Saturday, December 21, 2013

Don't Judge a Book by its Cover

Recently I visited the “Armory Show at 100” at the New-York Historical Society.  The exhibit continues until February 23, 2014, so if what I say about it whets your appetite, click here for more information:

That said, I do not intend to write about the exhibit.  As the title of this post suggests, I intend to write about our tendency to judge an event, a work of art, a person based on nothing more than a first impression.

My case in point: the hostile criticism Matisse’s painting, Blue Nude, provoked from the first time Matisse exhibited it in 1907 and subsequently when it was shown in the 1913 exhibit, “The International Exhibition of Modern Art,” held at the Armory. 

 “A nude woman, ugly, spread out on opaque blue grass under some palm trees,” Louis Vauxcelles wrote in “Le Salon des Indépendants” on March 20, 1907, where Matisse first exhibited this painting.  He added that the drawing appeared “rudimentary and the colors cruel.” (Gil Blas, p. 1)

When Blue Nude was exhibited at the Armory Show in 1913, students at the Art Institute of Chicago burned copies of Matisse’s work in effigy.  When Claribel Cone purchased the painting at the John Quinn estate sale in 1926, it was still an audacious acquisition.

In response to such criticism, Matisse said, “If I met such a woman on the street, I should run away in terror.  Above all, I do not create a woman, I make a picture." (translated by Flam in Matisse on Art, p. 132)

When I saw it at the “Armory Show at 100,” it lit up the room.

I had never seen the original.  Each time I visited the Cone Collection in the Baltimore Museum of Art, it was on loan.  No image I had seen, digital or printed, prepared me for the power of it.

Here it is:

                                     Matisse, Blue Nude, 1907, Baltimore Museum of Art

Patricia Cohen, writing in The New York Times, said: “So it is essential to remember that the original show, which introduced European modernists  like Van Gogh, Gauguin, Duchamp, Cézanne, Matisse and Edvard Munch to Americans, did not just present new art.  It required a new way of seeing.  Imagine Mozart hearing Metalica.” (10.27.13, p. 14).

It did not require a “new way of seeing” so much as an objective way of seeing.

If we should not judge a book by its cover, we should not judge a painting by its subject.

Ironically, Blue Nude, according to Dr. Albert Barnes, should not have shocked anyone.  Here are some of the sources in the traditions he said Matisse adapted:

Hanging, late 6th century, Egypt, Linen, wool, Met

Dr. Barnes wrote: “This Egyptian textile is an anticipation of distortion by which Matisse transforms a figure into an arabesque pattern (The Art of Henri Matisse, p. 248).

Here are two more:

Female Figure, Baule peoples, late 19th-early 20th cen., Barnes
Railing Pillar with Yakshi, Indian (Mathura), 2nd cen. AD, Barnes

Dr. Barnes wrote the following about the two sculptures:  “Exaggeration of rounded volumes to the point at which they appear detached from the body to which they belong” occurs in the Hindu and Negro sculptures above (The Art of Henri Matisse, p. 316).  This type of rounded projection is a central motif in the Matisse.

And here is another precedent I discovered:

The Queen of Sheba, Unknown artist, Persian, c. 1600

The arabesque motif and the setting of a figure within a patterned landscape anticipate key features of Blue Nude.

This is not to say the color relationships in the Matisse are anything less than boldly dramatic.  The composition is based on a series of echoing arcs and curves that relate the figure to the surrounding landscape, much as the Persian picture does.  However, in the Matisse, the paint application is vigorous throughout, the modeling rough and the transitions abrupt.  The bluish pentimenti (the adjusted “shadows” to the left of the right arm and left breast) build volume.  Exaggerated by over-painting, the pentimenti give the figure a monumental force. 

Rather than do a full analysis of this painting, I am going to move on to what I want you to do.

The students in my just completed seminar “Cézanne, Renoir, and Matisse” provided you this opportunity.

When I sat them in front of Renoir’s Young Mother, and I asked them to describe their reactions to it, a debate ensued.  A few students vehemently declared the picture unbalanced.

Here is the painting:

Renoir, Young Mother, 1881, Barnes

The issue concerns the two “still-life” objects to the left. 

No matter how many times I urged the group to confront this, as yet, unverified first reaction, they resisted.  I offered them the opportunity to debate.  They declined.  I suggested they disregard the already assigned comparison/contrast final project and substitute a full analysis of this painting in its place.  They said no.

I now am asking you to take this on.

Do I hear 150 readers sighing?  Are you thinking the following: “Really, now, at the Holidays?  You want me to do this hard work at this time of year?”

Yes, I do.

If we are not to judge a painting by its subject, if we are committed to objective analysis, we must do more than say so.  We must roll up our sleeves, put on our looking glasses (I am full of clichés today) and go to work.  We have the job of “uncovering” the art in the picture and/or to support our findings of “holes” (this is what Violette de Mazia labeled flaws in an otherwise coherent work of art). 

Let me know your perceptions by the middle of January.  Since this may take more than a few sentences, please email your analysis to me.  Click here to do so: 

Happy Holidays!

Wednesday, November 27, 2013

Painting in the Dark Part II

In the previous post, Painting in the Dark, I asked for your help in describing the aesthetic content of my painting Red Clay Reservation.  I appreciate your responses.

I promised I would revisit this topic in November.  Since I was running out of time, I worked very hard to meet my own deadline.

For starters, I want you to know how difficult it is for the maker of the painting, me, to do the analytical work required to understand what the painting says.  I know that sounds weird, but I will share with you two quotes that sums up this dilemma.

The first is from Doctorow, spoken during the same interview, conducted by George Plimpton, I referred to in the previous post.  When Plimpton asked Doctorow if he knew what he was doing as he wrote, Doctorow replied, “It’s not calculated at all. It never has been. One of the things I had to learn as a writer was to trust the act of writing. To put myself in the position of writing to find out what I was writing. I did that with World’s Fair, as with all of them. The inventions of the book come as discoveries. At a certain point, of course, you figure out what your premises are and what you’re doing. But certainly, with the beginnings of the work, you really don’t know what’s going to happen.”

The second is from Matisse, quoted in Rhythm and Line, when asked by Jacqueline and Maurice Guillaud what his work meant. He said, “You want to be a painter?  First of all you must cut out your tongue because your decision has taken away from you the right to express yourself with anything but your brush.” 

In other words, “Don’t ask me.”

Those two statements ring true for me.  However, since I am committed to objective aesthetic analysis, and since I ask you to courageously practice using this method, I can do no less.

I must also confess to making changes to my painting since the last post.  I could not help myself.  I looked at it, found sections that did not “feel” right, and I adjusted them.  So I need to share with you images of the painting as it is now, both right side up and upside down.

Here are comments two of my readers provided:

“I see a wonderful interchange of forward and back movement in the fore and middle ground, halted in the background with the swirling cool colors, similar to the right swirling cool curvilinear colors in the foreground. There is also alternating cool and warm colors that move side to side and back and forth, for very lively movement.  The swirling lines in the central tree seem to enframe the two trees on either side while bursting apart in the middle.”

Van Gogh brush strokes mixed with Gauguin-like color.”

And here is the pattern the light areas made on the original version of the painting, contributed by, as I call him, The Master of Photoshop:

I described the previous version of the painting this way:  a series of circular rhythms of high-key luminous color; geometric planes that jut in and out in relatively compressed space; dramatic contrasts of hot and cold color; curvilinear vs. angular color volumes; and an overall color harmony I could not describe. 

Essentially, then, this picture expresses drama and swirling movement of vivid and striking color patterns that move back and forth and in and out in tight spatial rhythms.

It owes much of its color drama to Gauguin’s striking patterns of line and color and dynamic vivid hues of color.

For instance, look at these two paintings by Gauguin:

Gauguin, Matamoe (Landscape with Peacocks), 1892, The Pushkin Museum, Moscow

Gauguin, Mata Mua (In Olden Times), 1892, Museo Thyssen-Bornemisza, Madrid

Matamoe demonstrates a swirl of vivid, bright, lava-like roiling color patterns receding into deep space.  Mata Mua vertically sets the more placid orbs of vivid, bright color patterns in and out in a relatively shallow space.

My picture establishes spatial relationships among the three sets of “trees.”  The central lightest and brightest vertical tree rises upward and spreads its twisted branches in and out and back and forth, establishing the theme that unites all the color units in the picture. 

The tree to the left orchestrates those rich, vivid, hot colors into oblongs and circles of packed and concentrated luminous patterns. 

The tree on the right orchestrates them into looser, more curvilinear ribbon-like curls.  Those curls are repeated in the foliage at the top of the picture, in the pond area, and in the shadow under the tree at the left.

These swirling color patterns contrast with the angular, straight patterns of the roof of the spring house and the bank of cut grass behind it.

The spring house juts out to the right, creating another contrast between the angular movements and the swirling, curvilinear movements of luminous color units pulsing within a relatively shallow space.

When everything comes together, whether in the making of the picture, or in the understanding of it, satisfaction rewards the effort involved. 

Here is how Dr. Barnes describes this satisfaction:  “We respond to a work of art, not by doing something, but by participating in the experience of the artist himself, seeing and feeling the world as he saw and felt it.  This participation is not to be had for the asking; it involves effort, the solution of problems as real as those of actual life, and is as little to be solved by untutored spontaneity as the problems of managing a corporation or practicing medicine.  There is a far- reaching parallel between the labor of the artist in acquiring his distinctive vision, and that of the observer who succeeds in sharing it.”  (The Art of Henri Matisse, p. 2)

If I have succeeded in sharing it, it is because I had excellent teachers who taught me how to do this work.  The work itself, hard as it is, forces me to make connections--like the ones I made between my picture and Gauguin's.  The delight I feel when this happens is delicious.

This Thanksgiving, I am thankful, dear readers, for you.  When I started writing these posts, I thought my daughter would be my only reader.  Now about 150 of you read each post, many of you comment either in emails or on the blog, and others tell me they enjoy them and learn a lot by reading them.  That is what keeps me going.