Monday, November 22, 2010

Putting it Together

At this point in your mastery of this method, you have learned to focus on the work of art and read it for what it is: color on a flat surface.  You have learned to examine the plastic means an artist uses to make a picture: light, line, color, space, subject, and tradition.  You have learned to look for aesthetic qualities: balance, symmetry, rhythm, etc.  You have learned to put the pieces together and articulate how it all means. 

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.


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