Thursday, May 26, 2011

DG13: Composition Based on Human Visual Dynamics

Looking for Principles of Composition with the Diagonal Grid 13.

Composition in art refers to the visual organization of the work.  In The Art of Color and Design, Maitland Graves writes, "The aim of composition is to create an interesting unit. Interest is the result of variety. Unity is created by dominance."1

In 2005, I was studying the anthropology of art and I wanted to understand composition. I had two reasons for wanting to understand composition. First of all, my focus in anthropology was the 200 years between 1800 and 2000 when profound changes had taken place in Western Art. During that period, painting went from striving to depict history and beauty to being contempuous of subject matter entirely. Everything that could be dispensed with was jettisoned—important subjects, meticulous finish, beauty, to name just a few of the early casualties. Cutting-edge, “modern” art became, in turn,  a statement of tonality, impression, expression, line, shape, color, and finally nothing at all. I noticed that over time, although many people resisted each new change, eventually people came around, so that today probably the most popular styles in the US are some forms of impressionism or expressionism.

So my first reason related to my budding theory that over the 200 years, until art reached the dead end of pure nihilism, the great artists were still making great compositions and great compositions matter to people as much or more than the actual subject matter, finish and beauty. I wondered if there were a basis in biology for what humans consider great composition. How do we recognize them? Why do they resonate with us?
My second reason for wanting to understand composition was simply to be a better artist.
When art historians talk about composition, they seem mostly to talk about the objects and “things” represented in paintings. They might also talk about the relationship of the people and objects in the painting to each other. Sometimes they sketch vague triangular shapes, angular v or w shapes, loopy m shapes or arrows indicating the direction of eye movement.
Books for painters are no better. They are filled with do’s and don’ts, and general exhortations, but not with any clear principles or procedures that work to serve as a guide for either students or art historians. Even design books, which talk about harmony, balance, diversity and areas of interest, seemed to leave the student on his own to find what is “pleasing” as a composition, or they recommended using the golden ratio.
Golden Rectangle
The golden ratio is the most famous constructive method for making the overall length to width of the artwork according to “pleasing” proportions. It can also be used to determine the size of subsidiary elements. The most famous building said to be constructed along the lines of the golden ratio is the Parthenon of Greece. Thus, this ratio has fascinated artists and mathematicians since Greece's Golden Age, about 2400 years ago. It is associated with the Fibbonacci series. The rectangle at right is an example of construction using the golden ratio.
 Construction of a golden rectangle:
1. Construct a unit square (red).
2. Draw a line from the midpoint of one side to an opposite corner.(arrow)
3. Use that line as the radius to draw an arc that defines the long dimension of the rectangle
The Wikipedia discussion of the golden rectangle notes the on-going debates about which great painters used or did not use the golden ratio in which of their works.
Generally, the golden rectangle means nothing to the viewing public. For art viewers, viewing great art, the reaction is immediate. If the painting’s overall dimensions do or do not conform to the golden ratio, what does that tell us? Only that the overall dimensions should be pleasing, if we even bother to determine whether the overall dimensions are in a golden rectangle.
 For artists, the problem with the golden rectangle is that the reality of what the artist needs to accomplish often does not conform to the golden ratio in terms of shape and size of the art. If the picture space is square, almost square, very tall, very wide, or just not in conformance with the golden rectangle, the question becomes, what should the artist do to make the composition designed within the given space as dynamically interesting and pleasing as possible?
The bottom line is that whether or not the outside dimensions of an artwork conform to the golden rectangle, the contents, meaning the forms and shapes, may still be arranged poorly. The golden rectangle does not help us to understand the arrangement of the art within the two dimensional space – unless, as in the rare case, the artist painted a compositional spiral like Velasquez’ Las Minenas.
So I eventually discarded the idea that even great artists routinely used the golden ratio for their work. The evidence does not support that conclusion. I also discarded the idea that artists would construct sections of a painting to conform to the golden rectangle, even if the work did not follow the golden ratio overall. I discarded it because artists are constantly and consistently concerned about the unity of their work, because great painting has an immediate emotional impact as a single whole, not as a sum of parts. Basically, a method construction that teaches the artist to address parts of a painting while saying nothing coherent about the entire painting would be pointless.
So it seemed to me that I had reached a dead end. There seemed to be no theories on visual harmony which presented specifics on how humans process the information within a two dimensional space of a picture as a unified whole. Thus I found no principles of composition of which I could take advantage, either as an anthropologist or artist. Finally I had nothing left but my two eyes and a blank piece of paper, and that’s when I had a breakthough and invented a new type of visual grid for composing and judging two-dimensional art.

Because most of us have two eyes and we want to take in as much of the image as we can in a single glance, I reasoned that there could be a natural visual flow to looking at a painting that is informed by these facts. I marked the edges of my paper into thirds both along the length and the width so that each side had two marks. If I connected the marks horizontally and vertically, I would have had a tic tac toe grid. However,  since my goal was to mimic how the eye might move around the picture plane, I knew that a static, horizonal-by-vertical grid would impede eye motion rather than promote it, so I drew the grid on the diagonal.
The Diagonal Grid 13 in steps
Construction of the diagonal grid with 13 shapes (DG13)
1. Construct a rectangle (or square) of any size.
2. Mark each edge into thirds.
3. Draw 4 short lines (adjacent marks, left box, above)
4. Draw 4 long lines (far marks, center and right-hand boxes )

The resulting grid has exactly 13 shapes: 8 triangles, 5 quadrilaterals (four-sided figures), never more, never less. Four of the triangles are right triangles, and 4 are isosceles. The mathematical relationship of each shape to the whole is constant with the smallest triangles being 1/36th of the whole. If we were to draw diagonals from the corners of the rectangle, we would wind up with 12 triangles and 12 quadrilaterals, each quadrilateral being twice the size of each triangle. It would be a nice pattern, but bascially static: we would lose the visual dynamics of the grid when it has the 13 areas, four different shapes of various sizes, including the large center shape which is one-third of the entire area.

If you have a computer drawing program, you can draw a square as a multiple of 3 units. Then you can easily place the lines and group them. After they are grouped, you can change the size of your box and the lines will automatically adjust. My theory is that this grid mirrors is the way the viewer's eyes efficiently scan the image and that art which conforms to this grid is more visually satisfying to the viewer.

The Ambassadors by Hans Holbein
The very first painting I analyzed with the diagonal grid was The Ambassadors  by Holbein. Here is the painting to the left.  If you have a drawing program you can draw a grid and place it over the painting and do your own analysis all electronically. Or you can print out the image and draw the grid by hand.
In the next post, I will show how the grid helped me to understand both the visual dynamics of this composition, the relationship of the men to each other and to their instruments, and the strange, stretched skull in the lower center. 

I will also show more examples of work which seems to "obey" the grid and work which does not.

The key concept to remenber is that the rectangle or square is always divided by thirds along each side so that the resulting grid has 13 shapes.

When dealing with constructing a composition, I will show how the diagonal grid 13 (DG13) helps the artist actually create the unity of composition to which all the design books would have artists aspire. DG13 will not automatically make an artist a better artist -- it's a tool, like any other. I don't claim to have all the answers, just an interesting way of dealing with the question. I'm going to assume that the grid can be used or misused. My purpose is to introduce it, turn it loose, and see what people make of it.
1. Graves, Maitland. The Art of Color and Design.  New York. McGraw, Hill & Company. 1941. p. 242.

Monday, May 16, 2011

Uneasy Truce: The War Between the Sexes in US Art

Review of Naked: The Nude in America by Bram Dijkstra

As a coffee table book, Bram Dijsktra’s Naked: The Nude in America has a lot going for it. It is big, it is beautiful, it is a conversation starter. Even better, it is controversial, with plenty of gorgeous images you’ve never seen, some you’ve seen and half forgotten, others so shocking you’d be happy to forget, (except when you want to see them again). Best of all, Naked is eminently readable.

©Naked: The Nude in America,
Rizzoli New York, 2010.
Bram Dijkstra is Professor Emeritus of Comparative Literature and Cultural History at University of California, San Diego. As a cultural historian, his focus is the cultural importance of the art, the context in which it appeared and the narrative it furthered. He starts with the contradictory effects of misguided American puritanism – that the campaign to make nudity and sexuality forbidden thereby made them irresistible.

The Forge of Vulcan
John Singleton Copley
Dijkstra’s story is of male domination, female acquiescence and surrender. When the fight appears won, the artists (both male and female), strike out for more forbidden territory and the nudes get younger and younger (both male and female). Symbolic references abound, such as the oval mirror representing female sexuality. Later, widely-accepted pseudo-scientific theories misapplied to evolution both thrill and warn the male population of the base nature of the female – as a siren intent on enticing men to serve her sexual destiny. In poetic terms, this is the age of vagina dentata.

Soon after, the larger European art story, the deconstruction of art into modernism, invades the US and all figurative art becomes “vulgarity.” This notion functions as received wisdom from American art critic, Clement Greenberg, “then the ruling satrap of abstraction.”“Serious” art deconstructs the body into cubism, expressionism, surrealism and abstraction. But instead of surrendering representation entirely, in the US the story takes an unexpected twist. Illustration, in the guise of cartoons, comic books, and pulp fiction cover art makes a fetish of body parts, especially breasts, vaginae and penises (although penises are not on covers).  Later, abstraction waning after its heyday, the battle lines blur and cross again, with serious art using sexually explicit body parts expertly represented, and illustration devolving into ever more crude content and styles. In the end, Dijkstra seeks rapprochement, “to the simple, unadorned realities of everyday the naked truth of life itself.”2

Ganymede (Lyric Poetry Series)
Henry Oliver Walker
It’s a compelling story, but it is after all, a story told by a man, and though true enough, perhaps not the whole truth. Being a woman, an artist and an anthropologist means that I bring a different gender, visual and cultural perspective to any reading of art purporting to be universal. That’s why Naked is so much fun. There is so much to learn, so much to like and much with which to take issue in this huge beauty of a book. For example, in chapter one, Dijkstra’s explanation for The Forge of Vulcan (1754) by John Singleton Copley, is an opening tour de force, unmasking, so to speak, the “playfully obscene visual iconography”3 which young American artists were acquiring from the French and Italian rococo.

[The “Forge of Vulcan” is perhaps] the first painting by an American-born artist to feature a female nude with an explicitly erotic theme[.] Copley chose to emphasize what has remained an indelible association in American culture to this day: the suggestion that sex and violence are two sides of the same coin.4

Cover for Cupid's Capers
Enoch Boles
I readily admit it: I never would have guessed either the hidden message of the piece or its place in history. Thereafter follows a most delightful collection of naked American beauties produced in the new republic. Art from this period is polished, luscious, playful, contemplative, sometimes simple, sometimes complex with putti, flowers, forests, draperies and bedsheets.

There are way too many to name, and over 400 artists included in the book from post-colonial days to present. The publisher’s promotion list of artists represented hits only the highlights of the most well known: Romare Bearden, Paul Cadmus, John Singleton Copley, Imogen Cunningham, John Currin, Eric Fischl, Keith Haring, Edward Hopper, John Koch, Willem de Kooning, Abraham Leon Kroll, George Platt Lynes, Robert Mapplethorpe, Bruce Nauman, Alice Neel, Isamu Noguchi, Georgia O’Keeffe, Catherine Opie, Herb Ritts, Man Ray, John Singer Sargent, Edward Steichen, Alfred Stieglitz, Jock Sturges, Andy Warhol, Benjamin West, Edward Weston, Andrew Wyeth.

Breaking the Pose (The Art Class)
Jerome Witkin
In addition, Naked includes many real gems from the lesser known and less exhibited artists. One work I especially enjoyed seeing in the book is my favorite sculpture, Joy of the Waters (1917) by Harriet Whitney Frishmuth. I was a teenager when I saw this beautiful bronze in 1964 in the window of a garden ornament shop on 40th St. in New York City. It is a figure of a naked girl, with arms in the air and one leg raised, about to do a cartwheel. I saw it again in 1967 and I wrote a long poem about it. Frishmuth lived until 1980 and the sculpture was still being cast at least until 1972. I still wish I could have afforded to buy it on the spot, so seeing it in Naked was like a joyful homecoming.

Other works I especially enjoyed discovering (naming only a fraction) include Ariadne Asleep on the Island of Naxos (1809-1814) by John Vanderlyn, Female Nude Perched on a Stool (1858) by Daniel Huntington, Ruffina (1875) by William Shirlaw, Autumn Gathering Leaves (1902) by John La Farge, and Betty Page, Crandon Park Beach, Miami (1954), by Bunny Yeager.

Kate Moss on a White Horse
Nan Goldin
One particularly striking work done in 1869-70 is a crayon, oil and graphite piece on canvas, Evening (Fall of Day) by William Rimmer. In this piece Rimmer represents an essentially de-sexed, but physically imposing mature male with wings even broader than the Nike of Samothrace. His body arcs full frontal into the sky with one toe touching the horizon. The halo of a full moon (symbol of the “soul-destructive” world of night and women) surrounds his head and shoulders as his right arm reaches skyward out of the halo trying to grasp the last moments of the day (the symbol of the life affirming world of man’s power). Nothing else but Dijkstra’s explanation could make Rimmer's piece comprehensible. That being said, the composition, draftsmanship, imagination and portrayal of dying desperation make this piece arresting in its own right. Without Dijkstra’s explanation, we might enjoy the work visually, but move on wondering what on earth would possess the artist to represent a sexless man in such agony. Thanks to Dijkstra's scholarship, we can appreciate it both for what it looks like and what it represents in the history of American nudes.

Superman Fantasy
Arthur Tress
In another piece also with a compositional halo effect, Dijkstra’s explanation is less convincing. Mother and Child (The Oval Mirror), ca. 1899, by Mary Stevenson Cassatt shows a naked three-year old boy with his mother who is wearing a dressing gown . He seems to be standing on her thigh, leaning on her body so that his cheek is next to hers, his left arm around her neck, her hand lovingly engulfing his. In contrast, his right hand has a child’s hold on her thumb. Behind their heads, a mirror in an mahogany frame focuses their love. Although at times the piece has been called The Florentine Madonna because of its similarity to typical Italian Madonna and Child works, Dijkstra connects the oval shape of the mirror to the vagina mythology. In his interpretation, Cassatt is representing the gender ideology of a childlike and innocent-in-spirit mother urging her son to greatness. To his credit, he admits that the interpretation is perhaps “tendentious.”5

Untitled (Art Lover)
Russell Patterson
 Surprisingly, I found one real failure of understanding erotica – and it occurs late in the book, when Dijkstra is being most conciliatory, thinking along the lines that the war between the sexes is over, we survived it, let’s just be people together. In looking at Nan Goldin’s Kate Moss on a White Horse (2001), Dijkstra finds only suggestions of “comfort, trust and parallel beauty.”6 However, to me, being female, this is the most erotic piece in the entire book, instantly riveting. Any woman who has ridden bareback on a horse only has to see this image to know that bareback and naked astride a horse is another level of erotica entirely. All of the hidden messages of masculine strength and feminine dependency are represented in the woman’s dangling leg, dreamy expression and the horse’s head turning to acknowledge the presence of its rider and seemingly, her purpose.

The lapse is small and unimportant in the larger scheme of the book which grows out of the author’s youthful discovery of a stack of pulp magazines and comic books left behind by an American soldier in a Dutch second-hand bookstore after World War II. As he writes in a note introducing the bibliography of works cited, “The lust for forbidden knowledge is all the encouragement a twelve-year-old boy needs to keep him doggedly pursuing the motives for metal bras in science fiction illustrations, or the double-entendres of a Matt Baker ‘headlights’ comic....”7
Of Yin and Yang
Ynez Johnston

All in all, the book represents the male point of view very admirably, and frankly, the fact that I come at the subject from a different gender viewpoint only served to heighten my enjoyment and appreciation of this impressive assemblage of art and scholarship.

For a sampling of the art in Naked, you see a variety of the images here. Some of images mentioned in this review are not shown due to restrictions on the publisher. At least some are visible individually the internet.

By Bram Dijkstra
Hardcover 9.75” x 11” / 476 pages / 450 illustrations
$75 U.S., $88 Canadian, £45 UK
Rizzoli New York
ISBN: 978-0-8478-3366-5
Release date: November, 2010

Georgette in Giverny Garden, William de Leftwich Dodge
1. p. 212.
2. p. 469.
3. p.  25.
4. pp. 21-23.
5. p. 175.
6. p. 458.
7. p. 470.