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.   


  1. Marilyn--such a pleasure to open my email at 645am and sit here with a "mini Bauman lecture" to start my day. Your writing always energizes my interpretive tho'ts about the world around me and how interwoven and connected we are artistically... I look forward to the next post.

    1. Thank you for letting me know you are enjoying the posts. I have a title for the next one: "Creatively Seeing." I will show how Robert Allerton (the landscape artist who designed the garden of "rooms" with rippling pools and dramatic sculpture in the National Tropical Botanical Garden in Kauai). I just need to get the photographs from the camera to the computer.

    2. I just realized I did not complete the third sentence in my reply above. I will show how Robert Allerton worked with the same aesthetic principles we use to understand the art in painting. It's in my head; now I just need to write it.