Saturday, November 21, 2009

Optical Black: Part 3

Well, a while back I promised to continue the inquiry into modes of representing darkness in painting. These are the first two posts on the subject:

Part 1

Part 2

You may remember that I left the discussion at the point of asking: is it possible to use the panchromatic Impressionist palette to produce a painting of the ethical or psychological profundity of a Caravaggio?

Let's say I were to say "no." This no can arise from one of two possible causes:

1. Nobody is that good (a contingent argument based in art history).

2. It is categorically impossible (the technique and the content are mutually exclusive).

I am, in fact, going to say "no." I think that both of the two possible causes are true, but only cause 1 comes close to being provable. Cause 2 is a matter of speculation which I will cover in the fourth and final Optical Black post.

As I commented before, the Academics provide a useful counter-example to the Impressionists. Why? Because they are using the same panchromatic palette as the Impressionists, but unlike the impressionists, they are deeply invested in the themes that dominated Western art during the Renaissance and Baroque periods. I'm using the term "Academic" loosely here to mean "guys who painted painstaking figurative paintings appropriate for exhibition at the Salon even after Impressionism was invented." For practical purposes (laziness), this post will allow Bougeureau and Alma-Tadema to stand in for the rest.

And while I'm going to talk a lot of smack about these two, please keep in mind that I adore them. Appreciating art over the long term involves appreciating more than one thing. They don't offer some things, but they do offer others. Those things are worthwhile too.

So let the flaying begin. Here's a fairly typical Bougeureau:

He painted a lot of pictures of young girls. His fans describe his sensitivity to the plight of the lower classes, like he was Millet or something. From the historical record, his sensitivity seems to be true.

But it's not reflected in his paintings. His lower-class individuals are all young girls, and they all look like this - pretty, clean, sentimental, well-fed. Not exactly Dickens (although I think I remember reading that Dickens was a fan).

On the other hand, look at those colors - he expresses light and dark in terms of transitions between warm and cool, saturated and desaturated. He is using the same appreciation as the Impressionists of the machinery of optical perception of brightness in terms of color. Unlike Renaissance figures, his outdoor figures really read like they're outdoors.

OK, moving on from Bougeureau's favorite subject, let's see how he handles the Greek classics:

Birth of Venus. That is a pretty goddamn snazzy composition there - he's obviously competing with Boticelli, and I think he's come up with a formulation to match the riveting quality of the Boticelli. Swirls of slow-motion distributed over a large number of figures. And look at those lush colors - the dazzling pastels, the superb integration of the figures into their environment.

And yet, the figures all look posed. This painting reeks of the studio. You can argue, and you would be right, that Boticelli's figures also take contrived positions. But Boticelli really believes in his figures. This animates their poses, it makes them work, because they are so sublimely weird and personal. In contrast, Bougeureau's figures seem to be the outcome of Bougeaureau asking himself, "What would be the right pose for this picture, to result in my prefered composition and maintain verisimilitude and interest?" It is analytic, it lacks blood.

Now let's consider his take on a scene with some more vivid emotions in it:

Hmm. What do we have here? One figure turned upward, in a classic Grace pose. Another looking downward, brow furrowed in a state of ardor. I'm not buying it. These are stereotypical poses. I don't see the artist digging into himself to find an expression of his theme that hasn't been done a million times before. I'm no big fan of originality either - I think it's perfectly acceptable to repeat something, as long as you do it well. But to do this well takes a personal commitment to the psychology of the scene, not a skilled rehashing of commonplaces.

The problem becomes even more glaring in his treatment of Biblical themes:

Adam and Eve mourning Able. Notice how brilliantly the painting is arranged in terms of lights and darks, so that the jagged shape of the dead Able slashes across the dimmer field. Bougeureau is slipping out of his comfortable contrast range here, all the way down into black, to express the emotions of this story. And yet he is still failing with regard to the figures themselves. Everything just feels posed - Adam's hand on his breast, Eve's face buried in her hands, Able's outflung arms. Again, there is no personal contribution to this painting. In the course of researching this post, I found out that Bougeureau painted this right after the death of his own son. And yet, this practitioner of the well-made picture couldn't summon up a single authentic feeling for his figures, only for his colors and values.

Doubt it? Take a look at Ilya Repin's 1885 depiction of Ivan the Terrible just after having murdered his son:

Click on the image so you can see Ivan's expression clearly. That is real fucking agony. Repin has drawn on everything he has to understand and communicate the emotions of the scene. Technically, the painting is nowhere near as flashy as the Bougeureau; it is entirely in the classical black=dark mode. But Bougeureau himself was struggling toward this mode for his own dead son painting, and he flubbed it.

Enough about Bougeureau. Let's take a look at the same arc of emotive failure in Lawrence Alma-Tadema. Here's a fairly ordinary composition:

Once again, the colors are very Impressionist - full-spectrum, responsive to bounce light from surrounding surfaces, varied and vibrant. (You may note there's a lighting resemblance between this painting and that Bougeureau of the beggar-girls above. There are technical and practical reasons for this which I'll get into sometime.)

Alma-Tadema is better at poses than Bougeureau. These people do look like they're hanging out together on a relaxed afternoon. His technique isn't as solid as Bougeureau's, although I personally would drive a large truck over any number of defenseless old ladies to be able to paint even this well. Anyhow, nothing major happening in this painting - just some friends chilling, reading Homer, as groups of friends tend to do.

Let's go up the emotional dial a little bit and see how well Tadema handles the challenge. This is called "The Unconscious Rivals," so I'm guessing they both like the same guy:

Look at that unbelievable bounce light on the interior! Holy crap is that lighting incredible! And the flowers - and all those colors! Wait, there are people in the painting? Yeah, sure, whatever. You see where we've arrived? The same sensual overwhelming that we have with the Impressionists. The way things look is very important. The people are not so important.

Shall we go up the scale a little more? How about another dead son painting (Pharoah, in this place - the one who tangled with Moses):

Hmm. No facial expression on Pharoah - I do believe he's frozen with grief. Dead son with arms flung out. Woman bent over covering her face. And Tadema's clearly been reading from the same Book of Tragic Aesthetics as Bougeureau (Rule 3: Make dead son scenes dark. Dark, and brown.). This image is pictorially compelling, but it is not psychologically revealing.

But this isn't the top of the emotional scale on scenes that Tadema tackled. For that, you have to go to his Heliogabalus painting. In case you don't know, Heliogabalus was a strong contender for the title of most psychotic Roman emperor. One time, he threw a dinner party and then killed all the guests by dumping several tons of rose petals on them. Tadema thought this would make a pretty good subject for a painting...

...I guess because it involves lots and lots of freaking rose petals. And no doubt this is the finest depiction in the history of painting of several tons of falling rose petals. In fact, it is not much different from any good floral painting by an Impressionist. What Tadema completely fails at is insight into any of the characters. The people getting killed by rose petals: not particularly fussed about it. Heliogabalus: bored.

Now you could make a fine argument for Heliogabalus actually having been bored during this scene. For him to be bored is an expression of absolute decadence. It's a frightening proposition. But the decadence bleeds from Heliogabalus to Tadema. You can search high and low in the works of Tadema and not find a single strongly felt emotion. Because this is the case, one starts to suspect that Tadema isn't so much expressing a choice in his Heliogabalus painting as he is covering up a deficiency.

As I did with Bougeureau, I contend that part of the problem here is that Tadema is spending all of his energy worrying about light and color, and there is nothing left for the integration of strong feelings into the work. The work is so technically demanding that, mighty though these painters are, they cannot create their paintings at this degree of technical polish, in this panchromatic paradigm, and also express the greater part of their humanity.

This is not a monovalent explanation for the essential failure of the Academics. The Academics to me are a haunting and tragic subject which touches on many of the themes and pathologies of modernism itself. As with so many other things, I will have more to say about this.

For now, I hope I have demonstrated, at least rudimentarily, that arguably the most technically accomplished painters who ever lived:

a. did work in the panchromatic idiom.
b. did care deeply about and did tackle the mighty themes of Western philosophy, mythology, and drama.
c. did fail, at least in part because of the technical strictures of the panchromatic idiom.

In the last post, I will cover this failure of integration in terms of aesthetics, psychology, and philosophy. Or, to put it in a more positive way, I will describe what I see as the divergent strengths of each of the two major idioms (darkness from black, and darkness from dark colors).

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