Sunday, May 6, 2012

Reign of Error

The Van Gogh Up Close exhibit at the Philadelphia Museum of Art closes today.  I’m sorry about that, because I intended to write several more posts based on individual pictures in it.

What I will write instead has to do with the “blockbuster” success of this exhibit, not that that is a bad thing.  It isn’t.

What concerns me has to do with the idea of “self-guided” tours that have very little to do with the “self.”

When the students in my Van Gogh Seminar attended the exhibit at 10 a.m. on a Saturday morning, we were some of the first to enter.  Some of the first does not quite paint the correct picture: hordes of us entered at 10 and hordes more followed every few minutes.  The guards admonished our group of 15 “not to speak to each other” about the pictures, but to “self-guide.”  Translation: listen mutely to the information given through the headphones.

Fortunately, I had provided my students a Study Guide.  This enabled them to focus on individual work and to scrutinize several pictures closely so they could answer the questions I posed.

My questions had to do with the aesthetic information they were to uncover via objective analysis. 

Our “self” experiences what is in the work and is very different from our “receptacle” that collects what someone else says about the work.

By that I mean, when we confront a painting, we must use everything we have learned:  (1) how to uncover visual meaning in works of art; (2) how to read color and determine creativity; and (3) how to appreciate aesthetic achievement.  All by ourselves.

My students and I have been attempting something even more challenging.  We have been trying to decide for ourselves if Dr. Barnes’ assessment of Van Gogh’s achievement remains as credible today, May 6, 2012, as it was when he wrote it in 1925.  Never one to gush, Dr. Barnes said this:

His color is bright, often exotic, and usually employed in daring contrasts; but it lacks structural quality, it does not often function effectively in organizing the painting, and rarely adds anything expressive to the form.  His pictures are always rhythmic, but the rhythms are obvious and usually mechanical.  The result is that the total compositional activity of the color is chiefly decorative, and the technical means of achieving animated effects and striking patterns are rather specious and overaccentuated.  His compositions are generally flat, his drawing and modeling are relatively unvaried and not very original (The Art in Painting, p. 334).

Do we agree?

I began this discussion in the previous two posts (Is This the Sun? and Is This the Sun? Cont’d).  Those posts discussed two of Van Gogh’s paintings in which he used olive trees as his subject.

This time, let’s study this picture:

Houses at Auvers, 1890, MFA Boston

It’s at moments like this when I simply want to sigh, smile, and revel in the colorfulness and liveliness I see. 

It’s then I hear the ghosts of Dr. Barnes and Violette de Mazia whispering to me: “Get a grip, girl.  Go to work,” they say.

When I turn the picture upside down, I can do just that:

Now I see a crumpled section of wiggling, flowing, ins and outs of rectilinear and curvilinear striated vivid color shapes occupying ¾ of the picture.  The remaining ¼ blue color band slips behind the larger section and converts curling motifs of “trees” and “shrubs” into interlocking curls of “clouds” that move horizontally across that background plane.

Here are some cropped details:

This first one, of the thatched roof, orchestrates rows of insistent repeated striations of olive, black, orange, and brown tones within a curved flattened color plane.  The “cottage” sets back and moves slightly in and out via horizontal rectilinear dabs of light blue and cerulean on a lavender ground.  To the right, longer, vertical strips of creamy white, muted greens and blues are held within darker outlines—like empty vertical boxes. 

This second one reaffirms the motifs:  the “road” is swept up (not back) then left (including its “shadow”), and wraps around the “cottage,” pulsing with movement.  These fluid triangular shapes of long, overlapping pulled bands rise slightly on the far right to create a small, ledge-like structure.  The green/tan “figure” moves in much the same way the curl of “foliage” does on the top left of the ledge-like unit. 

Notice, too, how the lower edge of the “thatched roof” sits on a descending step-like unit of projecting “house” and ascending “step-like” bushes.

The above detail of “sky” shows the cerulean/lavender color harmonies repeated but now writ large and dramatic and broken by “chain-like” links of pink/blue/white color arcs that push leftwards across it.  Below, dark lines rhythmically repeat the interlocking chain motif of the “clouds.”

This cropped detail, once again, exhibits what we now expect:  linear short color stripes contained within light boxy color shapes bend and swirl across the picture plane.  Of all the rooftops, however, one is not modulated: the red one.  Every other rectilinear color unit is animated by either vertical stripes or horizontal ones.  The red one, however, is a flat, opaque rectangle.

As a practitioner of the objective method, I have to call it as I see it.  No matter how much I love this picture, no matter how happy the color and the dynamic movement of the color shapes makes me, it has “issues” as we would say today.  Violette de Mazia calls them “holes.” 

Here is what she said about Van Gogh’s painting “House and Figure”:

Houses at Auvers, 1890, MFA Boston

“Here, although a measure of unity is imposed by the twisted shape of the area that makes up
the red roof of the cottage in the foreground, the lack of variations in the color of the brush strokes creates a break in the organic unity of the picture, and the roof is a hole” (E Pluribus Unum—Cont’d: Part IV, p. 32)

I continue to love this one as well.

If you have been reading these posts for this long, you know what we do takes time, effort, and patience.  All we have is our own interest, curiosity and the objective method to guide us.  The Reign of Error assumes all we need is information about the works of art: facts, dates, subjects used, history, biography.    

I do not know yet what my students will conclude about Van Gogh’s achievement.  I can say, thanks to the Van Gogh Up Close exhibit and our work together, we have had an intense, exciting, and rewarding experience getting to know Vincent van Gogh’s work.  If anything, we have affirmed a basic truth: creation is messy.  Not all pictures are perfect.  There are levels of genuine achievement lower than the loftiest.

Van Gogh’s work continues to provide me with ways of seeing I could not have attained had he not shown them to me in his pictures.