Sunday, December 26, 2010

Michelangelo and the Feminine

A couple items to square away first:

1. I hope those of you of the Christmas persuasion, had a wonderful Christmas. Mine was very nice; and I went to Grace Church on 10th and Broadway for midnight services on Christmas eve. Being Jewish, I don't actually do that very frequently, which I realize has led to a bit of a deficit in my understanding of cathedral architecture. The enormous enclosed space above the congregation feels filled; it vibrates with sound and presence. This mighty space seems to me a great part of the awe that cathedrals are so well built to inspire.

2. That last post, the one about information density, appears to have gone over like a lead balloon. Fine. You will see who is laughing in the end, and who is crying. I bite my thumb at thee.

To the subject at hand.

Nowadays, there is a fairly successful if under-reported painting movement that I sometimes think of as "sentimental neo-impressionism." It involves a decent proficiency with color, and extremely brushy brushwork. Often the subject is a naked woman, but so vaguely painted that you could hang one in the drawing room without bringing a blush to the cheek of your maiden aunt.

Practitioners of this treacly genre are sometimes asked, "What inspires you?" The interviewer is staring right at a painting that is clearly a painting of a drowsy and unclad woman waking up slowly (and nakedly) on a sunny morning. And the genre painter in question will reply, "Oh, I'm mostly interested in form and color and composition, the actual subject matter is really quite irrelevant."

You ought not to blame these painters for such transparently fraudulent statements. The originator of this line of bullshit, so far as I can tell, is Henri Matisse.

Oh, I'm mostly interested in form and color and composition, the actual subject matter is really quite irrelevant.

By the way, I am lying to your fucking face right now.

I appreciate your respect for my basic intelligence, Henri.

Let me make a pledge to you. I will never paint a painting of a woman and say, "Oh, it's really all about composition and shapes and lines and colors and forms." Unless someone makes it clear how lying about it will help my career way more than telling the truth, in which case, I will break my pledge to you and sleep like a baby that same night.

But since nobody has yet made a convincing case for lying, I am currently forthright enough to admit that it is a painting of a woman because I love women. Men are great, sure, but women are great plus. Great plus utterly magical. I think most women are completely beautiful and fascinating. I crave the company of women; I feel drunk, pitched headlong into enchantment, listening to what women have to say. Women seem to me to possess the virtues of reason united with a grace of spirit and form which men, optimized as they are for the application of force, nearly lack. I find it endlessly rewarding to make pictures that try to get at just what it is about women that is so absorbing. Let me quit being obscure and unclear about this - I love women.

Which brings us to the strange case of Michelangelo. Michelangelo rather famously combines two peculiar qualities:

1. He is arguably the greatest sculptor who ever lived.

2. He was undeniably godawful at sculpting women.

Statement 2 has a lot of supporting evidence, but it chiefly depends on his figure of Night in the tomb of Giuliano de Medici:


It has been noted that this statue looks like nothing so much as a man with a couple of apples stuck on his chest:

Artist's rendition of a man with a couple of apples stuck on his chest.

This man-with-apples-on-chest construction of the female physique is not unique to the Night, but recurs throughout his oeuvre:


The Last Judgment

The analysis that follows has next to nothing to do with art history or psychology or anything like that. I prefer to maintain my line of near doctrinal ignorance; I find that it frees me up to think thoughts that are more interesting than they would be if I were better informed.

So - let's stipulate that it is entirely fair to state that Michelangelo's sculptures of women's bodies are really just men's bodies with a couple apples stuck on the chest. This issue has gotten Michelangelo a rep as a guy who is just not that interested in women and doesn't get them. Consider a couple of sculptors who are much more committed to the femininity of the female body. You've got your Bernini, with the breath-stopping vitality of his Daphne:

This same Bernini came up with one of the most sensual images in art - for once we're not talking about his Saint Theresa, but rather the fingers of Pluto pressing into the flesh of Proserpina:

You see that? No? OK.
I'm sorry, I can never get enough of this, and I really want you to be able to see what I'm seeing here.
Bernini's work is consummately physical in a way that Michelangelo's is not.

And let's not forget Rodin.


I wouldn't maintain that Michelangelo isn't more interested in men. His men have a vitality and a glory, a majesty and unity, which is unexcelled anywhere in art; and even his equals are not quite like him. He is alone.

But for me, he is also a master at depicting women - again in his own unique way. Let's get to the crux of the argument.

The Pieta. It's always the Pieta. You know this sculpture. I know this sculpture. Look again at her face.

Which property of femininity does this Mary not partake of? In physicality, she shows the soft curve of the jaw, the rounded cheeks, the oval face, the fine features, the luminous eyes. In character, she shows suffusion with emotion, pride in form, perception, self-possession. And in circumstance, she shows both maternal love and grief, and that awful maternal capacity to sustain them: the agony and ability to survive it which characterizes mothers alone. Like Michelangelo's talent, it is rarely matched, and when it is matched, it is never quite the same.

A similar profundity occurs in, for me, the other most notable women in Michelangelo's work, the Libyan and Delphic sybils:



Again, the bodies are expressive, but masculine. We must turn to the faces to find what we are looking for:

In Libica, we see knowledge, total knowledge, of what is in mortals - the good and the evil alike. And for all that, we see forgiveness as well. It is not the weak forgiveness of the optimistic and the ignorant; it is the deep forgiveness of the wise and the just. It is a forgiveness that shakes us in the scale of the horror it comprehends. For the same reason, it is the only forgiveness that can offer hope to us when we are caught, by our own trap, in our own darkest passage. This is the forgiveness that says, "Ruined man, I know your villainy, and you, even you, are not beyond the scope of redemption."

The expression of Delfica is difficult to read without bothering to find out the accompanying narrative, and I, for one, have not bothered to find it out. To me, her expression reads as the fear of a girl in flight. Her hair billows around her, her cheeks flush, her mouth opens in dismay, her eyebrows rise, her eyes widen. In short, she shows every part of that expression which causes men to leap, without needing to think, to offer protection. And yet this face sits atop a solid body, considering a scroll, seemingly one of a congregation of counselors, consulting with a colleague…

I have said little about Mary, about Libica, or about Delfica, which could not be said of a man as well. Femininity is not entirely reducible to signs and stories, to words and ideas. This quality is understood as an awareness, a distinction, that lives in the soul and heart and gut; if we could say it, we could work out the sum and close the ledger. We would not need paintings and sculptures to lead us past the point words fail. We would not need to train ourselves to know it and appreciate it when we encounter it.

Michelangelo shows a depth of adoration of the femininity of women which is quite so impressive, complex, and perceptive, as that of any more obviously woman-loving artist.

Now let's get back to this issue with the body, with the disjunction between the faces and bodies of his women. This is an issue which you could reasonably say puts him foursquare in the camp of those who separate body and soul, one of those icky Cartesians so out of fashion by now. It is a position equated with misogyny. We do not see Michelangelo doing such violence to his absolutely unified men, whose bodies are harmonious with their faces and expressions in one overpowering whole. The rift only occurs with women.

Well, that's fair. It's fair to say that Michelangelo's approach constitutes an attack against women. It's fair, but let me offer another way of looking at it.

This other option is - Michelangelo is not using this bizarre technique to attack women. He's using it to control men. I, as a man, can tell you that I am kind of turned on pretty much every waking hour (and some of the sleeping ones). I think to some extent this is true of most men, at least until that advanced age at which - who was it, Aristophanes? - sighed in relief that he was no longer driven mad all the time.

This state of being turned on is tremendously useful in many ways; it focuses the mind and enhances the will. It can be turned to any number of projects, apart from its own. But it is not a uniform blessing. It too readily assimilates appreciation to desire; it equates all that it is good to know, with all that it is needful to have. This is a distortion of the truth. Some things, many things, one would do well to know, without need of possessing.

Michelangelo's technique allows men to appreciate women, to study women, to get to know women, from the unnatural position of failing to need, in some way, even a small way, to possess them. Chastity is a difficult position, but Michelangelo gives it to his male viewers. Doing this, he gives them a world they can hardly ever enter: he allows them to encounter the feminine from that attitude of disinterest which, in men, is a necessary precursor to some of the most fundamental forms of love (ask Abelard). Chastity is not everything. As we see with Michelangelo, it definitionally shares many features with misogyny. But chastity is not nothing either; it is a perspective worth accomplishing.

As long as we're talking about women, I've just gotten done painting this one. This painting is really all about color and composition and form.

Absent Friends, 30"x24", oil on canvas

Happy new year, folks, and thanks for sticking with me. It's an honor to write for you.

UPDATE - Dec 27

I'm snowed under with work, so it's going to take me a little while to get to the replies to this post. But if you'd like to read a really good, well-written argument against the position I'm taking here, please check Claudia's comment. And if you like that, check out her wonderful blog, Museworthy. She's a fantastic model and writer who covers art, modeling, and life.

Friday, December 17, 2010

Proposal for a New Element of Design

Here is a long post, because I don't think it's fair to bring up this topic without treating at least all of the basics of the concept. But please don't feel obliged to read it all at one go - I just want you to be assured that I'm not leaving out anything you need to get the gist of the idea here.

This is another interesting concept resulting from my badly mis-remembering something I read one time. What I thought I remembered was this: that some scientist had done a quantitative analysis of Jackson Pollock's paintings and figured out a metric of information density on the paint surface.

The upshot of this was that it became possible to authenticate possible Pollocks by checking whether they stayed within Pollock's characteristic information density range.

Moreover, I remembered this information density metric as having low numbers, possibly between 0 and 1 or 1 and 3.

So, anyhoo, I was wrong. The scientist guy was University of Oregon physicist Richard Taylor, the information density metric was actually a fractal measure, and the numbering system was 0 to 3, with Pollock moving from 1.45 to 1.72 over the course of his mature career.

Oh, and apparently the authentication part doesn't really work. Here are a couple of articles, if you're interested, the first rather rah-rah, and the second distinctly less so:

Discover Magazine: Rah-rah!

Artsfuse: Blah-blah.

What was my interesting idea? Well, I'll tell you. I was over at my painter friend Andrew Smenos's studio the other evening, looking at his work, and I was trying to describe a difference between some passages in his paintings and other passages. I couldn't articulate the difference in terms of any of the standard elements of pictorial design.

Well, let's back up a second and go over those elements, just in case you've forgotten. I know I have trouble remembering them all:

Those are the ones I learned in school. They're like the earth-air-fire-water of art.

As I was saying, I couldn't articulate the difference between the passages in terms of any of these elements. But there was a difference. And that's very interesting, because these elements are supposed to provide a complete list of the available dimensions of definition of the visual field. That's the whole point of making up a list of elements.

My mind returned to my badly garbled memory of that Jackson Pollock study, and I said, "The difference is information density. There's low information density here, and there's high information density there."

What do I mean?

Well, look at this painting by Andrew, called Don't Be Such a Villain (oil on canvas, 48" x 36"):

That doll has low information density. Its surface is quite smooth and the gradient from light to dark is continuous.

The figure, in contrast, has high information density. There are abrupt transitions at a very small scale between light and dark, as well as an overall complex structure which, at a larger scale, also involves multiple abrupt light-dark transitions.

This concept of information density is similar to Dr. Taylor's fractal metric, but not exactly the same. It does not require repetition of the pattern at multiple scales, only a large amount of distinguishable information per unit of area:

Fractal scale - this is a graphic produced by Dr. Taylor

Information scale - I cooked this up myself.

The concept is similar to texture, but not the same as texture. One can imagine, for instance, depictions of dog fur and oak bark as having equal information densities, but distinct textures. Similarly, one can imagine conveying the texture of a leather chair by means of a low-information-density, smooth idiom, or a high-information-density, impressionist idiom. The texture is the same, but the information density varies.

So here's what I'm going to have to do. I'm going to have to propose that we add information density to our list of the fundamental elements of picture-making. You heard it here first.

Well, I'm sure there are lots of things that you could propose adding to the list of elements (although I can't think of any just now). Why is information density special? Why is anything special? Here's my list of qualifiers:

1. Because it's ubiquitous but aesthetically controllable.

2. Because it's useful.

3. Because the list of elements of design is noticeably, functionally incomplete without it.

4. Because artists interact with it in a structurally and cognitively similar manner to their interaction with the other elements of design.

I think we ought to put this to the test by looking at a couple of artists and the role that information density plays in their work.

First, since we're already getting acquainted with him, let's take a closer gander at Andrew Smenos's paintings.

We'll go back to the first one we looked at, Don't Be Such a Villain.

This seems as good a place as any to offer a rigorous definition of information density:

Information density is the number of visually distinguishable regions per unit of area.

[Aside to any information theorists in the room: I'm pretty sure I'm not using the term "information" in any Shannon-derived sense. What I mean by visual information is "visually discrete homogeneous region." For instance, the following items, in this poorly-thought-through and ill-defined system, would be considered single items of visual information:
  • a single white pixel
  • a circle filled with a uniform pale blue
  • an entire computer monitor showing nothing but white
  • a straight black line
  • a curved black line without inflection points
The following items would be considered two items of visual information:
  • a computer monitor showing nothing but white, except for a single black pixel
  • a white pixel beside a red pixel
  • a curved line with a single inflection point]
Back to the point. In Andrew's painting, the figure has high information density, the dolls have low information density, and the background has an information density of 1 - that is, the information content of mere existence.

If only we had some kind of information densitometer to test whether this intuitively clear classification is empirically valid! Wait a minute, we totally do. Well, a rough one anyway. You ever notice how different jpeg files of equal pixel count are unequal in file size? That's a function of information density. The jpeg compression system, like all lossy compression systems, doesn't store all the information in the source data set. If you think of all the information you need to define a pixel of image as having a data value of 1, then the information:pixel-number ratio of a jpeg is less than 1:1. How much less depends on how complicated an image the jpeg is compressing.

So let's try out our theory of information density in Andrew's painting using a simple trick: making new jpeg files of parts of it in Adobe Photoshop:

Each of the three regions is a square 85 pixels on a side. The jpeg file sizes are more useful as relative measures - relative to each other, for ranking - than as absolute measures. The picks I made here were my instinct for "typical" regions in the three parts of the painting, but I did put my thumb on the scale a bit: I chose a doll area with some object differentiation, and a figure area with very little form differentiation. The figure area *still* came out more information-dense. This effect is even more striking in person: the doll is uniformly smooth, and the figure is uniformly complex. This is a function of the difference in painting techniques used in painting the two objects.

Now, let's look at a few more Andrew paintings:

Mama Tiger, oil on canvas, 40" x 32"

There Used To Be So Much Anxiety, 36" x 24"

We see Andrew repeating the strong distinction between regions of low information density and high information density, and frequently including regions of information density 1 - the pure whites. And those whites, in person, are really, really white: he puts on so many smooth layers of paint and gesso that his canvas surfaces ultimately have a tight, hard, drum-like consistency. This is his intuitive method for reducing information density; it produces a uniform surface without even the texture of the canvas threads themselves to break up the white field.

So what does this analysis buy us, in relation to my criteria for considering the relevance of information density as a fundamental element of design? Here's the list again:

1. Because it's ubiquitous but aesthetically controllable.

Check. Andrew's painting has an information density distribution - and in fact, all paintings do. You might argue that on this basis, "visual information" alone should qualify as a fundamental element of design. And it's true that information is ubiquitous. But saying "a picture has visual information" is equivalent to saying "the picture exists." Information exists because the image exists. All visual objects have an information value of at least 1 (using my peculiar definition of information). Thus, the presence of information cannot be controlled - the artist cannot decide anything with regard to the mere existence of information, just as the artist cannot decide anything with regard to the existence in the work of line, shape, color, value, and texture. But the artist can decide on the distribution of information density over the space of the image; and this makes information density, unlike information alone, an aesthetic design element, while also ubiquitous (like the accepted list) because the mere existence of the picture brings information density into being.

2. Because it's useful.

Check. I think it's fair to argue that we have a better understanding of what we're seeing, when we look at Andrew's paintings, after our analysis than we had before it.

3. Because the list of elements of design is noticeably, functionally incomplete without it.

Check. Absent this analysis, there would be a major categorical absence in our formal understanding of Andrew's paintings. In case you didn't already think of this, let me draw it out a little farther. Compare the colors in Andrew's paintings, particularly this one:

You see what he's doing there? Try parsing this beneath the level of object-identification: forget for a second that one of the things visible here is a naked woman (it can be done with practice). Look at the picture in a mechanical sense - a purely formal sense. The eye is naturally drawn to certain extremes among the elements of design. The eye is drawn to more saturated colors over less saturated colors. It is also more drawn to high information density than it is to low information density. In this painting particularly, Andrew has located the regions of greater color saturation (the dolls) and the regions of higher information density (the figure) in different spaces in the painting. This produces visual tension because two different brain functions compete with each other when we look at the painting.

Perhaps you're thinking, "What does all this have to do with the humanity and meaning and so forth?" Easy there - in this case, that's not a fair question. This formal kind of analysis is what we do when we learn about the elements of design. The humanity part comes later. Back to the point: within the accepted five-element schema, no strong formal tension exists in Andrew's painting. But a strong formal tension definitely exists in our experience of it. So the five-element schema is brutally incomplete in its treatment of this work. At least as far as Andrew's paintings go, information density meets the second criterion for relevance.

4. Because artists interact with it in a structurally and cognitively similar manner to their interaction with the other elements of design.

Check. Previously in this blog, somewhere, we've talked about the distinction between form artists and color artists. We've probably also talked about the distinction between analytic colorists (like me) and organic colorists (like John Singer Freaking Sargent). These are examples of different types of interaction of different artists with the elements of design. In case you've forgotten, let me review the difference between an analytic colorist and an organic colorist, because it's a good example of what I'm talking about with point 4 here.

An analytic colorist decides on the colors of his painting largely in advance, according to an explicit design scheme. People who don't naturally think in terms of color tend to do this, ironically lending their paintings a heightened sense of color:

That's me, deploying an analytic color scheme.

And this is The Tragedy, by Severus Snape, painted in a haze of grief shortly after his betrayal of James and Lilly Potter. Snape was an analytic colorist.

Organic colorists, in contrast, focus much more intensely on depicting the colors in front of them, and are quite good at mixing and juxtaposing colors which are faithful to the real experience of color, closely examined.

This is a painting by Sargent catching both the quality and color of a light source, and of a zillion different textures and colors reflecting light from the source. Sargent is a master of this, and has spawned any number of contemporary imitators, some of whom are also quite good. Sargent is better though - he's as good as the impressionists, even if his line-shape idiom is profoundly different from theirs.

What this distinction illustrates is that all real elements of design are subject to aestheticization based on differences in the deep interaction of each artist with the element in question. Botticelli is a line man, and so is Schiele, in a way that Rembrandt simply will never be. The distinct, single line speaks to Botticelli and Schiele in a way that it does not speak to Rembrandt. Et cetera.

So when I throw in criterion 4 in my list of necessities for a fundamental element of design, I mean that each element must hold, implicit within it, the same broad capacity for individual variation in its deployment and expression. This variation must be structurally and cognitively similar from element to element - that is, the element must arise at such a profound level that the neuro-cognitive individuality of artists imprints their use of the element, producing a variety of kinds of art bearing certain structural commonalities, including an organic-analytic distinction. When I say that Picasso is an analytic colorist and Sargent is an organic colorist, I'm showing that color qualifies as an element of design because color lives deep in our brains.

And I am saying that information density lives deep in our brains too. I am also saying that Andrew is an analytic information density artist. He has developed an arbitrary but aesthetically sophisticated scheme of information density distinction in his paintings, returning to tripartite high-low-1 regions in his compositions.

Now let's look at an organic user of information density, probably the most talented organic information density painter I know. His name is Fedele Spadafora. This is his painting Food of the New Masters 4:

What has Fedele done here? Well, it's interesting. He has placed the regions of high information density at the points the eye naturally perceives them:

In the reflected highlights in the liquid in the foreground, he has created small zones of high information density.

In the heap of food in the background, he has created a large zone of high information density. Notice that he has not created high resolution - it is nearly impossible to tell exactly what the heap of food consists of. But that it has great variety of color and contrast over a small area is clear.

Apart from these regions, his image has low information density - the tablecloth, the rear cup, the plate in the background, all are relatively flat and featureless.

Notice him doing the same thing again in this painting, Food of the New Masters 5, which shows, if anything, even more sparsity of regions of high information density:

I leave it to you to closely read this painting. For my part, I'd like to pick apart Fedele's application of his technique to a different kind of scene - people sitting on a train, in his painting Path Train:

In this painting, we have variation in information density distribution acting to lead the eye through the painting. We start with the hand of the foreground figure and the newspaper he is reading (or whatever that thing is). This region includes mottled gradients, high contrast, distinct shapes, and a range of color. The white line along the right side of the arm leads us down, then up, to the face of the foreground figure, another region of high information density - notice how the skin is defined by small but distinct patches of color. Value also varies in distinct regions, going from the edge light on the left, a high value, to the midtowns of the forehead, to the secondary highlights of the cheek, to the darker midtones of the stubble, to the darker values of the shadowed eye, nostril, and chin. All of this occurs in a region which occupies a small part of the total surface area of the painting. Like the hand/newspaper area, information density here is extremely high.

The eye moves from the face to the vent in the background, which Fedele has chosen to give a comparatively high information density, clearly defining the highlights in the circular metal components.

But he has chosen not to provide information density to the second sitting figure. While we have shape and highlight, the internal detail of this face drops toward nothing. There is some definition of form, but the paint application is slightly smoother than for the foreground figure, and the range of colors and values is restricted.

Yet this figure is comparatively well-defined compared with the regions which have truly low information density in this image - the ceiling, the back wall, the overhead light source, the window behind the figures.

This kind of distribution of information density is often called "focusing the image by means of selective detail." This terminology alone tells us that the classical list of elements of design is incomplete. The statement does not depend on any particular element of design. It does not describe line, nor color, value, shape, or texture. It describes their distribution. The distribution is a question of information density.

But I claimed earlier that Fedele's work exemplifies an organic sense of information density. What did I mean by that? I meant that he replicates the natural functioning of the human visual system in taking in a scene. The eye-brain system performs approximately the following procedure when presented with a new view:

1. make a rapid low-information-density overall scan
2. select items of apparent interest
3. return to items of interest and scrutinize carefully, raising image resolution in selected regions of the visual field

Don't believe me? Perhaps, then, you will believe… Harvard Medical School neurobiologist Margaret Livingstone! Yes, I understand this is a bald-faced appeal to authority, but her book Vision and Art: The Biology of Seeing, which I have cited many times on this blog, is still awesome, and you should still buy a copy and read it. On page 78, she discusses visual resolution (a slightly different concept from information density in an image itself), and even touches on the concept of scenic areas "rich in information," but she does not pursue this concept; it is peripheral to her line of reasoning. On page 79, she provides this excellent graphic:

In the top image, we see a painting of a man in a forest (by I.I. Shishkin). In the bottom image, we see where the eye of a viewer traveled as the viewer sat looking at the painting (in a clever experiment by Russian psychologist A.L. Yarbus). Livingstone's analysis concentrates on the meaning of the points of focus of the viewer: behaviorally important objects like people and foreground trees. She also raises the concept of relatively greater contrast in the areas the viewer focused on, and greater "detail." Detail here is taken to mean detailed representation. But detail, as I was just saying, is in this sense a kind of subset of information density. It is equally possible to produce information density with many distinct brushmarks in a small area, even if the brushmarks do not represent anything in particular. This is a large part of what is meant generally by the painfully vague term "painterly." Back to the point: when Dr. Livingstone says that the eye is drawn to high detail, I contend that she might as well say the eye is drawn to information density. In Shishkin's painting, the flat black regions of unlit forest got little or no attention; the more informationally rich trees and figure got more attention.

The painting itself is highly naturalistic. So what this experiment replicated was the natural progression of the eye over an unfamiliar scene. The eye identifies points of interest, and then "paints in" their detail by repeatedly scanning and sweeping them. The brain constructs an impression of the scene with an uneven distribution of information density. Density tends to be low in areas of nearly-uniform visual stimulus - even though it is possible to find information there if it is actively sought - and density tends to be high in areas of rapidly changing high-difference-value visual stimulus.

This is the natural information distribution of ordinary eyesight, and it is this process which Fedele has intuitively identified and heightened in his work. What makes the work distinct from most other selective-focus paintings is the degree of naturalism in the focus, and stylization in the information density differential across the entire image.

That is, Fedele does not choose to focus only on the points of thematic interest in Western art: he focuses on the face, and on the vent. This almost magically replicates the idiosyncrasy of the wandering gaze.

And he doesn't just let his low-density regions go lower-density: he lets them go nearly flat, with the merest hints of texture and variation. He pushes the low-density visual idiom to a nearly graphical limit, but his work never looks unrealistic, because his understanding of the functioning of the eye-brain system is so profound.

Fedele's work reads as astonishingly realistic, and yet it is in no way photo-realistic. The locus of Fedele's realism is not in the comprehensiveness of what is seen, but in the evocation of how we see it. His information density aesthetic is organic.

Having looked at Fedele's work and Andrew's work, I hope you can see what I mean about the aesthetics of information density. Both artists are masters at controlling a design element which is not even recognized yet. Although the element is unnamed, both have intuitively recognized its value as a tool of artistic expression. However, they have diverged in their use of the tool, following differences in their artistic vision and cognitive processes. Andrew has schematized the distribution of information in his paintings, using information density in parallel with his use of objects, as a semiotic tool. Fedele, in contrast, has studied natural human modes of perception and replicated them, with slight stylization, to heighten the feeling of organic realism in the scenes he paints.

I think this covers most of what we need for the time being.

I have a few more ideas on this topic I'd like to share with you, but surely they can wait. In another post, I'd like to discuss a difference I see between absolute information density, and effective information density. I'd like to discuss the influence of distance between viewer and object on information density (including an apropos quotation from Ruskin). And I'd like to demonstrate that this concept fulfills another criterion of good science - it has high explanatory value. I'll demonstrate that by applying the concept to analysis of work from Rodin, Lachaise, Rothko, Rosenquist, beginning art students, Matisse, and me. Stay tuned!

Thursday, December 9, 2010

The Ratjen Collection IV: Eisegesis

Let's finish up our tour of the National Gallery's exhibition of German drawings from the Ratjen Collection (begun here, here, and here). I only have one more drawing to discuss with you, but I have a fair amount to say about it.

Before we get to that, though, I need to set up the story. Lately, I've been working with Leah. Leah (or, more specifically, her belly), inspired my very third blog post, called On Bellies. Apart from having a snazzy belly, Leah is a wonderful model - dedicated, skilled, beautiful, and fascinating to talk with. If you paint from life, and you talk while you paint, you rapidly discover that "fascinating to talk with" is really, really important in a model. So anyway, I just finished a little portrait of Leah:

Leah, 2010, oil on canvas, 24"x20"

I'm planning a larger painting of Leah. One of the many cheerful things about her is that she is irrationally fond of snails (she might argue that this is not irrational). She is particularly fond of the Common Mystery Snail (yes, there is such a thing, although its exact taxonomy seems to violently divide the snail enthusiast community). Since I like to work the personal quirks of models into their paintings, I've been trying to figure out how to do a painting of Leah with a Common Mystery Snail of extraordinary size. I had just about come up with an idea, here:

This was the last of many sketches of composition ideas, and when I drew it, I thought I was satisfied with it. Then I went to see the Ratjen Collection, and I saw this drawing there:

Johann Evangelist Scheffer von Leonhardshoff, German, 1795 - 1822
Saint Cecilia, 1821
graphite on wove paper
Wolfgang Ratjen Collection, Patrons' Permanent Fund

Like the Ruth and Boas drawing from the previous post, this was a preparatory sketch for a painting that turned out to be much less interesting. Just so you know what's going on in this picture - Saint Cecilia seems to have gotten herself beheaded on account of her strident Christianity, but being a Saint, the beheading didn't take until she'd performed several miracles. Von Leonardshoff elides the icky problem of the botched beheading by placing some hair over the wounds on Cecilia's neck.

When I saw this drawing, I instantly thought, I oughta steal this composition for my Leah painting. The pose and placement are fairly similar; it's not like nobody has ever done a painting of this approximate placement of the human body before. I was planning it, Von Leonardshoff planned it - he just did it better than I did.

The more I thought about it, though, the more I was convinced, not only that Von Leonardshoff's version was better, but that my own version was contrived, even insipid. No doubt, if I'd painted my initial idea, I would have found some authentic emotion or meaning in it; I find that I do that, as I paint. But the idea itself, as it stands, is essentially "hot chick with big snail."

Von Leonardshoff, on the other hand, hints at something more distressing and more profound. His arc of the flesh seems to me to vibrate on the very edge of a dream. St. Cecilia sinks into a troubled dream. She is no longer her body, but on the verge of separating from it. As her corporeality dissolves, a greater and greater proportion of her subsists inside her dream. She is moving toward her dream, but her dream, in turn, speaks backward through the weakening bands of her physicality, to the material world she is leaving behind. The dream transforms her, makes her into a dream-object in the real world. Von Leonardshoff's St. Cecilia exists in two worlds, dream and waking, and Von Leonardshoff interprets the emotional texture of this dual state as being like one of sinking down drowsily into slumber, as if slumber were a thick porridge in which the body is bouyant, but still sinks.

There is another painting of a woman, famously suspended between the two worlds in a similar way:

Henry Fuseli, The Nightmare, 1781

If you remember her facing the other way, that's because he painted it twice and noodled around with the composition a bit.

This is a powerful, frightening image. But it is different from the idea that appeals to me. In the St. Cecilia, I see a solidity, a presence, to the dreaminess which, just now, strikes me as more essential, as closer to what I am trying to get at. It is unadorned with props and imagery. It is, itself, woven from a material half-sunk in dreaming. It does not require the symbols of dream-language because it is itself a dream.

This points us toward the subtitle of this post - eisegesis. There's a pair of important words for Biblical interpretation, exegesis and eisegesis. Exegesis is a fair word: it means to use various responsible methods of reading to draw out a meaning that inheres in the text. Eisegesis, in contrast, strikes me as a bit of a sarcastic made-up word: it means to read into the text - essentially to impose whatever was going through your head anyway onto the text and claim that you see it there too.

We could open a whole can of literary-critical worms if we decided to try to establish the legitimacy of this distinction, but instead, I'm going to take it as a given that the distinction is real.

Now, I like to think that a lot of what I do when I look at art is exegetical. But if you've been hanging out at this blog for any length of time, you will no doubt have concluded that I am big on eisegesis as well. I understand and accept this; I find it rewarding, the same way that some people, who do not believe in tarot, find it rewarding to read their tarot cards. It helps them to structure and evaluate the topics they contend with - I too find it rewarding to allow an artwork to be more meaningful than, perhaps, it really is.

I strongly suspect I have done that with regard to Von Leonardshoff's poor St. Cecilia. I have not spent so much time looking at her. Rather, I have spent my time thinking about the relevation I had when I looked at her. The drawing itself is a substrate for the idea, and what I have derived by a small measure of exegesis, and a large measure of eisegesis - all of that is now available for me to pack into the Leah painting, so that the Leah painting can support a legitimate exegesis of a dreamish state.

Or to put it in a less fancy way, I let my mind wander.

That about wraps it up for the Ratjen Collection. I was tired by the time I fled the National Gallery - most of the stuff I've told you about in these last four posts, I thought of in the hour or so that I was there, which made it an idea-dense visit, relative to my ordinary rate of thinking at least. Let me once again express my gratitude to the National Gallery for making the materials from the show available for us to pore over in detail and at a distance. I hope this has been a worthwhile interlude for you.

Friday, December 3, 2010

The Ratjen Collection III: Miscellaneous Figuration

I don't have so much of an organized thesis for this third installment of the series begun here and here. Do we always need a thesis? Sometimes it is good to just stroll along, as it were, and see what we see. Does that work for you? These are some more drawings I liked from the Ratjen Collection, and as long as the National Gallery was good enough to pass them along, I thought I'd like to share them with you. I do have a thesis for the fourth and final part of the this series - so check back in a few days.

Moving right along -

Hans Thoma, German, 1839 - 1924
A Man Bending Over, 1886
black chalk heightened with white, squared for transfer with graphite,
with scattered touches of red and yellow paint, on brown wove paper
Wolfgang Ratjen Collection, Patrons' Permanent Fund

What a wonderful figure! How much like the simplicity and vitality of Degas!


Consider Thoma's hunch - his correct hunch - that a thick line is what this image wants. His shapes are simple, his lines are thick, he rapidly brushes in lines where light is striking cloth and skin. How wonderful the tension of the body, the motion, the transitory nature of it - and yet how utterly solid and present. We all ought to hope for such grace and unity in our drawings!

Speaking of:

Franz von Stuck, German, 1863 - 1928
Nude Woman Lying on the Ground, 1896
black chalk and graphite heightened with white on bluish-gray laid paper
Wolfgang Ratjen Collection, Patrons' Permanent Fund

This Von Stuck fellow, he knows his flesh. I came across more than one drawing in this show about which I thought to myself: I am going to steal this pose for a painting. This was one of them. Again a similarity to Degas, and to Lautrec. The foreshortening is so beautifully handled, and the pose fills the space so wonderfully - so wonderfully, in fact, that it does this, as if you needed it pointed out:

Now let's turn our gaze away from geometries and consider different ways of looking at the world:

Julius Schnorr von Carolsfeld, German, 1794 - 1872
Ruth and Boas, 1825
pen and brown ink over graphite on laid paper
Wolfgang Ratjen Collection, Patrons' Permanent Fund

This is a design sketch for a painting (a far inferior painting - you can look it up if you like). But there is something just wonderfully creepy about the drawing. If you or I stumbled on such a scene, the people would no doubt seem to be occupied in different tasks, and to be different people. But all these people are utterly harmonized. They are all part of a single scene; they all think the same thought, even that threshing-woman on the right. There seems to me to be an eerie threat of violence about this synchrony. I didn't know the artist before, Julius Schnorr von Carolsfeld. But he was quite a guy. Look at what he does with dry leaves:

Julius Schnorr von Carolsfeld, German, 1794 - 1872
A Branch with Shriveled Leaves, 1817
pen and black ink over graphite on wove paper
Wolfgang Ratjen Collection, Purchased as the Gift of Ladislaus and Beatrix von Hoffmann

The explanatory text in the show suggests that Schnorr and his art student buddies basically had a contest going to see who could do a more bitchin' leaf study. The other entries in this art-student competition are not included, but I am going to speculate that von Carolsfeld won hands down. What an unmatched interest in the minuscule, the passing-away, the soon-to-be-forgotten! The show includes some portraits he drew as well; he had an unfailing sensitivity of line and ability to slightly idealize faces while maintaining a convincing individuality. Except, of course, in his spooky Ruth and Boas picture, which is interesting for entirely different reasons.

Carl Wilhelm Kolbe the Elder, German, 1759 - 1835
A Seated Young Woman Wearing a Fashionable Hat, 1800/1803
black chalk on very light green laid paper
Wolfgang Ratjen Collection, Patrons' Permanent Fund

Rad cloth!

Carl Wilhelm Kolbe the Elder, German, 1759 - 1835
A Fashionable Young Woman Seen from Behind, 1800/1803
black chalk on very light green laid paper
Wolfgang Ratjen Collection, Patrons' Permanent Fund

More rad cloth!

Seriously, though, what I like about these is that I do a million little doodles like them - interesting configurations of cloth and limb. I think everybody does when they're thinking through paintings. Most of them don't amount to anything; they're just ways of working out the kinks in your mind, moving toward an idea that is worth making something from. These instances, of course, are finished drawings, and to my eye, spectacularly, dreamily weird.

Well, thanks for sticking with this little experiment in a different style of post. I'll get back to you soon with the last of the things I learned from the Ratjen Collection.

Tuesday, November 30, 2010

The Ratjen Collection II: Swiveling Perspective

So last time, we were strolling through the Ratjen collection of German drawings, 1580-1900, courtesy of the National Gallery. We have a few more to look at, but we can't cover them all. Give it a visit if you can. They've also got some Munch prints up - that's exciting too, right?

Consider this:

Johann Christian Reinhart, German, 1761 - 1847
Tivoli and the Temple of the Sibyl above the Aniene Gorge, 1794/1798
pen and brown ink with blackink with brown wash over graphite on laid paper
Wolfgang Ratjen Collection, Purchased as the Gift of Helen Porter and James T. Dyke

What did I find so interesting about this? First of all, it's very beautiful, and by my lights, Reinhart gave up at just the right point in the composition. That's important, knowing when to give up. Each of my paintings is about three brushstrokes worse than it could have been; it still takes me about three brushstrokes to realize I should stop. It used to take me screwing up an entire arm, but I've gotten better at saying, "This is hurting it - and I am not going to fix the present mistake." Reinhart appears to have planned to do everything, but he didn't, and I like the way he didn't.

But he has also done just a wonderful thing here. The Aniene Gorge curves around him, so that its left side is in shadow and its right side is in sunlight. As the eye travels across the picture, the angle of the objects relative to the sun shifts, and their lighting shifts. As a result, we have a deep sense of panorama. It reminds me of this:

This is a matte painting by scientific artist Chesley Bonestell for the 1950 movie Destination Moon, included in an excellent illustrated history of matte painting called The Invisible Art (I once matte painted the background of every shot in a short film, and I read this book in preparation for it).

Now, this moon matte painting has an interesting property - the entire image was never shown in the film. Rather, the camera tracked over it, but the changing angle of the light convinced the viewer that the camera was actually panning around 360 degrees of view. You see that light smudge in the sky in the middle? It's located at the point the sun would be right above the lens if this were a real shot - Bonestell has painted in a lens flare. But what's best about this painting is, of course, that it predates the moon landing by years and years...

I don't look at landscapes very much, and if any of you do, let me know if the point I'm about to make is wrong. The point is this - you don't see a shifting relationship of a single light source to depicted objects in compositions all that often. It produces a sense of turning of the head, of swiveling to take in an entire scene, rather than a sense that the head and eye are locked on one view. So that's why I thought Reinhart's little landscape was so cool.