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?



  1. I am reminded of Soutine's flayed rabbit painting. It shares qualities with Renoir's benign still life of a cut open pomegranite. I often wished Barnes had hung them on the same wall. As a docent at Barnes, I began tours by comparing and contrasting the nudes by Renoir, Cezanne, Seraut, and Matisse in room one. The subject is female nude, but the expression is totally different in each artist's hands.

  2. You definitely understand the point I make in this post. I had not thought of the Soutine rabbit and the Renoir pomegranite, but it is a perfect comparison. Thanks!