Friday, October 29, 2010

Some Strangeness in the Proportion

Enigma, Gustave Dore

Edgar Allen Poe's works have inspired hundreds of artists - the images arise unbidden as we read the stories and poems. A random Web search turned up far too many to sort through, but the oil paintings of UK illustrator Brian Pedley jumped out for their unhinged sense of panic and vertigo and their atmospheric vibe.

The above is his interpretation of The Fall of the House of Usher, and below is "The Man of the Crowd."

I've always loved Gustave Dore's illustrations for Poe's immortal poem, The Raven - you can download them as an iPhone app now. But I will never forget discovering the yellowed, oversize edition - the size of an atlas! ("elephant folios" I think they used to call them) - in the crumbling library of a 100-year old grand dame, the kindly and very old-world Mrs. Gray, our minister's mother in fact, with whom I passed some autumn evenings as her caretaker during my 15th year.

Dreams No Mortal Ever Dared To Dream Before
From Gustave Dore's illustrations for The Raven

In my own work (and life!), I've long held to Poe's prescription for beauty, as given in Ligeia:

There is no exquisite beauty without some strangeness in the proportion...

Graphic novelist Neil Gaiman has written a great little homage to Poe that draws upon that quote for its title. Worth a quick read for anyone who's ever gone off the deep end with Poe - if only for the span of a brief plunge into madness, death, and obsession - and loved it.

Tuesday, October 26, 2010

Flemish Still Life: Feast for the Eyes and the Mind

Still-life with Peeled Lemon, Jan Davidsz. de HEEM

What a harvest is here in this still-life painting by the Flemish Baroque-period painter Jan Davidsz. de HEEM (1606-1684): a wooden table draped with a gold-fringed green velvet cloth, a glass of white wine and a cluster of white grapes hanging from a vine branch with large, veined leaves, a pewter dish supporting a peeled lemon, a cooked shrimp and a scattering of hazelnuts, behind which is a bowl full of strawberries and, to the left, a shucked oyster, and behind that, the handle of a knife.

But the painting's real essence is none of those things. Rather, it is this canvas's sombre atmosphere with its evocation of silence, luxury, stillness, and sensuous delight. The objects don't so much sit or stand as emerge from the enveloping dark.

Another still-life by De Heem. Note the snail slithering past the foreground oyster. (Ew!)

To step up the pleasure even more, most still-life paintings of this time period and geography contain a marvelous overlay of symbolic meanings. Present for original viewers who wished to read into them, each of the objects carried well-known associations accrued from their use in popular religious and moralist writings and sermons (the butterfly perched on top might suggest the soul, the fancy glassware and knife-handle signified preoccupation with material wealth, while strawberries and oysters pointed toward lust). Often the imagery preached a mini-sermon on the inevitability of mortality and the importance of looking after the upkeep of one's soul in preparation for the afterlife. So often is this the case that art historians refer to this type of painting as "vanitas" still life (for the theme of earthly "vanity," as in the Ecclesiastical "vanity, vanity, vanity, sayeth the preacher, all is vanity - vanitas omni est).

In this case, tiny details you can't see in this jpeg - the presence of various parasitic insects, wilting leaves, overripe or subtly rotting grapes, a worm-hole in one of the hazelnuts - remind the viewer of the transience of even the ripest, most luxuriant life in the material world.

Detail from a different Dutch still life.

Even without the symbolism, Old Master still life paintings from the Dutch and Flemish Schools continue to delight viewers. My own theory about why is not that they're so photographic-realistic, but that they're both hyper-realistic and super-artificial all at once.

The shadows are voluptuously exaggerated, the textures chosen and explored for their own sake, the colors carefully keyed to each other, and the multiple levels of reference constitute an unapologetic artifice right from the start. Further, the combination of the rich yet muted colors and the sparkling realism of the lights and textures captivates modern viewers on two delightfully divergent fronts - on one hand, we read the classically balanced composition and the harmonious, tonal palette as the artist's inventions, evidence of the artificial nature of art-making. Simultaneously, on the other hand, we read the exquisite details as the opposite - as convincing evidence of art's ability to render the real with supreme truth, to give us the wetness of water and the woodness of wood - it's there in the sparkling water droplets, the luminosity of the fruit, the nubbly (impasto) texture of the orange peel and the seduction of the velvet. Here is the Louvre's commentary on Still-Life with Peeled Lemon, (which I find rather masterful in its own way):

De Heem is a masterly painter of light and reflections, as seen here on the dish and glasses, or the droplets of water. Here, too, we see his virtuoso rendering of the fine, misty covering of bloom on the skin of the grapes, the veins of the vine leaves, and their infinite variations of color. The picture's thriving insect population, crawling around the fruit and other objects, creates a secondary world all of its own, waiting to be discovered upon close examination by the attentive viewer. A caterpillar climbs up the vine branch, which creates a striking diagonal across the upper part of the composition. A second butterfly has alighted at the end of the branch. A spider has made its home in one of the grapes and a hornet is making its way around the edge of the bowl of strawberries. These tiny living creatures may hold some residual symbolic significance – insects are traditionally associated with the concept of vanity (from the Latin vanitas), the transience and futility of earthly life. The same concept is expressed by the withered, diseased vine leaf, the rotten grape, or the small worm-hole in the hazelnut next to the lemon. Above all, these details testify to De Heem's supreme technique and visionary approach to still-life painting, his abilty to transform one corner of a dinner-table into a small, private universe.

Jan Davidsz. de Heem succeeds triumphantly in depicting the tactile values of his chosen objects, and their slow emergence from the penumbra of the picture's plain, dark green ground. An artist of remarkable distinction, he settled in the city of Antwerp, where the practice of still-life painting took a wide variety of forms – from the art of the greatest animal painters and masters of baroque still-life (such as Jan Fyt or Frans Snyders, who often collaborated with Rubens), to the more austere output of painters such as Jacob Fopsen van Es. Their diverse images depict a world of silence and apparent stillness, imbued with tiny signs of life, and touched by the immutable forces of time and decay.

Thursday, October 21, 2010

Inness: The Mill Pond

George Inness, The Mill Pond, 1884

Though at a glance this painting may look like just another Barbizon-inspired landscape, The Mill-Pond by nineteenth-century American painter George Inness repays a closer look.

It's a painting of "ordinary" American scenery (little is overtly "majestic," sublime or Romantic about its subject). And yet, it works a subtle magic, quietly captivating the viewer through harmonious, saturated earth tones, a composition designed to instill a sense of life and movement, strong primary (and secondary) “points of interest,” and, most important of all, a kind of unifying indeterminacy that results from brushwork that’s loose, yet graceful and disciplined.

In such mid-career and later works, Inness backs away from meticulous detail to plant suggestions of his subject, and throughout this work, he rather magnificently suggests rather than tells. Inness doesn’t copy nature; he opens it up for us to re-imagine, become intuitively involved in completing his subjects out of the flickering stuff of memory and desire.

Inness is not being "Impressionistic," a style he could never embrace. Rather, by building indeterminacy into familiar, cultivated scenery, the effect is as if he is painting the here-and-not-here of two worlds, one of illusory reality and the other of mystical experience, both embodied in the everyday, and both beautiful. And yet, he fully articulates certain key objects. That fallen log, for example, he delineates through precise shape, value, and color.

The composition is stacked in thirds. Our eyes see the big tree first. If they wander into the sky, it is only to be guided back to the middle ground, the main site of the action. There we encounter the fallen log and are pointed back to ascend for another lush visitation through the passage of that tree. Following the cloud shapes again, we return down through the tree once more and back to the log, but this time we also see the figure in the rowboat parallel to it, and after that the suggestion of a human habitation on the opposite bank.

Should we be tempted to savor the deft suggestions of wildflowers and shadows in the foreground, our eyes will inevitably be led back by the log’s projecting limb to the mass of tree that first caught our attention. And from there, we can repeat the same visual circuit we have just enjoyed. This constant roaming of our eyes helps Inness convey the sense of animation that he perceived in nature and wished to express in paint.

For me, Inness is the Spirit Painter of nineteenth-century America. His trees are like spirit-fountains of intriguing color and mood mediating between earth and heaven. It's tempting to see in the composition's up-and-down tree-to-sky-to-earth-to-tree-to-sky-and-back-again circuit for the eyes a metaphor for the linking of earth to spirit through the objects of the world. For Inness, a Swedenborgian, the beautiful geometries of the world are "correspondences" that mediate between our blind mortal life and a vision of eternal Spirit.

With the molten rust-red of that oak erupting into a Prussian blue sky aswirl with warmth-tinted clouds, those mellow ochres set quietly into the background, and that sweeping gold-foil foliage glittering in the middle-ground, there’s more than enough for the eyes here, but there's a feast also for the imagination as well.

The artist’s son, George Inness, Jr., nailed this one pretty well in his biography, Life, Art, and Letters of George Inness:

“The Mill-Pond” is an upright, and depicts a tall, red oak, which fills most of the picture, and by the very redness catches the eye. It is necessary to sit before this canvas a while trying to grasp its full meaning.

"At first you are impressed only with this great mass of reddish gold, standing out in intense relief against a patch of blue sky. A pond fills the middle distance, across which are trees so indistinct and so clothed in mystery that at first glance you wonder what they are. They are painted in so broad and indefinite a way that they seem to lose all sense of individual forms, and in contrast to the “Catskill Mountains” become a mass of green, partly enveloped in the sky.

"But as you look more carefully you begin to make out certain undefinable forms, and little lights and shades that take on all sorts of shapes that you were not aware of at first. And now straight across the pond your eye catches the dam as it leads the water to the mill. The mill is not visible to the human eye, but your fancy tells you it is hidden snugly behind the trees.

"The charm of this picture is its color and mystery, and but for a boy and boat upon the lake it might seem monotonous; but this gives a spot of light and lends human interest to the scene.

"In a brilliant green foreground a gnarled and rotting stump, with whitened bark, stands out vividly, bringing to completion a beautiful composition.” (George Inness, Jr., Life, Art, and Letters of George Inness, pp. 256-259)

Monday, October 18, 2010

Sargent: The Sumptuous Sublime

John Singer Sargent, Nonchaloire (Repose), 1911

What a symphony of gray and white! (Rendered, of course, in the iridescent hues of the full-color spectrum.)

In this portrait of the artist's niece, Sargent conspicuously displays his mastery of light, color, and texture. He appears to convey, in broad, seemingly offhanded brushstrokes, the precise quality of the most exotic and varied surfaces and fabrics.

Detail: John Singer Sargent, Nonchaloire (Repose), 1911

Sargent painted this purely for pleasure. He probably smirked mildly at the contrast between the resting girl and her elaborate, fluttering skirts which take up more of the couch than she does. Clearly, the various lights and shadows of the complex and contrasting silks, satins, linens, gilt marble, carpet, hair, flesh, and wall delighted him.

He nails the satin dress's opalescent sheen by painting the accents (where the light reflects most brightly) with a pairing of very light blue and pink (one cool color and one warm, that together suggest opalescence) in identical high-key values.

Detail: John Singer Sargent, Nonchaloire (Repose), 1911

The whole piece is like that - warm yellow-whites, transparent, zinging blue-greens (viridian? Prussian blue?) glancing off deeply cool lavenders, magentas and mauves. And yet the main colors read, for the most part, as various shades of white, gray, silver, and gold! The man was a magician, pure and simple.

One can see this "casual" maserpiece (approx. 25 x 30 inches) in the National Gallery in Washington D.C., which has this to say about it:

Exasperated by the demands of his sitters, Sargent proclaimed portraiture to be “a pimp’s profession” and by 1907 resolved never to accept another portrait commission. During his later years, the artist devoted himself to creating decorative murals for public buildings and to painting watercolors and small canvases purely for pleasure

In 1911 Sargent vacationed with his sister’s family in Switzerland, where he painted Nonchaloir (“nonchalance”). A casual character study instead of a formal portrait, it depicts Sargent’s niece Rose-Marie Ormond Michel, whom he nicknamed “Intertwingle” because of her agile, intertwined poses. Influenced by the “art for art’s sake” movement, the painter unified the color scheme with the amber light of a lazy afternoon. The straight lines of the posh furnishings in the Swiss hotel accentuate the swift brushstrokes used to delineate his niece’s fingers, hair, cashmere shawl, and satin skirt.

Wednesday, October 13, 2010

Wyant: Romance of the Real

The landscapes of nineteenth-century American painter Alexander Helwig Wyant (1836-1892) are rich in an emotional response to otherwise "ordinary" natural phenomenon.

Wyant's career took off during the American Civil War, a traumatic period that, in terms of landscape painting, strained the Hudson River School's unquestioning faith in an orderly, harmonious universe built upon a divine First Cause.

Wyant was far from alone. As American ex-patriots returned from studies in France during the 1870s and '80s, they turned their backs on the conventions of the dominant Hudson River School and supplanted it with an entirely different take on nature and mankind's place in relation to it.

Although the approach owes a debt to French Barbizon painting, Wyant's take on it is typical of early American Modernism, I think, in his insistence on the beauty of the un-glamourous, common-place, and neglected. Wyant scholar Anthony E. Battelle finds direct evidence in Wyant's work for the impact of Charles Darwin's Origin of Species on nineteenth century art:

"His alignment with Darwinian concepts as applied to botany and geology, whether or not intentional, left him non-aligned with the conceptual underpinnings of transcendental artists of the Hudson River School. His canvases record the behavior of natural objects according to natural laws in unpicturesque locations where that behavior is most evident."

Batelle is building an online catalog of Wyant's work that you can access here and from which the above quote and these images of Wyant's paintings are taken.

Wyant's Moonlight and Frost

It's easy for practicing artists to get caught up in technical matters of composition, values, color, and light in historical paintings. Scholars such as Batelle remind us that great art reflects the emotions and ideas of its time, and that what paintings say is as important as how they say it.

Monday, October 11, 2010

The Tonal Van Gogh

Autumn Landscape with Four Trees, Vincent van Gogh, 1885

Earlier in his career, Vincent van Gogh experimented with the styles of his time, including Impressionism, capturing light and movement with swift, unfussy brushstrokes, and a kind of tonalism, perhaps based on the earth-tone palette of his homeland's "old masters," restricting his colors to just a few related hues and exploring a range of midtones, lights, and darks within them.

Autumn Landscape allowed van Gogh to explore dynamic rhythms not only at the level of the image but on the surface of the painting. The bold, directional way he laid strokes of tone-related color on the sky creates a horizontal rolling "s" motion that hints at the future dynamism in Starry Night.

Just considering the use of line, the sky's undulations are gently counterpointed by the hilly ground. But the vital energy in this painting comes from the contrary directions that the paint takes throughout the whole.

Van Gogh juxtaposes horizontal brushstrokes in the foreground and vertical strokes in the vegetation around the tree trunks and background trees. He mixes the two in the dominant tree's foliage at the composition's center to create a vivid burst of leaves and branches that supports a strong sense of motion in the curvature of the trees toward the left.

In the landscape below, van Gogh uses the same techniques in a more modest application while brightening the intensity ("chroma") of the colors.

Although he's often associated in the public mind with wild, bright colors, he primarily used color expressively - to create emotion-charged visions of his world.

Shoes, Vincent van Gogh, 1888

In the process, he often used what I would consider a tonal approach to convey a subtle, muted complexity and a somber, poetic mood.

Saturday, October 9, 2010

weekend update

Nostalgia for the Infinite, first in a new series of sky paintings.

Friday, October 8, 2010

Spitzweg: The Poor Poet

Carl Spitzweg, The Poor Poet, 1839

German chemist-turned-artist Carl Spitzweg loved living in high places. Moving into an apartment in Munich in 1833, he wrote, "The view is magnificent ... all around a vast mountain chain of roofs, studded with chimneys and attic windows like castles and ruins ... and the sky so close - it is unrivaled."

If not for the fallen snow, such a view would be visible from his Poor Poet's window, which provides the only source of light in this painting's chilly little garret.

Much like today, it was possible to earn a living as a painter in 19th century Munich but not as a poet. The tophat hanging conspicuously on the stone-cold stovepipe says two things: the man goes about as a regular, law-abiding royalist, and his chosen profession keeps his stove so cold he can hang his hat on it as he huddles under the blankets, an umbrella secured to the beams to fend off any drips from the snow melting on the roof.

The image speaks to a perennial wish - to withdraw from the world's ever-increasing bustle into our own private dream-space through the magic of art.

There's amusing irony in the disparity between the visible book title "Gradus ad Parnassum," with its suggestion of conveyance to the airy home of the Muses (the mythical Mount Parnassus) and the poet's actual circumstances.

Many assume the poet is using his fingers to count syllables. A note on one of the preliminary sketches left by the artist mentions a flea - I prefer to think the man has paused in his pursuit of poesy to squash the life out of an offending member of this bothersome tribe.

We owe much of this painting's popularity to its constant reproduction as the perfect embodiment of the genre painting of the Biedermeier era - pictures crafted for the homes of the growing middle class that (still) shine a gently satirical light on reality.

Spitzweg's also the one who gave us one of our best beloved images of the hopeless reader - The Book-Worm.

With all this talk of poetry and reading, I'd like to share a poem that New Hampshire poet, puppeteer, and photographer Andrew Periale says took a little inspiration from reading my post on Ariadne, Theseus, the Minotaur, and King Minos's labyrinth. It's still in draft form, but he's graciously allowed me to post it as is:


Who placed my hand in October

While my head loitered in July?

your body was a surprise, a farm stand

on some where-the-hell road, offering harvest

while I battle hornworm and

obsess over still green tomatoes

perfect, round, leaves with no spots

or yellowing, I thought I loved them

then you offered me a brandywine—

flesh soft and pink in its uneven, undulating skin

a voice calls from deep niche of lizard brain

home it moans at last and I look back at

neat rows of muscular zucchini, tanned, hard peaches,

see an angular labyrinth of my own design

you take my hand, massaging a hoof back to fingers,

offer me respite among impossibly huge pumpkins

and I feel the great horns shrink back into my skull

You are weed and toad, spider and chaos

But what smells, what flavor! Blind! I shout, I’ve

Snatch a bouquet of basil and sink to one knee

Forever tumbling out of my mouth

Like fruit from a cornucopia

Much joy in ripe, you gush, but not forever

You’ll learn to conserve, save seed,

I survey the tables deep in jam jars, pickles

Time capsules, I think, these are diaries, histories.

piles of peppers, red and blue potatoes, patty pans

pleasure in the eating, yes, but full of seed, You, too,

She murmurs, you are full of future, let us put some by

And grabs my hand and leads me to the house

Ripe, I think, so sweet and fleeting, as a “v” of geese

With fanfare angles south ahead of cold Canadian air

Wednesday, October 6, 2010

Orpheus: The Artist as Poet

Jean-Baptiste-Camille Corot, Orpheus Leading Eurydice from the Underworld, 1861

At first glance, Corot's light-infused Orpheus Leading Eurydice from the Underworld (1861) immortalizes the joyful emergence of Orpheus and Eurydice from the Underworld and their return to the breezy trees and light of living nature, which at this moment has never seemed so beautiful and precious. But wait - according to the Orpheus myth, they never made it back!

And sure enough, when we look again, we see the figures emerging from the mist in the background, their shadowy forms reflected in the quiet pool in the painting's mid-ground. These are surely shades, spirits of the dead. Orpheus and Eurydice, then, are still in Hades, just beginning their long (and doomed) journey back toward the land of the living, a journey that will end in ruin - though you'd never know it looking at Corot's lush, illuminated foliage, water, and hills.

Artists and poets have long used the Greek myth of Orpheus as a metaphor for aspects of the artist's life and creative processes.

In the classical myth as the Roman poet Ovid told it, Orpheus, the archetypal singer/poet, descended into the Underworld to rescue his bride, Eurydice, whom the Lord of the Underworld, Hades, had snatched away from the land of the living on their wedding day. Hermes told Orpheus he could go down to get her back but that he mustn't turn around to look at her until they were all the way out.

George Frederic Watts, Orpheus and Eurydice, c. 1870

Unfortunately, Orpheus turns to make sure she's still behind him, only to see her already insubstantial shade receding forever into the darkness below. Having now lost Eurydice twice, Orpheus concedes in despair that death has won. George Frederic Watts painted several different versions, both horizontal and vertical, of the relatively melodramatic moment when Orpheus understands his fate and desperately clings to the drooping, pallid corpse of his bride.

George Frederic Watts, Orpheus and Eurydice, c. 1873

Around the same time, the world's last great sculptor (ahem) Auguste Rodin, sculpted Orpheus and Eurydice half-emerging from the raw stone of his chunk of marble. The two figures seem at once to swoon with desire, lassitude, and inertia, as the cthonic forces of Hades impede their full ascent into airy daylight.

Auguste Rodin, Orpheus and Eurydice, 1877-98

Although here, because of the myth's outcome, it seems especially appropriate, Rodin often left ragged stone around his figures. It's part of the Modern, expressive character of his art, and it causes the figures to emerge from the stone (rather than being "carved from" it). It's also a metaphor for the Michaelangeloesque idea of the artist as creator-god who, through supreme spiritual (and physical!) effort, wrests beauty from primal chaos.

And the Orpheus myth echoes the same idea: The poet's song subdues nature. "Such was the grove of trees the poet gathered round him, and he sat in the midst of a crowd, of animals and birds," Ovid says. And when he mourns, so does the world itself. Ovid again: "the poet of Thrace, with [mournful] songs like these, drew to himself the trees, the souls of wild beasts, and the very stones that followed him."

So Orpheus spends the rest of his grief-stricken days singing about Eurydice and her loss, until a group of women intoxicated by their ecstatic worship of Dionysus come upon him and tear him apart in their frenzy. The last time we see him in in Ovid, some nymphs have discovered his decapitated head floating down their river, still singing in the melancholy tones that made him famous.

John William Waterhouse, Nymphs Finding the Head of Orpheus, 1900

Our favorite French Symbolists, Odilon Redon and Gustave Moreau, both envisioned Orpheus's head placed upon the symbol of his musical power - his lyre.

Gustave Moreau, Thracian Girl Carrying the Head of Orpheus on a Lyre, 1865

For Redon, the singer's disembodied head may serve as a symbolic embodiment of the painter himself. If so, in Redon's pastel, the figure emerges from a timeless, semi-abstract setting that we can see as both matter and spirit at once: clouds, mountain, river, flowers, stars, and mysterious light. Orpheus has become a stand-in for the otherworldly, mystical nature of the act of artistic creation.

Odilon Redon, Orpheus, c. 1903

With this in mind, recall Corot: his Orpheus lives at the moment when he still believes he will triumphantly lead the girl into broad daylight. Head intact, he lifts his lyre in victory, albeit premature. His body language says, "Onward and upward!" It's significant that, unlike the front-and-center characters in Watts, Redon, and Moreau, Corot's Orpheus and Eurydice are relatively small figures integrated into the overall landscape that makes up the true subject of the picture. Corot's depiction of the mythic symbol of art leads inexorably to a gorgeous landscape. After all, for Corot painting landscapes and happiness were one and the same.

I like to read Corot's version of the myth, devoid of any hint of a dark side, as a declaration of his creed: the modern artist must reinvent art as a celebration of this life, of the world as it appeals to our senses, seeking out the beautiful moments, however brief, that life interposes between the inevitable tragedies and disasters.

Sunday, October 3, 2010

G. F. Watts: Twilight of the Gods

G. F. Watts, The Minotaur, 1896

George Frederick Watts (1817 – 1904) painted The Minotaur late in his career.

He was the son of a poor piano tuner who died when the artist was a child. His paintings became increasingly personal, intimate, and somewhat dark as time went on.

G. F. Watts, Hope, 1884

The Minotaur was a monster, half man and half bull, whom the fabled Greek king Minos imprisoned in a cunningly designed maze on the island of Crete. Scholars believe that the pre-Hellenic culture that thrived there furnished the basis for the myth of Atlantis.

Some have seen in Watts's Minotaur an embodiment of "the greed and lust associated with modern civilisations" (Tate Museum). But I have always responded to the dreamy sense of melancholy in the creature's gaze over the ramparts of the maze toward an indistinct horizon in the distance.

It's the only painting I know that portrays the mythical being with pathos. Watts's inclusion of the minotaur's eyelashes and his blank, slack-jawed expression humanize the beast, and because its back is turned toward us, we are invited to occupy his position and point of view.

G.F. Watts, Endymion

Watts's late paintings are decidedly Symbolist, devoted to classical allusion and, finally, to expressive, nearly abstract visions of universal forces oscillating between a Darwinian understanding of human nature and a mystical yearning for spiritual fulfillment. As Odilon Redon said of his own works, they "inspire, and are not to be defined. They place us, as does music, in the ambiguous realm of the undetermined.”

G.F. Watts, The Sower of Systems, 1902

In this Watts was a quintessential artist of Victorian England - and a kindred spirit for travelers in the twilight borderlands of modernity.