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.


  1. M,
    Aren" you comparing apples to oranges? The one constant is change, and T. reflects that so well as P, did during his time. It is impossable to compare one society to another, impossable to compare one art form to another, and certainly impossabe to find a common thread in the two distinct artists who lived 500 years apart.

  2. I agree with Mitch Lyons to the extent that a particular form of art dwells in its own parameters. We do not ask sculpture to carry the burden of certain aspects unique to painting or engravings or weaving. Change is inevitable, welcome, and constant, as artist Mitch Lyons says. But, it was Twombly who claimed to be Poussin's follower and we were asked to examine the logic of his declaration. Both men, as painters, had access to the same tools: light, line, color, space, composition. In that regard we were not comparing apples and oranges.

  3. I asked you to consider the logic of the reasons stated for the Twombly/Poussin exhibit. If the exhibit was to compare their biographies and the fact that each of them pursued something new in his lifetime, it would have been more sensible to hang on the exhibit walls lists of the facts of their lives, what they did and when they did it, the prizes they won, what they said their work was about, and the acclaim they received.

    Twombly claimed an aesthetic affinity with Poussin. Yet, if we try to compare their pictures, we see nothing in common.

    Of course we can find common thread in the work of artists who lived 500 years apart. Artists constantly reinvent visual ideas they borrow from other artists. There is nothing new under the sun. Every invention is a reinvention.

    Pearl S. Buck, in the catalog for the exhibit “Ancient Chinese and Modern European Paintings,” held in May-June 1943, at the Bignou Gallery in New York, said it best. She argued that “the ancient roots of man are the same; . . . that western fruit can grow from eastern seed, that seed can be separated from fruit by generations and yet the process of life goes on between the two; . . . that between man and man, in time and in space, there is the common hope, the common longing, for the spirit of man is the same everywhere and always . . . The ability to comprehend each other [springs] from the fact that each was interested in the same discovery—that is, in finding out the essential meaning of life itself and in expressing that meaning in clear and understandable terms. . . this common humanity can be expressed again and again by 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.’”

    The objective method explores the work—the color on the canvas—to determine how an artist choreographs his means (light, line, color, and space). In the case of Twombly and Poussin, Mitch is correct: there is no common thread. Consequently, there should not have been an exhibit promoting the opposite.