Wednesday, September 10, 2014

Seeing Paintings

It's kind of like when I look at photographs, mine or anyone else's.

I am not learned.  I don't have the vocabulary for describing what I like in a photograph and sometimes when I read what others say about pictures, it frustrates me because the critical vocabulary sounds so received, so "this is what you're supposed to say" that I don't have the sense of the person having an authentic response.

In keeping this blog, I've been trying to write, on occasion, about movies and poetry and other things with a language as original to me as I possibly can and so I've resisted reading professional criticism, resisted having my experience with movies or books or other works shaped by the specialized language of criticism, whether it's film criticism, literary criticism (or theory) or art criticism.  Sometimes I succeed and sometimes I don't.

But, on Sunday, I went to hear a lecture on the National Gallery of Art's Van Gogh holdings.  I didn't know ahead of time the lecture's topic, but I knew that the National Gallery's curator and head of the department of French paintings, Mary Morton, was giving the lecture.  It turns out she had a good feel for all of us in the audience who were not art history grad students or fellow experts and she gave a fine, accessible lecture, free of specialized smart about art jargon.

 During her talk, I remembered back to when I was in grade school and I guess the school or the district had invested in an art history program.  The teacher got a packet of reproductions of a painting (did we do Gainsborough's The Blue Boy?) and handed them out and we wrote about the colors we saw and the different degrees of light and what was in the foreground and the background.

What stands out to me, as I remember back, is that the paintings were life like, whether portraits or landscapes.  I look at The Blue Boy now and it's clear to me that because the boy is not painted in any distorted or fragmented way and because his face looks like a face that could have been a fourth or fifth grade classmate of mine, or one of the older kids, it gave me an early impression that paintings were kind of like school pictures.  The background was kind of weird (as school portraits can be), but this looks like a boy I could have seen in "real life" if I knew any late 18th century sons of a wealthy hardware merchant who wore all blue and had a hat with a feather.

The Blue Boy

 My high school French teacher, Mrs. Wellman, was the first to introduce paintings to me that were not replications of the world we think we see.  I remember being impressed with the technique called pointillism and Georges Seraut's famous painting A Sunday Afternoon on the Island of La Grande Jatte.  Serault composed this painting with little dots of colors.  The figures in the painting puzzled me because they did not look "realistic" like, say, The Blue Boy, or like Rembrandt's The Syndics of the  Drapers' Guild that I had seen on boxes of Dutch Masters cigar boxes.

The Syndics of the Drapers' Guild

A Sunday Afternoon on the Island of La Grande Jatte

After completing my junior year at Whitworth College, I took a course in the month of May by traveling to England with Dr. Fenton Duvall, a Whitworth history professor, and, for the first time, I saw paintings in a gallery, beginning with the National Gallery in London.

I don't remember in which gallery, the National or the Tate,  I first saw seascapes and landscapes of J. M. W. Turner.  I do remember having the sensation, however, that a new world of experience, not only of art, but of experience suddenly burst open.  Turner's paintings stunned me.  The canvases were gigantic, as I remember, and very little about them looked realistic.

Seascape with Storm Coming On

Suddenly, it came to me.  These paintings were about light, the idea of light, the nature of light, the emotional impact of light and, in turn, color.  But that wasn't all.  I experienced his paintings as outward manifestations of inward realities.  I'd never seen Turner before, never heard of him, but suddenly it was as if dreams I'd had were on canvas and feelings, feelings of awe, fear, turmoil, and wonder.  Later, I would think to myself that Turner's paintings gave me such immediate access to dreams and feelings of wonder, fear, and awe because I wasn't distracted by the realistic representation of trains or ships or waves or railroad tracks.  Later I would think that his paintings were like mental impressions and suddenly the word "impressionist" made sense.

Mrs. Wellman had told us that Monet painted paintings of the same subjects at different times of the day to capture the impression it made at that moment.  I later thought that, in this way, Monet's pictures are philosophical, studying the nature of an ever changing reality -- that Rouen Cathedral is not one thing, but many things, making a different impression on the consciousness at one time of the day than it did at another.

The more these paintings moved away from "realistic" depictions of their subject matter, the more I enjoyed them.  I started to seek out abstract paintings and they have become spiritual to me.  Again, when my mind is free from the task of identifying what in the everyday world a painting represents, then I can experience the emotional or spiritual power of the color, or the colors, of the painting.  If the painting is a study of abstract forms, like squares or circles, I experience their power -- along with their color(s).  Abstract paintings, to me, are bold, not necessarily because it took courage to paint them, but because the fundamental elements of a painting, color and shapes, are boldly focused upon, sometimes so intensely that it's difficult to stay with the painting for very long.

All of this came rushing to my mind as I listened to Mary Morton lecture on Van Gogh and his exploration of color, bold color, and color combinations, bold combinations, and patterns and light.  I almost, not quite, experience Van Gogh as an abstract artist, much the same way I experience Gaugan and his bold use of color that takes precedence over "realistic" portraits of the humans in his paintings.

I think I'll leave it at that.  I'll come back to this subject, possibly after my next visit to the National Gallery in Washington, D. C., I'll write more about how I experience the 19th century French painters.  I'd also like to write about how I would like my photography to be more subjective, much like Turner and Monet and Van Gogh are so inspiringly subjective in their paintings.

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