Friday, April 24, 2015

Landscape as art 2 -- a reprise (May 2009)



A few more thoughts on those Wayne Thiebaud landscapes I shared the day before yesterday. I suggested that the terrestrial environment is inevitably going to be a human artifact, that we might as well make that artifact a work of art, and that artists as well as scientific ecologists might lead he way.

Whenever I hang out with my nature writing pals, they cringe when I mention artifact. They have another notion of what the environment should be, something wild and beautiful and untrammeled by humans. Their notion of what we should strive for is rather more Bierstadt than Thiebaud.

Albert Bierstadt was a 19th-century German-born artist who made his reputation with large, romantic paintings of the American West as it was -- or was imagined to be -- before the coming of those defiling white folks from the East (click to enlarge). Oh, there were humans in Bierstadt's nature, native Americans, but they were imagined to be as seamlessly a part of the natural world as eagles and deer.

Bierstadt's landscapes are no less idealized than Thiebaud's. It is a different esthetic at work -- the esthetic of an unspoiled Eden -- but what you see on the canvas is what you want to see, not what is actually there. If pre-Columbian Americans had a lighter touch on the land it was only because they had less advanced technologies. It is possible that they were implicated in one of the most extensive mass extinctions in recent Earth history (the demise of large North American mammals at the end of the most recent Ice Age). They were certainly engaged in almost constant warfare among themselves. Give Bierstadt's "noble savage" a gun and a steel plow and there goes whatever untrammeled nature you might find in his paintings.

Which is not to say that we might not have much to learn from native Americans about the kind of landscapes we want to create, or that in managing the Yosemite Valley, say, we might not have more to learn from Bierstadt than from Thiebaud. What is important is that we recognize our responsibility toward the future Earth, decide upon a spiritually-nourishing esthetic, and then use the surface of the Earth as an artist might use a canvas.

Two things will work against us: greed and the idealization of the wild. We either create a work of human art, or concede the environment to the exploiters.

Wednesday, April 22, 2015

Landscape as art -- a reprise (May 2009)


Paul's "Use it or lose it" applies most of all to me. And I've resigned myself to losing it. Mind you, I miss it. Ten years of daily habit. And as I approach 80, I need that stimulation most of all. I miss too the friendship of all of you whom I only know through Comments, some going all the way back to 2004. You've been remarkably stimulating, steadfast and civil porch mates.

But the shakes make writing more pain than pleasure.

In the meantime, I've been trolling through art-inspired posts from the past, and here's another.


..................

I'm still thinking about our walk along England's Ridgeway, the splendid landscapes. Nature,yes. But human cunning too. Careful planning. An ethic of neatness. Respect for the past. Landscape as a work of art.

And I think of the landscape paintings of the California artist Wayne Thiebaud, the ones he did in the 1990s. Thiebaud is perhaps best known for his pop-arty cupcakes and gumball machines. Those pretty confections do nothing for me. But the landscapes! The landscapes stick in my mind like glue.

By all accounts, Thiebaud is an affable fellow. That he has a sense of humor is evident from his paintings. Even his cupcakes exude a genial kindness. Critics talk about the relationship to de Kooning, but for me the spiritual affinity is with Saul Steinberg. And the landscapes! Let's put Thiebaud in charge of the countryside.

The paintings are inspired by the waterways and agriculture fields around Thiebaud's home in the Sacramento Valley, but the viewpoint is clearly some airy place in the artist's imagination. Light, pattern, color, perspective. Wit and ease. An affable grace. Nature, yes. But human cunning too. The cunning of the horticulturist, the animal husbandman, the orchardist, the arborist, the hydrologist. And the cunning of the artist, who informs our vision of what a landscape might be.

Thiebaud's work is all about the sources of our happiness. Cupcakes. Gumball machines. Water making its way to the sea through fields of shimmering color. So fragile, and because they are fragile they are shadowed with the possibility of loss. Nowhere is that loss more tragic than in the uglification of the land itself.

Thursday, April 09, 2015

In the clinic --- a reprise (September 2013)


The American artist Thomas Eakins (1844-1916) is perhaps best known for his paintings of rowers on Philadelphia's rivers, but two of his major works are interesting documents in the history of scientific medicine.

The Gross Clinic (1875) is a huge painting, 96 by 78 inches, and took a year to execute (click to enlarge). It shows Dr. Samuel Gross and his surgical team removing infected bone from the thigh of an adolescent boy (or possibly girl) before an audience of students in the amphitheater of the Jefferson Medical College in Philadelphia. We see little of the patient but the exposed thigh and buttocks. The patient's mother (presumably) cringes nearby. A clerk make notes of the proceedings.

Ether and chloroform had been in use for surgery since the middle of the 19th century, and Dr. Gross's patient is presumably feeling no pain. Surely, few discoveries have more radically transformed medicine than the use of effective anesthetics. By 1875, Joseph Lister in England had pioneered the idea of sterile surgery, including the sterilization of surgical instruments with carbolic acid, greatly reducing deaths by post-operative infections. Gross was defiantly behind the curve in this regard, in spite of his lofty reputation.

A second painting on the same theme, The Agnew Clinic, followed in 1889, depicting Dr. David Hayes Agnew and assistants performing a partial mastectomy at the University of Pennsylvania medical school. Everyday frock coats have been replaced with clean, white over-garments, hands are washed, instruments are sterilized, and a nurse (a woman!) is in attendance. As in the earlier painting, the artist has placed himself in the audience; that's him at furthest right. The other spectators are doctors associated with the school, individually recognizable.

In my opinion, The Gross Clinic is far superior as a work of art. The composition forcefully draws the viewer into the scene. The lighting focuses our attention on the brow of the surgeon and the patient's incision. The audience is in semi-darkness. Blood is in evidence, especially on the scalpel in the surgeon's hand. Everything is contrived for dramatic effect. The viewer might as well be there leaning over the patient with instrument in hand, or shrinking like the woman from participation. It is impossible to be emotionally uninvolved.

The Agnew Clinic, on the other hand, is not only biologically sterile; it is emotionally aseptic too, as represented by the apparently bored attitudes of the audience. Only Dr. Agnew's open right hand suggests a hint of passion. This, of course, is what we have come to expect of scientific medicine: cool dispassion and sterile scrubs.

Sunday, April 05, 2015

Stands Outside Time


Click to enlarge Anne's illumination.

Wednesday, April 01, 2015

Art and democracy -- a reprise (November 2010)



We've seen this painting here before, William Merritt Chase's Ringtoss (1896). Well, no, we haven't. But it is certainly evocative of Charles Singer Sargent's The Daughters of Edward Darley Boit that I commented on earlier this year. The resemblance may not be accidental; Chase may have been influenced by the Sargent painting, which was made about four years earlier. (Click to enlarge.)

Right now I want to contrast the Chase painting with John George Brown's The Card Trick, from about the same era. The two paintings were part of an exhibition last year at New York's Metropolitan Museum of Art, called American Stories: Paintings of Everyday Life, 1765-1915.


They could not be further apart in style and subject.

There can be no question about which painting I like best. Ringtoss works in a number of ways. The composition is riveting. The contrast of the crisp peg and quoits in the foreground with the more impressionistic young ladies sends the eye spiraling through the air along with the quoits. The coloring is exquisite. The black toe touching the chalk line on the hardwood floor draws the viewer inexorably into the scene.

The Card Trick is pure kitsch, although impressive in its photorealism.

In Ringtoss we see the rather aristocratic daughters of the aristocratic painter, trying to entertain themselves in their splendid isolation. In The Card Trick we have four street urchins -- bootblacks -- engaging in streetwise smarts.

Drawing room elitism versus curbside democracy. Nineteenth-century European class-consciousness versus the American melting pot.

In an essay on culture in poetry, former American Poet Laureate Robert Pinsky draws our attention to some observations of Alexis de Tocqueville earlier in the 19th century. "Nothing conceivable is so petty, so insipid, so crowded with paltry interests -- in one word, so anti-poetic -- as the life of man in the United States," wrote the aristocratic Frenchman in Democracy in America. The arts in Europe drew upon a rich classical tradition, legends of gods and heroes, larger-than-life themes that lifted men up and out of the ordinary. What, Tocqueville wondered, would inspire poetry "when skepticism had depopulated heaven, and the progress of equality had reduced each individual to smaller and better-known proportions"?

Was Tocqueville's initial diagnosis correct? Is art in a democracy doomed to kitsch? The Card Trick has a democratic sweetness about it, and Brown's paintings of street urchins were popular with the masses, but by the general consensus of critics they never rose to high art. Are the critics snobs, cultural aristocrats? Or, to succeed, do artists necessarily have to remove themselves from the hoi polloi, not necessarily into a Sargent-Chase upper-class drawing room, but at least into a bohemian aloofness?

In spite of his doubts, Tocqueville held out hope for the arts in America: "Among a democratic people poetry will not be fed with legends or the memorials of old traditions…All these resources fail him; but Man remains, and the poet needs no more…[Man himself], with his passions, his doubts, his rare prosperities and inconceivable wretchedness, will become the chief, if not the sole, theme of poetry among these [democratic] nations."

Art in a democracy, and especially in America, I would suggest, derives its unique energy from a negotiation between high academic art and street kitsch, finding a home somewhere between William Merritt Chase and John George Brown -- that is to say, somewhere between Chase's matchless aristocratic taste and Brown's redeeming eye for "rare prosperities and inconceivable wretchedness" -- a political negotiation that gave us such quintessentially American artists as Winslow Homer, Edward Hopper, and Andrew Wyeth.

Saturday, March 28, 2015

A little Grimm -- a reprise (April 2010)



The American artist John Singer Sargent (1856-1925) was a superb draftsman. He also veered successfully towards impressionism. He could be pompously formal, or endearingly sentimental. But here is the painting that seems to have evoked more comment and analysis than any other, The Daughters of Edward Darley Boit, painted in Paris in 1882 (click to enlarge). It normally resides in Boston's Museum of Fine Arts, where it is prominently on display.

Four girls, ages four, eight, twelve and fourteen, receding from the illuminated foreground into an ominous dusk. There have been any number of interpretations, compositional and psychological, and I've read them all. But...

Rudolf Arnheim, the art theorist, begins his little book on Entropy and Art with this observation:
Order is a necessary condition for anything the human mind is to understand. Arrangements such as the layout of a city or building, a set of tools, a display of merchandise, the verbal exposition of facts or ideas, or a painting or piece of music are called orderly when an observer or listener can grasp their overall structure and the ramification of the structure in some detail. Order makes it possible to focus on what is alike and what is different, what belongs together and what is segregated. When nothing superfluous is included and nothing indispensable left out, one can understand the interrelation of the whole and its parts, as well as the hierarchic scale of importance and power by which some structural features are dominant, others subordinate.
Well, that's all well and good, but what does it mean? Entropy is a physical concept, a tendency of the universe towards disorder. But clearly this is opposed by ordering principles in nature, or else we wouldn't be here. Entropy may grind everything to dust in the end, but in the meantime nature -- and art -- builds islands of order at the expense of a greater diminishment of order elsewhere.

As Arnheim suggests, understanding requires order, and science thrives best where order is most manifest. But perfect order is not the natural habitat of the human mind. Utopias and heaven smack of boredom, says Arnheim, and he is surely right. Our aesthetic sense seems to require some encroachment of entropy, some hint of degradation. And our aesthetic sense is best fulfilled when -- in art, or music, or the layout of a city -- we have an ordered focus that invites repose and a mildly threatening ambience of adventure.

Little four-year-old Julia fixes us with her innocent gaze. Her eight year-old sister Mary Louisa is slightly more abstracted. Twelve year-old Jane illuminates the shadow. Fourteen year-old Florence has turned away from us; she stands like a caryatid at the porch of darkness.

I would propose that Sargent's Daughters transfixes us with the same attraction as a Grimm fairy tale -- Snow-White and Rose-Red, for example -- that same exquisite balance of invitation and menace, order and entropy, that is the natural playground of the human mind.

Tuesday, March 24, 2015

Wonder and humility -- a reprise (December 2008)


My generation is the last who will remember these old Mobil gas pumps with the round glass globes on top and the sign of the Flying Horse. Or, for that matter, the two-lane blacktops that threaded their way across America in the days before the Interstates. Here we see them in Edward Hopper's 1940 painting titled, simply, Gas. Click to enlarge.

So much of Hopper's work evokes solitude and loneliness -- somber loners in spare hotel rooms, store fronts on deserted streets, Victorian houses on desolate hills. Gas, too, captures a moment of isolation. A filling station on a road to who-knows-where, the attendant -- that 1940's tie and vest! -- shutting down the pumps for the night. Soon he will flick off the station lights, casting the road and the trees across the road into darkness. The ellipsis of the three white globes at the top of the pumps points down the road into unlit possibilities, like a declarative sentence suddenly suspended in ambiguity.

Technology superimposed on uncertainty. Light pours out the station door; the road plunges into darkness. Of all of Hopper's paintings, this is the one that stays with me. Not only because it captures a seductive moment in my own life, but as a metaphor for the uneasy equilibrium between technology and nature that characterizes our time.

To the right of the road, the warm security of civilization. To the left of the road, beyond the verge, unsullied nature, wild, free, but frightening too. Who is willing to walk at into those woods at night, to forego the benefits of artificial light, to risk the forest primeval?

We can't live without the Flying Horse and all it represents, but part of us remains attached to the organicity out of which we came. I think of something Hopper said about the future of art and the lure of abstraction: "There will be, I think, an attempt to grasp again the surprise and accidents of nature, and a more intimate and sympathetic study of its moods, together with a renewed wonder and humility on the part of such as are still capable of these basic reactions."

Friday, March 20, 2015

Hanging on -- a reprise (October 2010)


Here is the painting I've had as my desktop in recent weeks, Winslow Homer's Snap the Whip, 1872, one of America's sentimental favorites. Click to enlarge.

A simpler, more innocent time. Boys at recess, barefoot in the grass. Hand-me-down clothes. Autumn wildflowers, trees turning to red and gold. A fumbling Ulysses S. Grant is in the White House, the country is at peace after a horrendous civil war, and the Panic of 1873 and subsequent depression is still in the offing. Anyway, all of that political and economic stuff is a bit of a pother and far away. The sun is high in the sky, there's an apple in the pocket, and only the oldest boy is thinking yet about the eternal mystery that is girls.

Yes, a lovely sentimental anecdote to the busy rancor of our own time, the incessant noise of the television, the attack ads, the news of war. How blissful to be twelve years old again, fit and healthy with the grass between your toes. Never mind that these boys had a life expectancy at birth of about 40 years, and that many of them had probably already lost a sibling or parent; when the sun's out, and it's recess, and you've got eight pals to play with…

But that's not why I like the painting. I love the way the arc of the whip reflects the curve of the hill. The vanishing point of the red schoolhouse and three white shirts -- everything converges on the two adults in the distance, the grown-up world that inevitably awaits.

Between the three boys who anchor the whip and the six who resist the centrifugal force that breaks the chain is the schoolhouse, the open door and window bracketing the anchor's grip. Maybe it's because I was a teacher all my life, but I like to think that the "message" of the painting has to do with education, with what goes on when the boys and girls are called back inside by the teacher's bell -- the glue that holds a civil society together when the whiplash of events threatens to tear us apart. Not indoctrination. Rather, reading, 'riting and 'rithmetic, the basic skills that enable an individual to explore the world creatively. History, geography and science, with their lessons of diversity, tolerance and respect for empirical fact. The ameliorating influence of poetry and art.

And one of these boys, maybe the oldest in the center, will become a teacher himself, maintaining an unbroken chain of accumulated knowledge that anchors us to the past and propels us together into a mutually supportive and secure future.

Wednesday, March 18, 2015

A reprise (December 2009)


I frequently muse about works of art in these postings. These have ranged from the highly abstract to the ultra-realistic, from the Middle Ages to the present. Often they have been paintings that I used for a while as a desktop on my computer, such as the work above, "The Cornish Coast," by the early-20th-century British impressionist Laura Knight (click to enlarge). I pick these desktop images on a whim -- Vermeer's "Milkmaid," Homer's "Cracking the Whip,' or Caravaggio's "Rest on the Flight Into Egypt," for example -- and then slowly come to understand what it was that attracted me in the first place.

I saw Knight's "Cornish Coast" in a journal and a spark was struck. Easy enough to find a reproduction on the web, so onto the desktop, where I have lived with it now for a couple of weeks (cropped to fit the aspect ratio of my screen). I have fallen a little in love with these two women, the one rather prim in posture and dress, the other more fashionable and hands-on-hips saucy.

The standing woman has her face turned away, which of course only heightens her air of mystery, her desirability. I wonder, too, whose shoes those are half hidden in the grass, since it would appear that both women are shod. And the dog -- to which woman does it give its loyalty?

But infatuation is not enough to explain my attraction to the painting. There is also the matter of a sensual response to composition and color. The painting hovers on the brink of abstraction -- those blocks of red, black and teal -- yet there is a human tension too. Whatever it is, something lights up in the orbitofrontal region of the prefrontal cortex of my brain. And the brain calls it "beauty".

Does beauty reside in the work of art itself, waiting there to be perceived, or does beauty lie in the eye (and orbitofrontal region of the prefrontal cortex) of the beholder? It is an ancient question in philosophy, perhaps no closer to a solution now than at any time in the past. I have suggested here before that beauty is a resonance of flickering neurons in the brain with patterns of order in the world, nature's signature of truth, but even as I write that now the explanation seems lame.

"Beauty feeds us from the same source that created us," writes my erstwhile friend Scott Sanders. "It reminds us of the shaping power that reaches through the flower stem and through our own hands. It restores our faith in the generosity of nature."

Sunday, March 08, 2015

Amy's place

A place for Amy's music and notes, and responses. With gratitude.

Saturday, February 28, 2015

A notable passing


Father Theodore Hesburgh, former long-time president of Notre Dame University, has died at age 97. I took note of him here in 2004. I also owe him for introducing me to Sigrid Undset's magnificent novel Kristin Lavransdatter. I've written about this book often on this blog. You can search the archive at site:www.sciencemusings.com lavransdatter.

Friday, February 20, 2015

Zzzzzz


My daughter Margaret is a senior editor at Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, which means I occasionally get a pre-publication copy of a favorite author.  And so it is that I am reading Donald Hall's latest, Essays After Eighty, with a lovely close-up photo of the grizzled old poet on the cover.

Hall, 85, claims he no longer has the mental agility for poetry - that most demanding of the language arts.  His essays however are as quick and lively as ever.  Prose after eighty.

I dabbled in poetry as a young man, but quickly gave it up; even then I knew I lacked the wherewithal.  Now, as I approach eighty, prose too is slipping from my (quaky, Parkinson) grasp.

Some of you have recommended voice-transcription software, but, like Hall, my greatest pleasure in writing is revision.  And so I slip into silence.

I may not have Donald Hall's considerable gifts of poetry and prose, but I increasingly share his octogenarian fondness for naps.

Monday, February 16, 2015

Thursday, February 12, 2015

The Arrow-maker


Click to enlarge Anne's Valentine.