Sunday, November 20, 2011

Subject Facts, Picture Facts, and Us

You are probably feeling you understand the relationship between subject facts and picture facts.  You may feel the subject does not matter much if what you are after is the art in the picture.  Or you may feel it does matter a lot because it refers us to our everyday world and makes the picture facts more relevant.

After I studied at the Barnes Foundation for four years, and I believed I understood the method and could use it effectively, I actually “read” page 77 in The Art in Painting.  I don’t know why I had not “read” this page with understanding before, but I hadn’t.

On that page, you will find the following two pictures:

Titian, Entombment,1584, Louvre

Cézanne, Curtain, Jug, and Compotier, 1893-94, Collection Mrs. John Hay Whitney

At the bottom of the page, Dr. Barnes described the design of both paintings as very similar in structure and expressive content because the interrelationships of plastic elements is basically similar.    

I had no problem with that statement.  I could see the similarity of compositional device (see diagrams below). 



However, I now had a problem with Dr. Barnes’ discussion in the pages that preceded page 77.  In those pages, he argued that the subject of entombment arouses very different feelings then the subject of a jug and fruit on a table.

He said our emotions aroused by subjects like “entombment,”  in so far as there is an appeal to “such sentiments as sorrow, pity, wonder, awe,” or an awareness of human suffering and compassion,  are perfectly reasonable so long as they are “united with the other elements in the substance of the painting—the  plastic form.” (p. 25)

OK so far.

He further declared, “An object is more than a pattern of lines and colors; it is an individual thing, and its form, as we have seen, is what gives it individuality and significance.  Its significance may reside in its appeal to our more specific instincts, or it may be due to the realization of mass and space, of the qualities common to all material objects.” (48)

OK still.

But here is where I got confused:

“In either case, the particular colored and patterned object takes on a more universal appeal, and moves us not only by what it is, but by what it suggests and embodies.  Obviously, the greatest satisfaction is possible from an object which combines these decorative and expressive interests and in which what is expressed is not only the universal qualities of the natural world, but human values also.” (49)

Human values?  What’s human emotion got to do with it? I asked.  I thought we left that behind when we embarked on the plastic analysis.

The following paragraph worsened my confusion:

“In Titian’s ‘Entombment,’ the subject is solemn, sad, pathetic; but the solemnity and pathos are restrained and dignified…When viewed plastically the picture presents a group of figures unified into a firmly-knit, self-enframing, oval composition, similar to, but more complex than that in Giotto’s ‘Lamentation over Christ.’ The drawing is highly expressive of movement and gesture but does not indicate exaggerated grief or despair, such as we find in treatments of the same subject by many lesser men.  The color, though glowing, does not flaunt itself, but is of a subdued richness which pervades the whole canvas and contributes to compositional unity.  The robes in the bending figures to the right and left are brighter in color and serve as a sort of secondary frame, enclosing the members of the group, and setting them off from the background.  The color, in other words, functions as an organizing principle.  Finally, the use of light, powerfully enhanced by color, brings out the figure of the dead Christ, and is so distributed over the whole canvas as to form a pattern in itself, reënforce and harmonize the color-values, contribute to the composition, and heighten the sense of mystery and awe characteristic of the event depicted.  In this painting it is both the intrinsic interest of the event and the perfect coördination all the means, color, light, line, space, which make up the total esthetic effect and establish the painting as one of the great achievements of plastic art.  One need not be a Christian, or indeed have any special interest in the event itself, to obtain from the painting the rich human values, the nobility, intrinsic to sympathy, solemnity, tragedy.  These values are rendered plastically, by means of color, light, line, mass, and space, all unified into a rich, rhythmic design.” (74)

Why, you might be thinking, was I confused?

And, even odder still, why did it take me so long to know I missed something?

The answer is akin to “looking” at a picture for years, but not “seeing” it.

It happens.

Here I was, a converted practitioner of the objective method, well into my 4th year of study at the Barnes Foundation, and my 3rd year of study with Violette de Mazia herself and, before I really read these pages and understood what the words were saying, I thought I just needed to get past the subject to “see” the art in the picture. 

But that is not the case at all. 

Subject facts connect to picture facts and, most important, also connect to us.

Subject facts converted into “color stuff” (also known as subject-matter or substance) and plastic form are not separable.

Violette de Mazia told me Titian’s Entombment and Cézanne’s Curtain, Jug, and Compotier, while sharing plastic characteristics, do not share human values as those values relate to expressive meaning.  They can’t.  We do not “feel” the same about the burial of a person as we do about fruit on a table.  And our feelings count; they factor into the objective equation.

At that moment, in that class, I knew I still had much to learn.

My challenge centered on my ability to understand that a picture of a crucifixion or a wedding may, when converted into works of art, read the same plastically. We can abstract from each the form which is made of the plastic elements—line, light, color, space—and determine the quality of that form as a unified fusion of those elements.

Or, as Violette de Mazia said, “all art is always the same, and always different,” when I again asked her to help me resolve my confusion regarding the human response—the feelings of pity, awe, grief, horror, inspired by the subject—as opposed to the objective one—the form revealed via plastic analysis. 

Now that you and I have acquired the habit of objective analysis, the appeal or repulsion of the subject should not thwart our understanding of the art in the picture.  In fact, the reverse is true: a work of art based on a subject of profound human significance made by a gifted artist through his re-action and re-creation of it, elicits strong feelings that we objectify as we do the work of aesthetic analysis.   

In other words, in the previous post, “What’s the Subject Got To Do With It?” you and I were horrified by what Saturn did but enjoyed aesthetically what Goya did.

Or, as Dr. Barnes said, “this ultimate dependence of esthetic appreciation upon something which much be felt, and cannot simply be abstractly formulated, is the final proof of the affinity between art and instinct. . .In the final analysis it is a matter of interest, and interests, as we have seen, are themselves determined by our instincts.” (44)

You may not yet be ready to tackle the question of how much the subject matters, whether you feel a loss when you confront a non-representational picture, or feel no difference at all, or feel, finally, freed from dealing with recognizable things. 

I will tackle those questions next year.

For now, I offer you an end-of-year challenge.  Diana Meyers-Bennett Roberts commented after reading the previous post that she was “reminded of Soutine's flayed rabbit painting. It shares qualities with Renoir's benign still life of a cut open pomegranate.”

Study the following two pictures and, based on the ideas in the previous posts, write an analysis comparing and contrasting them.

Send your responses to me via e-mail.  I will reward each responder with a copy of my book, Edward L. Loper, Sr., The Prophet of Color.

Renoir, Pomegranates, c. 1910, Barnes

Soutine, Flayed Rabbit, c. 1921, Barnes

Monday, November 14, 2011

What's the Subject Got To Do With It?

At the end of the last post, “What’s Feeling Got To Do With It?” I asked you to examine this Goya painting, Saturn Devouring One of His Sons:

1821-23, Plaster mounted on canvas, Prado

When I show this picture to children, they say, “gross,” or “yuk.” They look away.  They ask why anyone would paint such a horrible picture.

This, from the same kids who have no problem watching vampire movies, or play video games, like “Call of Duty,” in which they, in one way or another, blow up, maim or kill their opponents without breaking a sweat.

I tell them the subject facts: (1) that this is one of Goya’s “Black Paintings,” uncommissioned and not meant for public display; (2) that Goya painted it with oil directly on the wall of his house, along with 13 others; (3) that the subject depicts the mythological Saturn swallowing one of his sons because he feared the prophesy that a son would overthrow him, just as he had overthrown his father, Caelus.  Usually, they remain unmoved.  They still feel repelled by the savagery and grotesqueness of the subject. 

That’s the power of the subject.

However, our job is to discover the aesthetic meaning in this picture.  When I turn it upside down, you can see how the “color stuff,” as I call it, tells quite a different story—a story that has to do with visual qualities and volumes in space and a story that, when understood, produces a far different feeling.

Inverted, we see dramatic light-and-dark effects, somber richness and ruggedness of paint application, thrusts and counter thrusts of sinewy, bony volumes, and a forceful pattern of color units that set up an animated, subtly varied composition expressing jagged, angular movement. Light shapes emerge from darkness, and light shapes are sucked into darkness.

Emerging from blackness, the lights force you to follow them: (now from top to bottom) the v-shaped “legs” extend like a wishbone; the “baby’s calves,” “thighs,” and rounded “buttocks,” undulate up to the lineal, horizontal vise-like grip that were “hands” as they dig into the “back”  to continue a skewered line of “back-bone” that bends to the left.  Moving to the right, a sliver of curved light enters the black hole of the “mouth,” where it disappears; the “whites” of the “eyes” punctuate the receding “forehead,” from which “flames” of “hair” shoot out into the darkness and connect to the extended T-bone pocket of the right “arm.”  The “pupils,” black dots in white circles, continue the rhythmic, jumpy movement.

The light-and-dark volumes jut, bend, sink, squeeze, and pulse. 

Then, within this over-all brown/black tonality punctuated by lighter, but dull whites and yellows, we see the red.  The “surprise” of it arrests attention.  We follow it from the twisting, edginess it gives to the “arm” and what is left of the “back” as it leads our eye to those gripping “hands,” an extraordinarily expressive lineal movement that says captured, held, and sucked into—like a chicken neck into a vacuum hose.

Squint if you can’t see it.  Do whatever you can to loosen the grip of that subject.

In this case, the subject repulses, but the aesthetic experience of power, drama, and movement, satisfies perception.  As we experience the color statement, instead of disgust, we feel rewarded.

The pieces fit. 

The color story is not one we have “read” before, so we feel a sense of excitement as we piece together the various components, establish the relationships of light, line, color, and space, and recognize that a horrific myth becomes a convincing plastic reality because Goya can render movement, power, and drama via a color statement.  The color statement gives plastic, aesthetic reality to the horror of the subject.  The transformation into color converts the chaos and horror of life into the order and consolation of art. 

The medium is the message, and this message connects to a recognizable, if terrifying, subject. 

Look at this Soutine painting:

The Soutine has a lot in common with the Goya once you get past the warm richness of color (I know, that is a lot to ask).  However, upside down, you can’t “see” the subject. You can see thrust and counter thrust, power, drama, and movement.  Do you miss the subject?

Here is the painting, right side up:

 The Philosopher, c. 1921, Private Collection

Violette de Mazia argues a recognizable subject makes more specific what the picture says.  The subject gives us a clue to what started the artist on his aesthetic adventure. 

Dr. Barnes argues, “forms may be charged with esthetic feeling even when they represent nothing definite in the real world or when what they represent is clearly without appeal in itself…When we cannot find in a picture representation of any particular object, what it represents may be the qualities which all particular objects share, such as color, extensity, solidity, movement, rhythm, etc.”  (Art in Painting, p. 35). 

In other words, in the case of the Goya painting and the Soutine right side up, we have a clear starting point, albeit distorted.  In the case of Mitch Lyons’ clay print, Medicine Man, described in the previous post, we did not. 

Check your pulse. By that I mean, consider whether your aesthetic understanding transmitted more or less “delight” as you uncovered the art in each of them.

Now you can answer the question that began this post: what does the subject have to do with it?