Friday, June 22, 2012

Creatively Seeing: Part II

In the previous post, Creatively Seeing, I described how art informs perception.

This post will describe how appreciating the art in the Allerton Garden (in the National Tropical Botanical Garden in Kauai) does just that.

First, some background. 

Robert Allerton (1873-1964), the son of Samuel W. Allerton (the force behind the founding of the Union Stockyards and the First National Bank of Chicago), spent five years in Europe studying painting before deciding he lacked talent. 

After giving up painting, Allerton dedicated himself to garden design, sculpture, and landscape architecture.  He returned to Chicago to create Piatt County estate, now called Allerton Park and operated as a conference center by nearby University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign.  Allerton bought hundreds of gifts for the Art Institute of Chicago, bestowing on the museum its first Rodin sculptures and its first Picasso drawing, and funded a new wing, becoming the facility's largest donor.

His partner, John Gregg Allerton, had studied architecture at the University of Illinois in the 1920's. In 1938, while returning from a winter trip to Australia, they stopped off in Kauai and discovered beachfront land on the southern end of the island along the Lawai River.  It was for sale.  They purchased 80 acres and named the property “Lawai-Kai” for “valley of plenty.”

One of the two previous owners was Queen Emma, widow of King Kamehameha IV.  The Allertons tried not to disturb the flowers and vegetation the Queen had planted: kiawe (a species of mesquite), tamarind, ferns, rose apple, and bougainvillea that still flourishes beside their house.

Allerton Garden is one of the five gardens of the now National Tropical Botanical Garden.

Later in his life, Robert Allerton would join a group of individuals and organizations who were attempting to establish a tropical botanical garden on U.S. soil. In the final year before he died, Allerton witnessed the creation of the Pacific Tropical Botanical Garden (now National Tropical Botanical Garden). John Gregg Allerton maintained the garden until his death in 1986 and left it in Trust. A few years later, the National Tropical Botanical Garden assumed management and the garden was named Allerton Garden after its founding fathers.

That’s where I come in.

My guided sunset tour took me to Allerton Garden late in the day.  Ryan, our guide, stopped to show us the view into the valley from high above, and I glimpsed what must have enchanted the Allertons:

Ryan said, “this is my office.

Lucky man.

After we arrived in the valley, Ryan parked the van at Pump Six, once the building housing irrigation pumps for the former sugar plantation.  A brief walk took us to the Thanksgiving Room, the first of what the Allertons called their “garden rooms.” All horizontally formatted, each has a unique theme despite shoebox-like containers.

Ryan guided us to “see” the aesthetic meaning imbedded in this “room.”

Look at this photograph, and see if you can identify the visual theme of the Thanksgiving Room:

In this case, “up” is a fitting one-word description.

The gazebo with its triangular finials point up.  The latticework arches point up.  And the two spindly palms towering above thrust up.

In this “room,” up is the rhythmic clue.

Remember rhythm? 

Dr. Barnes says, “It is rhythm that first strikes our attention and produces the pleasure that holds us longest.  No plastic element in a painting stands by itself, but is repeated, varied, counter-balanced by similar elements in other parts of the picture.  “It is this repetition, variation, and counterbalance that constitute rhythm.” (The Art in Painting, p. 62). 

I described the aesthetic effect of rhythm in a previous post “Come to Your Senses.”

While “up” is the visual clue here, only analysis can determine if all the elements in a picture or in a garden work together and contribute to the over-all composition.  The clue, orchestrated into an ensemble, establishes “design in its highest estate.”  Barnes argues this is comparable to the harmonious merging of musical chords and melodies in a symphony.

Here is the illustrative “story” of this “room”:  the Allertons had invited guests to a casual picnic on Thanksgiving Day.  Instead, they brought them to this “room” for a formal banquet.

This “story” is akin to a description of “what was” the subject of a painting—interesting, yes, but not helpful in determining aesthetic significance.

And, you are asking, how does this help us see creatively?  A good question, as it is the title of this post (and the last post), and I have digressed.

Look at this picture by Modigliani:

Cypresses and Houses at Cagnes, 1919, Barnes
Here we have a similar picture “theme”: a towering repoussoir (push back) of two color units lifts up as it sets back blocky rectilinear flattened color units in relatively shallow space.

However, in the Modigliani picture, the chalky, light, ochre and tan rectilinear units stand in contrast to the deep, saturated greens of the two “cypress trees.”  The resulting compressed space provides subtle contrasts of rectilinear rhythms beating a gentle “tap-tap-tap" as our eye moves from one color unit to another.

In your everyday world, do you see anything that expresses qualities similar to those two visual statements?  Think about this, and look closely at what you see for the next few days.  See if what you learned from the Allerton Thanksgiving Garden and the Modigliani Cypresses and Houses at Cagnes painting informed your perception.

The Mermaid Room presented another theme.  Look at these three photos:

List what you see.

While you are doing that, I will tell you the illustrative “story” of how these bronze statues, the shell pool, and the waterway originated.  First, the statues were commissioned for the Italian Pavilion of the 1931 World’s Fair in Paris.  Then, a plaster pair adorned the ballroom of an Italian cruise ship.  They later appeared near the entrance of an Italian pavilion restaurant at the 1939 World’s Fair at Flushing Meadows, New York, where the Allertons saw them.  Robert contacted the Italian consul to ask if he could purchase a bronze set of the Mermaids.

The Allertons intended them for “The Farms,” the Allerton family property located 150 miles south of Chicago but, when they arrived, they realized they were best suited for Lawai-Kai, and they shipped them there.  Later, their Kauai contractor created the waterway based on John’s duplication of the one at Villa Farnese—home to the Italian president—in Caprarola, Italy.  The shell pool at the end of the waterway was copied from one they admired at the capitol building in Stockholm.

You must be thinking, what is original about this?  How is this creative?  They did not invent anything.  They just put together a bunch of stuff that was already available.

That takes us back to the difference between “subject” and “subject matter” doesn’t it?  It is akin to saying, as people do, “I hate Renoir paintings—all those fat women dressed in fancy clothes—if they are dressed at all—so not now.”  But we know the “art” is in what Renoir (or any other artist) does to and with a subject.  Subjects repeat.  The illustrative is of the “here and now.”  Art is always new, and it is universal. 

Artists subject subjects to a new interest, a visual interest (as I said in a previous post, Subject Subjected to Interest). 

More about this later.

Now look at your list.

Did you notice the rhythms?

The U-shaped curve of the “mermaids’ tails” is the clue.  Follow the scallop-shape to the undulating waterway, the “shell,” the spouting water in the “shell,” the curves in the pot on the “mermaids” heads, on their pedestal bases, and in the bench between the “shell” and the “mermaid.”

Then look at the foliage.  This is an enlarged image of the palm fronds directly behind and to the left of the far “mermaid”:
Licuala spinosa, a clumping fan palm native to Java and the Moluccas

Notice how the edges of the large pleated fronds echo the scallop rhythm in a minor key.

None of this is an accident.  The Mermaid Room, meticulously orchestrated, says just what their designers wanted it to say: a series of scalloped shapes repeating with variety throughout a spacious, lush, sensuous rectilinear format.  The water pulsing through the “canal” creates its own seductive beat, adding to the charm of this room.

Violette de Mazia argued that art is always the same and always new.  To paraphrase the poet, Omar Khayyam, artists re-make the world, bringing it nearer to their heart’s desire.

I suspect you now will find “curls, scallops, and spirals” frequently as you walk, drive, or go about your daily tasks.  I know I do.

I have no idea if the Allertons knew Dr. Barnes or Violette de Mazia and their pioneering guide to objective aesthetic analysis.  I do know they all speak the same aesthetic language, as does Ryan, the guide at the National Tropical Botanical Garden.  As do I.  As do you.

We practice creatively seeing.



Saturday, June 16, 2012

Creatively Seeing

In the previous post, “Subject Subjected to Interest,” I showed how pictures originating from different subjects have similar plastic orchestrations, or, as Dr. Barnes asserts, “a picture of a massacre and one of a wedding may be of exactly the same type as works of art.” (The Art in Painting, p.72).

One of my readers asked me this question: Did you find the photos to replicate the paintings or was it the other way around?

It was the other way around.  I noticed the foliage, the flower, or the landscape, and I enjoyed what I saw.  I did not go any further than that.  After I came home, suffering from jet lag and re-entry disorientation, all of a sudden, unbidden, paintings attached themselves to the photos I had taken. 

As I thought about the question asked and my response to it, I identified another question: why do I, and why do you, do this work?  We know it is difficult, takes time, and does not result in fame or fortune (the usual reasons given for undertaking tedious and difficult work). 

An idea emerged—an important one—and I wrote the post.

Ideas sometimes surprise like this.

The idea:  We do this work because appreciating works of art enriches perception.  We do it because appreciating works of art educates visual perception. We do it, simply, because appreciating works of art teaches us how to see—creatively. 

Here’s how.

As you know, I recently returned from a trip to Kauai.  There, I twice visited the National Tropical Botanical Garden.  In the McBryde Garden, I marveled at the curvilinear and angular orchestration of vines, the complex spatial rhythms they created, and the horizontal color bands they pushed back, all of which I described in the previous post, “Subject Subjected to Interest.” Once home, I connected the plastic qualities of those roots to Van Gogh’s painting, Vines, with its similar aesthetic qualities.   

There is more to it, though.  I would not have noticed the vines in the McBryde Garden if I had not already known the Van Gogh painting.  And I would have never connected the two experiences if I had not practiced the objective method.  The Van Gogh painting enabled me to see and enjoy similar qualities in the vines in the McBryde Garden.  I suspect many people walked right by those vines, and they did not stop long enough to appreciate their aesthetic meaning.  
Consequently, my hard work in getting to know Van Gogh’s painting rewarded me by allowing me to enjoy the aesthetic qualities in vines as I walked through a tropical garden.


Here’s another example:

Look at this photograph of the roots of a fig tree (Moreton Bay Fig, or Ficus macrophylla -- a Banyan tree native to Australia) and the following one of the three fig trees I saw in the Allerton Garden:

As I looked at these massive, surging snake-like monsters, I listened to what our guide told us: “Jurassic Park, filmed in the Allerton Garden, used these fig trees in the movie.”

When I got home, I found these pictures of two scenes from the movie:

In Jurassic Park, viewers see two notable specimens of the Moreton Bay Fig Tree. The first is the one Dr. Grant climbs, along with Lex and Tim, to spend the night:

And here is the one when Dr. Grant discovers the dinosaur nest:

These informative facts educated me about the making of a movie.  What I did not yet know was “what wealth the show to me had brought,” as Wordsworth’s poem I Wandered Lonely as a Cloud says.

As I looked at the fig trees and their roots in the Allerton Garden, I thought: Soutine.

This Soutine:

Gorge du Loup, c. 1920, Galerie Crillon, Paris

Gorge du Loup depicts twisted, tortured roads and valleys in a cataclysmic tangle.  But the aesthetic meaning has to do with surging, writhing, massive, solid, dramatic color units pulsing upwards in space. 

In the Allerton Garden, I followed the palm roots upwards, as they twisted and turned, and dwarfed the people who posed in the spaces they created.  I entered those spaces visually, and felt the dramatic difference between the “wall” of the root and the “canyons” created by them.  I examined the overlapping and receding planes in space contrasted with the sudden rise upwards.  I silently thanked Soutine for making this adventure in perception possible, for awakening me to its possibilities, for causing me to stop and take notice.

That’s the reward for the hard work we do.

Convinced yet?

If not, here is another example:

Look at this photograph of heliconia:

If you walked by this Parrot’s beak heliconia in the Allerton Garden, would you stop to examine its aesthetic qualities? 

You would if you knew Rousseau’s work, as in the following picture:

Monkeys and Parrot in the Virgin Forest, c. 1905-06, Barnes

Rousseau’s painting is a series of triangular rhythms that subtly recede into deep space.  Like the heliconia, small “coasters” (sense focalizing units of red, orange, and blue-white) act as signposts, and they direct the spatial recession.  Units overlap, intersect, and move up and in creating varied spatial rhythms.  That is why I stopped to look and enjoy the heliconia, and I stayed awhile to do so.

Here is one more:

You may be thinking, as I did, that this is a man-made orchestration, that no “real” tree could grow these perfect cascading jewel-like “necklaces.”

I titled it “The Necklace of Seed Pods.”  I took a picture of it on my iPhone, and I showed the picture to the guide.  He told me they were seedpods of a palm tree. 

When I arrived home, I sent my picture in an e-mail to the National Tropical Botanical Garden asking for help in identifying the specific palm tree.  Dr. David H. Lorence, Director of Science, told me my picture shows the fruits of a palm native to the Philippines and Palau (Republic of Belau) in Micronesia.  The scientific name is Pinanga insignis.  In Palau it is called Chebouch. 

What do you see?

I see an upright pole-like unit (tree trunk) punctuated with horizontal green bands from which three sets of downward flowing strings of richly colored beads descend like ornamental necklaces. 

I felt captivated by it because I had experienced an ecological miracle and an aesthetic one.

Suddenly, I remembered this painting by Violette de Mazia:

A Necklace of Boats, 1949, Oil on wood panel, Barnes

In the painting, the triangular “boats” hang on brightly colored lines and stretch horizontally across the picture plane.  The triangular color shapes rhythmically echo in the reflections in the “water” and contrast with the blobby background “foliage” that undulates across the picture plane.  The “string” of color shapes hangs slightly in front of four horizontal color bands.  Compressed shallow space gives the entire ensemble a rigid, claustrophobic atmosphere, very different from the cascading quality of the palm pods.

Yet, the contrasting dots of color in the palm pods, the horizontality of the trunk’s bands, and the vivid, saturated color of the repeating units, speak much the same language.

With a mind educated by aesthetic appreciation, everything encountered becomes visually enriching. 

If you continue to use the objective method, and keep doing all the hard work genuine aesthetic appreciation demands, your everyday world will reward you with visual gifts to enjoy.

“Creatively Seeing, Part II,” the next post, will describe the “rooms” Robert Allerton created.




Tuesday, June 12, 2012

Subject Subjected to Interest

You thought we were finished with this topic, didn’t you?

I thought so too.

However, I just returned from a two-week visit to Kauai and, during my stay in this tropical paradise, the plants I saw kept talking to me.  Fascinated at the difference between how they looked and what use artists had made of their qualities, I kept saying “Van Gogh would have loved this,” or “Matisse used these colors and shapes.”  Neither one visited Kauai.  But they each were sensitive to similar qualities in the subjects they experienced in their own world.

Dr. Barnes argues “It is no easy task for a novice to banish from his mind the independent interest of the subject-matter and to fix his attention upon the manner in which color, line, space, and light are employed and interrelated; it involves the breaking up of a set of old, firmly riveted habits and the beginning of new ones.” (Art in Painting, 72-73)

You know this.

Indulge me this jet-lagged foray into familiar territory.  My defense: I give it all a new twist (literally).

For example, look at this photograph of vines that grow in the McBryde Garden in Kauai’s National Tropical Botanical Garden:

Woody liana Entada phaseoloides 
The vines are climbing over a Monkey Pod tree.  The common name is the St. Thomas Bean. 

Now do what we do: describe their plastic qualities (light, line, color, and space).

You will come up with something like: a vertical series of dramatic curvilinear, angular, and twisted rhythms decoratively setting off a series of horizontal wavy bands.

Now look at this picture by Van Gogh:

Vines, 1890, Van Gogh Museum

Look closely at the Van Gogh.  Notice how linear brush strokes echo the palm fronds in the top right of the photograph as well as the short, light, thin strips of branches on the foreground.

Of course, there are many differences as well. List them.

My point is not to compare and contrast these two pictures, but to stress a simple fact: where genuine interest drives inquiry, you will be unable to focus solely on the subject because you have already built the habit of aesthetic perception.  This now operates automatically.  You don’t get distracted.

Now look at this photograph of a view from Kukuiolono Park in Kalāheo:

Again, describe its light, line, color, and space.

Here is what I would say: a vertical repoussoir on the right pushes back a series of brightly colored rectilinear bands; they, in turn, push back a lower series of variegated patches of ochre and deep green.  These patches are interspersed with triangular verticals that recede into deeper space.  The spatial recession stops at a strip of dark brown, above which a wider band of deep blue connects with a band of grayed white to box in the middle wedge.  The light, white shapes at the top echo the rhythms of the landscape as they float in front of the lighter blue horizontal band.   

Now compare it to this Matisse painting:

The Sea Seen from Collioure, 1906, Barnes


One big difference between the Matisse and the photograph is the circular framing device Matisse employs.  Do you see it?  If you follow the left moving “tree branch” you will see it connect to the change in the “water” from dark blue on the left to a lighter cerulean.  That “skewer” in turn connects to the left of the red “pizza slice,” which then connects to the black descending line that moves toward the “tree trunk.”  

And yet, those oranges, ochres, and greens—they captivate our eye.  Decorative, enticing, rich, compelling: qualities of both.

The point of this short post, then, is this:  to an educated eye, attention is fixed upon the manner on which color, line, space, and light are employed and interrelated. 

I soon will see the current exhibit at the Philadelphia Museum of Art Gauguin, Cézanne, Matisse: Visions of Acadia.  If you have any questions or topics you would like to me address, please click here and let me know.