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Archive for November, 2011

Claude Monet (1840-1926) painted “On the Bank of the Seine, Bennecourt” in 1868.  He was only twenty-eight.  It’s brilliant.  The brush strokes are lively, the colors are tranquil.  But is the feeling of the painting as a whole tranquil?  I don’t think so.  I think it’s gloomy. Why does this painting have a dark mood despite its bright colors?  Why do we imagine this  woman to be sad? The inclusion of the boat at that angle, lifts the mood a bit, but still,  what a downer.  Why would such a young man paint an image with so much tension in it?

He didn’t.  What you see above is a horizontal flip of the real painting.  What Monet painted is reproduced below here. This is what we see at the Art Institute.  Isn’t this more tranquil?  Aren’t we more inclined to empathize with this woman rather than the woman on the right?  The boat, again, complicates the picture. Here it slants down, making us suspect that all is not well in this life.  If he had painted the boat slanting up from left to right, the image would be unbearably cheerful, even  corny.  Try it.

What’s interesting and important to note is that the information conveyed in each version is the same. So, it’s not about information.  If it’s not about information, what then?  I can tell you this much: it’s about feeling and empathy.  This is the third of left-right flips. If you follow these posts, it’ll dawn on you.  This should be fun.  (Go to Topics in the column at right and choose Left-Right)

Let’s go back to the boat again. Look what happens when we take out the boat altogether.  Would you agree that the boat is not there because Monet wants to tell us that the woman rowed it to the bank of the river? The boat is not part of a narrative, but is needed to complicate the mood and lend depth to the image.

Click the thumbnails  to enlarge and then play with the boat question.

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In his biography of Ludwig Mies van der Rohe, Franz Schulze says that the reason Mies said “Less is more” is that he didn’t speak English very well.  That sounds like a joke.  It’s true, Mies learned English in middle age.  But Schulze may have come up with the quip out of irritation at how the saying is being bandied about. He may have been tired of its extreme pithiness and then its subsequent casual overuse. You can hear “Less-Is-More”  from people who have no idea where it comes from, in what context it was used or who originally said it.

In 1937 Ludwig Mies van der Rohe, at the age of fifty-one, was invited to teach architecture at IIT in Chicago, after heading the architecture department at the Bauhaus in Germany. The Bauhaus innovators had grown up with Victorian clutter, sentimentality, devotion to antiquity, deceptive uses of materials, and social stratification. The Bauhaus, founded in 1919, was a school of design dedicated to finding a new visual vocabulary for all artifacts, from teapots to theater costumes to buildings.   The way to achieve these ends was through technology.

It’s easy to see what Mies meant by “less.”  What did he mean by “more?”  More what?  Well, more integrity, more honesty, more awareness, more equality, more thoughtfulness, more compassion.  The Bauhaus people, like all modern artists, thought that by cleaning up the decorative affectations in our visual world, we would become more truthful.  More moral.

Can’t say we’ve arrived at that ideal.

But Mies’s  wonderfully quotable “Less-Is-More” has certainly gotten twisted and satirized.

In 1966 architect Robert Venturi  published “Complexity and Contradiction in Architecture,”  both of which he said were just fine. Main Street was fine, Las Vegas was fine.  “Less,” he said, “is a bore.”

Since the 70’s the optimism at the heart of Less-Is-More has been replaced by irony and self-referencing.

While we now live with irony and self-conscious despair in our art and artifacts—oh, and tattoos– “Less-Is-More” keeps surfacing to consciousness and slipping off the tongue.  Ignorant of its derivation, people will say “Less-Is-More” when they’ve just moved into a new apartment but can’t afford the Crate-and-Barrel couch yet.  Mies’s monkish mystery is now constantly trivialized.  Unlike Schulze, however,  I don’t mind because when I hear it used, even by the ignorant, I’m reminded of what he meant.

Passing a hair salon not long ago, I read “Mess is More” in the window.  This turns out to be a slogan promoting a hair product that makes your hair look excessive, in a sort of seedy, cluttered, Victorian way.  Precisely the stuff Mies was revolted by.  So I walked on and reviewed his buildings in my mind and thought of his courage and that made my day.

Top: Ludwig Mies van der Rohe, design for Berlin Hochhaus, 1919. Iron & steel skeleton and glass curtain wall.  Couldn’t be built in the Germany of the 1920’s for economic and political reasons.  Lake Point Tower (just West of Navy Pier), 1960’s,  was designed by two of his students, George Schipporeit and John Heinrich as an homage to Mies’s 1919 vision.

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In the 19th century and until the middle of the 20th century, art students spent an enormous amount of time drawing from plaster casts. Art schools had store rooms full of life-size replicas of the classics, from Myron’s discus-thrower, to Michelangelo’s Medici Tomb figures.  There were also casts of individual body parts, like eyes and feet.  The art student copied these and tried to achieve a technique with shading so subtle that the drawing looked like a photograph.  We don’t teach that way anymore, for two reasons:  1) photography (invented in the 1830’s) can do it better; and 2) students would refuse, like, this is sooooo booooring and who wants to become, like, a technician anyway.  True, if you spend all your time drawing to create illusions of photos you will, indeed, become a technician.  So, let’s not go there.

In my class room we don’t have plaster casts, but occasionally I give my students the opportunity to draw from photos of sculptures, specifically those of Michelangelo.  Working from photos is easier than working from the three-dimensional sculpture (or plaster cast) because the photo is already two-dimensional.  But it’s also harder because you have to visualize the three-dimensionality of the shape you’re drawing. And that is precisely why the exercise is so good.  You’re not just duplicating dark and light areas as seen on the photo, you have to internalize the shape and then draw from that image in your mind.  The exercise teaches you to see “in the mind’s eye,”  the eye you need to cultivate in order to draw.

Michelangelo’s Medici Madonna

Michelangelo’s Dawn from the Medici tomb

Drawings by Danielle and Linné D.

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Sketching in a café, a museum or on the beach is a pleasure and it’s nice to have a small sketchbook in your backpack to suit your mood and your drawing technique.  I’ve never liked the sketchbooks that are available in stores.  I like sketching with markers on a particular, glossy paper and so, a few years ago, I simply started making my own sketch books.  This involves a little effort but not too much and I find it’s worth it.

To make your own sketch book:

1. Find a book on your shelves or in a used-book store that’s just the right size for a sketch book.  Cut out the printed pages, which you’ve never bothered to read anyway or which you judge to be trash. Throw these into your recycling bin.  Punch one or two holes into the covers.

2.  Cut the paper you love to fit the covers.

3. Punch holes into the paper to match the holes in your covers.

4. Buy some rings at your local Office Depot.

So easy!  This may change your life.

All contents copyright (C) 2010 Katherine Hilden. All rights reserved.

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Never heard of him.  Jozseph Rippl-Rónaї was a Hungarian artist, 1861-1927. He makes his appearance here because this painting of his reminds me of Elaine’s “Untitled” which I talked about in the last post.  Painted in 1897, it recently made it into the Art Institute galleries.  I have no other information on this, it’s not even on the AIC web site.

About six feet tall, it’s a striking painting.  It’s in the room with the decorative furniture from that period and, indeed, it is a decorative piece itself.  The artist is not struggling to express emotion, nor is he inventing new ways to handle the brush and the paint.  He is playing with form, with undulating line, very much the way his contemporaries in the Belle Epoche were, like Mucha and Guimard. What strikes me about the painting is the play of positive and negative space, the way the creamy white of the background pushes into the figure in black. The white becomes a powerful, assertive element in the composition.  This is clearly deliberate.  Notice how the arms are raised and all objects are way at the top of the image’s frame.  It’s a tour de force, a play on pure form with the so-called “negative space” taking the lead.

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We don’t often see this format in painting, tall and skinny. This is the kind of proportion you are likely to get if you take a collage as your point of departure.  The collage that Elaine C. worked from was a small passage, about  1¼” x 3”,   isolated from a larger collage.  This proportion does not come in readymade frames.  No problem, there are other supports.  Artists have painted on board for centuries.  Elaine chose sanded, knot-free plywood.  I encourage this sort of departure from the “readymade” in my classes.

The colors in the collage were black and red with a snippet of green.  As she started painting, she planned on layering the paint, using under-painting.  The under-painting for the red was green.  But then the green became textural and drippy and too interesting to cover up.  The painting process took over and the original inspiration, the collage in black and red, had served its purpose and was surpassed.

The painting (48” x 20”) holds our attention because of its luminous colors, its texture and its play on the figure-ground question.

Let me expand on that last point a bit.  The question is, what’s on top of what?  The light green diamond at #1 is undoubtedly  the topmost element.  We see it that way because it is a clearly identifiable shape that we see in its entirety.  Everything else is fragmentary and our perception keeps shifting: is the green on top of the orange or the orange on top of the green?  We tend to read warm colors (orange in this case) as coming forward and cool colors (green) as receding.  But here we read the green as on top because of #5, which connects to the main orange mass (#4) and makes us read orange as the back ground.  This in itself creates tension, since we want to read the cool green as background.  But the orange keeps coming forward, not only because it’s a warm color, but also because of its shape:  it pushes its convex bays into the green at #3, #4 and #5.  Convex shapes invade and assert themselves as dominant.

But notice the little black square in the upper right at #6.  That was the last thing Elaine painted.  “It needs something up there,” she said.  Yes, it did.  And look what that little black square does.  It is an absolute—black!—and it’s the only element defined by clean straight edges.  You can’t ignore it.  Your eye keeps moving up to that corner.  After you’ve gone back and forth with the green-orange-foreground-background question for a while, that little black square throws you another mystery.  Is IT what’s behind all the color, is IT the ground?  Must be.  Since it’s cut off by the picture’s edge it looks like it’s part of something bigger.  But it’s disturbing, that the ultimate background in this painting is represented by such a tiny surface.   Disturbing, but not overwhelmingly so.  That’s just it: all this subtle tension in the midst of this luminous, glorious color and the captivating texture.

The next post will relate this painting to a 19th century painting at the Art Institute of Chicago.

For more on working from collages, go to “collage” under Categories.

All contents copyright (C) 2010 Katherine Hilden. All rights reserved.

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