Friday, July 26, 2013

Stories, Pictures, and Life

I’ve been reading How It All Began by Penelope Lively.  In it, Anton, a middle-aged central European immigrant, learns to read English with the help of Charlotte Rainsford, a retired schoolteacher.  During one lesson, Charlotte gives him Maurice Sendak’s book, Where the Wild Things Are, and she asks him to read it out-loud. Anton likes learning how to read this way, finding it much more interesting than using workbooks.  “I have to know how the story goes,” he tells Charlotte. 

Narrative provides him with suspense, and this fuels his motivation to learn to read individual words.

Subsequently, they discuss the role of narration, and Charlotte tells him it is a contrivance, made up, invented.  Anton agrees, saying, “Yes, yes.  And that is why we enjoy.  Because it is not like our life—the way we live, which . . . very much accident.”

And that, as I said in my previous post, What Elephant Seals Taught Me About Art, is the difference between art and life.

Or, as Dr. Barnes said in The Art in Painting:

At any moment, the sum total of our actual sensations is a chaos: we are besieged by a medley of sights, sounds, feelings of warmth or coolness, of bodily comfort or discomfort, by far the greater part of which have no connection with one another, and which could not possibly enter into any single experience.  To be conscious of anything in particular, to retain our sanity, we must disregard nearly all of them, fixing our attention upon those which fit into some intelligible scheme or picture. . .  We perceive only what we have learned to look for, both in life and in art. . .We must understand, in other words, what the distinctive aspects of reality are in which the artist is interested, how he organizes his work to reveal and organize those aspects, the means which he employs, and the kind of satisfaction which rewards his efforts when they are successful.  Only in the light of such an understanding can any one build up the habits of perception and background in himself which will give him admission to the world of esthetic experience. (pp. 5-7)

Let’s think about William James Glackens work as it relates to this topic.

His earliest work shows his interest centered upon the “picturesque appearance of objects and figures as they participate in everyday occurrences,” Violette de Mazia said in her essay “The Case of Glackens vs. Renoir.” (p. 17)

She goes on to say:

From the start, he displayed, together with sharp insight, keen discrimination and imaginative perception, an extraordinary capacity to single out the traits that lend my situation its individual flavor and then to render them by a few briskly-drawn lines, touches of pencil or crayon or colordabs—so judiciously choosing and deftly applying each stroke that their compositional groupings, which on first acquaintance may seem to be but a simple shorthand memorandum of the subject-facts, communicate directly, concisely and picturesquely the whole story of the pithy episodes.  For all the effect of spontaneity, naturalness and freshness, these sketchily executed compendious statements represent a triumph of expressive drawing: they give the observer everything that is needed, and nothing that is superfluous, for the realization of the scene or act set before him—being equivalent, in this sense, to the discovery of le mot juste by a great literary artist.  With complete disregard for conventional or photographic literalism, Glackens applied his terse, epigrammatic style to the depiction of subjects usually distinguished by that dramatic vividness of figures or objects captured in the act of moving; he gives the gist of a situation caught sur le vif, on the run, and penetratingly infused with a kind of instantaneous vivacity, often tinged with gentle wit. . . . His typical characterizations, in other words, concentrate upon those features born of, created by, the particular situation or activity which is developing there and then, rather than upon the traits that make that same figure or object what it is in its entirety, independently of the changes occasioned by the momentary posture, action or scene of which it is a part.  (pp. 17-19)

We call this illustration: that aspect of a painting which indicates or emphasizes its subject. Although Glackens stresses the illustrative aspect in his painting, his pictures fully integrate light, line, color, and space into aesthetic entities.

Let’s examine how.

Study these two paintings: the first, Sketch for Chateau Thierry; the second, Chateau Thierry.


Glackens, Sketch for Chateau Thierry, 1906, © Courtesy of the Huntington Art Collections, San Marino, California

Glackens, Chateau Thierry, 1906, © Courtesy of the Huntington Art Collections, San Marino, California

I encountered these two pictures when I visited the Huntington Art Collections in May.  I enjoyed seeing them displayed together, and I spent a long time examining what Glackens changed when he painted the final picture. 

When I returned home, I researched Chateau Thierry.  I did not find out much about it that was relevant to Glackens’ pictures.  It is situated in northeast France on the Marne River on the slopes of a hill.  At the top of the hill are the ruins of an old castle said to have been built about 720 by the Frankish ruler Charles Martel for Thierry IV (the Merovingian king Theodoric). Most descriptions said it was the farthest point reached by the German offensive of 1918, and it had been badly damaged in both world wars.

In 1906, Glackens and his wife Edith Dimock went on a belated honeymoon to Spain and Paris.  In June, they visited Chuzy-sur-Marne, France, to visit the artist Alfred Maurer. According to Richard Wattenmaker (a widely recognized authority on late-nineteenth- and early-twentieth century modern art, a former student and instructor at the Barnes Foundation and, most recently, the Director of the Archives of American Art, Smithsonian Institution), Ira Glackens always said the man depicted in the red bathing suit about to dive off the bank was Maurer.

From the point of view of subject, that is what I know.

To see how and why Glackens transformed Chateau Thierry into a work of art, we must examine the pictures, not the place.

I ask you to use the guide Dr. Barnes provided at the start of this essay.  Try to answer his questions.  See if you can determine the visual ideas Glackens borrowed from other artists and what new use he adapted them to serve.

Dr. Barnes asked us to determine the following:

What are the distinctive aspects of reality in which Glackens is interested? How do you know?

How does Glackens organize his work to reveal and organize those aspects?

What means does he employ? In other words, how do light, line, color, and space relate to each other?

Is the final painting successful? Do you understand its aesthetic visual meaning?

For extra points: how does Glackens orchestrate the illustrative, decorative, and expressive aspects? 

Examine both the sketch and the painting.  Note the changes Glackens made from the sketch to the painting.  Why did he make those changes?  How do the adjustments affect your appreciation of the final picture?

If you wish to send me the result of your scrutiny, just click here:  Marilyn’s email.

In my next post, I will discuss Chateau Thierry.








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