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Work has become the habit of a lifetime, and a habit is hard to break. So, even though I have been retired for seven years, I wake up each day believing that I must produce something. What is produced is not irrelevant, but it is a minor concern compared with the unswervable drive to be productive.

That is why I continue to write this blog; it is why I keep making new photographs — compelled like William Blake’s Los, forging link upon link of a continuous chain.

Which is why, visiting my friends I cannot help but carry my point-and-shoot around in my pocket and take it out at seemingly random moments to point and shoot. Each visit I make, a theme arises, unbidden but clear. One visit, I photographed ceilings and floors — it is amazing how much I could find there. (Link here).  It is in these details that I find design: and it is the design rather than content that tickles my eye. (Link here). 

But that doesn’t mean content doesn’t count. This visit I began photographing randomly, as I do, making pictures of their cats, of birds, of the woods behind the house. But more and more, my camera kept finding circles. Circles, curves and arcs. 

It seemed as if one of the marks of human industry is the circle. Nature allows few of them, choosing a great deal more vertical and horizontal lines, such as trees and horizons. But the circle is human; it is idealized. 

Throughout the house, I kept finding them, in pots, in lamps, in clocks, dishes and sculptures. Round is an idealized form, almost Platonic. Industrial. 

Certainly, I remembered the Zen ideal of the enso, or circle, which is drawn swiftly with the sumi brush, in a single swish, or perhaps two. It is often incomplete, and usually scruffy with brushstroke. It is meant to symbolize enlightenment, but also the great emptiness of the universe. It is an expression of the Japanese esthetic ideal of wabi-sabi, or the beauty of imperfection, incompleteness or impermanence. 

It is very different from the Western concept of the ideal, or perfect. A perfect circle is difficult to draw freehand. The Greek painter Apelles once left a perfect circle on a wall in the home of his rival, as proof that he had been there.

More famously, the Italian Renaissance painter Giotto, when tasked by the Pope to demonstrate his mastery, scribed a perfect O in red paint. 

A Canadian math teacher from Ottawa, Alexander Overwijk, once made up a story of winning the 2007 World Freehand Circle Drawing Competition in Las Vegas, as a means of getting the attention of his students. (The fiction went viral, and you can find it all over the internet, as if it were real). He was able to draw such a circle on the blackboard for his class. (Link here). 

But perfection is boring. It is abstracted from the real world, a world of imperfection, incompleteness and impermanence. The real world has jagged or fuzzy edges, it is left perpetually unfinished, it is ambiguous. 

As I moved about the house, I kept finding not only circles, but curves and arcs, the incomplete circles. 

The 18th century philosopher Giambattista Vico wrote of the historical cycles of recurrence. Time, he implied, was not a straight line, but a circle. We see these cycles and epicycles in our own lives, inarticulate as infants and incoherent in old age dementia. Our lives recapitulate in our children’s lives, as ours recycle those of our parents and grandparents. 

Weeks cycle through from Monday to Monday, months from January to January. The clock on the wall from noon to noon. 

In Finnegans Wake, James Joyce begins the book with the end of a sentence that began at the finish of the book, “bringing us by a commodius vicus of recirculation” to the ouroboros of time and history — and the story. 

William Butler Yeats, in his A Vision, gives another version of the cycles of history, which in his case is paired with the phases of the moon. In Vico’s version, history has four stages; in Yeats, there are 28 phases. 

(The moon is one of those few natural circles, although, it should be pointed out, it is only perfectly round once a month. A second natural circle is the eye’s iris, from which I see the circles I photograph.) 

“In my beginning is my end,” wrote T.S. Eliot in East Coker — one of his Four Quartets. “In succession houses rise and fall, crumble, are extended,/ Are removed, destroyed, restored, or in their place/ Is an open field, or a factory, or a by-pass.”

“In my end is my beginning.” 

Round planets circle round suns; Shakespeare’s Puck promises he “will put a girdle round about the earth in forty minutes.” Now a moon named Puck circles the seventh planet of the solar system. 

As I continued to make pictures — and I wound up with 97 of them over a four-day visit — they tended to diverge from the circle to the arc, finding that incompleteness more interesting visually. The arc implies rather than states. It suggests; it doesn’t insist. It is metaphor, not fact. 

Curves are human, they are sensuous. Straight lines and squares are the stuff of Procrustes, something we overlay on the natural roundness of delight to pretend there is something schematic about the world, something we can graph and diagram. Something we can make use of. 

But the curve gives us motion, change, the complexities of the calculus. It is Ovidian, not Platonic. It is pleasure; it delights the eye. In the eternal battle between mind and body, the body has all the fun. The mind is a doughty schoolmarm. 

 

The metaphor is real. My wife died two years ago and now I am meeting my ex-wife again, after 50 years.

And so, I keep finding these circles and arcs, these bows bending like the curved universe Einstein posited. They delight me. 

Click on any image to enlarge

In nova fert animus mutatas dicere formas corpora.

With these words, Publius Ovidius Naso begins one of the most famous and influential books of the ancient world, his Metamorphoses. 

“Now my spirit brings me to speak of changing forms into other bodies.” In the poem, he recounts hundreds of mythological stories, all to do with transformation. Nothing in his universe is permanent; everything seems to change into something else, women into birds, men into horses, gods into bulls. The poem recounts such tales with the wit and fizz of a supreme ironist. 

The Metamorphoses is a compendium of Greek and Roman mythology. It is the primary source for later writers who use it to retells the stories of Echo and Narcissus, Daphne and Apollo, King Midas, Venus and Adonis, Pyramus and Thisbe and Phaethon and the sun chariot. Some of the myths are found only in Ovid. He is primary source for Chaucer, Dante, Shakespeare, Milton, Dryden and hundreds of others, including Nathaniel Hawthorne, in his Wonder Book and Tanglewood Tales. 

He was popular in his time, largely derided as “pagan” in the early Christian centuries, rediscovered in the Renaissance, enjoyed in the enlightenment, again avoided in the Victorian era of high-mindedness and didacticism, and only again come out of the shadows after mid-Twentieth Century with a spate of new translations. (The most recent trend is away from him once more, in a “Me-Too” era that takes umbrage at all that rape and patriarchy.) 

With all that shapeshifting, it makes me think of how I manage to read the poem: in English. In the past year, I have read three different translations, plus I have re-read Ted Hughes’ Tales from Ovid. And I have loved every moment. 

And so, now my spirit brings me to speak of changing language into other words. Specifically, how can we translate from one tongue to another, from Ovid’s Latin to my English. It should be simple: Just take the ancient words, one by one, and turn them into English words. But if we do that, we get gibberish. “In now bring spirit change to speak forms bodies.” 

To say nothing of the multiple meanings of each of the Latin words. A few bits: animus can be “mind,” “soul,” “feelings,” “heart,” “spirit,” “courage,” “character,” “pride,” or even “air.” Corpora may mean “body,” but it also means “person,” “self,” “virility,” “flesh,” “corpse,” “trunk,” “framework,” or “collection.” So, which of each of these do you choose. A possible, but nonsensical translation, borrowing synonymous meanings from the words in the opening sentence, could read, “Within the extraordinary, pride wins a substitute for pleading a collection of patterns.” 

Huh? Of course, no on thinks that is what Ovid was trying to say. It is completely unidiomatic. But how do you make meaning in English from a language spoken 2000 years ago? 

One of the first translators into English was Arthur Golding. In 1567, he gave the first line as, “Of shapes transformde to bodies straunge, I purpose to entreate.”

The most famous translation, by John Dryden in 1717, makes it short and sweet: “Of bodies chang’d to various forms, I sing.” 

In 1899, Henry T. Riley gave it as: “My design leads me to speak of forms changed into new bodies,” which is fairly literal. 

“My soul is wrought to sing of forms transformed to bodies new and strange!”  Brookes More, 1922.

 Horace Gregory, in 1958 has it: “Now I shall tell of things that change, new being out of old.”

William S. Anderson, rather clumsily makes it nearly unreadable in 1978 with: “From bodies various form’d, mutative shapes my Muse would sing.” 

I have collected (a “corpus” of data) some 20 different versions of this single sentence, including Hughes’ “Now I am ready to tell how bodies are changed into different bodies.”

Ovid’s Latin is not only light and ironic, it is often self-consciously poetic, and other times comically demotic. Because of the different structures of Latin and English — the Latin being built of case endings, declensions and conjugations — it is impossible to recreate accurately the tone and content of the original. Parallels must be found, and those vary from age to age, mandating new and current translations. 

Outside of Hughes, who is near perfect but only translates barely a tenth of the whole, my current favorite is Charles Martin, which is easy to read, idiomatically English, but able to shift tones when needed. It is also in a swift pentameter, unlike those hexameters so many try to match Ovid’s own verse form, which is oddly ungainly in English. 

But, what I started out to say, before shifting off into all this about language, is that the same piling up of version in language has its counterpart in imagery. Ovid’s tales have been subject matter for countless painters and sculptors. 

So, now I am moved to write about verse changed into other art media. I wanted to take a single tale and decided, since I feel so European, I might consider the continent’s eponym, Europa. 

In the Metamorphoses, Jupiter, head god, gets the hots for the young woman, Europa, and seeing her among her herd of kine, plots to abduct her. 

“The great father and ruler of the gods — whose right hand is armed with the three-forked lightning, who shakes the world with his nod — puts on the appearance of a bull, and having mixed himself with the bullocks, he lows and walks about beautiful on the tender grass. 

“He is as white as the untrampled snow before the south wind turns it into slush. His shoulders brawny, his dewlap dangles on his broad chest. His horns are curved but as if they were hand made and flawless as pearls. 

“He seemed unthreatening and his eye filled with no anger; he was all peaceful. 

“And so Europa, the daughter of Agenor, wondered at him that he was so beautiful and gentle. At first she was afraid to touch him, even though he promised no threat, but she did approach him and held out flowers to his white mouth. The would-be lover rejoices and biding his time till he gets what he wants, he kisses her hands. It isn’t easy for him to hold back. 

“And so, he fawns upon her and gambols on the green grass, he lays down his snowy side on the yellow sands; her fear evaporates slowly. He offers his breast to be stroked by the virgin’s hand and his horns to be snared by her garlands. She dared then to sit on the back of the bull, not knowing who he really was. 

“The god by slow degrees plants his foot in the sand, leaving prints there, moving incrementally to the edge of the waves, and then suddenly he goes off farther through the waves into the wide sea. She trembles and being carried away, she looks back on the shore left behind, holding his horn with her right hand while the other was placed on his back. Her windswept garments shook behind her. And so, the god, having then changed back from his lying bull form, confessed himself to her.”

The story is later picked up in Book 6, in the story of Arachne, challenging Minerva to a weaving contest. Arachne weaves a picture of Europa “deceived in the form of the bull: You would have thought it a real bull and real waves in the tapestry. Europa is seen looking back to the shore she has left and calling to her companions, afraid of the surging water and nervously lifting her feet.” 

 It’s in little details, like the feet, that Ovid makes his stories palpable. 

I have now collected more than a hundred images of drawings, paintings, sculpture and relief depicting Europa and the bull, usually with the girl holding the animal’s horn and her clothes sailing off behind her. 

The earliest of these predate Greek mythology: There are Babylonian figures of a woman riding a bull, and others from the Middle East. 

And of course, there are all those images of bull umping in Mnoan Crete.

There is a depiction on red-figure Greek vases and on the walls of Pompeii

and numerous floor mosaics — The Rape of Europa seemed to be a popular image for Roman homes. 

But it was later, in the Renaissance and Baroque ages that Europa exploded with painters and sculptors. Every artist who was anybody did at least one version of the story, usually a vast mythological scene with the bull and the virgin, but also various putti and godlets swirling around. 

The iconography is fairly uniform: The bull is usually white, the girl hangs on for dear life to a bull horn, and her clothes sweep away in a grand gesture. In some, the shore features her distraught friends, in others she sits lovingly on the gentle beast, before the mad dash. 

There are modern versions, too. Some are by serious artists, such as Gauguin, Max Beckmann and Hans Erni.

Some are more kitschy or popular.

There are modern sculptures.

There are figurines by the dozen.

And there is at least one drawing that, compared with the Rococo version of Jean-Francois de Troy, make absolutely clear the brutality of the story as rape. 

It needs to be pointed out also, that the bull shows up over and over in mythology, like with Hercules and the Cretan Bull, or, closely paralleling the story of Europa, there is Dirce, who is punished by her twin nephews by being tied to a bull and ridden to her death. 

But I want to end with a version that may not have been intentional, but has a wonderful resonance as it makes a contemporary political point. It is the girl facing the bull on Wall Street. Called “Fearless Girl,” by Kristen Visbal, it was originally a kind of publicity gimmick for a Wall Street firm, erected in 2017, but became a symbol for feminism and anti-capitalist protest, as it was first positioned in front of the iconic 1989 “Charging Bull” by artist Arturo Di Modica. Complaints from De Modica and support from protesters and NY Mayor Bill de Blasio ended in a 13-month standoff, but eventually, the “Fearless Girl” was moved. 

I think of it as Europa gets her own. 

Click on any image to enlarge 

  

 

We all have roots. We draw up family trees, naming as far back as we can our ancestors; sometimes we discover Charlemagne or Henry II hiding in the branches. Many of us have tested our DNA to discover the nameless past before that and perhaps trace our route from Africa through Europe or Asia by haplogroup. 

There is a lineage — a straight line that leads from some familial Adam to ourselves. Or at least, we see it that way: The reality is messier. Each of the names above ours on the family tree doubles; parents, grandparents, great-grandparents and so on. That lineage becomes a mesh, a network of interconnectedness. Thousands of Adams and their Eves woven together.

Yet, there is still the sense of having gotten from there to here. A sense that, however complex the root system, the florescence is now. 

This seems to me to be true culturally as well as genetically. I am certainly American, with my bona fides in Thoreau, Emerson, Whitman, Dickinson, Melville, Hawthorne. But there is still something behind those names. When one marries and begins a family of one’s own, there is still the family in which you were raised and it never really goes away. One day when you are 50, you look down and at the ends of your arms you discover your father’s hands. Or you find yourself saying something that rings the bell of remembrance: This is what the old man used to say. Your wedded family, like your friends are acquired later, but your original family stays with you forever. It is somehow more unshakable than the one you later don. You may divorce a first wife, but you can never lose your birth family: It is traced in your muscle and bone. 

And it is, at least for me, the same for the culture I resonate to. I find ever more as I grow older, that I am at heart European. It is European literature, music, thought — even landscape and city — that I respond to. France has always felt like home to me. And the painting and sculpture of the Old World — from Ancient Greece, through Rome, the Middle Ages and Renaissance, through the Enlightenment and into the horrifying terrors of the 20th century — they all speak to me more directly than the neotenous and optimistic culture of the New World. 

This is not to claim any supremacy for Europe. There are many great cultures in the world, and just as one knows one’s own family may not be the greatest one — indeed, it has its characteristic neuroses and scars — it is nevertheless your own and has a deep comfortableness and familiarity that you cannot get from other families. I am inoculated against any sense of European supremacy; I’ve read my Jared Diamond. But that can’t change my cultural genes.

And so, I see my grandfather’s nose taking over the center of my face. I find the patience so inborn in my father taking over my own, and his natural moderation in all things political guiding my own, and overtaking the youthful certainty and idealism that drove me to chant “Hey, hey, LBJ” and stew in a smug self-righteousness. 

So, there is Homer, Aristotle, Ovid, Montaigne, Dante, Gibbon, Tolstoy — these are my cultural parents and great-grandparents, and I find their hands at the end of my cultural arms. 

Yes, American culture owes a great deal to Africa, Asia and Native America, but underneath it all, the “dead White guys” are peeking out. Whether it is Indian art on canvas or blues riffs over triadic harmony, the basement layer supporting all the ethnic and cultural overlay, all the borrowings and tinctures, is European.

It’s so etched into the American memory, even on a pop-culture level,  that it’s the starting point for all American culture, both highbrow and lowbrow. Can we recognize it when we see it? Do we know how European we are? The older I get, the more I know it. Others feel the amalgam in their blood. They grew up on pop music and TV. I grew up on Stravinsky and Bach, and the pop culture never quite took hold. 

First, what do we mean by “Europe”? We sometimes have to laugh at any definition of Europe; after all, Europeans cannot agree on it. The European Union is now contemplating whether Turkey is part of Europe — a Muslim nation in Europe, and the United Kingdom is trying to divorce itself from the rest of the continent, as if you could divorce your parents. 

The continent got its name from ancient Greece, which divided the world into three: Europe was where “we” lived; to the east was Asia, meaning primarily Persia, the Levant and what is now Turkey; Africa was usually called Libya and included Egypt and Ethiopia. These three continents were surrounded by Ocean, the great river that circled the known world. That is the world as Herodotus knew it. 

Nowadays, Europe usually is defined to include Iceland, the western end of Turkey as measured from the Dardanelles, and Russia to the Ural Mountains.

It’s a huge and disparate place, including cultures that are Mediterranean, Germanic, Slavic, Celtic — even Turkic. But when we talk generically about European culture and art, we most often mean that of Western Europe: a cultural tradition that began in classical Greece, spread through the Roman Empire and flowered again in the Renaissance.

But what makes European art European? What distinguishes Michelangelo, Rembrandt, Beethoven, Shakespeare from art made in China, Ghana or Pre-Columbian Peru?

There are many things Europe gave us, from rationalism to colonialism, from democracy and humanism to the nation state and patriarchy, to say nothing of two world wars. Each aspect is cheered or booed, depending on whether you have come to praise Europe or to bury it.

But there is something familiar to it, whether it’s a Madonna or an Apollo: It is the heritage I feel in a way that Japanese noh theater and Tibetan thankas — no matter how beautiful or meaningful — I do not.

(Do not get me wrong here: I try to be as cosmopolitan as possible. I’ve read the Mahabharata three times, Basho’s Narrow Road to the Deep North, Naguib Mahfouz, Jorge Luis Borges, and Mao’s little red book. As a teenager, I took up the use of the shizuri and sumi stick; I have a collection of African sculpture. I hope I am not a completely ignorant yob. But I can never drink as deeply from the vast elsewhere as I can from my backyard  European well.) 

For me, it is European art that is a touchstone for history, for ideas of beauty, for widely held social values, some of which are out of date and some of which are lamentable, even shameful. But an Old Master painting has just as much validity in our cultural ambience today as learning about Shakespeare in literature or Mozart and Tchaikovsky in music. It’s a huge spectrum of cultural experience, all tied into European art and culture.

What makes it European? I suggest five key things:

—First, there is a bias toward realism.

—Second, an astonishing persistence of Classical antiquity.

—Third, a belief, justified or not, in the idea of progress. 

—Fourth, the pervasive influence of Christianity.

—And finally, the singular importance of the human body and the nude that we might distill into the word “humanism,” a belief in the nobility, or divinity, of corporeal human existence.

(Also, in music, the use of harmony as the basic building block.) 

Deeply rooted realism

In the caves of southern Europe you can find the world’s oldest art, dating to 30,000 years ago. Even that long ago, proto-European artists created paintings that looked like the world they lived in: the aurochs and horses of Lascaux and Altamira often are so naturalistic that they can be taxonomized by zoologists into genus and species.

Prehistoric art from other cultures — South African, Australian and Southeast Asian — tend to be more diagrammatic: symbolic stick figures rather than shaded, colored images mimicking what the eye sees.

Aristotle said it 2,300 years ago: “Art imitates nature.” You can see it in Greek art from the fifth century B.C. The Greeks were intensely interested in realism. It is not just in the physicality of the statues, the lifelike figures, but in the drapery that clothed those statues. Later European artists, going back to that, like Poussin or Courbet, those lush mythological landscapes with that gleaming pink flesh. It is a love of the actual, of the real, physical world.

In our sophisticated provincialism, after a century of increasingly abstract and intellectualized art, we may think we have left all of that behind. But is Andy Warhol’s soup can any different?

Antiquity endures

We often say Europe was born in ancient Greece, which gave us so many of the philosophical and political ideas that we still live with. But even in art, antiquity remains in our lives. Go to any neighborhood and notice the homes with porticos, columns, architraves and pediments. Or listen to a pop tune sung in major or minor key and hear the remnants of a medieval and Renaissance idea of how the music of antiquity sounded.

Even in films, you have things like 300 and Troy. Even O Brother, Where Art Thou? is a take on Homer’s Odyssey. Theaters have their prosceniums and orchestras. 

Our poets still write odes, 2,500 years after Pindar, and the statues in our city squares mimic the poses of Augustus and Constantine. Turn to the back of your Yellow Pages and you’re likely to see a chiropractic ad with a photograph of a man in pain, in the pose of the famous Greek statue of Laocoon. These things persist in our visual memory.

And where do you think that cupid on your Valentine’s Day card comes from?

Artistic progress?

Technological progress has been a hallmark of Western culture, and the tendency has been to see a parallel development in the arts.

Giorgio Vasari, writing his influential Lives of the Painters in the 16th century, argued that “one artist supersedes the last and is better.”  Always march on to the next style.

But while European art history is a parade of changing styles, science and medicine move forward and improve our lives, but it isn’t so clear in art. Is Tom Clancy really much of an improvement on the Iliad? 

It’s not so easy to embrace the idea of cultural progress anymore. Progress covers up a lot of really nasty stuff, like the looting of other cultures. And as we have come to know and understand other cultures better, it’s harder to maintain that our art is “better” than theirs. 

Christianity’s sway

If you were to name the single-biggest source of imagery in European art, you’d be hard-pressed to find anyone willing to step into the ring with Christianity. It’s the winner by default: The central role of religion in the arts is manifest. Just as Islam governs the art of the Middle East and Buddhism colors the art of China and Hinduism the art of India, so the themes and subjects from the Bible are central to Europe.

Christian themes are an overwhelming component of the European sense of morality and ethics. It is through Christian stories, illustrated in art, that we see how we should think about our own lives. The good Samaritan, the prodigal son, doubting Thomas, the woman at the well — these serve in our art as parables and lessons.

At one end of the spectrum, you have the universal grief and suffering of Michelangelo’s Pieta. At the other end, you have the plastic Jesus riding on the dashboard of your car.

The human figure

It has become an emblem of art: The nude figure. Whether it’s Aphrodite born from the seafoam, King David gazing at a naked Bathsheba or the painter’s lover dropping her dress in the studio, the human figure is primary.

It isn’t just men ogling naked women: It’s Myron’s Discus Thrower and Michelangelo’s David. From the Greeks on, the male nude is just as important.

You won’t find this in the art of Asia, Africa, Australia/Oceania or the New World. When you find the naked figure there, it is almost always a fertility talisman or a figure with exaggerated sex. In Asia, you find such things in “pillow books” and other intentionally pornographic images. In Europe, the figure isn’t only sex and generation, it’s a mirror of the divine. It is man as the measure of all things, and that means men and women.

‘Dead White males’

It has been a long ride from the caves of southern France to the latest pickled roadkill of Damien Hirst, and European culture has changed at least as much as it has persisted.

Listen to the music of Osvaldo Golijov, for instance, and hear the legacy of Beethoven mixed with the Arabian oud, the Balinese gamelan, the pipa of China and Peruvian flutes. It’s all one big mix.

As Europe has changed the cultures it has come in contact with, its own is being changed in return. Globalization isn’t only economic.

But there’s still a great deal to be learned from the long march we have taken. We think it all must be irrelevant because it comes from so long ago. It’s what people mean when they complain about all that art, literature and music from the so-called “dead White males” that have been taught in universities for centuries. Yes, the world has opened up to include more, but the old art is still as meaningful as ever.

Cultural DNA

Just as genealogy fascinates many people, who trace a great-great-grandfather back to the battle of Appomattox or look at old photos to see in faded black and white where the family nose comes from, so a look at our cultural ancestors shows us where we came from. That cultural DNA is still there.

Again, this is not to make any special claims for European culture: It can speak for itself. And the rest of the world is equally compelling. I love Chinese painting, African carvings, Australian designs, Hopi pottery. The case I’m making is that for myself — and I am speaking primarily for myself here — there is a nest in Europe that my psyche fits almost perfectly. Fragments of its past often show up unacknowledged in my prose or my photographs. The art and poetry speaks a language I was born to. I get the idioms, when other cultures, no matter how much I love them and respect them, are a second language — its idioms will always elude me. 

When I go to Brittany or the Vosges Mountains, or visit the Roman arena — now a bull ring — in Arles or the aqueduct at Pont du Gard, or see the stained glass at Saint Denis, or the stave churches in Norway or the polders of Holland, I have an overwhelming sense of being home. This is my family, for all its faults. 

Click on any image to enlarge

The world is not black and white, but until fairly recently, photography was. For most of its history, the art was an art of silver on paper, spread from inky blacks through velvety grays into pristine whites. 

There had been attempts to add color, either by painting on top of the monochrome image, or by various experimental techniques to capture the color directly. But even after the commercially successful introduction of Kodachrome in 1935, photography as a museum-approved art continued to be primarily in black and white. 

(In cinema, Technicolor predated Kodachrome by about a decade, but that process was essentially three different black and white negatives overlapped through color filters to create the effect. It was an expensive and difficult process and relatively few films, percentage-wise, were made with the process until after the commercial success of Gone With The Wind and The Wizard of Oz in 1939.)

I have been a photographer for at least 50 years. I have had shows and my work has been published. But for most of that time, I worked in monochrome. I “saw” in black and white. My photographic heroes worked in B&W, the techniques I mastered were silver techniques. I became an excellent printer. But I seldom used color film. It seemed an unnecessary noise to bring to the purity of the medium. 

I was hardly alone in this. When I was younger, even museums shied away from color photography. It was seen as not “permanent.” It’s images faded over time (I’m sure you all have old family snapshots turned rather magenta with age). The real artist-photographers used silver or platinum and made glorious images. 

Back then, art in general was seen with more precious eyes. We thought of “archival processing,” and even paintings were carefully preserved and curators looked down on some artists — such as Jackson Pollock or Mark Rothko — who used non-archival pigments or unprepared canvases and whose works, therefore, had begun to deteriorate. 

In current times, few artists or galleries worry much about such things. Art can be made on newsprint, or can even purposely self-destruct. Concern for the permanence of an artwork is seen as elitist. After all, no matter how careful you are, the art is going to be gone eventually, even if it lasts till the sun explodes. 

And besides, color is now no more or less permanent than black and white: Now they are both nothing but ones and zeros. Silver is dead; long live digital. 

Yet there is still a difference between color photography and black and white. It is a difference not simply of technique, but of thought. Thinking in color is different from thinking in black and white. 

The part of vision that deals in color is processed in a different area of the brain than the part that concerns itself with darks and lights. (Vision is ridiculously more complicated neurologically than you might think — the information on the retina is broken down into many separate components, processed by differing regions of the brain and then re-coordinated as a gestalt.)

And so, some people pay closer attention to the hue, others to the forms they see. 

The fact is, black-and-white photography and color photography are two different art forms. To be successful in both requires a kind of bilingualism. Most of us have brains that function best either in seeing forms and shades, or in seeing hues. The two photographies emphasize those different talents.

One has only to consider the work of Stephen Shore or William Eggleston. Most of their meaning comes through the color. Take one of Eggleston’s best-known images and suck the color out. What have you got?

He made this photo of a ceiling and light bulb. The red is overwhelming. But imagine it as a black and white image.

He also made a similar image of a brothel ceiling painted blue. Also overwhelming. The two are nearly the same image, but with very different emotional and sensuous meanings.

But if we make them both black and white, they very nearly merge into the same thing. 

Color can by itself separate forms. Here are four squares in four colors; as distinct as can be. But the exact image, unaltered except for the draining of all color from it, leaves a confused mess, barely a separation between grays. 

Black and white photography requires the separation of parts not by hue, but by contrast: Lights agains darks. It’s what makes great silver prints sing. Where color photographs separate forms primarily by hue, black and white shapes form with contrast.

I am not saying a color photograph has to be garish. Far from it. But the color will carry a good deal of the meaning and emotional resonance of the image. Even in a color photo that has hardly any color in it.

Many years ago, I tried an experiment. Like so many others, I loved the waterlily paintings of Claude Monet. But I wondered if they would make as much sense in black and white. Is there a structure holding the pictures together, a design or composition, that didn’t depend solely on the rich color. 

So, I began making photographs in black and white of water lilies. 

The most successful of them clearly relied on bright highlights and strong shadows. The shapes made the picture.

If I tried an overall design, like Monet’s the picture lost its strength. 

I did the same experiment with one of Monet’s paintings, rephotographing it in black and white. 

Did it hold up? It is certainly a very different beast. 

Then I went back to one of my own color photographs of his waterlilies in Giverny, a photograph that imitated Monet’s paintings, with color, sky, reflection, shadow and lily. In color and side-by-side, in black and white. 

What I discovered shouldn’t be a surprise: Monet was much more effective in color. But I also noticed that because my photos were well-focused rather than impressionistically fuzzy, they translated better into black and white: Black and white is meant to clarify shapes. Color identifies “areas” rather than discrete textures. 

And so, while I have spent the majority of my photographic career making monochrome images, along with many others now working in digital media, I switch back and forth between color and B&W. They do, however, require different vocabularies. They are different languages. 

While I have always made visual art, I made my career in writing about art. 

As an art critic, I had the unusual need to be bilingual in an odd sort of way. As a journalist, I needed to be good with words, but in writing about art, especially visual art, I needed to know how to use my eyes.

I discovered very early on how these two talents were seldom granted to the same person. All around me were reporters who knew a gerund from a copulative, but who often seemed almost infantile when discussing pictures. They could name the subject of the image, but not go much further than that. 


A photo editor of my acquaintance once explained photojournalism this way: “I need to know it’s a house; don’t trick it up with ‘art.’” This was image as ID photo. 

But on the other side, so many artists I knew couldn’t explain themselves out of a paper bag. They effused in vague buzzwords, words that changed currency every year or so. I once taught a graduate course in writing about art for art students who needed to prepare so-called “artist statements” for their exhibits. Most of what they wrote before the course was utter blather, obscure and important-sounding without actually meaning anything. 

Words and images: Worlds seldom interpenetrable. I call the talent for riding both sides a form of bilingualism. 

I do not know if the ability to deal in multiple “languages” is something you are born with, or that you learn early on the way you acquire language before the ability to do so closes off in adolescence. But somehow, I managed to do it, at least well enough to write about it without embarrassing myself.

The mental juice necessary to process each seems walled off from the other, except in rare cases. One either runs a literary program, based on sentence and paragraph structure, linear words building a whole out of alphabetic parts; or one comprehends shapes, lines, color, size, texture, and frame as carrying the information required to convey meaning. 

This doesn’t mean that visual people are illiterate, nor that literary people can’t enjoy an art gallery, but that their primary modes of understanding vary. The squishiness of an artist’s gallery talk can drive a writer bonkers; the flatness of a word-person’s understanding of a painting can leave an artsy type scratching her head: “Can’t you see?” 

Nor does it mean that either side can’t learn, although it will remain a second language, without native understanding of idiom and customary usage. A word person can be trained to see shape and form, but it will always remain as I learned Spanish. No one will ever confuse me with a native speaker.

This split between word and image, though is only one of the bisections. Musicians can think in tone the way painters can think in pigment. Yes, there is a language that can describe the music, but for non-musicians, that language is usually impressionistic and often visual — what the music “makes you think of,” or the “pictures in your mind.” 

For the musically trained, there is also language, but it is completely opaque to the civilian: Dominant-seventh, voice-leading, timbre, reed trimming, tenor clef, Dorian mode, ritornello, de capo, circle of fifths. But even these are merely words to describe the non-verbal reality of the music itself, which can convey meaning through sound alone. The words are not the music. 

The ability to think in the terms of each mode is essential to create well in that form, and a mighty help in understanding it for the audience. If you are not in love with words, the rich cream of Gibbons or the organ tones of Milton can leave you cold. If you have no eyes for color, the nuance of Turner or the pears of Cezanne can zip past without notice. If you think of pop tunes as music, the shifting tonal centers of Schubert are inaudible, the orchestration of Mahler merely noise. 

We each have a frequency our sensibilities are tuned to, and can receive it loud and clear; we may think we understand the rest, but too often we are only fooling ourselves. Do you really inhale the contrapuntal movement of a Balanchine chorus? Do you notice the rhythm of editing in a Spielberg film? Each is a language that its practitioners and connoisseurs understand profoundly, but zip past the mass of those sitting in the cheap seats. 

It’s a different language

Click on any image to enlarge

The day after the fire that destroyed the roof of Notre Dame de Paris, more than a billion dollars have been pledged toward the reconstruction, and French President Macron has promised the work would be completed within five years.

But already, a backlash has begun, a rearguard action, to prevent any “modernization” of the building in its restoration. This reaction demonstrates a misunderstanding of what a Gothic church is, and its peculiar history.

Fires are not the exception, but the norm for these buildings. Hardly a one has survived from inception without at least one grand conflagration. Indeed, most catalog a history of fires and collapses, followed by rebuilding, and almost always in a newer and more modern style than the original. For the norm of the Gothic style is its constant change and adaption.

Now, I’m not suggesting that Notre Dame de Paris should be rebuilt in the style of Frank Gehry, but I am suggesting that it is a sentimentalism and a distortion to believe that any Gothic cathedral is “pure” and “historical.” They are all patchworks of styles and modernizations over the centuries. 

In fact, we would not now have Chartres Cathedral if the older building had not burned down in 1194 and wealthy donors had not given money to rebuild in a new style — the Gothic. 

There had been at least five cathedrals on the same hill in the town, each destroyed by fire or war. The first, destroyed in 858, the Carolingian replacement burned in 962, another in 1020 and another in 1134. In 1506, the north spire was destroyed by lightning and its replacement came in the newer “Flamboyant” style — making the two spires so unlike, which is the characteristic feature of Chartres. 

In 1836, the lead roof burned and was replaced by copper. The flammable wood braces were replaced with cast-iron ribs. 

Most of the Medieval churches were constructed piecemeal over centuries, and in almost every case, styles changed over that time, and so Gothic architecture is an especially heterogeneous one: unity out of difference. 

The church considered the original Gothic cathedral, at St. Denis, north of Paris, was built by Abbot Suger and completed in 1144. But he kept a Romanesque Western facade, and filled in behind it in this newer style, with stained glass and a flood of light. 

When he died, the church had three parts: a Romanesque front, a Carolingian middle and a Gothic choir. In 1231, Abbot Odo Clement, Suger’s successor, updated the nave with a newer Gothic style and remade the triforium and clerestory of Suger’s choir and apse. As we see it today, the building is an architectural gryphon. 

Rouen takes that idea and runs with it. It was begun in 1035 on the ruins of a previous Romanesque site that had burnt down. Since then, the history of Rouen is one of calamity and rebuild. This constant reboot has made it a less harmonious jumble than one finds elsewhere, of ad hoc fixes, misguided redesigns and megalomaniac civic striving.

It is the Peter Abelard of cathedrals, and a book could be written on the history of its misfortunes. The previous cathedral was struck by lightning in 1110, and construction began on the current building. The new one burnt again in 1200, destroying all but the nave arcades, the Saint-Romain tower and the left portal, with work ending in 1250. It was struck again by lightning in 1284, was partially taken down and rebuilt in 1302, the spire was blown down in a wind storm in 1353. The construction of the Butter Tower in the 16th century led to disturbances in the facade, which had to be reinforced (finished 1530). 

The original Gothic spire had burned down in 1514 and was finally replaced by a wooden spire covered in gold-plated lead in 1580, paid for, in part, by the selling of indulgences. In 1562, it was damaged by rebelling Calvinists  during the Wars of Religion, when much of the statuary and windows were destroyed. The cathedral was struck again by lightning in 1625 and 1642, damaged by a hurricane in 1683. The choir burnt in 1727 and a bell broke in 1786. 

During the French Revolution, the church, like many in France, was deconsecrated and turned into a civic building and metal parts of the church were melted down to make cannons and cannonballs. The spire was again blasted by lightning in 1822 and a new one made from cast iron added in 1876 (making it the tallest building in the world until displaced from atop the list four years later by the cathedral at Cologne. (Then to the Eiffel Tower in 1889).

The misfortunes continued. In 1940, a fire damaged the building’s structure and burned that part of the city from the church to the Seine river, and later during World War II, the cathedral was bombed twice, first by the British, then by the Americans, just before D-Day. Parts of the south aisle were destroyed and the south tower burned. Much of the remaining stained glass was blown out, leading to the current situation with frosted glass in many of the windows.

Then, in 1999, a cyclone named Lothar destroyed one of the four wooden turrets surrounding the central lantern tower was blasted and fell crashing into the choir. The history of Rouen’s cathedral is one of constant upkeep and rebuilding, like trying to sustain a sand castle against the tide.

If anything is true of these prodigies of architecture, it is that there is no such thing as a Gothic cathedral — at least no such thing as a “pure” Gothic cathedral. Each has been built over decades, even centuries, and each has add-ons in different styles, rebuilds made more “modern,” and restorations by well-meaning finaglers such as the 19th-century Eugene-Emmanuel Viollet-le-Duc, who replaced damaged statuary, added grotesques and redesigned finials and gargoyles according to his Victorian sense of what Gothic style should be.

Viollet-le Duc

Viollet-le-Duc was put in charge of restoring Amiens in the late 19th century, and he added a whole new line of statues at the top of the west facade, called the “Galerie des Sonneurs,” or “Gallery of Bell Ringers,” a passageway arcade between the two towers. He redid a good deal of the statuary and had the cathedral floor redone to smooth out the cobbling of centuries of foot traffic. Modern standards for restoration were not part of his procedure. “To restore an edifice”, he observed in his Dictionnaire raisonné, “is not to maintain it, repair or rebuild it, but to re-establish it in a complete state that may never have existed at a particular moment.” In other words, as he might imagine it.

It is the genius of the Gothic style that it can absorb almost anything and still seem perfectly harmonious. Some historical styles that strive for unity require any additions to be matched stylistically or the new parts seem like carbuncles grown where they are least desired. (Can  you imagine an addition to London’s Saint Paul’s Cathedral designed by, say, Louis Kahn?) 

Burning of St. Paul’s 1666

St. Paul’s would not exist now, but for the burning down of the older Gothic cathedral in 1666, which had replaced one burned down, built after the Norman church burned in  1087. 

But Gothic is an accepting style. There is not much you can do to it and not have it welcomed into the family.

The past as we imagine it is always a shaky construct. History is always being revised, and those scholars who do the work are initially derided as “revisionist,” when, of course, that is their job. To quote the revered Firesign Theatre, “Everything you know is wrong.”

Take Beauvais, the tallest of all Gothic churches. It makers were proud, certainly, not only of the tallest church, but the finest, slenderest flying buttresses supporting the roof. But 12 years after it was finished, the roof collapsed. It seems to modern engineering studies, that a gale wind off the English Channel caused sympathetic vibrations in the structure and it shook apart. They rebuilt.

But the collapse, which caused concern about the engineering, and trouble fund raising to complete the whole left the church with only the choir and transept. At some point, it was decided that instead of using the money they had to finish the nave, they would use it to top the whole with a giant spire, which was finished in 1569 and left the church — at 502 feet high — the tallest building in the world at the time.

“We will construct a spire so high that once finished those who see it will think that we were crazy.”

Perhaps they were. Unfortunately, on April 30, 1573, it, too, came crashing down, along with three levels of the bell tower.

As described by author Elise Whitlock Rose, “On the eve of Ascension Day, 1573, a few small stones began to fall from its heights. The next morning, a mason, who had been sent to test it, cried out in alarm; the bearers of the reliquaries, about to join the Procession of the people and the clergy who were waiting outside, fled; — there was a violent cracking, — and in an instant, the vault crashed amidst a storm of dust and wind. Then, before the eyes of the terrified worshippers, the triple stories of the lantern sank, the needle fell, and a shower of stones rained into the church and on the roofs.”

This could almost describe the fall of the spire on Notre Dame de Paris this week. 

The choir at Beauvais was rebuilt once more, but without the spire. But the nave (except for one bay) was never completed, leaving Beauvais as the trunk of a cathedral, a mutilated fragment.

The shakiness of its construction continues to threaten the building even today. The inside, meant to be an awe inspiring sublime holy space, is filled with trusses and braces, attempting to keep the whole from final catastrophe.

This stylistic hodge-podge is something that you face in almost every Gothic survivor. One recalls the problem of Theseus’ ship, in which, over the years, every board, every nail, every rope has been replaced, one by one. And one asks, is this the same ship that carried Theseus home from Crete?

Or, more aptly, the Japanese temple, whose wood is replaced every 20 years. The grand shrine in the city of Ise has been replaced this way more than 60 times, yet is considered the same temple that was built in AD 692.

(It is widely believed — though not exactly true — that all the cells in a human body are replaced every seven years, yet we think of ourselves now as the same person we were when we popped out of the dark into this bright world.)

Reims has undergone something of the same constant renewal, like the goddess Aphrodite.

The modern cathedral was begun in about 1220 and was finally roofed in 1299, but work continued, adding details through the 14th century. A fire in 1481 required major reworking, finished in 1516, keeping to the Medieval style.

The continuous renewal of Reims began in 1610 with gussying up the central portal of the west facade. Nineteen statues of the central portal archivolts were replaced.

Later reworkings took place from 1727 to 1742 and from 1755 to 1760 to repair the deterioration caused by rain leakage and freezing. Many of the sculptures were repaired or replaced.

But the real overhauls began in the 19th century, as France began looking at its great cultural monuments and deciding to upgrade them. The earlier Enlightenment, for instance, saw the so-called Middle Ages as a time of irrationality and superstition. That age saw its ideals in classical Rome. But the 19th century, given in to Romanticism, idealized the very things the previous century had dismissed. So, in the 19th century (yes, beginning in the late 18th century — these things are not governed by calendar dates), you had a Gothic revival, a raft of novels set in castles, the knights of Sir Walter Scott, the cornball folly of Strawberry Hill and Victor Hugo’s Hunchback of Notre Dame.

The Romantic movement in art and literature idealized the Middle Ages, and books such as Chateaubriand’s The Spirit of Christianity, and Victor Hugo’s Hunchback of Notre Dame (to give it its popular title) revived interest in buildings that had been allowed to deteriorate or had been desecrated during the violently anti-clerical French Revolution.

In 1818, a catalog of Romantic and Picturesque Sites of Ancient France was begun, not finished, in 20 volumes, until 1878. And in 1830, the government created a post of Inspector of Historical Monuments.

Hugo wrote a pamphlet called War on Demolishers, to “stop the hammer that is mutilating the face of the country” by destroying historic edifices. He denounced “ignoble speculators,” who “vandalized” the great monuments to build cheap get-rich-quick developments. He called for a national law to protect the old treasures.

He also explained “There are two things in an edifice: its use and its beauty. Its use belongs to its owner, its beauty to everyone. Thus, the owner exceeds his rights in destroying it.”

Notre Dame de Paris before 19th C. restoration

Between 1826 and 1837, the first major interventions of the 19th century were carried out, replacing sculptures on the western facade. One after another, from then on, a series of restorers and architects tried to bring Reims back to what they considered the authentic and original designs of the cathedral. First diocesan architect Arveuf, then Viollet-le-Duc, the restorer of Notre Dame of Paris, who undid the modifications of 1481-1516 and replaced them with his own design.

After Viollet-le-Duc, Eugene Millet did the same thing to the south side of the nave. From 1879 to 1886, Victor Ruprich-Robert did the same thing to the north side. After him, Denis Darcy jumped in, working to 1904. From 1904 to 1915, Paul Gout reworked the western facade and parts of the chevet. The work was not quite finished when World War I broke out. The war did not treat Reims kindly. It was bombed and a good portion left in rubble.

It took another 20 years to fix what the German artillery shells had broken. Restorer Henri Deneux, began in 1919, clearing away debris and cataloging the fragments and installing a temporary roof. The glass was a particular victim of the war. Deneux had the guide of drawings made of the stained glass made before the war and had many of the windows rebuilt, sometimes from the shards of the originals.

By 1938, most of the restoration was complete,  but World War II was in the offing. This time, the windows were removed for safe storage and reinstalled after the war.

The attempt to make the Gothic church “pure,” or “as originally built” is a chimerical idea, only fancied beginning in the 19th century. And you found, in France, a renewed interest in the monuments left over from those discarded days. And discarded is the proper word: The cathedral of Notre Dame de Paris, for instance, was a crumbling shambles, stripped of most of its sculpture and left to be a ruin on the island in the middle of the Seine River. 

In addition to the ravages of time and 500 years, there had been various “updates” to the building, and then, before, during and just after the French Revolution, the sculpture on the door jambs had been removed and the Gallery of Kings above the western portals had been junked in a frenzy of anti-monarchical and anti-clerical sentiment.

But in an ironic stroke of luck, the central government appropriated and deconsecrated the church property in 1789, and thus became responsible for the administration and upkeep of churches, including the cathedral (know then as the Métropole), which had for a time been turned from a Roman Catholic cathedral into a “temple of reason” and then into a food warehouse.

Under the auspices of the state, a few clumsy attempts were made to restore the cathedral, but those attempts did more damage than good.

Then, in 1831, Victor Hugo began his personal crusade to repair and renovate the crumbling monument. He and others worked for a decade persuading public opinion and so, in 1841, a committee was established in Paris to consider the matter, and a year later, architect Arveuf was asked to submit a plan for the refurbishment of the cathedral. Several others decided to submit plans, also, and eventually it was the team of Jean-Baptiste Lassus and Viollet-le-Duc who were chosen to mastermind the restoration. Lassus had already spearheaded the restoration of Sainte-Chapelle, and Viollet-le-Duc had been in charge of the work at Vezelay. 

They were the two most qualified restorers of the age (and although Lassus died in 1857 before the completion of the work in Paris, Viollet-le-Duc went on to work on several more of the cathedrals and basilicas of northern France).

The project began in 1845 and didn’t finish until 1864. It was a huge project. Walls needed rebuilding, statues were carved and put back on the door jambs, all the gargoyle waterspouts that had been replaced over the centuries by lead pipes were redesigned and recarved. (The hideous lead pipes had caused the cathedral in the previous century to be compared to a hedgehog, with all the points spiking out from its walls). The windows were reworked, the doors remade, a new spire added to the roof above the crossing, and perhaps most remarkable — a series of 54 grotesques — “chimères,” or “chimerae,” as Viollet-le-Duc called them — were added to the gallery along the roof line.

Yes, that spire, so lamented in its collapse, was never Gothic, never original. It is a 19th century addition. 

Viollet-le-Duc and his partners sat at the crux of a change in restoration theory — at midpoint between the older ideas of just replacing worn-out parts with modern equivalents and the more recent concept of saving everything original as best as can be done. Viollet-le-Duc’s idea was not to put Notre Dame back to any historically accurate version of the building, which had changed over the centuries with add-ons and updates, but rather to create a vision of the “perfect completed ideal” of what the building would have looked like, if it had ever been completed according to a single plan.

In other words, a fantasy of what the 19th century wanted to believe about the Gothic era. 

Viollet-le-Duc wrote that, for him, restoration should be a “means to re-establish [a building] to a finished state, which may in fact never have actually existed at any given time.”

So, Notre Dame as we see it today, is a fiction, a 19th century overlay, almost a “Disneyfication” upon the remains of a 13th century building in an attempt to recapture what the Romantic 19th century believed to be the soul of the Medieval era.

But we should not be too harsh on them. Viollet-le-Duc was an astonishing person, the best-informed restorer of his time, who published the standard encyclopedia of Medieval architecture and design. His energy and commitment were legendary, and although he had his critics, there was no one else in the central years of the 19th century better placed to give us the Middle Ages.

And without him, the cathedrals of northern France would today be more like the ruins of Ancient Greece than like the awe-inspiring churches in which the Mass has been celebrated for 800 years.

The fact is, there is no “original” and “authentic” Gothic building to which we can point. All such churches were constructed over centuries, with changing styles, and continuous updates and remodelings. The Gothic cathedral is less a thing than a process, and Viollet-le-Duc should be seen as simply part of that continuing process.

And we need to remember that when attempting to repair the newly burned and mourned Notre Dame de Paris. And not be too “precious” about how it will be rebuilt. 

Certainly, the “forest” of wooden beams and joists will be replaced with reinforced concrete or steel, and the toxic lead roof sheathing will become either copper or titanium, with a patina to mimic the dull lead. And it will be architects who oversee that modernization. 

I don’t see a Buck Jones futuristic spire replacing the 19th century one — in fact, if I had my way, there would be no spire at all. But I leave that to the architects and designer who know very well what they are doing. 

Gothic should continue to evolve: That is, after all, what it means to be Gothic. 

Click any image to enlarge

Photographer Edward Weston is most famous for bell peppers that look like nudes and nudes that look like granite. He is one of a handful of American photographers that took the art from gauzy Edwardian Pictorialism to hard-edged industrial Modernism. Along with the patriarch Alfred Stieglitz and the radical Paul Strand, they put the wooden stake into the heart of the merely pretty.

In Europe, Modernism took a different tack, with photo-collage, political engagement and a series of “isms,” from Dada and Surrealism to Abstraction and street photography. But in America, the art went in the direction of monumentalism and the celebration of the “Ding an sich” — the thing as itself — a way of transmuting the object in the world into secular  icon. 

As Weston himself put it: “to photograph a rock, have it look like a rock, but be more than a rock.” And “To present the significance of facts, so that they are transformed from things seen to things known.” 

Unlike the soft-focus Pictorialism that sought to imitate the look of Impressionist paintings, Weston and the other American pioneers attempted a hard edge, sharp vision that took advantage of what the camera and lens could see.

“The camera sees more than the eye,” he wrote, “so why not make use of it?”

In fact, where he once called himself “Edward Weston, artist,” he began using the expression, “Edward Weston, photographer.” He was proud of being what he was. Not that that makes him any less an artist. 

He was born in Illinois in 1886, son of a doctor, who got him his first box camera when Edward was 16 years old. He dickered around with it and a larger 5X7 camera, and won several awards for the “artistic” images he made. In 1910, he moved to Tropico, Calif. (now Glendale) and opened a studio. He married, eventually had four sons and in 1913, met the bohemian bisexual Margrethe Mather, who joined him in his studio and introduced him to a more Modernist vision of art. 

From 1923 to 1927, he spent a good deal of his time living in Mexico with his new love, Tina Modotti, where he came into contact with many artists of the Mexican renaissance, including Diego Rivera and Jose Clemente Orozco. 

While there, he began photographing subjects less overtly artistic, and more mundane, transforming them into Modernist form — such as his multiple “excusados,” or toilets. 

“Here was every sensuous curve of the ‘human form divine’ but minus imperfections,” he wrote.

When he finally returned to California, he was a full-fledged avant-garde artist, making his living with his camera. In short time, he became nationally known and joined such photographers as Stieglitz, Strand, Ansel Adams, Imogen Cunningham and several others, who all proposed a new esthetic of crispness and clarity. 

By 1937, he was awarded a $2,000 Guggenheim grant — the first ever given to a photographer — and traveled around the American West with his new squeeze, Charis Wilson, making in all some 1,200 images, mostly of landscape. The following year, he received a follow-up grant, that allowed him to process and print those negatives. Eventually, he married Wilson (she was 25; he was 53). 

Charis

After the war, they divorced and Weston was hit with Parkinson’s Disease, forcing him to give up making new photographs. He died on New Year’s Day in 1958. 

 

2.

We know the work of so many by their specialty. Ansel Adams has his pristine landscapes; Robert Frank has his street photos; Richard Avedon his pitiless portraits. But Weston encircled so much, so many subjects. 

He also tried so many different things in his career that he seems to prefigure most current movements in art photography. No matter what it was, Weston did it first: 

—He included man-made objects in his Western landscapes before Robert Adams. 

—He made surreal satires — a nude woman in a gas mask — before Les Krims. 

— He chronicled his family before Nicholas Nixon or Emmet Gowin did theirs.

—He used foreground to obscure background, preceding Lee Friedlander. 

—He prefigured the “New Color” of William Eggleston and Stephen Shore when he made his first Kodachrome pictures. 

—He photographed graffiti before Aaron Siskind. 

—He photographed ice crystals as abstractions before Minor White. 

—He prefigured what has been dubbed “photography in the directorial mode” when he posed his friends in oddball satires such as Exposition of Dynamic Symmetry.

—He posed cats before William Wegman posed dogs.

—He even began the “grantsmanship” syndrome, being the first photographer to win a Guggenheim Fellowship, in 1937.

—In fact, it is hard to find a genre of art photography that Weston did not essay before anyone else. He is ancestor to Frank Gohlke, John Pfahl, Lewis Baltz, Len Jenshel, Olivia Parker, Ralph Gibson, Linda Connor, Stephen Shore, William Eggleston, Sandy Skoglund and really every other working photographer/artist, including those who show his influence by their rebellion against it. 



You would be hard-pressed to find another artist in any medium so crucially seminal. 

His presence has been so overwhelming that one critic, A.D. Coleman, has called Weston a “vast boulder blocking the path of photography.” It is nearly impossible to make a photograph for at least the remainder of the century without either imitating Weston or reacting in opposition. 

It was the same complaint that T.S. Eliot made of John Milton: Being so good, a century of followers couldn’t think of any better way of doing it and so wound up as epigones. It sometimes seems that Weston, like Plato, was the original, and everyone else is a footnote.

That is, of course, an exaggeration, yet his achievement is monumental. Like Rembrandt, Hokusai or Beethoven, his imagination is vast and inclusive. Like them, he combined a brilliant formal sense with the realization that form alone isn’t enough. An art work must have meaning, also. His images are richly sensual, dark, at times brooding, always emotionally and psychologically fascinating. 

Weston, more than any other single figure, has defined the directions photography has taken in the second half of this century. His is an influence that is only now being transcended.

 

3.

What we think of as the ur-Weston photograph is sharply focused, tightly cropped, so immaculately composed each element in the picture fits with the others like Lego blocks. Light defines shapes, moving across their curves like a masseur’s hands. And everything, whether the skin of a woman or the porcelain of a toilet, became abstract form.

When he returned to Los Angeles in 1926, he began the series of photographs he is best known for: his close-ups of vegetables. Of his famous Pepper No. 30 (1930), he said, “It is classic, completely satisfying — a pepper — but more than a pepper; abstract, in that it is completely outside subject matter. … This pepper takes one beyond the world we know in the conscious mind.” 

Weston called what he did “a revealment” and said, “This is the ‘significant presentation’ that I mean, the presentation through one’s intuitive self, seeing ‘through one’s eyes, not with them,’ the visionary.”

He said he wanted to make a picture of a pepper, for instance, ”that was more than a pepper.” He wanted it so sharp, our attention focused on it so intensely, that it verged on the psychedelic. Of course, that word didn’t exist at the time, and Weston certainly would have resisted any label, but it is hard to avoid recognizing the visionary quality of his best work. 

This is something we might lose sight of in the later landscapes, if we are fooled into thinking of them as postcard pictures — a way of remembering scenery we have driven past. All of Weston’s work, whether portrait, still life or landscape, were made and meant to be seen as metaphor. 

As his esthetic progeny, Robert Adams, put it: “Landscape pictures can offer us, I think, three verities — geography, autobiography and metaphor. Geography is, if taken alone, sometimes boring; autobiography is frequently trivial; and metaphor can be dubious. But taken together, as in the best work of people like Alfred Stieglitz and Edward Weston, the three kinds of information strengthen each other and reinforce what we all work to keep intact — an affection for life.”

In 1941, he visited New Orleans and made a passel of photographs of graveyards and abandoned plantation houses, some burned out with old family pictures and children’s dolls left in the debris. (He even traveled around New Orleans with arch-surrealist Clarence John Laughlin, whose pictures are hardly weirder than Weston’s.) 

And there always had been the pictures of scorched car wrecks on the beach, twisted dead pelicans, sandstone concretions in peculiar shapes, a giant cup of coffee in the desert and a particularly modern-looking photograph of a steam-shovel bucket in the High Sierra. Ansel Adams he is not. Weston saw the world as it was, not a pristine version he might have wished. 

His shells and peppers are often noted for their sensuous beauty, almost more flesh than calcium or chlorophyll. It can almost become comic.

It is almost perverse, the way he conflated skin with rind.

 

Often his nudes are mere fragments, as if he were making a new set of Elgin marbles.

His nudes were another form of his Modernism. No “September Morn” for him.

 

4.

I mention all this in prologue to the three points I really wanted to make. The first is the simplest: That seeing the images here on your screen, or in reproduction in a book is a poor substitute for seeing the actual silver prints. 

Most of us get to see Weston’s images only in books. (And I own, or have owned, at least a score of them — some I have since donated to museum collections). 

But I remember as one of the highlights of my esthetic and critical life, getting to see and handle several Solander boxes of Weston’s originals at the Prints and Photographs Department of the Library of Congress in Washington, D.C. This was in the early ’70s, before such access was limited by new conventions of conservation. I was permitted to take each print from its box, open its hinged matte and examine the prints as close as my eye could get and still focus. 

And what is more, and more important, I could take it to the window in the viewing room and let the incoming blast of sunlight ignite the print to its true glow and incandescence. Parts of the print that in reproduction might look like a uniform black turn out to have infinite detail, which is only revealed by the intensity of the light.

Silver coated on paper is an actual piling up of image, and the blacker the image, the thicker the coating of tarnished silver. A strong light enters into that layer, hits the paper behind and reflects back out through the grains of silver, so that, the more light hitting the photograph, the more luminous become the shadows. 

What is more, even the grays and highlights pop in a way they cannot as the photos are now usually presented, in reduced light in museum galleries under the constraints of current professional standards. Those standards are meant to protect the artwork from UV damage and other light damage, so it’s hard to complain too much. But a silver image is one of the least affected by light. It is by all measures, archival. 

Nevertheless, if you ever get a chance to view a silver-image photograph in a strong light, you will understand what glorious thing it is. 

And seeing the original print can be a revelation. I remember seeing at least one image in my first-edition book California and the West, published in 1940, which featured his Guggenheim images, and that image seemed so uninteresting, that I labored over trying to figure out what Weston was thinking. But there in the Library of Congress, I held the original and it was amazing. It popped. 

He took two versions of the scene, and I have seen both live, and they both jump out with life: What looks like bland areas of light gray turn out to be deeply textured with detail that is completely lost in reproduction. These are now among my favorite Westons. 

As a P.S.: During that trip to D.C., there was a Weston show at a local gallery and they were selling original prints (albeit printed by his son, Cole) for $100 a pop. I drooled, but I was a poor student and just didn’t have the C-note to put down. I have regretted it ever since. 

5.

Famously, the last photograph Weston ever made, from 1948, is of a  few beach pebbles flying out from the center of the frame, which is left blank with its empty sand. Rather like the blank, unprimed canvas untouched by the paint that Morris Louis has thrown down along its edges. 

“Weston arranged his compositions so that things happened on the edges; lines almost cross or meet and circular lines just touch the edges tangentially; his compositions were now created exclusively for a space with the proportions of eight by ten. There is no extraneous space nor is there too little,” wrote Weston scholar Amy Conger.

Notice how, although the center of the image is largely empty, the rocks cluster at the bottom, as if drawn down by gravity, giving the photograph, although nearly abstract, a firm sense of what is upside-right. 

The cluster along the bottom of the image is nearly a constant in Weston’s design sense. It is almost as if, like a child drawing a “ground line” at the bottom of his painting before adding his house and sun, Weston wants to provide a solid base to build his composition on. 

Certainly not every image has this, but if you rifle through a book of his pictures, you will come across the ground line more often than would be expected. Sometimes, it is an actual ground line, sometimes it is a fence that runs across the bottom of the landscape, sometimes it is a row of items. Often it is near the bottom, but sometimes, he raises that ground line up in the frame, even to the halfway point or even above. But over and over, there is a foundation poured for the rest of the picture to settle safely upon. 

Take one of these images and turn it upside down and see how the gravity affects it: The picture dangles from its fence. Upside right, it sits comfortably. 

6. 

Finally, I would make a plea to some curator, scholar or writer, to publish a book concentrating on his work for the edition of Walt Whitman’s Leaves of Grass, which was first published in 1942. 

In 1941, he was commissioned by the Limited Editions Club of New York to illustrate a deluxe edition of Whitman’s poems. Weston and Charis traveled something like 24,000 miles across 24 states in their Ford, named “Walt,” and visited places in the East that he had never photographed before. 

Unfortunately, the war interrupted the trip, and he had to come back to California prematurely, with some 700 negatives in the sack. Forty-nine were chosen for the book. (Weston was always inclusive: He photographed many African Americans for the book; the publishers chose not to use any of them.) The book sold poorly during the war, and has only been available since in a very badly printed re-print edition, with grayed-out images. 

This period of his work is the least studied, the least exhibited and the least published — and the least respected. Which is unfortunate, because they are some of his best work, an opinion shared with Weston himself. 

Two exhibits have been mounted in recent years, one at the Museum of Fine Arts in Boston in 2012, and one at the Huntington Library in San Marino, Calif., in 2016. But each was rather small, compared with the number of images available, and each was rather slightly remarked in the art world. 

There are hordes of books about Edward Weston out there, many of them huge and gorgeous, with hundreds of images printed, often in beautiful duotone, nearly approaching the beauty of the originals (sans the caveat above), and they all repeat the peppers, the shells, the Guggenheim landscapes, the nudes, the portraits, even the Surrealist goofs from the war years, but no one has seen fit to gather the Leaves of Grass work together for a well-crafted presentation.  

Come on, guys, it’s just begging to be done. 

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I grew up with H.W. Janson’s History of Art, first in art history class in college, and later, when I used it as a text when I taught art history. When I first owned a copy, it had only a few color plates, and later editions turned all-color, also adding some female artists and a bit of non-Western art in response to complaints it was too white-male-ish. It was. 

But that is not my point here. Rather it is that so many of us, including me, both as student and as teacher, know art primarily through reproduction. Either pictures in a book or slides projected in class — and now as digital images on computer screens. 

So, although I know Las Meninas, Rembrandt’s Danaë, or Botticelli’s Venus and Mars, I’ve never actually seen them. Not in person. 

(Judging from this photo, it’s possible even to visit the Rijksmuseum in Amsterdam and still not see Rembrandt’s Nightwatch. How many times have you seen museum visitors staring at the blue light of their cellphone instead of at the work on the walls?)

As a result, we are so much more art literate — or at least image literate — than was possible a hundred years ago, or two hundred years  when privileged young men would take the Grand Tour through Italy and the Continent to study the great masterpieces in museums and churches, and come home and write encomia on the glories they had seen. 

But we are also fooled into believing that we have seen these famous paintings by encountering them on a page. Learning their titles to recognize them on a test makes your Janson into a high-culture Peterson Guide. Name the birds, name the paintings. 

The real thing is quite a different experience. 

Take for a single example Théodore Géricault’s famous painting, The Raft of the Medusa, with its careful triangular composition of decomposing bodies and starving survivors. In class, we study the iconography of the painting, but can have little concept of the impact of seeing the original, which is frankly, the size of a barn. 

It hangs in the Louvre and it isn’t just the immensity of the thing that cannot be felt in a picture book, but the shear weight of canvas and paint which sags ever so slightly under its own mass. It isn’t a perfectly flat canvas: You have to accept it as an object in its own right, not merely an image. 

Quite the opposite confronts anyone who can make it to the front of the throng perpetually standing in front of Leonardo’s Mona Lisa, like groupies vying for the front row at a rock concert. “It’s so much smaller than I thought,” is the most frequent response. 

And it isn’t just size that matters. How many have seen Vincent Van Gogh’s Crows in a Wheatfield either in an art book or as the dramatic climax of the Kirk Douglas film Lust for Life? How many have seen the actual painting? 

If you have been so lucky, you will know not only the size of the canvas, but also the almost sculptural surface of it, daubed with palette knife and oils. Van Gogh’s paintings are again, not merely images, but objects in their own right. 

In addition, the colors of printer’s inks are not the colors of the oil paint. You can never get quite the arsenic green that makes up the background of one of his self-portraits. Not in ink, and not in pixels. Just Google one of the paintings and look at the multiple versions posted online and notice how much color and contrast vary. 

What you are left with is the iconography. A real appreciation of the art is always more than iconography. Iconography is intellectual — you can describe it in words. This is the Virgin Mary, or that is the Battle of Waterloo. But identifying the subject is not seeing the painting. A painting is also a sense experience and looking at an actual painting, in museum or gallery, gives you so much more than its content. 

The same is true of the other arts. I have (I blush when I say it) thousands of CDs of music and can identify compositions — as if it were a contest — in a few notes, a classical music Name That Tune. (I remember astonishing my brother-in-law by spotting the Bartok Fifth Quartet in three notes — and they are all the same note. But boy, are they distinctive.) 

Denk and Brahms

But knowing the tunes is not the same experience as hearing the music played by Yo-Yo Ma live, or the Guarneri Quartet, or Jeremy Denk. This was brought home to me fundamentally (i.e., through my fundament) when I heard the Philadelphia Orchestra under Wolfgang Sawallisch play Strauss’s Don Juan and the famous horn call was broadcast to the hall by eight French horns in unison. The effect cannot be captured by the best recording and the most audiophile equipment. You have to hear it live. The hall is live with the music. 

Certainly not every performance is so transcendent. Often you really do only get the tunes, and sometimes, that is enough for a pleasant evening. But I can honestly say that in a lifetime of concert-going, I have heard scores, maybe a hundred concerts where the music became a living thing on the stage and transported me to places no other art form can take me. 

The same for ballet and dance. I have never seen on film or video a dance performance that didn’t seem a pale reflection of what I see live on stage. Even the great Balanchine, when asked to record some of his most famous choreographies, had to redo them slightly to make them camera-friendly. Even then, they don’t come close to seeing Apollo live, or The Prodigal Son, or Rubies. Dance has to be seen live, in three dimensions, palpable and present. 

And I have seen stage plays recorded for TV. Stage acting seems so artificial when replayed on tape. Stage acting is not naturalistic acting: It is projecting the meaning to the back rows. Seen a stage production on the screen makes you long for a cinematic version. But a great performance of a great play seen live will disabuse you of any notion that live theater is lesser than film. 

I have seen Tony Kushner’s Angels in America four times complete, first in the original Broadway production, then in the roadshow version, then is a locally produced performance by the late lamented Actors Theatre in Phoenix, Ariz., and finally in the filmed version with Al Pacino. As good as that last was — and it is worth seeing if you haven’t seen it on stage yet — it pales in comparison with the original. Indeed, the original is what finally persuaded me that live theater offers something nothing else can. It is live. You can sometimes feel the pulse of the actors on stage, their sweat, their muscles flexing like dancers’. 

I pity anyone who has only seen dinner theater or a mediocre student performance, thinking that is what theater is about. Seeing a great production is life changing. 

Yet, so much of our lives now is virtual, and we hardly mind the difference. We even watch movies on our cell phones, which only puts me in mind of when I was a boy, watching great movies on a 12-inch TV, in black and white, all fuzzy in picture and tinny in sound, and thinking I was “seeing” the film. In those pre-HD days, we used to say television was radio with pictures. You could take in a program while doing chores, as long as you could hear the dialog, you could follow the plot. Movies are meant to be seen, the visual details are meant to contribute the the experience. They cannot on a cellphone. We are back to square one. 


I remember visiting the Virginia Beach Marine Science Center aquarium and enjoying the otters playing behind a great picture window. A slew of schoolkids came in on a bus tour and they immediately swarmed — not to the window to watch the otters — but to the video display showing live footage from the very tank they could look at in front of them. They chose, to a child, to look at the video instead. It was seriously depressing. 

And it is what I think of when I reopen my worn copy of Janson and look at the reproduction of the Disembarkation of Marie De Medici at Marseilles by Peter Paul Rubens, tiny on the page, and think of the room in which it sits at the Louvre. The painting is more than 12 feet tall and surrounded by 23 other giant paintings in a room dedicated to the series. The effect is quite overwhelming. On the page, it is a confused clump of busy mythology; on the wall, it will blow you away. 

I feel sorry of any poor student taking an art history class who thinks they have encountered the world’s great art, when all they have seen is ghosts of the living beings. 

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