and scrupulous reflection is a book that is often highly original. Though, for example, numerous writers before him have discussed the golden number, Charles Bouleau’s study of the Renaissance use of musical proportions in the composition of pictures will come as a revelation to many readers.
In a word, this book goes a long way towards recovering the spirit of geometry as Piero della Francesca understood it; it is an attempt to reveal that secret geometry in a painting, which has been for the artists of every period one of the essential components of beauty; and the examples which the author offers from among the works of modern painters, of Mondrian for instance, are a striking proof of his objectivity.