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About the Author

Works by Albert Elsen


Common Knowledge

Canonical name
Elsen, Albert
Legal name
Elsen, Albert Edward, Jr.
Other names
Elsen, Albert E.
Date of death
New York, New York, USA
Place of death
Palo Alto, California, USA
Cause of death
heart attack
Places of residence
Stanford, California, USA
Columbia University (BA|1949 ∙ MA|1950 ∙ PhD|1955)
art historian
Stanford University
Indiana University
Carleton College
United States Army (WWII)
Short biography
Albert Elsen, scholar of modern sculpture who specialized in Rodin, was professor of art at Stanford University from 1968 until his death in 1995. He was a pivotal figure in Stanford's acquisition of outdoor sculpture and served as the curator of the Rodin collection.



The Preface modestly explains that the "Purposes of Art" was conceived as an alternative to the linear, chronological history of art, and art appreciation books that dissect works of art into "elements," reducing unified expressions into piecemeal exposures. Consequently, this book is not structured chronologically. Art's history is presented as a mosaic of both themes and chronological evolution. Each work of art is treated as an integrated whole of meaning and form, set within the various historical and topical contexts. These works illustrate the book's essential premise: The great purpose of art has been to assist individuals in mastering their environments and liberating themselves. "Thus, art takes its place along with science in the civilizing of humanity."

Readers will find this work useful for evaluating the uses to which Art has been placed in service of Authority and Religion, as well as aesthetics.
With Index (which does not include DaVinci...).


Gothic Cathedral: "The master builder's rich inventiveness with three-dimensional form and the various adjustments, alterations, and additions he made beyond a concern for structural necessity have occasioned
the opinion that in the Gothic cathedral it is function which follows form." [82]

The Le Corbusier Chapel at Ronchamp: "Unlike the reception accorded many other modern churches, the chapel at Ronchamp has been well received by pilgrims and by those living in the area. It continues to function
successfully as a religious structure. Le Corbusier has produced one of few modern religious structures that has the dignity, power, and beauty which bear comparison with the best of the past. He is a rare reminder that a modern architect, drawing from his own inspired imagination, can meaningfully symbolize the Virgin as well as the dynamo. In his own words, "I have worked for what men today most need: silence and peace."
Le Corbusier was not a believer or a Catholic [83], but he understood the essentials of Religion at its best.

"Christ is the only god who has the book as one of his principal artistic attributes, and in some respects, Christianity is itself a book-oriented religion". [87]

Medieval art. "Beauty was equated with God." [88]

Illuminated Manuscripts: "The key to understanding the reverence
accorded the medieval illuminated Bible lies in the meaning of the phrase "the Word." The Gospel of St. John begins thus: "In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God." The words of
the Bible were therefore sacred, and it was the task of the artist,when commissioned by royalty, to "clothe" the word in the richest and finest
manner of which he was capable. Many manuscripts contained gold or silver writing on purple-dyed parchment. In a German book written at the end of the tenth century are the words, "May the Lord clothe your heart with this book." The precious nature of the materials and the care lavished on the book were in a real sense gifts to God from the faithful."[88] For the medieval public, "the book was Christ". [89]

Between the 2d and 4th centuries, vellum (lambskin) gradually replaced the more expensive and less durable papyrus. With the book form ("codex"), the scribe/artist was offered an almost framed picture "page" to elaborate as desired. Both sides could be worked without flaking, as happened with scrolls.

Scrolls were used for reading--essentially a hearing experience. The book became both aural and visual. The authors include an example of an Odyssey Roll of the 3rd century BC. The vellum illuminated codex became a sustained imaginative development. [90] By the 12th century, an enormous quantity of illuminated books was produced in Europe. [90]
"The historical worth and intrinsic beauty of the medieval manuscript are insufficiently recognized by the general public today." [87] Brilliant detailed explorations of the influential "Mouth of Hell" [Psalm 102, Fig 120] in the Utrecht Psalter, and the Golden Codex of Echternach ["among the finest story-tellers in the history of art" 98-99] produced by monks during the Ottonian Empire of the 11th century Germans.

So much more. The mouse-trap on the table in the Campin "Joseph in His Carpetry Shop" [Figure 130, p 105]. The cloak held in the teeth of the man lowering Christ in Ruben's "Descent from the Cross" [Plate 19].
… (more)
keylawk | Aug 30, 2015 |
Original essay written for exhibition catalog to accompany exhibition sponsored by the Arts Council of Great Britain. The current text is an enlargement of that essay.
dondougan | Dec 5, 2009 |


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