Art Thoughts, Week 28 -- Tintoretto & Value

Jacopo Tintoretto, Two Apostles, (Italian, Venetian 1519—1594), late 16th century, oil on canvas, BF 807.

My first interaction with the name Tintoretto was when, very unexpectedly, a painting by him was rediscovered in a monastery in the small eastern Pennsylvania town of Womelsdorf. It had been donated by a wealthy patron, hung in what became a neglected area, and forgotten until decades later, when the Reading Public Museum director was paying a visit, and recognized the painting as being the Venetian’s style. After this caused a local stir, I went to see the painting at the museum, where it was being displayed on long-term loan, but remember little about it; not even what the subject was. But I do have a memory of its being dark.

I get that impression of darkness whenever I look at a Tintoretto – whether one of the three at the Barnes Foundation, one of which is the Two Apostles, or the aforementioned one in Reading. But here’s the curious thing: it’s such a warm darkness, that it has no element of fear, portent, confusion or depression, as some painted darkness has. It is a supportive dark, in that it works symbiotically with the lights, rather than against them. In my basic painting course at college, we learned a rudimentary technique to work towards this. To make a black, rather than using a black straight from the tube, which can be heavy-handed and flat, we were taught to mix burnt sienna (a dark, chestnut brown) and ultramarine (a rich navy blue, which when transparent, sings like a sapphire). The resulting hue was deeper and more expressive than a straight black. Tintoretto (ironically, by the way, a nickname meaning “little dyer” or tinter, after his father’s vocation) was far beyond this little technique. The interplay between his values, dark and light, is a symphonic coup. And that is not a flippant metaphor; when first looking at the Two Apostles, I recalled a quote (with long-lost provenance) about music: rather than the notes themselves being all-important, it’s the spaces between the notes which make all the difference. One group would make little sense without the other. This smacks of a cosmic truism, but in Tintoretto, Rembrandt, or even Cezanne for that matter, it’s very practical, at least in the beginning: in their particular, personal “playing” of the scene or subject matter. In other words, much as each interpreter of a piece of music will ever so slightly personalize it by running it through their emotional and emphatic filters, so will each painter “separate” their lights in different ways and to different effects, showing even the most hackneyed of subject matter in a newly revealing way.

What continues to astonish me about so-called Old Masters such as Tintoretto, Rubens or Titian, is with what contemporary economy and bravura they went about in this constant interpretation of light. This shows accumulated skill at work, yes, but it shows even more than that. It shows an intensely open and receptive spirit to what was in front of them; their subject matter; their aim; their passion for capturing and conveying life with paint. The painter is never better than the painting; and dark is never better than light, or vice versa, and over the millennia it has all balanced out. To be virtuosic with something requires one to at turns to be submitted to it, and coax it to submit. And then, like Jacob did from his tent at Peniel, we might emerge with a badly twisted hip, but triumphantly displaying a new name.


Website update: new show

above, Voice (small) and Voice (still).

Hello everyone (please don't miss my essay of the week below)...

This was all very sudden, and divinely arranged it seemed, but two of my paintings (the very ones I was holding on to, hoping that they could be exhibited together) will be part of a show called On Loss and Memory at The Stratasphere, an arts space on Germantown Avenue in Old Kensington. The show opens on August 23rd; a closing reception is planned for the end of September/early October; date TBD. More information can be found at my website or at


Art Thoughts, Week 27 -- Berd & Nature

Nature Study, Morris Berd, (American, born 1914), 1947, oil on canvas, BF 2084.

Honestly, the word “nature” has lost much of its former power. It is almost never adorned anymore with its Emersonian capital, its prominence displayed like a medal. Too often now, because of our society’s general disconnect with true wildness, our images of what constitutes nature falls into one of two categories: one, either a happy, idealized place inhabited by friendly woodland creatures; or two, where we humans are always an other; ever the stranger and never the denizen; a place we visit, but always return from. This is all patently false, says Wendell Berry in his book, Citizenship Papers. We humans, he insists, have forgotten how to see ourselves as integral to, and as an intrinsic part of, “nature.” Thus we do the world a disservice, and perpetuate a twenty-first century brand of disillusionment and practical disengagement. This mindset has produced all manner of pollution, abuse and general ignorance about our natural world.

The Morris Berd painting Nature Study binds up these issues into a personal, parallel question: is it in our nature (i.e. our essential character) as humans to be concerned with nature (i.e. the rest of the physical world)? We do practically all we can, it seems, to disengage from nature, then yearn for token respites within it in the form of vacations and weekend jaunts. In this picture, Berd is both asking this question, and offering a possible answer. The picture shows three beatific figures ensconced in a stylized forest, lit by a blood-red moon. The figures seem at peace, and involved in activity with the trees. One is grasping a tree trunk, as if to observe or contemplate it more closely; a second is also observing a branch, but more admiringly. And a third figure, moon-struck and small, is in awe of both the forest and the more monumental figures beside him. The painting’s composition is a haphazard grid of overlapping trunks and branches, which creates a thicket of quadrangles and trapezoids filled with an array of colors: the polychromatic diversity of forest foliage. This pattern both envelopes and involves the figures, revealing that they are not visitors, per se, but colleagues in the dynamic relationship which all living things are involved in: the scene would be incomplete without them.

This natural setting not only gives the figures import, but also posits a second question. Is care for this place in the nature of these figures, as intimately involved with this place as they are? The careful manner of the hands; the affection and awe seen in the gazes; the panoply of background hues; all point towards the affirmative. But Berd might caution that, as art often is, this painting is more prophetic than revelatory. Meaning, it pictures what could or will be, not necessarily what already is. And even if it does picture what is current, it is not normative, which points to another form of prophecy: to show what should be. And with 20/20 hindsight, we know that harmony with the natural world was entering a season of serious ebb in late, 1940’s America. Science began masquerading as a panacea with demigod status, and stole the capitalized esteem of nature, becoming Science. We are now on the bitten tail-end of much of this, but the sting has not fully cured us of our blind faith in science. Nevertheless, Nature Study holds its ground, showing us what could – and should – be: humans turning away from simply a “harmony with” nature, which still implies a detachment, to a deeper “harmonization” – a relationship dynamic; life-changing and genuine. We are nature.


Art Thoughts, Week 26 -- De Chirico & Tragedy

The Arrival, Giorgio De Chirico (Italian, 1888—1978), 1912—1913, oil on canvas, BF 377.

As is common in Surrealist paintings, the scenery in The Arrival feels like a theatrical set. And here, the mood suggests a tragedy. There is a central, open area flanked by buildings, and behind, a flat curtain-like sky. The scenery is Mediterranean Edward Gorey; one could imagine a Verdi opera being staged here. Indeed, the painting has at its center a morose, truncated triangle – art’s power composition emasculated – of caramel-colored vacuity. That’s another aspect of theatrical sets: they are a sort of vacuum, in which activity will spark and flow; a backdrop for activity, rather than active itself. But the significant aberration in the center of this triangular, perspectival vacuum is the sculptured figure of a man with his back to us; the sole actor on this stage.

Two common components of a tragedy are melancholy and ennui. And melancholy, among other things, is an indistinct sense of being stuck in the center of something over which one is powerless; in the middle of two seeming absolutes: the past and future. The past: it cannot be changed, and for all intents and purposes, we are not part of it. The future, to the melancholic or nihilistic mind, cannot be overly influenced, and it might even unduly influence us. Therefore our role there is just as – if not more so – dubious than in the past. Thus, a melancholic person is a foundering person; unsure (or violently over-confident) of place or action, much like a tragic character. In both its oddly illustrative style and dreamy content, this painting also brings to mind the hapless Jimmy Corrigan: The Smartest Kid on Earth, as drawn by graphic novelist Chris Ware. Jimmy plays out his tragic life scene after scene in a gorgeous and dystopian middle-America; never fully understanding his lot.

If indecision is part of ennui, then a further point of meaningful conflict in a tragedy is wistfulness. In fact, wistfulness is often a regret of that indecisiveness; a sense of what could have been, but never was. These two elements are joined in the idea of movement (or the lack thereof). And in The Arrival, movement plays a significant role. A dominant direction to the right is established by the diminishing archways in the left-hand building; by the dynamo of moving brick-red, pushed from left to right by the gesturing, finger-like shadow of the monument – even the wind is going in that direction, as evidenced by the flags stiffened by it. The ship, however, is the one thing that seems to be moving in the opposite direction of the majority of the painting – evidenced by the smoke coming from the laboring ship engines – and contextually, this might make all the difference. This is movement against movement; a cold gust of change on this somnambulistic morning.

Again, we might ask, if the ship is what’s arriving, for whom and for what is it doing so? The scene is abandoned, save for this carved man, with his fatigued and stooped pose. Could it possibly be then seeing the mood evident in this sculpture’s posture, and its self-absorbed focus on the sea, that this monument might be an accurate psychological study of the man whom it’s portraying? Was he a melancholic watcher of the sea; a sufferer of ennui; stuck in time; indecisive and stooped? Perhaps…but this much we do know: he was memorialized, therefore was an influential, heroic, beloved…or tragic figure. Great people are often plagued by doubt and ennui. Could it be, perhaps, that just now, too late, this man’s ship has finally come in?

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