Sunday, April 25, 2010

One thing that I think these images have in common

Here again are the pictures that I posted last night. I am in a little better shape today. I was pushing myself too hard and I was too tired to be comprehensible. I assemble these posts by finding the picture or pictures and then writing. I got the pictures posted and just couldn't do more. Thank you to all the good sports who made intelligent comments on the last post. Here are my thoughts on what these images have in common.

The top image is a Manet which was thought radical in its day as it compressed the image so much. The painting flattens the figure to such an extent that it becomes a 2D design. The two Franz Hals below are also somewhat compressed but the important thing about them is the mosaic of brushwork from which they are built. They are not as flattened as the Manet but they are not illusionistic in the same way as a Rembrandt either. They also live in a very shallow space rather than an entire concocted world with depth and distance. Both the Manet and the Hals acknowledge that they are a painting and not a facsimile of reality intended to fool the viewer that they might be looking out of a window. The painter and his ideas are more important than the subject. The painting is about what it looks like more than what it is a picture of. The subject is a jumping off point for a "treatment' by the artist who made it.


The rest of the paintings below this point are by Robert Henri a seminal figure in the ashcan school. I think he was synthesising the ideas in the paintings above. I could probably have included a Velazquez as well. Henri has compressed his figures against shallow backgrounds and like the Hals, carried the modeling with planar brushstrokes. Unlike Hals and more like the Manet the modeling is in real close values, they have form but it is more like a bas relief than a 3D sculpture.

Look at the dress in this painting, it looks a lot like the Manet's boy's pants above. There is just enough modeling to give it believable drawing but not enough to suggest deep form. The whole unit is flattened and stays close to the picture plane, or the surface of the imagine visual space behind the skin of the canvas. What is lost in illusion by this compression is gained as decorative patternmaking. Oriental artists have used this flattening as part of their design vocabulary all along. But it is a novelty for most of Euro-American art history.

Mural painters have long known this. In traditional mural painting the idea was not to chop illusionistic holes in the fabric of the architects walls but to decorate their surface. Many muralists, particularity of the generations around Henris time deliberately painted flat images and even outlined figure to keep the on the "surface" of the painting.

There is no brushwork in nature, simply by having that you are compromising the illusion somewhat to gain an artistic advantage. Notice the decorations on the sleeve of the girls portrait above. The further part of her body barely exist because the space in which she stands is so tightly compressed. The back of her head is hardly further away from us than the tip of her nose.
This young women lounging before us has plenty of form but the modeling is kept to a minimum. She is not deeply scuptural she is more like those half round figures that stick out from the surface of temple architraves or roman sarcophagi. The painting says form but then again it doesn't.

Almost all of this standing figure above is pushed against the frontal plane. It is almost as if she was preserved under a sheet of glass like a butterfly.

Look at how flattened the left side of this face is. She might make a great face card in a deck of cards. The illuminated side of the face is along the fromtal plane too. At a glance the form is convincing, it does have a surface, but on closer examination she is a flounder girl.

This girl is about four inches thick, Shes lovely but you couldn't put you arms around her. There is no distance into the picture behind her. The artists in these pictures have deliberately
shown their subjects in a shallow space, losing believable depth but gaining decorative power.The images are compressed deliberately.

17 comments:

Michael said...

Interesting information. A 'freeing' idea in a sense also. Just glad there was not a grade involved given my prior guess. :p

Simone said...

"Flounder girl", very funny!

willek said...

Doesn't frontal lighting do the flattening? I am often confounded when doing a landscape with the sun directly behind me. Very flattening. But there is a terrific view of Gloucester harbor by Metcalf that is lit like this.

Philip Koch said...

Good post!

One of the things I like about reading Stape's musings is he'll talk about a lot of the same issues I'm intrigued with, but he often will come at them from a different angle. Such as here with his compressed space/shallow relief sculpture analogy. Makes sense.

I was looking at the Henri's yesterday before Stape roused from his beauty rest and wrote the commentary. What I was fixating on was how beautifully Henri (and others) varied the outer silhouettes of the figures to make those flattened shapes expressive.

Whatever vocabulary one employs, I think what's critical is to see the big flat shapes and make sure they surprise the viewer's eye. Sometimes I'll come across an older abandoned painting I've forgotten about and am horrified to see most of my flat silhouettes looking like baked potatoes.

Silvio Silvestri said...

Excellent, knowledgeable analysis. I feel I had a lecture on fine art from a real expert in a museum but he is also a good oil painter. I liked this format, ask the student, then give the answer. Made me think and I came out with dribble compared to your wonderful critique. You da boss!! Thanks, Silvio

Carol Nelson said...

I get it now. I never really THOUGHT of a plain background as flattening, but I guess there would be a lot more depth with the suggestion of a landscape behind the figure.
What do you think of contemporary portraits where the face is carefully detailed and the background is free form brush strokes, often with patches of unpainted canvas showing?

Deb said...

Great post... very interesting.
I kept looking at the images, thinking "they look sort of flat", but it didn't really ever dawn on me that "flat" was really what was going on.. I just felt they weren't modeled very well. I love the description of the tall Victorian lady looking like she is under glass. that is exactly what it looks like!
I see many still lifes like this today, and I have to say I prefer to see some air, some space in there...

Barbara Carr said...

So, I wonder if this is all some more influence from Japanese woodcuts? Possibly even critic Clement (integrity-of-the-picture-plane) Greenburg was under their influence.

Stapleton Kearns said...

Michael:
OK you get a B.
........Stape

Stapleton Kearns said...

Simone:
I lost her and never flounder.
.......................Stape

Stapleton Kearns said...

Willek:
Frontal lighting might he;lp buit it is depth of space in the painting to which I refer.
.........Stape

Stapleton Kearns said...

Philip:
The Boston school called that shape outline the arabesque and worried over it a lot. Hibbard was particularly good at the shape thing.
..............Stape

Stapleton Kearns said...

Silvio:
Thank you, question the answer format was accidental, maybe I should do it again. I could be SOCRATIC.
..............Stape

Stapleton Kearns said...

Carol:
I think they should be mailing a percentage of their sales to Richard Schmid.
...................Stape

Stapleton Kearns said...

Deb; There is flat by design and flat through stupidity. Prefer the former eschew the latter.
...............Stape

Stapleton Kearns said...

Barbara:
Certainly their is Japanese wood block print influence going on here. Clement Greenburg was a weenie.
...................Stape

Dot Courson said...

Oops... I cut class! Did he post the grades yet?