Friday, October 7, 2011

STANDING WITH MONET – Getting Behind the Art

Every few years, it seems, we hear of yet another famous painting which, on expert inspection, reveals another painting under its surface. It’s always a fascinating story—and a fine metaphor for the process of discovery.

Patch of Grass - Vincent Van Gogh  PHOTO: TU Delft
You don’t have to find the portrait of a woman under Van Gogh’s Patch of Grass to understand how the smallest of details can help you explore and get beneath the surface of a piece of art. Sure, it’s wonderful to appreciate a work for what you can see right away: the subject matter, the composition, the brushwork, the color. But there are so many other telling details and layers of meaning to be found if you’re only willing to look, observations that speak of the artist, of life in his or her place and time, and even of the very day on which the work was created.

There are often more tangible, more telling 
details proving the immediacy of the artist’s 
presence that day.

One of the more obvious ways to delve deeper into a work of art is to look for the symbolism the artist might have used to reinforce his or her point of view, or perhaps to skirt the scrutiny of church, state or some other censor.

Among the most currently notable examples, for its central role in Dan Brown’s popular Da Vinci Code saga, is the symbolism purportedly encrypted in Leonardo’s iconic work, The Last Supper.

Symbolism is, by its nature, subjective, but there are often more tangible, more telling details that bring you back to the day the work was done, proving the immediacy of the artist’s presence that day. Among my favorite such details is one I found in one of Monet’s plein air beach scenes. It depicts a warm, windy day, the effects of a gust ruffling a woman’s dress and lifting her parasol.

On the Beach at Trouville - Claude Monet

Drawn in by Monet’s knowing grasp of light and motion, I noticed something that pulled me in even further. It was a detail that immediately bridged the century and a half separating me from the artist, one that verified that he was indeed standing, painting, on that windy beach that day: grains of sand embedded in the paint.*

There are other clues in other works—paintings, drawings and sculpture—that speak not just of time and place, but to the true humanity of the artist. See if you can find them: hairs or finger prints in the medium, slips of the hand, stains left by drops of sweat.

Drawn in by Monet’s knowing grasp of light 
and motion, I noticed something that pulled 
me in even further.

Looking into and beyond the surface of the art can capture you, if you let it, in a sort of time warp, placing you there next to the artist and subject, close enough to touch. It doesn’t get much more real than that.

Old photographs also pull me into the scenes they capture. One of my favorite ways to experience this is to study the image—especially one that’s rich in detail like a busy street scene or a landscape—looking for details even the photographer might never have noticed, like a glimpse of a person who, at the moment the shot was taken, happened to be looking out the window of a building. What, I ask myself, was this long-departed soul doing or thinking at that moment he was unwittingly immortalized?

What was this long-departed person doing or thinking at that moment he was unwittingly immortalized?

I remember one such photo in particular, which appeared to have been taken from atop a five- or six-story building. It looked out over an intersection and down a busy street. It appeared to be summer. The scene bustled with activity, automobiles sharing the streets with horse-drawn carts. Hundreds of pedestrians, tiny elements in the composition, walked under signs identifying the shops: Dry Goods, Meat Market, Saloon. Among a group waiting to cross the street, one pedestrian, turning his head and torso, was looking up right into the photographer’s lens. What was it that made him turn and look up? What was he thinking?
                                                     *      *      *
Next time someone tries intimidating you with their knowledge of painters, palettes and periods, tell them you look deeper than that. Tell them you talk directly with the artist.

* Some art historians say sand, as well as other natural materials, were intentionally sprinkled on the wet paint of plein air works by the artists to impart the very immediacy I felt when viewing On the Beach at Trouville. I prefer a less cynical view.


meg said...

Bravo Jeff! When I visited Trouville, as we walked through the ancient streets to the beach, we passed a painting school for children, where inside was a juene fille with her hair in a kerchief, paintbrush in her hand, her back to me as she faced the canvas. Its one of my favorite shots from our excursion there. The "story behind the story" is always fascinating--thanks for the reminder to keep my eyes peeled!

Jeffrey Willius said...

I'd love to see that shot, Meg. Is it somewhere on your site?
Thanks, as always, for the comment!

jean said...

Hahaha! It has been raining so much here lately, all I could see was a rainy day painting! So I REALLY need to look deeper! :) :) Is anyone building an arc?

Jeffrey Willius said...

Oh no! Jean, are you in the southeastern US? Sounds absolutely terrifying!

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