Friday, November 4, 2011

Reflections, in glass and wood, inside and outside...

As I was drawing these (doubled) nudes and naked bodies, I was thinking about reflections. The transparent glass of a a window separates us from what we see reflected; we, and the reflections, are here ... or there, we and they are inside ... or outside.  The window piles image upon image, showing us more than we would see without it.  Here is a photograph of a delicate new plant, pulling itself out of a riot of blue and purple flowers, and while I am looking at these blossoms,  I can also see the rectangular forms of the houses across the street (outside) and the blinds that shade the parlor (inside), which I would never have noticed if I had not been struck by the colors in the foreground:

As it grows darker, a glass can show us both what is before it and what is behind it, trees and lamps and people:

But it can be even more complicated than that. Metals and waters, snow and wood and bodies all reflect light and cast unexpected shadows; the trick is to see them. Here is a painting by Gustave Caillebotte from 1875; it was rejected by the Salon that year; the artist would exhibit it the following year with a more empathetic group of artists, who would come to be known as the Impressionists.  The painting is called "The Floor Scrapers":

Caillebotte's work was probably rejected because it is not a great narrative "show" or a majestic landscape. Instead, the painting concentrates on just a few details and gets them perfectly right.  Caillebotte demonstrates no interest in the walls; they are dimly colored, reflect no light; they simply confirm the indoor setting.  Instead, the men are lit, and we see a hint of their conversation (in the tilted head); we notice the ironwork of the window and the curls of wood. For all its gorgeous light, this is a rather claustrophobic, hard picture, with the promise of hours of work remaining for the three workers. 

Suzanne Langer wrote that "An artist .... objectifies the subjective realm. What he expresses, therefore, is not his own actual feelings, but what he knows about human feeling. Once he is in possession of a rich symbolism, that knowledge may actually exceed his entire personal experience. A work of art expresses a conception of life, emotion, inward reality. But it is neither a confession nor a frozen tantrum; it is a developed metaphor ... " (from "Expressiveness," in The Problems of Art). I love the term "frozen tantrum," (earlier, Langer had written that a baby's cry is not art); this is a painting thought through over time, finished over days, weeks, perhaps longer than the men will take to do their work. We wonder how the artist came across these men, this image, which is certainly, as Langer says, not the artist's "confession" at all. This painting is portraying a moment that viewers might not otherwise, ever,  have "seen.". The "developed metaphor" here gives us a way of seeing work that is not ours, and ... the picture does become the kind of painting that the Salon all those years ago demanded. It is a narrative; it is majestic in its own fierce, concentrated way.

Caillebotte has given us a permanent reflection, here; one set of feelings (his) have been exchanged for another (that of the workers).  It isn't his life, but for as long as we look at the painting, it is ours.

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