Friday, August 16, 2013

Hearing Paintings

You may be thinking I accidentally wrote “Hearing” instead of “Seeing” in the title. I did not.

We must listen to what pictures tell us.

Here is how I discovered this very strange truth:

Since I returned from Crested Butte, Colorado, several weeks ago, I have not felt like painting. I now have three unfinished pictures waiting for me to work on them, but I stay out of my studio.

I tell myself this happens to artists all the time. I am probably just tired. But I know the real reason is that I am out of ideas: I am not hearing what my pictures are trying to tell me. 

That’s right: the pictures hold the clue.

For example, I started a picture in mid-May at Red Clay Reservation, a private land trust near Hockessin, Delaware. I obtained special permission to work in the park and, when I started my picture, my subject looked like this:

I went to work. Then, as you who live in the mid-Atlantic area know, it started to rain. It rained and rained and rained, making June the wettest on record in the Philadelphia/Wilmington area: 10.55 inches. The rain turned the gravel path to the painting site a muddy mess. The grass grew as if on steroids, and the grounds keeper could not mow it because it was always wet.

Then it got hot. Very hot. This also prevented me from painting. In addition, I went on three trips during this time. By the time I returned to my subject in late July, it looked like this:

I felt stumped.

Then, as I took a long walk this morning on this unusually lovely day, I noticed the freshly cut grass in the golf course across the road. Here it is:

When I say “noticed,” what I really mean is that the strips and bands the lawnmower created in the grass said, “Use me.”

The “clue” arrived as an auditory message. It enabled me to know what I had to do with my unfinished picture: I had to accentuate the contrasting patterns in the color shapes. If you look closely at the photograph of my subject again, you will now clearly see these subtle patterns in the grassy background.
I call this “re-vision.” I am revising my “first draft.”

It now looks like this:

You may be thinking I had other options. Option 1: I could have waited until next May, when the conditions would have been the same as when I started the picture, and go back to finish it. That implies the “clues” are in the subject, and all I needed to do was go back to it as it was.

But the clues were never in the subject. You know by now that when an artist “subjects” the subject to an “interest,” everything changes. I may “feel” as though I am painting exactly what is in front of me, what anyone else looking at the same thing would see, but you and I know that is not the case. I see what I want to see.

Option 2: I could have used the subject as it now was, and re-painted my picture accordingly.

But that would imply I liked what I now had in front of me, and I saw possibilities in it. I did not. All I saw was a large mass of green. I could not “subject” what was now in front of me to an interest I did not have.

I will show it to you again. If I added a title to this photograph, it would be “Verde Tyrannis”: Tyranny of Green.

The picture I made before the rains came was a “first draft.” I had to understand what my “first draft” said. I had to let it tell me. Matisse described this endeavor as similar to a mother examining her newborn baby in the hopes of understanding it.

I received encouragement from another unexpected source.

Earlier this week, as I walked into my living room, I glanced at a painting I had made in Crested Butte, Colorado, three years ago. I smiled at it, saying, “You are a pretty picture of picturesque houses on a street in a mountain town.”

“Au contraire,” the picture answered. “I am a horizontal series of triangular color units dramatically contrasted to sinuously curving color units that recede in compressed space.” I stopped where I was. This was my picture. I made the thing. And, until that moment, I had no idea what it said.

Here is the picture right side up and upside down. You decide:

Colm Toibin, in “What is Real is Imagined,” said: “The world that fiction comes from is fragile. It melts into insignificance against the universe of what is clear and visible and known. It persists because it is based on the power of cadence and rhythm in language and these are mysterious and hard to defeat and keep in their place. The difference between fact and fiction is like the difference between land and water… It is the shape of the story rather than the shape of life that dictates what is added and excised (New York Times, July 15, 2012, p. SR 5)

Toibin described the process of writing fiction. The same process occurs when I make pictures. Visual artists work from clues. The clue is real and imagined. Many artists need grounding in everyday visual experiences in order to establish a “here and now” visual shape. For visual artists, as you know, rather than cadence and rhythm in language, they use visual means: light, line, color, space, relationships, and rhythm, and create new subject matter every step of the way.

Toibin said it this way: “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, another day’s work. And if I am lucky, 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…”

The chart I showed you in a previous post diagrams the process this way:

For the chart below, I changed “intent” to “clue.” “Clue” is closer to what happens both to the artist confronting a subject and us when we try to understand the aesthetic visual meaning in a picture. We see and, sometimes, hear clues. Those clues bring us closer to understanding the visual meaning the artist discovered and recorded in the picture.

The picture talks to us if we listen as well as look.

Have you “heard” a painting whisper a clue? I invite you to let me know. Either add your comment to the end of this post, or send it to me in an email: Marilyn’s email.

Thursday, August 1, 2013

Château-Thierry: The Place, the Subject, and the Picture

In the previous post, “Stories, Pictures, and Life,” I asked you to examine two paintings by William Glackens: Sketch for Chateau Thierry and Chateau Thierry.

Let’s look at them:

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



Glackens, Chateau Thierry, Oil on canvas, 1906, © Courtesy of the Huntington Art Collections, San Marino, California.


Several differences exist between the Sketch for Chateau Thierry and Chateau Thierry. Most conspicuous: the omission of the central French flag flying from the pole tilting right. More subtle: the two figures walking across the path (said to be Glackens and his wife Edith) are further apart in the painting, their bodies more lithe and fluid. The bathing suit worn by Glackens is dark blue with white stripes in the painting and red in the sketch. The figure about to dive from the bank (said to be Alfred Maurer) wears a dark blue bathing suit in the sketch and a red one in the painting. The figure to his left, diving into the river, is caught in the act of diving—almost airborne. In the sketch, he is barely visible—as if Glackens used Alfred Maurer twice or even three times if you add the figure balancing on the makeshift diving board. The atmospheric bank of houses across the river, a crenelated band of soft, lumpy grays becomes, in the painting, light/dark rectilinear blocks that move subtly forward and back in space.

However, illumination and spaciousness are the major differences in the two pictures.  The painting, more muted in tonality, has a centered glow of light that creates luminosity absent from the sketch.  This luminosity has a pearlescent quality as it delineates muscle on the figures, ripples in the water, and the edges of boat sails.  It also creates a gentle glow of windows in the buildings across the river and the clouds in the sky.

We know Glackens, his wife Edith Dimock, and their friend, the artist Alfred Mauer, visited Château-Thierry, a town sixty miles east of Paris.

My point: no matter what we know or do not know about Château-Thierry, the place, what Glackens experienced and expressed in his painting is recorded in his picture.  If we want to know what he discovered, what must we do first?

Really, I am asking you to answer this question.  What must we do first?

I’ll wait.

Look at it. 

We must look at the picture.

Does that still sound silly to you?  It should not.  We must look at the picture, apply the tools that help you uncover the art in it, and see what we see.

Here it is upside down:



Notice how the left side of the inverted picture contains 5 diagonal bands that push to the right. Their generally gray tonality sets off small, light, active color units that move up and down and, in the case of the diving board, create a contrasting thrust to the left and into deep space.

On the right side of the inverted picture, the black, dark gray mass consisting of figures, red-striped umbrella, and foliage pushes forward as the diagonal bands slide behind. That entire right side acts as a repoussoir, enhancing the orchestration of lively, active color units cavorting in atmospheric receding space. These adjustments to the sketch eliminate the need for the second flagpole and flag.
Notice how the dark-gray turreted building rises upward as deep space recedes behind it.  Notice how each illuminated figure walks, stands, bends, or balances in ample space. 

Follow the left thrust of the flagpole, to the left thrust of the fishing pole, to the countering thrusts of the makeshift diving board and the black ropes that set off the swimming area. Notice how they orchestrate space.

Here it is right side up again:

The complexity and subtlety of the space composition accentuates the activity of the figures. The dark/light contrasts interspersed with the deep reds (the stripes on the umbrella to the left; the red stripe of the flag; the deep red of the man’s shirt as he leans on the rail and the arc of the ribbon on his hat; and the two figures with their red swim trunks) act as sense focalizing units, moving our eye in and out, back and forth, in a light, staccato movement.
No accident, this. 

In 1906, Glackens made use of Manet’s flattening of volumes, simplifying of drawing, and the “flat, crisp, quickly and deliberately brushed-on strokes” Manet employed (see Violette de Mazia, “The Case of Glackens vs. Renoir,” p. 21).  For example, look at Manet’s Tarring the Boat:

Manet, Tarring the Boat, 1873, Barnes
Yet, even here, when Glackens early work did not exhibit numerous influences from other sources, and his color scheme of grayish blues, blacks, and browns, show his obvious indebtedness to Manet, Glackens’ brushwork and, therefore, his figures, are more active.

Look at these details:


Glackens’ figures are lighter. The brushstrokes are less sharp and angular. The contrasts of dark and light are more subtle, less abrupt. The color is more mellow than dramatic. The movement is more active, more varied, and more animated. Manet’s figures, in comparison, are solid and heavy. Violette de Mazia said “sprightly” defines Glackens’ figures, a perfect description.
Ira Glackens, William’s son, wrote in William Glackens and The Eight:

Alfy Maurer and the sculptor Edward W. (“Jimmy”) Sawyer also had studios at the Villa Gabrielle, and the G.’s went down to Chezy-sur-Marne where the cheerful Alfy had a cottage presided over by a thin, rather sour-tempered young woman who was presumably his girl.

They went on an excursion to nearby Château-Thierry and swam in the Marne.  W.G.’s canvas of this event depicts them crossing the road toward the riverbank, E. in the bathing costume of the period, and the artist in blue trunks.  The figure in red trunks on the bank is Alfy Mauer.  A crowd swims, and plays, and naturally eats and drinks, and the tricolor floats gaily over all, as it was to do for a few short years more before Château-Thierry, that obscure river town, was on every tongue in the world. (p. 70).

That is Château-Thierry, the place.

When Glackens made his sketch and painting, however, he subjected that subject to an idea. We call this the picture idea.  Glackens made pictures with color on a flat surface. Those pictures speak a different language than “Château-Thierry the Place.”   

The painting I described for you shows sprightly figures depicted in action in compressed but ample space.  It shows a diminution of the bulk of volumes for the sake of accentuating their shape.  It shows interplay of a variety of directions.  It is direction that makes for the compositional activity I described—a brisk, illustrative activity of an event.

Violette de Mazia sums up Glackens’ contribution this way: He enlivened Manet’s type of illustration by emphasizing active representational movement, and he added a “daintiness, an effervescence, a gentle vivaciousness, a mellowness and a graceful sprightliness.”  (p. 26)

We see that in the picture.  The art in Chateau Thierry is the record of what Glackens perceived of an aesthetic nature.  It has what Château-Thierry, the place, never had: important and significant visual details deliberately selected, organized, and presented to express a unified visual idea in a novel and personal way.