PORTRAITS OF ADOWA
On January 23 we looked at images of density in battle, one of which was a present-day representation of the Battle of Adowa, fought between Italy and Ethiopia in 1896.I return to it here because the Wikipedia article included photos of the winner, Emperor Menelik II, and loser, General Oreste Baratieri. The contrast is striking. It may not be quite fair, because these aren’t equivalently formal images, and I don’t suppose Baratieri wore his medals into battle. But there is something irresistibly silly about the presumed dignity of dandified military men.
Silly with an edge. The battle cost more than 10,000 lives. Contributing to the Italian defeat were their obsolete rifles. They had the latest and best on hand, but Baratieri wouldn’t issue them until the stocks of ammunition for the old ones had been used up.
We Americans didn’t have to live under Mao Tse Tung, so we find the fawning propaganda extolling him merely ridiculous:
Not that we in the West were waiting around for the Chinese to teach us about fatuous imagery and gross sucking up:
But even if it can’t compete with Rubens, Mao worship was grotesque enough that when Andy Warhol converted its hero into a pop icon ala Marilyn Monroe, we chuckled. We still do.
It seems a little creepy that we are able to. Mao was responsible for how many deaths? Fifty million? Seventy?–besides much other evil. He’s solidly in Hitler’s league. But Warhol didn’t try to get us to laugh at Hitler.
Perhaps our reaction to Mao is possible because events in China during that era were remote from American life, whereas Hitler was and still is in the foreground of our consciousness. You can’t imagine collectors throwing a party to show off their new red-lipped Hitler Warhol. But Mao’s oppressions didn’t involve us. We perceive his villainy as bad enough to license mockery, but not so intense that it spoils the fun. The translation from laughable Big Kahuna to absurdist Fashion Art Object seems no more than a saucy joke.
This post is a reprise from November, 2011.
I find the work of Chuck Close very up and down. Many of his big portraits seem to have nothing much going for them but their bigness and the mind-boggling complexity of his grid method. But when he cuts loose, pieces like “Lucas II” or “Roy” go off in fascinating directions. The outlines and diagonals in “Roy” are so lively and playful that they set the eye poring happily over the sprightly handling of areas that you’d think wouldn’t offer such opportunity for invention, but do: the ear, the pigtail, the far side of the shirt. Nobody does this stuff like Close.
But as much as I admire “Roy”, my favorites are at the simpler end of Close’s work, where the balance between subject and method is most immediate. To my mind, he’s never done anything better than “Leslie” or the etched self-portrait below. Subtle, but wonderfully straightforward.
For a discussion of the limits of Seurat’s pointillist technique, with a Close comparison thrown in, go to the Archive > March 17, 2012.
SCHOENGEUR’S ARTFUL ST. ANTHONY
One of the challenges of making a work of art is deciding exactly what it’s about, focusing on what is relevant, and excluding everything else. Below we have two groups of figures in which different objectives determine how the surrounding space should affect the group.
In the Rembrandt, the group is only part of the action. The surroundings–dark clouds with a beam of light shining from on high–are integral to the message: heaven, the angel, the grand spiritual dimension of the incident depicted.
Goya has a different objective. His point is simply that these characters are wacky. A specific context–a landscape, some specific interior–whatever–would only confine the message. So his background is a flat middle tone. This sets off the gesticulations of the group without introducing any thematic complications.
And then we come to the engraving of “The Bedeviling of St. Anthony” by Martin Schoengeur (1440-1491). His formal problem is closer to Goya’s than to Rembrandt’s: the action is within a tightly intertwined group. He has to place it in the sky, because that’s part of the story, but all we need to know about the sky is that it’s not the ground. The less said about sky, the better.
He can’t use a tone like Goya’s. Engraving doesn’t do tones, and in any case the intricacy of his detail depends on lively contrast.
His solution is wonderfully direct. His first move is to fill the space right out to the edges so the eye isn’t wandering around to see what else might be out there. Then at the bottom corner he puts a descriptive triangle of ground to establish that the action is happening above it in space. But then–and this is the bold part–he treats the sky above as a purely abstract and rather clunky patter of dashes. There is nothing representational about this—no suggestion of clouds, for example, or distant landscape. The dashes press in and down on the group, enough to keep the action looking and feeling focused and pressurized without describing anything, or being interesting enough in themselves to compete for attention.
Simple and bold: very artful. How artful can be seen by comparing the engraving to the copy below by Michelangelo, which he did at the age of about twelve. This reverses all of Schoengeur’s essential decisions. No doubt the exercise was a positive experience for the youngster, but the result, a pileup of watery figures, overdeveloped rocks, and irrelevant landscape, is a complete muddle.
For another take on the importance of the selection of information in an effective image (including the issue of irrelevant landscape), > archive > December 5: Peanuts gone wrong.