Friday, September 9, 2011

Rembrandt and the Face of Loper

What’s in a face?

From the aesthetic point of view, everything we need to know.

Unfortunately, most exhibit catalogs, headphones, or wall posts do not help much if what you want to understand is the art in the painting of a face.

Case in point: On August 3, the Philadelphia Museum of Art launched an exhibit titled “Rembrandt and the Face of Jesus.”  Most of the information about the exhibit has nothing to do with Rembrandt’s visual innovations and everything to do with his contribution to “humanizing” the face of Jesus.  The focus is on religious and historic significance, not aesthetic.

A few months ago, I visited an art exhibit of Edward Loper, Jr.’s work in Wilmington, Delaware.  There I saw a self-portrait he had recently completed.

Eddie Loper (I will call him Eddie to distinguish him from his father, Edward) had provided me a wonderful gift: a chance to show how a 21st century artist could use visual ideas invented by a 17th century Dutchman.  And make them new.

On the right is Rembrandt’s Self-portrait with Beret and Turned up Collar.  On the left is Loper's Self-Portrait.

Rembrandt, Self-portrait with Beret and Turned up Collar, 1659,NGA
Edward Loper, Jr., Self-Portrait, 2011, Private Collection


Let’s compare and contrast these two self-portraits. 

What did Eddie Loper borrow from Rembrandt, and what did he do to and with those borrowings?  What visual ideas did he borrow from other artists? 

1.       Obviously, Eddie Loper knows the Rembrandt painting.  He used Rembrandt’s painting as his subject, and he dressed and posed as Rembrandt did.  Nothing new here.  Artists have done this sort of thing throughout the history of art.

2.       Loper’s picture is more colorful, with light illuminating both the figure and the background.  Rembrandt’s color is limited in variety, but his use of chiaroscuro creates a richness and depth of color.  Consequently, while Rembrandt’s colors are limited in range, somber, and not bright, they have expressive power.

3.       The space in the Rembrandt recedes limitlessly.  The shallow space in the Loper acts as a projector, and this makes the central mass (the head) loom forward.

4.       Loper’s brush strokes, visible as pulled, banded, overlapping, and full of energy and movement, create a convincing, solid, central mass.  Rembrandt’s brushstrokes are so subtle they are imperceptible.  They build a solid, three-dimensional mass that stands out from a receding background and create color units that render the different feelings of hair, flesh and textures, but how they do this is impossible to detect.  

5.       Loper’s line demarcates edges and outlines detail decoratively, while Rembrandt’s line does not exist as a separate entity.  His line merges so completely with chiaroscuro, the central volume emerges from the background as if by magic. 

Rembrandt is a tough act to follow.

That said, let’s see what other visual ideas Loper borrowed to make his self-portrait and whether those borrowings lead to a new and personal end.

Dr. Barnes argues that few painters have been able to use Rembrandt’s ideas creatively.  He mentions Daumier and Monticelli as two who achieved some degree of success.

Look at the Daumier and Monticelli pictures below:

Daumier, The Painter at His Easel, 1870, Barnes

Monticelli, As You Like It, n.d., Phillips Collection

Like Rembrandt, Daumier, in this tiny picture measuring 4 5/8 x 3 1/8 inches, modifies chiaroscuro to achieve deep, rich color-harmonies with somber colors.  The solid three-dimensionality of the figure results from the surrounding space, a type of “space-decoration” Dr. Barnes calls it, decoration that is an integral part of the structure of the picture.  The Painter at His Easel shows line creating dynamic movement, a quivering, curly, wavy activity producing a convincing drama and force.

Monticelli’s juicy color takes Rembrandt’s somber color-harmonies up a notch while maintaining the effects of chiaroscuro to create glowing, three-dimensional masses moving in and out of a relatively compressed space.  The thick, impasto color creates a decorative charge in itself.

Now consider Soutine and Matisse.

Examine the cropped details of the pictures below:

Soutine, The Pastry Cook (detail), c. 1919, Barnes 
Matisse, The Woman with the Hat (detail), 1905, San Fransisco Museum of Modern Art



Loper’s painting incorporates Soutine’s rich, variegated color and Matisse’s decorative bright, vivid, contrasted color areas.  While he does not stress Soutine’s animation and motion, nor Matisse’s dramatic cold/warm color contrasts, he adapts their pulled, banded, vigorous brush-strokes , their bold distortions, and their vivid, intense, and dramatic rhythms.

To what end?

Eddie Loper’s Self-Portrait draws us in via the illustrative: something about that “wicked” eye, and that angry, set jaw, start us on our journey.  It would be so easy here to slip backwards into a biographical discussion of the artist’s life, what might have made him so “angry,” or “fierce,” or “determined.”  However, our goal is to understand the color statement.  To do that, we need to subdue the subject by turning the picture upside down.

Now you can see the sweep of banded, saturated, vivid color units.  To the upside-down picture’s left, you see a dome-like mass bulging forward (the shoulder) echoed by several strips of lower-key color bands receding to the right (the other shoulder).  Bulging further forward and centered is a large, solid warm color mass (the head) made up of thick, pulled, and dragged color units topped by receding arcs of violet and cerulean blue (the cap).

The head sinks into the peachy, rosy background like a melon into Jell-O.  The amorphous browns and violets in the mid-section of the picture, between the background and the body, recede slightly.

Did you see this before I turned the picture upside down?  I didn’t.

“Faces,” or anything to do with portraits present an additional challenge.  We easily stop seeing the aesthetic message conveyed by color on a flat surface once curiosity about the subject is aroused.

What, then, has Loper given back that is his: a picture built of fiery color bands organized into vibrant color masses and compelling spatial intricacies informed by ideas he adapted from Matisse, Soutine, Monticelli, Daumier, Rembrandt, and his father Edward L. Loper, Sr.  You have seen Edward L. Loper Sr.’s work in these posts, enabling you to verify his work as one source for his son’s work.   If you  wish to re-read those posts, click on the following titles: Loper’s Link; How Creation Happens, Cont’d;  Making Connections; Tackling Transfers; Pentimento.


1 comment:

  1. Loper's self-portrait looks awful to me. In the far left, his mix of contrasting colors makes it difficult to distinguish the shoulder from the background. Also, since he uses such a wide variety of color for the entire piece in no particular order, i thought his "cap" was his hair (just with an abnormal color).