Sunday, November 28, 2010

The Ratjen Collection I: Repetitions

I went down to DC the other week, to deliver this painting to a collector couple whom I am very pleased to have have it:

Rachel at the Cafe, oil on canvas, 30"x24", 2010

While I was in DC, I figured I would go by the National Gallery and visit a few favorite paintings, including the very one which inspired the Rachel painting:

The Girl with the Red Hat, oil on panel, 9"x7 1/16", Johannes Vermeer, 1665/6

But once I got to the gallery, I was diverted from my plan by the current shows, particularly an exhibition with the following catchy title:

German Master Drawings from the Wolfgang Ratjen Collection, 1580-1900

This show is up until January 8. Let's take a look at some of the pieces in it now.

How? I'll tell you how. I wanted to write about a few of the drawings in the show, but it turned out they weren't available on the Web (and I didn't buy the pricey catalogue, so I couldn't scan them for you). But I did find thumbnails of the drawings in one place - the press section of the National Gallery itself. Here, they offered to email you large copies of the images, if you happened to be a press person covering the show. Well, this blog is public, right? And some people read it? So, O happy few, I made my case to the National Gallery and they, in turn, sent me all the pictures my little heart desired. Thus, we're having ourselves a virtual stroll courtesy of the National Gallery. But do me a favor and drop by there in person if you're in DC and you're so inclined. Perhaps you could also loudly talk, while there, about how awesome this blog is.

So - as ever, maybe you're an artist, and maybe you aren't. Artists walk through galleries in a different way from non-artists. They tend to have three primary types of experience: indifference, artistic inspiration, and technical revelation.

An artist undergoing indifference speeds through the show.

An artist undergoing artistic inspiration tends to stand or sit some distance back from a particular work, and stare at it rapt for a while. Also, they may cry. Male artists can do that without seeming unmanly, because artists are special.

An artist undergoing technical revelation tends to have his or her nose as close to the work as the guards will allow, squinting at the marvels of technique the work is revealing.

I had a technical revelation sort of an experience at the Ratjen show. It wasn't even particularly that the revelations were useful to me personally. They were just really interesting. So let's start:

Johann-Evangelist Holzer, German, 1709 - 1740
The Arts and Powers Pay Homage to Emperor Charles VI
1732 pen and brown ink with gray wash, heightened with white, and blue-gray oil paint on brown laid paper
Wolfgang Ratjen Collection, Patrons' Permanent Fund

(It is worth clicking on this thumbnail to see the much larger file - I've never figured out how to post larger pictures on the main blog page, and the conversation below won't make much sense if you don't take a good look at Holzer's drawing.)

What's so interesting about this picture? Remember, this show was in the manner of technical revelation, not artistic inspiration. We aren't going to talk about the grandeur of humanity or anything like that, much. No, what's interesting is those rectangular boards the Arts are holding. I found they produced a marvelous sense of fluttering movement. At first, I thought it was merely the intrusion of flattened geometric objects into the deep and organic pictorial space. Actually, I lied to you - I had ideas for paintings occurring to me the whole time. Imagine collapsing truncated octahedrons and cuboctahedrons littering a frantic image:

truncated octahedron

truncated cuboctahedron

Of course, you go too far with that, you're straying into Dali territory:

Been there. Done that.

So then I returned to this question - why did those boards produce such a sense of motion? And I remembered a sight I think many of our American readers are familiar with - that shifting plane of metallic titles during the fakey "entertainment news" they play before movie trailers at Regal theaters. Amazingly, this is the best image of it I could find on the Web:

This clarified the phenomenon for me: the sense of motion results from the following - we have a form simple enough (a rectangle) that the mind can produce an ultra-rapid rotation of it in three-dimensional space. That is, when we see this rectangle multiple times in the Holzer drawing, we almost instantaneously interpret it in reference to a single Rectangle which we have available in our minds. We do not interpret these multiple rectangles Holzer has drawn entirely as separate objects. Rather, part of our mind sees them as multiple views of a single object; an object moving in space and time. So the drawing contains a sense of motion and fluttering because we have an intuitive sense of a single item moving around in it.

Compare the rectangles with this medieval Mary painting:

To what extent are you thinking of those angels as distinct entities? They are also easily read as repetitions of a single entity, seen in different ways.

It is relatively easy for us to distinguish objects that look different from one another. If you have a banana, an orange, and an apple, you would say you have three fruits. But if you have three identical apples - you'll still say you have three fruits. But the distinction is not as deep. You will also have a gut sense that you have three of one fruit; that, in fact, you have one fruit only.

This is an uncanny concept. We know intellectually that distinct objects are separate objects which must be counted separately. But when they look the same, we cannot quite viscerally believe that we are not looking at a single object. This is the point at which our concept of number itself becomes indistinct. When the object is very simple, the uncanniness is quite obvious - the Holzer drawing flutters uncannily. But when the object is complex, the uncanniness is subtler. The uncanniness of repetition is something I am partial to myself:

Gemini, oil on canvas, 48"x48", 2008

Emma Twice, oil on canvas, 48"x48", 2009

I have more to say about other drawings in the Ratjen collection - we'll return to the topic over the course of the week.

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