Monday, January 30, 2012

The First Abstract Painting

Casper David Friedrich, The Monk By the Sea, 1810
"No situation in the world could be more sad and eerie than this—as the only spark of life in the wide realm of death, a lonely center in a lonely circle..." wrote an early admirer of this painting. "Since in its monotony and boundlessness it has no foreground except the frame, when viewing it, it is as if one's eyelids had been cut away."

The tiny figure of the monk (simultaneously a symbol of the spiritual inner life, a self-portrait of the artist, and a stand-in for the viewer) is dwarfed by three different kinds of voids, land, sea, and sky: the bare and pallid grassless foreground, the iron-black bar of the sea that shuts down the middle, and the amorphous expanse of vastness that is the sky which occupies the majority of the painting.

Without a repoussoir—a framing device that leads the viewer's gaze into the image - the emptiness of the foreground disrupts the viewer's relationship to the picture's space. One cannot mentally "penetrate" the image: Friedrich has created an unbridgeable gap between the monk and the viewer. The monk is cut off from us spatially and existentially, and there are no traditional landscape elements that might soften the effect. 

In June 1809, the wife of painter Gerhard von Kügelgen, an acquaintance of Friedrich, visited him and later wrote in a letter how shriveling she felt the loneliness of the setting to be, deploring the lack of consolation that a little more content - some sort of movement or narrative - might have brought to the painting's "unending space of air." If only she could have read Nietzsche or Sartre!

Critics have described The Monk By the Sea, painted between 1808 and 1810, as "perhaps the first 'abstract' painting in a very modern sense" because of its radical composition. Friedrich purposely left out the conventional devices that create depth. Friedrich wants the viewer to feel confronted by the question of mankind coming up against a vast and quite possibly "empty" universe. It's been compared to many other more or less abstract paintings, right up to Whistler and Courbet and, perhaps most significantly for our appreciation of a still often misunderstood artist of our own time, abstract expressionist Mark Rothko.

Gustav Courbet - The Beach at Palavas,1877

James MacNeil Whistler - Harmony in Blue and Silver: Trouville, 1865 

Mark Rothko - Light Earth and Blue, 1954.
Above Rothko: William Nicholson, Mending the Nets, c. 1910

Thursday, January 26, 2012

The Most Beautiful Painting in the World... According to Proust

Jan Vermeer's View of Delft (1660-1661) may just be a perfect landscape painting. Once you've really looked at it, you realize it's the kind of thing you don't forget, that you could spend hours - a lifetime! - dreaming over it and still not have your fill. I've never seen the actual painting, but I'm captivated by the images of it that I've seen.

No great painting emerges out of pure invention, and Vermeer was building upon the solid foundations of the Dutch landscape tradition. We can see this in the painting's scale, its low horizon line, the overall color and luminosity, and the big cumulus clouds casting their shadow on the waterfront while the area awash in sunlight peeps out behind. Here's a landscape by Van Ruisdael that puts the foreground in cloud shadow.

Jacob Van Ruisdael, Wheat Fields, 1671
Yet, the poise, charm, and energy of Vermeer's design makes View of Delft unique. It's got an incredible degree of balance and integration between highly varied yet somehow harmonious elements!

It's arranged in a series of broad and irregular horizontal bands,"counterbalanced by smaller varied vertical units" (I'm relying for most of this on A.C. Barnes's analysis which appears as an appendix to his quirky yet rigorous The Art in Painting). And this series of graceful rhythmical divisions and subdivisions interpenetrate and integrate with each other so as to unify the whole.

Radiography shows that Vermeer deliberately extended the reflections to the extreme right, the effect of which is to unify top and bottom and further anchor the whole design.

The cloud band forms "a series of three predominately vertical units; the row of buildings and trees is rhythmically subdivided by a more pronounced and varied pattern of upright elements, the gables, steeples, towers.

The reflections in the water carry the subsidiary vertical elements of the pattern to the area of the canal, and the figures (there are 15), the two posts, and the prow of the ship function likewise in the foreground bank." (Barnes, p. 455)

Each band's color notes contrast with those of the band it touches, and the general color tone thus produced for each area of the painting (the sky, the blue-red-green masses in the center, the water, the bank) contrasts with and sets off that of its neighbors.

Throughout, the drawing, which is accomplished through color and light, is expressive and not overwrought, highlighting the essential character of each aspect of the subject, whether the sun-baked brick, the green masses of  trees, the slightly blurred reflections, the figures, or the space-relationships between the elements. 

A treatise could be written on the how Vermeer expressed "the theme of blue and red, varied with minor motifs of gray and green," in the row of buildings and trees. The color notes are predominately an earthy red and a blue "of extraordinary sensuous and structural quality, which is the key-note in this part of the design, and indeed is so powerfully eloquent as to be chiefly responsible for the individuality of the entire picture." (ibid)

French novelist Marcel Proust pits the exquisite beauty of one minute detail of the painting against the life of a character in one of his stories. The painting wins.

For a delightful commentary on Proust's use of the painting, along with the relevant excerpt, you have to check out this person's blog entry (and don't miss the comment on Aldous Huxley's pick for the most beautiful painting in the world.)