Sunday, March 20, 2016

What's in a Face?

In The Art in Painting, Dr. Barnes wrote this about portraiture: “In Portrait-Painting, an artist is much more rigidly limited than in such fields as landscape or dramatic figure-composition, and he is compelled to get his effects with a minimum of means; consequently, his ability to use these means is severely tested.  His problems are: to  make the figure seem to live, to distinguish it clearly from the background, and to unify figure and background in a design which is itself esthetically moving, apart from physical resemblance to the sitter.” (p. 270)

Now, in 2016, almost 100 years since the 1925 publication of Dr. Barnes’ book, his definition seems antiquated. 

On March 17, The New York Times featured “A Nationwide Guide to Art Exhibitions This Spring”  by Judith H. Dobrzynski. One entry caught my eye:  This Is a Portrait If I Say So: Identity in American Art, 1912 to Today, June 25, 2016 - October 23, 2016, at the Bowdoin College Museum of Art.  

The exhibit, “the first exhibition to address the breadth and significance of the phenomenon of non-mimetic portraits in American art,” is said to pose “provocative questions about the very nature of likeness and personal identity.”

“This is a portrait if I say so,” I wanted to scream, is like saying “the earth is flat if I say so.” 

I had to take a deep deep breath.

You may remember my blog post of June 30, 2011 The Comb in the Museum.  I did not want to repeat either the points I made in that post or the fierce debate my post engendered in the class I was teaching at the time.  I am older now, and I meditate to elude reactivity.  I did not feel up to arguing the same points again.  

Finally, after I calmed down, I decided I did not need to be so upset.  Declaring something a “portrait” is not the same as declaring something a work of art.  Dr. Barnes admitted that Goya was the last great portrait painter.  After him, he argued, “portrait-painting” became “an aspect of the new traditions, and [presented] no special or distinctive forms.” (p. 277) 

For example, Marsden Hartley’s 1914 painting, Portrait of a German Officer, with its rugged brushwork and dramatic color, exemplifies Hartley’s assimilation of both Cubism and German Expressionism.  Assuming you read the title, the condensed mass of images (badges, flags, medals) evokes a “portrait” of the officer.  There are also specific references to Hartley’s close friend Karl von Freyburg, a young cavalry officer who had been killed in action: K.v.F. are his initials, 4 was his regiment number, and 24 his age.

Here is the painting:

Hartley, Portrait of a German Officer, 1914, Met

That said, we read the painting by applying the tools we have mastered: we see an orchestration of close-knit curvilinear and rectilinear patterns, light/dark contrasts of vivid reds and golds dramatically contrasted by black, and highly decorative bands, diamonds, squares, crosses, and circles.  The color units swirl, curl, and overlap while suspended in a black background of indeterminate space.  

Robert Rauschenberg, in 1961, sent his “portrait” of Iris Clert as a telegram.  It states, “This is a portrait of Iris Clert if I say so.”

 This Is a Portrait of Iris Clert If I Say So, 1961, Ink on paper with two paper envelopes, 17 1/2 x 13 5/8 inches (44.5 x 34.6 cm). The Ahrenberg Collection, Switzerland.

If you see art in this “portrait” or if it moves you aesthetically, please let me know.  I could describe its visual impact in a few words, but art is not one of them. 

The next image is a portrait by Eddie Loper Jr. using my husband as his subject.  If all I said about this painting was “this is a work of art because I say so,” you would be reading a very short post.  

Loper, Jr., Laughing Man, Oil on canvas, 2016
I will say this instead.

I titled the painting Laughing Man because, as soon as I saw it, I connected it with two paintings by Franz Hals: Laughing Boy and Laughing Boy with a Flute.
Laughing Boy, c. 1625, Mauritshuis  

Laughing Boy with a Flute,

c. 1627, Staatliches Museum

In Hals’ paintings, the “smiles” either delight or annoy, depending on your sensitivities.  What Eddie Jr. adapts, however, is the broad, loose, active brushwork, although applied in vivid, high-keyed color informed by the fauves and expressionist painters like Karel Appel.

For example, examine the following Appel painting Portrait of Willem Sandberg:

Portrait of Willem Sandberg, 1956, Karel Appel Foundation

The bright ruggedly applied colors of Appel’s portrait combined with its facial distortions make Eddie Jr’s painting look chalky and mainstream. 

Appel’s portrait moves the needle away from portrait painting revealing psychological insight and towards an imaginative creation of personal fantasy.  Appel said, “My paint tube is like a rocket which describes its own space.  I try to make the impossible possible.  What is happening I cannot foresee; it is a surprise.  Painting, like passion, is an emotion full of truth and rings with a living sound, like the roar coming from the lion’s breast.” (Quoted by Hugo Claus, Karel Appel, New York, 1962).

On the other hand, Eddie Jr., like Soutine, uses solid, variegated color laid on heavily with pulled dynamic, powerful strokes.  Like Soutine, the animation and motion are heightened by the variety and direction in which the color-strokes run. His color-palette in Laughing Man is closer to Soutine’s The Pastry Chef in the Barnes Foundation:

Soutine, The Pastry Chef, c. 1919, Barnes
Upside down, angularity predominates over circularity in Eddie’s portrait:

The “neck” pierces the chest like a dagger; the ovoid head bulges forward surrounded by a blackish/blue outline that pushes the horseshoe mound of “hair" back in space.  The “cheeks” adhere to the face like two slices of pizza.  With a nod to African sculpture, the almond-shaped “eyes” sink slightly behind the “cheeks” and “forehead” at the same time as they squint into a blackened horizontal band.  The shortened “nose” projects forward over the upper “lip” at the same time as it recedes backward between the “eyes.”  The “mouth” is encircled by an upper and lower dome-shaped projection that sets back the repeating tile-like pink and blue “teeth.” 
Upside down, the entire section of “upper lip,” “mouth,” and “chin," a series of repeating curves and in-and-out projections, exhibit a variegated color profusion of hot pinks, deep reds, icy blues, and luminous lavenders.  

Right side up, the entire “head” looms forward as the “neck” and flattened slant of the upper body recedes backward in space.

Neither as theatrical as the Hals’ portraits, nor as demonstrative of Hals’ technical skill, Eddie’s portrait presents his “face” as a striking and interesting dramatic pattern creating a harmony of rhythms.  

His painting educates my vision, and my analysis of it has been far more compelling, exciting, and informative for me (and, I hope, you) than if I said, “this is a work of art if I say so.”

How did we find out the earth is round?  No, I have not lost my mind.  I am ending with this question because, in 1972, Isaac Asimov wrote a book to answer it.

In it, he traces the history of how we answered this question beginning with ancient people (who suspected the earth went on forever as a huge flat piece of land and sea with no end at all) to 1961 when astronauts first went into orbit around the earth and, by 1969, other astronauts had reached the moon.  From outer space, they could look back on earth and see it as an object in space. They could see that it was round.  

Ancient people looked at the stars, the moon, and the sun and asked questions.  Little by little, curious people, including scholars and explorers, discovered new information.  That information led to new discoveries, and the answer, that the earth is round and not flat, became clear.  

Artists do this too.  In “Aesthetic Quality” by Violette de Mazia, she said: “The artist is a teacher; he calls in the whole world of neighbors, to whom he reveals by his created piece what he discovered of aesthetic interest in his adventures in perception, what he re-created of broad human value and which, unaided by the artist’s coherent expression, no one could see so well, so fully, so richly, so specifically, or, in fact, at all.” (The Barnes Foundation, Journal of the Art Department, Spring, 1971, Vol. II, No. 1, p. 13).

Pearl S. Buck did not write in the catalog preface to a 1943 exhibit held in the Bignou Gallery in New York, Ancient Chinese and Modern European Paintings, “This is art because I say so.”  

She wrote, “What are they saying to us in these pictures across the span of centuries of time and the thousands of miles of land and sea? They are saying that the ancient roots of man are the same; they are saying that western fruit can grow from eastern seed, that seed can be separated from fruit by generations and yet the process of life goes on between the two; they are saying that between man and man, in time and in space, there is the common hope, the common longing, for the spirit of man is the same everywhere and always.... All under heaven are brothers.” 

And Dr. Barnes and Violette de Mazia, in great detail, revealed the art.  

No comments:

Post a Comment