Sunday, March 18, 2012

"Surface is Illusion, But So is Depth," says David Hockney: A Face by Rossetti, a Face by Manet

David Hockney recorded a film called “A Day on the Grand Canal with the Emperor of China, or Surface is Illusion, But So is Depth”; it is from 1988 and is only available now on VHS, which is really a shame (there is a post about the scroll at, however). I think Hockney’s comments in this interview reveal the ways we see.  And they may also reveal the ways we should be thinking about creating new art.

The film is a running commentary on two scrolls; the first dates from 1689, before Chinese artists were exposed to Western perspective, and the second is from 1770, and has become … almost Western.  Hockney examines the first scroll, which he clearly prefers; it is 27” high and about 72’ long, and the figures depicted are an inch high at most.  The artist depicted an Emperor’s journey in a barge down a river and the anticipatory activity (people are running… “he’s coming!”); we can look towards the villages expecting him.  Hockney unrolls the work, and says that “you can decide where to look … we can move down this street, at this angle … [it is an] intimate view” of life in the “back streets.”  And it is splendid to watch: we see cooking, people raising chickens, people lining up for the Emperor.  As the scroll opens, we can control its edges, we can move forward or back, we can even see over walls. Hockney contrasts this with a Canaletto, which is, he says, is too aware of walls, and boundaries, and a Canaletto view of Venice, say, is “a kind of window,” and so “a wall” is “an appropriate place to put it.” In the Western way that we see, we think too often of the camera, which is, Hockney says, “outside” of the depicted space; the first scroll is “inside.”  You are not looking “through” at anything. You are able to very nearly see around things, as if you were moving in the landscape. The first scroll shows you two sides of houses, as if you were approaching from either side. The figures do not grow smaller as they grow distant.  Mist separates jumps in time. “There is always movement, linkage” and there is, continues Hockney, “an incredible shimmer of life.”  But then Hockney show us that in the second scroll, the landscape recedes, figures seem stiff, isolated, posed.  I think this may also be the place where Hockney says that “when you stop moving, you die.”

Keep this in mind as you look at these two portraits. I saw the face at left this week, (at the show “The Cult of Beauty: The Victorian Avant-Garde” exhibited at the Legion of Honor in San Francisco), Dante Gabriel Rossetti’s “Bocca Bacaciata: The Kissed Mouth,” from 1859, and on the right, we see Eduard Manet’s “The Railway,” from 1872-3:

There is a small problem of dates here, of course, and we’ll take a minute to acknowledge our poetic license. Manet and the Impressionists were, for Rossetti and friends, precursors, painters to react against, and yet this painting of Manet’s was completed at a later date than Rossetti’s. But the two faces are hauntingly similar, and so I am asking for a bit of Keatsian “negative capability” here. And that’s actually rather appropriate, since Rossetti’s poetry was heavily influenced by Keats. Rossetti and the Pre-Raphaelite circle were reacting to the Impressionists (as well as anyone from Raphael, forward) because, as Rossetti apparently wrote himself in the journal “The Germ,” artists of their time needed “an entire adherence to the simplicity of nature.”  The landscapes must be real, the bodies must be real.

Okay. Now come back to Hockney for just a moment.  What is “real”?  Is it the one-inch Emperor, and his freely-painted back streets, open to any angle?  Or is it the more scientific, but rather stilted, world of the second scroll, with its boundaries like a window-frame or the view-finder of a camera?

Rossetti’s painting, seen “live,” is astonishingly small (12 5/8” x 10 5/8”).  Still, it is compelling. Rossetti’s model here was Fanny Cornforth, who would later become his second wife. “The Kissed Mouth” seems photographically realistic; there are perfect shadows and wrinkles at the neck, stray hairs, a face trapped in a too-small space, no lush eyelashes, and no direct gaze. The woman here almost retreats into the wallpaper; the flowers in her necklace echo those on the wall. She is still. The illusion is perfect; there are several figure painters working in this mode today. Rossetti and his group believed that Raphael, the Mannerists and the Impressionists had prescribed far too much about the ideal body, its dimensions, the spaces it must inhabit in a painting, the light, the way one pigment reacts to another … and so we are here looking at a painting which is very nearly … a photograph.  She belongs, I would say, to the world of Hockney’s second scroll.  The “depth” here is certainly illusion, and a good one. This woman is reflecting, we think, and we almost don’t want to bother her by looking too deeply at her.  

Manet’s painting was not placed with the Impressionists at their show that spring of 1874, but instead was exhibited at the Paris Salon.  It was not well-received, as historian Isabelle Dervaux tells us: "Visitors and critics found its subject baffling, its composition incoherent, and its execution sketchy.”  Here is the full painting:

And there is a really fine interpretation of Manet’s probable intent at the blog “Every Painter Paints Himself,” dated 13 January 2011, by Simon Abrahams, where he says that “the artist’s alter ego” is “constructing the very scene we are looking at, fusing the activity in the studio with that of the scene itself.”  You will need to read the full essay, I think, to see why he argues this; do read it].

Manet’s model for the woman gazing at us was Victorine Meurent, who gazes out at us, as she does in “Le Dejeuner sur l’Herbe” and “Olympia.” But here, she is even less fully drawn-in.  She is very much in the world, yet she remains mysterious; the tilt of her head suggests she may be about to move.  And that uncertainty is what keeps us looking.  A critic, Tim Lubbock, wrote that  “Manet's magic is not to insist on finding the eternal in the contemporary. It’s just a subliminal resonance”  (Friday 18 April, 2008, in The Independent, online).  Lubbock wasn’t talking about Rossetti’s principles, which could be described as “finding the eternal in the contemporary,” nor was he talking about Hockney’s discussion of that first Chinese scroll.  And yet … as artists, don’t we want “subliminal resonance”?  the “illusion” of the “surface”? 

I find myself liking the way the eye moves around the face in the Manet painting. I find I like that reference to the surface of things.  I think that’s what art needs to be: self-referential, reminding us that it is, after all, “surface.”

Thursday, March 8, 2012

Alberto Burri's "Grande Cretto": On "Extended Wings"

"Sweet berries ripen in the wilderness;
And, in the isolation of the sky,
At evening, casual flocks of pigeons make
Ambiguous undulations as they sink,
Downward to darkness, on extended wings."
                          from "Sunday Morning," by Wallace Stevens

"To live fully is to live with an awareness of the rumble of terror that underlies everything."
                          Ernest Becker

I was reading a passionate review of the show "The Indiscipline of Painting," in an article called "Disciplined and Polished or Burn, Burri, Burn!" by John Bunker (read it at, 10 February 2012).  Bunker suggests that, all too often, the way contemporary abstract artists paint and the way we write about abstraction is "too rarified, too polished, too conceptual" and he insists that painting should be about "engagement with the materiality of paint or any kind of matter without recourse to obvious mimesis."  Too often, painters copy one another, copy their thoughts, copy without feeling. Bunker goes on to say that he is "interested in abstract art as an expression of human agency operating in the cracks and fissures of an image-saturated consumer society."  And he points out that the works of the artist Alberto Burri (1915-1995) are the works that put "abstraction back into direct relationship with life lived." We need this, Bunker says, and I agree completely. Painting should wake the viewer up and feel entirely part of lived life.  Bunker concludes by saying that Burri's retrospective [at the Estorick Collection of Modern Italian Art in London] has "the advantage of channeling the power and potential of 'dark matter.'"

I had seen Burri's "Sacking and Red" and thought it in the same inventive, process-centered mode as the art of Robert Rauschenberg or Antoni Tapies.  Burri was part of a movement called "Art Informel," where process, not the finished work, was the point. But it wasn't until I read John Bunker's article and began thinking about it that I realized that I had already seen Burri's most powerful work of art.

My husband and I were driving through the Belice Valley in Northwestern Sicily. The countryside was beautiful, dramatic, with some agriculture, some goats and sheep, and very few people.  The houses were simple, stone with red-tile roofs.  But we began to see some unsettling vistas: deserted houses, towns where there were no people, no windows, and only the movement of a few flocks of birds and wandering dogs:

We stopped at the next populated cafe and asked.  "Oh, yes," an old woman told us, "the Belice Valley earthquake. 1968."  We went back out, stunned.  The hardest-hit places were Poggio Reale, Salaparuta, and Gibellina, all still there.  But they were so quiet; everyone had left and, worse,  no-one had ever come back.  I took another photograph:

And, soon after, we rounded a corner and saw this, and I began to take more pictures:

We drove up to the site. This is Alberto Burri's major work, called "Grande Cretto," created in the 1980's.  He kept the debris of the town of Gibellina, moved it into the even square blocks where houses had once stood, keeping the streets clear. He then covered all the destroyed houses with concrete:

You can walk through the streets, looking back at two or three once-grand houses in ruins up on the hill.  Below is the village, now the "Grande Cretto," with my husband in the corner of the first photo to give you an idea of the scale of this project:

It is a memorial, but one that has its own life. This was a more astonishing way to "see" the dead village than scattered ruins would have been.  This is what John Bunker meant, I think, by "direct relationship to life lived."

I see it as a combination of the beauty of Stevens's conclusion to "Sunday Morning" and the underlying monster in Ernest Becker's words above.  I think that powerful art addresses both beauty and the "rumble of terror."

Monday, March 5, 2012

The Artist Draws, Talking to Himself: Wallace Stevens, Ingres, Degas, Picasso ... and Us

Out of this same light, out of the central mind,
We make a dwelling in the evening air,
In which being there together is enough.
                        --from “Final Soliloquy of the Interior Paramour”
                        by Wallace Stevens

I have been reading Wallace Stevens’s poems and some critical essays about his work.  One writer, Milton J. Bates, researched Stevens’s early letters to the woman who would become his wife, Elsie (“Stevens in Love: The Woman Won, The Woman Lost,” in ELH, Vol. 48, No. 1, Spring 1981).  In these letters, Stevens creates personages for the two of them in love; they are in costume or in imaginary landscapes, but, always, they are together. Here is an excerpt from one of his letters to Elsie, from about 1909, where he pictures them in a garden by a fountain (possibly somewhere in Europe, where neither of them had travelled):

The wind has fallen. The moon has risen. We are where we have never been, listening to what we have never heard. We are in a dark place listening – contentedly, to – well, nightingales – why not? ….  And can’t you possibly close your eyes and, by imagination, feel that it is perfectly real – the dark circle of poplars, with the round moon among them, the air moving, the water falling …

Elsie was his first audience, and the letters an early experiment, but later on, Bates says, Elsie turned away, because “the writing of poetry might have qualified in Elsie’s eyes as metaphysical adultery.”  She felt betrayed as he began to publish; this was her husband, these were her poems.  But poets need readers. Think of the stanza quoted above, where Stevens wrote “We make a dwelling in the evening air.”  The poet takes the stuff of the natural world, “the same light … the evening air,” and creates an imagined “dwelling” within it through “the central mind.”   The “we” must include all of us; as Bates says, “no audience, no inspiration.”  In the end, Stevens’s life work would not be love poetry, but rather a philosophical exploration of seeing and being in the world.  And he needed to find a way of speaking beyond the letters and he needed an audience beyond Elsie.

Another critic, Michel Benamou, wrote about Stevens’s  Cubist influences (“Wallace Stevens: Some Relations Between Poetry and Painting,” in Comparative Literature, Vol. 11, No. 1, Winter 1959).  But he goes on, more importantly, to say this: “There were two realities for Stevens – the reality of things observed and the reality of things imagined”; the world is “a monster,” but the poem “was the ‘necessary angel’ of reality, and there’s ‘a war that never ends’ between the imagination and the monster of nature.”  Once Elsie had turned away, the poet looked rather inward, confronting “nature” alone.  Stevens begins to find that poetry can pull the monster into its world. Benamou says that when Stevens wrote, in “An Ordinary Evening in New Haven,” that “we seek/ The poem of pure reality …. We seek nothing beyond reality,” he means that “this pure reality is the monster mastered and purified by the imagination” (pp. 58-9).  Stevens puts the imagined conversation into poetic form and we overhear the whole (monologue or dialogue) of the poem.  So, when we enter Stevens’s poetic world, we see both our natural world and the poetic one, and if we are listening, we can enter into the world more completely, we are caught up in it; “nightingales – why not?”  

The final critic I read, the fabulous Marjorie Perloff (in “Pound/Stevens: Whose Era?” in New Literary History, Vol. 13, No. 3, Spring 1982) says that this world of Stevens is “built upon the central reality of our age, the death of the gods …. in their place it offers the austere satisfactions of a ‘self’ dependent on the pure poetry of the physical world, a ‘self’ whose terrifying lack of belief is turned into a source of freedom.”  Our fear, as we confront what Benamou called the “monster” of reality, can be transformed by “the pure poetry of the physical world.”  Perloff says that, in Stevens’s [mature] poems, “the addressee is always the poet himself.”  He is no longer speaking to Elsie; he is speaking to his own fears, his own observations, and we watch him, turning the everyday objects into poetry, and, says Perloff, he “teaches us how to talk to ourselves.”

We need to talk to ourselves every day as we confront monsters.  So that got me thinking, how do painters talk to themselves?

They draw.  Here are three drawings that can teach us “how to talk to ourselves,” in pencil and charcoal.  The first is by Ingres, “Study of Seated Female Nude,” from 1830.  We are, to quote Stevens’s letter to Elsie, “where we have never been”:

The model looks back out at Ingres, and so, at us, the audience.  Ingres has played with light and shadow, with different types of lines, with idealizing (her perfect hands and face) and with bodily imperfection (her swayed posture, her uneven breasts).  He has lavished attention on a drawing that no-one else might ever see. The drawing is complete in itself: you can almost hear the model breathe. What does this beautiful, calm figure have to do with Stevens and monsters, you ask?  Outside the studio, Paris was not calm.  1830 was the year the King (Charles X, of the House of Bourbon) tightened censorship one day and dissolved parliament the next; in July came the Revolution, the Trois Glorieuses, where the newly-unemployed threw paving-stones and roof tiles and then destroyed all the streetlights. The King abdicated and Louis-Philippe (the House of Orléans) took the throne.  This drawing is, I think, a way for Ingres to settle into himself, to control the chaos through creating its opposite: perfect artistic order. In this year of turmoil, Ingres might well need to talk to himself.  

The next drawing is by Degas, and prepares for a painting of the Bellilli family that he would begin in 1859 (the same year as this sketch) and complete in the next. This pastel drawing is of Degas’s cousin, Giulia Bellilli, and it is now in the Dumbarton Oaks Collection:

There is something about the unfinished character of this sketch that pulls the imagination in; we are “in a dark place listening.” The artist’s presentation of the (probably impatient) girl, her pinafore, and the addition of that blue means that he was lingering, here, longer than he probably needed to; was he talking to himself? Likely, yes; the final painting of the family is Degas’s “monster.”  There was great tension between his aunt and her husband, and, despite the soft blue wall and Gilia’s placement between them, it shows in the final work:

This was painted in Florence. The painting is now exhibited in the Musée d’Orsay, where the website mentions its “climate of oppression” and says that even the little dog at lower right is seeking to “escape” beyond the frame.

Our final sketch is “Seated Nude and Standing Nude,” by Pablo Picasso, from 1906:

For Picasso, this was one of a series of drawings in the notebooks leading up to his “Demoiselles d’Avignon” of 1907.  In the fall of 1905 and winter of 1906, Gertrude Stein had sat for her portrait, and these two nudes have some resemblance to Stein (seated, left) and Picasso’s then-lover, Fernande (standing, right), who sat with them as Picasso painted and read aloud.  In Picasso and His Friends, Fernande would later write that, sometime between the Bateau-Lavoir studio and the one at the Boulevard de Clichy, she and Picasso had taken hashish with Apollinaire and Max Jacob. The poets, Fernande says, were delighted with the sensation, but Picasso, “in a state of nervous hysteria” began to shout “that he had discovered photography, that he wanted to kill himself, that he had nothing left to learn” (translated by Jane Miller, New York: Appleton-Century, p. 134).  He had drawn these two women in a way that no camera could, and still he was afraid.

There is a poem by Stevens, oddly called “So-and-So Reclining on Her Couch.”  It was written in Hartford, Connecticut, in 1943, during  World War II, at a time when the Allies were bombing Hamburg and when the Warsaw Ghetto uprising was crushed. It was also a year of personal difficulties for Stevens: his sister had died and he had quarreled with his daughter.  And yet Stevens writes of an odalisque, painted

On her side, reclining on her elbow…
              this apparition….
She floats in the air at the level of
The eye, completely anonymous ….
     She floats in the contention, the flux
Between the thing as idea
And the idea as thing. She is half who made her….
This arrangement contains the desire of
The artist….One walks easily
The unpainted shore, accepts the world
As anything but sculpture.

She is beyond the war, the family quarrels, this painted anonymous “apparition,” and in his concentration on her, half herself, half the artist’s creation, Stevens pulls the world into a tight few lines.  When we do walk outside again, we, like the narrator here, will see that the sand we walk on is “unpainted,” and that the monsters of the world are still there, “anything but sculpture,” and yet we have learned something about being in the world. Stevens concludes the poem with this:

Mrs. Pappadopoulos, and thanks.

The apparition is gone, but the poet is still free to keep speaking to himself (and, if we are lucky, to us).