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.

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