Effective expression requires clarity about what you are expressing. For example, this photo by the great French photographer Henri Cartier-Bresson. The interesting thing is how the apparent awkwardness of the shot, with one leg awkwardly cut, is key to its subject, which is a boy in the street, not just the boy.
C-B was making a choice. He could have pointed the camera down to get the foot, but if we add enough space at the bottom of the frame to catch the right foot, and take the same amount off the top to keep the proportion of the 35mm negative, we see how different the photo would have been. What we would have is merely a photo of two cute kids. It’s the context of street, of cars, of people, some noticing the boy and others not—the world around the kid—that gives his joie de vivre its punch. Keeping the viewpoint at an adult’s eye level so that we see the street beyond includes the kid but doesn’t make him the whole show. He shares our world, which is C-B’s actual subject.
Of course, as an abstract, formal matter, including the leg wouldn’t have been a bad choice. A large, calm area of pavement leading up to the boy’s middle-tone clothes merging with the building behind, and then the girl’s dark skirt rhyming the bottles—as a formal matter, pretty elegant. But C-B wasn’t doing abstraction, he was doing humanity. The busyness of it, the complexity, is what makes it so compelling.
Horses are a common subject in art, usually presented in graceful and noble poses like the Stubbs racehorse or Keisai warrior here.
Then we have the piece below by Katsushika Hokusai (1760-1849). Hokusai has contorted his beast into an almost abstract shape, and incorporated it and its rider and the upturned samurai into a wild melange.
After the grand design, the many rich details engage the eye. Nothing is tossed off as a standard item. The arrow feathers–no two alike. The samurai’s hands. The horse’s head: the expression, the shape and texture of the bridle–the knot where the rein is tied to the bit. And on and on–not a rote or boring passage in it.
On Friday afternoons the sculpture majors at my art school would gather for the weekly critique. Sometimes it was very cozy; one of the graduate students would put up a piece that we all knew he’d been working on, and knew would be good. We’d spend ten or fifteen minutes smiling and nodding and agreeing about how good it was.
Then somebody would put up some catastrophe. Silence would fall. We’d all sit there and wonder what could possibly be said about such a zero object. Sometimes everyone just sat there until the humiliated presenter retrieved the object and bore it away. That was hard on him, but it made everyone else uneasy as well. Nobody wants to be a yahoo rejectionist.
On one occasion the piece was pretty nothing, but someone, making an effort, said something about there being a sadness to it, sort of an angst. Someone else picked up on that and said that angst was existential. That set us on our feet. Soon we were all chatting away about Nietzsche and Sartre and Nausea as if what we were saying had any relation to what was in front of us. Which didn’t enlighten the artist or advance art, but the mere fact of the discussion dignified the nothing object, however absurdly, and proved that nothingness works if it is received as a conceptual somethingness sufficient to stimulate chatter.
Before considering narrative style in the etchings of Rembrandt van Rijn (1606-1669), it’s useful to establish a base of comparison. Here we’ll use a piece by Hendrick Goltzius (1558-1617). The point is that Goltzius works out his forms in full, and is consistent throughout the piece: everything he shows, important or not, gets the full treatment. And while style varies from artist to artist, Goltzius’s manner is typical of visual storytelling.
How different then is Rembrandt’s “St. Jerome.” The diagonal swipe of lion and tree is richly worked in tone but irregular in detail: the tree is abandoned at the upper left, and the tone of the lion’s rump and the ground beneath him consists of the frankest sort of parallel lines. Find a similar shadowy form in Goltzius and see how naturalistically he handles it.
But Rembrandt isn’t trying to convince in that way. Thus the figure of St. Jerome is barely sketched in, and shares the completely vacant foreground. The middle ground between the lion and the buildings in the background is almost as undeveloped. If we consider “St. Jerome” as a stab at realism ala Goltzius, it fails utterly. Perhaps, we might think, the piece is unfinished. But in fact we find seemingly rough and irregular handling in many of Rembrandt’s etchings. In “Beggars” the whole right side is untouched. In “Abraham” the margins and background are developed while the central figures are described in the most basic lines. And if we look beyond Goltzius’s sort of consistency for narrative reasons for these choices, we have no trouble finding them. The darker margins of “Abraham” frame the direct and dramatic, even harsh, depiction of the central action, which tonal luxuriance would simply muddle. The blank right side of “Beggars” releases the eye in to the passing of alms. But what would you want to see there? Countryside? Street scene? What would they add?
And “St. Jerome in the Wilderness”? We already know about St. Jerome; what engaged Rembrandt was the wilderness he sinks into, and that powerful, abstract swipe. In each of these pieces, Rembrandt doesn’t fritter away our attention, as Goltzius does, on the elaboration of peripheral details. He has his point to make; he makes it, and then he stops.
Readers of the post of March 30, “Matisse and those old-time devices” will notice in “St. Jerome” another example of the oblique foreground anchored by the distant horizontal.
James Ensor (1860-1949) is best known for ebullient mindscapes such as “Christ’s Entry Into Brussels in 1889″, full of caricatures and wacky juxtapositions.
But I do love his “Adam and Eve Expelled from Paradise,” painted two years before (at the age of twenty-seven!). As narration, it’s pretty standard; you have your angel in the sky and the two naughty ones in flight. But the rhapsodicly Paradisical coloring and the soft, almost abstract rendering keep the event on a remote, mythical plane–as opposed to Michaelangelo’s rendition below——where the couple seems sadly prosaic, like shoplifters being run out of the corner store.
Speaking of Matisse, it’s worth noting that while he was nothing if not original, he didn’t disdain those old-time pictorial devices. In “Luxe, Calme, et Volupte” his composition is based on the foreground oblique (a diagonal receding into space), and effective use of haloing.
Haloing involves pushing the contrast between an object (e.g., a figure) and its immediate background. Simply setting a light figure, for example, against a dark background, as in the Tintoretto below, works if the composition is variable enough to provide contrast where it’s needed, but in “Luxe” Matisse is going for all-over brightness, and needs to be more direct.
When contrast doesn’t work, or is just too fussy, a fallback device is haloing–just surrounding a shape with a strong contrast. El Greco employs it very forthrightly in the detail to the left. The blacks around the figures are more than outlines, but they don’t describe forms, as Tintoretto’s do. They describe psychological space, if you will–they focus us on the figures so strongly that the background simply doesn’t count. Matisse goes at it in the same way, although even more abstractly, with red surrounding the recumbent figures, and blue along the belly of the standing woman. The red reads as a concentration of colors in the ground; the blue has no logic except compositional convenience, but there it scores both in its boldness in describing the figure and in rhyming blues elsewhere.
The oblique foreground, stabilized by contrary foreground diagonals and distant horizontals (three examples below), is an old device, used so much because it creates such interesting space. Matisse’s use of these traditional devices takes nothing from the modernity of his achievements. He uses what works, and builds on it. As T.S. Eliot (or was it Picasso?–somebody confident) said, “Good artists borrow, great artists steal.”
One of the unexpected delights of the recent Matisse show at the Met was “Sculpture and Vase of Ivy.” I’d never seen it before.
The surfaces and layers of paint are fascinating in the Matisse-y way, which is only partially evident in reproduction (hasten to the Tikanoja Museum in Vaasa, Finland to see it in the flesh). There is a lot of pink underpainting that gets covered over more or less in blue, but peeks through in a lively way. Having decided on the blue, Matisse doesn’t lay in a smooth, consistent layer, but piles it on and leaves it rough.
Easier to discuss here is the relation between the painting and the sculpture it is based on (below). He isn’t just copying. The painting simplifies but also varies every detail. The thigh is far larger and more prominent; the rest of the figure is flattened and greatly simplified (her left arm, her head, the shape of her torso) and darker in tone. Oddly, her right arm, which in the sculpture is jammed back, has an altogether more natural and comfortable shape in the painting.
Matisse’s freedom in matters of detail, proportion, and everything else is especially clear if we compare his pieces with, for example, Goya’s more conventional approach in these matters.
Returning to the painting, there is the odd matter of the two vertical stripes on the left. They aren’t descriptive (of a doorway or window, for example); they’re just stripes. They repeat the bright tones of the thigh and the rim of the vase, which would otherwise be overwhelmed by the darkness and intensity of the blue surround; they brighten the whole; but those are matters Matisse could have addressed directly by tonal adjustments. What they really accomplish is to emphasize the abstract, decorative nature of the piece. They rescue it from being simply a “view” of a still-life.
Henri Matisse (1869 – 1954) made much wonderful art, of which many examples were included in the show just ending at the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York. He also perpetrated some duds. The show included several. For example, “The Dream.”
What constitutes a dud depends, of course, on what interests you. What interests me about Matisse’s best work is the sense of risk, exploration, happy accident, and bold resolution. To my eye, “The Dream” is pushed past that dynamic state into a pale and sterile over-refinement. The earlier stabs at the piece, which were photographed as the work progressed, and five of which are included here, are all much more lively and engaging.
As an art student in the ’20s, the late Erle Loran lived in Cezanne’s studio, and went about the countryside taking photos of the motifs Cezanne had painted years before. Later he wrote Cezanne’s Composition: Analysis of his form with diagrams and photographs of his motifs.* It’s a difficult and tedious book; I recommend it highly. It offers real insights into how a great artist transformed what was in front of him into art, with the caveat that it is more in the nature of a resource than an authority. In the face of his subjects Cezanne was the boss, and to my eye, Loran doesn’t always catch his train of thought. But these are quibbles. Loran secured information nobody else did, and now we can toy with it at our leisure.
The meat of the book consists of pages like the one to the right, where Loran matches a painting with his snapshot of what Cezanne was looking at. More or less. In this case, Loran was standing in the middle of the road, while Cezanne, as you can see from the painting, set up his easel on the margin, and more directly opposite the building to the left. We can see that both by the flat-on angle of the building, and because if we go a few steps down the road a good deal of the village and the castle on the hill, almost hidden in the photo, come into view. Loran seems to have taken his snap from the spot where things looked most like the painting, but Cezanne probably worked in two or three different places where he could see whatever bits served whatever part of the composition he was after at the moment.Time, of course, had altered Cezanne’s motif by the time Loran got to it. Notably, the road had been paved, which is why the photo is predominantly middle tones, while Cezanne’s view, looking at stone and dirt, was predominantly light. That was the foundation of his composition. He developed a delicate range of light tones fading here and there into middle ones, with small, sharp darks here and there for spark. The road was a more interesting shape before it was filled and paved, coming straight at us before turning, as he shows it: in the painting we see more ground at the base of the wall. He pressed the white foreground into the far hills so that we have flat and simple building/road in one corner, greatly neared and elevated hills in the other, and textured village as a diagonal line between.The piece is unfinished–see the right side, and bits in the middle. It’s a late piece; he died in 1906. Presumably he would have pushed it on.
Time had overtaken many of Cezanne’s motifs before Loran photographed them. Trees grew, bushes disappeared, buildings came and went. Even so there are several fascinating cases in which essential forms and perspectives are present, and you can see how the artist pushed and pulled to get what he wanted. In the example below, a watercolor, he has dissolved the sturdy subject into a salad of brushstrokes, one here, one there, until stone and trees, dark and light and air all share a common solidity.
Cezanne’s Composition Erle Loran University of California Press — written in 1943, updated many times, still available.
The b&w images in this post are lifted from the book.