Thursday, August 20, 2015
To See, or Not to See
Recently I traveled to New Hampshire with my son’s family for a week of painting and vacationing. We stayed at Abakee Cottages, knotty pine, cozy cabins on Lake Winnipesaukee.
Once I got there, nothing said, “Paint me.” I had, as we say in my business, no visual ideas. I felt burned out and frustrated.
I could easily have moped, but my grandchildren were gleeful to be there. My husband, son, and daughter in law were happy as well. They welcomed the cool, clear air, the small beach and dock, and the “fun” to be had at nearby Weirs Beach and in the surrounding area.
Little did I realize, in Wordsworth’s words, what “wealth to me the show had brought.”
I have William Glackens to thank.
In previous posts, I said knowing paintings permits us to see more in our everyday world.
This post will describe just how this worked for me.
First, I will show you a few of Glackens’ paintings that informed my vision:
Glackens, Bathers at Bellport, c. 1912, Phillips Collection
Glackens, Bathing at Bellport, Long Island, 1912, Brooklyn Museum
Glackens, The Bathing Hour, Chester, Nova Scotia, 1910, Barnes
Glackens, The Little Pier, c. 1915, Barnes
Glackens, The Raft, 1915, Barnes
Glackens, At the Beach, 1918, Newark Art Museum
In 1910, James Hunecker described Glackens seaside paintings this way: “these waters, skies, beaches, bath houses of uncompromising lines, these drifting or moored boats, with humanity strolling, sitting, bathing, are nevertheless so real, or rather evoke the illusion of reality, that you experience in their presence what Henry James calls ‘the emotion of recognition.’”
Dr. Barnes described them this way: “[Glackens] shows with detachment the essential picturesqueness and humanity of the events represented, and his only comment upon life is that it is pleasant to live in a beautiful world."
Glackens’ paintings helped me appreciate what I saw in front of me, and I enjoyed my here and now “show” in real time.
For example, this photograph captures the movement of my grandson jumping off the floating dock as I climbed on it.
It reminded me of a detail in Glackens’ painting The Little Pier:
I am not saying we have identical visual statements in these images. I am saying that the activity in Glackens’ painting of small, vivid, contrasting color units set in receding arcs of oranges, greens, reds, and blues, express lively, active, colorful drama. In the detail of the Glackens’ painting above, the row boat tips to the left as the floating dock tips to the right creating an inverted pyramid echoed by the steps up to the pier; the diving figure, a diagonal torpedo, enters an exploding upwards splash of pink, yellow, and blue vertical strips rhythmically repeating the rippling arcs of the water.
The photo of me climbing up to the floating dock as my grandson jumped off is not as orchestrated as The Little Pier. However, when I made the connection of its qualities to the Glackens’ painting, I felt as though I had experienced something important. Perceiving connections will do that to you.
Now look at this diagram of The Raft:
The diagram marks the triangular compositional devices connecting the large floating dock on the left with the smaller pier on the right and includes the “rescue boat,” as Violette de Mazia labeled it, linking the two. It also diagrams the color units circling the dock and pier, adding to the animation of the entire ensemble.
As I observed children and their parents on inflated tubes or swimming in Lake Winnipesaukee, I enjoyed the spectacle of colors, shapes, and movement of their actions because I knew Glackens’ painting.
My photo does not come close to the aesthetic qualities in the Glackens’ painting, but it does illustrate why the spectacle intrigued me. Examine the next two photographs and see if you agree:
If you isolate the patterns in the color units in my photographs and then compare them to the patterns on the floating dock in the Glackens’ painting, you will see why I found my visual experience fascinating.
Compare the next Glackens’ detail, with its repetitions of stripes and bands and lights and darks, with my photographs above, to see if you agree:
Finally, here is a detail from Glackens’ painting The Bathing Hour, Chester, Nova Scotia, and my photo of my grandson swimming:
Granted, the kid is cute, but what attracted me and held my interest was his shape, color, and movement. Glackens’ color unit floating across the picture plane, buoyant, fast, and “wet,” not made of flesh and bones, but of slabs of luminous color units on a flat surface, is art. My grandson swimming echoed visual ideas sparked by the painting.
Works of art bestow this gift. They enable us to see our world through an artist’s eyes, and this not only enriches our visual experience, it changes everything.
That’s why we call it “Informed Perception.”