Sunday, July 1, 2018

The Life-Changing Magic of Iconoclasm

In the December 2017 issue of The Art Bulletin, Jenifer Van Horn argues for iconoclasm, not vandalism, as the motivation for destruction of planters' abandoned material culture and built environment in the aftermath of the American Civil War.  "'The Dark Iconoclast':  African Americans' Artistic Resistance in the Civil War South" follows a single portrait, an oil painting, from the wall of a wealthy Charleston family home, to a repurposed use as a freedman's fire screen, to the Metropolitan Museum of Art, where it was cleaned and restored to its original condition.  I am fascinated by the argument that destructively repurposing material culture constitutes iconoclasm.  Certainly, the man who conceived of the portrait as a utilitarian object had a creative mind!  Can kunstwollen have a destructive impulse, as well as a creative one? 

Religion and war are the two usual motivations for iconoclasm.  What makes an ostensibly secular county strip the built environment of monuments in the absence of war?  Why would a secular artist, depicting a secular subject, in a secular setting, in peacetime, be called upon to destroy a work of art?  If the answers are simply some version of "politics" or "power," then why is it material culture-- and not some a more direct manifestation of political power-- that comes under fire?  What power does the graven image yet have to hold us in its thrall?

What is the purpose of icons in a 21st century secular society?  And given the answer, what then is the purpose for their destruction? 

Go Ahead, Millennials, Destroy Us

Wednesday, June 6, 2018

Ways of Seeing

John Berger is among the most incisive art historians of our time. The four-part television series "Ways of Seeing" introduced his ideas to the general public, and remain a valuable resource for considering art.

In one of my favorite moments in the series, Berger asks a group of children to look at Leonardo's The Last Supper.  As art historical method, the eyes of children are among the most reliable.  Children don't read museum tombstones, they don't consider allegory or iconography, and they aren't impressed by artistic reputations.  Children simply LOOK.

Adults who have never been exposed to art history may struggle to comprehend iconology, allegory, or symbolism.  Seeking to understand what they see, adults read about the artwork-- the biography of the artist, the iconography of the figures and symbols, the allegory and iconology of the image-- adults seek to understand the "about-ness" of art.

Yet art is more than the sum of it's cultural representations: artistic objects are studied for their "of-ness" as much as their "about-ness."  In some ways, learning to look is also a process of un-learning our default ways of seeing.

In a climate of rapid technological change, economic uncertainty, and STEM-centered education, it is worth considering the value of the humanities to remind ourselves to LOOK so that we may better SEE.

Saturday, May 19, 2018

Cyclorama-rama!


Cycloramas, also known as panoramas, were built as immersive, multisensory experiences for mass audiences in the nineteenth century. In the United States, two cyclorama paintings have survived, both depicting Civil War battles, the Battle of Gettysburg and the Battle of Atlanta.  It is likely that these canvases have been preserved more for their historical content than for their place in material culture.  When the photorealistic, theatrical installations of Civil War battles were created in the 1880's, they both evoked and influenced Civil War memory.  360° immersion overwhelmed the senses of nineteenth-century beholders, transporting veterans back to unpleasant scenes of war, and civilians back to an ostensibly glorious past. 

Even more than the Gettysburg cyclorama, the Battle of Atlanta amplifies the way that cyclorama painting deviated from art historical tradition. The cyclorama eschews single-point perspective (the Renaissance innovation of centering the eye of the beholder within the painting's imagined horizon). The Atlanta cyclorama instead relies on a hyperbolic hanging structure to give the illusion of three-dimensional depth.

Aspects of the cycloramic tradition have been preserved in the form and presentation of art:  by incorporating a change in perspective, wrought by the photographic "eye;" by anticipating the curved installation spaces of the Orangerie, in Paris, the Hirshhorn, in Washington, DC, the Prado, in Madrid, and perhaps the Guggenheim in New York; by predating motion pictures; by emphasizing both the part, in the form of painstaking detail, and the whole, in the form of multiple action scenes; by erecting purpose-built structures to maintain the illusion of experience; and by dazzling audiences with spectacle. 

Some have anachronistically compared the cyclorama to the tradition of filmmaking.  While the mass appeal of cyclorama may have anticipated public fascination with audiovisual immersion, the filmic perspective does not follow from the cycloramic perspective.  Thus, Michael Fried's argument against minimalism would prove latent in the cyclorama: viewers were not absorbed in contemplation of the visual, but immersed in a production of theater in the round.  Indeed, the cyclorama requires a specific architecture and a viewer-centric mode of hanging; the paintings are foregrounded by pastoral assemblage and the painted battle scenes augmented by the sound and smoke of replicated cannon. Installed as such, the cyclorama operates more as a detailed backdrop for a production than a painting worthy of formal contemplation.

To locate the cyclorama within the tradition of theater, as latent in Fried's absorption vs. theatricality dialectic, is to locate cyclorama outside of art history.  If so, it remains for us to distinguish the absorptive, art historical characteristics of paintings hung "in the round," housed in custom galleries, even inspired by cyclorama, from cyclorama itself. 

To contrast with cyclorama, I present two cycles of art historical painting, Claude Monet's Water Lilies and Mark Bradford's Pickett's Charge.  Both cycles consist of eight monumental canvases, housed in curvilinear galleries.  The former hang as a cycle in a series of two ellipses at the Orangerie in Paris; the latter in a gallery shaped like a hollow cylinder, the Hirshhorn in Washington, DC.  Other cyclical works, such as Cy Twombly's Battle of Lepanto (a cycle of 12 canvases hung in a custom gallery in the Prado) occupy similar art historical territory as the Monet and Bradford cycles.  In distinguishing the "cycle" from "cyclorama," my analysis seeks to include, rather then exclude, canonical examples of cyclical work.


Les Nymphéas : Soleil couchant Claude Monet, The Water Lilies: Setting Sun, donated to Musée de l'Orangerie 1922.  http://www.musee-orangerie.fr/en/article/set-orangerie

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Claude Monet, The Water Lilies [installation view], 1915-1926.  http://www.musee-orangerie.fr


When Monet set out en plein air to capture the reflections of his beloved garden pond at Giverny, he developed a perspective of his own, later dubbed "all-over" painting.  Monet's canvases reflected nature without any discernible hierarchy or perspective.  One wonders if, on a different day, in another light, a ripple may alter the surface or a reflection appear.  These canvases appear as the surface of water itself, forever tranquil and smooth.

The Orangerie contributes to the sense of tranquility.  Designed by Monet, everything about the space, from the rhythm of the paintings, to the shape of the galleries, to the use of natural light enhances the cycle of paintings.  The objects themselves are the subjects worthy of deep contemplation, and set in a space designed to enhance their absorptive properties.  Examples of Monet's Water Lilies hang in galleries all over the world; yet it is only at the Orangerie that they hang as a cycle.

Once inside the Orangerie, the eight Water Lilies are hung in two elliptical galleries, which are joined at the narrowest point.  Natural light bathes the two rooms from elliptical skylights above and floor-to-ceiling windows at the juncture of the galleries.  The paintings are not only hung rhythmically, but also oriented to nature: the image of the pond at sunrise occupies the eastern wall, sunset hangs on the west.  Benches invite contemplation of individual canvases, but movement is essential: the beholder must traverse the gallery space to activate the cycle, and the beholder's path traces the shape of infinity.  This movement of the beholder may be a nod the artist's affinity for Japanese zen gardening, the monk's rosaire, or perhaps even the urban flâneur.  The shape of the galleries invite the beholder to consider the Water Lilies in an infinite loop.



Mark Bradford, Pickett's Charge: Copse of Trees, 2017.  http://www.historynet.com/new-charge-mark-bradfords-picketts-charge.htm

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Mark Bradford, Pickett's Charge [detail], 2017.  http://hirshhorn.si.edu/exhibitions/mark-bradford-picketts-charge/



While Monet's decentralized, "all-over" style makes the canvas into a plane, as if becoming the surface of water itself, Mark Bradford's dense layers, emerge and retreat through the canvas, hinting at a space hidden from view, unseen, inaccessible.  Perhaps Bradford has plunged into Monet's pond, and, expecting water, found Ralph Ellison's space "outside of history" instead. 

While Bradford explicitly claims the depiction of battle as his subject, the work itself bears little resemblance the the Gettysburg cyclorama.  The abstracted canvases, covered in a collage of paint, rope, and gigantic reproductions of Philippoteaux's Battle of Gettysburg on billboard paper, resemble a timeline or a histomap more than the raw material of the cyclorama. 

The Hirshhorn gallery is likewise dissimilar to it's cycloramic antecedent.  In the words of Mark Bradford, "With cycloramas, the viewer stands in the middle — you’re omniscient. In the Hirshhorn, you can’t stand in the middle —you’d fall right through."  Just as the space at the center of the Hirshhorn is inaccessible, so too is omniscience.  As much as the tableau itself, Bradford asks the beholder to consider what lies beyond the canvas.

The American Civil War remains “the most divisive and unresolved experience Americans have ever had,” according to David Blight.  Monet has no use for spaces "outside of history;" his Water Lilies cycle prescribes infinite absorption into the sublime.  Yet until the memory and the history of America's bloody internecine conflict reach an equilibrium of truth, narratives of the American Civil War will continue to be as layered as Mark Bradford's canvases, and omniscience as impossible as standing at the center of the Hirshhorn.



John B. Sparks, Histomap, 1931.  http://www.openculture.com/2013/10/4000-years-of-history-in-histomap-from-1931.html 


Bibliography

Blight, David.  Race and Reunion: The Civil War in American Memory.  Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 2001.

Dingfelder, Sadie.  "Artist Mark Bradford explains his Hirshhorn remix of a Civil War painting." Washington Post.  7 November 2017.  www.washingtonpost.com/express/wp/2017/11/07/artist-mark-bradford-explains-his-hirshhorn-remix-of-a-civil-war-painting

Ellison, Ralph.  Invisible Man.  New York, NY: Random House, 1952.

Fried, Michael.  Absorption and Theatricality: Painting and Beholder in the Age of Diderot.  Chicago, IL: University of Chicago Press, 1988.

Greenberg, Clement.  "Modernist Painting."  Voice of America Forum Lectures.  Washington, DC: U.S. Information Agency, 1960.

Friday, May 18, 2018

The Ineluctable Modality of the Visible

...at least that if no more, thought through my eyes.

What is the process of turning that which we see into that which we understand?

Perhaps it would be fruitful to compare Ulysses to Faulkner's The Sound and the Fury, Fitzgerald's Tender is the Night, Kurosawa's Rashomon-- to Hamlet, or to a summer's day, for that matter.  Certainly the perspectives of multiple characters, and the kaleidoscopic nature of truth-- and vision-- are fruitful modes of discourse in literature, film, and art.

Still, in victory (finishing Ulysses) I admit defeat (understanding Ulysses). 

N.C. Wyeth, Odysseus and Calypso, 1929.  Unhappy man, sorrow no longer here, nor let your days be wasted, for I at last will freely let you go.

...And since with this image I have changed the subject to The Odyssey, dig The Odyssey Map!

Wednesday, May 2, 2018

Thursday, April 26, 2018

We Love You Back

Caspar David Friedrich, Wanderer Above the Mist, 1819.

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 René Magritte, The Great Century, 1954.


The tradition of depicting a figure from the back perhaps began with sculpture in the round.  In three-dimensional art, attention to the entire figure signals commitment to human representation.  Yet in two-dimensional art, depiction of the back of the figure invites the beholder to consider the background, a view both embodied and obscured by the presence of the figure.  

Romantic painter Caspar David Friedrich frequently poses figures faced away from the beholder in contemplation of the sublime.  Surrealist painter René Magritte is another retroversion devotee, but for different reasons, saying, "everything we see hides another thing; we always want to see that which is hidden by what we see."  Above, Wanderer above the Mist and The Great Century are but two examples of these artists' rear-facing oeuvres. 

In photojournalism, it is not the photographer but the subject whose image is expressive.  Hillary Clinton is one of the most-photographed people in America, yet as a politician, her image is carefully crafted.  New York Times photographer Todd Heisler says, "Covering a campaign is like taking a photograph through a window. The challenge is to see beyond the reflected image — what the campaign is trying to project — and to capture what is really there."  The back of Clinton's hair was surprisingly oft-photographed during the 2016 election, by more than one news outlet.  The subjects in this body of work, like the paintings I have compared them to, transcend the candidate herself.  In the media glare, the crush of a crowd, or the hug of a voter, the Clinton's figure is assumed to be a known commodity, an iconographic self-representation.

In earlier artistic creations, the back of the figure suggested prioritization of the scene.  For Friedrich, the turned-away figure denoted man's place within the sublime; for Magritte, it symbolized the hidden signifier behind the signified.  Photojournalism, in absorbing the artistic practice of identifying the figure from behind, added an iconographic layer to the image: the scene contributes to the icon.

As former president and first lady, Barack and Michelle Obama are likewise icons.  After stepping down from eight years of service in the White House, the Obamas chose to represent themselves from the rear, embracing, facing the Washington Monument.  Online, the photo is emblazoned with the message, "We love you back."  With clever captioning, the visual message not only turns the focus away from the subjects, but also away from the setting, reflecting back to the beholder as a mirror.



Todd Heisler, "Life in the Lights," New York Times, 4 October 2016. 

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James Nachtwey, "Hillary Clinton," Time, Feb. 3, 2016.

Ruth Fremson, "Raleigh, NC," New York Times, 23 October 2016.

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"We Love You Back," 2017.  https://barackobama.com/