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John Pope Hennessey–David Lavine 1991


Here we have two pieces–one by Cy Twombly (1928 – 2011), the other by Rembrandt van Rijn (1606 – 1669)–that begin with different intentions, but end with similar results.

Cy Twombly "untitled" 2005

Twombly “untitled” 2005 []

The Twombly is not, at first, surprising; swirling and splashing is what his painting is about. But while it’s certainly abstract, it’s not quite non-representational. His swirlings have an intricate and repetitive tension about them that implies a narrative. The swoops  draw the eye around and around and toward the right, while the background veil of thin vertical drips provide stability for the swirls to play against.

So: abstract, but inclining to narrative.



Rembrandt - "Landskab med hytter under store træer" c.1650 (W'ped)

Rembrandt – “Landskab med hytter under store træer” c.1650 (W’ped)


While the Rembrandt, also predominantly composed of swirls,  proceeds from the opposite direction, from narrative to abstraction. We spot the subject, a view of cottage and trees, right away, but it isn’t a formal illustration of picturesque cottage and tree. What Rembrandt was responding to was the lashing, constantly changing shapes as the branches whip this way and that in a strong wind blowing from left to right. It’s the wildness, the disorderliness of it, that he’s after. The action is in the swirls of foliage. The straight, mostly vertical lines of the cottage, and the oblique foreground ditch, provide the same still grounding that Twombly gets from his thin vertical drips. And for a contrasting negative, each artist provides a blank space beginning at the upper left–not as spacious in the Twombly as in the Rembrandt, but present in both pieces, and for the same reason.


For a discussion of similar issues with respect to Turner, Constable, and Kline, go >blog>archive>May 12, 2012: abstract and not.


Hans Bol - "Landscape with the Fall of Phaethon" 1569

Hans Bol – “Landscape with the Fall of Phaethon” 1569  (Courtauld)

We grow so accustomed to seeing really good art that it’s easy to miss what makes it good–hence the comparison here between treatments by Hans Bol (1534-1593) and Rodolphe Bresdin (1822-1885) of figures in rather similar big landscapes.

The vital difference here is coherence. Nothing in Bol’s piece quite relates to anything else. It’s a jumble of elements in search of an overall narrative. The foreground group, four figures and a fish, is drawn as if each were a separate little study that has been cut out with scissors and pasted down wherever there is room. The whole group on its little island has the same lack of relation to the rest of the composition as  the pieces do to each other. It kisses the farther shore in a few places, enough to muddle, for example, the woman’s outline, without really connecting foreground and distance. Follow the shoreline as it drifts aimlessly, rising and falling. Middle tones baffle Bol. Shapes are left left white unless there is some immediate descriptive necessity. Objects are seen one by one, rather than as contributory pieces of a whole with a whole meaning. Poor Phaethon and his horses are lost in the muddle of shapeless clouds.

Rodolphe Bresdin - "Bathers in a Mountain Pool" 1865 (Art Institute of Chicago)

Rodolphe Bresdin – “Bathers in a Mountain Pool” 1865 (Art Institute of Chicago)

Bresdin’s landscape, on the other hand, while quite similar in design, is seen from large to small. The mountain shapes to left and right form a V, joining with the foreground copse of trees. The trees gather into strong darks above the water–so dark that the eye jumps to the whites of the bathers. Contrasted with the middle tone of the pond they are drawn very simply (compare with Bol’s muddled lady).

From the V the hills fold back, first in a long recession on the right, then a more distant formation on the left, and finally to the far horizon. The richly worked sky–several swoopy horizontal bands–links the mountains to right and left, and by its weight keeps the eye from floating away from the foreground.

Within this grand design there are many unifying themes. Look for bright white shapes. Look for textures. Again and again they are varied and repeated. The horizontal shading of the water reflects the sky. The light, meanwhile, comes consistently from the left.

In a word, Bresdin’s is a wonderfully intricate but in no way mechanical composition. Compare with Bol. You will, in fact, find resemblances, but the results are very different.



Those Monuments

On a recent trip to Monument Valley in Arizona I found the vertical ribs of the buttes strikingly reminiscent of medieval figure sculptures. Impossible to give the whole effect–as the light moved, figures appeared here and there, and then disappeared. But at this moment, four faces and figures.

Chartres Cathedral [Wikipedia]















In the next few minutes the shadow on the left, below, briefly but perfectly resembled a man on a subway platform lost in his iphone, while to the right another man, lugging a large bag, turns away.








Cezanne’s audacity

Paul Cezanne (1839 – 1906) was audacious in many ways, but especially in the vivacious and undisguised process of exploration and discovery with which he developed his paintings. Take the Large Bathers. It’s not naturalistic; there are logical parts and then parts that satisfied his need for a bit of dark or light someplace–the upper left and right corners, for example. Every painter faces such requirements, but most conceal the necessity by throwing in some convincing bit of scenery. Cezanne doesn’t bother. He paints till he gets the formal hit he wants, and then leaves it alone.

the large bathers c.1900 127x196cm (W'ped)

the large bathers c.1900 127x196cm (W’ped)

Cezanne bathers c.1900 --detail (W'pedia)

Cezanne bathers c.1900 –detail (W’pedia)


And then there are the smaller-scale improvisations. The foreground woman in the detail on the left–again, she’s not naturalistic, but she’s very carefully developed. Her back is thickly painted with a palette knife–warm & cool tones in great variety which nevertheless do not describe a woman’s back. No spine, for example.



But even more surprising than that is the way Cezanne draws over and around the figure. That long silhouette that begins at her left armpit and then swoops all the way around her right leg, ignoring the intricacies of waist and butt that would detain most painters. And even odder, braver, more questing, is the linework on her right side–detail right. That little line drawn with loose paint that departs from her arm and wanders out onto her side. Imagine if it weren’t there–the torso would take on the shape of a great pipe. That line gives her a waist. Barely, but it works. And the lines on the outside of the arm, correcting or at any rate finishing out the contour of the shoulder.

And while we’re there, the blue line of the next figure that drives right over the white fabric, which would otherwise dominate the figure. He doesn’t bother to invent a more realistic shape or location for the fabric, he just has it both ways at the same time.



A favorite: Seurat’s Pierrot

Georges Seurat (1859 – 1891) was 24 when he painted this image of a friend in a Pierrot costume. He hadn’t yet developed the severe pointilist method for which he is principally remembered, but the basis of it is here: the shapes are clean and simple, enlivened by repeated touches of color. Compare with Jean-Baptiste-Simeon Chardin’s more conventional approach (below), in which the background is simply the ground color with a mottled application of the shadow tone.

Chardin – Girl with Shuttlecock – 1737 (W’com)

Another point of contrast is Seurat’s exceedingly restrained use of counterchange–the device of having the background go from dark to light in one direction, while the principal object goes from light to dark. The effect is to create a sense of space. But Seurat makes the darker side of his figure almost indistinguishable from the lighter side of his background. This way he gets the visual bounce from the contrast on the left, but has almost no depth of space at all. This keeps the whole image on one plane, and emphasizes the abstract quality of the shapes.

He undermines depth still further by having the wall meet the floor right at the tip of Pierrot’s shoe. Picture that division at, say, the top of the blue bow. That would place the figure a foot or two out from the wall, and define the space for the rest of the image. As it is, the floor constitutes little more than a reddish stripe along the bottom of the composition, stitched to the rest by that foggy left leg.



Rothko: “Magenta, Black, Green on Orange” 85 x 65″  1949 (Museum of Modern Art via W’pedia)

Rothko’s touch

Mark Rothko (1903 – 1970)  is noted  for his rich and moody color fields, but color is only part of what makes them so effective. It’s his touch that keeps the eye engaged. He didn’t just mark off rectangles and hog them in; they are veils, sometimes heavy, sometimes light, so that one never quite loses the under layers and the effect of the several colors. More, his edges are never simple or predictable. Pick an edge–any edge–and follow it. Sometimes it will be firm, sometimes hazy; sometimes straight, sometimes meandering. In the presence of an actual Rothko you can put your eye close to an edge and follow it, and you will never be able to predict, from what is happening in front of you, what will happen six inches on. Everything–shapes and their edges and the spaces between–are exploring and testing all the time–which is what a viewer must do to really see and experience a Rothko.







By comparison with which, the vaguely similar researches of Josef Albers (1888-1976) leave me admiring in theory, but unengaged. He did hundreds of them. They remind me of reading the dictionary: informative, but not life-enhancing: too much attention to theory, and not enough to the excitement of discovery.

Albers: “Homage to the Square” 24 x 24″ 1965 (Detroit Institute of Art via W’pedia)


St. Thomas Acquinas in Prayer c.1430   9.3 x 15″         (Budapest Museum of Fine Arts)

Burning a Heretic

I think of the work of Stefano di Giovanni di Consolo, known as il Sassetta (1392 – 1450) as quiet and contemplative but full of layers, as in this image of St. Thomas Acquinas. The main event is right up front, but then the eye begins to wander this way and that and into the deep spaces. It never goes far without encountering some new shape, some variation, some richness.

And then there is his amazing “Burning of a Heretic.” You wouldn’t call it contemplative, but there is a reserved quality to it, an almost anthropological dispassion. There is discovery and richness, but instead of shapes and spaces, here Sassetta observes types. The heretic and the horse in the center are the only parties who seem to be taking the event seriously. The spectators are calm, the soldiers uninvolved, the flock of chubby priests (Sassetta’s little dig?) off on their own head trip. The fire tender is quietly absorbed in his work, oblivious to the substance of the action.

Burning of a Heretic     c.1430   10 x 15″  (National Gallery of Victoria)




Walt Whitman — David Levine

Colette — Irving Penn 1951













The pose used in each of the three pieces here, with the subject leaning back from the viewer, creates a contemplative distance, a separation.

Colette is nearest of the three. Her distance is a conversational one as if across the tea table, but there’s a hierarchical implication. She isn’t eagerly engaging us. She’s waiting. Are you worthy?

Then Whitman. Here the distance is in time, which Levine creates by the open foreground. Colette’s arm and hand form a diagonal approach to her face; here a few nervous, sketchy lines perform the same function, but describe nothing beyond remove. The shadowy brim of his hat is like eternity, into which he is in the process of receding.

Camille On Her Deathbed — Claude Monet 1879


And then Camille. Here again the approach is diagonal, from lower right to upper left. As with Whitman, the distance is one of time.

The long foreground also carries a personal, domestic implication. Monet must have set up his easel at the foot of her bed, and spent some time there, painting his dead wife.



A favorite: Barbari’s plan of Venice

Jacopo de’ Barbari’s woodcut, “Plan of Venice, 1500”, falls into the engaging category of artful representation–fact-based, but full of life. It’s huge–about four by six feet.


Barbari was obviously no slave to literal description, especially in matters of perspective and scale. This isn’t surprising, if only because he never saw an aerial view. Think how boring the piece would be if he had done a flat map or attempted some low, convincing viewpoint–or if those lively ships were reduced to fly specks. Instead we get the city as a busy, almost abstract shape with a lot of texture to it, which is cleverly held against the picture plane by the foreground islands, the long horizontal of the distant coast, and the various gods and winds that surround it.