Friday, March 04, 2005

A mundane musing on a maxim of Modernism

Some ways of thinking about things become so familiar that, after a while, you "forget" them; they don't just suddenly rise to the conscience when you're confronted with every single given situation in which that way of thinking is applicable. And then, one day, it suddenly does come to the surface and, no matter how familiar an idea it might be to you, it seems to carry even more weight than before, to the point that you can't wait for a little time to blog about it. Whatever did people do before blogging? Do you ever wonder?
Such was the case the evening before last, as one of my students in my Humanities class was talking about some paintings by Van Gogh that she found especially attractive. Interestingly, she was intrigued by their rather plainspoken titles--the fact of their plainspokenness, that is. She showed 5 paintings, of which Olive Trees

was the last. She mentioned in particular how the sun's light was represented and, in particular, how Van Gogh makes no attempt to disguise his brushstrokes. She also mentioned what she senses in these paintings as Van Gogh's honesty about what he sees. I mentioned to the class that the Van Gogh at the Nelson-Atkins, a painting of an olive orchard but dramatically different in appearance from the one I've posted here, has paint on it that is so thick and the brushstrokes so broad, it has the appearance of having been fingerpainted. And then it struck me: up until the latter decades of the 19th century, the paintings we'd seen have very smooth surfaces. It's as though the painter seeks to ensure that nothing intervenes between the viewer and the image painted--the image is the subject, not the making of it. But that attitude changes with Manet, I (re)realized: how the painting is made--and the corollary of why it's made that way--become more overt concerns of artists from that point on. Van Gogh's titles don't exactly scintillate because it's obvious WHAT he's painting. But Modernism takes as its basic assumption the idea that the making itself is, to some extent, the subject of art. So it's some trees--big deal, Van Gogh's titles seem to say. But look at HOW I've painted them and ask yourself WHY I painted them that way.
So no wonder, I was (re)reminded, my students speculated not a whit about Botticelli's relationships with women but were more than willing to speculate regarding those of Picasso: of course all art is subjectively made (and viewed), but in our own era, that subjectivity is more obviously a personal one.

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6 comments:

Raminagrobis said...

First off, I'd like to preface this comment with the acknowledgement that I know next to nothing about the history of painting.

Your comments about Van Gogh's textured surfaces vs. the smooth surfaces of earlier paintings reminded me of something. I was recently in Edinburgh, and while there I visited the National Gallery of Scotland, which was putting on a Titian exhibition. I'd highly recommend it if you happen to be in Scotland any time soon. Anyway, Titian has always been one of my favourite artists, but I'd never quite appreciated before just how strikingly 'rough' his (later) paintings are. Of course, that blurry, unfinished look comes across when you look at a reproduction, but it's only when you look at the painting itself that you get a feel for the technique that went into the production of the painting. I spent ages looking at his Diana and Actaeon, a painting that no reproduction can possibly do justice to, not least because of its sheer size. When you get up close to that painting, you can see that the paint has been layered on, and not with a brush it seems, creating an almost bas-relief effect. You can't see it very well on that image I linked to, but there's a cup or vase at the centre of the picture next to the elbow of the leftmost nymph. The way Titian renders the play of light on the glass is beautifully realized and quite subtle when you view the painting from a distance, but when you view it up close and obliquely, all you can see is a great big smear of dirty white paint, at least half a centimetre thick. I must have stared at that wedge of paint for at least half an hour, but it never revealed its secret to me.

Raminagrobis said...

I really did use the word 'painting' quite a lot in that post, didn't I?

John B. said...

Thanks. I hadn't known that about Titian's surfaces. I do a lot of assuming, and one of the things I assume is that if early 19th-century paintings' surfaces are about as smooth as one can imagine a painted surface to be, then so are those of other painters (Vermeer's comes to mind, too). But then I recall the Rembrandt at the Nelson-Atkins: you can tell that he used the butt-end of his brush to make the pupil of the young man's eyes. Ah, well.

As for saying "painting" a lot: I love saying it out loud. Even when I'm using it as a noun, there always feels like a trace of the action in it.

jennifer said...

It was wild to see this painting on your blog as I had seen it just a few hours earlier with a friend of mine in a book. Sorry that this is a virtually brainless comment but I was just surprised to see that you had a painting here we had just talked about.

Nice alliteration in the title of this post as well...
cheers!

fearful_syzygy said...

What did people do before blogging? They conversed. They would sit around with their friends drinking tea and smoking their pipes and talk about the tenets of modernism or what have you. Nowadays we all sit at home on our own opining about stuff to a potentially vast and fairly vague audience. I personally decided to start a blog to help me get my thoughts straight on certain things so that I would know what I actually thought about, you know, stuff, but it's actually had the rather crippling effect that I feel exposed if I ever have to voice an opinion on something without having blogged about it first.

That's a slight exaggeration of course, but there is something of that, nevertheless, I reckon.

John B. said...

Jen,
I'm glad I could provide you with a serendipitous moment. I like those sorts of moments, too.
And yes, Mr. S. (I'm sure you know I was asking my question a bit facetiously.) They seemed to do just fine, as you note. They met for coffee or grog and pontificated and tried out arguments and revised and were swayed by the arguments of others or managed to do some swaying themselves. And some few were lucky to have a Boswell committing all that talk to memory/paper.
I started my blog for the same reason as you: writing helps me sort through ideas, picking and choosing words, seeing patterns of organization, and linking my ideas with those of people a lot smarter than I am. Yes--I'm an intellectual parasite. But I guess I also think that some small bits of what I think might be worth someone else's time and consideration. And so when I realized that some people blogged about things besides having drunk too much the night before or how unhappy they are with their lives, I thought, Well, maybe there are others of like mind out there, too.
But I've not noticed any sort of paralysis in myself when it comes to discussing things I've not blogged about. I will say, though, that my writing does feel a bit more fluent than it had before, and that's in part due to the blog.