Sunday, March 20, 2016

What's in a Face?

In The Art in Painting, Dr. Barnes wrote this about portraiture: “In Portrait-Painting, an artist is much more rigidly limited than in such fields as landscape or dramatic figure-composition, and he is compelled to get his effects with a minimum of means; consequently, his ability to use these means is severely tested.  His problems are: to  make the figure seem to live, to distinguish it clearly from the background, and to unify figure and background in a design which is itself esthetically moving, apart from physical resemblance to the sitter.” (p. 270)

Now, in 2016, almost 100 years since the 1925 publication of Dr. Barnes’ book, his definition seems antiquated. 

On March 17, The New York Times featured “A Nationwide Guide to Art Exhibitions This Spring”  by Judith H. Dobrzynski. One entry caught my eye:  This Is a Portrait If I Say So: Identity in American Art, 1912 to Today, June 25, 2016 - October 23, 2016, at the Bowdoin College Museum of Art.  

The exhibit, “the first exhibition to address the breadth and significance of the phenomenon of non-mimetic portraits in American art,” is said to pose “provocative questions about the very nature of likeness and personal identity.”

“This is a portrait if I say so,” I wanted to scream, is like saying “the earth is flat if I say so.” 

I had to take a deep deep breath.

You may remember my blog post of June 30, 2011 The Comb in the Museum.  I did not want to repeat either the points I made in that post or the fierce debate my post engendered in the class I was teaching at the time.  I am older now, and I meditate to elude reactivity.  I did not feel up to arguing the same points again.  

Finally, after I calmed down, I decided I did not need to be so upset.  Declaring something a “portrait” is not the same as declaring something a work of art.  Dr. Barnes admitted that Goya was the last great portrait painter.  After him, he argued, “portrait-painting” became “an aspect of the new traditions, and [presented] no special or distinctive forms.” (p. 277) 

For example, Marsden Hartley’s 1914 painting, Portrait of a German Officer, with its rugged brushwork and dramatic color, exemplifies Hartley’s assimilation of both Cubism and German Expressionism.  Assuming you read the title, the condensed mass of images (badges, flags, medals) evokes a “portrait” of the officer.  There are also specific references to Hartley’s close friend Karl von Freyburg, a young cavalry officer who had been killed in action: K.v.F. are his initials, 4 was his regiment number, and 24 his age.

Here is the painting:

Hartley, Portrait of a German Officer, 1914, Met

That said, we read the painting by applying the tools we have mastered: we see an orchestration of close-knit curvilinear and rectilinear patterns, light/dark contrasts of vivid reds and golds dramatically contrasted by black, and highly decorative bands, diamonds, squares, crosses, and circles.  The color units swirl, curl, and overlap while suspended in a black background of indeterminate space.  

Robert Rauschenberg, in 1961, sent his “portrait” of Iris Clert as a telegram.  It states, “This is a portrait of Iris Clert if I say so.”

 This Is a Portrait of Iris Clert If I Say So, 1961, Ink on paper with two paper envelopes, 17 1/2 x 13 5/8 inches (44.5 x 34.6 cm). The Ahrenberg Collection, Switzerland.

If you see art in this “portrait” or if it moves you aesthetically, please let me know.  I could describe its visual impact in a few words, but art is not one of them. 

The next image is a portrait by Eddie Loper Jr. using my husband as his subject.  If all I said about this painting was “this is a work of art because I say so,” you would be reading a very short post.  

Loper, Jr., Laughing Man, Oil on canvas, 2016
I will say this instead.

I titled the painting Laughing Man because, as soon as I saw it, I connected it with two paintings by Franz Hals: Laughing Boy and Laughing Boy with a Flute.
Laughing Boy, c. 1625, Mauritshuis  

Laughing Boy with a Flute,

c. 1627, Staatliches Museum

In Hals’ paintings, the “smiles” either delight or annoy, depending on your sensitivities.  What Eddie Jr. adapts, however, is the broad, loose, active brushwork, although applied in vivid, high-keyed color informed by the fauves and expressionist painters like Karel Appel.

For example, examine the following Appel painting Portrait of Willem Sandberg:

Portrait of Willem Sandberg, 1956, Karel Appel Foundation

The bright ruggedly applied colors of Appel’s portrait combined with its facial distortions make Eddie Jr’s painting look chalky and mainstream. 

Appel’s portrait moves the needle away from portrait painting revealing psychological insight and towards an imaginative creation of personal fantasy.  Appel said, “My paint tube is like a rocket which describes its own space.  I try to make the impossible possible.  What is happening I cannot foresee; it is a surprise.  Painting, like passion, is an emotion full of truth and rings with a living sound, like the roar coming from the lion’s breast.” (Quoted by Hugo Claus, Karel Appel, New York, 1962).

On the other hand, Eddie Jr., like Soutine, uses solid, variegated color laid on heavily with pulled dynamic, powerful strokes.  Like Soutine, the animation and motion are heightened by the variety and direction in which the color-strokes run. His color-palette in Laughing Man is closer to Soutine’s The Pastry Chef in the Barnes Foundation:

Soutine, The Pastry Chef, c. 1919, Barnes
Upside down, angularity predominates over circularity in Eddie’s portrait:

The “neck” pierces the chest like a dagger; the ovoid head bulges forward surrounded by a blackish/blue outline that pushes the horseshoe mound of “hair" back in space.  The “cheeks” adhere to the face like two slices of pizza.  With a nod to African sculpture, the almond-shaped “eyes” sink slightly behind the “cheeks” and “forehead” at the same time as they squint into a blackened horizontal band.  The shortened “nose” projects forward over the upper “lip” at the same time as it recedes backward between the “eyes.”  The “mouth” is encircled by an upper and lower dome-shaped projection that sets back the repeating tile-like pink and blue “teeth.” 
Upside down, the entire section of “upper lip,” “mouth,” and “chin," a series of repeating curves and in-and-out projections, exhibit a variegated color profusion of hot pinks, deep reds, icy blues, and luminous lavenders.  

Right side up, the entire “head” looms forward as the “neck” and flattened slant of the upper body recedes backward in space.

Neither as theatrical as the Hals’ portraits, nor as demonstrative of Hals’ technical skill, Eddie’s portrait presents his “face” as a striking and interesting dramatic pattern creating a harmony of rhythms.  

His painting educates my vision, and my analysis of it has been far more compelling, exciting, and informative for me (and, I hope, you) than if I said, “this is a work of art if I say so.”

How did we find out the earth is round?  No, I have not lost my mind.  I am ending with this question because, in 1972, Isaac Asimov wrote a book to answer it.

In it, he traces the history of how we answered this question beginning with ancient people (who suspected the earth went on forever as a huge flat piece of land and sea with no end at all) to 1961 when astronauts first went into orbit around the earth and, by 1969, other astronauts had reached the moon.  From outer space, they could look back on earth and see it as an object in space. They could see that it was round.  

Ancient people looked at the stars, the moon, and the sun and asked questions.  Little by little, curious people, including scholars and explorers, discovered new information.  That information led to new discoveries, and the answer, that the earth is round and not flat, became clear.  

Artists do this too.  In “Aesthetic Quality” by Violette de Mazia, she said: “The artist is a teacher; he calls in the whole world of neighbors, to whom he reveals by his created piece what he discovered of aesthetic interest in his adventures in perception, what he re-created of broad human value and which, unaided by the artist’s coherent expression, no one could see so well, so fully, so richly, so specifically, or, in fact, at all.” (The Barnes Foundation, Journal of the Art Department, Spring, 1971, Vol. II, No. 1, p. 13).

Pearl S. Buck did not write in the catalog preface to a 1943 exhibit held in the Bignou Gallery in New York, Ancient Chinese and Modern European Paintings, “This is art because I say so.”  

She wrote, “What are they saying to us in these pictures across the span of centuries of time and the thousands of miles of land and sea? They are saying that the ancient roots of man are the same; they are saying that western fruit can grow from eastern seed, that seed can be separated from fruit by generations and yet the process of life goes on between the two; they are saying that between man and man, in time and in space, there is the common hope, the common longing, for the spirit of man is the same everywhere and always.... All under heaven are brothers.” 

And Dr. Barnes and Violette de Mazia, in great detail, revealed the art.  

Monday, January 11, 2016

Isms, Traditions, and Invention

As promised in my previous post, “A Tap on the Door of Perception,” this post explores Eddie Loper Jr’s portrait of me and my portrait of my grandson and his cat. That said, do you find the title odd?

Since I soon will start teaching a course titled “Isms Explored” at the Osher Lifelong Learning Institute in Wilmington, this post will illuminate for me and, therefore, for you, how knowing the characteristics of “isms” and grasping visual ideas recorded in the traditions of art allow us to evaluate creativity, but in different ways.

Here is Eddie’s portrait of me along with the photograph that served as his subject. Since he has not yet settled on a title, I am calling it “Pink Eye,” because that tiny color unit to the right of the almond shaped “eye” sparks a clue to the painting’s aesthetic meaning.

Fauvism comes to mind, doesn’t it?  Every book on “Isms” I read describes the Fauves (“wild beasts” in French) as a group of painters who applied to their canvases intensely bright color in rough brushstrokes.  Their work tended toward flatness, non-natural color, and simplification.  Between the years of about 1898 and 1906, Fauvism caused shockwaves, and Louis Vauxcelles, a critic, gave the movement its name.  The independent Salon d’Automne in Paris presented a selection of works in this style in 1905 (including Henri Matisse, AndrĂ© Derain, Kees van Dongen, and Maurice de Vlaminck) alongside an Italianate bust.  Vauxcelles proclaimed the sculpture was like “Donatello parmi les fauves” (a Donatello among wild beasts).  

Here are a few examples of early Fauve work:

Maurice de Vlaminck, The Bar Counter, 1900, Musee Calvet, Avignon

Matisse, Woman with a Hat, 1905, San Francisco Museum of Modern Art

Kees van Dongen, Woman in a Green Hat, 1905, Fondation Socindec, Vaduz, Liechtenstein

Ernst Ludwig Kirchner, Nude, c. 1910, Baltimore Museum of Art

Georges Rouault, Clown, 1912, MoMA

Eddie’s painting clearly displays Fauvist influence. 

If that is all the painting displayed, I would argue it is merely Fauvism warmed over.  Violette de Mazia coined this phrase by describing a roasted turkey dinner, one you may have enjoyed during the past holiday season.  If you re-heated the leftovers, you would get “warmed over” turkey.  But perhaps, like me, you made turkey frame soup by first simmering the entire turkey carcass as well as all the leftover meat and bones in a big pot of water, adding vegetables, or rice, or noodles along with your own special seasonings.  If you did that, you made something new.

Eddie has done that.

We practitioners of the objective method know what comes next.  We examine the painting by looking for the artist’s use of his plastic means: light, line, color, space, subject, and tradition.  Only then can we ascertain creativity.

Turning the painting upside down provides the easiest way to begin because it allows us to focus on what is there: colors on a flat surface.

Remember I said the pink triangular sliver centered slightly below the middle of the painting (now to the left) is a clue.  Notice how it recedes as the right side of the “face” and “eye” bulge forward. Notice the teardrop shape of both sections as the color marks of the lower “face” build a convincing three-dimensional unit.  

The “nose,” looking like a twisted pipe, juts outward to the right while the color area of upper lip, mouth, and chin puff forward accentuating the volume that says “face.”

If you follow the pink of the “sclera” (what was the white of the eye), the rhythmic beat becomes insistent: pink outlines the “eyes,” the “nose,” and the upper “lip.” A darker line of pink/red moves from the lower left of the mouth, circles the “pink eye,” culminates at the “hairline,” then softens to light pink spots in the “hair.”  

The “hair” encases the head in a soft, three-dimensional, pillow-like mound, its color marks lighter than the colors of the “face,” setting up a dramatic interplay of light/dark motifs.  

The warm facial colors contrast with cool upper body colors, the “turtleneck sweater” another sloping triangular color unit, all of which contrast with light color washes in the gridded background, gentle echoes of the foreground unit. 

Some of this is borrowed from Soutine, an artist the “Ism” writers have a tough time placing.  In …isms, Understanding Art, Stephen Little places him in Modernism, a broad movement encompassing all the avant-garde isms of the first half of the 20th century.  Sam Phillips, in a companion book, places Soutine in the “School of Paris,” a broad term used to describe the international community of artists working in the city between the world wars, and of Soutine, Chagall, and Modigliani, they are, he says, “perhaps the closest the School of Paris has to defining artworks.” 

The following Soutine painting, Self Portrait with Beard, illustrates Eddie’s adaptation of Soutine’s solid, deep, rich, juicy, and variegated color. In Eddie’s hands, color is lighter, softer, and drier. According to Dr. Barnes, in work by Soutine “everywhere there is animation, motion, heightened by variety in the direction in which the color-strokes run.”  (The Art in Painting, p. 374). Eddie’s color-strokes, however, run in a more subtle, in and out, back and forth, motion in deeper space. 

1917, Private Collection

I said I would explore Eddie’s painting and my painting.  However, I am still finishing my painting, while Eddie has moved on to about 14 other paintings.

Below is my painting “almost” completed. To its right is the photo I am using as my subject.

          Bauman, A Boy and His Cat, 2016?
I do not know where my work fits from the standpoint of the “isms.”  I would place it within Realism, if such a category existed, but it doesn’t.  In some books, the School of London defines painters who ignored the prevalent trends of Modernism by pursuing figurative expressionism. 

My picture has a strong illustrative aspect with a decorative appeal because of the vivid, repeating patterns in the “rug” and “floor.”  The colors are vivid, rich, and bright.  The dramatic, tilted perspective nods toward Cubism because of its shifting viewpoints, but it is Cubism without the angular shapes or subdued colors.  

Upside down, all this is easier to see:
The foreshortening of the body does not look so distorted right side up. Inverted, the painting looks weird.  Now the large head compared to the short arm, the crinkly outline of the cheek, the knobby knee, the angles of the table, the patterns on the rug and floor, look bizarre.

Soutine does come to mind again, doesn’t he?

Particularly, this painting:

Soutine, Woman Asleep over a Book, c. 1937, Madeleine Castaing, Paris

According to Mme. Castaing, the figure is vertical, reading with her head leaning back against the arm of a chair or sofa (Soutine, Catalogue Raisonné, p. 760).

If I invert the Soutine, this is how it looks:

To see the visual ideas I adapted from Soutine, I cropped my picture and placed it next to the inverted Soutine:

The inverted Soutine painting dramatically presents a figure in a similar pose, but the color strokes, unctuous, pulled, pushed, overlapping, and glowing, are set in a darkened amorphous space.  
In my picture, the color strokes, chiseled, banded, and pastel-like build a looming “head” that tilts upward and pushes forward in space.

If you look at the rendering of the “arm” in both paintings, Soutine’s bulges, a solid, rounded volume like that of a summer squash, while my “arm,” defined via a series of rectilinear color units, flattens, a plank-like, hard volume like that of a piece of wood.

Examine my inverted painting again:

Start at the edge of the right side of the face (now to the left). Look at the ripple.  Now look at the color marks of the red “shirt”; the stripe on the dark blue “shorts”; the “cat’s tail”; the curl in the “boy’s hair”; the patterns in the “rug”; the curves of the overlapping “legs.”  Look at the space recession between the figure and the floor and the “cat” and the table.  Look at the contrast of large curved units like the back of the shirt and the shorts of the “boy” and the large angular units like the legs and top of the table to the left. 

Then look at my painting again, right side up:

The floorboards on top slant right as do the linear patterns in the rug.  The table leg on the right side of the painting echoes that slant. The top edge of the table, slanting in the opposite direction, establishes the key spatial drama, setting figure and cat lower in space, and counterbalancing the “boy’s head,” a large, brightly colored, solidly ovoid, projecting mass.  All of which says “this boy,” “this cat,” on this “floor,” in this “room.”

Now I need to finish it. You may be wondering how I know when I am finished. I stop when I can’t find anything that bothers me.

Julian Barnes (no relation to Albert Barnes) writes in his soon to be released new book Keeping an Eye Open: Essays on Art, “…in all the arts there are usually two things going on at the same time: the desire to make it new, and a continuing conversation with the past.  All the great innovators look to previous innovators, to the ones who gave them permission to go and do otherwise, and painted homages to predecessors are a frequent trope.”  Julian may not be related to Albert, but he thinks like him.  

If you want to explore more of Edward Loper, Jr.’s work, please visit his current exhibit Color-Line-Structure at the Siegel JCC ArtSpace, 101 Garden of Eden Road, Wilmington, DE 19803, through February 2016.  Or you can visit his website: