Friday, April 10, 2015

To Be or Not to Be Cantankerous

This semester I am teaching the traditions in art at the Osher Lifelong Learning Institute (OLLI) in Wilmington, Delaware.  I recommended my students purchase Dr. Barnes’ book, The Art in Painting, especially if they had not previously enrolled in Color Scene Investigations for Art Detectives, my introductory class to the objective method.

Complaints began immediately.  

“It’s impenetrable,” one said.

“Impossible to decipher,” said another.

Over my head, too dense, too argumentative, too nasty were some others.

I suggested they read it after the course ended, as I did, when I studied at the Barnes Foundation in the late 1970’s.  I told them I not only thought Barnes’ book was difficult, I found Dewey’s Art as Experience impossible to read when I started the classes, but no problem at all when I completed them.  I had little background in art when I enrolled in the Barnes class.  I could not follow the references to paintings I had never seen and were not reproduced in the book.

Remember Thoreau’s words in Walden, I helpfully advised my students:  “It is not all books that are as dull as their readers.”

They did not find that helpful at all.

Neil Rudenstine, in his recent book The House of Barnes, further eroded my case.  He wrote, “Barnes’ theories have long passed into virtual oblivion, and it is a rare day when anyone consults his publications.” (p. 21)

Undaunted, in this post, I will once again make my case for reading Dr. Barnes’ and Violette de Mazia’s books and essays to appreciate the art in painting. 

Let’s start there: the art in painting.  Dr. Barnes very clearly defined his interest: Not the history of art; not the world of art; not art; not the philosophy of art.  The art in painting.  Yes, he did argue theories.  He did his homework of past and current theories about art, and he rejected those he could not apply to his interest.  

When I teach the objective method to children, I tell them to read what is on the flat surface called a picture.  And what is on the flat surface called a picture are color, line, light, and space, arranged in a certain way, and expressive of certain qualities. Not trees. Not figures. Not apples.  In other words, since the medium of painting is color, I teach them the language of color.  A six year old can apply the method more easily than an adult, perhaps because a child has not yet been exposed to the headphones, the wall charts, or the guides in museums telling the stories represented in the pictures (See Learning to See).  

For example, when I showed a group of six-to-ten year old children this painting by Vermeer, it only took a few seconds for one of them, a six year old, to grasp the picture’s key idea:
Vermeer, View of Delft, c. 1660-61, Mauritshuis, The Hague

She said, “Everything first goes across the picture, and then some little shapes go up into those bands.”  (Click here to read the entire post: Dr. Barnes’ Vermeer)

If you read Dr. Barnes analysis of this painting in The Art in Painting, he verifies my student’s perception.  He wrote this about pattern in the picture: “A series of horizontal irregular broad bands, counterbalanced by smaller vertical units, map out the general framework.” (p. 452)

He goes on to say horizontal elements extend across the picture.  Starting at the top, a band of darker clouds and two bands of lighter clouds alternates with strips of blue.  The area of buildings-and-trees follows.  The canal and the reflections in it join the triangular bank in the foreground.

The clouds, my children noticed, puff and curl across the sky, and move back in space. The row of buildings-and-trees moves in and out. The gables, steeples, and towers have much the same “up-ness” (their word) as the people and posts in the foreground.  The reflections in the water carry this vertical pattern to the area of the canal.

The horizontal bands each contrasts with a subsequent band: the gray-white sky sets off the darker, more solid and compact blue-red-green shapes in the center.  These, in turn, contrast with the gray-brown water.  And the water contrasts with the tan-yellow bank in the foreground. 

What intrigued my students the most was the “bubbles” or, as Dr. Barnes calls them, “the internal pattern of light within each color-area, sometimes amounting to a series of superposed spots, rather than a change of hue.” 

Contrast of light and dark is the essential characteristic of this landscape as it is in the Dutch tradition.  You see this easily in the contrasting bands, but you need to look more closely to see the remarkable internal pattern in each area.

I repeat this story because it is one of major reasons I am so adamant about the value of The Art in Painting.  Dr. Barnes may be cantankerous, argumentative, and wordy, but no one surpasses him in seeing and describing the art in paintings.  Violette de Mazia is his only equal, and in her 50 years of teaching after his death, she recorded her perceptions in the Journal of the Barnes Foundation and Vistas. 

Does this mean what they say about individual paintings is all there is to say? 

Not at all. 

We each will, using objectively verifiable language, perceive what we, at our level of ability, can see.  Years later we may see more, or differently.  When I attended Penn State as a 22-year-old graduate student majoring in English literature, my professor tried valiantly to get my class interested in a passage in Ulysses by James Joyce.  We could not understand it, nor did we care.  He finally said, “Read it again when you are 40.”  And when I did, it made sense.  Life experience helps. 

Dr. Barnes understood this, so it is unfair to complain, as Leo Stein did, that Barnes’ “scale of values points very clearly in the direction of his own interest” but it would be “a great mistake on the part of any student to direct his effort towards a similar vision” because Barnes’ evaluations have “no validity” except in relation to his own experience. (See Leo Stein, “The Art in Painting,” The New Republic, December 2, 1925, pp. 56-57)

Dr. Barnes knew this.  In the January 1926, Preface to the First Edition, he wrote, “It is not presumed 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. Preference will always remain, but its existence is consistent with a much higher degree of objective judgment than at present prevails.”

I agree.

Furthermore, in my preparation for my classes on the Venetian Tradition, I came across what Dr. Barnes wrote about Titan’s The Pastoral Concert.

Here it is:

Titian, The Pastoral Concert, 1508-09, oil-canvas, Louvre

Dr. Barnes wrote (drum rolls please) this is “one of the greatest achievements in the history of painting.” (p. 422)

Does this sound like something Dr. Barnes would say? 

He goes on to laud the colorful space, the rhythms of color, line, space, mass, and light, and the mellow, warm, all-pervasive golden glow that participates in the fluidity of all these rhythmic relationships. 

The composition, he says, is one of color masses gracefully set and moving in colorful space.

“The charming Arcadian quality, the power, majesty, peace, splendor, and deep mysticism conveyed, are legitimate values because the attendant emotions are rationally anchored in the objective features of the picture,” he concludes.

I saw this analysis for the first time last week, and I laughed because I did not expect it. 

And it is this surprise that, for me at least, brushes away most of the criticism of Dr. Barnes’ achievement.

He was human, not perfect. 

He pioneered an objective method that could reveal the art in painting. Violette de Mazia developed his findings, formalized them, and continued his work, as did Angelo Pinto, Harry Sefarbi, and Barton Church, the Violette de Mazia Foundation and all its teachers, and many others who have had their lives enriched by Dr. Barnes’ experiment.