Friday, March 7, 2014
This week I dug out my high school yearbook to try to find the name of a girl included in a photo I emailed to my Bronx friends (six women who have shared life’s journey with me since we went to school and played together as children). We have been on a weeklong trip down memory lane, initiated by an essay in The New Yorker by Roger Angell on aging (if you want to read it, click here: The New Yorker). Angell’s essay sparked all sorts of stories, schools we attended, teachers we loved, or hated, sports we played, etc.
As I sat on the floor of my cold basement and looked through the yearbook scanning all the individual photos, my eye spotted a “flourish” of handwriting on the upper right corner of a group photo titled Service League. I was in the photo, but it was the handwritten note that attracted my attention.
I thought, “That’s my father’s handwriting.”
It reads: “To my loving daughter Marilynn,” (definitely his spelling of my name, with two n’s)
“May your future be as bright and sunny as the day you looked on graduation, my honey. Love, Daddy.”
I never read this message before this week, and I have no idea when my father wrote it.
I sat there, yearbook in lap, crying.
On the same day when my husband was flying to Colorado to visit his 98-year-old father who is recuperating from surgery, I read a note from my father that survived 56 years, buried in a dusty high school yearbook packed in a trunk. My father wrote the note when he was 48 years old. He died ten years later.
I felt his loss as if it just happened. His love reached my heart long after my high school graduation celebration and found its way to me as if by magic. My reaction reaffirms what Pearl S. Buck wrote in 1943: “Life is a process of the spirit and not of the body…we are more than can be expressed in concrete shapes of solid flesh and chemical material.”
In art, she said, this means “painters and musicians and writers and all those who have, by chance of birth, been given the tools of talent to express for others the truth that all must feel if we are to have a better world—that truth put into words so long ago by a Chinese when he said, ‘All under heaven are brothers.’” (in Ancient Chinese and Modern European Paintings, Bignou Gallery, New York, May-June 1943, n.p.)
We get “Messages” that provide consolation and information—if we read them.
You may be rightly wondering where I am going in this post.
This past fall, The Phillips Collection exhibited “Van Gogh Repetitions,” bringing together 13 instances in which van Gogh made more than one version of a work—and often multiple versions. In the show’s catalog, a team of scholars and conservators, led by William Robinson and Eliza Rathbone, assemble and analyze documents that are clues to when van Gogh made a copy. Using new technical evidence, such as X-rays and high-resolution digital imagery, they resolve questions about the sequence of the works.
I visited the exhibit and devoured the details in the catalog. What impressed me the most, however, is this statement by Mr. Robinson: “You have to really concentrate. But when you compare van Gogh’s different versions of a design stroke by stroke, you start to relive his creative decisions. It’s a strangely mystical experience.” (“Seeing Double: Van Gogh the Tweaker,” The New York Times, 10.6.13, ar 21).
“It’s a strangely mystical experience,” says Mr. Robinson.
I hope you get to know it.
Below, I have selected two paintings from the exhibit, and I ask you to compare and contrast them: The Large Plane Trees, November-December 1889, The Cleveland Museum of Art; The Road Menders, November-December 1889, The Phillips Collection.
The catalog provides the following information:
Toward the end of the year, van Gogh painted two nearly identical views of men repairing the main boulevard running through the center of Saint-Rémy. On December 7, 1889, he wrote to his brother Theo, “The last study I have done is a view of the village where they were working under enormous plane trees—repairing the pavement. So there are heaps of sand, stones and gigantic trunks—the leaves yellowing. Almost a month later, on January 3, 1890, van Gogh told Theo that he now had two versions of this subject, identified as “The Large Plane Trees—the chief street or boulevard of Saint-Rémy, élude d’après nature—I [also] have une répétition of it that is perhaps more finished. (Van Gogh Repetitions, p. 141)
The conclusion: “While the transfer method remains mysterious, ample evidence points towards Cleveland’s Large Plane Trees as the study from nature and the Phillip’s Road Menders as the studio repetition.” (p. 146)
Here are the paintings:
To make this analysis even more interesting, below is a photograph of the subject taken many years after van Gogh used it for his painting:
The Boulevard Mirabeau 1950s, photograph by Marc Edo Tralbaut, Rijksmuseum
I invite you to examine the paintings and state the design (theme, picture idea, visual clue) in each of them.
To get to this point, examine them upside down, and look for:
1. Each change in size, shape, light, color, line, and space in every color unit in each picture
2. The overall impact of the total ensemble of each picture
3. The changes in each figure or groups of figures
4. The changes in the rocks
5. The changes in the windows
Here they are upside down:
The Large Plane Trees (inverted), Cleveland
The Road Menders (inverted), Phillips
If you “get” the messages, let me know your reactions to them. Either respond directly on this post or send me an email: Marilyn’s email. I will summarize and discuss your responses in the next post.
Friday, February 14, 2014
When David Hockney’s exhibit opened this past fall at the de Young, a fine arts museum located in San Francisco's Golden Gate Park, I discovered it included 150 iPad images.
Now this intrigued me.
I reluctantly joined the 21st century when, three years ago, my grandchildren gave me an iPhone for my 70th birthday. They also helped me learn how to use it. This past December, I purchased an iPad Air, and I am still trying to figure out how to use Brushes, the app Hockney uses to make his pictures. No doubt, I will need to schedule a session with my 10-year-old granddaughter to learn how to do so.
Apparently, artists, illustrators, and graphic designers are snapping up other programs like Touch Sketch, StetchBook Mobile and Bamboo Paper.
Binghamton University Art Historian Kevin Hatch said the art world took a digital turn about 25 years ago, as the Internet gained popularity, but he cautioned there are some drawbacks to the shift to tablet art: “A certain, almost magical quality of oil paint, a tactile, tangible substance, is lost when a painting becomes, at heart, a piece of code, a set of invisible 1’s and 0’s.” (quoted in the Huffington Post, 10.28.2013)
Last month, I read a review of “Tim’s Vermeer,” a documentary in which Tim Jenison “discovers” whether Johannes Vermeer (1632-75) used optical tools when he created his paintings.
Manohla Dargis, the New York Times film reviewer, says the film seems to be asking, “though no one in the movie is so gauche to say it bluntly: Did Vermeer cheat his way into history?” (1.31.2014, p. C6)
Here is where we come in.
How do we determine creativity? How do we uncover aesthetic quality in a work of art? When Dr. Barnes evaluates the art in a painting, what does he say we must do?
Think about this.
To assist you, look at Vermeer’s View of Delft as you ponder this question:
Vermeer, View of Delft, c. 1660-61, Mauritshuis, The Hague
I asked you to look at this painting because it served as a turning point for me as I endeavored to use and teach the objective method.
In the 1980’s, I was teaching children to paint, and during the painting lessons I included about 20 minutes of art appreciation, primarily introducing them to the traditions of art. I wanted them to trust their perceptions and to express on canvas the meaning of their own visual experiences. I wanted to nurture creativeness, not teach them a skill or a technique. I decided to build a background of knowledge so they could have it at their disposal for personal use when they needed it instead of seeking it only after they had reached an impasse.
When I began to attempt to teach the traditions of art, my grasp of the ideas did prove to be far less than secure. Because of this, I unwittingly strayed back to the old, the easy way, the well-beaten path taken by nearly all art historians and art critics—a crowded path, smoothly paved and abundantly supplied with markers. Its most seductive characteristic: it caters to our native curiosity without requiring on our part any great exertion of intellect or imagination.
When I prepared my lesson on Vermeer and the Dutch tradition, I found myself fascinated by the book, Jan Vermeer, by Arthur K. Wheelock, Jr. (Harry M. Abrams, Inc., New York, 1981). I read of Jan Steen that “by 1654 he had already established himself as a genre painter in the tradition of Adriaen Van Ostade, but as one with an unusually rich sense of humor,” a feature that, according to the author, distinguished Steen’s painting from that of Vermeer (p. 21).
I also became obsessed with symbolism, iconography, and pictorial devices.
Light, line, color, and space went out the window.
When I finished my fact-filled talk on subject, camera obscura and Vermeer’s use of it, along with Hans van Meegeren forgeries of Vermeer’s work, I used up my 20 minutes.
After that, I pulled myself together.
I realized I had taken the road most traveled. I knew I had to do just what Dr. Barnes had done before me: use objective analysis to do some painstaking looking, classifying, organizing, studying, and looking some more, until I discovered verifiable principles. This takes time and effort, and that is the reason for which the other, the easy, the trouble-less, ways are so seductive. Yes, Vermeer spoke in the idiom of his time when he used mirrors, clavichords, and maps as his subjects or used the camera obscura to study optical images and effects. But the question is not what he used. Rather it is what he did with what he used that made it new and different and his. Instead of “Beauty is as beauty does,” I would say, “Influence is as influence does and is done unto and with.” And that includes technological influences.
I had resilient young students, and when I showed them View of Delft and asked them to tell me about the patterns, the color, the light, the drawing, the space composition and nothing else, they sat dumbstruck for a few minutes. Then, a six-year-old replied, “Everything first goes across the picture, and then some little shapes go up into those bands.”
That’s what I call a breakthrough!
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.
Look at the following detail on the far right:
This is hard to see in a digital image, but the central golden rectilinear band on the far right is flooded with light while rich red and brown spots function as dark; above it, the ivory wall subtly modulated with bright red is light. In the adjacent section of this wall, right above it, the relation of dark to light is reversed; the ivory strip is at the top and the brownish section is below. In the sun-lit area of the ground, its ivory tone tinged with red and blue, creates a note of contrast with the adjacent area below it which is modulated with grayish blueish-green. In the section of buildings to the left of the boats, the wall and turret function as the dark element in contrast to the sunlit, modulated, yellow-and-red roof directly behind it.
The figures, posts, docked small boats, and orange-red ground all continue the dark-light, rhythmic motifs in a vertical format. They exemplify the space-composition seen in the entire picture. The space-distribution of masses in the row of buildings-and-trees is a succession of variedly shaped, colored, and illuminated gables, walls, towers, chimneys, set at intervals which also vary in expanse, depth, and color and light.
Dr. Barnes concludes by saying, “The plastic organization of the subject-matter is one of colorful units that recede in deep space and attain a degree of three-dimensionality commensurate with the exquisite character of the painting as a whole….The picture is, indeed, Holland itself, and its form embodies a creative use of traditional features and represents Vermeer and the Dutch tradition in their highest estate.” (TAiP, p. 455)
If you own The Art in Painting, please read Dr. Barnes’ analysis of this painting with a high quality image on your screen. Better yet, go to the Mauritshuis to see it. It will be worth the trip.
I do not generally quote and paraphrase Dr. Barnes in such detail, but it was just his analysis of View of Delft that reinforced my commitment to this method. With his help, I could guide my students to experience the art in this picture. It restored my faith in the method.
I will end where I began. In the review of the film, “Tim’s Vermeer,” Manohla Dargis says, “you learn a little about art and a great deal about the familiar impulse to tame art and drain it of its mystery and power.”
At the beginning of the film, she writes, “Mr. Jillette, a jovial presence, says in voice over that the ‘magical quality’ in Vermeer’s work has mystified many, partly because X-rays show no sketches under the paintings.”
Jillette argues: “It’s as if Vermeer were some unfathomable genius who could just walk up to a canvas and magically paint with light.”
Magic has nothing to do with it, does it? Dr. Barnes writes that Vermeer had a particular background, a set of interests, certain habits of perception, and extraordinary skill. He was able to apply the traditional Dutch contrast-motif to new themes. He developed those themes into a distinctive and individual Vermeer form and, in View of Delft, he reached the highest range of art chiefly through consummate use of color. (TAinP, p. 227)
My former young painting students and my grandchildren would not call this magic; they would call it “awesome.”
For practice in evaluating the influence of technology on works of art, I ask you to consider the following two images. The first is by Goya; the second is by Yinka Shonibare, MBE, and his work is currently on exhibit at the Barnes Foundation. If you send me your reactions, I will include them in the next post. Just click here: Marilyn’s email.
|Goya, The Sleep of Reason Produces Monsters, 1799, Etching and aquatint on wove paper, Met|
Yinka Shonibare, MBE, The Sleep of Reason Produces Monsters (Asia), 2008, c-print mounted on aluminum, James Cohan Gallery Art
Thursday, January 23, 2014
I ended my previous post (Young Mother, Cont’d) telling you I went to the Frick Collection with my husband, my grandson, and his dad to see “Vermeer, Rembrandt, and Hals: Masterpieces of Dutch Painting From Mauritshuis”
Here’s how it happened.
What I thought would be an uncomplicated task to purchase timed tickets, turned out to be quite complicated.
A week before the exhibit was to close and the paintings sent back to The Hague, I went to the Frick website and discovered it was sold out. As I sat glumly looking at the computer screen, I noticed information about memberships. If I purchased a membership, it would permit me to enter any exhibit at any time, immediately, even the one currently sold out. I’d also be able to stand on a shorter, priority line just for members, much as first class ticket holders avoid coach class lines at airports.
According to The New York Times, normally the Frick logs about three new members a day. In the first six weeks of the show, the Frick signed up around 100 new members a day, and during the last few weeks, that number tripled.
Since I needed four tickets, I had to join at the Contributing Friends level, a cost of $250. Then I had to purchase Amtrak tickets, also higher priced than usual because our trip was 5 days away and a holiday weekend. All told, I’d end up spending $600, and that didn’t even include the price of lunch. My husband said I was nuts (really, he did). I told him we had to get our grandson to this exhibit. I wanted to be the one who showed him these paintings (yes, ego was involved). My strongest argument: it was still cheaper than taking him to The Hague to see the same paintings. He laughed at that.
This past Sunday we left Wilmington at 7:55 am and arrived in New York about 9:40. As we walked up 70th Street, we spied the end of the already lengthy Members’ line—about mid-block from the entrance. Once we lined up, I noticed the “other” line, the one for ticket holders, snaking to the left of the entrance, turning the corner on 5th Avenue, and continuing all the way to 71st Street, where a short time later it turned that corner and continued. Soon the Frick guards started a third line adjacent to the Members’ line: this one for those who did not have tickets, nor were members, but would be purchasing memberships at the door.
My grandson and his dad joined us soon after we arrived, and we waited.
I tell you this because it illustrates the theme of this post: when genuine interest burns in us, we move heaven and earth to achieve our goal. And I was on fire.
Those waiting in line quickly became friends rapt in conversation about our last-minute decision to see the exhibit; several near us, including my son-in-law, walked a few blocks to buy coffee. At 11 am, the guard let all the members in. After us, I heard him say, he would admit the “members to be” and then the ticket holders.
Once inside, viewers surrounded the key paintings. They were generous and kind. The mass of people in front of Girl with a Pearl Earring parted like the Red Sea, shepherding my grandson to the front. That’s when I started whispering in his ear.
Here is Girl with a Pearl Earring:
Vermeer, Girl with a Pearl Earring, c. 1665, Royal Picture Gallery Mauritshuis
“What do you see first?” I asked.
“The earring,” he replied.
“Why do you think that is?
“Because it has the spot of white.”
“Where is it in space?”
“Behind the head thing but in front of the collar.”
I noticed some stirring behind me. I heard a woman whisper to her companion, “What did he say?” Her companion answered, “something about the space.”
Did it happen or did I imagine it? I felt the entire mass of people behind us move in, like a football game huddle, and some whispers of “light and space” floated backwards. They all were intently following our conversation about the light as it moved our eyes through the space in the painting.
Magic Moment # 1.
Ari noticed the girl’s shoulder bulging forward creating a pyramidal solid mass in the frontal plane. I called it a pyramidal solid mass; he called it a big solid mountain-like thing. The folds in the fabric created a series of rhythmic vertical bands that repeated, closer together and smaller, in the pattern in the darkness on her back. They repeated again in the narrow in-and-out linear folds of the hanging yellow cloth, and again wider and deeper as they met the blue of the turban wrapped around her head.
We explored some more. We noticed the dark/light contrast in the pearl: three strokes consisting of a dab of bright white, a semi-circle of indented brown, and an arc of soft gray at its base.
“What about the paint surfaces?” I asked.
“Smooth, but sort of rough,” he answered. “Like the pottery in the app before I fire it.”
(In case you do not know this reference, “Pottery” is an app that allows users to use their fingers to build vases on a spinning potter’s wheel, decorate and fire them, and even sell them at auction for points. It is so easy to handle, my almost 4-year-old twin grandkids also love it.)
In this painting, the luminous color, mottled and fused with light, causes the figure to glow in the dark background. The rich, deep orange/tan of the fabric of her dress; the bright yellow and ultramarine blue of the turban; the stark whiteness and course stiffness of the collar; the moistness of the slightly parted lips; all add to, in Dr. Barnes’ words, “rich, rhythmic linear patterns, color-relations, and pervasive light in compositions which are felt as colored rhythmic sequences of volumes in deep space.” (The Art in Painting, p. 227)
We moved on.
We looked at The Goldfinch, the tiny 13¼ x 9 inch painting by Carel Fabritius, now made even more famous by Donna Tartt’s book.
Here it is:
Carel Fabritius, The Goldfinch, 1654, Royal Picture Gallery Mauritius, The Hague
This picture created a challenge simply because of its size. As before, the crowd allowed Ari to move to the front, but even up close, we could not see details. Ari noticed the reversal of light and dark: unlike Girl with a Pearl Earring, in this picture, the darker bird and its feeding box dramatically contrasts with the light background. We enjoyed the intervals between the projecting bars, the bird’s tail sliding behind the top one, while the dangling chain slides behind the larger bottom one. The illusion of bird and feeding box pulling to the right side of the picture, and projecting forward in clear space, with that space further accentuated by the shadow, impressed him.
I found impressive the restrained palette of browns, grays, and yellow going from darkness through changing degrees of light and then enlivened by the surprise of muted red on the bird’s head and the bright yellow on the wing. Equally impressive: the thin threads of paint highlighting the semicircular bars and the bird’s feet.
Although difficult to see there, these enlarged details illustrate the distinct qualities of feathers and metal:
We examined the other paintings included in this exhibit, and then we proceeded to explore the entire Frick Collection where I moved Ari through a review of visual ideas and techniques in the traditions of art, a daunting task, you might be thinking, but one I approached like a quest.
In the West Gallery, we examined Rembrandt’s brush strokes compared to Hals’ by comparing each of their paintings hanging in the same room. In the Living Hall, we compared the ways Giovanni Bellini and Titian explored Venetian visual ideas, easy to do because their paintings were on the same wall.
In the Living Hall, I introduced him to El Greco’s St. Jerome, and I pointed out its unique qualities. Then, later, in the Anteroom, I asked him, “Who painted this picture?” as we looked at the Purification of the Temple.” I counted 4 seconds, before he answered, “El Greco.”
“Why El Greco?” I asked.
“Because the figures are so twisted, long, light, and eerie looking,” he said.
Magic Moment # 2.
By the time we arrived at the Enamels Room, I worried my “student” might be weary. However, Duccio’s The Temptation of Christ on the Mountain, caught his attention. The picture shows a towering Christ rejecting the devil, who offers Him “all the kingdoms of the world” if Christ will worship him. The subject did not impress Ari; the huge figures in relation to the little, pastel pink, blue, white buildings did.
Here is the picture and details of the buildings:
Duccio di Buoninsegna, The Temptation of Christ on the Mountain, c. 1308-11, Frick
“This looks like what I build on Minecraft,” he said.
“What looks like it?” I questioned.
“The buildings,” he said. “They are boxy and uneven, like the tiles we use.”
The “we” refers to him and his cousins: 9-year-old Ari in Emmaus, PA; 14-year-old Josh in Landenberg, PA; and 8-year-old Max in Beverly, MA. Somehow, they all log on to the same “game” at the same time and build houses, towns and cities while they fight creepers who try to destroy their creations. That’s the clearest explanation I can give you. I have watched the intensity of this endeavor, and I have absolutely no idea what they are doing.
Here is an example of one of Ari’s constructions:
You might argue Ari missed the delight of Duccio’s color-ensembles, the drama of his color contrasts, the intricate spatial relations within the turrets, domes, and crenellations. However, this 21st century child felt excited by visual qualities very much alive and well in a computer game he plays with his cousins.
Magic Moment # 3.
When we left the Frick, we were very hungry.
We decided to walk the 13 blocks to the Neue Galerie because there we could eat at either of its two restaurants—both of which served Viennese coffee, pastries, and good food.
While we waited for our meal, Ari enjoyed a drink that included house made chocolate milk, vanilla ice cream, whipped cream, and cocoa powder. I took out my cell phone to immortalize the moment just as he turned to face me.
Here is the picture:
Ari asked to see the photo, and he immediately titled it “Boy without a Pearl Earring.”
Magic Moment # 4.
This day I spent with my grandson illustrates genuine interest in action. Dr. Barnes defines its essential characteristic this way: “It induces him who has it to take pains, to make efforts, and so to order his activities that the object of his interest takes form in his mind and becomes the propelling force of his activities. Persistence of effort is the indispensable condition of real interest…What has value for us—and this is an alternative expression for ‘what interests us’—is attended to in detail, and remembered.” (A in P, pp. 10-11)
In effect, interest drives curiosity, and when we want to understand the art in paintings, it fuels our efforts and is worth, very much worth, the work involved.
Donna Tartt’s protagonist, Theo, in The Goldfinch, sums this up: “And as much as I’d like to believe there’s a truth beyond illusion, I’ve come to believe that there’s no truth beyond illusion. Because, between ‘reality’ on the one hand, and the point where the mind strikes reality, there’s a middle zone, a rainbow edge where beauty comes into being, where two very different surfaces mingle and blur to provide what life does not: and this is the space where all art exists, and all magic.” (pp. 770-71)