Monday, October 18, 2010

Introduction III: The Gulf and the Goal

Two French businessmen are painted at the height of their powers. The left is by Ingres, Portrait of Monsieur Bertin (1832).  The painting has the fidelity of a photograph, but it predates both portrait and color photography (1840, 1861, respectively). The three points of light: head and hands, are the focus. We see the face first. Then we move to the hands, then back to the face. Perhaps we spiral between head and hands several times, our visual experience controlled by a master who transforms his subject into a monument, radiating authority.



The right, Auguste Pellerin (II) by Matisse in 1917, de-humanizes the sitter. The head dwarfs the shoulders and hands; the picture behind the subject diminishes his importance. If we see the face first, we see it pinioned between the lower frame of the background painting. The curve behind the head is countered weakly by the curve behind the left arm. Our eyes move vertically down the arrow of the goatee to the hands, and finding them small, crudely presented and static, move vertically up again to the face where we tend to stop, there being little reason to look at the hands a second time. The effect is stark and strange, even alien. Again our visual experience is controlled by a master. What’s going on here?

These two paintings are separated by a gulf of 85 years. Each is an icon of its time. We could simply assume that tastes changed and not look for reasons, but then we would not be on a journey of discovery to find out why they changed and what, if anything, that change means to us now.

For this blog, each post is 500 words, usually introduced by an image and italic text which sets the scene. The subject of the post is related to the image, hopefully encouraging you to see the question in a new and interesting way. My goal is to make your experience of this blog into a series of “aha” moments.

In 500 words, it is impossible to give the definitive answer to any important question, so the blog will present one aspect of the question or answer and some food for thought. As time goes on, we will spiral back, each time filling in another blank, but in such a way that you, the reader, will have the pleasure of filling in the blanks for yourself at the same time, thus the “aha”.

The order of the book will not necessarily follow the order of the blog, and the blog will circle through art, biology and culture, (with some side trips into philosophy), each time with more knowledge and focus.

Auguste Pellerin was a renowned art collector. To the left is the first portrait Pellerin commissioned by Matisse. When this, more naturalistic and colorful, was rejected as too radical, Matisse produced the second, above. Pellerin eventually accepted both. To our twenty-first century eyes, this looks ordinary, the other still extraordinary. Is that why it is superior?


 

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