Focus on Art – February 2012

Focus on Art

By Rob Mohr

Soul’s Delight: Contemplation of a Painting


*All paintings mentioned in this article may be seen on this Focus on Art web link.          

focus-feb12Contemplation of a fine painting, like enjoying a nuanced wine, entails exploration of a created world filled with savor, emotion, contrast, and mystery which, in turn, foment challenges and satisfy our senses.

Since humans painted on cave walls, fine arts have served as a primary release for human creativity. Classical, Renaissance and other art movements have acted as catalyst for the human imagination to shape the world we live in. This transformative power of art is pervasive in all cultures, yet we often treat paintings as mere decoration rather than the result of a creative act which has the power to transform human life.

Contemplation distinguishes us as human. This is especially true when we contemplate objects humans created. Consider your last trip to a museum. Yet today’s casual approach to art coupled with the exercise of unstructured taste, negate the pleasure, adventure, and discovery that happen when we take a painting seriously. Seeing a 200,000,000 dollar painting by Jackson Pollock, many said, without understanding, “Just spilt paint, a monkey could do that.” Given such cultural limitations, how might you begin to take pleasure in meditative contemplation of serious works of art?

The aesthetic understandings of philosopher Emmanuel Kant (1724-1804) should help.

“Beauty is the form of finality in fine art – the thing itself …”

This truth led Kant to insist that a work of art must be judged for what it is and not what it may refer to. For example, in Matisse’s painting Woman With a Hat, we may miss enjoying the painting by thinking, ‘this is not like a real woman.’ (photo) Kant understood that all initial judgments should be based on one’s pleasure when impartially contemplating a painting. Kant’s seminal understanding opened the door to expressionism, impressionism, abstract impressionism, and the other artistic movements of the last three centuries.

Following Kant’s lead, Jackson Pollock’s “Painting,” seen for itself, becomes a painting whose subject is paint. Pollock danced around and over his works imparting his emotions, psychic state, and movements onto the painting.

This was not a new discovery. Paint as paint played a major role in Rembrandt’s Self Portrait, and Lucian Freud’s Large Interior where paint with its inherent qualities magically transmuted substances within the painting into old skin, blemishes, shadows, dirt on the walls, scarred surfaces and worn clothes. In 1902 Matisse’s unforgettable Woman With a Hat also glorified the qualities of paint and color. The stunning result foreshadowed Abstract Expressionism which flourished in New York during the 1950s.

Contemplation and disinterested seeing of paintings for what they are sets the imagination free to savor the art object. Over time this approach develops your ability to appreciate fine art and ultimately your critical judgment, which further enriches your enjoyment. Honed critical seeing should include observing the quality and variety of line, nuances of color, how one enters a painting and moves about within the painting, the “push/pull” into and out of the painting, the role the four edges, texture and pattern, and if objects in the painting are integrated with the other elements – all seldom considered by most viewers.

Try contemplating The Scream by Munch, rich in emotional content, or Hans Hofmann’s Magenta and Blue (photo) where abstract colored forms push and pull through the surface, instigating a metaphorical voyage filled with stimulating juxtapositions. Hofmann understood that art is about conflict and contrast and the conjunctions, unifications, and syntheses of dissimilar, opposing elements.       




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