Dial the Lobster

Bringing art into everyday conversation

Month: October, 2014

You Decide!

Hello Lobster-friends!

In the spirit of democracy and of this blog (it is called “Dial The Lobster” after all) I’d like for YOU to decide which painting or artwork¬†I will discuss next. Have a favorite artwork you’d like to share? Wanna hear my spin on it? Just leave a note in the comments below ūüôā

Yours,

The Lobster.

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Autumn Paintings

Happy Autumn (or Fall) Lobsterites!

In celebration of the season, I have chosen two autumnal paintings to talk about. After dissing Constable in my last post, and feeling mightily ashamed of myself for doing so, I thought it only fair to include his much-beloved “Epitaph to Joshua Reynolds” (1833-36).

Cenotaph to the Memory of Sir Joshua Reynolds by John Constable

I love this painting, but it makes me feel kind of nostalgic about England and Fall. Living in L.A. I don’t see too much of it. Anyway, ostensibly this painting is about the death of the revered painter Joshua Reynolds. The stag seems to represent him – his nobility, his virility (in art, anyway) his wisdom and his immortality. But personally, sorry Joshua, I just love the mood this painting creates. The tall, half-dead trees, the chill in the air, the forest fading away into a chasm of darkness. It makes death seem remarkably peaceful; the autumn of our lives like something we should be proud to reach…monumental, yet inviting, like jumping into a swimming pool in the dark.

My second pick couldn’t be more different. This is Cy Twombly’s “Autunno” (1993-5) This was painted as part of a series of four that celebrates each season, and for comparison purposes I’ve also posted “Inverno” (winter) and “Estate” (summer).

I’m not sure about this. Compared to “Inverno” and “Estate” it has a raw energy. “Inverno” feels fittingly threatening to me…all that black drifting in like a thundercloud. “Estate” feels dreamy, with its tears of yellow like smudged clown make-up. But I’m not sure I can relate “Autonno” to my own feelings about this season. It feels too…busy, and daring, lacking the serenity I personally associate with it. So, I guess I am a Constable fan after all! Which do you prefer?

Autonno

               Autonno

J.M.W Turner’s “Snow Storm” -The Sherbet Lemon of the Art World.

“What. The. Whaaa?” I think these were the words I uttered when I first beheld J.M.W. Turner’s epic “Snow Storm Steam-Boat off a Harbour’s Mouth (1842). You see, I wasn’t in the Impressionist Gallery. I was in the same gallery as all those rather dull Constables and Gainsboroughs and so on, and then…this. It hits you like a sucker-punch to the jaw. If art were candy, it’s the art equivalent of a sherbet lemon:

Turner

Let’s compare this to another popular painting of the time period, shall we? Constable’s “Salisbury Cathedral,” painted just a few years before:

Constable_Salisbury_meadowsWho am I to diss Constable, but compared to Turner’s work (and unfortunately for Constable, his works hang in the same gallery as Turners’ at the National Gallery) his stuff just seems…stale? Old-fashioned? Dare I say, the candy equivalent of a strawberry cream?? Sweet, comforting, and ever so slightly sickly.

This isn’t fair to Constable, of course. He was a master of brushwork, of sky and of light. He pioneered the depiction of realistic atmosphere and clouds. But Turner, in his late work, takes it to a whole new level, single-handedly (yes, really!!) inventing abstract-expressionism in one fell swoop and dip of his brush. Pretty much everything we see painted in the 1900s owes its debt to Turner. Not just the style of painting, but how it is painted: Turner famously turned his brush upside down to scratch surfaces with the wooden handle.

It’s Romantic, yet edgy and non-saccharine. It’s individualistic, yet not about the individual. It’s emotion and feeling set down in paint. It’s in love with power, and the power of the artist in particular to create and portray new worlds. In short, it’s the birth of modern art.

And now I really fancy a sherbet lemon…

Yours,

The Lobster.

Advice For Young Art Historians and Art Lovers!

Hey Lobsterites!

Before I became a teacher, I studied long and hard to attain my PhD in Art History. Whether or not it was worth it is a question I could debate all day, but one thing that the process taught me was how to approach art analysis, and ‘reading art’ (art literacy?) in general. And although research and archival work was not my strength AT ALL, analysis and my ability to write about art, was. One of my happiest moments as a human being on this planet (sad, I know!) was when one of my supervisors, at the end of my viva, said ‘I wish I could write about art the way you do.’ This meant a lot more to me than the celebrations afterwards, I can tell you.

Parting from academia is something I have slowly come to terms with over the course of my life. I have often questioned why I gave up, and there were practical reasons, and psychological reasons, but I think that perhaps there were also – for want of a better word- ‘spiritual’ reasons too.

You see, one of the reasons I was successful as an art analyst was because I knew, and still know, one of the secrets to creative and insightful analysis of a painting. And I think the reason I have/had this ability was because of some very special teachers I had, who taught me to open my heart as well as my eyes to art.

When many of us encounter¬† a painting in an art gallery the tendency, I think, is to externalize it. To see it as something ‘other’ and distant; to read the wall plaque, to search for context.

The key to good analysis, though, is to enter the mind of the painting. Does this make me sound like a loon? The best way I can describe it is that you become part of the painting, and drop all the outside context. Rather, you view it as an extension of yourself.

As the American scientist Evelyn Fox Keller beautifully puts it, “…the highest form of love…is intimacy that does not annihilate difference.”

In other words, you lean into the painting; put your whole self into it, whilst at the same recognizing and respecting the distance between you and it.

I wish that I could explain in more concrete terms, but I’m sure you’ve all experienced moments like this in class, or in an art gallery, when you’re regarding a work of art more subjectively than objectively. A connection sparks in your head between something in the painting and a childhood memory, or a line from a poem, or something you saw in another painting a couple of weeks ago. Do you follow that trail where it leads? Or do you snap your mind shut and go back to taking notes?

The same could be true of any learning experience; not just learning about art. But art invites it, and to not listen to our instincts or to the stirring of our hearts is to cut ourselves off from all that makes art so beautiful. I’m not sure that the art history world invites this kind of personal connectivity to art, at least insofar as it informs analysis and academic publishing. Hence, one of the reasons I quit. But perhaps I shouldn’t have. Perhaps I should have pushed back. Perhaps it’s up to the next generation of art historians to celebrate this form of inquiry, and reestablish art history as a discipline that is interdisciplinary, inter-related, ‘inter’ everything.

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