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The Shape of Aura - an artistic journey to the heart of aesthetic philosophy.

The story...

When I was reading "Work of Art in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction" by Benjamin Walter, I was fascinated by the philosophical concept of "aura" - something uniquely belonging to each artwork and cannot be reproduced by any means. I had a few initial thoughts about it and wanted to learn more, so I began this independent project that explores what precisely is "aura" and the factors that shape it. In the process, I created my own art as a part of my experiment.


 

Introduction

Imagine this: you are walking to the Louver to visit the famed Mona Lisa. Driving past you is a double-decker bus that has printed on its flanks a poster of the mysterious smile, scaled up to fit the surface of the bus. It’s an advertisement for the Louver Museum. You turn your head away from the image to focus on what’s ahead of you. In the distance comes a young woman, whose features you cannot catch. But with men’s curious tendency towards finding patterns, your eyes discover the same mysterious smile embroidered onto her grocery bag. Only this time, the image is modified by an inflated vibrance with some colour-pop filter. You smile and shake your head, then hastening your pace to be the first group to visit the museum. Along the way, you encounter shop after shop with the Mona Lisa image printed on posters of various sizes, decorative pillows, mugs, t-shirts, fridge magnets, and many other objects. Finally, you reach the Louver before the clamouring crowds swarm in, and you find your way to the painting. Despite having seen it millions of times on different occasions, you stand in front of the Mona Lisa with a strange, tingling feeling in your heart, as if this is the first time you see it - truly see it. You feel the unspeakable gravity precipitated from the painting, and the space between you seems almost holy. It is the same sensory experience when you meet a celebrity in real life, you feel their authentic presence: you feel the painting’s aura.



The concept of aura was introduced by German philosopher Walter Benjamin in his essay The Work of Art in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction, in which aura is defined as “A strange weave of space and time: the unique appearance or semblance of distance, no matter how close it may be.” In his essay, Benjamin repeatedly emphasizes the correlation between an artwork’s aura, its authenticity, and how they are irreproducible by denying the function of lithography and photography to reproduce the aura: “Even the most perfect reproduction of a work of art is lacking one element: its presence in time and space, its unique existence at the place where it happens to be”. During Benjamin’s time, photography was an emerging medium with the advancement of technology, and it is still a prominent mechanism in modern days to capture a work of art.


Let us go back to the Mona Lisa scenario: you buy a poster of the Mona Lisa at the souvenir shop and hang it on the living room wall. You open your photo album to see the photo you took of the painting. Yet something seems missing about the perfect duplication: that peculiar gravity is gone, that traction in space disappears. Applying the aura concept, you know it is the lack of aura making the difference. But you can’t help but ask, “How is it possible for photography to transmit aura? What makes up an aura?”. So in this essay, I will be attempting to give an answer to these questions by first explaining the relation between photography and reality, then analyzing the factors that shape the aura of an artwork, and lastly, surveying the connection between the original artwork and a perfect duplication placed in the same setting.


Before I continue, it is noteworthy that the terms ‘aura’ and ‘ambience’ have different meanings. Unlike aura, ambience can be transmitted and reproduced and concerns the emotional experience an artwork or its duplication gives the viewers. However, the two terms are sometimes inextricable and overlapped, as you will observe in the course of this essay. Because of the essay format, the artworks embedded do not preserve their aura to allow readers to feel them. Instead, I will try my best to describe the aura.




Photography and Aura

The product of photography is an image. To borrow art critic John Berger’s words, an image is “an appearance […] which has been detached from the place and time”. If we refer to Benjamin’s definition of aura, we will observe the missing pieces in an image that prevent an aura from being reproduced. I like to think of an artwork as constituting a record of its own history over time, from birth to present; while the image only captures the artwork at the very instant. The former is alive and breathing, and the latter is static. An apparent example would be frescoes, which are often damaged by moisture when water evaporates on the surface and takes out bits of paint with it. The frescoes eventually whiten and begin to fall off the wall. The appearance and the constitutional matters of the frescoes change over time, and so does their aura. This metamorphosis fabricates a link between the past and the present, and an indiscernible but evident gravitational emanation is produced by the frescoes that the camera cannot grasp.


Another factor of an image that sets it apart from the original artwork is the photographer’s presence. “Every time we look at a photograph, we are aware, however slightly, of the photographer selecting a sight from an infinity of other possible sights,” Berger writes in his book Ways of Seeing. A photographer selects his/her point of view the same way as a painter makes his/her marks on a canvas. When looking at an image, we are viewing the artwork through the lens of the photographer, and that acts as a barrier between our perception and the artwork, hence the transmission of aura.




Factors Shaping the Aura


I. Composition

In the Vatican City stands a large chapel named the Sistine Chapel. Along with the swarms of visitors entering the chapel, you gaze upon the marvellous fresco on the ceiling - a legacy of the great artist Michelangelo. Not all are familiar with the story Genesis which the fresco depicts, but everyone will find some solace in the panel of The Creation of Adam. “So this is where that pair of hands originates from!” the man behind you gasps in awe. Yes, that pair of hands which has been cropped out from its context and reproduced in countless cultural and commercial industries, famed for its aesthetic presentation.


Fg. 1.1


Fg. 1.2


If we haven’t seen the full The Creation of Adam, we may easily assume that Michelangelo painted a visually appealing sketch of two hands reaching for each other. To see how aura may change with different compositions in figure 1.1 and figure 1.2, I sent out a survey that consecutively showed the two images, targeting viewers that are not familiar with the full painting but have seen the pair of hands.


The first question concerned the ambience of the cropped-out hands, before revealing the full painting. Common responses included:


“[the painting] seems like an eternal farewell, where two people are trying their best to reach for the very last touch

the gesture stirs me, I think two people are going to be separated, and this is their last touch to bid farewell

they are trying to reach for a farewell before one of them draws his last breath

And “perhaps one person is trying to reach for his counterpart”.


Notice the frequency of the words ‘farewell’, ‘last’, and touch’ - terms that are all associated with a yearning and melancholy sentiment. This tender ambience the pair of hands evokes is likely to be a major contribution to its popularity. Many have re-created the artwork by posing the same gesture, which photos are often edited and presented in a melancholic vibrance with wistful quotes.


In the second question, I revealed the full painting to survey if and how the ambience felt by the viewers changes. Most of the responses were positive, stating that there is a shift in experience:


I felt sad when I saw the first image, because I thought it depicted a farewell. Now its ambience is quite indescribable, but sadness is no longer a part of it.


Other responses suggest the absence of change in ambience, mostly due to the viewer’s non-religious background.



II. The artist and the artwork’s backstory


The tortured artist trope

Tragic, tortured artists are often romanticized - the most quintessential being Caravaggio, Munch, Toulouse-Lautrec, and of course, van Gogh. We sympathize with their stories, share regrets over their tortured minds, and are helplessly fascinated by their tragedies. Because in those tragedies, there seems to exist something beautiful or genius. When painting The Raft of Medusa, Théodore Géricault shaved his head and isolated himself in the studio to work relentlessly for ten months. After the completion of the art, the artist suffered a severe nervous breakdown. Edvard Munch once wrote, “Art comes from joy and pain… but mostly from pain.” Similarly, British painter Keith Vaughan wrote in 1943, “We see them (artists) at odds with themselves and others, perpetually lonely and ailing, carved out with wretchedness, their manhood falling to pieces about them and only the bright jewel of their creative rage burning in the centre of the wreckage.” An artist’s tragic story elevates their artworks, enriching them with deeper meanings. Genius and creativity coexist with or are the products of a state of constant torment; magnificent works are almost always associated with tortured minds. The same applies to tragic writers such as Sylvia Plath and Yukio Mishima. Although calamitous and saddening, their tragedies make their works more intriguing to the audience. When we look at their works, we are eager to find signs and clues that point to the artist’s tragedy. Its consequences, however, can be misleading - we may draw a non-existing conclusion made of imaginary elements, and our sculpted feelings toward the tragic artist may distort our perceptions.



Case studies on the impact of an artwork’s backstory: Wheatfield with Crows

The artwork’s backstory affects its aura in a similar way. Once, I saw van Gogh’s Wheatfield with Crows and felt an unspeakable grief which I couldn’t quite understand. Then, I learned that the painting was van Gogh’s last work before he committed suicide, and the puzzle pieces came together. I wanted to know if others shared a similar experience, so I surveyed an audience, exploring the presence of shifting ambience before and after knowing the artwork’s story.


The responses from the audience that had not seen the work before and were not familiar with its context mostly suggest the ambience to be tranquil, at peace, or mysterious: “The swaying wheat is hypnotizing and elicits feelings of peace and tranquillity. The dark blue background adds a layer of mystique to the ambience.” A prominent shift in responses is observed after revealing to the audience the painting’s disquieting context: “This makes the painting so much more melancholy and despairing. The tranquillity still exists, but it is the type that exists in a despairing solitary.



Figure 1.3, Wheatfield of Crows by Vincent van Gogh



Case studies on the relevance of the contextual knowledge of an artwork: The Roses of Heliogabalus and The Fallen Angel

It is clear that our knowledge of backstories moulds our perception of the art’s aura. That knowledge influences the way we look at the paintings and tells us what to feel about them. To avoid this, several art exhibitions have adopted an unfiltered experience for visitors, providing no curatorial statement or textual information on the exhibition or displays. The background of the artworks is completely unknown to the visitors, hence their aura is preserved in the purest form. It raises a question of the necessity of retaining the artwork’s so-claimed initial aura, and whether the purity of the aura is actually essential. The cost of keeping an aura ‘uncontaminated’ is the loss of connection between the viewers with the art. I like to think of an artwork’s backstory as the unique experiences of a person, it is what allows them to connect with others who find those stories worth learning - it completes the artwork, sometimes even elevating it.


One example that I hope to study will be The Roses of Heliogabalus by Anglo-Dutch artist Lawrence Alma-Tadema. At first glance, the painting depicts a heavenly scene dominated by dazzling batches of pink rose petals, with exotic fruits, instruments, and luxurious decorations in place. One could easily think it to be a lavish party in ancient times. However, the title of the piece suggests otherwise. To anyone who is familiar with the historical context, Heliogabalus is a youthful Roman emperor known for his cruelty and pranks - so much so that they led to his assassination, ordered by his own grandmother in the fourth year of his throne. The Roses of Heliogabalus refers to one of the emperor’s most infamous party pranks - death by the roses.



Figure 1.4, The Roses of Heliogabalus by Lawrence Alma-Tadema


The story goes that the emperor invited guests to his palace one evening for drinking and partying. After hours of drinking wine and sexually playing, the guests were exhausted and intoxicated. As they reposed on the cushions, a few rose petals fell from the ceiling. The petals added to the dreamy and perfumed atmosphere, and the guests were pleased with the surprise. More petals continued to descend, and a cloud of smoke became a cascade, then a waterfall, showering the guests with roses. On the floor formed an ocean of rose petals, choking and drowning the guests as they gasped hard for air. Some looked up at the emperor high above with fear and confusion, while the emperor himself looked down with pleasure and satisfaction. The gaze was transient, short-lived, as the guests were suffocated by the rose petals that entered their lungs and died with their last breaths infiltrated by the murderous floral scent.


It is shocking how the contextual knowledge of a painting affects the way we see it. Although not all artworks have perfect plot twists like The Roses of Heliogabalus, the contexts still play an important role in understanding the artworks.


To further demonstrate the persisting relevance of contextual knowledge, I will bring forth the case of The Fallen Angel by Alexandre Cabanel.



Figure 1.5, The Fallen Angel by Alexandre Cabanel (1847)


The painting centres around a winged nude, whose lower face is covered by his muscular arm. His posture appears reposed, but his muscles are flexed, his fingers tensely intertwined. Above him, swarms of angels are floating in heaven, blending into the blue sky. Their arms reach up in a rejoicing manner, contrasting with the nude. The highlight of this painting is indisputably his eyes - scowlingly red-rimmed, with a pearl-like tear on the corner that speaks of anger. He is, like the title implies, the fallen angel. Here, Cabanel captures the theatrical moment from John Milten’s Paradise Lost when Lucifer is cast from heaven and falls to earth, and will later become the Devil.


There is another more personal and implicit layer to the painting that, in my opinion, completes the work. At the youthful age of 17, Cabanel joined the École des Beaux-Arts in Paris and shortly after, the artist had his works exhibited in the Paris Salon and won prestigious prizes. With extraordinary skills, Cabanel soon became one of the geniuses of French academic painting. Yet, with the rise of Impressionism that won over the public’s fancy, the Academics began to lose their authenticity. This is because the two schools ultimately challenge each other - while academic art embodies the ultimate dictatorship of the Academy and the autocratic and narrow judgment of art by an elite group, Impressionism seeks freedom and reality. The contradiction can be conspicuously seen if we compare the paintings from each school. Academic paintings often depict allegory and craft, elements that originated from ancient classical art and European traditions. For example, in Cabanel’s The Birth of Venus, the nude takes on the traditional immaculate shapes and curves, as well as the perfectly pale and clear skin.


Figure 1.6, The Birth of Venus by Alexandre Cabanel (1863)


This unrealistic beauty and distorted perfection that the Academics celebrate is precisely what the Impressionists disdain and challenge. Rather than painting mythological scenes, the Impressionists are fond of depicting contemporary life and landscapes. As a result, the nudes in impressionist art are not impeccably rendered. Female nudes, or female figures in general, took a significant breakthrough - that is, the breakaway from the appeal of the male gaze. The women in both of Manet’s paintings look directly at the viewers, without a filtered lens.




Figure 1.7, Luncheon on the Grass by Édouard Manet (1863)



Figure 1.8, Olympia by Édouard Manet (1863)


The rise of Impressionism symbolizes the end of Academic art. Outside the field of art, this time period in history witnessed many significant movements towards freedom and liberation, the overturn of power and aristocracy, the abandonment of the old, and the embracing of the new age. The Industrial Revolution soared beyond Britain, expanding throughout Europe; the decline of European empires and imperialism; the abolishment of slavery - the world was undergoing vast changes. Hence, it is no surprise that the Impressionists made their rise, or that the Academic art eventually faded out in history.


If we look back at Cabanel’s The Fallen Angel, Lucifer’s scowling eyes seem to echo the emotion that the artist felt. Just like how Lucifer was cast out from heaven, the Academic artist’s school was in gradual decline, hence the victory of the Impressionists.


From here, we can see the importance of the backstory to an artwork. The question of whether our contextual knowledge of an artwork contaminates or completes its aura still persists. However, I think that to understand an artwork, we have to know its story - just like how the aura is inseparable from the artwork, the story is embedded in the back of the artwork. They both are intangible and invisible, but require us, the viewers, to spend time learning and feeling them.




III. Surrounding and setting

In 2016, a fascinating event took place at the MoMA. Two boys visiting the museum decided to put down a pair of glasses in the gallery to see what would happen. The result was surprising - visitors began crowding around the glasses; some were even taking pictures of it as they mistook it to be one of the exhibits. This Duchamp-like phenomenon made me wonder about the influence of the setting on an artwork or any object in general. If anything placed in a gallery setting can potentially become a work of art and return to being an ordinary object outside the setting, what happens when an artwork - for example, a painting - is removed from its conventional spot in a white cube? Will we perceive its aura differently?


To satisfy my curiosity, I created my own painting and mapped out an experiment. The plan was to place the painting in different settings to survey any change in its aura. I chose the theme of my painting carefully and decided upon a floral theme because of its universality and neutrality towards sentiments, making it an ideal choice to observe any changes in the aura. Before reading my analysis, I would like you, reader, to generate your own conclusion when you examine the presented pictures.


Figure 1.9, classical gallery setting (‘white cube’)



Figure 1.9, studio setting



Figure 1.9, normal setting on a bookshelf



Figure 2.0, with natural flowers


When placed in a typical gallery setting (figure 1.8) among Baroque still life paintings, the artwork suddenly possesses a gravity and authenticity in its ambience - the marks of history and movements. It blends in with the adjacent works. The contrast between the artwork’s aura when placed in a studio setting (figure 1.9) and when grouped with natural flowers is remarkable. In the former setting, the painting bears an organic tone because of its depiction of the elements from nature. Conversely, having real flowers in the artwork’s vicinity brings forth a synthetic aura, as now it is being understood as an artificial craft.


In Ways of Seeing, Berger describes this as the result of our perception and understanding naturally being modified by what we see earlier, simultaneously, and later upon seeing the artwork itself.




Conclusion

When Benjamin created the notion of aura, the world was undergoing an unprecedentedly remarkable evolution in science, technology, and philosophy. Aura, or the loss aura, then, was a novel concept as society challenged traditional art collecting and made artworks increasingly accessible to the public through new innovations. Reading Benjamin’s essay in modern times, however, aura can be deemed as irrelevant or unnecessary, because we have long thrown behind the traditions of art, and our criteria of art has moved from authenticity to creativity. Summarized by Berger, “the uniqueness of every painting was once part of the uniqueness of the place it rested… the painting enters the viewer’s house. It is surrounded by his wallpaper, his furniture, his mementoes… the painting now travels to the spectator rather than the spectator to the painting. In its travels, its meaning diversified.” The mysterious authenticity created by limited access to art has long been lost, and we are too familiar with seeing an artwork away from its spot in the museum.


With the creation of digital artwork that finds itself possessing no aura, the concept seems to have faded into the background. But to learn a painting, to understand how we perceive it in a certain way, and to appreciate it as how it has been - we need to know how the aura is shaped.




The creation process of "Aura" artwork

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