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


  1. Palettes are similar and I sense, as much as possible from digital images, that brush application is heavy in both. The Renoir is a sandwich composition while the Soutine is pyramidal albeit framed in an assymetrical digaonal block viewed from above. But both are still lifes, luminously rendered up close on a table. (I assume you are not looking for an lengthy essay here.)But, yes, they express oppositional qualities, i.e., the Renoir is soft, quiet, velvety, juicy, rich and vibrant. The "Rabbit" picture, on the other hand, is shocking, visceral, wet, soggy, decadent, meaty, morbid, and rather nauseous. While one painting portrays a subject that is life-giving, the other blatantly displays death at its most gruesome.... violent, bleeding and dramatic. Yet, it isn't just the subject matter that elicits these strong instinctive human responses. Renoir uses more cool and quiet blues in his painting, and renders the "cloth" upon which the fruit rests in soft, pillowy, velvety mottling. You sense a certain respect given the pomegranates. Whereby the "cloth" under the "rabbit" is stiff, papery and appears soiled. There are more harsh reds here, things are askew, the colors seem smeared, harder, applied with more force and brutality. So, yes, two paintings similar in color and light, but aided by the subject matter and the subtle differences in form and composition, are expressively quite different.

  2. Actually, whenever I've looked at the Renoir "Pomegranates" my eye goes first to the center where the overripe innards are displayed. I agree with Ms. Radano that "juicy, rich and vibrant" are apt words to describe the depiction, and why my eyes and senses make a transfer to blood and guts spilling out.
    The Soutine "Flayed Rabbit," on the other hand, while "visceral and meaty" seems gruesome mostly in subject matter but compared to the pomegranates, not so much in expression.