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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

Orangerie, up close, 2006

You wander through one of a city’s great art museums and watch the people. They spend an average of maybe 15 seconds in front of any painting that catches their attention before moving on.

Or more likely, they spend another 15 seconds reading the label on the wall. And if the label contains a legend explaining who the artist was or what the painting is about, they may very well spend more time with the label than with the art on the wall. It’s disheartening to watch.

One of the problems is that we are a verbal, not a visual culture. I know the common wisdom is currently that we are a visual people, but it simply isn’t true: Even those things we think of as symptomatic of being visual are things we “read” for information rather than see: like the stick figure man or woman that lets us know which restroom is appropriate.

But even more than that, it is that we are a problem-solving people. America’s national mythology describes us as doers and go-getters. We simply don’t believe in wasting our time. We’re too busy. Our heads are too crowded.

There are all those yapping voices, all those different aspects of our personalities, all clamoring for attention.

”Mmm, doughnuts!”

”Don’t forget the dentist appointment.”

”Do these socks go with this tie?”

”Is the ozone hole getting bigger?”

”Mmm, doughnuts!”

So, it’s hard to appreciate art these days.

And it’s no wonder that a management class steps forward to create some order.Orangerie, the critics, 2006

Each of us has it: The executive in our heads that tries to get through life quickly and efficiently, cutting through the baloney and making the decisions for everyone else in there.

It’s a necessity in an information top-heavy age with bumper-to-bumper traffic on the freeways.

Unfortunately, this tendency to empty the ”in box” and get on to the next problem runs completely counter to what art is about. To see art, or read poetry, or listen to chamber music, we have to kidnap, blindfold and gag the executive in our brains and give ourselves over to a different kind of experience.

And ”experience” is the operative word, for the primary function of art is to provide an aesthetic experience.

That executive in our cranium is used to dealing with information, not experience. There is life on one hand, and there are words and symbols about life on the other. Most of what life requires of us in the late 20th century deals with words and symbols: filling out forms, scanning in our Visa numbers, looking down the stock listings in the Business section of the newspaper. We are drowned in words.

But at least we are used to them. Experience is scary: sensuous, messy, confused.

So how do you deal with art? How do you prepare yourself to appreciate it, enjoy it, and grow from the experience of being exposed to it?

First of all, you have to slow down. Your interior life moves slowly, implacably. It is only your cerebral cortex that buzzes with frenetic energy. The deeper, more meaningful emotions, the underlying rhythm of life is more measured: a pedal note under the jangling fugue subject above.

Art requires that you work on this slower time scale. It doesn’t give itself up, like the punch line on a New Yorker cartoon; it slowly releases its value to those who can wait.

You have to spend time with a painting or statue. The Manager wants to look at a painting and say, ”Yes, I know that: It’s a Renoir. File it under ’19th Century, Impressionism, French.’ ” And then move on to the next: ”17th Century, Dutch, Genre: Rembrandt.”

It is as if knowing the name of the painting is the same thing as knowing the painting.Orangerie gawkers, 2006

But if you look at a single painting for, say, an hour, you will learn things about it. You will be forced to discover all the richness that the artist took the time to put there.

What colors has the artist used? What shapes? Is it dark or is it light? What is the subject? Can you make sense of it? If not, is the ambiguity important? Is the paint thickly applied, or flat and textureless? How does that help the painting convey what it has to give you?

You swish it around in your mouth like a good wine, looking for the complexities of taste and aftertaste.

How does the painting make you feel? Is it an emotion you’ve felt before? If not, is it related to one you’ve felt? If it’s completely new, how do you feel about that?

The art slowly unfurls, like a rose opening from a bud. The attention you pay will pay you back.

In the next installment, we’ll take a look at just one painting and see how this approach might pay off.

hogarth

The Star Spangled Banner didn’t begin with bombs bursting in air, it began with veins bursting in noses.

No, I don’t mean the stirring martial lyrics written by Francis Scott Key during the War of 1812, but the melody he borrowed.smith and key

The tune Key set his words to was an old English drinking song, To Anacreon in Heaven, written in 1780 by John Stafford Smith. It was the official song of the Anacreontic Society of London and was sung at the beginning of club meetings by all club members.anacreon gerome

Anacreon was a Greek poet of wine, women and song who died in 478 B.C. at the age of 86, from choking on a grape seed.

The club celebrated the grape, also.anacreontic society

Although, rather than wine, women and song, the Anacreontic Society seems more like booze, floozies and caterwauling. Imagine everyone at your local tavern or strip club getting up and singing a theme song before opening for business.

The society met every other week at the Crown and Anchor Tavern in the Strand, London, for a concert, dinner and a night of carousing. Each concert was formally opened by this song, performed by the president and joined by the company on refrain lines.

The curious Duchess of Devonshire, barred from the society by its all-male membership rules (barmaids were allowed, since they weren’t members), sometimes hid in a secret room under the stage in the tavern to hear the goings-on, enjoying the bawdy songs that were sung. Unfortunately, the duchess was a dampening influence on the society. Because the men were mortified that a woman of rank would hear them being so obscene, they disbanded in 1786 rather than continue, never knowing when the duchess would be in obscure attendance.fortmchenry_attack

Twenty-eight years later, Key penned the more familiar words during the siege of Fort McHenry outside Baltimore, on Sept. 13 and 14, 1814. The song was formally adopted as our national anthem by Congress in 1931.

For those who are curious about such things, these are the original words, or the first and last stanza, anyway, written by society president Ralph Tomlinson to Smith’s tune. Try singing it at the next baseball game.

To Anacreon in Heaven

To Anacreon in Heav’n, where he sat in full glee,

A few sons of harmony sent a petition

That he their inspirer and patron would be;

When this answer arrived from the jolly old Grecian —

(Refrain) “Voice, fiddle and flute, no longer be mute,

I’ll lend you my name and inspire you to boot;

And besides, I’ll instruct you like me to entwine

The myrtle of Venus with Bacchus’ vine.

And besides, I’ll instruct you like me to entwine

The myrtle of Venus with Bacchus’ vine.”

Ye sons of Anacreon, then, join hand in hand:

Preserve unanimity, friendship and love;

’Tis yours to support what’s so happily planned:

You’ve the sanction of gods and the fiat of Jove,

(Refrain) While thus we agree, our toast let it be

May our club flourish happy, united and free!

And long may the sons of Anacreon entwine

The myrtle of Venus with Bacchus’ vine.

And long may the sons of Anacreon entwine

The myrtle of Venus with Bacchus’ vine.

Signing_of_Declaration_of_Independence_by_Armand-Dumaresq,_c1873

Perhaps the most peculiar thing about the Declaration of Independence is that the portion of it that seemed commonplace when it was written now seems revolutionary, and the part that seemed to its framers as most central, to us seems trivial, even whiny.

As a piece of rhetoric, it begins in generalities, narrows to specifics, and ends in a course of action. It couldn’t be more concisely structured. The committee charged with drafting it in the summer of 1776 chose wisely when it asked Thomas Jefferson to write the first version. Jefferson’s prose is a model of late 18th-century style: precise, lucid and syllogistic.

But the only part of the Declaration that most people can recall, outside the opening, “When in the course of human events,” is the second paragraph. That second stanza contains the seed of every revolution that followed, from the bloody French to the bloody Russian. It is a statement of belief that is the foundation of American society, and almost every government created since 1776.

US-original-Declaration-topIt states baldly and without argument or support, that all men are born equal, have certain rights by virtue solely of being born, and that when a government fails egregiously to effect the safety and happiness of the people, it is their right to replace it.

But Jefferson didn’t invent its ideas whole cloth. In fact, as Jefferson wrote years later, the purpose of his stirring words was “not to find out new principles, or new arguments, never before thought of, but to place before mankind the common sense of the subject, in terms so plain and firm as to command their assent, and to justify ourselves in the independent stand we are compelled to take.”

Much of the remainder of the Declaration is given over to a litany of complaints the colonies had about British governance. Some of these complaints still seem legitimate; many seem trivial, even trumped up. “The King did this” and “The King did that.” ”

He has plundered our seas, ravaged our coasts, burnt our towns and destroyed the lives of our people,” it says. Pure hyperbole.

These complaints were the part of the Declaration that was “news” in 1776. They constituted what made the document inflammatory.

Few can read through the whole of the Declaration of Independence now without a sense of fatigue: Those complaints were the issues of 1776, not of today.

It is the second paragraph that seems told to all people at all times, and remains news to us in the 21st century.

Bridge between ages

But to follow those ideas from the century before the Declaration into the ink on its page shows just how important its year of birth was. It was born in the cusp between two great ages, two overriding sensibilities, and partakes of both.

The period from about 1750 to about 1825 is one of the richest in humankind’s history, fertile, even febrile. It is in many ways, the hinge between the past and the modern, between the classically minded 18th century and the Romantic 19th. From an age of Reason to one of Sentiment — as it was called at the time. In Europe, it was the age of Goethe and Rousseau.

And no figure in the American experiment better demonstrates that shift of sensibilities than Jefferson.

On one hand, he epitomized the faith in science and logic of the Enlightenment; on the other, he shared with the revolutionary Rousseau the belief in the nobility of humanity and its drive to social improvement.

You can hardly fail to notice this point when you visit Jefferson’s home in Virginia.

Monticello is a mirror of its maker. Jefferson built a model of Palladian proportion and filled it with moose antlers. The outside lines of the house are clean and mathematically rational. The inside is a warren of peculiar and unnerving spaces.

Jefferson never fully reconciled these two aspects of his personality. He was a slave owner who sings of the dignity of the free man. How much more conflicted than that can you be?

The Declaration of Independence speaks to us now, in large part, because of this clash of sensibilities in Jefferson.

On the one hand, you have the ideas of the Enlightenment, that brilliant flame of philosophy and science that sprang up in Europe in the 17th and 18th centuries.

On the other hand, you have the growth of the individual as a thinking and feeling person.

The Enlightenment preached rationality and temperance, tolerance and universal principals. One of its most influential writers was John Locke, who, in his Second Treatise on Civil Government, from 1690, wrote that all human beings have natural rights and that these included “life, liberty and the pursuit of property.”

It was an idea that took hold and flourished.

By the time of the American Revolution, the idea was commonplace. It shows up in George Mason’s Virginia Declaration of Rights in June 1776, in slightly altered form:

“That all men are by nature equally free and independent and have certain inherent rights, of which, when they enter into a state of society, they cannot by any compact, deprive or divest their posterity; namely, the enjoyment of life and liberty, with the means of acquiring and possessing property, and pursuing and obtaining happiness and safety.”

When you compare that with what Jefferson first wrote, you can see how much better a writer Jefferson was. He only needed 31 words to say what Mason required 57 for, and say it more forcefully and memorably.

An economy of words

Writing_the_Declaration_of_Independence_1776_Jefferson’s first take on this was considerably more sonorous, but still not quite there:

“We hold these truths to be sacred, that all men are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable rights, and that among these are life, liberty and the pursuit of property.”

It was a committee of five, delegated by the Second Continental Congress, that were given the responsibility to draw up the Declaration. Jefferson wrote that first draft, but Benjamin Franklin, also on the committee, struck out “sacred” and replaced it with “self-evident.”

By 18th-century reasoning, self-evidence was universal, while sacredness could be construed as sectarian. Franklin wanted to emphasize the universal truth of the proposition.

And Jefferson himself changed “property” to “happiness,” and with that stroke made the Declaration jump from the past into the future.

The past was Thomas Hobbes, with his sense of the nastiness, brutishness and shortness of life, and a belief that the natural order of mankind was greed, rapine and thievery. Only strong central government, he wrote, could possibly control the natural impulses of humankind.

The future was Rousseau’s perfectibility of man, his belief in the nobility of those uncorrupted by society and government, the “natural man.”

The middle was Jefferson, perfectly if perilously balanced between.

The right of life remained pretty much the same looking forward and back, but the other two rights changed meaning over the cusp of 1800.

Locke believed that all humans coveted was property; Jefferson realized that there were many routes besides ownership to humanity’s true goal, individual happiness. Hence, the change in language.

Liberty is the word that has changed the most. In the 18th century, it meant being left alone, basically. Your government let you be: Taxes shouldn’t be too onerous and armies shouldn’t be quartered in your home at the whim of the commandant.La_liberté_guidant_le_peuple

But by the 19th century, liberty took on a more revolutionary turn: Romantic writers saw liberty as the antidote to repressive regimes around the world and one read poems to Count Egmont, the Prisoner of Chillon and Nat Turner. It fueled popular movements all across Europe and led to a crisis year in 1848. Liberty meant revolt — a very different thing from what John Locke had in mind.

(And it makes almost comic the confusion of the two versions of liberty conflated by contemporary anti-tax factions and the paranoid fringe looking for the black helicopters that we can get all belligerent and militant about “tyranny” in Washington, when compared to what is happening in Sudan, Russia or North Korea, we remain among the most liberty-ridden people on earth. Admittedly, the Declaration of Independence itself is full of the same sort of inflated rhetoric.)

“Life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness.”

This meant that the Declaration could speak, Janus-like, forward and backward. The fulcrum of modern history. The Enlightenment is emerging from its chrysalis into the age of Romanticism.

01 Rainbow, DelmarvaIn the early 1980s, my wife and I were both teachers and had our summers free to travel. Beginning in 1981 and for many years after, we drove all across the U.S. and Canada. I was a photography teacher at a 2-year college and carted around quite a freightload of photographic equipment, including a hefty 4X5 field camera.

Now, when we travel, I use a digital point-and-shoot that fits into my trouser pocket and weighs less than the lens shade for my old Super Angulon view camera lens. And the photos I get are just as good. (No matter how fancy the equipment, a photographer cannot get photos any better than his talent allows; cameras hardly matter). And goodbye hypo stains.

I have previously posted a passel of images from our trips out West. But we also visited the East. We have been to every state in the Union multiple times and have visited every Canadian province except Prince Edward Island, and I don’t know how we missed that.

We put thousands of miles on our old Chevy Citation every summer. It was a workhorse of a car; that’s it above, on the Delmarva Peninsula, under one of the greatest rainbows ever.

These are a few of the images I made on those trips.

02 central park03 Gorilla, Am Mus Nat Hist0404 Chicago skyline05 Union Station, Washington06 Greensboro Alley 107 Palisades, N.J08 Petroglyph09 Tidepool maine10 Carlsbad Caverns11 Beaver skull12 I-64, Virginia13 East Lake Hunt Club14 Bayou thicket15 Brookgreen Gardens, S.C16 Buxton Sedge grass17 Maine tide wash18 Schoodic rocks 2 copy19 lincolnville maine20 Ruins of Windsor21 Sunflower 122 Gettysburg23 Blue Ridge winter24 Cows, Crawley W.V25 Va Kendall SP Ohio 126 Va Kendall SP Ohio 227 Va Kendall SP Ohio 3