This blog describes why art matters. You will develop a set of tools enabling you to see the art in works of art. You will learn to see the way artists’ see. You will transform the very world you thought you were seeing every day into visual adventures. You will be equipped to do this work by learning to see.
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
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.
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.
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
Ryan guided us to “see” the aesthetic meaning imbedded in
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
In this “room,” up is the rhythmic clue.
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).
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
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
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.
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.