Art Thoughts, Week 43 -- Pissarro & Screens

Garden, Camille Pissarro (French, 1831—1903) 1876, oil on canvas, BF324.

As spring approaches and the atmosphere gradually warms, our thoughts return almost automatically to outside activities. It’s becoming more habitable out there, after all. Screens play a large part in this re-experiencing of a newly warmed season – they offer a way of having your cake and eating it too. The sun-baked zephyrs can be allowed to waft in through screens, until the sun shifts and the air chills – then the window or door is easily closed. Rather than going outside, we can let the outside in. Screens are a literal and metaphorical compromise. They are semi-transparent layers which allow us to keep two disparate worlds separated but accessible and approachable. They are like a wall, but more flexible; like a door, but more subtle and gradual.

Screens in art, again both literally and metaphorically, are also great compromisers. In Pissarro’s Garden, there are several types of screening existing simultaneously. The trees, on the sides of the picture and wrapping around towards the rear, in front of the village buildings, are a screen to that village, emphasizing the state of the cultivated garden as being its own compromising dynamic between wilderness and civilization. The paint that Pissarro has dabbed on indefatigably is also a screen, and an enigmatic one at that: it fluctuates – in consistency, color and transparency – in accordance with Pissarro’s modulation of his brush work and hue choices. An important characteristic of oil paint is its opacity – previously applied darks can be covered with whites and other much lighter colors, by virtue of that extreme capacity for opacity. Pissarro creates a screen by taking advantage of this very thing; constantly adjusting his application as the light shifts; covering over previous brush marks with new ones, fine-tuning his screen of intent; bouncing us back towards his eventual direction in the image, and away from what he’s decided were his missteps or glitches. The paint is pushed, pulled, dragged and scumbled, to turn our perceptions in a certain way; to help us not just see, but feel a scene in an 1876 park in France, through Pissarro’s physiology, wrought in paint.

And that is another screen – the artists’ craft; the painting itself. Here, it exists between the “reality” that enveloped Pissarro in the park, and Pissarro’s wishes, hopes and skills as a painter and portrayer. It also reminds us that he was, after all things considered, simply a man in a park on a spring day, breathing in a place as well as he could, and scribbling it down for posterity. This is a screen, then – we get, as viewers, a little sense of both that “reality” as Pissarro sensed it, and the resulting record or interpretation of it – but not fully either. To have a door to this scene, we’d need Jules Verne’s time machine. As it is, we have the painting as a permanent screen, allowing us limited access – enough to catch that warm breeze; the scent of earth softening in gentle sun; and brushes soaking in turpentine. To have a screen, in art at least, is a far more subjective – and therefore richer – experience than it would be to be standing there in the flesh. The actual scene might be beautiful; perhaps even transcendent – but Pissarro, even though he might be there painting beside us, would not be part of it, and in essence it would be an entirely different experience than looking at his painting, now residing at the Barnes Foundation. We would have unavoidably placed our own screen in front of the park scene, and a new perception would have been born. Art is always a screen; a grid of selections and choices: if it doesn’t seem to be, then perhaps you have simply slipped back in time.

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