Sunday, March 30, 2014
Repetitions and Surprises
In my last post, Messages, I invited you to compare and contrast two paintings by Vincent van Gogh included in the “Van Gogh Repetitions” exhibit.
I quoted William Robinson, one of the show’s lead scholars and conservators, who said, “You have to really concentrate. But when you compare van Gogh’s different versions of a design stroke by stroke, you start to relive his creative decisions. It’s a strangely mystical experience.” (“Seeing Double: Van Gogh the Tweaker,” The New York Times, 10.6.13, ar 21)
Many of you said you felt deeply satisfied as you probed aesthetic meanings in The Large Plane Trees and The Road Menders. If you felt this, Dr. Barnes says, you saw “beneath appearances to the reality underlying them.” (Art in Painting, p. 47)
Here are the two paintings.
I asked you to examine:
1. Each change in size, shape, light, color, line, and space in every color unit in each picture
2. The overall impact of the total ensemble of each picture
3. The changes in each figure or groups of figures
4. The changes in the rocks
5. The changes in the windows
A reader, Cynthia, said the Cleveland painting expresses the colors of fall—warm amber, gold, russet red, blues, grays, and blacks. In the repetition, the Phillips painting, the yellows and greens are cool—almost icy—the blues and grays muted and subtle.
The overall impact, therefore, of the total ensemble of each picture is different.
The conservators describe in detail the canvas van Gogh used for each painting, its thread count, whether he primed it, and if he did, with what. This information fascinated me, but it did not assist my aesthetic analysis. I had to define the impact of the paintings, and I agree with Cynthia: the Cleveland picture resonates with rich, deep, warmth while the Phillips painting glows with eerie light in color tints of yellows, greens, cerulean blues, and whites.
From the point of view of subject facts, these two paintings, at first glance, look remarkably similar. Then, when you examine details closely, the differences become apparent.
Let’s look first at the figure in the lower left:
In the Cleveland picture, thick, striped brushstrokes actively pull bands of yellows, browns, and grays horizontally and diagonally behind the figure. The “woman” is a series of contrasting geometric shapes defined by a rigid, black outline. Her head contrasts her dark brown hair with a warm pink facial profile. A jutting cerulean blue angular cape pushes her shoulder and basket forward. The basket consists of two rounded strokes of blue and tan, a rhythmic repetition of the light/dark contrasts of her head. Two flattened vertical widths of sketchy brown and blue support her base.
In the Phillips picture, the horizontal strips in the background are wider, lighter, and reduced to yellow and light gray/green. The “woman’s” body is a series of two contrasting geometric shapes. The smooth blended dark, navy blue cape sets off the vertical mass of blackish coat. Her head, defined by line, does not include a dark/light contrast. Ochre hair blends into a tan/gray inverted triangle face. Her “basket” becomes a boxy rectangle of red and brown. The red is a clue.
Notice the effect of the differences: look at the hand; look at the inverted triangle of blue in the Cleveland version and the triangle of gray in the Phillips version as they define her coat under the basket.
Now examine the lampposts on the left side of both paintings:
In the Cleveland picture, the lamppost is outlined, and it is placed adjacent to the acid-green window shutter. The top window shutters are closed, and they continue the dark/light contrast theme. The façade of the building implies plaster and blocks consisting of lighter yellow lines and thick pigment. The greens are light viridian. Washes of gray/white delineated by a black line define the doorframe and lower shutter.
In the Phillips picture, the lamppost, painted directly into a quivering, vertical mass, is reduced in size. Dark green and black model it into a slimmer color unit, creating a space between it and the lower shutter. The façade of the building is constructed with a series of vertical bands of yellow and orange placed side by side. The door and shutters are slabs of heavy, dense, warm green. The curtains showing through the panes of the lower windows are pink/white stripes in the Cleveland picture and bright red in the Phillips. Another clue.
In the Cleveland picture, curly lines of white, gray, and soft blue agitate the surface of the dirt mounds and the road. Examine the outlines of the blocks of stones, the small can to the right of center, the figures, and the tree trunks. The surface ripples, swells, and pulses with energy, as the warm browns, tans, and oranges of the road dramatically contrast with the cool, blue/grays of the rounded mounds and blocks of stone. The two working men in the upper right are fully rounded masses of contrasting green and orange/tan energized by the rippling, curly brush strokes that define them.
In the Phillips picture, a suffusion of yellow/white bathes the entire section. The blocks of stone are rectilinear boxes of white outlined with cool green. The road is a series of zigzag green lines interspersed with ochre/yellow/blue lines. The rocks and mounds are a series of lines separating and defining stones from dirt but creating no solidity or mass. The tree trunks, likewise, flatten into lineal units of green/tan lines bound by a dark brown outline. Three men, delicately outlined and constructed of washes of light blue and tan, are light in weight and mass. Notice, however, the reds of the lines that define their shape. Notice, too, the red hat and the contrasting black of the other two hats. More clues.
Finally, look at the figures in the upper center of both pictures.
In the Cleveland picture, the figures are barely visible: a series of brush strokes, as angular as stick figures, and drawn over the background of thick, tan/brown pulled pigment. The third figure, to the right of the others, is a smear of gray/tan with a fan of thin lines suggesting a shirt. In the Phillips picture, the figures are rhythmic units of orange and blue-gray, thinly lined, and caught in action as they “move” through the pale yellow space. The third figure is hardly a figure but a balancing construct of a light gray rectangle with contrasting “legs” that is set back in space. The major spatial difference, however, is the receding space in the Phillips picture as opposed to the shallow spatial recession in the Cleveland.
While similar in subject facts, the aesthetic message each painting expresses is specifically unique.
The Large Plane Trees, the Cleveland picture, is a series of diagonal planes of dramatically contrasting warm and cool color volumes that ripple, swirl, and pulse in a relatively confined space.
The Road Menders, the Phillips picture, is a series of diagonal planes of dramatically contrasting eerie, bleached, flattened color volumes that decoratively connect surprises of vibrant reds, blacks and blue/grays in relatively deep space.
My point: these are two different pictures. Van Gogh experienced his subject anew when he painted the so-called repetition.
When he worked from his original subject outside and when he worked from that painting for the repetition, he subjected both pictures to a new interest.
Dave Nolan, a friend, artist, graphic designer, and Violette de Mazia Foundation teacher, travels with a small paint box and 6 x 9 inch canvas boards. He works on site in France, Italy, Belgium, or Holland, and brings home his tiny pictures along with photographs of his subjects.
Then he makes a larger painting using his small painting and photographs as his subject.
These are repetitions.
Here is how he puts it: “The photos always look a little grayer to me, but they show details that I never noticed on site. When painting the larger version, what I notice is that the colors weren't coming out like either the little painting or the photograph.”
In other words, the larger version is a new adventure in perception. He sees anew what he saw before. He subjects his subject to a new interest.