Sunday, December 7, 2014

Good Morning Jacob

Letter to my Son
Sunday, 7 December

Good Morning Jacob…

The rate of technological change we experience as individuals can give us the impression that humanity’s lot steadily improves.  Growth in scientific knowledge generally improves the quality of life by most people’s estimate.  Whether humanity has similarly progressed in the realms of politics, philosophy and the arts is something passionately argued.  These are areas guided as much by the human heart as they are by intellect.  Yet a convincing argument can be made that governance has benefitted from the development of democratic institutions; mankind is more compassionate when the inviolable rights of the individual are honored; and the visual arts has broadened its impact with the development of perspective, photography and motion pictures.  Who would argue we are better served if we turn back the clock and give up any of these developments?

Nicolas Poussin:  Orpheus and Eurydice - 1651

Nicolas Poussin’s 1651 painting, Orpheus and Eurydice, skillfully renders the illusion of a three dimensional world though painted onto a flat surface.  It takes full advantage of techniques developed by Renaissance artists, using single-point perspective as well as the lesser appreciated atmospheric perspective – acknowledging colors appear less saturated the further they are from the viewer.  The use of chiaroscuro, the treatment of light and shade, makes for a persuasive depiction of form.  Poussin provides a window onto his world, a civilization that celebrates the power of human reason to overcome age-old obstacles to mankind’s progress.  This approach was powerful during the Age of Enlightenment because it was a refreshing, inspirational view of mankind’s condition.  This expression by the masters of 16th century art became a convention that dictated the style of Western art for nearly three hundred years.  By the 19th century these methods were considered stale theater by artists demanding more personal expression; with its emphasis on creativity, sensuality, and immediate, authentic emotion.

Claude Monet:  Water Lillies - 1914

The Impressionists of the late 19th century created a new palette suited to portraying their spontaneous reaction to what their eye caught before them.  They moved their easels to the bright outdoors from their isolated studio and became enchanted with a landscape bathed with sunlight.  The shimmering light, the ever-changing tone and mood as the sun traveled across the sky, was intoxicating.  Impressionist painters like Monet abandoned most all considerations in order to capture light’s elusive effervescence.    

Vincent Van Gogh:  The Sower - 1888

The Dutch artist Vincent Van Gogh employed the Impressionist’s vivid colors to dramatically externalize his personal sympathies upon the landscape.  These works of the period burst forth with a passion that was suddenly free from deadening constraints.  The energies of youth radiated onto unvisited avenues with newly minted unimagined forms of creativity.  It was inevitable that someone substantial would eventually call a halt to the excesses and attempt to reinstate something of the traditional.

Paul Cezanne:  Houses at L'Estaque - 1880

Paul Cezanne felt Impressionism had abandoned much that was still essential to Western art.  The romance with color had pushed a reverence for form nearly out of the picture.  It was time to reestablish structure.  There was legitimate need for the illusion of substance, providing dimension on the flat painted surface.  Without dimension there is no dynamics.  Painting becomes a simple decorative design.  But the dark contrasts of chiaroscuro were out.  Cezanne would instead employ contrasting cool and warm colors to give a sense of depth and dimension.  His experiments would result in a fresh, recasting of Western art with a clean, simplified geometric look.  Detail was gone.  Verisimilitude:  sacrificed in favor of the sensual brushworking of oils onto canvas.  After all, we’re not making reality here.  We’re doing paint.

Chokwe Mask

 The colonialist ambitions of Europe exposed artists of Western civilization to new approaches of expressing the human form and psychology in art.  These mysterious, exotic masks and sculptures were exciting; powerful images, direct in their appeal and intuitive in their creation.  Flesh need not appear as flesh.  The head can be any assemblage of eyes, mouth and nose.  Extremes of imagination work to dramatize a human essence that is otherwise near impossible to portray.  About this same time Western thought is shaken with new ideas of the intellect.  Freud publishes his Interpretations of Dreams in 1900.  We are confronted with evidence that our minds remain basically instinctual and sexual desire permeates our everyday lives.  In that same year Max Planck’s revelations on the indeterminate nature of physical matter, his theory of Quantum Mechanics, undermines our Newtonian certitude.  Five years later Einstein releases his Special Theory of Relativity.  The conclusions are revolutionary.  Matter is a form of energy.  Space and time are related, not separate and distinct.  What time it is depends on where you are in the universe and how fast you are going.  We don’t all experience the same reality.

Pablo Picasso:  Les Demoiselles d'Avignon

Art is not created in a vacuum.  Artists may be made subliminally aware of dynamics that shift great civilizations like tectonic plates on a suddenly agitated molten sea.  Take a look at Picasso’s iconic statement of 1907.  No single 20th century painting portrays the unhinging of Western society from its traditional mooring like this bizarre portrayal of the women of Les Demoiselles d’Avignon.  We are here confronted by the nude women of a brothel.  Our anticipation of erotic pleasure is instead replaced with feelings of dread and anxiety.  Picasso has presented us with an indeterminate reality.  The love and tenderness we normally associate with femininity is replaced with judgmental stares and insinuations of barbaric acts.  Picasso bids good-bye to our long, confident love affair with the Enlightenment.  We are now cut adrift in a cold, uncertain world.

As it turns out the Twentieth Century was a time of both unparalleled human catastrophe and scientific progress.  Despite two global wars our civilizations rose to unprecedented heights in economic prosperity and technological development.  The art of the Western world has pursued numerous avenues of creative exploration, including cubism and various forms of abstraction.  Painters in oil have brought new approaches to representational art with works by artists ranging in vision from Lucian Freud to Francis Bacon.  Movies are all the rage and photography has democratized art.

Can we say these revolutionary strides in the visual arts demonstrate progress over the last couple of centuries?  Or is it reasonable to conclude, as did Picasso, that art has a timeless quality – it expresses an immutable human essence – traits not subject to alteration by scientific advancement.  Maybe the craft of art is more likened to the nature of a love shared by two people for one another.  Couples of long ago fell in love by the warmth of a fire, beneath the inky night stars.  Today they express their love sharing a bed, each with a smart phone in hand or casually browsing their iPad.  In each instance the need for love is maintained but its expression is determined by the nature of its context.


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