Monday, August 9, 2010

Looking at paintings 2

Boucher, Marie-Louise O'Murphy from

When I go into the museum , I often find myself standing behind people who talk about psychology. Many people mistake painting for psychology, they know nothing about painting but they learned about psychology in school. So they talk about their feelings and how the artist must have felt. They discuss the various pathologies of mental derangement and vicariously imagine themselves as decoratively insane, well only a little, nothing too unattractive.They are happiest in front of the work of obviously tortured artists or paintings that lend themselves to speculation on the ideas of Freud.

It is a little like the fable from India about the blind men examining an elephant. Each grabs a different part of what must have been a very patient, docile animal and speculates about the larger beast. One holding the tail supposes the animal is very like a snake, another hugging an enormous leg says the elephant is more like a tree. Understanding painting is like that, and one of its' qualities IS feeling.

  • When I am in front of a painting I wish to understand, I try to be open to the expression of the artist. How does this painting effect me, is there an emotion that it creates in me?
  • Does the artists expression get through, is it an effective communication? or does it not work?
  • Is it smarmy, saccharine, banal, morbid or cheaply titillating? Or does it make me reflect deeply, make me worshipful, remind me of the love of a woman I once knew, or transport me to the consoling solitude of nature? Perhaps it reminds me of the nature of man or the warmth of the family and home. The painting might stir feelings of fear, anger, comfort or humor. When that happens the painter has connected with me. That is expression.
  • Beauty, elegance, restrained dignity, lavish excess or ribald earthiness are all moods that a fine painter can evoke with a painting. A portrait may make me feel I have known the sitter, or impress me with their worldly importance now fed to worms. All this is feeling.
  • I try to be open and sensitive, to be still and listen to what the artist is whispering from behind the paint. This gets easier with practice. When I am in the museum I will see young art students waltz disinterested past deeply moving scenes by Rembrandt on their way to contemporary paintings that will scream obscenities at them with their pants down around their ankles and their volume set to eleven. It is important to stop and search for the expression.

  • Most of the great paintings were meant to be lived with in a home and deliberately avoid expending their force in an instant. It may not be possible to "get" a painting as you stroll past it, you will often have to get to know it. There are songs that I love, that I didn't notice till I heard then a few times. We are surrounded by instant, catchy and dumbed down art everywhere today, television, the movies, most of which are crafted to communicate their ideas quickly without much effort for the beholder. Paintings, great paintings are the product of a discipline from a time when things moved more slowly.
  • I try to meditate on a painting that I want to really know, I will stand and stare at it and try to let my mind go blank.I try to receive the communication that I hope will come to me from the painting. I doesn't always work and not every painting that speaks to me, will speak to you. But the museums are full of paintings waiting to speak to you.


mands said...

Absolutely beautiful.....

billspaintingmn said...

Beautifully written Stape. Desirly
Paintings are music to the eyes that speak what words cannot say.

willek said...

You are putting into words things that I have been trying to work out about the lasting qualities of pictures someone lives with over time. Thanks

Philip Koch said...

Paintings in museums usually do "whisper softly" their most important messages. Our job is to cultivate that special sort of openness that lets those whispers in.

One thing I find helpful in a museum is to first stand at a great distance from paintings and wait until one or two catch my eye out of the dozen that might hang on a wall. Stape is rightly saying you can't devote equal attention to everything. Let the "special" paintings call out to you. Not everyone is going to be attracted to the same pieces- and that's as it should be.

One thing I always tell people when I give a gallery talk is to "let yourself have favorites." Honestly, I think some gallery or museum goers need to hear that this is ok. It's sort of like if someone felt they were supposed to "love everybody" but hadn't yet mastered their fears enough to ever have an intimate friendship. Painting is full of little private pleasures and intimate delights. It all starts with hearing those whispers...

P.S. The word verification I have to fill out to place this comment is "inness" Now THAT is impressive!

Wanderingdoc said...

I like Philip's strategy as a way to home in on what's likely to attract you and lead to further study, especially when time is limited. I am an inveterate sketcher in museums which is way for me to interact with the object (not always a painting)and the artist.

tom martino said...

Stape, I enjoyed the last two blogs; they again emphasize appreciating the quality of construction of a painting that moves the viewer and not the psychological or even biographical pressures percolating in the mysterious psyche of the artist.

Stapleton Kearns said...

Hey thanks.

Stapleton Kearns said...

Thank you, was it you who was growing the Honeycrisp apples? If so how are they doing?

Stapleton Kearns said...

Thanks. Tomorrow night will be a little more rocky.

Stapleton Kearns said...

That is good advice. I will add it to my spiel and try to remember to credit you.

Stapleton Kearns said...

Sketching is a very good way to commune with art. So is copying.

Stapleton Kearns said...

I think I am presenting more of an artists way of looking at the art rather than an academics or a historians. But tonight I go that route a little.