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Archive for the ‘Achievement’ Category

         Cézanne, Le Bassin du Jas de Bouffan, c. 1876

Last year’s  October 8 issue of the London Review of Books published a long  (just under 9,000 words) article by the art historian T.J. Clark, who has taught at British universities as well as at the University of California, L.A.

I am reproducing one of the seven pages to give you an idea of the tone of this piece. (Click image for readable enlargement)  For those of you who can’t get enough of this kind of hand-waving erudition, here’s the whole article:

https://www.lrb.co.uk/the-paper/v42/n19/t.j.-clark/strange-apprentice

I do recommend reading it in its entirety if you are interested in how various scholars have dated some paintings, how Pissaro and Cézanne worked together and how blind Clark is to what’s happening in these paintings. 

He is only interested in that pre-modern obsession with the “quality of light:” Cézanne has pinned down a particular kind of light here—sometimes I feel in the painting even a specific time of day, an early evening transparency answering back to Le Champ  de choux’s thickening and diffusion.

Cézanne is the grand-daddy of modern painting. You’re being absurd and blind if you claim that he and his progeny in modernism—Picasso, Braque, Matisse et al– were interested in “pinning down a particular kind of light.”

So I submitted a letter to the LRB and got a reply saying they were considering printing it.  But they didn’t.  Clark’s long piece did not get the attention of any printed letter at all.

Here, then, is the letter I submitted:

If you want to rhapsodize about light in a painting then you can persuade yourself that the quality of light in Jas de Bouffan is what it’s all about.  But look again and notice how Cézanne fools you.

If he were interested in painting a landscape, he would give us perspective with distant objects hazy and more faded than close up objects. Instead, the green stripes of the field are uniformly green, from close to far up on the hill. Don’t just say, ah landscape, look more critically. Start by admitting that the reflection in the basin is laughable.  The reflection of the house on the hill cannot occur at the edge of the basin.  The reflection of the windows does not relate to the windows on the actual house.  Where’s the chimney in the reflection?  Where’s the sloping shed roof?  The little tree in front of that little shed?  For that matter, those large blocks close to the water’s edge would have to reflect in the basin.

I don’t know what T.J.Clark means by “Modernity is loss of world.”  No world is lost in Cézanne, any more than a world is lost when a magician banters your ears full as he does the rope trick while manipulating your expectations.  Jas de Bouffan is a landscape– what else could it be?– but it’s also a banter of colors in a rectangle that manipulates your expectations.  You accept what’s happening in the basin because you’re sentimental about reflections in water.

He places that slender gray tree exactly in the middle. On the top it’s exactly in the middle, then it curves a little.  The reflection is made with the same gray so that the canvas is divided in half, from top to bottom, by this even gray brush stroke.  This gray brush stroke intersects the horizontal  ruler-straight line of the basin’s edge.  Notice how your eye keeps coming back to this intersection, which functions like cross hairs to focus your attention.  Nice.  Your brain likes this clarity in the context of all this hand waiving.  He situates these cross-hairs in the lower part of the canvas, which is where we expect the foreground to be. Voila! I give you a foreground and therefore the upper section must be farther away and you, dear viewer, are happy that this landscape has depth.

Using the same technique, Cézanne persuades us of a foreground in Maison et arbre. (See below)  The “precipitous road and front lawn to the left,” which looks so awkward, serves the same function as the cross hairs of tree-and-basin-edge in Jas de Bouffan. This crude geometry is also in the lower part of the landscape and is also clearly delineated.  Your attention can’t help but land on and linger in that lower left corner.  Location and delineation tell you, this is the foreground.  The green and orange fields to the right of the house are not fading into the distance—as you’d expect—but still they read as distant because the lower left corner of the road and the lawn shouts “foreground.”  Again, you accept this banter of flat rectangles and triangles. You want to believe that this is a landscape with foreground, middle-ground  and  background.  So that’s what you see.

Picasso and Braque called Cézanne their father not because of any atmospherics of light but because the canvases he filled with brushstrokes captivated attention in this new way.

When Cézanne in his 20’s lived in Paris he submitted paintings to the Salon, knowing full well he would be rejected. He did this over and over.  It’s fair to assume that rejection strengthened his resolve to find some new way of relating to a canvas.

Later in Aix, when he sat on the grass and watched Pissaro painting, let’s imagine him muttering in his curmudgeonly way,  “Merde, time of day and light effects…blabla…there must be more to painting than this.”

Cézanne, Maison et arbre, 1874

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After the horizontal view (discussed in the last post), I turned the camera to the vertical view.   Here there’s even more to draw you in and hold your attention.

We still have the horizontal shadows with their variations.  This time, though, the lines pull you to the full view of the glowing prairie grass, the drama queen in this show.  Ta-tah!

The shape of the glow is roughly circular. A circle in a composition will dominate your attention.  Add to that the horizontal dark ellipse under the background tree and you have a play on the variation of round forms. Your brain loves that.  Then notice that that black ellipse and the glowing circle relate to each other through that tense gap between them.  Tension is good, it pulls you in.

We still have the Golden Section: red lines indicated the equal sides of the big square. In addition, a number of equal distances (greens, pinks) that create repetition in the composition, a kind of rhythm.

At this point, for good company, I’m reminded of Vermeer’s Little Street. He makes the composition run on rhythm.

The nerve of him! Here he is in the 17th century and instead of showing off how well he can create the illusion of depth through perspective and how well he can seduce you through human anatomy and ample flesh…what does he give you?  A flat façade of a couple of buildings.  Yes, there’s a picture within the picture with a little perspective view to the women in that passage way and the cobble stones recede, granted, but only faintly and ever so casually.   There are a couple of gables in the back, but no perspective lines lead to them, so , voila, they’re part of the overall flatness.

This is a modern painting.  One of us painted this.  Makes me wanna cry.  Yes, it’s a flat surface that runs on rhythm, like a drum roll of the same distances—all over.  That’s it, I’m in tears.

You can take a strip of paper and mark off any length on this building and then move that strip around and find the same distance, over and over.  That’s rhythm.  It’s what mesmerizes you.

Johannes Vermeer, 1632-1675

https://artamaze.wordpress.com/2021/03/13/glowing-prairie-grasses-horizontal-view/

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You can study larger versions of these photos along with some illuminating text at

https://hyperallergic.com/595915/looking-inwards-quarantine-self-portraits-from-india/?utm_campaign=Daily&utm_content=20210203&utm_medium=email&utm_source=Hyperallergic%20Newsletter

How about that Leonard Cohen quote!

You should be reaching for your cameral now. No, silly, not to take a selfie.  Stop mugging.

Go deeper.

 

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

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We have this painting at the National Gallery in Washington.

You may not believe this was painted in 1612. Surrounded by its Italian Renaissance neighbors, it stands out.  It is stunning.

What makes this image so distinct?

-the woman is fully clothed

-her clothing is not opulent

-she is not presenting herself

-she is turning her back to us

-she is absorbed in her music

-she has an interior life

-she is not a symbol or a saint

-this is not an illustration of Christian or Greek mythology

-this is a person

-there is no message, no moral, no lesson

 

Not only that, the composition is asymmetrical.  How did he get away with this?  In 1612!  In Rom!

The image engages us the way modern art engages us.

-the painter places the human figure off center

-half of the painting is a void, with the table cloth minimally suggested

-the foreshortened violin on the table points at us, as if to address us: hey you, you’re part of this.

 

When you walk through a museum you can spot a Gentileschi from a long distance.  He painted women unlike any of his contemporaries did.

 

Except his daughter, Artemisia Gentileschi, who was his student.

 

Orazio Gentileschi, 1563 Tuscany – 1639 London

Lute Player, 56-1/2 x 50-3/4, Natl Gal of Art, Washington DC, 1612-15

 

Find more of his paintings at:

https://www.google.com/search?sxsrf=ALeKk0364ow8HhwjPjQNrj7ifLsXwv-tZQ:1609707412251&source=univ&tbm=isch&q=orazio+gentileschi&sa=X&ved=2ahUKEwjX_f6z04DuAhVDPq0KHcHsArgQiR56BAgcEAI&biw=1274&bih=836#imgrc=nd4inKpPywjfBM

 

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

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Yes, I know what this is. This image shows skinny bare tree trunks in a dry hilly landscape.

What makes the stripes on the ground?

The stripes?  Let’s see.  Oh, the stripes are made by the shadows from the tree trunks.  Must be that the sun is low on the horizon.

Kinda cool?

Yeah,  pretty cool.

 

It’s not that you’re reminded of that afternoon in the state park, because you weren’t there, you didn’t take the photo.

It’s not that the image depicts some sexy scene.

Why is this image so compelling, even hypnotic?

Oh, I can chat about it. Try this:  Lines intersecting, over and over, with variation of angle, never mechanical, never repetitious. Focused attention,  like cross-hairs.  Rhythm. Percussion. There is no focal point.  No point of rest.  Your eye is constantly moving. The effect is purely visual, purely formal, not depending on any narrative.  No “appealing colors.”

If you only think this image is “pretty cool,”  I suggest you frame it. Frame it large or  project it on your large TV screen and look at it every day so that the memory of it will keep you awake at night without you knowing why on earth this is happening to you.

The past several posts have been about the power of composition.  This image is the culmination of all these past three month of looking and thinking about images here at artamaze.

Of all the things that grab you in an image—color, narrative, symbolism, etc.—the most powerful is composition.

Try to get some sleep.

 

Photo by Mary Shieldsmith

 

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I came across this drawing recently and can’t get it out of my mind.

It’s small, 12x9in. Pastel on paper. 1951

All I can think of doing to it is flip it horizontally and, behold, it doesn’t work in this view.

What we have here is a non-representational image of such internal tension that it cannot be altered.

It looks like nothing.  Nothing?

When I look at this drawing–the original, on top– I want to project a vertical structure or a tree trunk between the red and black lines.  But that vanishes immediately. What’s left is the quick markmaking, apparently unconscious, and the dominance of “negative space.”

The choice of deep yellow paper is uncanny.  Imagine the paper gray or green or blue.  No go.

Clifford Still is known for his huge paintings, as seen in the Clifford Still Museum in Denver.

This painting, PH812, also from 1951, measures 115 x 104 inches.

https://www.google.com/search?sxsrf=ALeKk00_5B1hIExLDZoTfK3KAWVvje7PqQ:1607908360102&source=univ&tbm=isch&q=clyfford+still&sa=X&ved=2ahUKEwjgh4q1pcztAhVBeawKHQQ7A9MQiR56BAgnEAI&biw=1462&bih=836

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

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It’s 1906.  Imagine these law-abiding citizens of Northern Europe, who dress well, behave politely and enjoy going to cultural events, like art exhibitions.  One Sunday afternoon they put on their hats and tell their coach man to take them to that new art exhibit in the hope of finding edification in high art.  They find themselves confronted by this.

André Derain was born near Paris in 1880.  He grew up in Victorian clutter, in rooms with flowered wallpaper; velvet tasseled curtains; heavy carved furniture; and gilded this and that.  His family was comfortably middle class. He had the means to travel.  When he came back from a trip to London, his family and friends must have eagerly awaited nice touristy paintings, like scenic post cards. Instead, he had this to show.

In 1906 nobody knew that this was the art of the future and that 100+ years later  people like us would paint our walls white so that nothing would distract us from contemplating the painting.

The critic Louis Vauxcelles called these artists –Derain, Matisse and Vlaminck—“Les Fauves,” which means “the wild beasts.”   To be called a wild beast was pretty close to being called an idiot.

Imagine what it took to paint like this at that time.  That’s all, just imagine that.

The Fauvist painters:

André Derain, 1880-1954

Henri Matisse, 1869-1954

Maurice de Vlaminck, 1876-1958

P.S.  Some of our contemporaries now want to make a quick buck by teaching you a formula: “How to paint Fauvist style.”  Such trash!   You can find this mindless how-to on Pinterest, for example.

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Even as a child, Soulage says, he liked black because it made the rest of the paper look all the more white.

When he was sixty, his paintings became all black, a black he calls outrenoir, which translates roughly as “beyond black.”

He doesn’t think of himself as painting with black paint, but with light.  The light reflects off the thick, textured black paint and that is what you see.  “I made these because I found that the light reflected by the black surface elicits certain emotions in me. These aren’t monochromes. The fact that light can come from the color which is supposedly the absence of light is already quite moving, and it is interesting to see how this happens.”

He was born December 24, 1919.  Approaching 101, he says he’s looking forward to more ideas to come to him.

The Musée Soulage, in Rodez , Southern France,  is devoted to his work.

 

 

I recommend the following links for more images of his work and of interviews with him:

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Gw7tkgVnRTw

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=azb6K-R_q8M

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=ylZGz3NuidA

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Eydws5jJ6ys

https://www.google.com/search?q=pierre%20soulages&tbm=isch&tbs=rimg:CR8aTYMxIqhvYaEYr1reAWak&hl=en&sa=X&ved=0CBsQuIIBahcKEwjQo_2WloPtAhUAAAAAHQAAAAAQFw&biw=1294&bih=836#imgrc=R9rQFXyA7wEFTM&imgdii=4-kpwBo3-mMrfM

https://www.google.com/search?sxsrf=ALeKk01-AFktcIGO9n0dcMT9GRy-irtSdw:1605223481914&source=univ&tbm=isch&q=pierre+soulages&sa=X&ved=2ahUKEwj3oLK7k_7sAhVSgK0KHVh7AGIQiR56BAgPEBA&biw=1378&bih=836#imgrc=Tj_-pYUAPfkJYM&imgdii=AM1Kn5-I38wLFM

 

Two days ago I was reminded of Pierre Soulage when I took the photo posted as “Not Levitating.”  When I framed the shot I saw the uncanny light that was coming through the front doors glass panel in late afternoon.  On the photo, which is unedited, the light “column” at the left appears so substantial that its weight equals that of the blue sphere, which would otherwise have to dominant the composition.

https://artamaze.wordpress.com/2020/11/12/not-levitating/

 

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

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The illusion of depth and perspective in an image is so beguiling that we—smart, scientific and skeptical—willingly suspend disbelief and get sucked into the illusion of receding  space created on a flat surface.

You don’t have to trek through Ecuador, like Fredric Erwin Church, to get this thrill.  Step out your front door and there you’ll find receding space as far as the eye can see even if that’s only to the end of the block.  Your camera will aid you because it will flatten the view for you, i.e. it will compact the three-dimensional reality in front of you into a framed two-dimensional surface.

When you treat yourself to a hike in the nearby state park, well, the phrase “as far as they eye can see” is ecstatically notched up.

The most powerful part is (1) because it’s the closest plant to the viewer and it sets the sense of scale.  All other plants—and that’s all we see—are therefore seen in relation to (1), with the result that we sense how far back they are.

You can compare this analysis to that of Fredric Edwin Church’s painting in the previous post.

The progression from foreground plants to distant hills –and pine trees way in the distance at upper left–occurs in similar layers. Church manipulates the gradations of color and light to heightened effect and just because he can.  In the photo, however, the gradations appear more subtle and to lovers of subtlety that effect may actually be more thrilling  than the technique in Church’s painting.

But wait, there’s more.  Even before you notice the little plant in the lower left corner, you want to look at this image.  It contains an approximation of the Golden Section.  You may not even know what that is, but our environment, both cultural and biological, has conditioned you to like this ratio.

The photographer may not have made all these compositional calculations consciously. This sense can be cultivated intuitively.

Knowing how to analyze why this works does not in the least spoil the pleasure of perception.  On the contrary, look how it deepens your experience.

(Click image for enlargement.)

Mary Shieldsmith ,  Brown County State Park, 2020

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No real estate agent would like this photo.  It doesn’t show off the house.  No curb appeal!  And what’s with the trees!?

Sorry, sir/madam, this picture is not about the house.  It’s not even about Halloween.

Well, what then!!! –It’s not about anything.–Sound of doors slamming.

This is the last of three frames I took of this scene.  The first two have too much context.  Then I saw the juxtaposition of the straight vertical trees and the pumpkins marching horizontally. Click.

I saw an image, a play of lines and dots.

Here’s the first shot, rejected, due to too much information/illustration.

 

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