Friday, April 10, 2015

To Be or Not to Be Cantankerous

This semester I am teaching the traditions in art at the Osher Lifelong Learning Institute (OLLI) in Wilmington, Delaware.  I recommended my students purchase Dr. Barnes’ book, The Art in Painting, especially if they had not previously enrolled in Color Scene Investigations for Art Detectives, my introductory class to the objective method.

Complaints began immediately.  

“It’s impenetrable,” one said.

“Impossible to decipher,” said another.

Over my head, too dense, too argumentative, too nasty were some others.

I suggested they read it after the course ended, as I did, when I studied at the Barnes Foundation in the late 1970’s.  I told them I not only thought Barnes’ book was difficult, I found Dewey’s Art as Experience impossible to read when I started the classes, but no problem at all when I completed them.  I had little background in art when I enrolled in the Barnes class.  I could not follow the references to paintings I had never seen and were not reproduced in the book.

Remember Thoreau’s words in Walden, I helpfully advised my students:  “It is not all books that are as dull as their readers.”

They did not find that helpful at all.

Neil Rudenstine, in his recent book The House of Barnes, further eroded my case.  He wrote, “Barnes’ theories have long passed into virtual oblivion, and it is a rare day when anyone consults his publications.” (p. 21)

Undaunted, in this post, I will once again make my case for reading Dr. Barnes’ and Violette de Mazia’s books and essays to appreciate the art in painting. 

Let’s start there: the art in painting.  Dr. Barnes very clearly defined his interest: Not the history of art; not the world of art; not art; not the philosophy of art.  The art in painting.  Yes, he did argue theories.  He did his homework of past and current theories about art, and he rejected those he could not apply to his interest.  

When I teach the objective method to children, I tell them to read what is on the flat surface called a picture.  And what is on the flat surface called a picture are color, line, light, and space, arranged in a certain way, and expressive of certain qualities. Not trees. Not figures. Not apples.  In other words, since the medium of painting is color, I teach them the language of color.  A six year old can apply the method more easily than an adult, perhaps because a child has not yet been exposed to the headphones, the wall charts, or the guides in museums telling the stories represented in the pictures (See Learning to See).  

For example, when I showed a group of six-to-ten year old children this painting by Vermeer, it only took a few seconds for one of them, a six year old, to grasp the picture’s key idea:
Vermeer, View of Delft, c. 1660-61, Mauritshuis, The Hague

She said, “Everything first goes across the picture, and then some little shapes go up into those bands.”  (Click here to read the entire post: Dr. Barnes’ Vermeer)

If you read Dr. Barnes analysis of this painting in The Art in Painting, he verifies my student’s perception.  He wrote this about pattern in the picture: “A series of horizontal irregular broad bands, counterbalanced by smaller vertical units, map out the general framework.” (p. 452)

He goes on to say horizontal elements extend across the picture.  Starting at the top, a band of darker clouds and two bands of lighter clouds alternates with strips of blue.  The area of buildings-and-trees follows.  The canal and the reflections in it join the triangular bank in the foreground.

The clouds, my children noticed, puff and curl across the sky, and move back in space. The row of buildings-and-trees moves in and out. The gables, steeples, and towers have much the same “up-ness” (their word) as the people and posts in the foreground.  The reflections in the water carry this vertical pattern to the area of the canal.

The horizontal bands each contrasts with a subsequent band: the gray-white sky sets off the darker, more solid and compact blue-red-green shapes in the center.  These, in turn, contrast with the gray-brown water.  And the water contrasts with the tan-yellow bank in the foreground. 

What intrigued my students the most was the “bubbles” or, as Dr. Barnes calls them, “the internal pattern of light within each color-area, sometimes amounting to a series of superposed spots, rather than a change of hue.” 

Contrast of light and dark is the essential characteristic of this landscape as it is in the Dutch tradition.  You see this easily in the contrasting bands, but you need to look more closely to see the remarkable internal pattern in each area.

I repeat this story because it is one of major reasons I am so adamant about the value of The Art in Painting.  Dr. Barnes may be cantankerous, argumentative, and wordy, but no one surpasses him in seeing and describing the art in paintings.  Violette de Mazia is his only equal, and in her 50 years of teaching after his death, she recorded her perceptions in the Journal of the Barnes Foundation and Vistas. 

Does this mean what they say about individual paintings is all there is to say? 

Not at all. 

We each will, using objectively verifiable language, perceive what we, at our level of ability, can see.  Years later we may see more, or differently.  When I attended Penn State as a 22-year-old graduate student majoring in English literature, my professor tried valiantly to get my class interested in a passage in Ulysses by James Joyce.  We could not understand it, nor did we care.  He finally said, “Read it again when you are 40.”  And when I did, it made sense.  Life experience helps. 

Dr. Barnes understood this, so it is unfair to complain, as Leo Stein did, that Barnes’ “scale of values points very clearly in the direction of his own interest” but it would be “a great mistake on the part of any student to direct his effort towards a similar vision” because Barnes’ evaluations have “no validity” except in relation to his own experience. (See Leo Stein, “The Art in Painting,” The New Republic, December 2, 1925, pp. 56-57)

Dr. Barnes knew this.  In the January 1926, Preface to the First Edition, he wrote, “It is not presumed that the conclusions reached with regard to particular paintings are the only ones compatible with the use of the method: any one of them is of course subject to revision.  What is claimed is that the method gives results as objective as possible within any field of aesthetic experience and that it reduces to a minimum the role of merely personal and arbitrary preference. Preference will always remain, but its existence is consistent with a much higher degree of objective judgment than at present prevails.”

I agree.

Furthermore, in my preparation for my classes on the Venetian Tradition, I came across what Dr. Barnes wrote about Titan’s The Pastoral Concert.

Here it is:

Titian, The Pastoral Concert, 1508-09, oil-canvas, Louvre

Dr. Barnes wrote (drum rolls please) this is “one of the greatest achievements in the history of painting.” (p. 422)

Does this sound like something Dr. Barnes would say? 

He goes on to laud the colorful space, the rhythms of color, line, space, mass, and light, and the mellow, warm, all-pervasive golden glow that participates in the fluidity of all these rhythmic relationships. 

The composition, he says, is one of color masses gracefully set and moving in colorful space.

“The charming Arcadian quality, the power, majesty, peace, splendor, and deep mysticism conveyed, are legitimate values because the attendant emotions are rationally anchored in the objective features of the picture,” he concludes.

I saw this analysis for the first time last week, and I laughed because I did not expect it. 

And it is this surprise that, for me at least, brushes away most of the criticism of Dr. Barnes’ achievement.

He was human, not perfect. 

He pioneered an objective method that could reveal the art in painting. Violette de Mazia developed his findings, formalized them, and continued his work, as did Angelo Pinto, Harry Sefarbi, and Barton Church, the Violette de Mazia Foundation and all its teachers, and many others who have had their lives enriched by Dr. Barnes’ experiment.   

Wednesday, January 28, 2015

The Hobgoblin of Little Minds

“A foolish consistency is the hobgoblin of little minds,” Ralph Waldo Emerson said.

This statement reassured me as I began to write this post.

Here’s why.

I read a review in the January 25, 2015 Sunday News Journal of Jamie Wyeth’s retrospective exhibit I first saw at the Museum of Fine Arts, Boston, in December, and then recently visited again at the Brandywine River Museum.

In the review, Betsy Price quoted Wyeth saying several things: (1) “He doesn’t enjoy the shows. When he walks through, he says, ‘All the inadequacies jump out at me;’” (2) “He is aware his work is ‘scattered’ stylistically and thematically, ‘almost like a group show;’” (3) “My work is all over the place,…I don’t know if that is a good thing,” Wyeth told her. (p. F3)

I liked him. How could I not. He said what I thought.

I attended the exhibit at the MFA accompanied by my 4-year-old granddaughter. She enjoyed the “flying” pumpkins, her description of the painting The Headlands of Monhegan Island, Maine:

Jamie Wyeth, The Headlands of Monhegan Island, Maine, 2007, Oil on canvas, 40 x 60 inches. Wyeth Collection, ©Jamie Wyeth

She also enjoyed his paintings of animals and birds.

I felt less impressed.

After my MFA visit, I agreed with the review by Sebastian Smee published in the Boston Globe: Wyeth, who has just turned 68, can paint. He can draw. He has lived an interesting and impressive life. But what’s missing from this show, which covers six decades and is made up of more than 100 oils, watercolors, drawings, and even a couple of humorous tableaux vivant, is a sense that it all adds up to something original — something that goes beyond the frisson of family gossip, the sentimentality of a compelling life story, or the romance of a storied place.  Too often, in place of the deep-down conviction that marks out exceptional artists, Wyeth gives us an awkward amalgam of capability and whim. It’s not quite enough.” (July 17, 2014)

I said this, one way or another, to anyone who asked me what I thought.

However, when I visited the exhibit again in Chadds Ford, I felt surprisingly confused and captivated at the same time.  Something about some of the paintings’ qualities of distorted space, drama, power, and luminosity attracted me.  Then one painting grabbed me like a leech and would not let go.

That painting, Sloth, one of the Seven Deadly Sins series, haunted me, and I knew I had to figure out why.

Here it is:

Jamie Wyeth, Sloth (The Seven Deadly Sins), 2008, Oil on canvas, Wyeth Collection, ©Jamie Wyeth

At this point, I ignored the “title.”  I stopped thinking about everything I had already read.  The time had come for me to start seeing for myself whether there was art in this picture, and if so, describe it.  If I changed my mind about Wyeth’s work, so be it. 

Memory kicked in, and Titian’s The Assumption of the Virgin popped up.

This is it:

          Titian, Assumption of the Virgin, 1516-18, Basilica di Santa Maria Gloriosa dei Frari, Venice

According to Dr. Barnes, this painting “illustrates a successful solution, on a large scale, of complex plastic problems.” (The Art in Painting, p. 429)

Notice, Dr. Barnes is talking about the solution of plastic problems.  Yes, the painting illustrates the assumption of the Virgin into Heaven.  It does so, to go back to basics, orchestrating light, line, color, and space on a flat surface.

In Titian’s painting, Dr. Barnes argues, “The framework of the composition consists in a grouping of figures at three different levels.  Each group greatly varies from the others in number and character of the masses, in degree and kind of drama, in compositional form of organization, and in pattern, color, light, and line.  These greatly varied elements, which give a distinctive identity to each group, are rhythmically related to each other with the result that a continuous and powerful upward rhythm of plastic units casts a bridge between the separate groups and integrates the entire design.”

I saw connections to Wyeth’s painting.

In Sloth, the bright, white color unit in the foreground plane establishes a soft but solid massive base behind which horizontal rippling bands of black, tan, beige, green, and light blue, recede in space while also ascend vertically.

Here is a cropped enlargement of that section:

Notice the repetition of arc-shaped lines that both describe “feathers” and continue the rhythmic theme.  Notice the two luminous red “bubbles” under the “bird’s” beak, and their repetitions along the painting’s edge. Notice the richness of the blacks behind the foreground unit and the contrast of those blacks with the stunning lightness of the whites, greens, and golds defining the “bird.” Notice the thick, arc-shaped black band pressed to the “bird’s chest,” the wide, diagonal, black band projecting forward under his “chest,” and the wedge-shaped black unit book ended to the “bird’s bottom”—essentially stabilizing the entire color unit.  Notice the flickering, eerie light on the edges of the “bird’s feathers.”  Notice the crenelated edges of those lighter “feathers.” 

Floating above this foreground color volume and the rippling bands, a semi-circular cradle holds a series of overlapping, vertically surging in-and-out movements of arabesque volumes that rhythmically ascend to the top of the composition while, at the same time, recede into space.

Here is a cropped enlargement of that section:

“Wings” set up a series of repetitions of dark-black and light-white arabesques with crenelated edges moving back and front as they also recede into deep space. On the left, right, and center, nestled in the crowded recesses of the “birds’ heads,” orange, pink, tan, and green jagged linear ribbons hang in space. The linear ribbons on the right are further back in space than those in the center or on the left. Jutting out on the left, a shiny, fleshy, solid “leg” hangs in space consolidating the warm pinks, reds, browns, and tan curlicue lines into an angled volume.  This unit links the relatively serene lower section to the upward tangle of agitated movement above.

The entire composition ultimately does not feel claustrophobic because of the depth of space orchestrated.  Examine this detail at the top right of center:

This small area rhythmically repeats the theme of the picture: a drama of rich, glowing color volumes interacting in a series of arabesques moving upwards and in-and-out in deep, expansive space. 

Unlike the Titian, Wyeth’s picture contrasts immobility with movement, or sloth with energy.  Like the Titian with its numerous arms, legs, wings, bodies, heads, and clouds intertwined in all directions, the Wyeth color units also move backward and decidedly upward.   

Jamie Wyeth’s painting originates from his life experience as well as his prodigious skill and talent.  He knows sea gulls and coastal Maine.  He derives his subject facts from his acute perception of a landscape that speaks to him in the same way as Titian derived his subject facts from his acute perception of 16th century Venetian pomp, pageantry, and religious fervor.  In this painting, Wyeth demonstrates his ability to orchestrate one of the Seven Deadly Sins into a convincing plastic composition of drama, power, and movement.

I do not assume artist-illustrators lack “deep conviction,” as Smee declared in his Boston Globe review.  In this painting, Wyeth’s plastic ideas hark back to both Bosch and Brueghel.  Like Bosch, Wyeth sometimes portrays grotesque scenes, like the “birds” tearing apart and devouring a “human body” in the center of his composition, a subject fact less gruesome than many in Bosch’s Garden of Earthly Delights or in Brueghel’s The Fall of the Rebel Angels:

Hieronymus Bosch, Garden of Earthly Delights, c. 1604, Prado

Pieter Brueghel I, The Fall of the Rebel Angels, 1562, Musées royaux des beaux-arts de Belgique

Like those paintings, Wyeth’s dramatic, powerfully animated composition in which he uses sea gulls as subject facts to illustrate “sloth,” is as plastically legitimate as Bosch’s and Brueghel’s weird inventions, not because he does what they did, but because he orchestrates his actively moving color units into a well-integrated expressive design.  Combined with the remarkable luminosity of his unique color, he gives us something new.

“Something new” means we are appreciating the work of an artist. 

Viewers of works of art are not always consistent in their reactions to, or their judgments of, them.

Like artists, art appreciators learn and absorb new visual information, deepening and enriching their perceptions.  Based on their enhanced sensitivity, they modify their conclusions.  Ralph Waldo Emerson encouraged this bigness of mind, and I hope that is as motivating for you as it was for me.