17 May 2010

travelog II: craft and history

as my wife and i viewed uncounted paintings, sculptures, ceramics, carvings and precious objects in dozens of hallowed old piles -- in venice (accademia, ca' pesaro, ca' rezzonico, ca' d'oro, ca' mocenigo, pinault's palazzo grassi, santa maria della salute church, scuola grande di san rocco, scuola di san giorgio delgi schiavoni, doge's palace, santi giovanni e paolo church, san pantalon church, i frari church, santo mois church, san sebastiano church, querini stampalia foundation, jewish ghetto museum, naval museum, guggenheim museum, pinault's punta della dogana museum), verona (museo castelvecchio, palazzo forti, area archeologica del teatro romano), zurich (kunsthaus zürich), berlin (gemäldemuseum, kunstgewerbemuseum, neue nationalgalerie, german history museum, guggenheim gallery, pergamon museum, altes museum, the east side gallery), potsdam (sans souci palais, neues palais), amsterdam (rijksmuseum, van gogh museum, heritage amsterdam, rembrandt house) and london (national gallery, national portrait gallery, victoria & albert, hampton court house, tate modern, tate britain, british museum, kensington palace, windsor palace, foundling house museum, soane museum, royal art academy ["the real van gogh" exhibit and a fine exhibition of paul sandby watercolors], banquet hall, saatchi gallery) -- my sense of art broadened and ramified. the lockstep sequence of art history crumbled under the variety of regional schools, individual styles, personal talents and materials availability.

behind every item was a human life, a karmic path, a career. i discovered vigorous, superb, delicate, attentive talents completely unknown to me and omitted from the standard art indexes i consulted ... careers that spanned great style diversity or marched dutifully along a perfected path. art of high reputation that was awful, art of no reputation that was breathtaking. art in which the use of materials was alchemical and mystical, and art in which the use of materials was brutish and stupid.some of these items were flawlessly made and even after centuries were flawlessly preserved. others were not made to last, or had suffered neglect or damage that could not be repaired.

the effect of personal influence, via guilds, collections and museums, came into the foreground. copying and the study of individual artists by individual artists was rampant, from cranach copying bosch to rubens copying titian to lucien freud copying chardin. there was enormous variation in drawing skill, especially in portraits, and in coloring, especially in still lifes and landscapes: different artists emphasized different achievements. a whole rainbow of flesh harmonies, tokens of very different strategies for building and modeling paint color. "realist" styles that displayed an inventive mixture of realism, caricature, shadow drama, clinical light, decorative color or subdued palettes.

a hall of cast, sculpted, plated and handchased silver that extended along one entire side of the victoria and albert museum, and a museum of ceramics that brought together hundreds of items from the greeks to the modern britons in four large interconnected rooms -- each item a treasure in itself. a stone mason's clay pipe in a display case, dug out from a wall at hampton court that had collapsed in a fire and was rebuilt. a quilt composed entirely of alternating red and white, 3/4" hexagonal tiles of fabric, sown together in perfectly straight rows in all six directions, made as a convalescent diversion by a wounded soldier in a hospital in early 20th century england.

hundreds, thousands, millions of hours of labor, diligently completed for single clients in small communities, for large institutions, for famous collections ... all gradually handed down, consolidated and preserved as one more item in a display case or on a wall. hundreds of portraits of real people, real hearts and souls, now all dead. the sense weighed on me that time would eventually erase all things, and silence the praise of every excellence, and bring down the walls of every building.

i've mentioned the regrettable results of van gogh's negligent use of paint materials, but this is a theme that goes all the way back to leonardo's mummified "last supper" fresco in milan, which has been stripped of conservation additions and is now only bits of paint chips on a crumbling wall. frequent examples are the paintings by joshua reynolds completed after c.1790.



you might say, "wow, that's a crummy photograph. she's too yellow." but actually it's a pretty fair reproduction of the painting. reynolds was an extremely talented artist who was one of the first to get sucked into the materials experimentation that appears also in blake, in turner, and in many other english and french artists of the 19th century. (the germans, italians and spanish were more immune to the fads.) late in his career he adopted a carmine formulation that has disappeared entirely from dozens of his paintings. in london and berlin, you can spot a late reynolds portrait from across the room.

once i started looking for these mishaps, they turned out to be common. i found a large madonna and child by quentin massys (circa 1450), which at first glance was an extraordinarily cunning achievement in color realism -- the bread on a small table looked so real you could almost smell it. but beside the bread, some curiously pale and translucent cherries. again, the red (whatever it was) had faded over the centuries.

[detail, about 2 feet wide]

with a few clues like these, i began to see the "lateral craft" of individual painters -- not their "vertical craft" in the historical succession of styles, or career periods early and late, but in their use of materials and methods. some painters failed miserably across many paintings for many reasons (van gogh), some painters repeatedly failed in a single component (reynolds), and some painters in occasional details (massys). craquelure, varnishing, paint consistency, tonal balance (some paintings were inexplicably dark), edge control, pigment permanence; crude overpainting or painting in of objects and figures; the queer blueness of medieval distant mountains; the tint and depth of shadows; eyes that sat squarely in a man's skull or that seemed about to crawl out of their sockets. portraits by holbein that were crudely drawn and portraits that seemed traced in every detail from a photograph (yes, i believe hockney's thesis). i found dozens of ways in which painters could be distinguished from each other that had little to do with "art history" but a lot to do with personal innovation and skill, and the artist's economic resources within regional traditions of craft.

i recognized historical trends that i have not seen treated as a separate topic. the gradual coarsening of the brushstroke, accompanied by an incremental thickening of paint viscosity and density, was a kind of tectonic development across centuries. at first the transition from a flat picture surface to a fulsome impasto appears only occasionally, within the career evolution of painters like titian, tintoretto, rubens, hals and rembrandt; with hals the hasty brushstroke is more common in small works, with rembrandt it's more evident in his large works, such as his "jewish wedding". but it gradually becomes a pervasive feature of painting in the 19th century, and a hackneyed and limiting element of technique in the 20th century, coming to a disreputable terminus in the meretricious use of splatter and drip, and the concept that brushstrokes, by themselves and separate from representation and color, are a sufficient painted image.

oh cy twombly, how do you do what you do? [format: enormous]

many artists specialized in trademark challenges -- elegant fabrics, dewy flowers and reflective metals, stormy seascapes, twilight skies, animal portraits, estate portraits, political commentaries, dutch "guild" group portraits, full figure society portraits, children, domestic interiors, landscapes at night, cityscapes of specific cities, biblical stories, classical allegories, mythical scenes, social satire or sardonic commentary, the effect of candlelight in a dark room.

even after the late renaissance, when linear perspective was completely understood, it was not always used with good effect, but when it was, it often included a machinelike, manufactured quality. canaletto is astonishingly good at building a breathing, delicate and convincing illusion of aerial and optical perspective; but on close inspection one finds that he uses very simple, economical and efficient methods of delineation, coloring and simplification, applied systematically. by 1750, strategies of industrial manufacture intrude into the painting esthetic, not just as an optical image but as an assembled surface.

now the trend is the other way: in the venice punta della dogana and in the neues galerie in berlin, we saw several canvases by rudolph stingel that mimic on enormous scale what seem to be common, tiny amateur or tourist black and white photographs -- down to the scratches, fingerprints and creases. these were gradually built up of tiny blossoms of paint applied with a soft bristle brush, the reassertion of handicraft inducing an unexpected nostalgic, ominous and prophetic atmosphere.

[format: enormous]

at the other extreme, gerhard richter has recently turned to industrial paintings made by thickly and unevenly layering paint colors on a rigid surface and then scraping the paint down with a steel bar dragged back and forth, hundreds of times, over the painting. this parodies and automates the brushstroke, softening and partially compacting colors together, shearing down layers to the layers below, pulling color, "action" and representation from initially hidden variations in the density of successive paint layers.

[format: very large]

from canaletto to stingel, there is a long, complex and dynamic tension between handicraft and industrial esthetics, production methods and product applications. the workshop process too, just like the collaborative practices of printing and weaving, has been transformed behind the scenes -- from titian and rubens to dr. munro and ackermann to koons and murikami. many top drawer artists no longer produce their works entirely themselves: they delegate and administer the works as products of an organization.

the marvelous carved wood panels in the scuola san rocco, each representing a different theme, or iconic virtue or vice: who carved them? no one could tell me. yet there they are, full of life and humor, warm with centuries of careful polishing and refinishing by hands whose contribution was care and conservation rather than creation. astonishingly fluent and delicate carvings by grinling gibbons were sometimes placed high out of sight, tucked along the wainscoting of a pulpit, or sequestered in a private room.

the architectural interiors created an atmosphere that pulled some attributes into sharper view. the dim 18th century rooms in the querini stampalia, ca' rezzonico, ca' mocenigo or ca' d'oro, door jambs askew and creaky floors slightly tilted toward exterior walls, emphasized how difficult it must have been to make the diminutive sculptures and darkened paintings they had on display. the vast interior spaces of the punta della dogana, filled with artworks of huge scale or mind boggling repetition, felt desperately empty. the oppressive and dispiriting gloom of the "decadent" art on display in the berlin modern art gallery was amplified to an almost intolerable pitch by the arid and clinical museum building, designed by mies van der rohe. the same solid architectural craft that made the victoria & albert and british museums seemed to tame and scale down the wild perfection of the ceramic and silver galleries, and comfortably accommodate the huge exhibits of greek, egyptian and asian architecture. the rooms of the gemäldegalerie were color coded by art historical epoch -- a weird touch, since individual works (such as the van der weyden portrait in the previous post, some holbein portraits, a vermeer, and so on) seemed to float in a timeless space, fresh and immediate.

there is in humans an unrelenting urge to craft -- no matter that it's jeweling a silver chalice or or setting the stones in a church floor or pulling the last weed out of the garden or carving a flower out of cherry wood or making a madonna that seems to breathe or baking bread that scents a home -- craft is something we pursue almost without calculation of personal cost.

all those artists that we see from the outside, as a link in the chain of history ... they lived history from the inside just as we do, dimly aware of the past, unsure of everything far away, keeping close to routine, relying on family and friends, doing good work in spite of hardship, want and fatigue, and entirely ignorant of the future or the ultimate fate of their handiwork.

i had to discipline my cultural prejudice to "judge art" and instead see paintings from the individual and circumstantial point of view. these are not the products of movements or ideas, but of lives. i set myself to reconnect with the craft spirit, the joy of the hand, the cunning and patience instead of the reputation, and set aside the color codes and creaky floors of the critical and art historical rooms to which the artists have been ranked and consigned.

16 May 2010

travelog I: paintings and photos

now safely past the ire of iceland's volcano, and finally over the hideously lingering business class virus, i'm hankering to post some reflections on what i learned about art during my eleven weeks in venice, zurich, berlin, amsterdam and london.

i saw a tremendous lot of paintings, tapestries and sculptures, across a wide variety of institutional settings, with and without adequate curatorial attention and light engineering, in person and in catalog reproductions, at first impression and revisited, weary and fed, sketching or sauntering, sober and stoned. and the core of my experience is the profound, complex and disorienting perception of what it is to really look at art in situ, as opposed to merely recognizing and responding to an image.

i'll begin with the painting by charles guérin called out previously -- actually the digital image of the painting as it appears on the hermitage amsterdam web site.



now the first question you probably do not ask yourself is -- how big is this painting? my first insight was how far we're habituated by modern image reproduction media to disregard issues of scale in the encounter with an image.

i've posted on my web site a long examination of the relationship between a picture format and the pictorial impact the format asserts on the viewer -- both as an implied viewing distance in a public space and as a virtual claim about the relative physical scale between the objects in the image and the viewer -- which i call the display geometry. issues of display geometry were impressed on me repeatedly as i went through the dozens of museums along my itinerary.

to answer the question: the guérin painting is ... large. i can't find reliable documentation (and the museum catalog is infuriatingly unavailable from amazon.com) but my recall is that it is about 5 feet high by 4 feet wide. as the model's head would go out of the frame if she stood up where her left foot rests, this is clearly a "life size" or reproduction representation, which puts our encounter with the model on a human, literal and earthbound footing.

now dwell on that human and earthbound model. the perfectly understated sag in her upper arm, buttock and hip, the softness of her thigh against the edge of the chair, the intimations of coming middle age in her breasts and stomach ... i even see a little of lucian freud's trademark sitter boredom in her expression ... everything combines to convey a rembrandtlike quality of realism and vulnerability. (to better appreciate the pose, compare it first to my favorite rembrandt on the one hand, and then to something by the tediously vapid charles bouguereau or the snide gustave courbet on the other.) the large format projects that vulnerability as a living human presence, a life rather than a figure, but a life that is quite obscured by the digital image.

the hermitage "expert" commentary on this painting is quite amusing:

As a student of Gustave Moreau, Guérin learned to exploit the decorative effects of colour without obvious experimentation. He honed his skills by copying old masters in the Louvre. In his work he remained true to identifiable form and his palette was harmonious rather than bold, despite fauve influences. Shchukin was particularly enthusiastic about Guérin, who represented his models in attractive poses. This model poses serenely, apparently untroubled by the large, fashionable hat which forms a provocative contrast with her nude body.

Sergei Shchukin was a wealthy russian businessman turned art collector with an uncannily clear and unfaddish eye for art excellence -- many of his personal selections were in the amsterdam show -- so we have to ask what he found so precious in this work. my answer is ... its intoxicating color harmony and affirming light.

this is almost entirely lost in the digital image, because of what is called gamut mapping -- the compromises in lightness contrast, hue accuracy and chroma range created by forcing a fully dimensional pigment landscape into a trichromatic (RGB or CYM) color reproduction medium with a limited dynamic range.

the color keystone to the guérin painting is located, of all places, in the gilt frame behind the model's hat. this highly reflective surface signals to the viewer's eye both the intensity of the light falling on the painting and its color as well -- gilt goes steely under green light, or copperish under warm light. here the frame appears glinting with creamy warmth in the original (an effect lost in the digital image), and the eye, taking that as the anchor for white, spreads that effulgence throughout the canvas. under this warm light, her figure is expertly (subtly!) and realistically contrasted -- the legs sculpted with pale, soft touches of red and magenta in the original (they're just brownish in the image), her torso an iridescent analysis of green gold and warm tints in the original (drab yellow in the image). this contrast is handled so delicately that at first you don't notice it. and the color balance is assisted by the wall behind, which is not a scumbled gray but a mist of rose, teal, green and azure worthy of tiepolo; this intensifies into a shadow outline around the figure that is a dark blue green brightening almost to pure teal, which summarizes the chromatic bias of the "gray" wall, forces the green golds toward yellow, and draws more pink out of the magenta. it's a vision that shimmers.

we notice the green hat and orange seat cover. the studiously stupid "color theorist" might remark that this is the classic tension between red and green, introducing a fauvist dynamic conflict into the image ... van gogh would understand, oh yes! in fact its role is quite different, and the correct answer is clear in the presence of the painting. (again, the digital image fails us.)

the orange/red mixture is highly saturated (it appears very close to a pure cadmium scarlet red, which was newly available by 1910 when this painting was made). even more saturated is the ultramarine blue of the hat -- ultramarine being the most saturated single pigment of any hue available to a painter. and the green (probably viridian) has been mixed and lightened with yellow to boost its chroma as well. but the point of these colors -- these pigment selections -- is chroma. the eye cannot see intense chroma unless the light is both chromatically "broadband" and also sufficiently luminous to perk up the eye to its full chromatic response. (a reddish light would dull the green, a yellowish light would dull the blue, a greenish light would dull the red.) each color prevents the other from tipping the chromatic balance of the image, but all contribute to the sense of powerful, clear, creamy white light emerging from the canvas.

i had several encounters with the art holocaust of gamut mapping during my vagabonding. the most scrupulous was the rainy afternoon i bought an exhibition catalog at the ca' pesaro gallery (an exhibition that really rocked my art understanding ... more on that later), then spent hours going through its modern art exhibition work by work, comparing the painting to the printed image. over and over, not only was the printed image wildly, almost painfully inadequate, but specifically the effect or charm that i felt was the essence of the image was trampled on, distorted, or obliterated. grays were hugely wrong; warms were cools and crispenings were soggy. blacks went from depth to dirt. flesh tones were cheapened and thickened. chiaroscuro turned into quilting. (as if to cement the insight, the binding of the catalog fell apart, and the cover separated from the pages.)

a more familiar example is this famous vermeer painting, which i encountered in the amsterdam rijksmuseum:



especially in printed images, that girl's apron is a muted dark middle blue, often matching a prussian blue (or a phthalo blue GS, since printed images mean CYM mixtures). the shock was -- that apron is pure ultramarine! it has an almost electric brillance. it's nowhere purple (as it seems in the digital image), and it glows all the way into the deepest shadows, which in the image appear black. (it's so potent that i had reservations about the restoration that might have been inflicted on it.) but the point is, whether it's a restorer's blunder or the artist's intent, the image seriously distorts what the actual painting looks like. again, looking at the painting, the visual interpretation of the light is made more emphatic by the chromatic brilliance, a keynote that is amplified by the sparkling texture of the objects on the table and the brimming stream of pure white milk.

speaking of light, the third important insight i developed, across many museums using many different lighting strategies, is the light contrast put on the works. the standard gallery practice is to vignette the painting in a cone of light, as viewed inside a relatively dim room -- look at the gallery photos of the hermitage amsterdam exhibition at the bottom of this page, where the camera clearly brings out the lighting contrast. in that lighting arrangement, the eye adapts to the dim ambient light rather than the localized spot lights (which are partly dimmed for the eye by the dark and dull colors of a painting), so that a painting is pushed upwards in apparent brightness, and in the extreme can be made to appear almost to glow like a backlit transparency. this increases both the lightness and chroma contrasts, and in the guérin work, viewed overall, though the light contrast was more subdued, the effect was magical. the woman appears to be embodied in light.

my fourth and last learning takes me back to that critic's commentary quoted above. i can't read something like that without a weary feeling that many critics have been educated for too long (and perhaps write too many commentaries based on digital images). the subtext seems to be the hackneyed modernity myth: art is about "movements" and movements are inherently about -- well, you know, innovating, shocking, pushing limits, épatezing those bourgeoisie types and burning down the salon. poor plodding guérin, the "conventional" colorist, the provincial art professor who stuck to his prejudices! we'll let shchukin have a pass on this one ... with the lubricious innuendo that it must have been guérin's "attractive poses" and "provocative contrasts" that caught shchukin's eye.

my reply starts with a painting by rogier van der weyden in the berlin gemäldegallerie, something usually given (with modern agnosticism) the title "portrait of a young woman".



this is an iphone photo of the painting -- the germans encourage photography, and the iphone does a surprisingly fine job of catching the color balance correctly. but color is not why i kept coming back to this intimate portrait, just 19 inches high. in that format the head is a bit over 6 inches high, or smaller than life size, which has the magnetic (and for most viewers, probably unnoticed) effect of drawing the viewer closer to the painting. and at close distance what springs into view is the incredibly fresh, tender and exquisite mouth, which is curved in an implicit emotion and latent speech, dimpled with character and moist with breath.

it's clear from the overall that, despite the care lavished on every part -- the precise fabric textures of linen and wool, the beautifully judged value contrasts between background, skin and starch, the delicately managed emphasis of light on the face rather than the hands, the gorgeously modeled flesh tones -- it's the mouth that was the focus of patient effort for the painter; even the eyes look hasty in comparison. and the fascination of that mouth lies in a sensuality that the pleats curving over the woman's breasts only complements. it's a gratitude that can redeem every evil that life can put in your path.

i'd accept the conclusion that this is the artist's wife, or certainly his beloved, rather than a random commission or studio product. something was done here that, despite the very different means, is exactly the same as the light and life i saw in the guérin nude, and in many wonderful paintings besides -- most of them hardly famous. it was this something, call it joy or love or reverence or gratitude, that i learned to look for and feel pleasure to find in art.

it seems to me that one of the miracles of art is that this reverent illusion can be created in so many ways, as images of so many different events and objects painted with so many different styles and techniques. in the same way, we can feel whole, fulfilled, and spiritually thankful in all kinds of encounters -- a kind word, a warm meal, a breaking storm, a silent night, a child's eyes, a flood of music, a well placed soccer goal.

the fact that this pleasure and this sensuality has nothing to do with art movements and "art theory" is perhaps why it is missed in contemporary overintellectualized art criticism. there is no breakthrough, no revolution, no stylization here! just an intimate honesty that must have cost the painter a labor at his limits.

modern art criticism, the blather about movements, innovations and greatness, the pathetic nursery tale of breakthroughs and bigness, obscures the real craftsmanship in art. it also implies a uniformity of response to art that is completely out of whack with the supposed individuality of our characters, our perceptual quirks, our idiosyncratic readings, educations and life experiences. one of the greatest pleasures in art is to visit a museum with someone you love or treasure, especially a maturing child or established friendship, and share with them your individual enthusiasms.

what we inherit as a result of the modernity myth is an art that is deeply demoralizing in its capacity to trivialize and posture, to automate our esthetic response to manufactured stimuli, and to level all excellence in a stylistic plurality. murikami's "cowboy", a larger than life, industrial acrylic sculpture of a naked manchild making a lasso of his copious and treacly ejaculation, is for me the epitome. of course i get the irony and polish and manga exuberance and twitting of the sexually straightlaced. but it is still the kind of thing that, when i came upon it in the customs house museum in venice, anchored my eye with incredulity and contempt. if the weyden portrait is a star, then this is a black hole.



the point for an artist like murikami is the dollar revenue imperative, invitations to the right parties and clubs, lionizing media attention and a workshop production machine. it's the same art economy that the mass media reproduction of paintings, as postcards and art books and digital images, encourages and amplifes. it's the art economy that socializes us to think of paintings as intellectual tokens in a historical narrative in which the touchstones of merit are marketability and critical notice, and then habituates us to accept the image as the original -- a format detached image, a gamut stripped, luminance crushed and critically filtered image, now become an "idea", a "concept", an "icon", a "landmark". (would you like an audioguide with that concept?)

there is something lost that only the painting can preserve and reveal to us. yes, guérin was a minor painter with an income he had to supplement with advertising art. yes, van der weyden was a master painter who did something out of the way, off the narrative, with his singular little portrait. but the same light shines through both works. it's the light of patient craft, hard won skill, unrelenting labor, and the exchange of career pretense and the acclaim of posterity for -- a work that does justice to life.