Saturday, August 23, 2014

Re-molding Visual Reality to Our Heart’s Desire

In my last post, “The Fault Is Not In Our Stars, But In Ourselves,” I asked you to let me know how you felt about doing objective aesthetic analysis.

Many of you did let me know.  You confirmed what I suspected: you resist doing it because it is hard and takes a lot of time and effort.

You said you had to spend many hours looking at works of art to figure out their aesthetic content.  Often, you just don’t feel like doing that.

I argued we do it, even if it is difficult and time consuming, because it helps us uncover the art in painting, and applying the objective method is still the only way to appreciate aesthetic meaning in a picture.

In this post, however, I am adding something I have never said before and you may not believe: we also do it for the fun of it, and I do not use the word “fun” to imply something trivial.  I believe it is fun to remake the world as we would like it to be, and that is what artists do and what we do when we experience their work.

Many of us think of Dr. Barnes as serious, ponderous, belligerent, or argumentative. We do not think of him as lighthearted or humorous.  Long ago he wrote an essay, “How to Judge a Painting,” published in the April 1915 edition of Arts and Decoration (pp. 217-220; 246-250). 

Check the date: 1915.  That’s almost 100 years ago.

In it, he explains his joy of collecting.  What are some of its pleasures?  He wrote:

The least is the mere possession, the best, the joy that one can feel but not express to others; between these two extremes are pleasures that can be compared to the notes of a piano, limited in what can be produced only by the performer’s skill and knowledge.  Good paintings are more satisfying companions than the best of books and infinitely more so than most very nice people. I can talk, without speaking, to Cezanne, Prendergast, Daumier, Renoir, and they talk to me in kind.  I can criticize them and take, without offense, the refutation which comes silently but powerfully when I learn, months later, what they mean and not what I thought they meant.  That is one of the joys of a collection, the elasticity with which paintings stretch to the beholder’s personal vision which they progressively develop.  And that is portionate to what a man thinks he sees in it (p. 248).

I quote Dr. Barnes as affirmation of our struggle to confront paintings and wrestle from them what they are trying to show us.

I also quote him because, at first, when he started to purchase paintings and build his collection, he did not know how to talk to or listen to paintings nor did he possess an education in art appreciation.  Dr. Richard Wattenmaker’s book, American Paintings and Works on Paper in the Barnes Foundation, documents and describes Dr. Barnes’s relationships with artists he befriended: Glackens, Hartley, Maurer, Demuth, among others.  He asked them questions; they suggested to him the work of artists they thought were creative; he looked, and questioned, and studied, and listened.  He read books on art appreciation and found most of them useless, but others helpful.  And he looked some more.  Slowly, he began to develop a sensible way to evaluate creative achievement, and he credited his frequent association with his life-long friend Glackens, “who combines greatness as an artist with a big man’s mind,” as his most valuable single educational factor. (p. 248)

Then he wrote books so we could apply the insights and tools he invented.  During his lifetime, he changed his mind about some of his conclusions, and he deepened and enriched his ability to see and describe his discoveries. 

All the while, he enjoyed himself immensely. 

Recently, I showed a book to my daughter, a book I loved as a child, and one I wanted her to treasure and not discard some day in the future when she “cleaned out” my possessions as she just did for her grandfather.  An eleventh century Persian mathematician wrote original rhymes (literally rubá-i or rubáiyát, a collection of rhymes).  His name was Ghiyáthuddin Abulfath Omar bin Ibráhim al-Khayyámi—or, Omar, son of Abraham, the tent-maker.

We know his rhymes as the Rubáiyát of Omar Khayyám.  When I was about 7 years old, my mother showed me the illustrations in this book and, to this day, I remember them.  A thirty-one year old artist, Mahmoud Sayah, illustrated the edition she had, a reprint of the First Edition, published by Random House in 1947.

The 73rd stanza goes like this:

Ah Love! could thou and I with Fate conspire

To grasp this sorry Scheme of Things entire,

            Would not we shatter it to bits—and then

Re-mould it nearer to the Heart’s Desire!

Artists do this.  They remold the world and bring it closer to their heart’s desire.

And we do this too.  By examining works of art, we bring them closer to our heart’s desire.  As Dr. Barnes wrote, the work of art stretches to our personal vision, and it is the work of art, every step of the way, informing, developing, and stretching our personal vision.  Our skill and knowledge allows us to share our discoveries as best we can.

Today, therefore, I will share with you two paintings I have been studying.  To be honest, not studying so much as researching whether Demuth actually saw the following Pascin picture before he painted Interior with Group of People around Red-Headed Woman:

Pascin, Cuban Hospitality, 1915, Oil on canvas, Barnes

Here is the Demuth:

Demuth, Interior with Group of People around Red-Headed Woman, 1919, Watercolor and graphite on wove paper, Barnes

At first glance, I saw striking similarities in the subjects, the color schemes, and the compositions.

I have scoured Dr. Wattenmaker’s writings on both Pascin and Demuth; I have scrutinized every footnote. Yes, Demuth knew and borrowed visual ideas from Pascin, but these two pictures suggest he might have set out deliberately to use Pascin’s Cuban Hospitality as a starting point.

Research did not verify my suspicions. A librarian at the Barnes Foundation told me the1915 Pascin was acquired by Dr. Barnes in 1921. The Demuth, painted in 1919, does not have an acquisition date. If Demuth saw this Pascin painting before it reached the Foundation in 1921, Pascin would have had to show it to him since there are no other references listed for it before a 1921 exhibition—the same year it was acquisitioned by Dr. Barnes.

Today, I finally decided to get to know both paintings and let the paintings talk to me.  Once I made this decision, I felt that mixture of excitement and fear that attends every objective exploration I have done. 

I thought, “I can’t do this; I don’t feel like doing this; I do not know enough to do this well?” 

Courage does not imply fearlessness.  A courageous person feels fear and goes ahead anyway.  Rollo May wrote a book about this, The Courage to Create. 

Knowing that encouraged me to go to work.

Here are two cropped and enlarged details from each painting:


The center-right of the Pascin oil shows warm chocolate brown, ochre, and orangey tans contrasted with cool blues, greens, and lavenders.   The curvy, loose outlines, made up of arcs and arabesques, occur within and outside of the color volumes.  The lines are various hues of brown, blue, and black, as well as crisp, broken, and rhythmic, creating an active sense of movement. 

The soft, pillow-like, shimmering color volumes, including the background spaces between the figures and hugging the small green bottle in the lower center, move from left to right.  If you look back at the entire painting, you will see how every unit actively pulses, and every line and volume swirls in animated motion.  Dr. Barnes argues each “unit in [this] canvas is alive, and so, thanks to the pervasive, delicate, graceful rhythms, is the composition as a whole.” (The Art in Painting, p. 376). 

The enlarged section of the 1919 Demuth watercolor exhibits deep, luminous black and grays contrasted with ivory and ochre. The orangery tans are similar to the Pascin.  I felt surprised when I realized the similarities ended there. Demuth’s figures are set against a rhythmic background of repeated linear strokes.  The cucumber-like leg extended diagonally right sets off a series of angular, delicate, upward moving geometric planes derived from Cézanne, but with greater fluidity and lightness.   Individual facial expressions and gestures rather than generalized movement become the keynote: the reclining man’s right hand holding a card; his left hand bent at the wrist fingers bent under creating an open C-shape of space; the redheaded woman caught in a moment of surprise or anger holding the glass, her hand wrapped around it like soft dough; the black-haired woman, mouth wide open in a C, nose pointed, her profile echoing the dark/light contrast of the angular C shape and the object’s pointedness in the man’s left hand.  At the same time, the tip of his knee repeats the triangle of her nose.

Here are both pictures upside down: 

As I now look at these paintings, I wonder why I felt they had so much in common.  Yes, both are crowded with figures and backed by a rectilinear screen that divides the spatial areas.  Yes, both have an overall color scheme of brown, ochre, and tan.  The luminous color units overlap, their linear boundaries are loose and undulating, and the linear patterns repeat, creating motifs of their expressive and/or decorative design.

Individually, the differences are striking.  The impact of the Pascin is a series of circular color shapes with sinewy, undulating, verticals rising from them—all blocked by the diagonal greenish screen on which the semicircular bands repeat. 

The Demuth is a semicircle of dark/light color units that move in front of the rectilinear wall (now on the right) and behind it (now on the left).  At the (now) top, chair rails form tube-shaped cages, a big head looming forward on the right, and a smaller head moving backward on the left.  These intricate color units set up all the relationships of the orchestrated planes in space.

The figures finally settled the matter. 

Examine these cropped and enlarged sections of both paintings: 



In the Pascin, the figure is a solid, three-dimensional volume ruggedly constructed with bands and patches of deep, rich, brown, tan, and cool gray, and outlined with sometimes delicate and sketchy lines and sometimes thick and heavy ones.  The resultant volume is heavier in weight than Demuth’s.

In the Demuth, the figure is softly rounded, delineated with graceful curvilinear lines, and mottled, lightly applied, washes of color.  The resulting volume has, according to Dr. Wattenmaker, a “luminous, atmospheric shimmer that heightens the drama.” (American Paintings and Works on Paper in the Barnes Foundation, p. 261).  A series of lines applied in sections of the volume and surrounding it repeat motifs occurring throughout the picture.

Laurence Buermeyer wrote in The Aesthetic Experience that the “story of fine art is only half told when we have said that is expression, and expression more complete than the conditions of ordinary living allow. To finish the story we must add that it is expression in a medium of sense.” (p. 85) When the purpose of an artist’s work is grasped and understood, we feel consoled, and this is what art offers “for our relatively infirm hold on the real world,” he said.

But fun?

In that 1915 article, here is what Dr. Barnes wrote about the negative criticism Glackens’ work received in the Armory Exhibit of 1913, illustrating, at the same time, his understanding of how visual ideas evolve: 

Manet’s spirit says to the Glackens, “You put your paint on like a painter”; Renoir chimes in, “You have bettered my skill in making figures merge with the landscape”: Monet adds, “Your sunshine, play of light and color, atmosphere, make you my rival”; Degas’s grunts, “Humph-he-ha, fine drawing that.”  (p. 246)

Spot on, as the Brits say, and fun.

Monday, August 4, 2014

The Fault Is Not In Our Stars, But In Ourselves

I wrote my previous post, Much Ado About Everything on June 6.

In the past two months, I have been building a new course titled “Adventures in American Art,” and that has sucked up just about every minute of every day, leaving me neither time nor energy to write posts.

I am not complaining: I learned a lot, and I am eager to start teaching again in September.  What I do miss, however, is doing aesthetic analysis.

Does this surprise you?  Why, you may be thinking, would I not be doing aesthetic analysis as I built the course?

As much as I hate to admit it, the reason is quite simple: the research seduced me.

Many books are scattered on my family room floor.  I finally read them, all of them, and I learned everything about the artists whose work I will discuss in the course.  I know their life stories; I know whom they married or did not marry; I know where they went to school; I know where they traveled; I know whom they hung out with, what illnesses they had, what setbacks and triumphs. 

In short, I took the road most traveled and, so far, I neglected to study their paintings myself to understand and evaluate their aesthetic contribution.

Two days ago, a colleague shared with me the first class of the course he is building on Harry Sefarbi’s work to coincide with a Sefarbi exhibit at the Wayne Art Center opening September 21.  Unlike me, he had limited information about Sefarbi’s life and work, so he did the objective analysis, himself, painting by painting.

I felt a stab of envy.

Where had I gone astray and why?

Dr. Richard Wattenmaker, one of the sources of my dilemma because his scholarship is superb,  supplied part of the answer to my questions.  In his book, American Paintings and Works on Paper in the Barnes Foundation, he wrote, “Barnes’s method took interest, patience, application, careful firsthand observation, and easy access to works of art, as well as willingness to ignore the adventitious and to be guided constantly to refine one’s perceptions.” (p. 38)

Ignore the adventitious.  There it was, almost.

The more important reason: laziness.  Careful, firsthand observation takes time.  It takes energy.  It takes confidence.  After almost 40 years of using the objective method, I found it easier to research what other “experts” said about individual paintings then trust my own judgment and do the laborious work to define their aesthetic content.

The other important reason: feelings.  I have written posts regarding the role of feelings in objective analysis (See What’s Feeling Got To Do With It?)

From the beginning, Dr. Barnes argued, “Perception as a part of a phase of the general process of experience, is both subjective and objective: subjective in choosing for attention and emphasis the details in an objective situation which are relevant to feeling or interest; objective, in registering a set or group of details which are present in the environment whether we wish them to be or not.”  (“Method in Aesthetics,” The Philosopher of the Common Man, 1940, 93)

I knew what I had to do. I had to take some medicine, and this medicine had to be compounded carefully.

I selected the following two pictures for those reasons, and because Dr. Barnes, as early as 1925,  compared Demuth’s Bermuda: Houses Seen through Trees with Portrait of an Abbot, a late 18th century portrait of a Chinese figure, illustrating them side by side, in the 1925 edition of The Art in Painting.

I found the comparison “stretched,” as my students often complained when I showed them traditional similarities in the work of seemingly disparate artists or subjects. 

If this method is to work, it is our job to verify the analysis of others, even if those others are Albert Barnes and Violette de Mazia.  We must scrutinize and ask questions of books and persons.

Didn’t I say this takes courage?

Here are the two images:

Demuth, Bermuda: Houses Seen Through Trees, 1918, Watercolor and graphite on wove paper, Barnes

Korean, Portrait of an Abbot, mid to late 18th century, Black ink and heavily applied pigments on silk, Barnes

First, I will turn them upside down:

Upside down, their subjects morph into color shapes, and the differences between a landscape and a man seated disappear.

A series of patterns emerge.  Tree trunks in the Demuth become mottled, gray, vertical, curvilinear, sinuous bands that push back and set off rectilinear, shimmering, orange/tan color shapes.  These rhythmically repeat in varied arabesques of gray, white, and tan.

The figure in the Korean picture becomes a series of vertical, light, tan curvilinear color shapes (the arms and hands) that set off and push back a series of red, sinuous color shapes (the decorative fabric of the robe).  Rhythmically supported in the dark brown grids (the verticals and horizontals of the arms and back of the chair), the picture units move back and forth in shallow space in ways similar to Demuth’s.

In both, you see a rhythm of interpenetrating angular planes with an intertwining arabesque movement of various units set in shallow space.  In both, you see delicacy and floating lightness.   In both, the lines are carefully drawn, fine, linear boundaries.

Since this is exactly what Barnes and de Mazia wrote in the catalog to the exhibit of Ancient Chinese and Modern European Paintings held at the Bignou Gallery, NY, in 1943, I verified their perceptions.  They wrote, “The watercolors of Charles Demuth, an American, are allied to the Chinese by their highly decorative angular and curvilinear arabesques, their disposition of planes in space, the pervasive delicacy and floating lightness.  A striking similarity exists also in their carefully drawn fine linear boundaries.  These delicate, clean-cut contours are contrasted, as in the Chinese, with loosely defined outlines, and the result is a dainty crisp quality injected into the vaporous lightness.”

There are differences as well.  Demuth’s picture is less illustrative.  Demuth combines decoration and illustration in a highly effective design based on elements in Cézanne’s form.  It is a series of delicate, well-defined planes of contrasting color which draw and model the units and set them in space. 

This dose of medicine restored me.  These pictures shared their secrets with me because I spent time with them, used the tools available to me to do the work, and I felt that warmth of excitement that accompanies genuine perception.

I will conclude by sharing information Dr. Wattenmaker provides in the chapter “Albert C. Barnes and The Barnes Foundation,” in his book American Paintings and Works on Paper in the Barnes Foundation.  He discusses the critical reception of Dr. Barnes’s first book, the 1925 edition of The Art in Painting.  Reviewers were genuinely positive, but Leo Stein argued that Barnes erred by telling readers what was good and bad in the works he analyzed.  He wrote, “Mr. Barnes insistently and not incidentally offers valuations to the student as though such valuations would mark the successful student’s observation.  I believe that there is in this a serious defect of method.  Valuations are personal and not systematic.” (p. 40)

Many current students say this too.  They feel offended by Dr. Barnes’ strong “opinions,” as they term his conclusions, especially when they do not agree with them.

Here is how Dr. Barnes replied: “It is not assumed that the conclusions reached with regard to particular paintings are the only ones compatible with the use of the method; any one of them is of course subject to revision.  What is claimed is that the method gives results as objective as possible within any field of aesthetic experience and that it reduces to a minimum the role of merely personal and arbitrary preference.” (40)

I am grateful personal and arbitrary preference can be mitigated by the careful and skillful application of a set of tools that uncover the art in painting.

How do you feel about this?  Do you resist doing objective aesthetic analysis?  Please let me know either below on the blog or via email.  For an email response, Click here.