Monday, February 8, 2010

Since 2/1, we've been looking at the ideas in A Fine Disregard, Kirk Varnedoe's book on what makes modern art modern. He believes "the modernity of Degas's picture (Place de la Concorde, left) does not lie just in some step it provides on the way to Matisse and to Stella."

Varnedoe combed through scores of stereoscopes to see if Degas would have "found" something similar to his Place de la Concorde painting and appropriated it. He concluded that nothing available to him in the world of photography had the same "sense of reality, this world of the odd and contingent, of the accidental and the ephemeral,this offbeat sense of the crazy street." Varnedoe believes that his painting is "neither the product of photography's nature nor a given of modern society, but a construction willed into being by an artist." (Keep in mind that Kodak did not come out with a camera capable of producing snapshots until 1888. Place de la Concorde was painted in 1875.)

Here's The Vision After the Sermon (Jacob Wrestling with the Angel), 1888 and Munch's Evening on Karl Johan Street , below, (1892):

Varnedoe feels this Gauguin work is clearly indebted to Degas: "the near-space enlargement of the peasant woman beholding this hallucinatory vision of Jacob wrestling with the angel is a modified transcription of Degas's cafe-concerts and theatre pieces. He feels that those large, confrontational foregrounds in this and in the work of Munch are not really rejections of Realism; it's a tweaking of Realism's conventions, a way of turning up the volume on selected aspects of Realism --not so much a break with tradition as an offshoot.

In this matter of traditional versus modern spatial structures, and borrowed versus created innovations, The Vision After the Sermon helps us focus on some basic questions of originality. The composition here is taken from Degas, the line quality owes a lot to Daumier, the branch comes out of Hiroshige's plum branch, the wrestling couple is lifted from Hokasai's sketchbooks, and the flat planes of color and bold outlining derive from contemporary stylistic experiments by Gauguin's younger associate Emile Bernard. Yet the picture was boldly original. It's a "cobbling together of something new out of a grab bag of local and imported pieces." (p. 94)

And what about Matisse? Looking at Harmony in Red, Varnedoe sees it as a reimagining of an old theme - the comforts of home. I could paraphrase, but he says it better:

By enlarging the repetitive simplified swags of the wall pattern, and giving both that design and the intense red such dominion over the relatively thin and spindly imagery of nature seen through the window, he imparts a near-ecstatic pulse of life to what ot
hers might see as a quiet modest moment of decorative table preparation. In every respect, the opulence in this picture, the thrilling, engulfing energy that spills out of its borders, is tied to the simple act of arrangement at its center; it has to do with the immense enrichment of human life through culture, conceived not in terms of the additive piling-on of acquisitions, but in the attentive reconsideration of what lies to hand. (Apparently he had owned that piece of fabric for years, using it in other paintings as a backdrop.)

The eliminations and simplifications - the reduced detail, or most notably the minimized cues for depth - are pursued with this end in view - of reopening, rather than narrowing, the play between what we know and what we discover, between our awareness of a limited set of conventions and our ability to enlarge our response to life through their manipulation. (p. 95)

Are you at the blah, blah, blah point? Does this make any sense to you? Or is this heading off into rather high-flown, enigmatic realms of philosophy?

While most of this makes sense to me, it seems what matters is whether you need all this critical background to feel that expansiveness when you look at Harmony in Red, or whether it just works and you're transported, engulfed in that strong color. What do you think?


  1. Since you asked, Suzanne,

    I think -- re: whether analytic attention to the technical developments of how innovations evolved, is relevant to the enjoyment of a painting -- it depends.

    If going through the rational, helps to enlarge the total experience of the work of art, then I think it's the cat's meow. I think it's just important to keep making human sense, rather than hide meaning behind obfuscating jargon -- which of course you never do!

    Tangential: Bill, one of your Most Avid Fans, and Mark et moi went to Norton Simon Saturday, discussed your views right in front of some Van Goghs and more. I looked for a postcard in their gift shop, to send to you, of something we saw on a gallery wall: a photo portrait taken by Degas, which seemed clearly a type of study or reference for a painting!

    I remain unconvinced that photography didn't influence French painters pre-1900. Surely there were multivaried sources of inspiration, and why wouldn't such a new technology for rendering image be one of the many?

    Thanks for your refulgent thoughts, Suzanne!

  2. Hi, Suzanne. In answer to the last of several questions you pose, I do not think the "critical background" is needed to be captivated by the work and feel "transported", but it certainly adds to the enjoyment. I find this is true with music, painting, wine and many other aesthetic and sensual/sensorial pursuits. Our basic aesthetic-emotional decision is made almost instantly; we can then read and ponder information to deepen our enjoyment, perhaps help us understand how it works its magic on us or suggest new aspects. But I think it is rare for background information to reverse that initial nearly intuitive judgment, to make us "like" something that we initially are put off by or vice versa. And when it does, I tend to suspect we are allowing ourselves to be influenced by fad more than by our hearts.

    As with the entire series, thanks for sharing this with us. Appreciate the effort.

  3. A few replies to Beth and Lorenzo - first of all, Beth, I think I must have been unclear if you got the impression that either Varnedoe or I thought the Degas was not influenced at all by photography - I was trying to say that while photography may have been an influence in that it helped artists and others see reality in a different way, there was still the need for someone to come along and take aspects of the medium and rearrange them in an original way, which is what Degas did with Place de la Concorde. (Distorted, fragmented views of reality were available with various early cameras for centuries, but weren't often incorporated in artists' works; most artists tried to eliminate the odd effects, not include them.) Anyway, wish I could have been at the Norton Simon with y'all. So glad I'm refulgent - never been called that before!
    Thank you, Lorenzo, I think your point is interesting about how your initial feeling is rarely reversed - I think an openness to something that is initially off-putting might only happen slowly, over time, as a child grows up perhaps and is exposed to art and ways of looking at art (or listening to music,etc.) I know I like contemporary art, for instance, more and more - and initially I didn't have a clue what to think about it.

  4. I've been trying to unpack that last paragraph of Varnedoe's, and can't seem to do it -- get tangled in all the rathers and betweens and ands. Perhaps a flowchart could do it justice. Perhaps he's just telling us to put our preconceptions aside and enjoy the painting.

    Among other things, the Matisse seems to be an illustration of the view that nature isn't necessarily superior to culture, or heath to hearth; it might even be a charming tribute to civilization. Why flee that patterned red to enter the less-vivid, less comfortable outdoors?

    As for your concluding question, I can't imagine that a background in art criticism would better equip one to appreciate that expanse of red. I hope not, anyway. Articulating it is another matter, of course.