Art Thoughts, Week 14 -- Manet & Economy

Young Woman in a Garden, Edouard Manet, French, 1832—1883, 1879, oil on canvas, BF 820.

Economy in an artist is encouraging. It shows they are realizing the art of elimination, and appropriate inclusion. It is especially exciting personally to see this in other artists, since it becomes a teacher to me. Economy is also related to preservation – keeping those things which are most beneficial, and dispensing with the waste. When first punched with the realization of the intricacies of realism, and the burden of paying homage to all aspects of the world in front of me, even if it was a still life, I ran with abandon towards simplification; abstraction; reduction; economy.

Manet is an artist I’ve never acquainted with economy – but this painting Young Woman in a Garden is quite caught up in economics; the economics of aesthetics. The colors are spare, but lush; the gestures quiet, but applied with an animated brushwork. This painting was made towards the end of Manet’s life, a time in which many artists have grown increasingly careful – yet swift – in their art making…it’s the increased forward movement of all our baggage as our life begins to put on the brakes. Seen from the backwards vantage point of their last works, some artists often, like animals, seem to have an innate sense of the imminent end – the drawing close of a culmination – and become the better artists for it.

Faced with an increasingly crippled body, Matisse quickly took up paper-cutting as a medium, which became for him incredibly evocative and heartfelt. Klee, the poet of artists, towards the end of his life turned his always economical line and expression even tauter, drawing his series of Ghost drawings, achieving through them an ethereal, otherworldly sparseness.

Economy also reminds us of the blatant artifice that painting is. Manet’s colors are here mindful of their adjacencies, much like Fauvian Matisse works – there is air between the hues, so the material may breathe through; the colors rubbing each other like tectonic plates. There is also a bold play of negative and positive shapes which is generally characteristic of an unfinished painting, or a study. An example of this is the girl’s handkerchief; a triangle block of is-it-there-or-not canvas. The insistent weave of vertical and horizontal strokes also belie the makeup and thought process behind painting this girl in this garden: the ochre and nut-brown lattice of her skirt; the strata of leaves in the stalwart tree line; the intertwining mesh of grasses behind her.

All in all, the artifice of a painting is glaringly unavoidable. It says; there is really nothing here about recording. It is all made up. When the brush hits canvas, a new animal is being birthed. It is progeny to be sure, but a brand new creature; incapable of being just like either of its parents, Reality and Imagination. And the artist, of course, is the surrogate, stuck somewhere in-between.


Art Thoughts, Week 13 -- Hugo & Charm

Huy (Valley of the Meuse), Jean Hugo (French, 1894—1984), 1941, oil on canvas, BF 2091.

A word which immediately jumps to mind while looking at a painting by Jean Hugo is “charming.” His style, much like a children’s book illustrator’s, weaves itself into your sentiments, and reminds you vaguely of a place you remember liking, but which is foggy in memory. And foggy is appropriate for this painting, Huy (Valley of the Meuse): this is a very foggy place.

But, besides memory’s numinous fog, and the stylistic affinities with illustration, what is it that imparts charm in this painting? Charm is inherently mysterious to the one who is being charmed, and hard to explain. But I believe much of it has to do with our memories. When many find something charming, like a village square, for example, it is probably connected to a commonly-held memory or trope which has been societally imparted. Rather, if it is more individually charming, then perhaps it is a more specific memory or desire that is particular to one’s own psyche, development and history. Another interesting way to think of it is by its relationship to song, or singing. Etymologists trace charm back to the Latin carmen, which means “song,” or back farther still, canere, “to sing.” If something sings or calls alluringly to us – sings our tune, so to speak – then we are being “charmed.”

And there is much to be said about the style of this painting that is definitely charming: the lovely pink brick pattern in the foreground house; the cursory serpentine lines for roof tiles; the lovingly stereotypical treatment to the orchard trees on the knoll; the consistent black dabs for windows in the village, and for the buildings far in the background, on the hills overlooking the river. But here’s an important distinction to make: once our eyes begin moving towards the river basin and foothills to which the roof ridges point, and away from the village, the sky grows cloudier; the bends of the river become shrouded in mysterious fog and steam, and the color is more monochromatic. In other words, it is becoming more “believable” as it grows more artistically “abstract”. We are, in a way, moving away from charm. Just as importantly, this inherently involves the human hand. Notice how, in the foreground, what imparts charm is the snug, tidy village feel, seen in the tended wall and houses; the trim and lovingly-cultivated orchard; the neat, clean village…in fact, the friendly passerby states this outright: this is a human-dependent state of being. And so as we move through the painting, towards the river Meuse, the landscape becomes more organic; more natured rather than nurtured; increasingly unstable to humans: less charming.

Something this painting might tell us about our sense of charm then, is that it is humanly based: when we find a landscape charming, it is most often redolent of human involvement – a French village; a bucolic Pennsylvania cow pasture. However, when we find a landscape not charming but strong, virile or sweeping, it is most often devoid of human involvement: think Grand Tetons, or the grand prairies and steppes of the Americas and Russia. Even those artists who wanted to evoke that unspoilt sweep of grand landscape, such as Alfred Bierstadt or the Hudson Valley painters were often tripped up by their own stagnant European sensibilities and cultural stereotypes. It was the filter through which they saw, and therefore painted. And Hugo has his own particular filter through which he saw and painted, as do we. It does help to be aware of this, though, and ask ourselves, why do I like this painting? Why do I find it charming (or not) and what does that say about me as a human?


Art Thoughts, Week 12 -- Lurcat & Transcendancy

(note: this post of Art Thoughts is actually overdue from last week. I will be writing another one for this week, since I'm already a week late, and don't want to get too off schedule! I'll make the next one less cerebral, I promise.)

Sailboat, Jean Lurcat, (French, 1892—1966) 1932, oil on canvas, BF 907.

A few years ago, on an April trip to New York with friend and fellow painter Douglas Witmer, we somehow got on the subject of “what are our paintings for?” Or, what is their function…if anything? I don’t recall the specifics of our discussion then, but I do remember ruminating on it afterwards, and the question still comes to mind now and again. I think it does reemerge because, a) there’s a multi-layered, multi-faceted answer, and b) that answer will continue to change throughout my – and their – life. Hang in with me here…

Looking at Sailboat, by Jean Lurcat at the Barnes Foundation, brought to mind some things which might distinguish what a picture is for. And it was all precipitated (no pun intended) by the weather. The beginning of April so far has been distinguished by what a Pennsylvania March is usually known for: prevailing gustiness and damp, cloudy chilliness. While looking at this painting, I realized that it evoked a sharp sense of being, although bright, a chilly early-spring day, much like I was experiencing at the time. This is only a small answer to “what are paintings for”, but I believe the best pictures display, for one, universality; and two, transcendancy. Here is a painting which was painted in 1932, in a semi-surrealist style, probably in Spain; yet it evokes a sense of a gusty, northeastern American spring. Universality is a modern concept; most pictures previous to the modern age had a very concrete and specific aim in mind: dedication; education; posterity. Only in the more subjective, psychologically-aware modern era does something outside of the original aim become more possible. Think of Barnett Newman; Mark Rothko. And because of universality, transcendancy is possible. This is transcendancy not in a quasi-spiritual sense, but in a “time-travel” sense: it is no longer necessary for it to be rooted to a particular time, place or person. If it is rooted to anything, it is an emotive root, which makes sense with its surrealistic tendencies.

In this picture, entitled Sailboat, no sailboat as such is to be found. Only a bright, but chilly-looking seascape with jagged, dentine shapes poking out of water like fossilized jaws; frosted cloud shapes in forest green, vanilla and grape, moored to the ground like some diaphanous seaweed-like trees; and a lone mast with billowing sail-like shapes on it…but no boat! Therefore, the title is a red herring; we need to enter into the “meaning” partly on our own terms. Thus it becomes for me evocative, in a transcendent way, of the essence of an early April day.

Note, however, that I do not condone thinking about a picture’s transcendancy without first taking into account its context (as some tend to do). For example, I learned by reading about Lurcat that he is associated loosely with surrealism through his landscapes, and that he painted during long trips to Spain and the Sahara. All of these details do not distract from the transcendancy of the piece, but rather lead us towards a more focused transcendancy. Specificity does not rule out transcendancy; it merely brings into highlight our connections to it. By paying attention to context, the painting’s baggage is not sent willy-nilly to East Jabip or where-have-you, it is rather sent directly to our front door, where we can begin unpacking it for ourselves.


Meditation on magnolias and free-will

Every day, and numerous times each day, I pass between the two buildings where I work - the gallery and administration buildings - and receive a gorgeous view of the west lawn and row of eight or so magnolias the arboretum has. This week I noticed that the blooms of each of the trees were all beginning to unfold on their south sides. This was only a mystery for a few seconds, since anyone remotely familiar with natural science will know that the south is the warmest point of the compass, especially in the late winter and early spring. In fact, as I found out years ago, the house I grew up in, built circa 1895, was built on the south side of the valley specifically so that the snow would melt more quickly in the fields, orchard and pastures surrounding the house. For all farmers not close to the equator, it makes economic sense to be able to work one's soil sooner.

For the magnolias too, economy isn't entirely out of consideration. Like any other growing thing, the sooner you can get flowering and propagate yourself in every way possible, the better. What made my "theological mind" as my friend Dayton would call it, begin musing though, was how naturally (instinctively) the buds began reacting physiologically on the warmer, southerly side of the tree. In fact, the buds on the north side were barely unfurling one petal, let alone ready to saucer out into magnificence.

What a delight it is to see humans respond in a similar way to the Lord's timing; in this decidedly "instinctual" way. Instead of struggling to force open buds on our north sides (perhaps the place where God's will is not presently shining on us - or "permissive" will as opposed to "perfect" will), we instead acquiesce and respond to the sunlight and warming skies on our south sides, where budding will be so much easier. This takes much practice and discipline (discipleship) for us: we do not have submission written into our gene sequence.

To me, this is a proof for the concept of free-will. For trees this is not an issue, but for us, it makes all the difference, really. And I'm not necessarily talking about pure Arminianism, but rather a more flexible concept involving all concievable strength and omniscience - and grace - of Jehovah in our lives. What more proof is needed than to contemplate our (and everyone else's) countless mistakes and struggles in the face of what later is revealed as futility and disobedience? Even though people and circumstances around us may be prophesying to us the perfect will of God the entire time, we can be so closed off to those rays of light at our back that are telling us to turn around, so as to bloom more easily. Free will from God is what allows us to keep making those mistakes, and subsequently still be allowed to turn around and face the sun. If free will didn't exist, why even allow the possibility of us making myriad mistakes, when God could simply reach down, box our ears, and turn us around to face him? Wouldn't that be a much more "economical" way - such as what the magnolias are concerned with?

But, we know full well that God is not concerned with economics, at least not in the human societal sense. Economy is concerned with self-preservation and advancement: these characteristics are unnecessary and antithetical to God. Paul Miller, in his book Love Walked Among Us, said succinctly and profoundly, "Love is not economical." Free will is love. But let's learn whatever we can from the magnolias, in their gene-bound ways. Face the sun of God's will - search; yearn; stretch; become etiolated for the face of God - and blooming into his perfection waiting for us will be that much easier.

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