Monday, February 25, 2013

Insight Rewards the Work of Art

At the end of my previous post, “A Cuban Adventure Totally Objective,” I said I would revisit the need to transform subject facts into picture facts if appreciating the art in painting is the goal. 

Since then, I fell into that blank space writers unhappily know all too well: I had no idea how to approach this topic without repeating past posts.  Its other name is writer’s block.  So I wallowed in this misery until this morning.  Then, like a gift, as I ran in the freezing air, I connected two disparate exhibits: a Matisse exhibit at the Met I visited a few weekends ago and a new exhibit at the Met, “Impressionism, Fashion and Modernity,” that opens February 26.  Roberta Smith summarized the new one, “Impressionism,” this way: “In fresh, groundbreaking ways this show details the entwined rise of modern painting, modern fashion and modern (upper middle-class) life over some two dozen years of rapid change in Paris, 1862-1867.” (New York Times, 2/22/13, pp. C1 and C21).

In November, Roberta Smith summarized “Matisse: In Search of True Painting” this way: “As ravishing as it is succinct, it skims across this French master’s long productive career with a mere 49 paintings, but nearly all are stellar if not pivotal works…. The textbook simplicity of this format is irresistible. The visual self-schooling particular to looking at art kicks in, and almost before you know it your eyes are off and running, darting back and forth, parsing differences in style, brushwork, color, detail and overall effect, the expression of emotion that Matisse said he was always after.” (New York Times, 11/30/2012, p. C21 and C24.) 

In other words, the “Matisse” exhibit encouraged viewers to do the work of art (with work used as a verb, since what we do is definitely labor intensive).

In the “Matisse” exhibit, Matisse’s painting “The Large Blue Dress” hangs to the left of the skirt Lydia Delectorskaya, his model, wore while posing. Rebecca Rabinow tells us, in the catalog to the exhibit, Lydia made the dress herself: “a blue gown with leg-of-mutton sleeves, embellished with white organza cuffs and ruffles along the edges of the overskirt, neckline, and bodice.”  (“The Woman in Blue,” Matisse: In Search of True Painting, 2012, The Metropolitan Museum of Art, pp. 142-143.

Matisse, The Large Blue Dress,1937, PMA

Skirt sewn by Lydia Delectorskaya, and worn by her while posing for Matisse's The Large Blue Dress, ca. 1936. Silk with cotton lace trim. Private collection

Matisse used this skirt.  He converted it into oil paint (color) and brushed that color onto a canvas (a flat surface).  The created color unit (no longer a skirt, is it?) now serves as one visual clue to the aesthetic meaning of the picture. 

If you go to the Met website and you listen to a short video describing this painting, you will hear the curator, Rebecca Rabinow, also describe the photographs a photographer Matisse named Matossian made to document his progress.  Rabinow says: “The sequence of photographs show Matisse first presenting Lydia within the interior of his studio. But as the painting evolved, it becomes less about him trying to portray a specific person, as opposed to creating or conveying [the] emotion that he has. These photographs show not studies for the painting, but the actual evolution of the canvas. The skirt, the dress—it all changes dimensions. Shadows climb up. The settee's arms become arabesque curves. He's not in the least bit interested in a naturalistic representation of what he sees. He used [the dress] … to express the emotion that he felt when he looked at an object. He's trying to capture [its] essence.”  (Click here to view the video and listen to Rabinow’s description:  Matisse.)

Let’s examine some key words she uses: “the emotion that he felt,” and “trying to capture its essence.”

If I synthesize her language even more, the key words become “feelings” and “essence.”

What do “feelings” mean in this context?  And what is the “essence” of an object?

In Dr. Barnes and Violette de Mazia’s vocabulary, feelings are the broad human qualities an artist perceives in an object (feelings like power, drama, fluidity, delicacy), that become the “essence” of the object as an artist transforms a subject into a picture idea. 

It is as if the artist says, “I feel a strong sense of solidity in this apple,” or “I feel such delicacy and fragility in this landscape.”  At this moment, whatever the object was (apple, chair, hat, skirt, tree), it becomes a color unit and is orchestrated into a color composition.  The artist creates an entirely new object, a picture.  And embedded in the picture is the meaning of the artist’s aesthetic experience.

My classroom students tell me they know this.  They feel insulted when I remind them that a color unit is not the same as what it represents.  But when they look at a painting, they continue to describe the colors on the flat surface as if they were trees, or apples, or figures. 

Let’s look at this another way.  In one of the last essays Violette de Mazia wrote, she examined the use of headdresses in painting.  She described “hats” used by Cézanne, Renoir, and Matisse, not the same hats, but the use of “hats” as they functioned in each picture—in the   broad human values expressed as revealed by the qualities each “hat” embodied.

Here is each painting:

Cézanne, Madame Cézanne with Green Hat,1891–1892, Barnes
Renoir, The Artist's Family, 1896, Barnes
Matisse, Seated Riffian, 1912, Barnes

De Mazia says: (1) In the case of the Cézanne, the hat, a platform topped by a rising column, is as if made of stone or metal—hard, solid, weighty, frozen—and provides, at the top of the picture area, a counterbalance to the lap and hands at the picture’s lower portion, at the same time equilibrating the thrust and counter-thrust of the architectural components of the figure:

(2) The hat of the standing woman in the Renoir, made of lush colors, as of a garden of flowers, is a voluptuous volume that is echoed in the small tree at the side, in the houses, in the woman’s blouse and skirt, in the child’s bonnet; it is, in addition, one of a group of hats that includes the hat on the boy and the hat on the girl, all three of which, by their relationships to each other, emphasize the closed-in effect of the composition and the contrast of axial planes created by the presentation of the figures:

(3) In the Matisse, the headdress is essentially a set of more or less parallel, curvilinear, contrasting bands of color that are in keeping with and complete the theme of bands and stripes in the rest of the painting. (“The Form of Seurat’s ‘The Models,’” Vistas, Vol. V, No. 1, 1990, pp. 9-10)

De Mazia’s point: the transformation of “hat” into color unit fits the purpose and the context of the picture.  It is not the artist’s job to record the kind of hat the figure wore, but “to record the aesthetic character it acquired from the artist’s imaginative perception of a situation in which the hat plays a part and to record it in terms of broad human values.”

In Cézanne’s picture, power and architectural equilibrium are expressed, and the color unit that says “hat” fits that purpose; in Renoir’s picture, fluidity, warmth, and richness are expressed, and the units that say “hats” fit that purpose; in the Matisse, the contrast of exotic color drama comes about by pattern of shapes, and the “hat” fits that purpose.

Now examine the Matisse painting that started this exploration: The Large Blue Dress.

Here it is upside down:

Matisse transformed Lydia Delectorskaya wearing her blue dress into a series of symmetrical arabesques, flattened bright color units, set in a subtle space recession.  He uses single flat colors evenly filling a pattern of clean-cut areas—an idea that eventually leads him to paper cut-outs. 

For the artist, the conversion of subject to picture idea occurs in magic moments that change everything.  While Matossian’s photographs reveal some of the revisions Matisse made to this picture over a period of time, they do not account for the why.  The picture holds the answer, and we discover it by uncovering the art in it.

Notice the following pictures facts when I slice the picture in half.  First, the left side:

1.     The background black grid sets off the “swan’s neck” yellow arabesque, followed by the red arc with its pink linear pattern, and the blue-gray curve of the “skirt,” all units sliding one behind the other.

2.     The white “skirt’s trim” rhythmically echoes the yellow arabesque.

3.     The internal pink linear pattern in the red arc is rhythmically echoed in the gray rectangle above and to the right of the black grid’s top arc.

4.     The curvilinear pattern of the “skirt’s trim” is echoed in the smaller yellow rectangle to the left of the gray one.

5.     The red background repeats the grid of the black arc, but with larger rectangles.

6.     The “black/white” motif occurs again in the dots of “beads” wrapping around the large leaf-shaped “hand” with its splayed “thumb.”

7.     All the color units move backward from the bulbous shoulder, arm, and skirt in a series of curvilinear, dovetailing shapes.

8.     The red arc sets the mid-space and allows the background red to move behind the top yellow rectilinear color areas.  

Now examine the right side:

1.     Now the red background, the shape of a larger arc, rhythmically balances its twin on the left while, at the same time, its angular top bends inward like the number 3. 
2.     The yellow arabesque, pushed to the edge of the right side of the picture, hugs the red arc while the gray-blue “sleeve and cuff” and the ball-shaped shoulder slide behind it.  
3.     The “skirt’s trim” now mirrors the yellow “S.” 
4.     Each color unit, as on the left, starting with the “trim,” moves backward in space ending in the black grid on the right.  However, that black-grid background now pushes further back than on the right because of the configuration of blue-gray arm sandwiched between the yellow “S” and the red “3.”
5.     The gold open circles of the “necklace” connects to the semi-circle of gold hair and continues the motif of black/white circles enveloped in the downward flow of the “foliage-shaped hand” that echo the yellow “flowers” behind the oval head.
6.     The red “mouth” sets the spatial key for all the red units.  Take a good look at those spatial rhythms.  I think you will enjoy the experience. Or spend some time with the pinks lined in white of the face, neck, and hands to enjoy how those repetitions echo the white/gray motifs in the “dress’s” trim, then reverse in the dress’s gray/white units.

I could go on, and the surprise of this statement is two-fold: at first glance, this picture looks effortless, facile even, simple enough to see in one quick look.  However, only when you look at it long and carefully do you see the decorativeness of the flattened, compactly wedged planes, the balancing of foreground and background into a single, rhythmically organized surface, and the arabesques of areas and lines.

Insight rewards the work of art.  Insight allows us to discern the true nature of a situation and to grasp the inward or hidden nature of things.  As I said in a previous post, insight makes the invisible visible (see Making the Invisible Visible).

I hope you visit the Met to see both exhibits.  “Impressionism, Fashion and Modernity” opens February 26 and closes May 27, 2013.  “Matisse: In Search of True Painting” closes March 17.  For more information, click here: The Metropolitan Museum of Art.

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