Wednesday, December 06, 2006

Lecture THIRTEEN summary

[Footnote. A new book has appeared with a different take from mine last week: Ann Friedberg, The Virtual Window. A quick look suggests that this book starts with Alberti’s painting-window simile and comes down to computers, where we all rely on Windows now.].

Circles revisited

An e-mail comment from a member of the class has made me conclude that I gave short shrift to the question of circles in 20th century art. This topic we revisit in selected examples.

We start with two illustrations from the Theosophical Thought-Forms of Besant and Leadbeater. In the designs presented, ostensibly based on observation of actual auras, there seems to be an assumption that circles are inherently peaceful, even when expansive. Ovals are suited to characterize more aggressive feelings.

During the 1930s Fritz Glarner defied his guru Mondrian by imposing rectilinear forms on tondos (Mondrian had banned all circular forms).

Isamu Noguchi was a sculptor who bridged two worlds. He seems to have paid homage to the ensō in his “donut” sculpture.

Meret Oppenheim’s famous fur-lined trio is probably best regarded as a comment (in the wake of Duchamp) on the dubious commonplace that “we know something is art by the fact that it is useless.” The saucer is of course a circle.

In the aftermath of Abstract Expressionism, Jasper Johns and Kenneth Noland used concentric circles.

In a different way, feminist artists explored the use of central-imagery. The work of Judy Chicago and her collaborators is a case in point.

Alice Aycock and Robert Morris combined a circular scheme with a labyrinth. In his evocative photographs of manhole covers, Mark Feldstein discovered circularity in a commonly observed (and ignored) manufactured object.

Damien Hirst’s brightly colored tondo seems to pay homage to Robert Delaunay.

Flowers and plants

Nicolas Poussin’s “Realm of Flora” summarizes idea from classical times about the origins of flowers from the deaths of beautiful young people, including Ajax (who became a carnation), Clytie (who became a sunflower), Narcissus and Hyacinth. Sir James Frazer’s ideas detecting a parallel between the dying-reviving god and the vegetation cycle still seem pertinent. It is possible that Van Gogh’s concern with sunflowers reflects knowledge of the Clytie legend. The association of cypresses with death reflects the story of Cyparissus, though the connection had become generic by the time that Arnold Boecklin used it.

Redon used flowers in a variety of contexts, especially in his later pastels. The image of Pandora seems to suggest that she is the giver of flowers—and by extension the natural world.

Flowers were important in the art nouveau because of the sense that the traditional imagery of ornament (in part based on stylized plant forms) had become sterile and repetitive. These artists rejected the radical abolitionism of Adolf Loos. Guimard’s Métro entrances are a case in point. Otto Wagner’s majolica house seems to be a witty variation on the theme of the floral window box. In his Sezession building, Olbrich used flowers to suggest the idea that renaissance (the new style) = reflorescence. The floral ornament of Gaudí and Louis Sullivan is very individual.

In the 20th century Georgia O’Keeffe made powerful use of flower imagery.

Trees and landscapes

Mondrian’s sustained studies of trees were perhaps the most important bridge in his work from realism to abstraction.

As we noted in an earlier lecture, Puvis de Chavannes’ work became a principal reference-point for the idea of arcadia. This sense was picked up by Signac and above all by Matisse in his “Joy of Life” (Barnes Collection). A different sense of arcadia appears in Kandinsky’s “Garden of Love,” where exotic fulfillment is linked with incipient abstraction (a perhaps-necessary veiling, for personal reasons).

An old theme was renewed in Central Europe in a new concept of the evocative landscape in which scenes became, as it were, mirrors of the soul. This approach began precociously with the northern landscapes of Caspar David Friedrich in the early nineteenth century. In his several versions of “The Isle of the Dead” the Swiss Arnold Boecklin shifted the focus of interest to the Mediterranean.

On the whole Symbolists did not seem very interested in mountainous landscapes. Yet attitudes to them reflected an important conceptual evolution. Around 1800 “mountains became ‘temples of Nature built by the Almighty’ and ‘natural cathedrals or natural altars … with their clouds resting on them as the smoke of a continual sacrifice.’ A century and a half earlier, however, they had been ‘Nature’s Shames and Ills’ and ‘Warts, Wens, Blisters, Impostumes; upon the otherwise fair face of Nature. For hundreds of years most men who climbed mountains had climbed them fearfully, grimly, resenting the slightest aesthetic gratification.” (Marjorie Hope Nicolson, Mountain Gloom and Mountain Glory, Ithaca, 1959, p. 2).

For centuries the conventional wisdom was that, as much as possible, high mountains must be avoided—quite sensibly in the case of Alps in winter. Yet with the emergence of the aesthetics of the Sublime the awesomeness of mountains began to fascinate. And with the related doctrine of the picturesque mountain ranges (though generally low ones) were admired for their pleasing qualities. For some this appreciation of hills and gentle mountains was schooled by the seventeenth-century paintings of Claude Lorrain.

Mountains are prominent in the figural work of Vassily Kandinsky of a hundred years ago. In the last preabstract period of his work, the Russian artist frequently depicted hills and mountains, sometimes showing himself together with his companion Gabriele Münther, both reclining on the grassy sward. Gradually the rippling lines of the mountains became less specific, though sometimes acquiring a crowning feature in the form of idealized Russian city, with domes and bulbous turrets. In Kandinsky’s Improvisations and the early Compositions we can see the natural motifs gradually becoming less and less salient, while the dynamism of the line, originally inspired by mountains, remains.

ADDENDUM. At the intermission, the instructor shared a concern stemming from thinking about Picasso’s “Funeral of Casagemas,” a task fostered by reading the student papers. The issue is this. We customarily regard the ambiguities and enigmas of Symbolist painting as a product of deliberate choice—the story that is told and the story that is not. What if, though, in this ambitious work of a nineteen-year old Spanish painter the ambiguities are a product of immaturity?

It was posited that the unresolved tensions in the painting reflect the artist’s religious evolution--from the unproblematic Catholicism of his childhood to the skepticism that his Barcelona peers confronted him with. In this way one can account for the copresence of the sacred and the blasphemous in the painting. There are psychological issues as well, stemming from Picasso’s economic dependence on the relatively prosperous Carles Casagemas.


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