Art Thoughts, Week 16 -- Hartley & Tension




Flower Piece, Marsden Hartley (American, 1877—1943), 1916, oil on commercial wallboard, BF 2072.

Energy is a funny thing. How something so seemingly static and…well, flat like a painting could put one on edge – psychologically or even physiologically – is amazing. And yet, Flower Piece does this; it imparts an energetic tension, through implied motion, and what in physics is known as potential energy.

A crucial element in this Hartley painting fostering this energetic tension is that it, in the grand tradition of Modernist art, subtly plays against our elementary school art lessons. That is, most of us were taught in the equally grand Renaissance tradition that all representative pictures should (once we’re old enough to understand and utilize it) have correct perspective and vanishing points. Here though, there is no such stability. At first, the paint application, texture and color scheme is exceedingly calm, almost somnambular, lulling us into thinking that all is well and domestic. However, once we start paying attention, we see there is no one perspective or vanishing point; no, there are numerous ones, all piled up like a thicket of pick-up sticks. Any rash movement might topple and crash this tense monument.

The other element which is equally as crafty as the painting method and color is the style: a kind of “folk-graphic” composition of tea-table, doily and goblet with flower, which fools us into thinking sleepy thoughts of afternoons at our grandmother’s. But no! The table is off to a sly tilt to the left; the doily is angled neatly to the right, and then the goblet again to the left; the flower and leaves are set upon each other like a spinning pin wheel, lending a bit more vertigo. This is all serenely teetering, like a video still of a plate spinner’s act.

As seen, contrast can play an important part in creating energetic tension in an artwork. The careful, methodical introduction of an elemental theme throughout a work’s whole can subsequently make for tension by the introduction of a contrasting, opposite force. Here in Flower Piece the teetering-tower feel is introduced into an otherwise calming environment. (This sense is heightened by this painting's being hung several feet above eye level, in the Foundation gallery.) But this is good for us as viewers. It keeps us from consigning this to the “still-life-painting” file in our brain, and moving on yawningly to the next piece. It may set our body ever so slightly on edge, and we begin wondering why, and are thusly influenced by the work. Tension in one area tends to make us want to move in another direction.

All this seems appropriate to Hartley, whom as his life progressed became increasingly interested in the spiritual elements inherent in art and the possibilities therein. To have created a work of art which moves one towards something larger than one’s self is essentially spiritual. Our body may not yet have moved, but something deep inside has begun to.

Dayton  – (Thursday, 22 May, 2008)  

Nice one, Tim. Keep it up! Heard from Tyler yet?

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