Sunday, October 4, 2009

Beauty and Passion: Fragonard's "The Bolt"

I want to begin just by saying that I had never read or heard anyone else's interpretation of this piece until I read up on it for this blog. I have known and loved this painting for several years, and have now discovered that I have taken from it quite a different and darker meaning than apparently most others do. I feel that that is perhaps the loveliest thing about art; the emotions, meanings and stories that capture and wash over the viewer, feelings that craw inside and stay there that cannot be shaken off easily should someone tell you otherwise.

The Bolt, by Jean-Honore Fragonard
1778, oil on canvas, 73 x 92cm
Picture taken from ArtStor

Fragonard's The Bolt is one of those powerful pieces that can soak into your heart, climb up your spine to your brain and rest there for hours, days, years. It features a male and a female on the right hand side, in a intense position somewhere between an embrace and a struggle, both reaching for the bolt on the door in the top right corner. On the left, we see a lavish satin bed in complete disarray with lush red velvet draped over it from the ceiling. The lighting cuts the picture plane in half diagonally, so that the bottom right corner is filled with a harsh yellow light that appears to engulf the figures, while the top left is primarily hidden in shadow. There are also several mysterious little details that cause us to inquire about the scene, such as an apple on a table on the left near the bed, or a tiny bouquet of flowers left on the floor in the very bottom right. It's clearly an illustrative painting, but what it's illustrating isn't so clear. It creates a narrative that entices, that asks more than it answers, and keeps it in your mind while you chew on it.
It's the embrace that always gets me first. The man has his arm around the woman's waist, pulling her close. Her arm is pushed against his chin and neck. The amazing thing about this struggle is its force. Every muscle in his body is pulled taught where his skin is visible. His calves are tight, his veins are sticking out in his arms and legs. This is a strong, fast, passionate gesture. It doesn't just illustrate the intensity of the grab but the emotion, he has perhaps restrained himself from this moment as long as his body could manage. We are viewing a moment in which he has snapped, could not withstand the immediacy of his need for even a moment longer. Her head is bent back in a way that implies speed in the grab, her hand pushed in front of his face in such a panicked and reflexive gesture. The dent on the pillow and flatness of the drapes on the bed suggest that she had been lying there only moments ago. Her dress trails on the bed and her back foot hovers above the ground as if she has sprung from the bed with speed. Even the trails from both of their hair have suggested a mad dash in opposite directions for that door. She is reaching for the bolt, but he is already there -stronger, faster- and he is pushing it shut. She doesn't have a prayer.
The flowers on the floor- did the man bring them? Did he perhaps attempt the gentlemanly approach a get turned down? Did she rest on her bed and laugh at him as he held them? Perhaps, but he doesn't seem to be wearing the type of clothes he'd be strolling around in. They're not here though, he came in like this. Perhaps the flowers were from him, but before. Maybe he came in for whatever reason and beheld his treasured gift on the floor, to be laughed and looked down upon, and he could take no more.
Want. Temptation. Desire. Intensity. These themes are evident everywhere from the decadence of her satin dress and sheets to the lush velvet of the drapery. The heat and intensity of the sharp yellows, deep reds, shadowy depths of black. Want. Temptation. Desire. Intensity. The need in his muscles, the force in her hand, the harshness of the light. And to cap it -to completely shake the insides at its simplicity- the apple. That small tiny apple barely visible among the deep red of the drapes; that classic symbol of temptation and original sin.
When all the elements are intertwined it creates a scene that can truly punch you in the heart. But it's the title that completes it. The Bolt. It's about the bolt. Without that bolt, it's a struggle. Without it, the apple is simply and apple and the flowers are not tragic. But that bolt is there, and the man got to it first; that bolt has been shut and he's got the upper hand. That woman's struggle is over once it has been shut. It's game over, no way out until he gives her one. It is that bolt that was the goal for both of them to reach, it decided who was going to get what they wanted, and the call has been made.
It is also worth mentioning the beauty in which this has been painted- the accurate depiction of every texture that almost makes you think you can touch it. The skill in which the glow has encapsulated the figures, burning them into our mids. The artistry behind every shadow, every muscle, every wrinkle. Fragonard has skillfully created for us a believable reality. We can imagine the soft feel of silk, the deep softness of velvet, the cool hardness of the bolt, the hot damp skin. We can feel the heat of the light, smell sweat and stale roses. Fragonard creates this and invites us in. We feel present, involved, concerned, confused. Then the bolt is pulled shut; but it is not us locked inside the room, it is the room that becomes locked inside of us. Several years after viewing this piece for the first time, parts still come back to me- the harsh heat of the light, the intensity of the struggle, the mystery of embrace, the apple on the table.
It stays with you as an imprint- and it rightly should. this is an essential piece to see and remember because of its humanity. It illustrates for us our own internal feelings of passion, of need, of want, of fear, of temptation, of struggle, of all the endorphin-filled rush of one moment that consume one's whole mind, body, and spirit. It is not that we have not experienced this things. On the contrary, it helps us see beyond our personal experiences and into the beauty of those very moments.

Sunday, September 27, 2009

A visual kick in the stomach: Larry Clark's "Tulsa"

Image taken from ArtJournal
Copyright Larry Clark
Image Taken From ArtsJournal
Copyright Larry Clark

Image taken from The New York Times online
Copyright Larry Clark

These few pictures here are only bits and pieces of the wall that is Larry Clark's "Tulsa". Made up of a total of 44 black and white silver gelatin prints, Tulsa is a series of photographs featuring members of Clark's household in Tulsa, OK in the late 1960's. Every one of these photographs are grouped tightly together to fill a wall, several feet both above and below eye level. The majority of these photographs feature one to two of these people as their focus, while capturing enough background to illustrate their surroundings, and furthermore, the atmosphere they inhabit. This atmosphere is like a punch to the back of the face when viewed in its totality. Some photographs are merely recordings of good times: A beautiful woman smoking; a long haired man in a denim jacket with a giant grin, a smiling tattooed man fishing on a serene lake. But these are not the photographs that stand out, they're not even the trend. Engulfing these good times are dozens of pictures depicting an intense lifestyle of constant party and heavy drug use. A man and a woman interrupting sexual intercourse for the man to inject heroin in the woman's arm; a woman lit by the lonely light on one high widow shown shooting heroin despite her obvious pregnancy; a man screaming in agonizing pain from a gunshot to the leg; a woman looking lost and forlorn, naked save for a sheet, lying in bed with a black eye; a funeral with a tiny open casket revealing an infant; that tattooed man from the lake sitting in front of a broken mirror with a look on his face that resonates with anyone who has ever felt contempt for themselves. The overall effect is to grab you, interest you, and hold you long after the shivers have started at the base of your spine. Even the "good times" photographs are somehow made dirty by all those horror scenes, because you recognize the same group of people over and over again. It makes you want to save that happy, beautiful girl shown smiling at a party before she becomes the pregnant junkie or the black eyed hopeless beauty. You want to let the man keep fishing before he smashes that mirror and hates himself, his life, his trap. But the resonating truth is that this happened before you saw this, before you drove over here, and if you're like me- before you were born. That's the real stomach turner- that the good times rolled right on into suffering, death, violence, and hate; that it happened just like this, recorded by Clark exactly how we saw it, and there's simply no saving for anyone to do. He just lets you into his life in a stunningly intimate way, as if you were invited to that nightmare of a party.
Clark created this series to present this life -his life- to America, 1971. To stand up and proclaim loudly that this is not only in New York, this is not only in L.A., this is not only among the horror stories you hear about in the paper. These are real people in rural Oklahoma, doing all the things you dream about, all the things you're afraid your kids are doing, all the things you would never dare to experience save a late night movie or a cheap piece of pulp fiction . To stand up and let them know: we're doing it all, and we did it before you got out of bed this morning.

Monday, September 21, 2009

Mining the MIA

"Portrait of Anna Blocken", Aelbert Cuyp, 1649
"Portrait of a Woman as Judith", Agostino Carracci, 1590
"Portrait of a Burgomaster", Bartholomeus van der Heist, 1665-70

"Portrait of a Young Girl", Jacob van Leo, 1650

(All photographs were taken by me at the Minneapolis Institute of Arts)

The Fourth floor of the Minneapolis Institute of Arts is one people usually have polarizing opinions on. They either fall in love and return, or see enough halfway through and wander downstairs for something more unique. This floor holds what most people would think of as more "classic" art even though much of it covers a few centuries. Many countries are also represented; there's the American painters, the French the English, the Flemish- just to name a few. But the overwhelming tie between all these on the fourth floor are that they're portraits, the standard, realistic yet idealized kind. Most of them are commissioned portraits of families or family members, all made to capture the person or people at their regal best. And yet, every once in a while, every few rooms or so, there is a portrait that captures something else entirely. It might be in the way their eyes are, their mouth, the colors, or sometimes something more obvious. These small elements, every once in a while add up to make something much more unsettling, more haunting. The beauty of that is that it's done subtly rather than outright (see previous post about Ray Caesar), which can be more chilling, the thought that maybe that truly is the essence of that person, caught on canvas. The kind of paintings that make you feel as though you're being watched. But don't worry, it's alright; these paintings are always sandwiched between cherubic baby Jesus and happy rich families with dogs at their feet. But what if they weren't? What if there was a collection simply for these? A room to house all the haunting souls ever captured in painted eyes? Would you sleepily wander downstairs then?

All of these would be hung at different heights around the room. Ideally, the collection would feature so many of these types of portraits that the walls would be almost completely covered, leaving the viewer stared at from dozens of pairs of eyes. The room would be kept intentionally colder than all other rooms, with the walls painted a deep shadowy purple or green. Also, I would put speakers behind some of the paintings that would remain quiet most of the time, but would occasionally play a rolling whisper across the room. This would happen only a few times a day, so anyone alone in this room would not be able to replicate it for a friend. Otherwise, the room would be sealed well enough to be more quiet than the rest of the museum. The goal is to really push that sense of being slightly uncomfortable, a bit unsettled. Not so much that it becomes a joke, but enough to bring these troubling faces a room of their own, no longer the odd one out in a plethora of fat happy rich people.

Beautiful and Terrible: Ray Caesar

by Ray Caesar,
22x22 inches,
Giclee on paper.
Taken from the artist's website.

"Sisters" by Ray Caesar depicts two young women (said to be sisters) in what seems to be a time period or situation with sort of a 15th century France feel, what with the powdered faces, powdered hair, delicate features and fine clothing and jewelry. They seem to be conversing about something mildly amusing and yet mildly snide, like gossip or perhaps judgments. From what we can see of the room it is ornate, with fancy wallpaper, solid columns and beautiful flowers. These are high society women, doing as high society women do; looking beautiful, being highly decorated, and making snarky comments. And oh- they both have horrific alien monster hands.
What I love about this piece (and all of Ray Caesar's work) is that he paints as if he was a French or English Romantic era painter: All the realistic but soft-edge details, the crisp attention to fabric and backgrounds, the light airy subject matter. He paints that classic beauty that most people nowadays have seen so much of that they hardly acknowledge it. He almost lets you walk right on by. Almost. But every piece has a kicker- alien or monster parts, wiry robot legs, too many limbs- something that jumps out with far more power than a painting of an alien or a monster or a robot ever would on its own. It's that contrast- that comfort you're almost led into before the gruesome element registers that gets me every time.
Why the monster hands? My first feeling is that it's a commentary on the rich and beautiful, a look into their insides, their intentions and their worth. You can see their beautiful faces, their expensive jewelry, their lovely dresses, ad also their hearts, woven into alien tendrils that meet in vicious, threatening points at the claw. But perhaps if it isn't malice, it's human nature. Maybe Caesar is saying that for all this beauty, there always is and always will be ugliness underneath, somewhere hidden underneath the splendor. Beauty is alluring and equally (if not more so) dangerous.