Friday, September 2, 2016

Artist's Eyes: Part II

In my previous post, “Artist’s Eyes,” I described how artists make pictures not from what we commonly refer to as “reality,” but by adapting visual ideas they have experienced in the work of other artists, the traditions of art.  The post touched a nerve.  I received more comments from more of you than any other post I have written. 

I decided the topic deserved further exploration.  

I will begin with Maurice Prendergast because I am looking at his work to prepare for a course at the Barnes Foundation on Isms and Traditions, so this is as good a place to start as any.  

In 1910, Maurice Prendergast wrote this in his journal:

“The Signs of Genius is the power of recognizing and assimilating that which is necessary to the development of oneself….We come into the world with nothing in our own right except the capacity for the acquisition of Ideas.  We cannot invent Ideas, we can only gather some of those in circulation since the beginning of the world.  We endow them with the color and form of our own time and if that color and form be of supreme quality the work is preserved as a representation of a period in the history of civilization….
Genius is the power of assimilation.  Only fools think the[y] invent.
If the circumstances of a man’s life admitted the acquisitions of only one set of Ideas his work would be thin….” (Catalogue Raisonné 1483)

In Idyl, Richard Wattenmaker argues, Maurice Prendergast “sought sources in the traditions that carried him beyond the immediacy of Manet, the monochromatic tonalities of Whistler, and the naturalism and spontaneity of the Impressionists to more elaborate spatial organizations.” (Maurice Prendergast, p. 119)

Here is the painting:
Maurice Prendergast, Idyl, c. 1912-14, Barnes
Prendergast’s  sketchbooks show he made drawings based on Giorgione and Titian’s Le concert champêtre, Poussin’s Echo and Narcissus, Pierre Puvis de Chavanne’s three compositions Pastoral, Dramatic, and Epic Poetry on the north wall of the Boston Public Library, among many others.  These drawings, freely copied, complement his nude studies and figures in parks or at the seashore.  

Idyl represents only one of his multi-figure compositions for which he sought classical models without symbolic or mythological meanings.  A series of unbroken tradition informed his expression. 

This painting uses rhythmic repetitions of: (1) rounded, horizontal grassy mounds echoed in the foliage and the umbrellas; (2) undulating diagonals of its waterfall establishing the contrasting theme of curvilinear color shapes; (3) upright bands of spaced tree trunks setting off seated, standing, nude, and clothed figures, in back and forth positions in space.  Prendergast orchestrates this within a glowing tapestry setting.  

My point: Prendergast assimilated the work of artists he found useful to his own interest, and according to Wattenmaker, because he “pursued color harmonies as musicians shift key settings,” and because “he worked and reworked his surfaces, often over a period of years, to gain his interwoven webs of paint and atmospheric space that are at the core of his art,” Prendergast added something fresh and compelling to the traditions of art. 

Examine the following details and see if you agree:

Closer to home, Eddie Loper, Jr., recently told me he sees pictures in his head and in his dreams. But when he starts painting, the picture does not turn out the way he “sees” it.  This sounds strikingly similar to my daughter’s complaint in my previous post that her hand did not produce what her brain was seeing.  

When he is stuck, Eddie continued, he looks at art books for ideas.  He credits attending Violette de Mazia’s classes at the Barnes Foundation for introducing him to color, with Winslow Homer for showing him how to draw, and N.C. Wyeth’s work (which he saw in the Wilmington Library) for illustrating drama and power. 

He also described how his eyesight creates challenges.  His “good” eye, the left one, sees details.  His “bad” eye, his right eye, sees swimming color shapes.  When he looks at something, he closes his left eye first to see color masses.  Then he closes his right eye to look through his left eye to see details.  Even doing that, he said, his picture still seems to have a  mind of its own, and his method does not determine he will paint anything close to what he “thinks” he sees and wants.

Here is an example.

First, study the photograph of the boxing match between Mohammed Ali and George Foreman, known as The Rumble in the Jungle, and then the painting that Eddie made using the photograph as his subject:

Edward L. Loper, Jr., Sting Like a Bee, Oil on canvas, July, 2016
First, and most obvious, the color palette Eddie employs has little to do with the photograph.  Both the two figures as well as the background have Fauve qualities.  The saturated colors and the bold strokes of their application do not mimic the surface appearance of the bodies seen in the photo.  

Let’s turn the painting upside down for a more objective read:

Now on the left, a series of bright, warm, yellows, reds, pinks, and white mostly linear color strokes pulse backwards receding first into a concave pocket of space at the “stomach” and then further back as the “belt” meets the “white shorts” now at the top.  This is the long way of saying the “body” recedes from the “head” to the “shorts.”  

Now on the right, ochres and reds predominate, setting the now smaller and lower “head,” “forearm,” and “body” back in space and ballooning forward the two red halves of the “shorts” divided by the white stripe in their center.  Again, the long way of saying the smaller “head” sinks back in space while the upper “arm” bulges forward as do the “shorts.” 

The “arms” become a twisted array of left and right movements across the center of the painting.  However, the literally “striking” push of the central “arm” projected into the foreground plane, sets the theme.

Examine that "arm:"

This detail illustrates the short, energetic brush strokes, the luminous bang of color, the linear outlines compartmentalizing the bulging, massive color volumes, and the “motion” of that outstretched “punch,” a strong punch, full of aesthetic meaning:  powerful, dramatic, and visceral.  

I’ve been reading an interesting book recommended by my ophthalmologist, The Artist’s Eyes; Vision and the History of Art, written by two ophthalmologists, Michael F. Marmor and James G. Ravin.  In it, they begin with the eyes, where the process of seeing originates, and go on to investigate how the biology of sight has inspired and confounded the world’s most famous artists.

What I admire about this book is how humble both writers are in the presence of genius.  Of Matisse they write, “His devotion to color and form, independent of subject, led him intuitively to use physiological principles of color perception in new and unusual ways.  Understanding these principles gives us insight into some of his visual effects, and into the rationale for some of his color choices.   But it cannot explain why the specific combination of subject, form, and color in his paintings are so uniquely effective and compelling to us in the twenty-first century.  This is where art transcends science—and where we must acknowledge the hand of a master.” (p. 81)

Or, as Dr. Barnes said a long time ago, “We perceive only what we have learned to look for, both in life and in art.  The artist, whether in paint, words, or musical tones, has embodied an experience in his work, and to appreciate his painting or poem or symphony, we must reconstruct his experience, so far as we are able, in ourselves.” (The Art in Painting, pp.6-7).

This has less to do with eyesight and its limits and challenges, and more to do with perception, a whole other entity.  As Harry Sefarbi wrote, “You must investigate the traditions, and sharpen your perception.  Or you can’t play.” (The Clue to Klee, The Barnes Foundation Journal of the Art Department, Spring, 1972, p. 42.)

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