How to look at a painting

stella flowers italy 1931 copy

I spent 26 years of my life in Phoenix, Ariz., and came to know the collection at the Phoenix Art Museum intimately. There were paintings I loved and a very few that I disliked intensely. Most, of course, fell in the middle somewhere.

One painting I felt strong aversion to was Joseph Stella’s Flowers, Italy, which always seemed to me like a cheap piece of junk-surrealism. On the whole, I am not simpatico with even the best Surrealism.

There is only one thing to do when you don’t like a painting: spend a lot of time with it. So, I figured, if I stayed with the Stella for a while, I would either fully define why I did not, like it, or I would change my mind.

I finally wound up spending more than five hours with the painting, and, another hour or two afterward, reading about the artist and his work.

It was an enormous expense of time and energy, but it paid me back many times over. Now Stella’s Flowers is one of my anchors at the museum and, I cannot get enough of it.

Since the question I am asked most often and most imploringly is “How do you look at art?” it seemed like it might be helpful to describe what I found over those seven hours.

LOOKING AT A PICTURE

Most people like pictures of flowers. They come upon Joseph Stella’s Flowers, Italy at the Phoenix Art Museum, for instance, and they are likely to respond, ”I like flowers; they’re pretty; I like this painting,” and move on to the next.

But there is much more packed into any good painting, a world of meaning and experience that can only be squeezed out with time and effort.

So, mister wise-guy art critic, how do you look at a painting? It’s a question I have often heard. The answer has three large parts.

The first is looking.

And by looking, I mean spending a very long time noticing all the component parts of a painting, its colors, brush strokes, subject matter, design, size and proportions.

The second is thinking.

After you have noticed every square millimeter of the work, you are then obliged to figure out what it might mean. You dig into yourself — the well of your experience — and try to parse out what all those many bits might add up to.

And third, after you have some good idea what the painting might be communicating, there is the learning. You are interested enough that you want to find a book or person who might tell you more and help you fit this experience into the larger picture. But make sure to wait for this last: After you have experienced the painting, then you can worry about facts.

Too often, we want to start with facts, but if you place them first, they only blur your vision.

Once more, the three steps are: looking, thinking and learning.

Let’s take those same Stella flowers and try the method on them.

It is a large, square painting, about 6- by 6-feet, of dozens, maybe hundreds of flowers in a tangle that seems almost architectural, all against a deep, blue sky.

From a distance — and the way it hangs in the museum currently makes it difficult to view any other way — it seems finely painted and detailed. The paint seems smoothly brushed onto the canvas.

But try to get up close, and you will find that the surface is sloppy with thick gobs of rough paint. The flowers almost seem crude, as if drawn by a not-so-talented child.

Step back again. They regain their refinement.

This is only one of the many contradictions of the work.

Its overall impression and the first thing most people notice, after the flowers, is that the painting is rigidly symmetrical. Draw a line up and down through its middle and you find that the right and left sides mirror each other.

Yet, on closer inspection, nothing on one side exactly reproduces the other. What is a calla lily on one side is balanced by a hibiscus on the other. The painting only appears to be literally symmetrical.

There are two distinct axes to the design. Splitting the painting vertically is a line of plant stalks, pistils, racemes and petals. Each half of the painting is equal.

But cutting the bottom portion from the upper is a line of large white blooms. They sit lower than the halfway mark, settling as if gravity had pulled them down.flowers cross

That giant cross is the basic organizing principle of the work, like an airplane nose down, crashing into the bottom of the frame.

Another contradiction: Most of the blossoms are fairly realistic. You can tell the hibiscus from the aster, the lotus from the lily. Yet, the plant stems are greatly distorted. Many are rigidly straight, up and down. Others are not connected to anything recognizable. The upper portion of the picture, in fact, is divided into three panels by plant stalks that curve around at the top to make what look like Roman arches.

The background is blue sky; the closest part, on the bottom of the frame, is blue water, filled with waterlilies and fish. There are a host of white and red flowers, and a smattering of yellow. But considering this is a painting of foliage, there is surprisingly little green.

Notice that I haven’t yet mentioned what any of this might mean. Your first obligation is to discover what is there; only then can you worry what it might mean.monkey face

And what about the ”monkey” face?

Human beings are genetically programmed to recognize faces. It is why we so often find virgins in tortillas and aliens staring back from Martian mountains.

At the bottom of this painting, filling the middle third, is an animal face, with two rosy hibiscus for eyes, two birds for ears, and what looks like a red proteus for a nose ridge, crowned with a great white waterlily flower.

arcimboldoLike one of those crazy Arcimboldo faces from the Renaissance, made from fruit or vegetables, it is a visual pun, functioning on two levels at once: face and flower.

Stella is having it both ways once again.

Notice, too, that the bottom third of the painting acts like a very close, in-your-face wall, like a hedge that blocks the distant view behind. The painting then, maps out very clearly the near and the far.

Over and over, there are contradictions: things split into two — near-far, up-down, flower-face, greenless plants, realistic distortion.

There are dozens of other things you might notice. I’ve only listed a few; a complete list could fill an entire book.

But what does it all mean? The experience is all well and good, the looking slows us down and we discover scores of little details that we could not have noticed racing through the museum.

But it is the meaning we are after.

Well, the first thing you are likely to think about is the flowers. Any painting with this many maniacal flowers is likely to be about fecundity. This is one fertile painting.

And the details certainly substantiate that. Look at the top, with the day lily hanging upside down over the long, white tendrils that draw up the center line of the painting. It sits with its pollen-laden anthers just touching the tendril, which we must read as an abstracted pistil. The very moment of fertilization.

It is the climax of the painting, so to speak.

But the rest of the painting is no less orgasmic. Look at all the large flowers. Almost every one is a yonic horn with a large, phallic nub at its center. They are hibiscus and lotus, contradictory male and female at the same time. Near the very center of the painting is a jack-in-the-pulpit, with a lurid phallus sticking straight up from its bowl-like pulpit.

You would need an computer to keep track of the phalli and yoni in this picture.

Even that monkey face, looked at again turns into the female reproductive organs, with fallopian leaf fronds and ovarian hibiscus.

So, does this mean Stella had a dirty mind? Or was his subconscious playing Freudian games?

No. There is something else going on.Hubert_Robert Roman_Ruins

If we were to search the history of art for this painting’s ancestors, the most direct would be the 18th century picturesque landscapes of Hubert Robert and his like.

They usually showed a Roman or Greek ruin taken over by vines, with animals or people living and playing around them. Nature reconquers the works of man.

Stella has given us the ruin, in the form of the vegetal arches at the top of the painting. In his ”ruins” nature reconquers the world in a fit of fertility.

In the older paintings, we know that conventional iconography implies that the ruins symbolize death; the vines, the recurrence of life.

In Stella, the ruins are only suggested, and death — the arching plants that roof the painting — is itself seething with life.

The contradictions are all the more emphatic when we learn more about Stella and his art.

stella mugHe was born in Italy in 1877 and immigrated to the United States in 1894, where he died in 1946. He first achieved notice as an artist with a series of paintings of the Brooklyn Bridge and Coney Island, done before 1920.

In those, he brought the current Italian movement called Futurism to the U.S. Futurism glorified modernity, machines, speed and motion. Most of the noted Futurists were Italian; Stella was America’s only serious member.

But the contradictions in Stella’s personality kept him from continuing in this direction. Something in him mistrusted machines, even as he felt awestruck by the engineering of the Brooklyn Bridge.brooklyn bridge stella

”Many nights I stood on the bridge — and in the middle alone — lost — a defenseless prey to the surrounding swarming darkness — crushed by the mountainous black impenetrability of the skyscrapers,” he wrote.

In another place, he called his home, New York City, ”Monstrous dream, chimeric reality, Oriental delight, Shakespearean nightmare . . . its enormous blocks of buildings barring one’s way . . . its dreadful closed windows barren of flowers.”

In his mind, Stella contrasted the steel, cold, northern city with the fertile, warm, sunny southern Italian town he had grown up in.

”Returning to my birthplace, I find all of nature smiling like a friend, greeting my arrival with festive salutes.”

And in another place, ”My drowsing energy, tortured by the cold of Northern countries, was awakened as if by magic, set aglow by the radiance of gold and purple light. All the ardor of my youth surged through me with the overflowing, stinging, demanding desire for new conquests in the virgin lands of art.”

Over and over in Stella’s letters, you find a man driven ecstatic by the abundance and plenitude of nature. Man’s works, so glorified in the Futurist paintings, became the fodder for ruins, which were ennobled by the fecundity of nature.stella purissima

It is a theme that shows up in many of Stella’s better paintings (and it should be noted he was a very uneven painter). They have titles such as Joy of Living, Dance of Spring, Apotheosis of the Rose and Tree of My Life.

Stella had an almost Hindu sense of the ecstasy of nature, the sense that everything is burning with aliveness.

And in the end, even his famous paintings of the Brooklyn Bridge were not about human life and technology, but, as he wrote, ”I felt deeply moved, as if on the threshold of a new religion, or in the presence of a new Divinity.”

He was one of those painters, like Van Gogh, who yearned to express the exploding aliveness of the world, a man with a visionary sense of cosmic energy.

Finally, his Flowers, Italy is no more about mere sex than the cave paintings of Ajanta or the athletics of Henry Miller. It is a vision of perpetual life, renewing itself and burning, a non-Christian version of Dante’s Divine Rose, or the sacred Garden of Eden.

And it is at this level that, in Stella, as in the Vedic religion, all contradictions are transcended.

NEXT: Looking at an earlier painting, using the same techniques

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