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Posts Tagged ‘James MacNeil Whistler’

matisse.la musiqueI want to reach the state of condensation of sensations which constitutes a picture. Perhaps I might be satisfied momentarily with a work finished at one sitting, but I would soon get bored looking at it; therefore, I prefer to continue working on it so that later I may recognize it as a work of my mind…Nowadays, I try to infuse some calm into my pictures and I keep working at them until I have succeeded in doing so.

-Henri Matisse, 1908

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 It seems like every artist has a different answer for the question of  when a painting is done.  Whistler and several others said it was when all traces of its creation have been concealed on the surface.   Some say it is when the artist achieves his aim and others say they are never finished.  Edward Munch ( The Scream) said that a piece is done after it has had time to mature, weathered a few showers and endured the elements, including nail scratches.

I tend to go with the never finished group although Munch’s definition is appealing to my love of weathering and patina.  My goal is to have the work complete enough that they can exist on their own,to  be alive in the outer world.  In that respect, because they are human creations, I view them  very much as I view other humans– never quite complete and always imperfect.  That’s just how we are and I am certainly no different.

 I am a collage of imperfections that is still a work-in-progress.  If I saw me hanging on the wall I might want to take a brush and soften an edge here or there and add color in certain parts of my composition.  But I probably would not do it because those imperfections actually become part of the composition, create the contrasts that give us, as a painting, life.  And that , even with the flaws and weathering exposed, pleases me.

None of us is perfectly painted.  Nor should we be.

 

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I wrote this post several years ago describing how a certain composition from one artist can influence another, even though the results may seem light years away.  I often look at work of others in different ways, sometime focusing on the quality of the colors or how their handling of the paint.  But  often  I find myself looking at how the composition comes together, breaking away the the surface details in my mind to reveal the  bare bones or armature underneath.  Sometimes this sparks something and while looking at someone else’s work I will see a painting of my own growing over this armature.

I thought today I’d recall how this worked with a very famous piece:

WhistlerThis is James McNeil Whistler’s most famous piece, Arrangement in Grey and Black, No. 1:  Portrait of the Painter’s Mother.  It is, of course, better known as Whistler’s Mother.  It was a painting that I was casually familiar with as I grew up but it wasn’t until I looked more closely at it after I had started painting that I saw the brilliance of it’s composition.

Whistler always asserted that the painting was not about his mother but was more concerned with creating mood with color and composition, which the primary focus of almost all his work. This piece achieves it’s mood with beautiful diagonal lines formed by the woman’s form and contrasting verticals and horizontals that create great visual tension and energy.  The stark whiteness of the matted print on the wall behind shines like a full moon against the pale blue-gray sky that is the wall itself.  The head of the old woman seems to be almost lit by the light from the moon/print.

This is not a portrait of an old woman.  It’s a nocturnal landscape.  That’s what I saw when I looked at it as a painter trying to glean what I could from it for my own use.  This was a composition that had a geometry that just felt so right immediately.  It had such a sense of perfection in the way color and form combine with sheer simplicity that I knew I would have to use it for myself.

And I have, quite a few times over the years since I first really looked at it, sometimes with slight variations in the placement of the elements but still basically with the same compositional base.  And inevitably, they are pieces that have great immediacy in their impact, pieces that carry great mood whatever their subject matter.

The following day I wrote:

Yesterday I wrote about how I have often used in my own work the composition from the James McNeil Whistler painting popularly known as Whistler’s Mother.  I did so without illustrating the point so I thought I’d take quick moment to show how I might block in my own work with Whisyler’s composition.

GC Myers - the-way-of-lightGoing into my archives, one of the first things I look at is a painting from a few years back, The Way of Light.  At first glimpse, this piece has nothing in common with the Whsitler piece.  First, it is not portraiture ( although I often view my trees as such) and it is a landscape.  It is obviously a different palette of color than that of Whistler and the elements are rendered in a less realistic fashion than you would see in Whistler’s work.

WhistlerBut if you put those differences aside and quickly take in the shape and form of each piece, you can begin to see the similarity.  The line of trees on the small mound of land in my piece take the place of Whistler’s dark curtain on the far left.  The water in mine becomes the floor of his. The body of his mother is replaced by my island and her head becomes my red tree.  The framed print is now my moon.

Here, I overlaid my piece with the Whistler piece to further illustrate the point.  Obviously, there are worlds of differences separating the two pieces, as I pointed out above.  But the composition and use of blocking and light help us each achieve a sense of mood that is the primary goal in both cases.  Like Whistler, I am often more concerned with the mood and emotion of a piece of work than the actual subject matter.  In this pursuit I have come to view much of my work as Whistler did his, as musical compositions rather than merely representative images.

In color and shape there is rhythm, tempo and tone.  The placement of the compositional elements of a piece are much like the placement of individual notes in music, each affecting and reacting with those around it.  All trying to evoke feeling, response.

Well, there’s my illustration of how Whsitler’s iconic piece fits in with what I try to do with my work.  Hope you can now see the connection…

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Martin Lewis - Late Traveler 1949I saw a Martin Lewis etching years ago and was transfixed by the crisp contrast of its darks and lights and the easy moodiness it gave off.  I knew nothing of the artist but it was obvious that he was masterful in his etching and in his artistic eye.  I had largely forgotten this artist until I came across a group of his etchings that are coming up for auction.  Seeing them rekindled that same feeling I felt years ago.  Mainly images from New York in the 20’s and 30’s, they often capture a feeling of urban anonymity and isolation, mining the same vein of emotion in which  Edward Hopper worked in his paintings.  This is probably not a coincidence since Lewis and Hopper were friends, Lewis having taught Hopper the art of etching around 1915.

Martin Lewis was born in Australia in 1881 and ran away from home at age 15, working rough jobs for a few years as he travelled and sketched his way through Australia and New Zealand.  He ended up in Sydney where he studied and did illustrations for a local newspaper.  He migrated to the US around 1900, arriving in San Francisco where he painted backdrops for the presidential campaign of William McKinley before finding his way to New York City.

Martin Lewis- Relics (Speakeasy Corner) 1928Inspired by the dynamism of the city at that time, Lewis worked as an illustrator and painter.  It was a 1910 trip to England, where he was introduced to the printwork of English artists such as James MacNeil Whistler, that inspired him to take up etching.  However, it was an 18 month stay in Japan in 1920 that set the groundwork for his signature work which captures light and air and mood so well.  He was active and increasingly successful from 1925 until about 1935.  However, the Great Depression brought a downturn to his popularity and by the 1940’s his work was out of favor.  His work never really took hold after that and he died in 1961,  largely unknown.  In fact, just finding some of the details on his life for this short blog post took some doing.

I think his work is wonderful and evocative and  find it amazing that his work ever fell out of favor.  But such is the nature of art.  But the etchings of Martin Lewis will persevere through the fickle cycles because they capture something elemental and personal.  And that is what real art does.

Martin Lewis- Shadow Dance 1930 Martin Lewis-Tree  Manhattan Martin Lewis- Little Penthouse Martin Lewis- Glow of the City 1928 Martin Lewis - Which Way 1932 Martin Lewis New York Nocturne

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Hokusai Mackerel and Sea Shells 1840

I don’t have much to say today and am running late plus the Russia-Finland hockey matchup in the Olympics is beginning as I speak.  So I am greatly distracted today.  But t came across this image from the Japanese master Hokusai that I wanted to share.  I had a post several years back that featured the famed waves  for which Hokusai is best known.  They are such strong images of the power and rhythm of nature that it is easy to see why they are his signature works.  But when I saw this quiet still-life of a fish with a few shells from 1840 I truly understood how revelatory this work must have been to the western artists,  such as Whistler and Van Gogh among many others,who discovered it a generation later.

It has a wonderful delicacy in its color and it’s also  simple and elegant, maintaining an extraordinary modernity through the past 170 or so years.  It always seems  like it is in the now which is that intangible that most artists , myself included, seek.  It is unlike anything you would have found in the west in 1840 yet seems totally at home now.  Just a wonderful image to ponder.

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John Ruskin- Ferns on a Rock 1875

The greatest thing a human soul ever does in this world is to see something and tell what it saw in a plain way. Hundreds of people can talk for one who can think, but thousands can think for one who can see. To see clearly is poetry, prophecy and religion, all in one.

–John Ruskin

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I have been very interested lately  in the work and life of John  Ruskin,  who lived from 1819-1900.  He was one of those Victorian British sorts who displayed a wide range of talents throughout the era.  He was one of the greatest of  British watercolorists, perhaps second only to the great JMW Turner, whose work he defended in a book, Modern Painters, that sought to prove the superiority of the landscape painting of the time  over that of the early Masters.

John Ruskin- Amalfi

Although his painting is wonderful, he is probably best known for his criticism and his writing.  He had a real dogmatic sense of certainty in everything he took on, a quality that was very appealing if you agreed with his views but one that didn’t always sit well with those who did not.  I am not going to go into a biography of his life here but I wouldn’t deter anyone from looking further on their own by clicking on his name above or going to his bio page at the Victorian Web.  It is a most interesting life filled with famous names, controversy ( a famous court case with Ruskin being sued by James MacNeil Whistler for libel) , madness and tragedy.  All the elements of a great story.

The thing that first caught my eye was not his painting, though I do really like and appreciate it, but a rather a passage from a lecture he gave that I thought could have been written for our time as well as we seem to be ever more embracing of a culture that is anti-intellectual, anti-environmental and anti-science.  He wrote:

No nation can last, which has made a mob of itself, however generous at heart. It must discipline its passions, and direct them or they will discipline it, one day, with scorpion-whips. Above all, a nation cannot last in a money-making job; it cannot with impunity,–it cannot with existence–go on despising literature, despising science, despising nature, despising compassion, and concentrating its soul on Pence.

There are days when I fear that we must prepare ourselves for those scorpion-whips that Ruskin foresaw.

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