|Patch of Grass - Vincent Van Gogh PHOTO: TU Delft|
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.
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.