Wednesday, November 9, 2011

Tension, the artist's statement, and the painting "At the Milliner's"

The painting is from 1881, by Eduoard Manet, and only appeared after his death. It had been completed, and remained in his studio, for two years. Unusual. The painting is now part of the collection at the Legion of Honor in San Francisco, where we saw it last weekend.  It is quite striking, a gorgeous display of Manet's mastery of dark-upon-dark color against a smaller set of lights; here is my photograph of the painting:

Manet gave the same title to at least two other works, a pastel and a print, which could confuse the scholarship a bit, but I have not seen any detailed discussion of this work, even on the museum's own website (which also just posted this piece today).  I would like to know more; I would like to be seated in the studio, asking Manet any number of questions. He would have been open to inquiry, I think;  he wrote a friend: "Please be good enough to come by the studio one of these afternoons -- I would hope to be there, but if by chance I am not take my key from the concierge."  Once we were seated, I would have mentioned that --  I feel that the a-symmetrical pull of the figure, that she is looking into so much space, means that this might have been part of a larger group scene.  Was it? Or is this a kind of "sketch"? Is the look on her face one of contentment? Ennui? Indecision? There is a combination of fluidity and specificity in the background wallpaper; how did you decide to leave the work in such a divided state? How did the perfect outline of the line of her back come to be? How did you see this as fitting in with the Bar at the Folies-Bergere, painted only a few months before?

In short, I'd like to see an artist's statement.

I do realize that is not going to happen. But after walking through a number of galleries yesterday, and reading many statements, I keep thinking, "what if?" What if I could ask Roy Lichtenstein about this print:

It is called "Seascape," and it is from the "Landscape Series," from 1985. I would ask ... what made Lichtenstein combine the meticulous lines with the gestural brushstrokes?  Where did the rust colors come from? And, again, where does this piece fit in with the living rooms and their windows, and with the Cezanne-ian landscapes of the later years (see my October 29 post) ... ?

Some artists do give us articulate, if all-too-brief, statements. Jasper Johns has said "Do something. Do something to that. And then do something to that."  But ---  how did he get to that?

Helen Frankenthaler told Henry Geldzahler (Artforum, 4., no.2, October 1965, p.37) that she remembered, clearly, how she had decided upon her artistic direction, despite coming of age in a time of (almost) too many possible influences: "De Kooning made enclosed linear shapes and 'applied' the brush.  Pollock used shoulder and ropes and ignored the edges and the corner.  I felt I could stretch more in the Pollock framework .... You could become a de Kooning disciple or satellite or mirror, but you could depart from Pollock." I love Helen Frankenthaler.  How wonderful is her explanation?

So, artists' statements might base themselves on tension. Artistic tension, that is, not the kind that resides in your shoulder-blades.  Frankenthaler mentioned once (to Gene Baro, in "The Achievement of Helen Frankenthaler," in Art International, September 20, 1967, p. 36) that she knew a painting worked, for her, when she sensed that it was "a play of ambiguities," what she called, in another interview, the "active" role of "negative" space up against the "positive." 

And, if we think about it, that's where the Manet painting wins us over, and that's where the Lichtenstein breaks through.  Two things, at gentle war with one another, confined in a small space.  I saw many statements yesterday that indicated that the artists in question had come to accept a certain duality in their work: opposites such as high and low, painting and photography, line and color all vie for attention. And should.  I find this idea quite reassuring as I go about adding my odalisques to my abstractions.  It's the tension, really. Keep those statements coming.

No comments:

Post a Comment