Thursday, September 15, 2011

...I know what I like...


I think a lot of people who know what they like in art, but can't really say why, really only lack vocabulary. I am new to reading and thinking about art, analysing why I like what I like, and I have found it very difficult to articulate my thoughts. I am starting now to collect a vocabulary that describes what I think, but it's still quite difficult.

The other day I was thinking that I wasn't so keen on portraits as I am on still life, but I was having trouble identifying why. What I've realised is that I often find modern portraits, even the ones by modern contemporary realist painters whose work I admire, to lack a sense of universality.

Everyone can know the universal significance of a still life or a landscape, or even an anonymous nude figure, and modern realist painters usually really shine in these genres. But I've noticed that when it is a formal portrait, very often the sense of a universal meaning is lost. They are often technically extraordinary, but they lack a deeper meaning. Maybe this is because of the influence of photography, but there is something about the portrait above, by the 18th century German painter Christian Seybold, that surpasses the simple creation of a good likeness. She glows with inner strength and an extraordinary beauty.

I remember seeing in the Chicago Art Institute and the National Gallery many 17th and 18th century portraits, often by Dutch painters, that had this same inner glow. So much that they harbour a kind of beauty and serenity that is nearly impossible to see in day to day life. I imagine that this is what people would look like in heaven.

Why do modern painters so often fail to create this kind of meaning in portraits?



~

9 comments:

Jon said...

Why do modern painters so often fail to create...?

Perhaps because modern life has no beauty, serenity, or meaning?

Fr. T. said...

It all comes down to painterly tricks, and not disdaining to use them. Look at the portrait you posted---what gives it much of its power? The fact that she's looking, not at us, or at anything, which makes it seem that she is absorbed in her own thoughts. So, because of these slight indications, we invest her with an inner life. She strikes us as real, but only because we've invested her with this reality. Modern painters are very impatient with this game of charades. Or they play it in a different key (thus the very powerful paintings of Mark Rothko).

Hilary Jane Margaret White said...

It's the colours too, and the light.

Martial Artist said...

I can't help suspecting that a part of it is the modern tendency to publicly adore, often fawningly, those contemporary artists who defy convention (and not infrequently apotheosize ugliness rather than beauty), while simultaneously belittling artists who find and portray the beauty in what is often an ordinary subject. A part of my suspicion is, no doubt, due to my artist wife's recounting to me the manner in which Norman Rockwell's covers for the Saturday Evening Post were treated so dismissively by modern critics and artists alike.

The attitude I see in that is one of demeaning someone else's work in order to assure oneself of one's own superiority. Unfortunately for them, it only reminds some of us that "the emperor has no clothes."

Pax et bonum,
Keith Töpfer

Hilary Jane Margaret White said...

Mark Rothko?!

Have you lost your mind? Endless identical paintings of nothing that could be reproduced by a ten year-old with a paint roller?

Good grief, I wouldn't have thought it of you.

Next you'll be telling me about the genius of Jackson Pollock or some other modernist shyster.

Teresa B. said...

I have never seen this picture before and it is gorgeous! It should be in my MasterPiece Board game.
Love the old masters and am rather turned off of more modern styles.
Oh yeah, like that one in one of Cdn.gov't buildings with the huge red line going down the centre and it's 1 million dollars!!

Aaron Traas said...

I've noticed the same thing. Particularly at a few local Catholic churches where the priests were actually willing to commission new realist art to attempt to restore them to their former glory. But the portraits of Jesus, Mary, and the saints... they're just missing something. Some sort of humanity or depth or something. It's sad that this seems to be lost on modern realists...

PM said...

Because they fail to see the meaning in life?

The Crescat said...

And I have always adored portraiture above all else.