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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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A Compelling Image

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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Your Kitsch-detector

How long had she been perched on that thin branch?  When I saw her, I pulled up a chair and watched her sway in the wind for seventeen minutes.  During all that time she faced in one direction and vocalized almost constantly.   No other crow came near.  The wind picked up and she finally took off.

The radical otherness of birds is integral to their beauty and their value. They are always among us but never of us. Their indifference to us ought to serve as a chastening reminder that we’re not the measure of all things. The stories we tell about the past and imagine for the future are mental constructions that birds can do without. Birds live squarely in the present.  —Jonathan Franzen

While being fascinated by her for those seventeen minutes I realized how ignorant I was about crows.  I had read that they have a vocabulary of dozens of calls; that they socialize in groups; warn each other of approaching predators; gather in the place where a crow had died; visit mom’s tree after moving away; make tools and solve puzzles.  Still, I felt ignorant because I couldn’t interpret her call or any of the calls my neighborhood crows make.

As my brain was wallowing in ignorance, I reminded myself that most human brains are happy to fill in that gap of ignorance with myths, superstitions and symbols, all of it Kitsch.

The American philosopher Stanley Cavell said, there’s nothing human beings want more than to be something else.

Some of our myths shows humans with wings—being bird-like.  Voila, Angels, Cupid, Psyche–the epitome of Kitsch!

Why is it worth thinking about this?

Our ancestors slipped into this escape from ignorance into saccharine superstitions and symbols.  Look around you.  We’re still drowning in Kitsch.

As an artist you need to keep your Kitsch-detector turned way up.  When you’re working on a painting, a sculpture, a composition or a short story you have to scan your work repeatedly with that trusty Kitsch-detector.  Revise!  Revise!  It’s work. That’s why a work of art can take so long.

What I’m suggesting with this bird-in-a-tree-story is that you can keep the Kitsch-detector hooked on your belt at all times, even when you’re pacing through your quarantine house and casually looking out the window.

I didn’t want to anthropomorphize the crow when I started to write this post, but “it” seemed inappropriate for such an intelligent being.  Why did I choose “she” instead of “he?”  I like to think it was an arbitrary choice, but maybe I had a Kitsch moment and emotionally identified with “her.”

 

Stanley Cavell, 1926-2018

 

For the full essay by Jonathan Franzen:

https://www.theguardian.com/environment/2018/mar/23/the-radical-otherness-of-birds-jonathan-franzen-on-why-they-matter

 

For crows and myths:

https://www.sciencedirect.com/topics/agricultural-and-biological-sciences/new-caledonian-crow

 

https://mythsymbolsandplay.typepad.com/my-blog/bird-symbolism/

 

https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Cultural_depictions_of_ravens

 

https://www.learnreligions.com/the-magic-of-crows-and-ravens-2562511

 

https://etd.ohiolink.edu/apexprod/rws_etd/send_file/send?accession=osu1204876597&disposition=inline

 

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Ludwig van Beethoven was born on this day 250 years ago.  It was customary to baptize babies the day after they were born and since his baptismal record in Bonn shows December 17th as the date, it’s safe to assume his birth date is December 16, 1770.

The inexpressible depth of all music, by virtue of which it floats past us as a paradise quite familiar and yet eternally remote, and is so easy to understand and yet so inexplicable, is due to the fact that it reproduces all the emotions of our innermost being, but entirely without reality and remote from its pain.  In the same way, the seriousness essential to it and wholly excluding the ludicrous from its direct and peculiar province is to be explained from the fact that its object is not the representation, in regard to which deception and ridiculousness alone are possible, but that this object is directly the will; and this is essentially the most serious of all things, as being that on which all depends.– Schopenhauer (1788-1860)

All art constantly aspires to the conditions of music.— Walter Pater (1839-1894)

https://www.dw.com/en/why-beethoven-snubbed-princes-and-put-his-music-first/a-19544501

Beethoven once stopped playing when an aristocrat was talking in the front row: “I’m not playing for such pigs.”  (Für solche Schweine spiel ich nicht.)

Being an Artist takes courage, it’s work and you have to risk being misunderstood.

 

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Clifford Still

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

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In the last post we started by looking at something beautiful and ended up by suggesting that beauty may be a trap.  A breathtaking view becomes a trap if you think you can –how to say this—trap it.  The common word for this is “capturing it.”

“Oh, you captured that perfectly.”

“That is so beautiful; I want to see if I can capture it in my painting.”

People talk about “capturing” all the time. In music, painting, in a novel, a movie.  As if art making were some sort of hunting sport: you hunt the beauty down and then—gotcha!–you corral it in a fenced lot. You killed it!

So, art making is a form of execution.  If that’s too strong a word, how about strangulation.

In any case, “capturing” results in lifelessness.

We don’t want lifelessness, do we.

The reason that a painting that duplicates a photo would result in lifelessness is that it would make something monumental, i.e. static, out of a fleeting moment.  That would be a lie.

So, how can you allow yourself to be inspired by this image without deceiving yourself?

You can allow yourself to be mesmerized by a small passage that does not refer to a recognizable corner of reality.  It does not illustrate anything.

Now, that you can paint—or draw!  Not as a copyist, not directly, not in detail, but in gesture, in complete self-abandon.  If you pivot your mind into that level of fiction, you may be onto something.

Onto what?  We can’t predict.  Let’s see.

 

https://artamaze.wordpress.com/2020/12/06/kitsch-101/

 

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Kitsch 101


 

If you say, nice photo, I’ll say, thanks.  The afternoon sun does this refraction performance through my front door.  I can remember how I looked up from reading at my dining room table. I gasped and reached for my camera. These light effects don’t last long.

If you say, ohmygod that is awesome I want to make a painting of this, then…well, then, I’ll have to say, errmm, we need to talk.

The photo gives our attention a little jolt because it reminds us that in life there are these moments that we hardly notice because we’re preoccupied with our chores and plans.

But a painting duplicating the photo would be overdoing it.  It would be superimposing grandeur onto something subtle.

I sympathize with this impulse to paint a scene that moves you and makes you sigh, oh how beautiful.  You want to celebrate that, to dwell on it by translating every nuance and detail into paint on canvas.

But this experience of beauty does not translate.  What a shocking thing to say.  (We’ll talk about this some more, two or three posts hence, with the help of W.S. Merwin.)

Oscar Wilde said, “All bad poetry springs from genuine feeling.”

That’s also true of painting.  People who want to paint their deep, genuine feeling about beauty,  will produce–brace yourself!–things like this:

…and, of course, cats.

 

The word for this is Kitsch.

https://www.google.com/search?q=kitsch+paintings&sxsrf=ALeKk00yb4znbMS_QycmurXZ4BM_6uO_sA:1607267751264&tbm=isch&sa=X&ved=2ahUKEwiFyf360rntAhUIKKwKHcn-Ce8Q7AkoAXoECA4QCw&biw=1404&bih=836#imgrc=wLELglpVy6BbxM

 

Oscar Wilde, 1854-1900

W.S. Merwin, 1927-2019

 

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Imagine the Shock

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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Last post I said you can practice turning your attention to ON.  Yes, you can, and it’s wise to practice.

Musicians, for example, practice.  Even very advanced performers practice scales.  This practice will shine through when they’re performing on stage in thrilling, ecstatic passages of a piece.  The practice itself made this ecstasy possible, but the practice itself is not ecstatic.  It’s discipline.

I walk into my kitchen one morning, my to-do list for that day writ large in my brain.  As I turn to the fridge, my jaw drops and my eyes pop. I either had never seen this light effect before or it happens every morning but I’m just always behind in my “attention practice.”

I grab my camera and click.

This is not a great moment in the history of photography.

Why, then, is it valuable?  Because it records a constellation: the alignment of

  • the angle of the sun
  • the placement of that bamboo plant
  • the moment I entered that room
  • my attention on ON

The photo reminds me that such an alignment is possible.  It happened. It doesn’t happen every day and it’s worth paying attention when it does happen.

Next, we’ll look at Derain.

https://artamaze.wordpress.com/2020/11/24/attention/

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Attention

NOW WHAT!!  You want us to look at your boring geraniums in your boring kitchen???!!!

What caught my attention was how the afternoon light made the stems glow. On the right, see that?  See how the stems are outlined in yellow?

How would my camera see that?  As I framed the shot, before I zoomed in on that light effect, I noticed intimations of the Golden Section.

Not one, but two.  In the green lines, the square is on the left.  In the pink, the square is on the right. As a bonus, the red blooms define the corner of the next square in the Golden Section sequence.

In my peripatetic readings I recently came across a quote from Nicolas Malebranche: “Attention is the natural prayer of the soul.”   He had to talk like that because he was a Catholic priest trying to stay alive in 17th century France.  He’s classified as a rational philosopher, working in the shadow of Descartes: notice the word “natural” in front of “prayer.”

1600 years before that,  Epictetus said:  “You become what you give your attention to. If you yourself don’t choose what thoughts and images you expose yourself to, someone else will … and their motives may not be the highest.”  Epictetus was born a slave in the Roman Empire and became the teacher of Marcus Aurelius.

So, the difference between boring and ta-dah! is not out there in those overwintering geraniums but in that switch in your brain.  You can practice throwing your attention switch.  You can pivot from worry about your to-do list to…attention, now.

Nicolas Malebranche, 1638-1715

Epictetus, 50-135

Marcus Aurelius, 121-180

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