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 superÔ¨āuous 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.

Monday, February 09, 2015

Echoes in the Silence


For some time I have been tempted to collect the dozens of commentaries I have posted here over the past decade on works of visual art, which have given interpretive expression to the themes that define this blog. For the first time I am scrolling through the archive, starting in 2004. I'm a little astonished at how many words I have compiled here, more than all my books put together, more than 20 years of Globe columns.

Here's a little essay from 2006, more life support for the blog.

Sunday, February 08, 2015

Echo

Another little Leonardo fantasy.

Friday, February 06, 2015

Connections

An echo from the past.

Tuesday, February 03, 2015

Silence


I hear you, I hear you. And yet I'm drawn into "the Great Silence". But I offer this by way of explanation, a reprise from the past.

Sunday, February 01, 2015

Iron woman


Click to enlarge Anne's illumination.