Who Needs TV When You Can Watch a Painting? -1

By Daniel Kretschmer

When I look at a painting, the artist speaks to me. I can picture the painter at work at his easel, making the brush strokes, mixing the paint and pigments. I see the blank parts of the canvas and the colors and I can almost imagine what they are thinking. And I listen carefully. Whatever the picture is, its elements are telling a story, conveying a feeling, offering a sensation of the mind, or giving a message. Sometimes it reveals a secret, a chance to look into the artist’s mind. Much like a writer is vulnerable, and bleeds onto the pages, the painter bleeds himself onto his canvas.

I look at the paintings from two perspectives. First the spectator- I stand back and view, taking it in and noticing how and which way the work catches my eye. I catch a mood, a feeling from the piece. Next I play the role of amateur artist, studying it, observing the technique- up close, the brushstrokes, the detail. I always pay attention to which colors were used- which colors straight from the tube mixed to form the palettes. Then I step back again, note the arrangement of objects, the composition, the balance, number of figures, etc. Of course this is done almost sub-consciously. But you can’t measure a painting’s worth concretely like that. You must feel the painting, catch the vibe from it. You can’t see into the artist’s soul by computing a pictorial space as you would solve a math equation.

Not only is enjoying a painting a leap into a mind, but it is a bound into another time. The paint on a board of wood, applied in 1150 AD, has collected the dust of centuries and is as real now in front of your face as it was to its creator, who also has been dust for centuries. Not just the artists who executed these works but the subjects, too, give us a glimpse of another age. You look at the Duke of Urbino, posing stately in royal garb, and you may wonder what he was thinking. Or the peasants portrayed by Jean-Francois Millet in their daily plight, who really were these people?

Let us not be confined to human subjects and portraits to our examination of another era’s questions. When you look at an open landscape, you know that the tiny farmhand in the distance of some American landscapes has long since died and you will too long before the actual land in the picture will change. Or on the other hand look how different the land changed since the painting was done, but feel how insignificant people are in the beauty and immensity of nature.

You can sometimes react to a painting much the same way you would of a real life situation. You can look at either Cazin’s or Millet’s “Solitude” and feel yourself walking in a moonless wintry forest-scape, hearing the eerie silence, the crunch of the snow under your feet, feel the cold on your face. In reality you bundle up your shirt as you get a chill standing in the gallery room. A painting can put a smile on your face, bring a tear to your eye, or light a fire in your belly.

Paintings can raise questions, provoke concern or bring an air of mystery. I don’t speak entirely of the Surrealists, or the Abstractionists. Indeed a Realist can do the same perhaps even more powerfully. Consider Andrew Wyeth’s maypole painting. Who were these strange and peculiar people? Why do the footprints not make a perfect circle in the snow, what is the strange symbolism, and why are the shadows not consistent throughout?

Sometimes paintings don’t have to be this mysterious to raise a question. When I look at an excellent painting in the Philadelphia Museum of Art, the “Feast of Saint John,” by Jules Breton, I feel a sense of mystery. You can see that these peasants celebrate the longest days of summer and dance around bonfires on the Feast Day, and as you look you can almost smell the fire. You may wonder who they were, and what they believed in and what they were going to do.

… This was part 1 of the article. Check back to this site for part 2 of the article tomorrow.

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