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Archive for the ‘Romantic’ Category

The history of the still life can be traced back to the Romans, but it came into full force around 1600, primarily in the Netherlands.  We have a still life by Caravaggio, but in Italy religious themes remained dominant.  In the Netherlands, where a republican government had taken root early and where a secular culture was in ascendancy, still life paintings became powerful objects of contemplation.  By the middle of the 17th century, Dutch art collectors filled their homes with landscapes, family portraits, still lifes,  and scenes of domesticity, with religious themes numbering (it’s estimated) only about one in five.  There was a special theme for a still life, devoid of religious references, that reminded the viewer of the transience of life.  Called “Vanitas” paintings or “Momemto Mori,” these paintings involved the human skull and other reminders of mortality such as candles, cobwebs;  the ephemeralness of fame as symbolized in cultural treasures like books and violins.

In a recent drawing class I set up such a Vanitas still life.  It turned out to be an inspiring subject, though half of the class avoided the skull, arguably the anchor of the still life, altogether. Some students invented background “atmospherics” in their use of shading or rectilinear forms.  I particularly like the choice of very oblique views of the still life so that the violin—the prima donna of the show—is actually seen from an obscuring angle.  The incompletion that we see in all of the drawings, this fading out of the lines and the shading as we get to the edge, this incompletion is a thoroughly modern technique.  It comes, as we have seen before (posts 2.21, 4.22, and 5.23.11) from early 19th century Romanticism.

Shown here are drawings by Maggy S., Karen G., In Young J., who gave us the most realistic rendering and Vera C., who drew the individual objects as if they were collaged together on the drawing paper according to dictates of the life in her composition.  The drawing by Louise F. will get a post of its own.

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

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Sunsets and cloud formations often take our breath away.  We stop walking, stop pedaling and stop driving so that we can give in to shameless gaping, all sophistication abandoned.  What we’re looking at are light rays and water vapors.  Light rays bending over the horizon and water vapors clumping in the troposphere, however well we may understand the physics that produce the effects, will still stop us in our tracks.  For centuries, light has been a metaphor in our literature and art for concepts like hope, transcendence and peace.  In the late 18th century, with the rise of Romanticism and then the sense of the Sublime in the early 19th century, light effects and cloud formations became major rock stars on the stage of the poetic imagination.

The Hudson River Valley painters are a great example.  Thomas Moran (1837-1926), for example, painted awe-inspiring landscapes, often of enormous dimensions and involving spectacular cloud formations and light effects.

But a painting of rays and vapors often falls flat.  Think of the sentimental sunset paintings you’ve winced at while strolling through a summer art fair.  You want to say, dude, the 19th century is like so yesterday. We still love the real thing, the sunset, but our notion of painting has taken a sharp turn.  A hundred years of abstraction have taught us that the painting is an artifact. We have come to appreciate the power of composition and we are less likely to be manipulated by the sentimental intentions of Sunday painters.

In walks Elaine C. with her photos of Tahiti.  Breathtaking, if you imagine what it must have been like to be there.  We spread out these wonderful photos and looked in amazement and a little envy.  But the task at hand was to stop gasping and set to work on making a painting!  Lo and behold, in her display of 4 x 6 photos, there was this one, where the clouds and the mountain range had gotten together that magical romantic evening in Tahiti to form the wildest, most dynamic composition possible: the Z.  It’s quite uncanny.  It’s this rigorous geometry that rescues the composition from the sobs and sighs of sentimentality.  The work on this painting (16 x 20) was difficult and time consuming because the artist/student had to reconcile two opposites:  the amorphous, soft form of clouds and the distinct zig-zag of the overall composition.

In the Tahiti photo, the bottom of the frame shows a body of water, but in the painting this sliver becomes  an expanse of green meadow—for the sake of color.  We can do that because we’re painters.

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Yoko Ono says,  she constructs  her compositions—visual and musical–with the intention of leaving them incomplete in order to involve the audience. The audience is an essential component of the art itself.   This comes out of a Romantic sensibility. We don’t find this respect for the audience in Classical art, where a fixed idea, myth or dogma determines the approach and the outcome.  The Classical and the Romantic form two polarities that are already evident in our earliest cultural documents. The Classical sensibility dominated for most of Western history—until about 1800, when Romantic movements in all the arts changed the conversation.  Or rather, the relationship between artist and audience changed so that the artist no longer delivered a sermon but engaged the audience in a conversation.

This is not to say, that the Romantic idea fell out of the blue.  Rembrandt and Velazquez, in the 17th century, are Romantic sensibilities.  But we can trace this sensibility all the way back to the ancient Greeks.  Socrates, specifically.  He was a philosopher and teacher and he made an art out of teaching, an art in the Romantic sense.  The Socratic Method of getting a point across is to not get the point across at all, but to pose a question.  The student then delves into the question which leads to deeper questions and through this “conversation” the student reaches insight and understanding.  Socrates, the teacher withholds the information deliberately, all the while pretending he doesn’t know the answer. This withholding is called Socratic Irony.

Romantic Irony is similar.  The Romantic artist exposes the process by which the work came about.  Or rather, comes about, since it is never finished.   The Romantic poets around 1800 left their poems unfinished.  The “truth” of the art work was not given (as by inspiration) but an open question and a matter of infinite longing.   This Romantic sensibility is also the Modern sensibility.  This is why Shakespeare and the mature Michelangelo speak to us so immediately– as if they were our contemporaries.

John Lennon walked into a gallery one day and had to climb a ladder if he wanted to see the art that was attached to the ceiling.  He felt he had to meet this artist, who engaged him in conversation this way. That was Yoko Ono.

Yolo Ono’s birthday was February 18th. See also “Fluxus,”  posted January  11.

Images shown:

Yoko Ono. Caricature by Katherine Hilden, 2011

Rembrandt, Self-portrait, 1626

Michelangelo, Rondanini Pieta, 1552.

 

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