Sunday, September 11, 2016

Mountains Don't Complain

This past week, my 6-year-old granddaughter Sophia visited me.  I showed her the painting I was working on, using as my subject, her and her twin brother Jack sitting in a tree.  

This one:

She took a quick look at it and said, “I look like an elf.”

She said this, not happily or unhappily, but matter-of-factly, and walked away.

At the same time, another painting I was working on sat on another easel.  I had no one to show it to for a reaction, because the painting uses, as its subject, a landscape I started in Crested Butte, Colorado, and I am sure the mountain, or the trees, or the path, or the weeds do not have anything to say. 

This one:

However, as I worked on it, passersby did.  Many simply shouted I was doing a good job as they rode by on their bikes, but a boy of about 5 or 6 years old stopped with his mother to look at the painting, and he asked me why I had a “rainbow of colors” at the bottom of the picture.  He was referring to my abstract underpainting.  It still showed because I had not yet covered it with what I was seeing.  At that point, it looked like this:

I launched into a long description of how I made abstract underpaintings based on cubist visual ideas and then I wove what I was seeing into those geometric shapes.  He actually pondered this complex explanation (or that is what I hoped he was doing as his eyes glazed over), then simply said, “I like it.”  I told his mom I hoped he would be an art critic when he grew up.

Violette de Mazia wrote several essays about creative distortion, and in Creative Distortion:  III. In Portraiture and Creative Distortion IV: Portraiture II, she described the factors that enter into what we refer to as portraiture.  First, and foremost, she said portraiture “deals with human beings, or, at least, things alive in the ordinary sense of the word.” (Creative Distortion: III. In Portraiture, The Barnes Foundation, Journal of the Art Department, Vol. IV, No. 2, Autumn, 1973, p. 4)

Beyond that, as Dr. Barnes argued and I mentioned in my post What’s in a Face?, most of the other requirements for a painting to be called a portrait no longer are applicable in the 21st century:  the physical traits of the models—their facial features and expression, their garments, their general physical bearing—no longer are expected to play a major part in the picture.  Even compositional challenges relating the figure to the setting to form a coherent unity does not loom large either. 

What often drive artists’ nuts, however, are the sitter’s feelings about the portrait.  A pear doesn’t care.  Neither does a mountain.  But a person, like my granddaughter, does.  The sitter can complain, dictate, and object.  Even more frustrating, in the photograph I used, Sophia was wearing a dress with a repetitive heart-shaped pattern, and if I had not remembered the following painting, Bonnard’s, Woman with Dog, I might have hung up my brush.  The Bonnard painting gave me courage to do something with that pattern that worked with my picture.

Bonnard, Woman with Dog, 1908, Oil on cardboard, Barnes

The question, therefore, is not whether the painting is a portrait but, as Violette de Mazia argued, whether it is a portrait that is a work of art—a new object in which the artist has done something “to and with his subject to make this work significant in its own right.” (Creative Distortion: III, p. 9)

Now comes the hard part.  I will try to examine my painting Twins in a Tree to see what I have done. 

Does it surprise you I find this difficult to do?  It shouldn’t.  

I, and I suspect most artists, have no idea how to define the aesthetic visual meaning of their work, and many complain about being asked to do so.  Picasso said, “How can you expect a beholder to experience my picture as I experienced it? A picture comes to me a long time beforehand; who knows how long a time beforehand, I sensed, saw, and painted it and yet the next day even I do not understand what I have done.” (Richard Friedenthal, 1963, p. 260).  When asked what one of his paintings meant, Picasso answered. “I painted it.  You figure it out.”  Matisse said, “You want to paint?  First of all you must cut off your tongue because your decision takes away from you the right to express yourself with anything but your brush.”

That said, I will now put on my “objectivity hat,” and examine my own painting to find out what I have done. Matisse also said an artist looks at a painting he has just completed as “a mother examines her new-born baby—in the hopes of understanding it.” 

That’s my goal, too.  I want to understand it.

Here is the photograph I used as my subject and the painting below it so you can compare them easily:

The differences jump out.  I filled most of the picture space with the figures; I exaggerated the shapes of the tree trunks to stress their curvilinear qualities; I made the patterns created by shadows and the patterns in Sophia’s dress more obvious and more decorative.  Harder to define, but important, the overall impression of the painting is oddly eerie.

Upside down, other qualities appear:

Sophia’s arms and legs set up the thematic organization of the vertical as well as diagonal color volumes of the tree trunks and branches.  Now on the left, the tree trunk, like a parenthesis, holds in the larger color volumes of the figures, while on the right, the massive, gray “tree trunk” acts as a repoussoir, pushing back into shallow space the two lighter gray and gold “tree trunks” while Sophia’s arm, a light pink narrow band, now at the bottom right, slides further back into deeper space.  Sophia’s diagonal, centered, large, bent leg pushes forward as her body sinks in between it and her other arm like a deflated balloon held in place by two slanting bookends.

Jack’s head looms forward as Sophia’s recedes creating the in-and-out, back-and-forth movement in the picture.  Further enhanced by the tangle of “branches,” the tiny pockets of space between “tree trunks” and “foliage,” the linear patterns in both twins’ “hair,” as well as the patterns created by the “robot” image on Jack’s shirt, this movement builds the surprising impact of the painting.

No longer is it a pleasant photograph of two happy kids cozily perched in the crook of a tree. The painting is a series of high-keyed, unnatural, glowing color units of contrasting snaky curves, twisted limbs (both human and botanical), and dramatic in-and-out movements in shallow space.  

And something about that is startling and compelling at the same time.

Yet a portrait might not please the person or people depicted in it.  One of the most famous examples of displeasure occurred in 1967 when the artist, Peter Hurd, painted a portrait of President Lyndon Baines Johnson.  LBJ fell asleep during the one sitting he allowed, and Hurd finished his painting using photographs.  LBJ hated it, and he declared it "the ugliest thing I ever saw." Soon a pun was making the rounds in Washington that "artists should be seen around the White House—but not Hurd."  Hurd donated the painting to the National Portrait Gallery in the Smithsonian Institution.

This one:

And Ira Glackens, the son of artist William Glackens, tells how, when he was five years old, he “might have seen” one of his father’s paintings at the 1913 Armory Show.  He definitely had seen it as his father worked on it, however, because this is what he later wrote:  “I do not recall seeing, though it was surely pointed out to me, my father’s large canvas “Family Group,” with myself looking like a monkey in it.” (William Glackens and the Eight, 1957, p. 182).  

This one:

Glackens, Family Group, 1910-11, NGA

What my “elf” and Glackens’ “monkey” might find comforting is what Matisse said when an onlooker commented “that is one horrible-looking woman” as she looked at his painting Woman with a Hat. 

This one:

1905, San Francisco Museum of Modern Art

Matisse said, “If that were a woman, I would myself run away from her. But it is not a woman; it is a picture.”   

Friday, September 2, 2016

Artist's Eyes: Part II

In my previous post, “Artist’s Eyes,” I described how artists make pictures not from what we commonly refer to as “reality,” but by adapting visual ideas they have experienced in the work of other artists, the traditions of art.  The post touched a nerve.  I received more comments from more of you than any other post I have written. 

I decided the topic deserved further exploration.  

I will begin with Maurice Prendergast because I am looking at his work to prepare for a course at the Barnes Foundation on Isms and Traditions, so this is as good a place to start as any.  

In 1910, Maurice Prendergast wrote this in his journal:

“The Signs of Genius is the power of recognizing and assimilating that which is necessary to the development of oneself….We come into the world with nothing in our own right except the capacity for the acquisition of Ideas.  We cannot invent Ideas, we can only gather some of those in circulation since the beginning of the world.  We endow them with the color and form of our own time and if that color and form be of supreme quality the work is preserved as a representation of a period in the history of civilization….
Genius is the power of assimilation.  Only fools think the[y] invent.
If the circumstances of a man’s life admitted the acquisitions of only one set of Ideas his work would be thin….” (Catalogue Raisonné 1483)

In Idyl, Richard Wattenmaker argues, Maurice Prendergast “sought sources in the traditions that carried him beyond the immediacy of Manet, the monochromatic tonalities of Whistler, and the naturalism and spontaneity of the Impressionists to more elaborate spatial organizations.” (Maurice Prendergast, p. 119)

Here is the painting:
Maurice Prendergast, Idyl, c. 1912-14, Barnes
Prendergast’s  sketchbooks show he made drawings based on Giorgione and Titian’s Le concert champêtre, Poussin’s Echo and Narcissus, Pierre Puvis de Chavanne’s three compositions Pastoral, Dramatic, and Epic Poetry on the north wall of the Boston Public Library, among many others.  These drawings, freely copied, complement his nude studies and figures in parks or at the seashore.  

Idyl represents only one of his multi-figure compositions for which he sought classical models without symbolic or mythological meanings.  A series of unbroken tradition informed his expression. 

This painting uses rhythmic repetitions of: (1) rounded, horizontal grassy mounds echoed in the foliage and the umbrellas; (2) undulating diagonals of its waterfall establishing the contrasting theme of curvilinear color shapes; (3) upright bands of spaced tree trunks setting off seated, standing, nude, and clothed figures, in back and forth positions in space.  Prendergast orchestrates this within a glowing tapestry setting.  

My point: Prendergast assimilated the work of artists he found useful to his own interest, and according to Wattenmaker, because he “pursued color harmonies as musicians shift key settings,” and because “he worked and reworked his surfaces, often over a period of years, to gain his interwoven webs of paint and atmospheric space that are at the core of his art,” Prendergast added something fresh and compelling to the traditions of art. 

Examine the following details and see if you agree:

Closer to home, Eddie Loper, Jr., recently told me he sees pictures in his head and in his dreams. But when he starts painting, the picture does not turn out the way he “sees” it.  This sounds strikingly similar to my daughter’s complaint in my previous post that her hand did not produce what her brain was seeing.  

When he is stuck, Eddie continued, he looks at art books for ideas.  He credits attending Violette de Mazia’s classes at the Barnes Foundation for introducing him to color, with Winslow Homer for showing him how to draw, and N.C. Wyeth’s work (which he saw in the Wilmington Library) for illustrating drama and power. 

He also described how his eyesight creates challenges.  His “good” eye, the left one, sees details.  His “bad” eye, his right eye, sees swimming color shapes.  When he looks at something, he closes his left eye first to see color masses.  Then he closes his right eye to look through his left eye to see details.  Even doing that, he said, his picture still seems to have a  mind of its own, and his method does not determine he will paint anything close to what he “thinks” he sees and wants.

Here is an example.

First, study the photograph of the boxing match between Mohammed Ali and George Foreman, known as The Rumble in the Jungle, and then the painting that Eddie made using the photograph as his subject:

Edward L. Loper, Jr., Sting Like a Bee, Oil on canvas, July, 2016
First, and most obvious, the color palette Eddie employs has little to do with the photograph.  Both the two figures as well as the background have Fauve qualities.  The saturated colors and the bold strokes of their application do not mimic the surface appearance of the bodies seen in the photo.  

Let’s turn the painting upside down for a more objective read:

Now on the left, a series of bright, warm, yellows, reds, pinks, and white mostly linear color strokes pulse backwards receding first into a concave pocket of space at the “stomach” and then further back as the “belt” meets the “white shorts” now at the top.  This is the long way of saying the “body” recedes from the “head” to the “shorts.”  

Now on the right, ochres and reds predominate, setting the now smaller and lower “head,” “forearm,” and “body” back in space and ballooning forward the two red halves of the “shorts” divided by the white stripe in their center.  Again, the long way of saying the smaller “head” sinks back in space while the upper “arm” bulges forward as do the “shorts.” 

The “arms” become a twisted array of left and right movements across the center of the painting.  However, the literally “striking” push of the central “arm” projected into the foreground plane, sets the theme.

Examine that "arm:"

This detail illustrates the short, energetic brush strokes, the luminous bang of color, the linear outlines compartmentalizing the bulging, massive color volumes, and the “motion” of that outstretched “punch,” a strong punch, full of aesthetic meaning:  powerful, dramatic, and visceral.  

I’ve been reading an interesting book recommended by my ophthalmologist, The Artist’s Eyes; Vision and the History of Art, written by two ophthalmologists, Michael F. Marmor and James G. Ravin.  In it, they begin with the eyes, where the process of seeing originates, and go on to investigate how the biology of sight has inspired and confounded the world’s most famous artists.

What I admire about this book is how humble both writers are in the presence of genius.  Of Matisse they write, “His devotion to color and form, independent of subject, led him intuitively to use physiological principles of color perception in new and unusual ways.  Understanding these principles gives us insight into some of his visual effects, and into the rationale for some of his color choices.   But it cannot explain why the specific combination of subject, form, and color in his paintings are so uniquely effective and compelling to us in the twenty-first century.  This is where art transcends science—and where we must acknowledge the hand of a master.” (p. 81)

Or, as Dr. Barnes said a long time ago, “We perceive only what we have learned to look for, both in life and in art.  The artist, whether in paint, words, or musical tones, has embodied an experience in his work, and to appreciate his painting or poem or symphony, we must reconstruct his experience, so far as we are able, in ourselves.” (The Art in Painting, pp.6-7).

This has less to do with eyesight and its limits and challenges, and more to do with perception, a whole other entity.  As Harry Sefarbi wrote, “You must investigate the traditions, and sharpen your perception.  Or you can’t play.” (The Clue to Klee, The Barnes Foundation Journal of the Art Department, Spring, 1972, p. 42.)

Sunday, July 31, 2016

Artist's Eyes

Degas said, “one sees as one wishes to see.”  

I thought of this today because my daughter visited me this past week, and we worked together in my studio as we had a few weeks ago.

This time she sat right next to me, and we uttered a running series of complaints, not really to each other, but just for their own sake: “I don’t like this,” she muttered, “this is not coming out the way I see it.”  “I ruined Sophia’s face,” I said, “it’s no longer her.” 

That sort of thing.

Once we stopped working, my daughter said something I found intriguing: “why doesn’t my hand do what my eyes are seeing?” 

Bewildered, I asked her to explain what she meant.

She told me she had in her head exactly what she wanted to put on the paper with the colored pencils she was using, an orchid that her dad happily got to bloom.  She saw clearly how she would make her picture using it as her subject.  But she felt as if her hand had a mind of its own, and her hand did not do what she saw at all.  

Now this sounds weird, doesn’t it?

In my case, since I learned to see color 45 years ago via a series of difficult and painful lessons taught by my mentor Edward L. Loper, Sr., I subject any subject to careful scrutiny and feel like I am “copying” exactly what is in front of me.  It is only when the painting is finished I can see what I really did, how many changes I made in the subject, and why.  But I have never felt that what I was doing had no connection to what I was seeing.

First, look at a photo of my daughter’s sunflower subject and then at her colored pencil picture:


When I first looked at what she had made, I told her that her picture had more color than van Gogh’s sunflower pictures.  She did not believe me, so I showed her every van Gogh picture with sunflowers as the subject, and she finally agreed. 

Here is one of the most colorful van Gogh paintings using sunflowers:

Sunflowers, 1887, Rijksmuseum

Here are the photos of my daughter’s orchid subject and her picture:

She knew she had moved the “leaves” from the right to the left to balance her drawing.  What she complained about was that she had in her head a simple, light-dark rendition of the orchids, something like Georgia O’Keeffe’s An Orchid, at MoMA, or Matisse’s Flower Piece, at the Barnes Foundation, with its vivid, rich dramatic color.

Here they are:
 O’Keeffe, An Orchid, 1941, Pastel on paper mounted on board, MoMA

Matisse, Flower Piece, 1906-07, Oil on canvas, Barnes

Why, she wanted to know, did my hands keep making those vivid colored lines when I wanted to be making smooth, soft, purples and whites for the flowers and light and dark large green areas of color for the leaves?  

Why indeed?

We speculated it might have something to do with growing up as my child and learning to draw and paint before she was 2 years old and being “dragged” (her word) to museums and art shows all the time.  In fact, when she was a teenager, she told me that my taking her to all those museums was a form of child abuse.  Still, she applied for, and was accepted into, Violette de Mazia’s course at the Barnes Foundation when she was a senior in high school.  Her high school granted her an early dismissal on Tuesdays, and she drove herself from Wilmington to Merion and back through rain and snow to attend the 1–4 pm class.

My theory is that all the work she saw at the Barnes Foundation, and in all the museums I dragged her to, are stored in her brain along with how to look for color that I was learning from Ed Loper and teaching to her and to all her friends who attended my classes.  When she works now, no matter what she thinks she wants to do, something else takes over and that something else we call the traditions of art. 

For example, here is a Vlaminck painting which illustrates the kind of vivid, saturated, powerful color bands she used in her pictures:

Vlaminck, Houses at Chatou, 1905-06, Oil on canvas, Chicago, The Art Institute

A celebration of instinct better explains my daughter’s odd brain/hand conflict.  Her hand knows something important, as Maurice Denis declared in 1890: “Remember that a painting before becoming a favorite theme, a nude or a specific anecdote, is just a flat surface covered with colors assembled in a certain order.”  

Looks like I am arguing that the brain/hand disconnect is not so unusual after all.  The writer E.L. Doctorow said, “One of the things I had to learn as a writer was to trust the act of writing. To put myself in the position of writing to find out what I was writing…. The inventions of the book come as discoveries. At a certain point, of course, you figure out what your premises are and what you’re doing. But certainly, with the beginnings of the work, you really don’t know what’s going to happen.”  

Trusting in the act of creating art is what we do when we turn off the noise in our mind and let our interest, training, and knowledge of what other artists have shown us is possible guide us through the process.  At the end, then, even the maker of the work is surprised.