Saturday, 27 September 2014

Andrew Wyeth

"One generation abandons the enterprise of another like stranded vessels."- Henry David Thoreau, Walden

Andrew Wyeth spoke through the voice of nature. Nature in its most pristine, the least verbose, still retaining that primitive simplicity only the pioneers would know. Wyeth preached the esoteric prophesy; he recounted the mythic tales of the wounded souls, the physically deformed. There is, in his paintings, a nostalgic value that renders his art peculiarly biblical. Modern civilisation is mostly and blissfully omitted; the main feature of the painting is often that of a vast frontier- equable, silent and sparsely peopled. The visionary power of Wyeth’s art is almost comparable to that of the religious paintings. One inexorably has his conscience tugged when seeing Wyeth’s paintings as though one were standing before an altarpiece of Jesus and Madonna.

Interestingly, as though testifying to the obsolescence of his art, Wyeth’s paintings were mostly executed in temperas. The medium confers on his work a feeling of dryness and chalkiness that perfectly evokes the profound spirit of America’s rural past. There is also a sense of flatness that renders the figures as if divested of substance, and would be remedied if the paintings were painted with oil. I wonder if this gave some critics the reason to suggest that Wyeth’s art vacillates between abstraction and realism but, as plenty of medieval altarpieces were as well based on tempera, do we also suppose that this want of three-dimensionality, to which such method of painting is conducive, betrays a tendency towards abstraction? Something seems seriously amiss with such statement that I cannot pinpoint. But I do not recall anyone referring to Giotto’s marvelous religious cycle as tending towards abstraction.

I was initiated into the art of Wyeth through Christina’s World (1948). In it a woman seems to be struggling her way towards the house on all fours. She is half-reclining on a tawny field; the meticulous attention on the details of the grass is superb, one can virtually and clearly discern each individual blade. A feeling of isolation and desertion reigns over this desolate piece. The woman is in reality one named Anna Christina Olson, who had suffered from a muscular deterioration that paralysed her lower body. Apparently Olson was an acquaintance of Wyeth, and the painter must have found her deformity to be peculiarly inspiring, the spectacle of her crawling across the field worth immortalising. Wyeth’s insistence on featuring the helpless Olson into his painting is, to say the least, unnerving. Such disturbing sight, however, whips up one’s sympathy with the woman- to be abandoned on a vast land, to battle on her own without assistance, to be assaulted by fear, apprehension, and unknown danger.

The “tawny field” was to become a leitmotif in Wyeth’s oeuvre. Prior to Christina’s World the presence of the “tawny field” already took central stage in Turkey Pond (1944), which depicts Walt Anderson, a friend of Wyeth, crossing the field towards the pond on the horizon. One hand tucked in the pocket and presumably walking in strides, Anderson exudes no redoubtable fear of the forbidding dominance of nature. Instead his manner bespeaks a proprietary confidence; not one blade of grass will have the impudence to bar his way. Nature is a wild animal already tamed.

Wyeth once underwent a major surgery to remove a portion of his lung. Trodden Weed (1951) was painted during the period of the painter’s convalescence. The painting displays a close-up of Wyeth’s feet, protected by a pair of worn boots, as they stand firmly on the ground, which is overrun with weeds. One senses both feet to be slightly trembling; the merest exertion of putting forth a step appears to be quite an arduous undertaking. In hope of regaining his energy, Wyeth was taking a stroll around Kuerner’s Hill in Chadds Ford, which the painter had frequented since he was young. Nature was his loyal companion, who welcomed Wyeth’s return with the comfort of old familiarity. But nature also hinted at a bleak respect of the painter’s mortality- the grass was trampled flat and smooth under Wyeth’s boots yet they still grew; such potency of resurgence was what the aging Wyeth was denied of.

The narratives of Wyeth’s paintings are deeply personal, yet reflective of a time when the relationship between mankind and nature was one of the least inimical of coexistence. There was no rivalry, no dogged desire of triumphing over the other, no corruption, and men were yet haughty and foolish enough to assume the utmost authority over all living things. Such nostalgia and spirit were, for Wyeth, ones that dwelled in the heart of the American soul.

Monday, 22 September 2014

Felix Vallotton

"He was there or not there: not there if I didn't see him."- Henry James, The Turn of the Screw

One sees immediately from Felix Vallotton’s paintings that he must had been a gifted raconteur. The painter was possessed of the natural aptitude of unfolding and withholding the narrative flow at the most propitious timing. Mysteriousness emerges. The viewers are bound to be tantalised. Whilst most of Vallotton’s paintings are about the quotidian, the domestic, beneath them their pent-up energy seethes and trembles, threatening to explode at any moment. It isn’t just the quotidian that he depicted, but the interior dramas. Any reader of Ibsen’s or Strindberg’s plays will know that interior drama can be the most frenetic.

A woman leans towards a man, her hand entwines his body in show of sensuousness. She whispers into his ears something that the viewers are forbidden the right to privy to. But one has the eye to deduce, from the slightly wrinkled of the man’s nose and the slightly arched of his eyebrow, that the message she confides to him seems to be one that pricks his annoyance. Or is it? One quickly retracts on his original conjecture. Or could it be that the man is actually smiling, made amused by his lover’s sweet nothings. Or is it rather a hackneyed episode of the deceiver and the deceived, but is the latter always so blind to the trap he is about to fall into? Perhaps not so much as his face intimates his mistrust to the woman’s flattering words. Gradually one grows fretful of so many possible answers to an ever-unsolvable question, especially under the likelihood that not even one of them accurately squares with the painter’s real intention. Therefore, out of sheer frustration, one will declare that a painting like The Lie (1989) is “rather baffling.”

Vallotton died in 1925 and left a total of over 1700 paintings and 200 prints. With such a gross oeuvre it was rather difficult to maintain the consistent quality of each individual work. The tense feeling of emotional suspense in The Lie can stiffen into that of rigid formality in other paintings. Once Vallotton decided to simplify the contours of figures and skimp on the varying use of colours of his palette, the result can be so plausibly namby-pamby. This criticism is, however, not also targeting at those Japonist-inspired landscape paintings. Examples like Sunset (1913), with its compositional simplification, achieves an effect both pleasing and spiritual. An orange-red sun hangs at the centre of the painting. The sunbeam stretches vertically across the ocean, towards the viewers. What can the symbolic meaning be? The presence of God in the form of light? Or it denotes the fateful path every devout believer must embark upon to assume connection with the deities?

Vallotton’s later work, though exhibiting an obvious tendency towards abstraction, boasts the richest and the most suspenseful of dramas in its storytelling. Everything seems to be perfectly normal; nothing seems to be going on, whilst one suspects that something queer is indeed afoot. There is this painting that is dominated almost wholly with a bland, monotonous landscape: snow field, straight avenue, some houses that are hidden behind the heavy mists, a wobbly lamppost, and no more. A man is at the edge of the painting, hastening out of the frame. Going where? One never knows. But one can sense that he might be quite desperate to get out of this place, this deserted town that seems only frequented by the old spirits. Here lies the most ingenious aspect of Vallotton’s creativity: to keep ablaze the fire of intriguing drama even though the subject matter seems to revolve on the most dismal, the most desolate. He never gratified his viewers more than a glimpse of what they were most desirous of. And that is the key to the most masterful of storytelling in art.

Wednesday, 17 September 2014


"Chaos, a rough and unordered mass."- Ovid, Metamorphoses

The art of Tintoretto aims to draw an unlikely equivalence between chaos and beauty. There seems always a commotion going on in his paintings. Robust bodies are confusedly tangled, insofar as one is usually convinced that the depictions are about wars, even when most of them are not. A sense of fieriness and ferocity is instantly felt, but that of airiness, which is a quality almost reserved for monumental paintings like Tintoretto’s, is glaringly absent. It is curious of how the painter had maintained, throughout his career, a predilection of conscientiously filling up every corner of the canvas, leaving barely any spaces void.

Such complexity of composition, however, does not render Tintoretto’s painting a frustrating imbroglio. There is an internal equilibrium within the constant motion. The crowdedness of the scene of The Last Supper (1592-94) is relieved somewhat by the ball of blaze above the table, and the halos that encircle the heads of Christ and the disciples, so that there is a marked contrast between light and shade (here the painter presents a very crude example of chiaroscuro). Tintoretto’s version is far removed from any typical depiction of the last supper. Besides the stock characters, the painter also included in the feast a handful of peasants, who are too preoccupied with their own affairs to notice anything amiss. Hovering on the top of the scene are the ghosts, bearing down on Jesus Christ as they are ready to summon his departing spirit. The people, the saints, the spirits- they are all present.

To be a viewer of Tintoretto’s work one is expected to happen on very few let-ups of the tumultuous dramas. The painter did not need to generate chaos to excite intense emotions. Even with a relatively sparsely populated painting like The Stealing of the Dead Body of St. Mark (1562-66), Tintoretto can still manage to build the tension towards boiling point. Again, there is this frenetic clutter of people in the foreground- three men struggling to smuggle away a dead body, the heaviness of which is telling. This is not the inert dead body one normally encounters; it retains a renewed vigour as if the soul is still holding tenaciously on the dying flesh. A storm is brewing- either Heavens is complicit with this ignoble affair, or the leaden sky is the portent of an imminent retribution.

Some said Tintoretto pioneered the most original style of Mannerism, others considered him a baroque artist ahead of his time. The unanimous opinion, however, is that there exists a perceptible gulf between Tintoretto’s art and that of the other Renaissance heavyweights. The painter eschewed sensuous beauty that is common with Renaissance paintings. Instead he exhibited with his paintings energy, force, violence, viciousness, and so forth in the most emphatic manner. Invariably, the subject matters are about wars, contests, the fall of the hero and the rise of the insidious. The victory is not always equivalent to a glorious feat. In St. Louis, St. George and the Princess (c. 1553), the princess effortlessly subdued the dragon, and is now sitting astride the beast and glancing at the saints, her eye speaks of unmitigated pride. The saints are noticeably mortified, with one of them throwing up his hands- why! You just killed a dragon! One can expect very soon the princess being severely admonished.

After surveying Tintoretto’s oeuvre I confess I derive from it no pleasant feelings. But I do not dismiss the truth that from time to time I find myself perversely drawn towards the sort of beauty that is almost the antithesis of the conventional type. This is evidenced by my abiding love for Caravaggio, most of whose paintings, however, prompted me to avert my glance on the first sight. But do I really take into consideration the importance of beauty when I’m looking at paintings by Tintoretto or Caravaggio? I ask myself. Maybe not so much as subscribing to what really matters, namely that some painters were not shy from revealing the least savoury details of a given event. For them art is virtually the exposure of the unvarnished truth.

Tuesday, 16 September 2014

The Three Sisters

He met the three sisters. They judged him frostily as he was welcomed to their home, which was small, incommodious and spartan. He surveyed the interior, and suddenly lighted on the windows, the traceries and elaborate craftsmanship of which he thought were truly dazzling. “Don’t look at me,” shrieked one of the sisters, abruptly interrupting his enjoyment. Astounded, he shifted focus towards the speaker, who lowered her head the moment she caught his quizzical gaze. The second sister, sitting beside the first and seemingly the most genial of the three, explained to him: “My sister disliked people who were too inquisitive.”

The third sister was always silent, but always attentive to their conversation, since a cryptic smile would be playing about her lips on cue the amusing moments of the otherwise dull, interminable talk. He gathered that the three sisters had lived together, in this house, all their lives. They had never stepped out of the house. Their knowledge of the world without was acquired chiefly through the vision they saw through the windows, (“through our ‘eyes’,” the genial one quickly corrected) which presented a view perennially monotonous. Their neighbours were a pair of sisters. They were, as well, ignorant of all the happenings outside their poky household, preferring to fritter away their lives staring at each other’s face, with hardly a word pass by. The intolerable vapidity of their existence was finally jeopardised, one day, when one of the sisters decided she could suffer no longer another’s vigilant presence. So she flounced out, in quest of her novel adventure. From their windows (“no, ‘eyes,’” the genial one apologised for her repeated mistake) they couldn’t tell what happened afterward to the deserted sister; she somehow figured out a way to elude their nosy observation. “Frightening, frightful silence,” the sister mumbled as an afterthought; her head remained adamantly bowed.

He wondered, have any of you ever itched by the curiosity to see the rest of the world? The silent one smiled, looking boldly into his eyes, amused. “We were like the rocks in a cave. We were granted but only a narrow view of the world outside. But visitors like you have stumbled into the cave and unknowingly left indelible marks all over the rocks. You blatantly disturbed the serenity of our existence, but we were thankful, for you enlightened us a piece of your world, your knowledge. The residues of your untoward visits etch onto the rocks a beautiful fresco. Successive visitors scratched their heads, trying to decipher the signs and symbols that they proclaimed were embedded in this mysterious work of art. But little did they know that there is nothing mysterious about it, nor do we ever profess to be indecipherable. Knowledge is foolishly boisterous, wisdom perpetuates in its deafening murmur.”

The genial sister rounded off. “Our eyes are the windows. We see the world in limited compass, in single dimension, but we are contented. The worldly always consider themselves so fortunate, for they are the blessed ones freely taking in whatever the Father can give. Very soon greediness sullies their pristine nature, making them ungrateful, constantly lolling out their tongues as they are thirsting for more. Too much knowledge can be detrimental; it excites turmoil and unease. Such a world we will close our door against it, but witness it through our eyes we shall. This is our only entertainment.”

He asked, but what about their neighbour who left her sister?

The sister finally raised her head, and answered him solemnly: “She is the selfish one, and thank goodness her sister is too unworldly to realise that it will be a permanent flight.”

Saturday, 13 September 2014

The Angel

A series of excited ejaculations beckoned him to stop. Days of no encounter with a single soul, he was duly astounded. He raised his head and saw, staring down at him with undisguised arrogance, an angel figurine, whose body was discoloured and mottled. She spoke, in a reedy voice that gave an impression of a whimpering child: “Stop there! Who are you? Where are you going?” He told her his next destination, recounted in deliberate brevity his adventures so far, and prudently disclosed no information of his identity. “Not a very seasoned traveller, I gather,” she sneered, “mind you young man! A callow bird like you can never tell if an inveterate deceiver finally tells the truth, or he is indulging in his old habit all the same. Two roads are ahead of you, one will lead you to the next kingdom you fancy going, though no one will warrant you if that kingdom also happens to be a place of safety; the other will surely blindfold you to danger, into the depth of complete darkness, where your shriek of desperation will go unheard, your state of wretchedness unappeased. And eventually you perish, in solitude and misery.”

He swallowed hard. “But I thought you were like a lighthouse, your light glimmers even in the stormiest of night, enflaming hope within every withering courage. You guide the weary travellers to their haven, though a temporary haven it might be, but always a welcome sign after an extremely hazardous journey. I shall follow the road that you indicate.”

The angel cackled. “Despite my warnings you scatterbrain still deem it the safest to trust an insolent devil. What for? Do you feel your existence so meaningless that it matters little if you suddenly plunge to a bottomless pit?”

It pricked his curiosity. “Who are you? What do you really know about existence?”

“I’m a fallen angel. I’d had a few adventures myself, so when I could not contain any longer my burning desire, I badgered the Father, indefatigably. Until one day he finally relented, and this was also the day when my misery began, and has persisted to today. I was cast into the earth, the paradise I had pined for, without the right to regret, without the chance to retract my silly wish. So I avenged my naiveté on the others. I masqueraded myself as an Angel, succeeding in bamboozling many unwitting souls into ultimate perdition. Punishing them in the same manner as I should be punishing for the wrong choice I’d made.”

He was cautioned against commiserating with the angel, but could hardly help not doing so. A lump in his throat affected greatly his voice. “I have trust in you. I shall follow the road you’re pointing towards. I have no fear of being ensnared into grave danger since I’m certain I won’t be.” There he bravely put forth his first step towards that fateful path, and continued his journey.

“You are the stupidest human beings I’ve ever seen, ever heedless of the trenchant words of premonition and the clear signs of portent. I’ve never seen anyone so blatantly contemptuous of his imminent doom. So foolishly intrepid. I’ve warned you I’m a congenital liar, an incurable deceiver!” Her laughter was piercing and shrilly, but he thought he detected in it some intimation of pain.

It wasn’t until some days later, when he arrived safely and unscathed in the next kingdom, that he realised the angel was lying all the time.