Tuesday, March 09, 2004

Flemish painting; Film class next spring?

Something that got overlooked in my discussion of Hughes' book is that that contextualizing he does is such that it allows me to link what he says about modern art with what I think I know about modernism in literature. He's really writing about Modernism as an aesthetic and intellectual movement, and, of course, doing so will inevitably lead to generalizations. But we can save specifics for the particular genres, no?

Flemish painting:
A new "character" to introduce, first of all. Susan is a (mostly) on-line friend--we've met once--who lives in the D.C. area. I've known her for over 3 years. She is a very serious and enormously talented painter and an equally-serious basketball fan. She is college-educated, with an MFA in art; she teaches painting part time to adults and children through the local colleges as continuing-ed courses. I know of no one outside academe (and not that many in it) who are as widely and deeply read as she is, at least in art, literature and philosophy, and to speak with her about art and about what she tries to do as an artist is enormously enriching. Anyway: You may recall, a couple of entries ago, my observations about Flemish interiors and landscapes that arose from my visit to the Nelson on Saturday. So far, at least, she's been listening to me as I try to clarify my thinking about them. She says she has some things to contribute to the discussion once she's sure I'm sure what it is I'm noticing. So, here's what I so far realize (these comments exclude Vermeer, who, though Dutch and though painting the same sorts of scenes the others are painting, is actually doing something subtly yet very visibly different): She reminded me that the open-window/open-door motif dates from medieval times, and others besides the Flemish painters used it. This I knew. I think that what makes the Renaissance-era paintings more distinctive is that the medieval paintings, with their flat perspective, made the space beyond the window/door seem like a backdrop. It's not supposed to be interesting; what should matter is what's happening in the foreground: a religious scene of some sort. The Renaissance and later paintings, though, have a more pronounced 3-dimensional perspective. The eye gets drawn back beyond the foreground, out the door or window. Susan had understood me to be saying that that space is now more important that the foregrounded figures; I think what's going on is not that, but that now the background is more important than it had been. The interior dramas matter, but they are, after all, small quotidian things of the sort you'd see in every household. The world is out there, calling our attention outside (the very opposite of a Caravaggio painting, whose subject is always "inside," according to John Berger).
From there, I made a huge, unsubstantiated leap to the landscapes. I find it fascinating that these paintings have titles like Landscape with the Fall of Icarus and Landscape with the Flight to Egypt, etc. The emphasis in the title falls on "landscape," as if to say, Yes, those things are more famous but no less significant than that plowman's work or that of the drover or the sailors on those ships in that faraway harbor. The world becomes secularized in these paintings: the religious assumes no greater/lesser role in the world than the secular. Of course, judging from Bosch's and Bruegel's apocalyptic paintings, there is considerable danger in seeing the diminshment of the sacred's centrality, whether in one's on life or in that of the world.
Who knows if any of this is right? Susan's response to all this is coming. She, by the way, has been working with me on an idea in which we compare the gazes of the figures in Velazquez's painting Las Meninas to the narrative perspectives in House of Leaves. It won't shed any brilliant light on either the painting or the novel, but it's been fun talking with her about it; we plan to post what we come up with--actually, it'll be substantially her writing.

Film class?
Well, maybe. Larry and I were musing aloud that this would be fun to do and that it would probably make. Where I teach, we also happen to have pretty good facilities for such a class: each room has a data projector hooked up to a computer and a DVD player; the screen it projects on is about 8' wide and reaches from ceiling to floor. I showed Rear Window to my Humanities students last night, and it looked great. So anyway, the big question is whether such a class would count as General Education credit. If it would, great; if not, it wouldn't be as big a draw--the students at my campus are actually very business-like. So anyway: even as I plan the Honors course in the fall, here I am excavating a trench for another pipe dream.

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