Thursday, January 23, 2014

Magic Moments

I ended my previous post (Young Mother, Cont’d) telling you I went to the Frick Collection with my husband, my grandson, and his dad to see Vermeer, Rembrandt, and Hals: Masterpieces of Dutch Painting From Mauritshuis. 

Here’s how it happened.

What I thought would be an uncomplicated task to purchase timed tickets, turned out to be quite complicated.

A week before the exhibit was to close and the paintings sent back to The Hague, I went to the Frick website and discovered it was sold out. As I sat glumly looking at the computer screen, I noticed information about memberships.  If I purchased a membership, it would permit me to enter any exhibit at any time, immediately, even the one currently sold out.  I’d also be able to stand on a shorter, priority line just for members, much as first class ticket holders avoid coach class lines at airports. 

According to The New York Times, normally the Frick logs about three new members a day. In the first six weeks of the show, the Frick signed up around 100 new members a day, and during the last few weeks, that number tripled. 

Since I needed four tickets, I had to join at the Contributing Friends level, a cost of $250.  Then I had to purchase Amtrak tickets, also higher priced than usual because our trip was 5 days away and a holiday weekend.  All told, I’d end up spending $600, and that didn’t even include the price of lunch.  My husband said I was nuts (really, he did).  I told him we had to get our grandson to this exhibit.  I wanted to be the one who showed him these paintings (yes, ego was involved).  My strongest argument: it was still cheaper than taking him to The Hague to see the same paintings.  He laughed at that.

This past Sunday we left Wilmington at 7:55 am and arrived in New York about 9:40.  As we walked up 70th Street, we spied the end of the already lengthy Members’ line—about mid-block from the entrance.   Once we lined up, I noticed the “other” line, the one for ticket holders, snaking to the left of the entrance, turning the corner on 5th Avenue, and continuing all the way to 71st Street, where a short time later it turned that corner and continued.  Soon the Frick guards started a third line adjacent to the Members’ line:  this one for those who did not have tickets, nor were members, but would be purchasing memberships at the door. 

My grandson and his dad joined us soon after we arrived, and we waited.  

I tell you this because it illustrates the theme of this post: when genuine interest burns in us, we move heaven and earth to achieve our goal.  And I was on fire.

Those waiting in line quickly became friends rapt in conversation about our last-minute decision to see the exhibit; several near us, including my son-in-law, walked a few blocks to buy coffee.  At 11 am, the guard let all the members in.  After us, I heard him say, he would admit the “members to be” and then the ticket holders.

Once inside, viewers surrounded the key paintings. They were generous and kind.  The mass of people in front of Girl with a Pearl Earring parted like the Red Sea, shepherding my grandson to the front.  That’s when I started whispering in his ear.  

Here is Girl with a Pearl Earring:
Vermeer, Girl with a Pearl Earring, c. 1665, Royal Picture Gallery Mauritshuis

“What do you see first?” I asked.

“The earring,” he replied.

“Why do you think that is?

“Because it has the spot of white.”

“Where is it in space?”

“Behind the head thing but in front of the collar.”

I noticed some stirring behind me.  I heard a woman whisper to her companion, “What did he say?”  Her companion answered, “something about the space.”

Did it happen or did I imagine it? I felt the entire mass of people behind us move in, like a football game huddle, and some whispers of “light and space” floated backwards. They all were intently following our conversation about the light as it moved our eyes through the space in the painting.

Magic Moment # 1.

Ari noticed the girl’s shoulder bulging forward creating a pyramidal solid mass in the frontal plane.  I called it a pyramidal solid mass; he called it a big solid mountain-like thing. The folds in the fabric created a series of rhythmic vertical bands that repeated, closer together and smaller, in the pattern in the darkness on her back.  They repeated again in the narrow in-and-out linear folds of the hanging yellow cloth, and again wider and deeper as they met the blue of the turban wrapped around her head.

We explored some more.  We noticed the dark/light contrast in the pearl: three strokes consisting of a dab of bright white, a semi-circle of indented brown, and an arc of soft gray at its base. 

“What about the paint surfaces?” I asked. 

“Smooth, but sort of rough,” he answered.  “Like the pottery in the app before I fire it.” 

(In case you do not know this reference, “Pottery” is an app that allows users to use their fingers to build vases on a spinning potter’s wheel, decorate and fire them, and even sell them at auction for points.  It is so easy to handle, my almost 4-year-old twin grandkids also love it.) 

In this painting, the luminous color, mottled and fused with light, causes the figure to glow in the dark background.  The rich, deep orange/tan of the fabric of her dress; the bright yellow and ultramarine blue of the turban; the stark whiteness and course stiffness of the collar; the moistness of the slightly parted lips; all add to, in Dr. Barnes’ words, “rich, rhythmic linear patterns, color-relations, and pervasive light in compositions which are felt as colored rhythmic sequences of volumes in deep space.” (The Art in Painting, p. 227)

We moved on.

We looked at The Goldfinch, the tiny 13¼ x 9 inch painting by Carel Fabritius, now made even more famous by Donna Tartt’s book.  

Here it is:
Carel Fabritius, The Goldfinch, 1654, Royal Picture Gallery Mauritius, The Hague

This picture created a challenge simply because of its size.  As before, the crowd allowed Ari to move to the front, but even up close, we could not see details.  Ari noticed the reversal of light and dark: unlike Girl with a Pearl Earring, in this picture, the darker bird and its feeding box dramatically contrasts with the light background.  We enjoyed the intervals between the projecting bars, the bird’s tail sliding behind the top one, while the dangling chain slides behind the larger bottom one.  The illusion of bird and feeding box pulling to the right side of the picture, and projecting forward in clear space, with that space further accentuated by the shadow, impressed him.  

I found impressive the restrained palette of browns, grays, and yellow going from darkness through changing degrees of light and then enlivened by the surprise of muted red on the bird’s head and the bright yellow on the wing.  Equally impressive: the thin threads of paint highlighting the semicircular bars and the bird’s feet.

Although difficult to see there, these enlarged details illustrate the distinct qualities of feathers and metal:

We examined the other paintings included in this exhibit, and then we proceeded to explore the entire Frick Collection where I moved Ari through a review of visual ideas and techniques in the traditions of art, a daunting task, you might be thinking, but one I approached like a quest. 

In the West Gallery, we examined Rembrandt’s brush strokes compared to Hals’ by comparing each of their paintings hanging in the same room.  In the Living Hall, we compared the ways Giovanni Bellini and Titian explored Venetian visual ideas, easy to do because their paintings were on the same wall. 

In the Living Hall, I introduced him to El Greco’s St. Jerome, and I pointed out its unique qualities.  Then, later, in the Anteroom, I asked him, “Who painted this picture?” as we looked at the Purification of the Temple.”   I counted 4 seconds, before he answered, “El Greco.” 

“Why El Greco?” I asked.

“Because the figures are so twisted, long, light, and eerie looking,” he said.

Magic Moment # 2.

By the time we arrived at the Enamels Room, I worried my “student” might be weary.  However, Duccio’s The Temptation of Christ on the Mountain, caught his attention.  The picture shows a towering Christ rejecting the devil, who offers Him “all the kingdoms of the world” if Christ will worship him.  The subject did not impress Ari; the huge figures in relation to the little, pastel pink, blue, white buildings did.

Here is the picture and details of the buildings:
Duccio di Buoninsegna, The Temptation of Christ on the Mountain, c. 1308-11, Frick

“This looks like what I build on Minecraft,” he said. 

“What looks like it?” I questioned.

“The buildings,” he said. “They are boxy and uneven, like the tiles we use.”

The “we” refers to him and his cousins:  9-year-old Ari in Emmaus, PA; 14-year-old Josh in Landenberg, PA; and 8-year-old Max in Beverly, MA. Somehow, they all log on to the same “game” at the same time and build houses, towns and cities while they fight creepers who try to destroy their creations.  That’s the clearest explanation I can give you.  I have watched the intensity of this endeavor, and I have absolutely no idea what they are doing.

Here is an example of one of Ari’s constructions:

You might argue Ari missed the delight of Duccio’s color-ensembles, the drama of his color contrasts, the intricate spatial relations within the turrets, domes, and crenellations.  However, this 21st century child felt excited by visual qualities very much alive and well in a computer game he plays with his cousins.

Magic Moment # 3.

When we left the Frick, we were very hungry.

We decided to walk the 13 blocks to the Neue Galerie because there we could eat at either of its two restaurants—both of which served Viennese coffee, pastries, and good food.

While we waited for our meal, Ari enjoyed a drink that included house made chocolate milk, vanilla ice cream, whipped cream, and cocoa powder.  I took out my cell phone to immortalize the moment just as he turned to face me.

Here is the picture:

Ari asked to see the photo, and he immediately titled it “Boy without a Pearl Earring.”

Magic Moment # 4.

This day I spent with my grandson illustrates genuine interest in action.  Dr. Barnes defines its essential characteristic this way: “It induces him who has it to take pains, to make efforts, and so to order his activities that the object of his interest takes form in his mind and becomes the propelling force of his activities.  Persistence of effort is the indispensable condition of real interest…What has value for us—and this is an alternative expression for ‘what interests us’—is attended to in detail, and remembered.” (A in P, pp. 10-11)

In effect, interest drives curiosity, and when we want to understand the art in paintings, it fuels our efforts and is worth, very much worth, the work involved.

Donna Tartt’s protagonist, Theo, in The Goldfinch, sums this up: “And as much as I’d like to believe there’s a truth beyond illusion, I’ve come to believe that there’s no truth beyond illusion. Because, between ‘reality’ on the one hand, and the point where the  mind strikes reality, there’s a middle zone, a rainbow edge where beauty comes into being, where two very different surfaces mingle and blur to provide what life does not: and this is the space where all art exists, and all magic.” (pp. 770-71)

Monday, January 20, 2014

Young Mother, Cont’d

I received so many responses to my previous two posts (Don’t Judge a Book by its Cover and Don’t Judge a Painting by its Subject) I decided to sum up this exploration before I move on to another topic.

Your responses verified an assumption of mine.  Each of you, based on what I described, added your own viewpoint, and your description enlarged and enriched what I had discovered. 

I often tell students no two people will describe the aesthetic content in a painting exactly the same way.  Each will approach the work of art driven by interest, life experience, and adeptness in making connections among the visual ideas represented in the traditions of art.  This does not mean, however, they can say things we cannot verify by examining the painting.  They cannot say a unit of color is red if it is blue, or a line is straight if it is curvy.

Here is the painting:

Renoir, Young Mother, 1881, Barnes

I concluded my analysis this way:

Renoir presents the seated woman bending slightly forward, the baby enveloped in her arms and held in place by her right hand supporting the baby’s raised right arm and her left hand sandwiched between the baby’s left arm and left hip.  Her head, slightly lowered, is directly above the baby’s head.  The baby’s head turns to the right.  The chair and the mother’s lower body tilt to the left. So do the baby’s legs. The mother’s right foot sinks into the floor at the lower left; her left foot, balanced on its toe, sets back on a diagonal to the right.  The two chair legs repeat this, but the diagonal tilts slightly to the left.  While the upper half of the woman’s body together with the upper half of the baby’s body form a stable pyramidal composition, the entire ensemble of both figures, the chair, the jug and basin, the background, and the space of floor between the woman’s feet form a diamond composition.  This gives the ensemble both stability and in-and- out, back-and-forth, dynamic movement.

Here are two comments of the many you shared with me:

Lynn wrote: 

In Young Mother Renoir captures and expresses the physical movement of a mother holding a baby on her lap through subtle rhythmic repetitions.  He has given us a view of motion in a quiet setting.  Daumier, Degas, and Lautrec also were masters of movement expression, the change of active planes in a painting or drawing.  

With Renoir's mother and child, a simple composition expresses a pause in action as if it just occurred—and will not last.  I see the child's upper body receding, leaning back into the mother's body, while the mother leans slightly forward over the child.  The child's legs extend outward and sideward in movement.  Though the mother's right foot is placed flat on the tile floor, her left foot is tucked under her body and the chair, with weight on the ball of the foot, ready to move quickly in order to balance the child's torso and legs.  The grasp of the mother's and child's hands counterbalance each other in planes as well—for an instant.   

The intersections of the planes do not always balance.  The child's torso leans back more than the mother's goes forward.  The mother's legs are not at the same angle with each other—or with her upper body.  The child's head is more upright than its body.  The figures contain many complex perspectives.

Your description of the scarf and other motifs reinforce the intersection of planes of movement, as does the crisscross of the tile, the brush strokes on the wall paper background, and the integration of the brush strokes and motifs in the painting generally.   The little flowers on the wallpaper, the design at the bottom of the skirt, the scarf, are all decorative touches that add movement to the painting for our eyes to follow.

Physical movement expressing dynamic motion in three-dimensional space is the theme of this painting.

Barbara wrote:  “A 1917 essay titled "Art as Technique" by Viktor Shklovsky helped me grasp the purpose of art.  In it, Shklovsky argues art exists to help us feel things, to make the stone stony.  The purpose of art is to impart the sensation of things as they are perceived and not as they are known.”

These two give you the gist of what most of you experienced.

As you uncovered the aesthetic meaning in Renoir’s Young Mother, you enriched your visual appreciation for subtle in-and-out, back-and-forth rhythmic movement.  Art expresses the quality of things (i.e., makes the stone stony) and teaches us new ways of seeing (i.e. the drama of light and dark).  Put even more concisely:  Art teaches.

To conclude, I will add this note, but not because it has anything directly to do with Renoir’s painting. 

Today, in Metropolitan Diary, a section in The New York Times, Morton Landowne wrote:

Perhaps it caught my eye because I was still entranced by the mastery of light I had just seen in so many of the paintings from The Hague’s Mauritshuis museum at the Frick. So while walking east on 70th Street, I noticed a woman approaching, out of the evening darkness into the dim glow of a streetlamp.  She had an angelic face and blond locks, loosely framed by the hood of her jacket, and was glancing down at a cellphone, parallel to her chest.  The illumination from the phone evenly lit her face, and only her face, as if from candlelight, and as we passed, I felt certain I was seeing an image, contemporary yet timeless, worthy of being immortalized by Vermeer (p. A13).

I conclude with this perception about Vermeer’s work for two reasons: (1) it sums up what we learn from works of art; (2) because I spent yesterday in New York City at the Frick Collection.  

I had avoided going to see Vermeer, Rembrandt, and Hals: Masterpieces of Dutch Painting From Mauritshuis” because I knew it would be crowded, and I had already seen the paintings included in the exhibit at the Mauritshuis several years ago. In fact, The New York Times estimated 235,000 will have entered the exhibit by the time it ended yesterday.  I was one of them. 

This is how it happened: Last week, when I visited my daughter, I recommended she read The Goldfinch, the blockbuster novel by Donna Tartt.  My grandson overheard our conversation and exclaimed, “Grandma, if I go see that painting I can get Brain Points for my gifted program.” 

How could we not go? 

I told my grandson I would get the tickets, and he and his dad would meet my husband and me in New York. That is what we did.

I am not sure what I will write about in my next post, but it will have something to do with our visit to the Frick Collection. 

Monday, January 6, 2014

Don't Judge a Painting by its Subject

My previous post, “Don’t Judge a Book by its Cover,” asked you to apply your objective analysis tools to Young Mother, a Renoir painting in The Barnes Foundation.  Thank you for sharing your perceptions.

As I pondered how to tackle this post, I fortuitously read a letter to the editor of The New York Times.  Mark Slouka, a published writer of seven books of fiction and nonfiction, wrote:

Art is a supremely individual expression.  It doesn’t ask permission; it doesn’t take an exit poll and adjust accordingly.  Artists say what they know, paint what they see—they have no choice in the matter—and it’s our privilege to be brought into their world, so distinct from our own, and to be altered by that experience.
(12.30.13, A16)
A good place to start, I thought.

About mid-term, I test the students who study objective analysis with me by asking them the following question: what is the first thing you must do to understand the art in a painting?  My goal is to confirm they have mastered the tools I have taught so far.  I usually get many apt answers: (1) describe the rhythms; (2) describe the relationships of color, light, line, and space; (3) state the picture idea. 

I push on: “the first thing?” I ask again.

Finally, someone gets it: “Look at it,” the star student shouts. 

Yes, look at it.

No matter your first reaction, whether positive or negative, whether you like the picture or hate it, you must first look at it to have any chance of understanding its aesthetic meaning and any possibility of determining whether all aspects of the picture are successfully resolved—down to the smallest units, individual brush strokes.

Jumping to conclusions, based on personal preference, will not get you there.

Let’s begin.

Here is the painting:

Renoir, Young Mother, 1881, Barnes

To be honest, most of us start with the obvious: what the subject was.  In this case, you may feel charmed by the lovely young mother and the chubby baby she cuddles on her lap.  Or you may feel irritated by the prettiness or cuteness of the very same subject facts.  You may know, or research, when and why Renoir painted this picture and what he said about it.  For example, in the autumn of 1881, during his visit to Italy, Renoir painted in Naples, and he wrote this to Paul Durand-Ruel: “I am very content and think I’ll bring you back some pretty (jolies) things.  I am back on my feet again.  It’s going very well.  I have begun a figure of a young girl with a child, if I don’t scrape it out.” (quoted in Renoir in the Barnes Foundation, p. 103)

To do our work, however, we must subdue the subject facts, set aside information about the artist, and look at the picture facts.  I find this easier to do if I invert the picture.

Here it is, upside down:

Upside down, it is easier to see how space recedes dramatically to the left of the figures and, in contrast, ascends vertically to the right of the figures. 

On the right, a bright orange vertical plane (when inverted, it is now at the top) sets off two projecting and contrasting units of color and shape: a dark blue-black oval backed by a wider, lighter green-gray-tan circle.  These, in turn, float in front of a continuing rectilinear plane of lighter orange-tan-green, a horizontal band of blue-gray, a narrower band of orange and green dots and stripes, and a wider rectangle of light blue-pink with small decorative dabs of deeper orange dots and green stripes.

Light bathes this picture and combines with the warm/cool and rich, vivid color contrasts to produce rhythmic luminous patterns throughout the canvas. Most obvious: the fiery red-orange floor contrasted with the blue of the mother’s dress.  Most notable: examine the slanting brush strokes modeling the mother’s dress and the basin and jug.  The slanting brush strokes create volume and solid, three-dimensionality:  the mother’s thighs combined with the baby’s legs create a series of solidly three-dimensional rolling bulges; the slanting brush strokes convert the jug and basin into convincing three-dimensional solid, contrasting dark/light glowing color volumes. 
Now examine the painting right side up.  The slanting brush strokes create planes of space in ((1) the background wallpaper; (2) the receding background wall; and (3) the floor. 


These decorative patterns of brush strokes, superimposed on units of color and light, retain sufficient connection with the textures themselves to make more convincing the expression of each unit’s specific quality.  Check, for example:  the heavy fabric of the mother’s dress vs. the smooth, shiny surface of the dark blue jug; the supple, softness of the baby’s flesh; the patent leather shine of the mother’s shoes; the lightness of the cloth hanging in the space at the top right.

The painting of the basin, jug, and floor exhibit broad pronounced brushwork and superimposed units of decoration.  These units help determine the specific picture idea that unifies the painting:  the tile floor becomes an upward slanting, lightly gridded area of orange-red glowing color units interspersed with floating patches of white-gray-green; the jug and basin slip behind the child’s extended leg moving to the left in a one-two-three beat; the child, the mother, and the chair echo the one-two-three beat as they recede to the right.

In minor keys, the orange of the mother’s neckpiece contrasts with the short, blue-black, curly stripes on it.  These stripes echo the curls that cover her forehead;  they echo the stripes of blue, purple, orange, and red fanning out from the part in her hair; they echo the gray-pink highlights in her dress; they echo the shorter blobs of pink on the baby’s dress; they echo the wider blobs of pink and red-brown on the jug; they echo the stripes of green, white, and orange on the basin and the edge of the chair; in the background they echo the orange-pink dabs accented with green stripes which float in front of the pink/blue geometry of cubes and planes as they recede into the right corner of space.

John Dewey, in Art as Experience, labels what I just described as the “substance” of the painting.  Be honest: are you wondering what this analysis so far has to do with a mother holding a baby?  Why subject that subject to aesthetic feelings about space recession, decorative stripes and blobs, color/light contrasts, and lively, luminous color/light activity?

Here’s why.

Renoir presents the seated woman bending slightly forward, the baby enveloped in her arms and held in place by her right hand supporting the baby’s raised right arm and her left hand sandwiched between the baby’s left arm and left hip.  Her head, slightly lowered, is directly above the baby’s head.  The baby’s head turns to the right.  The chair and the mother’s lower body tilt to the left. So do the baby’s legs.   The mother’s right foot sinks into the floor at the lower left; her left foot, balanced on its toe, sets back on a diagonal to the right.  The two chair legs repeat this, but the diagonal tilts slightly to the left.  While the upper half of the woman’s body together with the upper half of the baby’s body form a stable pyramidal composition, the entire ensemble of both figures, the chair, the jug and basin, the background, and the space of floor between the woman’s feet form a diamond composition.  This gives the ensemble both stability and an in-and- out, back-and-forth, dynamic movement.

If you go back and examine everything I describe, you will verify the subtle, ingenious, creative ways Renoir adapted a traditional subject of mother and child to express visual ideas that alter our visual experience or, as Violette de Mazia said, provide us new ways of seeing. 

And that is the art in this picture.