Saturday, August 7, 2010

Looking crtitically at paintings

John Constable, The Cornfield, courtesy

I was asked in an e-mail how I went about deconstructing or analyzing a painting that I saw in a museum or gallery. Thats a big question, but I will take a swing at it. This might take several posts, but I will get a start on it tonight.

There have been occasions in my younger life when (under enormous social pressure) I became willing to drink large amounts of different forms of liquor over the course of an evening. After about 16-20 drinks the delicate connoisseurship I had practiced early in the evening became blunted. One whiskey tasted pretty much like the next. Sitting became tiresome, standing worse, and reclining, ideal.

The same thing happens to me in a museum. I can spend a whole day in the museum for enjoyment, but I am really only able to "see" paintings at my peak efficiency for about an hour or two at the most. After that it is pretty much recreation. So I generally walk into a museum with one period of painting I really want to see and I will go there first. I will probably see hundreds of paintings in a day but there are always a few I really want to study and remember. I try to attack those when I am fresh and haven't looked at other paintings all day. After a while in the museum my senses get dulled.

1) I will stand in front of the painting and look at it as an abstract, as "only an arrangement of lines and colors that set one another off". I don't really look for the subject or the niceties of drawing or atmospheric perspective, etc at first, but just, "what does the picture look like? I look at the way the lights and darks are arranged, what the colors are and how they relate to one another. This is for me, the root thing, if the painting fails at this level, I am off, nothing else on the canvas can save it in my estimation, this has to "catch me". If the "look" isn't there, no amount of social relevance, historical significance, gratuitous nudity or wooley skirted docents earnest prattle will recommend it to me.

2) Then I tend to think about what time in history this thing was painted. I know a little about each of the important schools and groups of painters from various times and something of what they did and what their aims were. This keeps me from faulting a sublime and highly balanced Raphael for not having the kind of broken color I like in a Monet. Paintings need to be understood in the context of the time in which they were made. You wouldn't fault a baroque painting for not having the high key brightness and color of a mid 20th century painting.

You need to know something about art history to have an idea what you are seeing. It is not enough to just stand in front of a painting and ask yourself, "How does it make me feel?" At least not if you want to really understand it, and learn from it. You might be entertained that way, but not informed.

I know a few painters who are only interested in painting from the late 19th century forward. They have no interest in renaissance, Dutch painting, or classicism. I think they miss a lot. When I visit the museum with them and want to look at Rembrandt or Rubens, they just don't get it. Often their measure of a painting is "does it look like a photograph?" and all painting from before about 1850 fails that test. No one would mistake a Rubens for a photo, yet it is great painting. So I think it is important to know enough about the different eras of painting to be able to appreciate them for their qualities other than those which are not characteristic of their times. Missing this is like faulting Coltrane for not having a drum track like Lady Gaga.

When I teach workshops I harangue the students about learning art history until the little eyes roll back in their heads.


How are you going to make great art if you don't know what it looks like and why?
I will return tomorrow and continue with this.


Bill said...

Exactly right. Probably the best lesson I learned in Art History is to open my mind to seeing that there is great art in every period and in nearly every place. I'm off to see some today. said...

I like walking into a museum room and looking at the painting that "looks different". There is always one piece or artist from a given time period who begins to break out of the pack. I study that painting and then go on to the next room. I also take notes.

Philip Koch said...

Stape's paragraph labeled #1 is a masterpiece.

I think he nails it. Before anything else can happen, the shapes and colors ALONE have to grab your eye and move you. The intellectual ideas that may accompany that is just the icing on the cake.

My personal quarrel with most minimal and conceptual art is that it just isn't generous enough with the shapes and the colors.

Thanks for a great blog post Stape.

Bill said...

I second what mariandioguardi says - look around the room and focus on the work that catches your eye. I don't ignore all the other stuff by any means, but I try to be selective to avoid art overload. Pretty often there'll be a big crowd blocking any view of the great masterpiece while you have a wonderful painting all to your self. When I have to fight crowds for a major show like the Hopper show a few years back, I find myself ping-ponging around the room to get a look at whatever piece is temporarily open to view.

The most incredibly annoying thing is major shows that have not only a "no photography" policy, which is fine, but also a "no drawing" policy - wtf?

Gregory Becker said...

Whenever I go to a museum or gallery, the first thing I notice is the value structure and then how the artist used color and value in the tonal relationships.
Then I muster the boldness to ask, "Is there anything that I would've done differently if this was my painting?"
I do to measure my own sensibilities.
BTW It feels good to chime in again. I was without a computer for a while.

Jean Spitzer said...

I also overload easily; less than an hour at a museum at a time is optimal for me. Thinking about a painting in its historical context is great advice.

Mike Thompson said...

Yes, it is hard to learn anything from history if you don't understand what the history makers were thinking when they were busy making history.

One of my classmates (she was HALF my age, btw, so forgive her confusion) put it succinctly in the early 90's when she said: "The seventies! What in the hell were you people thinking?"

I find it helpful to remember that people from earlier times were as intelligent as we are today, except, maybe, for the seventies - because my truthful answer would have been: "I'm not sure if I really was thinking in the seventies".

So, Stape, when scholars in the future study your paintings, what outrageous art theories will they concoct to explain why you went against the modernist grain in the seventies?

kev ferrara said...

Have you ever had the experience of loving a painting utterly, but not being able to analyze it to your satisfaction? Like there was something there, designed into the painting and causing some interesting effect, but you couldn't quite figure out what the mechanism was?

DJ said...

color/value relationships
EoD / PoD
technical skill
visual impact/story
cold water
hot tea

Stapleton Kearns said...

I wonder what you will see?

Stapleton Kearns said...

I think I need to do a post on progression in art. I am not so sure I buy the idea.

Stapleton Kearns said...

Thanks. Less is a bore.

Stapleton Kearns said...

When I am in the museum and the galleries are crowded I go to look at Greek pottery. Or Staffordshire. Or American 18th cent. furniture. I like a lot of stuff.

Stapleton Kearns said...

Good to have you back.I was wondering where you went.

Stapleton Kearns said...

I am always pushing art history. It is so essential.It enables you to feed on a lot of art that you might otherwise miss.

Stapleton Kearns said...

I went against the grain because it WAS the 70's.

Stapleton Kearns said...

Sure, all the time. Inness does that to me the most.

Stapleton Kearns said...

EoD PoD? It must be obvious but I am missing it.

Bill said...

In response to your question on what did I see - we went to the Cincinnati Art museum, partly for the Walker Evans show, but also saw some wonderful paintings. They have several Corots, a Bouguereau,"Meditation" (which has the humorous comment on the label text that when Renoir got some new glasses, he said "My God, I see like Bouguereau!"), and a lot of modern stuff including, yes, an Alex Katz (a very large flower that had some craquelure in the darks), a Rothko that I liked (I don't like all his stuff) a really nice figurative Diebenkorn, Hans Hofmann, and moving back in time some, a nice selection of cubist work by Picasso, Braque, Gris, et al. They had a very nice show of 1950s style illustration work, mainly in gouache and colored paper collage, by local artist Charley Harper. They've got a great late (1890, one of his last paintings) Van Gogh of two figures in a forest. An early Cezanne still life which was quite interesting - although somewhat awkward and dark,it definitely had something Cezannesque about it. Other hilights: George Inness, Edward Potthast, and two wonderful Sargents ("Two Girls Fishing" was amazing). There was a lot of other stuff I would have liked to get to, but we just ran out of time. Highly recommended, admission is free, parking is $4.00, refundable if you spend $15 in the gift shop or Cafe.

The day before we went to the Contemporary Art Center and saw the Shepard Fairey show, which I suspect wouldn't be everyone's cup of tea on this forum, but he's pretty impressive from a graphic arts point of view, and the interesting processes he uses. All in all, a really nice weekend of taking in some art.

Bill said...

Oh, also, you can take photographs of anything in the permanent collection w/o flash so long as it was created before 1976 and the artist is no longer living. Odd, I know, but I like to take pictures to recll just what I did see.

You mention 18thc American furniture - I studied that stuff in graduate school! Pulling out the drawers to see how it's made is definitely part of my process of looking, when it's permitted. I got reprimanded by the guard at the Contemporary Arts center for walking behind a very large painting (by Pat Steir, that was mounted well away from the wall) because I wanted to examine the stretcher.

Ray Hassard said...

The Cincinnati Art Museum is great about letting artists paint there as well. The Ohio Plein Air Society has a January paint-in at the Ohio Museums and Cinci has been very generous and easy to work with. BTW, if you park just down the entrance street and walk the short way to the entrance facing Mt Adams, there's no need to pay anything.