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:

Friday, October 16, 2015

A Tap on the Door of Perception

I felt bored for the past several weeks.  If you remember the Lerner and Loewe song from Gigi, “It’s a Bore,” sung by Gaston and his Uncle Honore, you will understand how I felt. 

Here are the first few stanzas:

H: Look at all the captivating fascinating things there are to do
G: Name two.
H: Look at the pleasures of the myriad of treasures we have got
G: Like what?
H: Look at Paris in the spring when each solitary thing is more beautiful than ever before! You can hear every tree almost saying, "Look at me!"
G: What color are the trees?
H: Green!
G: What color were they last year?
H: Green!
G: And next year?
H: Green!
G: It's a bore!
H: Don't you marvel at the power of the mighty Eiffel Tower knowing there it will remain evermore? Climbing up to the sky over 90 stories high.
G: How many stories?
H: 90
G How many yesterday?
H: 90
G: And tomorrow?
H: 90
G: It's a bore!

I dragged around doing what I had to do, but mostly going through the motions.  I had no ideas for a blog post, I had no enthusiasm for painting, and even teaching the traditions class at the Osher Lifelong Learning Institute felt routine rather than innovative.

I blamed my malaise on the shorter fall days with the resultant decline of sunlight, on approaching my 75th birthday, on being burned out with painting, on having nothing left to say about art appreciation.
I rationalized that posting 79 essays on my blog since 2010 was a remarkable accomplishment.  Maybe it was time to quit. 

Still, I loved writing them, and I missed that.

I remembered how I used to see painting subjects everywhere I looked, and I worried I might never again get excited by a new visual idea. I also knew I did not want to grind out paintings I did not feel inspired to make.

I felt even more enervated after I visited Edward Loper, Jr., the 80-year-old son of my mentor, Edward L. Loper, Sr.   There to retrieve some tomatoes he had grown in his garden, I looked at the abundance of paintings and pastel drawings he had produced since I last saw him.  “I work day and night,” he told me. “When I wake up at 2 am, I go to the studio and start another picture.”  He found everything around him worthy of his effort—the window to his backyard; the objects on his living room table; the photographs of friends and colleagues he used to paint their portraits.  

Edward Loper, Sr., used to insist an artist could make a painting out of a pile of dirt if he knew what he was doing.  However, I knew Loper, Sr. had dry spells similar to the one I was suffering through, and he went long periods without painting, filling up his time with teaching. 

And complaining.  

I did my share of complaining.

A few days after my visit, Eddie asked if I could stop by so he could take some photos of me for him to use as his subject for a portrait.  He had me stand in his doorway so I caught the light, and he asked me to face left.  Then Connie, his better (very patient) half, took several more with me looking directly at her as Eddie grumbled in the background he did not like that pose.

As it turned out, he started this picture using the photo Connie took:

In an email, Connie wrote, “he began on Sunday and has rarely left it . . . an artist possessed.”

I wanted to do something, anything, which might allow me to feel that way again.

I decided to send an email to my grandson asking if he would pose for me with his two cats.  I knew he might not be willing to do so himself, because he did not like the last painting I did of him.  But he loved his two cats, Ming and Mae, a brother and sister with feline exuberance. He immediately emailed back saying “sure.”

My husband and I arranged to come to his house to take the photos.  

When we arrived, my son cautioned, “You’ve heard about herding cats, haven’t you?”  I had, but I had no idea what that really meant. I soon found out.

The cats would not curl up in his lap, sit on his shoulder, or stay still for a second.  We took many pictures, but they all had both cats leaping on or off  my grandson, or lots of other arms and hands in the picture trying to keep them somewhere near him.

Finally, Josh stretched out on the floor, and Ming, the larger of the two cats, curled up next to him.  

When we arrived home, and my husband started showing me the photos he had transferred from his camera to his computer, I watched them go by.  I felt more discouraged than before.  None of them appealed to me, until he showed me this one.

 “STOP,” I shouted.  That’s it!  I could feel my heart race.  I had an idea. 

It came, not as a tap on the door of perception, but as a BIG BANG. 
In that moment, I also knew what had been wrong with me.

Habit and routine had deadened me.  It does that to all of us.  

The only antidote is action.  

Rollo May, in The Courage to Create, wrote that “Kierkegaard and Nietzsche and Camus and Sartre have proclaimed that courage is not the absence of despair; it is, rather, the capacity to move ahead in spite of despair.” (pp. 2-3)

And when an artist moves ahead, a vital element in the creative act is the strength of the encounter, an experience characterized by an intensity of awareness, a heightened consciousness.  As May wrote, “Absorption, being caught up in, wholly involved…are used commonly to describe the state of the artist or scientist when creating….” (p. 38)

While we do not know why an idea emerges at a given time, we do know that when one occurs, it strikes us as true, as important, as valuable, even though we have no idea what it is exactly, and we have to, in my case, paint the picture to discover it.

Stravinsky said this best: “Step by step, link by link, it will be granted [the artist] to discover the work…. All creation presupposes at its origin a sort of appetite that is brought on by the foretaste of discovery. This foretaste of the creative act accompanies the intuitive grasp of an unknown entity already possessed but not yet intelligible, an entity that will not take definite shape except by the action of a constantly vigilant technique.” (Poetics of Music in the form of six lessons, pp. 51-52)

Stravinsky also said a composer “improvises aimlessly the way an animal grubs about.  Both of them go grubbing about because they yield to a compulsion to seek things out…So we grub about in expectation of our pleasure, guided by our scent, and suddenly we stumble against an unknown obstacle.  It gives us a jolt, a shock, and this shock fecundates our creative power.” (pp. 56-57)

I had been grubbing about. 

No more.

Now I am painting my picture.  

In the past few days, I wrote this post.

As I happily did both this week, I presumed Eddie, in the same few days, finished his portrait of me and completed several more paintings.  

In the next post, after I finish my painting,  I will discuss both Eddie’s painting and mine.  

Sooner than later, I hope. 

Thursday, August 20, 2015

To See, or Not to See

Recently I traveled to New Hampshire with my son’s family for a week of painting and vacationing.  We stayed at Abakee Cottages, knotty pine, cozy cabins on Lake Winnipesaukee. 

Once I got there, nothing said, “Paint me.”  I had, as we say in my business, no visual ideas.  I felt burned out and frustrated.

I could easily have moped, but my grandchildren were gleeful to be there. My husband, son, and daughter in law were happy as well. They welcomed the cool, clear air, the small beach and dock, and the “fun” to be had at nearby Weirs Beach and in the surrounding area.  

Little did I realize, in Wordsworth’s words, what “wealth to me the show had brought.” 

I have William Glackens to thank.

In previous posts, I said knowing paintings permits us to see more in our everyday world. 

This post will describe just how this worked for me.

First, I will show you a few of Glackens’ paintings that informed my vision:

Glackens, Bathers at Bellport, c. 1912, Phillips Collection

Glackens, Bathing at Bellport, Long Island, 1912, Brooklyn Museum

Glackens, The Bathing Hour, Chester, Nova Scotia, 1910, Barnes

Glackens, The Little Pier, c. 1915, Barnes

Glackens, The Raft, 1915, Barnes

Glackens, At the Beach, 1918, Newark Art Museum

In 1910, James Hunecker described Glackens seaside paintings this way:  “these waters, skies, beaches, bath houses of uncompromising lines, these drifting or moored boats, with humanity strolling, sitting, bathing, are nevertheless so real, or rather evoke the illusion of reality, that you experience in their presence what Henry James calls ‘the emotion of recognition.’” 

Dr. Barnes described them this way: “[Glackens] shows with detachment the essential picturesqueness and humanity of the events represented, and his only comment upon life is that it is pleasant to live in a beautiful world."

Glackens’ paintings helped me appreciate what I saw in front of me, and I enjoyed my here and now “show” in real time.

For example, this photograph captures the movement of my grandson jumping off the floating dock as I climbed on it. 

It reminded me of a detail in Glackens’ painting The Little Pier:

I am not saying we have identical visual statements in these images.  I am saying that the activity in Glackens’ painting of small, vivid, contrasting color units set in receding arcs of oranges, greens, reds, and blues, express lively, active, colorful drama. In the detail of the Glackens’ painting above, the row boat tips to the left as the floating dock tips to the right creating an inverted pyramid echoed by the steps up to the pier; the diving figure, a diagonal torpedo, enters an exploding upwards splash of pink, yellow, and blue vertical strips rhythmically repeating the rippling arcs of the water.  

The photo of me climbing up to the floating dock as my grandson jumped off is not as orchestrated as The Little Pier. However, when I made the connection of its qualities to the Glackens’ painting, I felt as though I had experienced something important.  Perceiving connections will do that to you. 

Now look at this diagram of The Raft:

The diagram marks the triangular compositional devices connecting the large floating dock on the left with the smaller pier on the right and includes the “rescue boat,” as Violette de Mazia labeled it, linking the two.  It also diagrams the color units circling the dock and pier, adding to the animation of the entire ensemble.

As I observed children and their parents on inflated tubes or swimming in Lake Winnipesaukee, I enjoyed the spectacle of colors, shapes, and movement of their actions because I knew Glackens’ painting.

My photo does not come close to the aesthetic qualities in the Glackens’ painting, but it does illustrate why the spectacle intrigued me.  Examine the next two photographs and see if you agree:

If you isolate the patterns in the color units in my photographs and then compare them to the patterns on the floating dock in the Glackens’ painting, you will see why I found my visual experience fascinating.

Compare the next Glackens’ detail, with its repetitions of stripes and bands and lights and darks, with my photographs above, to see if you agree:

Finally, here is a detail from Glackens’ painting The Bathing Hour, Chester, Nova Scotia, and my photo of my grandson swimming:

Granted, the kid is cute, but what attracted me and held my interest was his shape, color, and movement. Glackens’ color unit floating across the picture plane, buoyant, fast, and “wet,” not made of flesh and bones, but of slabs of luminous color units on a flat surface, is art.  My grandson swimming echoed visual ideas sparked by the painting.

Works of art bestow this gift.  They enable us to see our world through an artist’s eyes, and this not only enriches our visual experience, it changes everything. 

That’s why we call it “Informed Perception.”

Try it.