Thursday, July 28, 2011

How Creation Happens

I began to understand how creation happens a long time ago.  While I attended classes at the BarnesFoundation in the 1970’s, I taught the children enrolled in my painting classes what I learned each week. Everything Violette de Mazia and Angelo Pinto taught me, I taught them.
During one class, as an example of creative distortion in portraiture, I showed them this Picasso picture: 

Picasso,Portrait of Madame H.P. (Hélène Parmelin),
Collection Edouard Pignon, 1952

They hated it.

(Those of you diligently reading these posts will recall I spoke about this picture before in “What to Look for in Art, Cont’d.”  Click here to reread it.  You are right if you conclude this story gets better every time I tell it).

My then 8-year-old daughter Alisa declared it the “ugliest woman she had ever seen.”

I valiantly tried to show that the picture orchestrated color on a flat surface; no woman was sitting there.  I showed them the color patterns: the overlapping bands of hair, the repeated lines in the blouse and skirt, the drama of the spatial rhythms.

They refused to budge.  They renamed it “Spaghetti Hair,” and they left that day mumbling about how artists could make such disgusting pictures and still get famous.

Months later, as they made pictures using two Raggedy Ann and Andy dolls placed on a chair, I watched as my daughter created this watercolor:

When I complimented her on her adaptation of the visual ideas I showed her in the Picasso portrait, she angrily replied: “What Picasso portrait?”

“The one I showed you months ago,” I sweetly responded.  “The one you called ‘Spaghetti Hair.’”

“Oh, that one,” she said.  “Never. I never would do anything like Picasso did.  I hate that picture.  My picture is exactly what I see, exactly the way the dolls look.  I don’t make ugly pictures.”

This, in essence, is how an artist creates.

She made her picture, whether she acknowledged this or not, by the possibilities Picasso’s picture presented her.  No one else in her class overlapped the banded strands of hair into spatial patterns; no one else brought the back legs of the chair into the frontal plane; no one else constructed spatial rhythms.  No one else in that class, in other words, tried to adapt Picasso’s discoveries to their own expressive needs.  That takes a spark of originality and courage, an ability to make connections.

Whether she “liked” Picasso’s picture or not, he provided new visual ideas she needed.  She manipulated her means (color, light, line, space) and re-worked her subject (the dolls on the chair) based on Picasso’s visual ideas (which he derived from African sculpture and cubism—aka the traditions), and she made HER picture. 

My daughter-in-law did something similar with a clothesbasket.  On a snowy day, she wanted to take my then 5-month-old grandson for a sleigh ride, but she did not have a sled with a seat, and he could not yet sit up himself.  She did have a plastic clothesbasket. 

She lined it with large plastic garbage bags, stuffed it with blankets, attached a rope to one end of it, dressed him in his snowsuit, and off they went.

Think of it this way: Cezanne asks his wife to pose for him.  He looks at his wife, but he wants a solid, weighty, set, powerful, volume to zigzag in and out in space.  That’s what interests him.  So he adapts Michelangelo’s bigness and power, the arid, restrained, color of the Florentines in general, and the solid, massive, stable and rugged qualities of early Egyptian sculpture.  The resulting picture expresses solidity, monumentality, rigidity, and power equivalent to the Leaning Tower of Pisa.

Cezanne, Woman in a Green Hat, 1894-95, Barnes
I bet you are now asking this question: you mean an artist consciously thinks about this?

Some do, many do not.  However, all artists, in every medium of expression, build on the work of previous artists.  This is no different from scientists studying literature housing the discoveries in their field, and then experimenting to add their findings to it.  It is what we mean when we say “pushing the envelope.”  For visual artists, it means using relevant ideas from the traditions of art to help them say what they have to say.

USE is the operative word, not steal or copy.

In these next posts, I will ask you to determine the sources in the traditions as an additional element in your analyses of each work of art.

I ask you to do this for two reasons: (1) when we understand how and why an artist adapts relevant visual ideas from other artists, we determine originality; and (2) when we can articulate an artist’s adaptations, we make specific for ourselves exactly what we are seeing and others can verify the accuracy of our perceptions.

To get started, here is your assignment.

Examine this painting, My Father, the Bishop, by Edward L. Loper, Sr. 

Edward L. Loper, Sr., My Father, the Bishop, 1975,
  Oil on canvas, 48 x 36 inches, University of Delaware Collection

List everything you see.

If you wish to share your list, send it to me here by e-mail or insert it as a comment at the end of this post.

Next week, I will summarize your responses.  Then I will explore the visual ideas Ed Loper used, what he achieved by using them, and what he gave back that makes his picture creative.

Friday, July 22, 2011

Seeing is Believing, Part II

Thank you to all who responded to my contest.  Given this hot summer, I am impressed so many of you were willing to ponder the question I asked.

Diana Myers-Bennett Roberts won the prize for the following essay:

If I see a painting on a gallery wall and, without seeing the label, I instantly recognize its author, then I give kudos to that painter. My assumption is that, whether I like or dislike the work, the consistency of expression on that artist's canvas indicates that it comes from within. 

Twombly's "scribbles" are unique and easily recognizable. Poussin's paintings stand out as uniquely his as well. Among narrative painters of Poussin's era, few can fill a canvas with his combined delicacy and fluid energy that rises above the event being depicted.

Beyond recognition of the art of each painter, there is little I find to compare and only lots to contrast. The classicism claimed by Twombly's titles and words subtly inscribed among his gestural pencil-like doodles do not classicism make. Without labels, Iliad, Odyssey, Arcadia are not there. Twombly fails to convey through his chosen medium what he claims to be depicting.

Poussin, on the other hand, paints bodies that would easily translate into Greek statues. But he gives us much more than the classic beauty of the human figure. By modeling his figures with light and shadow and color, and diffusing them with the delicate energy unique to his style, Poussin has created paintings that are a pleasure to dwell on. 

While Twombly's canvases have an overall sameness and flatness that is frankly boring, Poussin creates areas of dark and light, lines that vary in intensity and in curviness, and a handling of paint that is masterful.

 "Even in Arcadia I exist" may be taken to suggest that some things will not stand the test of time. I predict that Twombly's work will be soon stored in a cabinet of oddities.

Consider Diana’s main argument: “Twombly fails to convey through his chosen medium what he claims to be depicting.”

Not so, Poussin.  While Poussin adapted visual ideas of the Italian Renaissance, he gave back to that tradition a unique lightness of color, airiness in space, and a novel rhythm in the distribution of masses. 

Miss de Mazia described the process this way: an artist goes to the bank of visual ideas (a k a The Traditions of Art) and borrows from it.  He then MUST pay back his debt with INTEREST (a k a his personal vision). 

When we determine exactly what an artist borrowed and how he adapted it (adapted it, not adopted it), we then can evaluate the level of creativity of that artist.  

 Let’s turn Poussin’s painting upside down and examine it:

Poussin, Arcadian Shepherds, inverted

1.     The figures, while closely grouped, exhibit graceful and subtle intervals of space varied in position and height. 

2.     Look at the spaces between the legs, for instance, and you will see gentle movement in and out of space created by light and dark and by nuances of color (look particularly at the light orange lines edging the two men’s legs).  Look at the serpentine curves of the legs and arm.

Poussin, Arcadian Shepherds, inverted, detail

3.     Examine how the long arm and twisted back of the sitting figure curves back into space and, because of its illumination, pushes back the other three figures.

4.     Notice how the background tree connects with the sitting figure in a rippling curve, connecting the figure’s backbone and side to the background with a dark/light rhythm.

5.     Now notice how that dark/light rhythm connects the sky with its horizontal peach-colored clouds to the clothing folds, the highlights on the jug, the spilling water, even the ripples of muscle on the sitting figure’s back.  Follow the whites: the highlights on the jug and water; the sitting man’s head; the folds of the woman’s garment; the edges of the clouds.

6.     All the areas in this painting harmonize with adjacent areas and into the far recesses of space. The color flows from one figure to another, aided by the serpentine line and rhythms of light. 

7.     The entire picture displays a gentle, pervasive glow.

8.     Forget the subject for now, and enjoy the lightness of each glowing color mass, the delicate solidity and glow of the color volumes, the gracefulness of the rhythms around the central masses, the clean-cut planes of the lighted and shaded color-areas of the fabric and flesh folds.

Given all this, Dr. Barnes argues Poussin was rather “the last of the Renaissance than a constructive factor in post-Renaissance painting. . . .This general classic and Renaissance feeling makes Poussin seem less modern than his contemporaries, Rembrandt, Claude, and Velásquez, or even Rubens. Poussin must be considered as a fine flower of the Renaissance, to the traditions of which he added a quality of choiceness made up of charm, suavity, and delicacy reinforced by strength.”

In other words, as Diana argued, Poussin contributed specific, identifiable and important visual ideas to the traditions of art.  Remove the subjects he used, and his pictures exhibit individual creations grounded in the Italian Renaissance, French in spirit and equally Poussin.

While Twombly may have wished to be Poussin, or to have lived in Poussin’s world, his work shows no visual connection.  He does not create masses, structural or otherwise.  His color does not glow or charm.  His lines do not curve or become rhythmic. Every reason given for the comparison of their work has nothing to do with the medium of painting, color, and everything to do with what is outside the medium, coincidence and marketing.
In the next few posts, I will explore how an artist creates by using the traditions of art and how we evaluate his achievement.  I will do so by examining the work of Edward L. Loper, Sr.

Wednesday, July 6, 2011

Seeing is Believing

In the last post, “The Comb in the Museum,” I described the differences among works of art, art, andeveryday experiences.  I suspect I do not have to convince you, the dedicated readers of these posts, that your own perceptive analysis of a work of art will produce aesthetic understanding of the color statement embedded in its subject.

That said, I also suspect you may still have questions about how to assess creativity or determine originality.

I have not directly tackled these concepts yet, although I have hinted at them.

I wrote this post because I recently read a piece in the New York Times that said Cy Twombly (who died this past Tuesday, July 5) was influenced by Nicolas Poussin. It said that the two artists had the following in common:

1.     Each artist was around 30 when he moved to Rome: Poussin in 1624 and Twombly in 1957.

2.     Each spent a majority of his life in Italy and became a famous painter of his era.

3.     When each was 64, he created canvases of the four seasons.

4.     Poussin is one of Twombly’s heroes.

5.     Twombly’s painting, Arcadia, made in 1958, features the word Arcadia scrawled across the canvas.

6.     Poussin’s painting, Arcadian Shepherds, from about 1628, depicts shepherds coming across a sarcophagus and deciphering the inscription etched on it, “Et in Arcadia Ego” (even in Arcadia, I exist). 

7.     Nicholas Cullinan, curator of international modern art at Tate Modern, who curated the Twombly retrospective there in 2008, said both artists “are dealing with death’s omnipresence in life.”

The idea for the current exhibit of work of Poussin and Twombly at the Dulwich Picture Gallery in London originated with Cullinan who said Twombly spoke of Poussin repeatedly.  Twombly is quoted as saying, “I would have liked to have been Poussin, if I’d had a choice, in another time.”

Perhaps Woody Allen will write a sequel to “Midnight in Paris” and portray Twombly slipping back into the seventeenth century so he can meet his idol.

I ask you to examine the following two paintings.  Write an objective analysis comparing and contrasting them.  Send me your response via e-mail (click here for address).  I will select one response, post it here (with your permission), and mail the writer a copy of my book Edward L. Loper, Sr.: The Prophet of Color.

The deadline for your entry is July 21.

Since both images are digital reproductions, take into consideration the impossibility of seeing the nuances of tiny detail—scratches, penciled fragments, etc.—in Twombly’s picture.  I am asking you to consider objectively the reasons given for the comparison of these two artist’s work.  If you think they are good reasons, say why.  If you think they are not, say why not.

Here are the pictures:

Nicolas Poussin, Arcadian Shepherds (Et in Arcadia Ego)
1630, Oil on canvas, Chadsworth (Derbyshire)
Collection of the Duke of Devonshire
Cy Twombly, Arcadia, 1958, Oil-based house paint, wax crayon,
                                                    coloured pencil, lead pencil on canvas, Daros Collection,
Once I post the response, and you have a chance to review it, I will begin a series of posts describing the role the traditions of art play in the development of an artist’s form.  I will use Edward L. Loper, Sr.’s paintings as the objects of study.