I think of English art before the mid-19th Century or so as a decorous celebration of life of or from the viewpoint of the upper crust. When Constable’s Bishop (down in the lower left-hand corner–click to enlarge) looked around him and saw harvest wagons, I expect he saw something idyllic like the Gainsborough. Perhaps I sell him short, but that’s the impression I get.
Well, there was Hogarth. No doubt the Bishop got to London from time to time, where Gin Lane would have been hard to overlook. But Beer Street, with its well-fed, contented workers, is the urban counterpart of Gainsborough’s wholesome countryside.
But then we come to George Stubbs (1724-1806), and this painting of dragoons. The class order is clear enough, but that is not the point. This is not a social document. It is a self-referential work of art. The overwhelming impact is one of operatic unreality.
Most posed paintings make at least a pretense of representing a real moment, but this does not. It goes for intensity. The severe whites against the deep and unnatural blacks (how can the whites be so white when the shadows are so consuming?); the dark, romantic sky; the gorgeously abstract formation of mounted officer and three distinctly uniformed troops standing to attention. Uniformed, but not uniform: examine the two on the right, detail by detail–everything from plume to crossbelts to shoes is subtly different from one to the other.
The figures are stitched by the interlocking, greenish wedges receeding from foreground to background. And notice how adroitly the repetition of the buff color of saddlecloth and bugler’s waistcoat carry the eye across that complicated negative space between the bugler and the horse. And the odd angle of the bugle–it’s at 90 degrees to the officer’s carbine, which again bridges the gap, and subtly links them. And curves: the same curve occurs in the sabre, the horse’s neck, belly, and hind legs, the bugler’s left arm, the center trooper’s right leg.
And the horse: horses were Stubb’s speciality, which perhaps explains his attention to the elegance of the beast rather than the usual dramatic function of horses in military depictions, which is to display the intrepidity of the rider.
All together, a very unexpected, very painterly piece. Strange and wonderful. And quite a jump from Gainsborough.
(this post is a reprise of Jan 28, 2012)
JOKE (OR NOT)
Years ago, passing through Philadelphia, coming around the corner into Center Square Plaza, I encountered “Clothespin” by the collaborative team of Claes Oldenburg and Coosje van Bruggen. Forty-five feet tall. I thought, “That’s fine.”
On one level it’s a joke, like their soft objects—the cheeseburgers, the instruments. But those are indoor objects. Striking, but comfortably within expectation in a museum.
“Clothespin” has a more challenging task, surrounded by so much competing spectacle. But it’s such a taut, dynamic shape, and so in keeping, however oddly, with the tall, rather mechanical buildings that surround it, that it convinces as a vital and compelling piece of the cityscape.
As opposed to many of Oldenburg and van Bruggen’s other big pieces, which I suppose are intended to be droll, but don’t hold up for me. I’m thinking especially of “Cupid’s Span” on the San Francisco waterfront.
Sixty feet high. I see it every time I go to the City. It doesn’t wear well. If it were up for a month I suppose it would be funny because it’s so unexpected, but after a few years it’s entirely expected. It’s gotten tired.
The waterfront is a very active place, full of its own flavor. This whimsy has no relation to it, and lacks the formal rigor that makes “Clothespin” so convincing.
It all gets pretty subtle. When is the joke convincing enough that you smile even after the upteenth exposure? But speaking of clothespins, there is this piece in a park in Liege, Belgium, by Mehmet Ali Uysal. Uysal has made a specialty of clothespins, some rather ho-hum, but this is bizarrely wonderful. It plays with the landscape it’s in, rather than simply encroaching.
A drawing and a photo, very engaging side by side.
HOLDING THE EYE
The landscape work of Claude Lorrain was enormously influential from the mid-17th Century on.
“Pastoral Landscape” is a typical example. On the right, a large, dark mass of trees with the bright figures in the lower corner. From there the eye follows their gestures and left-leaning body language, and the cows amble toward the lighter left side until the progression is stopped by the smaller tree mass at the left. Onward to the right the eye is led by contrary obliques–the bridge and its reflection–to the broad stripes of fields, and beyond them to the warm, intriguing shape of the castle. Then cooler and paler mountains lead to the sky—at which point the shapes are so pale that the eye is caught by the yellow tree on the right, and back to the foreground and figures where we began. Round and round. Claude did a zillion of these, and what they lack in variety from one to the next, they make up for in visual richness and delight when contemplated one by one. (By the way, notice how big the piece seems, and how small it actually is.)
But we find an interesting formal contrast in “View of La Crescenza,” the piece I always go to see when I’m at the Met in New York.
This is painted on quite a different scheme. The trees form a screen across the foreground, rather than a mass to one side. The foreground obliques, while lively, take the eye no farther than the shadowy treeline in the middle distance. Directly above is the castle, which is square in the middle, at the extreme rear of the pictorial space. Judging from the light coming in from the right, the castle has a view—probably something grand and spacious like the Pastoral Landscape–but we don’t share it. Nor is there a cycle that takes us around the composition. When we get to the castle, we stop: that’s it. The softness of the castle allows the more contrasty foreground to reassert itself, but back and forth is all the action: nothing travels on. The effect is to make this the remembrance of a particular place–it’s a real castle, near Rome–rather than a romantic ideal. This is why I like it. It’s a very knowing and artful piece of work, but it’s a direct response to something Claude saw, without so much sweat on it.
Of course, while Claude used the oblique progression device to great effect, he wasn’t the first to employ it. Ma Yuan worked in 13th Century China.
He doesn’t go see-sawing into the distance, as Claude does. From the foreground the landscape dissolves immediately into contemplative space. But the strong inscription on the right operates like Claude’s secondary mass of trees, if more abstractly, to keep the eye from drifting away. As you focus on the inscription, the softer image to the left reasserts itself, while the bird and the delicate fall of branches guide us back to the foreground.
this post is a reprise of October 8, 2011
Artists make formal choices to get certain results. Rene Magritte’s painting style can seem formulaic, almost mechanical, but the point of this restraint is to enable the surreality of his images. There is nothing to be gained, and much focus to be lost, by painterly bravura. Contrast the coherence of his “Rider in the Woods” with “Magritte Rider by derbuder,” a mashup of Magritte’s setting with a photo of a girl and her horse.
The Magritte seems at first glance so diffident that the trick takes a moment to emerge, and a second and third look to discover its complexities. Simple-seeming as it is, it doesn’t leap out at you. Whereas in Derbudr’s pleasant souvenir the intention of the image is lost in delight in the rider and her horse. The supercharged color, the visual busyness of the girl, the white face and forelegs of the horse, leap out and grab the eye. You can’t relax your view, as you can with the Magritte, see the whole thing at once, and then explore. The clamoring detail overwhelms the ensemble, which is what sustains the illusion.
While we’re on the subject, it should be noted that while Magritte’s style is reticent, it’s not flat. The patterns and textures of branches and leaves, tree trunks and foreground vegetation, even the pale, restrained rider and her pale, restrained horse are intricate and delightful—increasingly so, the longer you study them.
This post is a reprise of 12/30/11