Wednesday, April 28, 2010

Grimm business


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, but it is currently on display at the Prado in Madrid, paired with Velazquez's Las Meninas (1651).

Las Meninas, although widely considered a masterpiece, has never been my cup of tea; a bit of a clutter, in my untutored opinion. But like many other folks, I have stood in front of Sargent's Daughters strangely moved, and not quite knowing why.

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.