Sunday, September 11, 2016
Mountains Don't Complain
This past week, my 6-year-old granddaughter Sophia visited me. I showed her the painting I was working on, using as my subject, her and her twin brother Jack sitting in a tree.
She took a quick look at it and said, “I look like an elf.”
She said this, not happily or unhappily, but matter-of-factly, and walked away.
At the same time, another painting I was working on sat on another easel. I had no one to show it to for a reaction, because the painting uses, as its subject, a landscape I started in Crested Butte, Colorado, and I am sure the mountain, or the trees, or the path, or the weeds do not have anything to say.
However, as I worked on it, passersby did. Many simply shouted I was doing a good job as they rode by on their bikes, but a boy of about 5 or 6 years old stopped with his mother to look at the painting, and he asked me why I had a “rainbow of colors” at the bottom of the picture. He was referring to my abstract underpainting. It still showed because I had not yet covered it with what I was seeing. At that point, it looked like this:
I launched into a long description of how I made abstract underpaintings based on cubist visual ideas and then I wove what I was seeing into those geometric shapes. He actually pondered this complex explanation (or that is what I hoped he was doing as his eyes glazed over), then simply said, “I like it.” I told his mom I hoped he would be an art critic when he grew up.
Violette de Mazia wrote several essays about creative distortion, and in Creative Distortion: III. In Portraiture and Creative Distortion IV: Portraiture II, she described the factors that enter into what we refer to as portraiture. First, and foremost, she said portraiture “deals with human beings, or, at least, things alive in the ordinary sense of the word.” (Creative Distortion: III. In Portraiture, The Barnes Foundation, Journal of the Art Department, Vol. IV, No. 2, Autumn, 1973, p. 4)
Beyond that, as Dr. Barnes argued and I mentioned in my post What’s in a Face?, most of the other requirements for a painting to be called a portrait no longer are applicable in the 21st century: the physical traits of the models—their facial features and expression, their garments, their general physical bearing—no longer are expected to play a major part in the picture. Even compositional challenges relating the figure to the setting to form a coherent unity does not loom large either.
What often drive artists’ nuts, however, are the sitter’s feelings about the portrait. A pear doesn’t care. Neither does a mountain. But a person, like my granddaughter, does. The sitter can complain, dictate, and object. Even more frustrating, in the photograph I used, Sophia was wearing a dress with a repetitive heart-shaped pattern, and if I had not remembered the following painting, Bonnard’s, Woman with Dog, I might have hung up my brush. The Bonnard painting gave me courage to do something with that pattern that worked with my picture.
Bonnard, Woman with Dog, 1908, Oil on cardboard, Barnes
The question, therefore, is not whether the painting is a portrait but, as Violette de Mazia argued, whether it is a portrait that is a work of art—a new object in which the artist has done something “to and with his subject to make this work significant in its own right.” (Creative Distortion: III, p. 9)
Now comes the hard part. I will try to examine my painting Twins in a Tree to see what I have done.
Does it surprise you I find this difficult to do? It shouldn’t.
I, and I suspect most artists, have no idea how to define the aesthetic visual meaning of their work, and many complain about being asked to do so. Picasso said, “How can you expect a beholder to experience my picture as I experienced it? A picture comes to me a long time beforehand; who knows how long a time beforehand, I sensed, saw, and painted it and yet the next day even I do not understand what I have done.” (Richard Friedenthal, 1963, p. 260). When asked what one of his paintings meant, Picasso answered. “I painted it. You figure it out.” Matisse said, “You want to paint? First of all you must cut off your tongue because your decision takes away from you the right to express yourself with anything but your brush.”
That said, I will now put on my “objectivity hat,” and examine my own painting to find out what I have done. Matisse also said an artist looks at a painting he has just completed as “a mother examines her new-born baby—in the hopes of understanding it.”
That’s my goal, too. I want to understand it.
Here is the photograph I used as my subject and the painting below it so you can compare them easily:
The differences jump out. I filled most of the picture space with the figures; I exaggerated the shapes of the tree trunks to stress their curvilinear qualities; I made the patterns created by shadows and the patterns in Sophia’s dress more obvious and more decorative. Harder to define, but important, the overall impression of the painting is oddly eerie.
Upside down, other qualities appear:
Sophia’s arms and legs set up the thematic organization of the vertical as well as diagonal color volumes of the tree trunks and branches. Now on the left, the tree trunk, like a parenthesis, holds in the larger color volumes of the figures, while on the right, the massive, gray “tree trunk” acts as a repoussoir, pushing back into shallow space the two lighter gray and gold “tree trunks” while Sophia’s arm, a light pink narrow band, now at the bottom right, slides further back into deeper space. Sophia’s diagonal, centered, large, bent leg pushes forward as her body sinks in between it and her other arm like a deflated balloon held in place by two slanting bookends.
Jack’s head looms forward as Sophia’s recedes creating the in-and-out, back-and-forth movement in the picture. Further enhanced by the tangle of “branches,” the tiny pockets of space between “tree trunks” and “foliage,” the linear patterns in both twins’ “hair,” as well as the patterns created by the “robot” image on Jack’s shirt, this movement builds the surprising impact of the painting.
No longer is it a pleasant photograph of two happy kids cozily perched in the crook of a tree. The painting is a series of high-keyed, unnatural, glowing color units of contrasting snaky curves, twisted limbs (both human and botanical), and dramatic in-and-out movements in shallow space.
And something about that is startling and compelling at the same time.
Yet a portrait might not please the person or people depicted in it. One of the most famous examples of displeasure occurred in 1967 when the artist, Peter Hurd, painted a portrait of President Lyndon Baines Johnson. LBJ fell asleep during the one sitting he allowed, and Hurd finished his painting using photographs. LBJ hated it, and he declared it "the ugliest thing I ever saw." Soon a pun was making the rounds in Washington that "artists should be seen around the White House—but not Hurd." Hurd donated the painting to the National Portrait Gallery in the Smithsonian Institution.
And Ira Glackens, the son of artist William Glackens, tells how, when he was five years old, he “might have seen” one of his father’s paintings at the 1913 Armory Show. He definitely had seen it as his father worked on it, however, because this is what he later wrote: “I do not recall seeing, though it was surely pointed out to me, my father’s large canvas “Family Group,” with myself looking like a monkey in it.” (William Glackens and the Eight, 1957, p. 182).
Glackens, Family Group, 1910-11, NGA
What my “elf” and Glackens’ “monkey” might find comforting is what Matisse said when an onlooker commented “that is one horrible-looking woman” as she looked at his painting Woman with a Hat.
1905, San Francisco Museum of Modern Art
Matisse said, “If that were a woman, I would myself run away from her. But it is not a woman; it is a picture.”