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.



No comments:

Post a Comment