Wednesday, June 1, 2011

Road-trip games and artistic hierarchies

So the game went like this: we each would be given one painting, only, to live with forever, can’t sell it, can’t trade it… so not necessarily your favorite painting, but the one you could look at … all the time.  My husband’s is “The Piano Lesson,’ by Matisse, right now in the possession of MOMA New York. 

Why? He says “It is representative painting just about to disappear like the Cheshire cat. The haunting little face – so ironic, that look, such a strange thing – is just about the only concession to realism. If that face (the Cheshire cat) should disappear, then what is left is a fabulous abstract-patterned painting, a Diebenkorn or a Hans Hoffman. One step beyond this painting is everything that follows, and one step beyond that? It would be one step beyond an e.e. cummings or Gertrude Stein poem, and then it would be like firing letters out of a shotgun … one step beyond their literature is total meaninglessness, because they are already doing abstract work.  Second choice for the "forever" painting? Cy Twombly, because he is all about making the mark.”

For me: “The Demoiselles D’Avignon,” for many of the same reasons ... almost abstract, almost. It surprises me, that I didn’t choose an already-abstract work. And my second choice is even stranger, but I am sticking by it… “The Bar at the Folies-Bergere,” by Manet.  So here I am, a confirmed non-representational artist, and I choose canonical works? So, okay, why these two? First, because I find them beautiful, and intriguing. I could easily look at them forever.  So, yes, but there has to be something more.

So I am thinking, maybe what it is, is … a question of hierarchies.  Thinking back, for the sake of brevity, just through the lines of Western art. Cave paintings, scratchings in the sand, then modest art for funerary purposes or  literature, as with mummies or hieroglyphs, mythological illustration, then, more religious art (altarpieces, explanations of major events and stories) … and then patrons enter the picture, and things begin to change. A hierarchy is created, both for artists (within “school of…” and in competitions)  and for works of art (an altarpiece pictures the conquering hero, the saintly donor’s face contemplated the Annunciation, the Night Watchers come forward out of the shadows).  Religious or mythologically-themed paintings, historical portrayals (Washington, Napoleon) , even, a little further down in the list, a grandly-painted landscape showing the grandeur of England or France… but the still life? Not so much.

A pity, about the still-life, and its bottom-rung status.  Because both Picasso and Manet were fabulous at still-life (we have all seen Picasso’s guitars and wine-bottles, but I was stunned when I first saw a series of Manet’s flowers – so beautiful!).  But artists cannot make their reputation on  a still-life or three, so each artist had to be thinking, what can I do? The age of Napoleon and the great altarpieces is past by 1883 and 1907, when my two chosen works were completed. What would be new enough? Picasso once said, lamenting that he was not Raphael, something along these lines: “since I cannot top the scale of hierarchies, I’ll destroy the scale.” Each of "my" two paintings, in its way, destroys the scale. Manet had already completed “Olympia” and “Dejeuner” (the modern woman in a classical setting), but now, with the woman in “Bar,” he pushes through the boundaries once more. This woman has no mythology, no religion, no great battles to justify her existence. Nothing backs her up … only a mirror. This may be one of the first truly modern paintings. It is she, alone, who must hold our attention. (And, simultaneously, the attention of the artist’s stand-in, her customer). She does. The painting works: the top of a new, grand, scale.

And Picasso would follow, years later, with his own bid for fame, although, as I have said before, I think he did not know what to do after that…

And the game is retired, for another day.

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