Monday, July 16, 2012

Creatively Seeing: Part IV

I received several responses to my request in the previous post “Creatively Seeing: Part III.”  Just as I selected one, I started to look at the New York Times.  In the Sunday Review section, I spotted an essay dealing with a compatible idea: “What is Real is Imagined.” 

Synchronistic?  Yes. I love it when it happens.

In the essay, Colm Roibin described how writers invent stories.  His points, however, hold true for visual artists as well.  Or, as Violette de Mazia repeatedly said, “all art is always the same and always different.” 

This post will show how this works.

Roibin said, to write a story, “it is the shape of the story rather than the shape of life that dictates what is added and excised.”

He said writers use what they need and they change what they use. 

He said, “the story has a shape, and that comes first, and then the story and its shape need substance and nourishment from the haunting past, clear memories or incidents suddenly remembered or invented, erased or enriched.  Then the phrases and sentences begin…what comes into shape will, despite all the fragility and all the unease, seem more real and more true, be more affecting and enduring than the news today, or the facts of the case….”

So, too, with making pictures. 

And so, too, with seeing creatively.

Here is the photograph I received:

Here is what our reader said about her photograph: “This is a grouping of trees near the lake behind my place of work. The individual shapes of the trees, the shapes of the clusters of the trees, shape of the trees against the sky, and shapes of the clouds in the sky, reminded me of the paintings in your blog. Although the colors in the photo are vivid and the blues and greens varied, I imagined the scene with a greater variety of colors, particularly warmer colors, and it was quite striking.”

Our astute reader noticed the rhythms of the “foliage” and the “clouds.”  She noticed how those rhythms repeated with variety throughout the “picture.”  She noticed the spatial overlapping of the foliage’s color masses.  Then she added what she wanted based on what she knows is possible given her experience with Salvatore Pinto’s and Matisse’s work. 

That is creatively seeing.

We learn to enjoy our visual experiences more if we appreciate works of art.

Artists create pictures informed by relevant visual ideas they discover in works of art.

Their resulting works of art, Violette de Mazia argued, have an “itness,” a sense of actuality.  She meant the same thing Roibin meant when he said the story seems “more real and more true…than the news today, or the facts of the case….”

John Dewey, in Art as Experience, repeats an explanation from Max Eastman’s “Enjoyment of Poetry.”  Eastman uses an illustration of a man crossing the East River on a ferry coming into New York City.  He describes several ways the man can “see” the approaching city.  When he looks at it as “colored and lighted volumes in relation to one another, to the sky and to the river,” he sees as an artist sees.

Dewey argues this “seeing” is concerned with a perceptual whole, constituted by related parts. “The Empire State Building may be recognized by itself.  But when it is seen pictorially it is seen as a related part of a perceptually organized whole.  Its values, its qualities, as seen, are modified by the other parts of the whole scene, and in turn these modify the value, as perceived, of every other part of the whole.  There is now form in the artistic sense.” (p. 136)

See if this makes sense to you. 

Look at our reader’s photograph with my black lines marking the key rhythms:

 Now look at the delineated “foliage” clusters.

The image shows rounded, color volumes slipping one behind the other in compressed space.  This is the spatial quality our reader looked for and found in her landscape because Salvatore Pinto’s picture expressed similar qualities.   

See if you can appreciate how differently Matisse and Van Gogh “used” subject facts of trees in a landscape by comparing these two pictures: 


Matisse, Landscape at Collioure, 1905, MoMA                                 

Van Gogh, Pine Trees in the Garden of the Asylum, 1889, Kroller-Mueller

Both artists used what they needed and changed what they used.

The point made by Colm Roibin and me is this: the subject does not determine what the picture will be.  It plays a role, but imagination fueled by “memory and desire” are the key players.  The resulting work of art, this new object, is no less “real” because it is color made.  It simply speaks the language of color.  

Both pictures, colors on a flat surface, provide enticing, exciting, and enriching visual experiences.  In turn, when we understand the pictures, we gain aesthetic pleasure and real-life, in-time lessons in perception.


Thursday, July 5, 2012

Creatively Seeing: Part III

In the previous two posts (Creatively Seeing and Creatively Seeing: Part II), I described how art informs perception.

Seems I have more to say.

Last week I attended a lecture at the Barnes Foundation about the current Salvatore Pinto exhibit at the Woodmere Art Museum.

I attended for several reasons, but only one of them had to do with Salvatore: (1) Angelo Pinto, his brother,  taught me the traditions at the Barnes Foundation in the late 1970s—and I continue to refer to my notes from those classes when I prepare my own classes; (2) in the late 1970s, I attended one of Angelo’s exhibits, fell in love with one of his reverse paintings on glass, and to this day lament I did not purchase it because I could not afford its modest selling price; (3) during the many years I visited and then taught at the Barnes, I enjoyed the 11 paintings—two by Salvatore and nine by his brothers  Biagio and Angelo—in the collection.

The curator at the Woodmere, Dr. Matthew Palczynski, described not only Salvatore Pinto’s work but also the work of his two brothers.  He described their backgrounds, their relationship with Dr. Barnes (included in the title of the exhibit—Salvatore Pinto: A Retrospective Celebrating the Barnes Legacy), their methods, and their sources in the traditions.

The lecture piqued my interest to see more of Salvatore’s work, and I visited Woodmere this past Sunday to do that.

After my visit, I felt perplexed. I wondered if Salvatore’s work, at least the work in this exhibit, so heavily indebted to Matisse’s work, was more imitative than creative. Edward Sozanski, in his review of the exhibit, concluded that Salvatore’s work is “uncomfortably close to Matisse.”

Dr. Barnes, in The Art in Painting, said the work of all three Pinto brothers (along with John Kane, Georgia O’Keeffe, and Settanni), is entitled to respect because “it represents personal visions embodied in individual plastic forms.” (p. 347)

I decided to put the “originality” debate out of my mind, or so I thought.  In this post, I decided to describe how Salvatore Pinto’s work helped me see creatively.

First, look at Salvatore’s two pictures in the Barnes Foundation:

 Ajaccio, Corsica, c. 1932-1933, Barnes
Marrakech, 1933, Barnes

In both pictures, rich, lush color applied in pulled, curled, thick brushwork orchestrates subtle space recession.

Each picture, at first, seems directly simple: landscapes consisting of rounded color masses moving backwards in relatively shallow space.

And, yes, Matisse comes to mind. 

Look at these two pictures and compare them:

 Matisse,Eucalyptus, Montalban, 1918, The Cone Collection


Now compare these details:

Pinto’s color masses, constructed with rectilinear strokes that tend to curve, build round, dense volumes.  These volumes overlap in compressed space.  Matisse’s color masses not only are less lushly vibrant, they are flatter in volume and separated by dark punctuations setting them off from each other. Qualities of lightness and airiness define the qualities in Matisse’s picture.

By 1918, Matisse had experienced the light, color, and atmosphere in Nice, and the fiery drama of his earlier Fauve work and the boldness of those statements became tempered with delicacy and luminosity.

Examine this earlier painting by Matisse, and you will see what I see:

Matisse, The Sea Seen from Collioure, 1906, Barnes

The color drama of this Matisse, orchestrated by dashes and dabs of washy peach, cool greens, purple, cerulean and ultramarine, become transformed by Pinto into a densely opaque, closely applied series of arcs and curls—not animated as in Van Gogh’s work, or lively as in Glackens’ work, but heavy, set, and solid.

I also see Renoir in Pinto’s visual statement.  Do you? 

Look at this picture:

 Renoir, Farmhouse, 1917, Barnes

Pinto’s interest, like Renoir, directs his perception to rounded, rolling back, overlapping luminous color masses built with arc-shaped brush strokes.  But Pinto does not use chorded color to build his volumes; therefore, his color volumes, unlike either Matisse’s or Renoir’s, have a velvety density quite distinctly his.   

This brings me back to what I sidestepped, or said I did.

Once I started looking carefully at these two Salvatore Pinto paintings, I could see what he invented that was his and not Matisse’s or anyone else’s.  Or, to put it another way, what he borrowed from Matisse he then paid back with his interest in something entirely different—richness, boldness, and structural solidity of color volumes. 

I’ve scratched the surface here.  To do justice to my budding perceptions, I would need to do what Violette de Mazia did in her “Glackens-spiel,” her four-hour lecture that became her twenty-seven page essay “The Case of Glackens vs. Renoir.” (The Barnes Foundation Journal of the Art Department, Autumn, 1971, Vol. II, No. 2, pp. 3-30).  In it, she defended Glackens as a genuinely creative artist, albeit strongly influenced by Renoir.

I suspect, but have not yet objectively determined, the same is true of Salvatore Pinto: strongly influenced by Matisse, Salvatore Pinto selects subjects he subjects to an expressively illustrative interest, not an expressively decorative interest as did Matisse.  He is closer to Glackens in this—a simple, direct, vibrant, picturesque expressive illustration but stressing weight and solidity rather than lightness and liveliness as did Glackens.

Which brings me back to creatively seeing. 

Yesterday, because of the heat, I walked on a trail I usually use for my run.  I spotted a grouping of trees, and I stopped to examine them. 


The clumps of foliage reminded me of Salvatore Pinto’s orbs of receding color units in shallow space.

However, the relentless green of this scene wearied me.  So I experimented a little. I looked at it through the lens Salvatore Pinto’s paintings provided me: to the series of round, heavy color volumes set one behind the other in compressed space, I added Pinto’s lush, rich, purples, oranges, pinks, cool blues and greens.  Then I moved the color units until the color orbs fit together in weighty masses, and I changed the trunk color of the small tree on the right from dark brown to deep red.

I walked on, refreshed.

I did not subject my subject to Matisse’s vision.  I did not see it this way:

Matisse, Periwinkles/Moroccan Garden, 1912, MoMA


In Periwinkles, Matisse abstracts  color shapes, flattens them, and places them, one behind the other, like slices of rightward sloping curvilinear paper cutouts.  They are rhythmically balanced by arcs (the wider, red “tree trunk,” then the slimmer black “tree trunk,” then the thinner red “tree trunk”) that bend to the left and move slightly back in space.  If you look more closely, you will find more rhythms of curves, arcs, ribbons, lines, all echoing the decorative theme. 

The catalog to the Woodmere exhibit contains the transcript of a conversation: William Valero, the director and CEO of Woodmere; Matthew Palczynski, curator; poet Jim Cory; and John Ignarri, great-nephew of Salvatore Pinto.  In talking about influences in Salvatore’s beach paintings, John Ignarri says, “It’s related and it’s all from something.” (p. 21)

This concise statement describes what we are doing. 

I creatively perceived my “landscape” because works of art informed my vision.  Assisting me in my adventure in perception, I recalled Lipstick palm trees I saw in the Allerton Garden in the National Tropical Botanical Garden  in Kauai. The red of their trunks astounded me. Now I used that visual experience, allowing me to enliven the boring landscape in front of me by creatively perceiving the trunk of the foreground tree as “red.” 

Along with the verticality of their red trunks, I enjoyed the colorfulness of the in-and-out movement of the Lipstick palm’s decorative fronds because I knew Matisse’s work.  I remember thinking, “Matisse did not ‘invent’ red tree trunks.  There are red tree trunks.”  

Cyrtostachys renda, Lipstick palm or Red sealing wax palm

It’s all there, but it remains invisible until artist's show it to us or until we look for it.

Even if there were not red tree trunks, we, as well as artists, see what we look for, what we want and need to re-make our visual world to say what we want it to say.

There is nothing new under the sun; all creation is re-creation.

My recent exploration of Salvatore Pinto’s work enabled me to have an adventure in perception as I explored a hazy, hot, green-saturated setting in Delaware.

We, as well as artists, acquire visual acuity from everyday experiences as well as from works of art (aka the traditions). 

We, as well as artists, learn to see creatively based on our everyday visual experiences informed by what we understand and enjoy in relevant works of art (aka the traditions of art).

While the two statements seem to say the same thing, they do not.  The difference between what artists do and what we do is this: artists record the meaning of their visual aesthetic experience in their pictures.  Salvatore Pinto, to paraphrase Matisse, did not make a landscape (or a beach scene, or a ballet dancer).  He made a picture.  In his picture, he orchestrated the qualities he discovered in the subject he used.  The subject did not determine what his picture would be; he did.  And he determined what his picture would be based on his everyday visual experiences along with what he borrowed from visual color statements recorded in other artists’ work. 

Try this.

Bring your camera or smart phone with you when you take a walk.  If you see a subject that interests you, see it through Salvatore Pinto’s eyes.  Take the picture.  Send it to me via e-mail. Tell me why you found it interesting and how you choreographed it, and I will post it.                                                                            

If you do this work imaginatively, you will experience the fruit of your aesthetic labors—you will be creatively seeing.

I also recommend you visit the Barnes Foundation and go on a treasure hunt to find all the Pinto pictures.  Visit the Woodmere Art Museum and see the Salvatore Pinto: A Retrospective Celebrating the Barnes Legacy exhibit. 

Then click here and let me know what you experienced or write me a message below.  I’d love to know your discoveries.