This blog describes why art matters. You will develop a set of tools enabling you to see the art in works of art. You will learn to see the way artists’ see. You will transform the very world you thought you were seeing every day into visual adventures. You will be equipped to do this work by learning to see.
You are ready now to use another tool:to see the work of art as an orchestration of three aspects: the illustrative, the expressive, and the decorative.While I am separating them for the sake of simplicity, they function together.Like a well-coordinated team, each member has a role to play.Once you learn what those roles reveal, you will be able to see more clearly and state more accurately, the picture’s visual idea.
I will demonstrate this by examining the following painting, Bridal Party, by Harry Sefarbi:
Sefarbi, Bridal Party, Oil on Masonite, 2001
Harry Sefarbi taught at The Barnes Foundation for more than 50 years. In 1950, at the annual exhibit of the Pennsylvania Academy of the Fine Arts, Dr. Barnes purchased one of his paintings. It hangs in Room IX of The Barnes Foundation. Sefarbi said about the purchase, “I felt like I had been touched by God.”
I knew Harry when I studied and he taught at the Barnes Foundation in the 1970’s. Many of my friends were students in his classes as well. He inspired all of us with his love of art, his brilliant analytical skill, and his sense of humor. He died last year.
I also attended Harry’s exhibits at the Woodmere Art Museum, and about nine years ago, I felt compelled to purchase this picture and feel fortunate to own it. It is a small picture. Because of its size (15 7/8 inches x 7 inches), I take it to the classes I teach for the Violette de Mazia Foundation, and my students study it.
When I purchased it, I’m embarrassed to admit, I had a non-aesthetic reason for doing so: I liked the subject, the reluctance of parents to “let go” of their daughter on her wedding day.
It hit home.
I have one daughter. She married two years before I purchased the picture.
Bauman Bridal Party 1999
Sefarbi's painting expressed for me my own unrealistic desire to stay glued to my daughter. The narrow format, the squeeze of three figures pasted together in a small doorway, the simplification of detail, and the rich, chorded color—all expressed what I felt.
Dr. Barnes calls this reaction one of two sets of qualities: the human values part of the equation, what we bring to an image by way of our life experience.In my case, the picture documented the impending loss of connection to a child I love.
Then I started looking at it.
Yes, the illustrative aspect visually describes the facts of what the subject was: simplified, flattened, and elongated, three figures dressed for a wedding are about to walk down the aisle. They are squashed into a very narrow space.That space, further confined by the vertical gray-tan bands on each side, feels claustrophobic.Banded strips of red provide the background.Rendered so close to the figures, the red further closes off any space recession and serves to push the figures forward. At the bottom of the picture, the red creates triangles: on the left, by the bending to the right of the knee and leg of the “mother”; in the center, between the “father’s” legs.The red strips on the lower right, the wedge of red on the upper right, and the rectangle of red on the upper left not only pin the three figures into the frontal plane, they also contrast with the more subtle and muted color chords, creating a vibrant color drama.
The illustrative aspect gives us information about what the subject was, the starting point of the artist’s adventure in perception.In this case, Sefarbi rendered the figures in strokes of color.The “head” on the figure to our left wears a “hat” made of strokes of peach.Her “face” is built out of tan, pink, and red strips of pulled color. A descending curve of ochre describes the left “cheek,” while a smear of dark pink says “nose.”Darker tan, pulled and interwoven with red sinks the right “cheek.”The lighter tans pulse forward, creating small, shallow pockets of space—this makes the entire “head” float, seemingly detached from its body.
The peach “dress,” strips of pulled pigment, create a bowed curve to the right as the “leg,” an ochre triangle lined with stitches of black, bends to the right, sliding behind the vertical blue-white-gray “dress” of the “bride.”Notice how the peachy color turns ochre as it emerges to the right of the “bride.”It curves around the bride’s right side and becomes pasted to the “father’s” chest.It slides behind the “bride’s” back and pulses slightly in front of the “father’s” leg.
The “bride,” that entire central vertical unit, elegantly torpedo-like in shape, fits slightly in front of the two flanking “figures.”She rises up, slim and tall, with strips of color chords overlapping like bark on a tree except where small, circular dabs of white indicate what were “flowers.” Her “head” sinks down; her “shoulders” hunch; her “arms” separate from her body only because of scratchy black lines descending to the poof of “flowers” that float forward.
The right “figure,” legs looking like an elongated clothespin and shirt “ruffled” by curvilinear and slightly bulging smears of green-white color, closes off the right side of the picture.His “head,” seemingly featureless describes, with an economy of means:a smear of pink “ear,” a pointed “chin,” a prominent bulge of “nose” that pushes back two dark “eyes,” and fuzzy strands of “hair” set beneath the small “black hat.”
Like the other two “faces,” just enough individuality manifests itself: the sharp, narrow shape of the “father’s” head, his prominent, hooked nose, and round button eyes; the richer, pinker, equally “pointed face” of the bride, “eyes” squinting into linear arcs, and a sweet “smile” rendered by short, side by side, vertical red lines; the fuller, more twisted “face” of the “mother” with pursed lips, described by two, small, red lines bending left, and a sharp “nose” projecting right.By themselves, the three “heads” create the same spatial drama as the bodies: they line up, three diamond shapes, pasted to each other and pushed firmly together and held down by their “hats.”
The illustrative message of a bridal party standing in a narrow doorway becomes a picture statement of vertical, richly chorded, overlapping, banded color units wedged in very shallow space expressing closeness, attachment, and connection.That is the picture’s expressive aspect.
The expressive aspect transforms what the subject was into what the picture is.
At first, I found this picture relevant to my life experience.I also could not resist its color and its smooth, silky surface.My eyes kept finding subtle, intricately built color units of seemingly random smears of color that ultimately coalesced into surprising spatial adventures.The color itself, the red, the peach, the cerulean blue, the pink—all clear, bright, and juicy, seduced me.
That is this picture’s decorative aspect.
The decorative gives us what we are thirsty for, what our eye craves: entertainment.Miss de Mazia argues “No bait, no bite.” Without sufficient eye-appeal, the expression would be cold and repelling.
Each aspect works with the other two to transform the subject into the picture.
In the next post, I will review the CSI.Curious?I hope so.
At the end of the last post, I left you with question: How do the distortions in the picture Truffle Pigs Café “inform” your perception?
Huh, you may be thinking, inform my perception?What’s that about?
That’s the point.
Here’s the picture again:
Before I describe how distortion sharpens perception, I will tell you another story.
As I was working on this picture, a woman stopped and watched what I was doing.
She asked me this question: “I love your painting, but can you tell me why you are making up all those colors in the mountain?”
I told her I was not making up the colors; I saw them.
“No one sees colors like that,” she said.
I showed her the color shapes by pointing to the exact spot in my picture and then guiding her to look at that exact spot on the mountaintop.I waited.
“Oh,” she exclaimed, “they are there. I never would have seen them if you had not showed them to me.”
What is real?
That is the question.
My point here is that we see what we want to see, or we are trained to see, or we know what to look for.
Think of it this way: did anyone know about gravity before Newton described it?No.It was invisible to humankind even though we lived with its effects every day.We no longer think the earth is flat, and we continue to learn about the vastness and intricacies of our solar system because we have perfected the tools and acquired the knowledge that enables us to do so.We, quite literally, see what was once invisible.
I see color shapes because I had a teacher, Edward Loper, Sr., who showed them to me.He taught himself to see color shapes because he studied the work of Cezanne, Renoir, Monet, and Pissarro.I have taught children to see color shapes by insisting they are there; by telling them the colors will hide and stay hidden unless they look for them and uncover them by seeing them; and I show them artists’ work who make them visible.Then they see them.
Each artist shows us new ways to see.This is what informed perception means: new ways of seeing.This is what art teaches. And we miss most of what is in front of us because we don’t know how to see or we don’t take time to see.
In my picture, you can see distortions of scale: the looming, craggy, pyramidal color mass that was a mountain dwarfs the brightly colored grouping of structures below.Those structures “float” on a raised platform that was a street and road.None of this could occur in our real world, and it certainly did not occur in my subject.I made it happen.
I subjected this subject to my interest, and I saw what I wanted to see.
What does the picture give us, then, that our ordinary experience of this scene cannot?
Make a list:
1.Rhythms: short and long stripes, bands, and color lines are repeated in the sidewalk, the rooftops, the mountain, and the trees.Some are vertical, some diagonal, some curvilinear.All are decorative (eye catching) in effect.
2.The color is bold, vivid, and bright.The yellow of the roof contrasts sharply with the dark of the lower mountain, creating a dramatic picture statement.
3.The buoyancy of the lower half of the painting contrasts powerfully with the monumental stability of the upper half of the picture.In fact, that mountain mass sits in space so close to the lower half of the picture, it aids in projecting that entire unit up and forward—creating that “floating” effect.
4.Skewers: like those barbecue tools that hold the meat and vegetables on a stick, they stitch together the color masses with a geometric underpinning.The rectilinear color shapes (in the sky) in the blocks of color shapes defining the buildings and the street, create both a flattening of volume and a profusion of decorative pattern.
In other words, the subject was a street consisting of a café and other buildings with a mountain behind.The picture is a decorative statement expressing monumentality, stability, and heaviness contrasted with buoyancy and lightness.The vivid, rich color, the repeated banded color units, and the pyramidal and geometric underpinnings balance all the contrasts.
As you continue to scrutinize pictures to discover how they mean, you gain the ability to look at anything in your everyday world and transform that ordinary visual experience into an adventure in perception.
You need merely to use the tools you already possess (and a few more I will introduce in the next few posts).As you examine more and more works of art, you will build a relevant background of what other artists have contributed (a k a the traditions of art).I adapted the following traditions in this picture: cubism, Impressionism, the decorative patterning of van Gogh, the color drama of Matisse, among others.
In the next post, I will explain how the expressive, illustrative, and decorative aspects work together to help you understand how the picture means.
As usual, I will start with a story to describe the relationship between an experience and expression:
Ten years ago, when I worked in Wilmington High School, I entered the building by a side door.This led me down a corridor and past the main office.That office had a side door opening out into the hall.The door did not have a window to allow for viewing the hallway and seeing someone walking by.Since this could cause an accident, a sign read: “Open this door SLOWLY”.
As I reached the door, a 12 year old, middle-school student rushed through it, and I jumped back to avoid the door.I exclaimed with irritation, “Your rushing through the door could have knocked me out.Please be more careful.”
Several months later, I approached the same door, but this time a secret service agent and Hillary Rodman Clinton rushed through the door.In that instant, I remembered she was there to give a speech about charter school funding, a bill that had passed in Congress.This time, I jumped back and said, with surprise and humor, “I am so glad your rushing through the door did not knock me out because I am looking forward to your speech, which I am sure WILL be a knock out!”
Both are my reactions to two incidents.Both restore my equilibrium.And then I forgot all about these events; they were merely trivial incidents in my busy life.
The relationship goes like this:
Something strikes us (not necessarily literally like my door analogy) and we feel moved, pushed into dis-equilibrium. We react (do something back to the original stimulus).I lecture the boy; I say, “I am looking forward to your speech” to Hillary Clinton.If we use a medium of expression, however, we fuel our awareness of what “struck us” with the relevant experiences stored in memory and we “see” into our subject (because we now have subjected the incident, the stimulus, to our interest) and we go to work expressing (pressing out) the meaning we have perceived, thereby creating a whole new thing—not what the subjectwas—not just our reaction to it, but a whole new experience enriched with new matter imaginatively perceived.
Miss de Mazia sums this up this way:“The results that impel both us and the artist to expression are the same:(1) we feel better by being adjusted; (2) we communicate, share; (3) in the process of selecting, of making an expression clear to others, we clarify the meaning of our feelings for ourselves.”(“Expression,” 13)
Assuming we feel enthusiasm, assuming something moves us, we feel struck.You can call it excitement or dis-equilibrium. The encounter begins here.We experience the meaning in an event, a sound, a sight, an incident.The artist wishes to make sense out of it, figure out why he/she feels so excited.To share the experience, the artist must translate it into a medium of expression.And he/she wants to get to it:the stimulus creates tension and anxiety.To restore equilibrium, the work must start, the problems created worked out, and the end reached.
I had an experience, the door swinging open. I reacted:I lectured the boy. I said, “Oh, so glad your rushing through the door did not knock me out,” to Hillary Clinton. More importantly, from that point on, I walked down the center of the hall to avoid the door. I changed my behavior.I grew in awareness of the safe way to navigate the halls of Wilmington High School.
The artist, however, takes another step.He/she acts back on the event, changing it, distorting it, bringing to bear past experiences to help give form to this new idea, and translating the event into a medium of expression thereby giving it new matter it did not have before.
In my case, when I started thinking about this topic and wondered how I could make clear to you how this works, I went running, and halfway through the 4-mile run, I remembered the door episodes. I realized how I could use those incidents to make this point clear. I started playing with them, fleshing them out, providing dialog, different people who could have (theyreally did not) come through that door and how that would change my reaction.I used it; I creatively distorted it.In other words, I lied.
Hillary Clinton did visit Wilmington High School to make a speech about charter school funding because a charter school, The Charter School of Wilmington, a math and science academy, was housed in Wilmington High School.
But not that day, nor did she come through that door.
I wanted to impress you so you would understand the power of distortion.
That is what creative distortion is: a lie to tell the truth.I “saw into” my subject, because I had “subjected” that stimulus to my interest. To express (press out the meaning we perceive to create a new thing) definitely requires work.We create a new experience: not what the subject was, not just our reaction to it, or what we felt about it, but a new experience enriched with new matter imaginatively perceived.
Let’s look for distortions in a picture.
Look at the following painting. This time, along with listing the plastic means, the qualities expressed, and the rhythms, list what I “distorted.” Describe the picture facts that do not look like what you would see in your everyday world.How do those distortions “inform” your perception?
Bauman, Truffle Pigs Café, oil, 2007
In the next post, I will show you how those distortions contribute to your understanding of the picture idea.
Remember I said that asking “how” will get us closer to the picture’s meaning than asking “what.”We don’t want to know what a picture means, we want to know how to uncover its aesthetic meaning, because that is what the artist recorded: a visual aesthetic experience.
Does this make sense?
If so, we can go on.
Again, a story:
On a 102 degree day, with gray smog blurring William Penn, and the Philadelphia streets baking in the sun, I made my way to the Late Renoir exhibit at the Philadelphia Museum of Art.On the way, I saw graffiti, litter, and swathes of grass burned brown.
Perhaps it was the heat, because very few people were there.“A good day to see the exhibit,” the cheerful ticket taker told me.
I asked for the headphones.
For the first painting, Young Girls at the Piano, the voice in my ear told me it was a “celebration of domestic art.”Gabrielle and Jean, I heard, was a “celebration of all that is well in the world.”
Dancing Girl with Tambourine and Dancing Girl with Castanets, I learned were “voluptuous women painted beautifully by a man who adored them.” The Large Bather became the study of “a man looking at a woman celebrating wonderful, earthy, fruitful, fabulous beauty.” Finally, The Concert, was said to be the “most opulent, splendid painting ever painted.”
Later, in the bathroom, I listened to two women discussing how impressed they were that Renoir, crippled by arthritis, continued to paint.
I purchased the catalog.
In it, Guy Cogeval wrote, “Renoir likes his women fat,” that his late period seems to “tear up the rulebook of good taste,” that he “dares to be vulgar.” He quotes Mary Cassatt, the quote subsequently picked up by all the newspaper reviews: “He is painting pictures or rather studies of huge red women with very small heads which are the most awful imaginable.”(Renoir in the 20th Century, p.18)
For an objective aesthetic analysis practitioner, all of this piqued my interest, so I did some more research.
Holland Cotter, writing in the New York Times,said Cassatt “had the clearer eye” than Matisse.She said of the same pictures that they were “the loveliest nudes ever painted.” (“Avant-Gardist in Retreat,” June 17, 2010).
Of Young Girls at the Piano, from the Musée d’Orsay, Cotter wrote: “it’s designed for the sweet tooth, as much of his later art would be.”He further declared, “in a sense these aren’t even really paintings of figures, they’re paintings of skin.Expanses of it fill the center of canvases, swelling and folding, minutely and specifically textured and tinted: creamy rose, poached-salmon pink, toasty brown.”
Edward Sozanski, writing in the Philadelphia Inquirer, declared a challenge:decide for yourselfwhether Renoir’s work “is a wellspring of modern art, on a par in his influence on younger artists with his friend Cezanne.” (“Art: Late (great?) Renoir at Art Museum,” June 13, 2010)
First of all, we have to move past the subject.
Renoir’s paintings are not pictures of “skin” any more than they are pictures of Cagnes, or of Ambroise Vollard in the Costume of a Toreador.As Dr. Barnes said: “His nudes are symbols, not naked women; and a group of them, seen as an ensemble, resembles a bouquet of variegated flowers; commonplace scenes and persons lose their vulgarity in his work.” (The Art in Painting, p. 318)Nor did Dr. Barnes see Renoir’s late work as the wellspring of modern art.He said, “It is because of the subtlety and power of Renoir’s effects, and the practical impossibility of reproducing or expanding them, that he has so few disciples even among the intelligent and talented generation of young painters.” (p. 318)
If we are to appreciate this work, we must experience it aesthetically.Only then will Renoir’s subjects transform into visual ideas teaching us new ways of seeing. What, at first glance, seems like a world far removed from our smog-filled, sun-blasted steaming streets then can become one rich with new possibilities of adventures in perception.
Let me be honest.
When I entered the exhibit in my overheated grumpy mood, and I saw Young Girls at the Piano, I thought, “Good God, what has that got to do with me and my world? So pretty.So dated.So not here and now.”
Then I started looking at it.
That’s all you need to do.
Let’s try to uncover the aesthetic qualities in Woman Tying Her Shoe.
c. 1918, Courtauld Gallery, London
Composed of swirling pillows of such color chording richness the eye becomes inebriated at first glance.No matter where you look, you become bewitched by nuances of rose, yellow, ivory, tan, and blue.Violette de Mazia used to say Renoir painted as a bird sings, and his singing here seduces and enraptures.
The figure becomes a central solid but light- in-weight mass of linear light-in-color strokes, glowing rosy (skin) tones, and golden (hair) highlights.The hair swirls into at least three concentric circles establishing a donut-like mound, and this circularity repeats and becomes balanced by the figure’s backside—donut rounded again and planted in the small chair.
Similarly, the mass to the figure’s right, the mass behind her head, and the cushion on the floor repeat the theme.In the unit to the left, the color units fan out and encircle the head creating internal clover patterns, then subdue on the floor unit and background wall into muted strokes of syrupy pastel tones.
Renoir transforms a simple, everyday activity of tying a shoe into a color rondo illustrating his ability to fuse all the plastic means (color, light, line, and space) and illustrative details into a blend inseparable from decorative patterns.Each volume floats into colorful space and is an organic part of the delicate, variegated color units.
Only a few paragraphs, but I hope you can see how my understanding of this picture’s aesthetic quality differs from the descriptions I quoted from the catalogue and headphones.
My description is of the picture, not about it.
I described the visual meaning in what Renoir expressed in terms of his medium—color—and based on its aesthetic qualities as well as its visual qualities:richness, glow, luminosity, etc.
We learn how to see by doing this work.
For example, most of this past summer I remained trapped in my house because of the heat.One day, to alleviate my boredom, I happened to look out the large sliding glass door in my basement into my backyard.Yes, the air was steaming with heat.Yes, the grass looked burned brown and thin.Yes, the trees’ foliage seemed enervated, sagging, as if exhausted.
Then, as though I sharpened the lens of a camera, something shifted:I saw the round pot of red New Guinea impatiens; I saw the birdbath and three finches drinking from it; I saw the bank of woods.
The trees’ foliage separated into volumes of deep greens and blues reaching forward, creating pockets of lavender space that echoed the round birdbath and the circularity of the flowerpot.
The coasters of red flowers led me to the path which pushed back into the deeper woods.Islands of luminous light hovered in the heat, pulsing forward and separating from the tree trunks and the foliage.
Renoir taught me how to see this.That is why I look at pictures.That is why I do this work.
In the next post, I will describe why artists must tell lies.