Tuesday, November 10, 2015

Albert Pinkham Ryder and the "ceaseless melody of the northern line"

Albert Pinkham Ryder, Moonlit Cove, 1890

Albert Pinkham Ryder is one of several great 19th century American artists yet to become familiar to the general public at large.

There are many reasons for Ryder's low profile, not the least of which is that his work has imploded over time; his already scant number of paintings have seriously deteriorated because of his heedlessness to sound oil painting technique. Living like a hermit in a tiny, squalid New York apartment through the late 1800s, Ryder would evolve his paintings over decades, heaping layer upon wet layer on his canvases and liberally using bitumen (a distant cousin of road tar, apparently), which, apparently, puckers, warps, and discolors over time.

Rock star American art historian Barbara Novak devotes a chapter to Ryder in her very readable American Painting of the Nineteenth Century. She identifies Ryder as a visionary "in search of the impossible and the unattainable," who used painting as a visual language to express ideas and internal states of consciousness rather than "empathy with nature" like the Impressionists and many previous American landscapists did so well. As Novak says, Ryder might have said, along with Paul Klee, "Art does not render the visible, but makes visible."

What does it make visible? In Ryder's art, Novak identifies two types of religious experience. On the one hand (in agitated canvases depicting storms, churning waters, Biblical mayhem, gothic episodes from imagination, and operatic and literary works like Macbeth), it becomes a visual metaphor for the self caught up in "a dizzying religious experience" signified by the intense animation of nature (as in van Gogh). In "Lord Ullin's Daughter," the opposing diagonals (of clouds, cliffs, and crashing waves) create a tension that Ryder further ratchets up with sharp edged triangles and counter movements from all directions, though the eye keeps coming back to the storm-tossed figure, a stand-in for the viewer.

Ryder, Lord Ullin's Daughter, 1905
Very much on the other hand (most clearly, in depictions of isolated boats silhouetted in an "abstract void" of Ryder's own invention), his art makes visible "a serene, almost Oriental absorption of the self into cosmos, an annihilation of the self." This Buddhistic dissolution of the self had a strong American precedent in New England Transcendentalism (and think of Melville for the chaos) and in "those painters who erased their own artistic presence in the attempt to realize the life of things," as Novak writes.

Here the forms flow into around each other in gentler, rhythmic patterns, the flatness of the picture plane serving to augment the design's quieter, primarily horizontal movements. Here Ryder subdues anecdotal detail in favor of mood.  

Surely for Ryder, these two forms of self-transcendence, the self's absorption in primal chaos and its dissolution into a oneness with the cosmos, are two sides of the same coin. But here's what's really interesting. These two strains in Ryder and American art and thought, we might call them the Sublime and the Transcendental, reemerged unabated in the 20th century, though rarely in one single artist. The chaos is there in the Abstract Expressionists who channeled untamed forces of nature, such as de Kooning,

Willem de Kooning, Untitled, 1948
Joan Mitchell,

Joan Mitchell, Untitled, c. 1950

and Jackson Pollock (who named both Melville and Ryder as influences),

Jackson Pollock, Silver over Black, White, Yellow, and Red, 1948
Jackson Pollock, Moby Dick, 1943

and on the other hand, painters who quieted the self into Buddhistic non-existence, such as Rothko, 

Mark Rothko, Black in Deep Red, 1948

and subsequent colorists and abstractionists such as Frankenthaler,

Hellen Frankenthaler, Madame Matisse, 1983
Morris Lewis

Morris Lewis, Blue Veil, 1958
and Agnes Martin.
Agnes Martin, Untitled, 2004

I see this as an America artistic and spiritual heritage, albeit one that, judging from what I've seen of late, contemporary and especially conceptual art since Pop and Duchamp mostly rejects.

Ryder would have loved abstract expressionism. "The artist should fear to become the slave of detail," Ryder cautioned. "He should strive to express his thought and not the surface of it. What avails a storm cloud accurate in form and color if the storm is not therein?" Pollock echoed those words when he explained, "I want to express my feelings rather than illustrate them."

Albert Pinkham Ryder, Siegfried and the Rhine Maidens, 1888-91

Ryder worked on his painting Siegfried and the Rhine Maidens from 1888 to 1891. It's based on a scene from Wagner's operatic "Ring" cycle, but the back story's not important. Just look at the thing! As Ryder said, "the storm is within." In terms of line, these fluid, twilit forms of light and dark spin everything into motion. From the towering, undulating tree branches to the mythical hero stunned by the appearance of the wily water-spirits, it's a vision of man and nature in archetypal, everlasting turmoil. Okay, its hard to see on a jpeg smaller than a credit card, but who else had painted the fragility and resistance, the archetypal uncertainty of the human condition with such directness? Only the towering greats, El Greco, Goya, Turner, and Michelangelo (especially of the Last Judgment) come to mind. Of Ryder's Siegfried Novak enthuses, "The insistent rhythms... are fixed into the 'good Gestalt' of the perfect design. Siegfried belongs, like El Greco's View of Toledo, to that small group of masterpieces that stamp themselves on our minds with instantaneous - indeed, almost violent - authority." (p. 218)

Novak traces the painterly lineage of the Gothic sensibility in evidence here to what German art historian Worringer, whose ideas supported early 20th century abstraction, called the "ceaseless melody of the northern line," the "whorling, convoluted rhythms that worked their way into Baroque religious art 

Bernini, The Rape of Proserpina, 1622
and ultimately through the expansive forms of Rubens," 

Rubens, Allegory on the Blessings of Peace, 1630
into the romantic color and florid mis-en-scenes of Delacroix, 

Delacroix, Sardanoupolus, 1827
and the sublime, off-kilter light of Turner and beyond. 

J.M.W. Turner, Snowstorm, Steamboat off a Harbor, 1842
"It was this sensibility," novak writes, intensified emotionally, that informed the Expressionism of Munich and the German artists in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. In his Gothic visionary aspect, 'Ryder shared this sensibility.'"

Who knows what God knows?
His hand He never shows,
Yet miracles with less are wrought,
Even with a thought.

-A. P. Ryder


  1. Beautiful article - profound connections - and really valid survey of the "soulful," more penetrating feelings of "modern art" . . .

  2. The way this artist is *exposed* is brilliant..I loved the churning chaos and the article described so beautifully the correlations with other artists of this period.
    Thank you.

    1. Thanks Eliza- That's an interesting term, "exposed" - I like it, and I do think t's spot on considering how fully and intensely Ryder focused on getting his interior self into the work. That's going to be a new watchword for me.