Wednesday, January 28, 2015

The Hobgoblin of Little Minds

“A foolish consistency is the hobgoblin of little minds,” Ralph Waldo Emerson said.

This statement reassured me as I began to write this post.

Here’s why.

I read a review in the January 25, 2015 Sunday News Journal of Jamie Wyeth’s retrospective exhibit I first saw at the Museum of Fine Arts, Boston, in December, and then recently visited again at the Brandywine River Museum.

In the review, Betsy Price quoted Wyeth saying several things: (1) “He doesn’t enjoy the shows. When he walks through, he says, ‘All the inadequacies jump out at me;’” (2) “He is aware his work is ‘scattered’ stylistically and thematically, ‘almost like a group show;’” (3) “My work is all over the place,…I don’t know if that is a good thing,” Wyeth told her. (p. F3)

I liked him. How could I not. He said what I thought.

I attended the exhibit at the MFA accompanied by my 4-year-old granddaughter. She enjoyed the “flying” pumpkins, her description of the painting The Headlands of Monhegan Island, Maine:

Jamie Wyeth, The Headlands of Monhegan Island, Maine, 2007, Oil on canvas, 40 x 60 inches. Wyeth Collection, ©Jamie Wyeth

She also enjoyed his paintings of animals and birds.

I felt less impressed.

After my MFA visit, I agreed with the review by Sebastian Smee published in the Boston Globe: Wyeth, who has just turned 68, can paint. He can draw. He has lived an interesting and impressive life. But what’s missing from this show, which covers six decades and is made up of more than 100 oils, watercolors, drawings, and even a couple of humorous tableaux vivant, is a sense that it all adds up to something original — something that goes beyond the frisson of family gossip, the sentimentality of a compelling life story, or the romance of a storied place.  Too often, in place of the deep-down conviction that marks out exceptional artists, Wyeth gives us an awkward amalgam of capability and whim. It’s not quite enough.” (July 17, 2014)

I said this, one way or another, to anyone who asked me what I thought.

However, when I visited the exhibit again in Chadds Ford, I felt surprisingly confused and captivated at the same time.  Something about some of the paintings’ qualities of distorted space, drama, power, and luminosity attracted me.  Then one painting grabbed me like a leech and would not let go.

That painting, Sloth, one of the Seven Deadly Sins series, haunted me, and I knew I had to figure out why.

Here it is:

Jamie Wyeth, Sloth (The Seven Deadly Sins), 2008, Oil on canvas, Wyeth Collection, ©Jamie Wyeth

At this point, I ignored the “title.”  I stopped thinking about everything I had already read.  The time had come for me to start seeing for myself whether there was art in this picture, and if so, describe it.  If I changed my mind about Wyeth’s work, so be it. 

Memory kicked in, and Titian’s The Assumption of the Virgin popped up.

This is it:

          Titian, Assumption of the Virgin, 1516-18, Basilica di Santa Maria Gloriosa dei Frari, Venice

According to Dr. Barnes, this painting “illustrates a successful solution, on a large scale, of complex plastic problems.” (The Art in Painting, p. 429)

Notice, Dr. Barnes is talking about the solution of plastic problems.  Yes, the painting illustrates the assumption of the Virgin into Heaven.  It does so, to go back to basics, orchestrating light, line, color, and space on a flat surface.

In Titian’s painting, Dr. Barnes argues, “The framework of the composition consists in a grouping of figures at three different levels.  Each group greatly varies from the others in number and character of the masses, in degree and kind of drama, in compositional form of organization, and in pattern, color, light, and line.  These greatly varied elements, which give a distinctive identity to each group, are rhythmically related to each other with the result that a continuous and powerful upward rhythm of plastic units casts a bridge between the separate groups and integrates the entire design.”

I saw connections to Wyeth’s painting.

In Sloth, the bright, white color unit in the foreground plane establishes a soft but solid massive base behind which horizontal rippling bands of black, tan, beige, green, and light blue, recede in space while also ascend vertically.

Here is a cropped enlargement of that section:

Notice the repetition of arc-shaped lines that both describe “feathers” and continue the rhythmic theme.  Notice the two luminous red “bubbles” under the “bird’s” beak, and their repetitions along the painting’s edge. Notice the richness of the blacks behind the foreground unit and the contrast of those blacks with the stunning lightness of the whites, greens, and golds defining the “bird.” Notice the thick, arc-shaped black band pressed to the “bird’s chest,” the wide, diagonal, black band projecting forward under his “chest,” and the wedge-shaped black unit book ended to the “bird’s bottom”—essentially stabilizing the entire color unit.  Notice the flickering, eerie light on the edges of the “bird’s feathers.”  Notice the crenelated edges of those lighter “feathers.” 

Floating above this foreground color volume and the rippling bands, a semi-circular cradle holds a series of overlapping, vertically surging in-and-out movements of arabesque volumes that rhythmically ascend to the top of the composition while, at the same time, recede into space.

Here is a cropped enlargement of that section:

“Wings” set up a series of repetitions of dark-black and light-white arabesques with crenelated edges moving back and front as they also recede into deep space. On the left, right, and center, nestled in the crowded recesses of the “birds’ heads,” orange, pink, tan, and green jagged linear ribbons hang in space. The linear ribbons on the right are further back in space than those in the center or on the left. Jutting out on the left, a shiny, fleshy, solid “leg” hangs in space consolidating the warm pinks, reds, browns, and tan curlicue lines into an angled volume.  This unit links the relatively serene lower section to the upward tangle of agitated movement above.

The entire composition ultimately does not feel claustrophobic because of the depth of space orchestrated.  Examine this detail at the top right of center:

This small area rhythmically repeats the theme of the picture: a drama of rich, glowing color volumes interacting in a series of arabesques moving upwards and in-and-out in deep, expansive space. 

Unlike the Titian, Wyeth’s picture contrasts immobility with movement, or sloth with energy.  Like the Titian with its numerous arms, legs, wings, bodies, heads, and clouds intertwined in all directions, the Wyeth color units also move backward and decidedly upward.   

Jamie Wyeth’s painting originates from his life experience as well as his prodigious skill and talent.  He knows sea gulls and coastal Maine.  He derives his subject facts from his acute perception of a landscape that speaks to him in the same way as Titian derived his subject facts from his acute perception of 16th century Venetian pomp, pageantry, and religious fervor.  In this painting, Wyeth demonstrates his ability to orchestrate one of the Seven Deadly Sins into a convincing plastic composition of drama, power, and movement.

I do not assume artist-illustrators lack “deep conviction,” as Smee declared in his Boston Globe review.  In this painting, Wyeth’s plastic ideas hark back to both Bosch and Brueghel.  Like Bosch, Wyeth sometimes portrays grotesque scenes, like the “birds” tearing apart and devouring a “human body” in the center of his composition, a subject fact less gruesome than many in Bosch’s Garden of Earthly Delights or in Brueghel’s The Fall of the Rebel Angels:

Hieronymus Bosch, Garden of Earthly Delights, c. 1604, Prado

Pieter Brueghel I, The Fall of the Rebel Angels, 1562, Musées royaux des beaux-arts de Belgique

Like those paintings, Wyeth’s dramatic, powerfully animated composition in which he uses sea gulls as subject facts to illustrate “sloth,” is as plastically legitimate as Bosch’s and Brueghel’s weird inventions, not because he does what they did, but because he orchestrates his actively moving color units into a well-integrated expressive design.  Combined with the remarkable luminosity of his unique color, he gives us something new.

“Something new” means we are appreciating the work of an artist. 

Viewers of works of art are not always consistent in their reactions to, or their judgments of, them.

Like artists, art appreciators learn and absorb new visual information, deepening and enriching their perceptions.  Based on their enhanced sensitivity, they modify their conclusions.  Ralph Waldo Emerson encouraged this bigness of mind, and I hope that is as motivating for you as it was for me. 


  1. Marilyn,
    I have strong memories of discussing Jamie's father with Ed and I also remember the Wonderous Strange show.when I passed through Wilmington. I think the description in the first few paragraphs says it best... the man can paint, draw, etc... but what makes it his? Where is the handwriting that tells me that he did it or whomever for that matter? Your analysis was captivating and I agreed with every part of it. My guess is that this painting is magnificent to see up close... I have seen sea gull paintings by his father and they are reminiscent of this... except in a more stark Andrew way...

    I wonder what contribution to the traditions can you see besides the use and command of them?

    Great post! Got me thinking!

    1. You ask a compelling question at the end of your response. To answer it, I need to return to the exhibit and spend time with many more of his paintings. I am surprised I enjoyed "Sloth" as much as I did, so I now wonder whether other surprises await me. If the weather cooperates, I plan to get back to the museum soon. I am as curious as you.