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.





  1. I can hardly wait to vote for your blog... this stuff is so exciting it gives me a welcome chill just now in steamy deltona florida! sincerely ,,margaret leonard.. VdM pupil of yours @ wintertur 2009

  2. Thank you! I am so glad you are enjoying the posts.

  3. The seed pods of the Pinanga insignis tree remind me of one of the East Indian miniature paintings in Room 16 = the room with the Egyptian Stelae, a brilliant Charles Prendergast, and two vitrines with antiquities and Navajo silver. My recollection of the miniature painting is of a necklace of pearl-like jewels dripping from the neck of one of the figures. Several of tne Navajo belts in the vitrines also appear to drip with "pearls" of silver in the manner of the seed pods of the Pinanga insignis.

  4. I will visit the Barnes soon, and I will look for this painting. I intend to print your clear directions and bring them with me, and I know Room 16 fairly well, so I have no doubt I will find it. Thanks for pointing it out. Your "connection" affirms the point of this post: when you know works of art, visual perception is enriched!