November 29, 2011
What’s the best new work of art in the world? Good question. The most interesting and mind-bending new artwork that I’ve encountered is a remarkable garden in Paris titled Who to Believe?, recently designed and assembled by Francois Abelanet. We’re accustomed to the idea that paint can form an illusion. But it’s a bit startling to find this effect created with grass and trees. Yet this is the conceit of Abelanet’s work, made from 3,500 square feet of turf and many truckloads of dirt and straw and assembled with the help of about 90 carefully supervised gardeners. Here’s a pretty good video of it:
When you stare down at it from the steps of the City Hall in Paris, Abelanet’s carefully designed garden resembles a terrestrial globe. It’s a nearly perfect sphere, with neat lines marking latitude and longitude and two trees growing out of the top. It looks like one of those planets sketched by Antoine de Saint-Exupery in The Little Prince.
But move a little and its appearance changes. From any other angle, it’s an irregular crazy-quilt of shapes—a weirdly configured, Alice-In-Wonderland world. Abelanet has brought together two seemingly divergent artistic traditions—the French garden and Anamorphosis.
Gardens are one of the most notable accomplishments of French culture and reached their height in the work of André Le Notre (1613-1700), chief gardener for King Louis XIV (1638-1715), most notably at the Palace of Versailles. The distinguishing trait of French gardens is their geometric logic and mastery of vistas. From a vantage point at the center of the great terrace at Versailles, the eye is directed down grand avenues in which lines of trees, and strategically placed lakes, fountains and statues, lead the eye seemingly to infinity. Happiest when working on a grand scale, Le Notre sometimes moved entire villages to create the strictly regulated vistas that he wanted.
Notably, Le Notre was also interested in the dramatic impact of surprising effects which can be discerned from only one place. There’s an effect of this sort at the garden of Vaux-le-Vicomte, for example, created just before Versailles for the Minister of Finance, Nicholas Fouquet. Stand before the statue of the Gallic Hercules, which marks the end of the Grand Avenue, and look back at the Chateau: The reflection of the distant building floats, seemingly miraculously, on the surface of a body of water that’s very close to you. Visually, it seems impossible, although in fact it’s simply a careful application of an optical principle that had recently been enunciated by Descartes—“the angle of incidence equals the angle of reflection.” In other words, if we carefully choose the right vantage point, we can see the world in a way possible nowhere else.
This concept of a unique, privileged vantage point provides the basis for Abelanet’s garden. But unlike Le Notre’s work, it discloses a world which is not predictable and logical, or under our control, but topsy-turvy and unpredictable. In essence, he has combined the techniques of Le Notre with an approach to representation normally found only in painting.
Anamorphosis. The word, which is Greek, refers to an image that needs to be seen from a special angle to be seen without distortion. It’s a kind of zany extrapolation of the principles of perspective, and it developed early in the Renaissance, very soon after vanishing-point perspective was developed. The masterpiece of the genre is arguably a large and imposing painting by Hans Holbein in the National Gallery in London, The Ambassadors.
An ingenious visual puzzle, executed around 1533, The Ambassadors shows two nearly life-size figures who have been identified as Jean de Dintevile, the French ambassador to the court of Henry VIII and George de Sleve, Bishop of Lavaur. Behind them are a two-tiered table on which are piled a selection of books, globes (one terrestrial, one celestial) and scientific instruments, including a quadrant, an astrolabe and a sundial. There’s also a lute with a broken string, next to a hymnbook in Martin Luther’s translation. Scholars have long argued about what these objects signify. Presumably the instruments are saying something about the world of knowledge, or about the celestial and terrestrial world. The hymnbook and lute seem to allude to strife between scholar’s and clergy.
But the oddest thing in The Ambassadors is a strangely distorted shape in the lower center, which when viewed from the painting’s right (or the viewer’s left) takes the form of a skull. Surely this alludes to the fact that death is always present, but we only see it if we look at reality from a particular angle.
Holbein’s painting alerts us to the fact that Anamorphosis is a device that can not only amuse us with its strange visual distortions, but can provide a metaphor. Part of the wit of Abelanet’s marvelous garden is that it functions in a way that carries metaphorical and metaphysical punch. Probably no form on government on earth is so famously centralized and bureaucratic as that of France. Decisions made at the top are carried out rigorously to the lowest level. It’s been said that if you enter any schoolroom in France you’ll find that the students are studying the same page in the same book as in every other schoolroom in the realm. But how do the people at the top make their decisions? What do they see from their vantage point?
Abelanet’s garden reminds us that the view from City Hall can be quite different from everywhere else—that, in fact, the seeming logic of its view of things can be nonsensical. To fully grasp reality we need to see how it looks from more than one place (politicians, take note). Like much of the world’s best art, Abelanet’s creation is at once silly and profound.
Is this the world’s best new work of art? I’d welcome other suggestions.
October 14, 2011
The robber barons loved the portraits of the 17th century Dutch painter Frans Hals, and nowhere did these barons congregate so thickly as in New York. Not surprisingly, the Metropolitan Museum of Art has this country’s largest collection of paintings by Hals, donated by rapacious financiers who made rivals quake during the early industrial age, such as Collis P. Huntington, Henry Marquand, Benjamin Altman, H. O. Havemeyer and Jules Bache. Stroll across 5th Avenue and you can see more Frans Hals paintings in the Frick collection, amassed by the ruthless Pittsburgh steel magnate Henry Clay Frick.
The Metropolitan recently gathered its impressive holdings of Hals paintings into a sort of mini-blockbuster exhibition. Organized by Walter Liedtke, the museum’s curator of Dutch art, the show contained 13 portraits, two from private collections. There are also a few works formerly attributed to Hals, and by his contemporaries, that set his achievement in context. The show is loosely divided between early exuberant works by Hals, such as the Merrymakers at Shrovetide (circa 1616) and Yonker Ramp and His Sweetheart (1623), and the later, more sober portraits, which sometimes have an introspective, even brooding quality reminiscent of Rembrandt.
What’s So Great About Frans Hals?
As a painter, Hals made two great contributions. One was to combine an intense sense of realism with flamboyant brushwork—which gives his work a highly personal quality. When we stand at a distance the image seems “real”: but when we’re close all we see is gestural marks, made by the human hand. At a sort of middle distance there’s a moment when the two modes of seeing precariously coexist, or at which one mode of seeing shifts into the other. The “real” and the “abstract,” the “objective” and the “subjective,” interact with each other in endlessly fascinating ways.
Hal’s other contribution is to fill his paintings with evident psychological intensity, the quality known as “psychological insight.” His figures feel as if we could speak to them.
There are many tricks that Hals used to create this effect, including his dashing brushwork, which gives mobility to the muscles of the face, as if the figures were alive. Another fascinating trick was also used by Rembrandt. Hals recognized that the human face has two halves and the expression on one side differs subtly from the expression on the other. Particularly in his late work, Hals exploited this effect in a dramatic way: the two sides of the face are two slightly different people. The lighted side portrays the sitter’s “public self,” and the shadowed side the “private self”—generally somewhat sadder and more thoughtful, perhaps with an eye that wanders a bit and looks out of focus. Without even being conscious of this difference, we respond to it. Because a portrait by Hals reveals not a single but a divided self, the act of looking at a Hals painting is one of penetrating through the surface presentation of the figure to the inner person.
It’s surely no accident that Hals’s life (1580-1666) overlapped with that of Shakespeare (1564-1616), and the way he evoked a sense of character provides interesting parallels to the characters in Shakespeare’s plays who are generally two or more people in one body, engaged in internal dialogue. In that sense, Hals’s portraits document the emergence of the modern self: they display a new awareness that the “self” is not a single, uniform thing, but the product of conflicting forces and disparate impulses, ruled by a consciousness filled with self-doubt.
I suspect that the robber barons’ fondness for Hals has something to do with this psychological penetration. Success in business depends on an accurate assessment of the person across the bargaining table, and this assessment often depends not only on what is presented on the surface but on facial expressions and gestures that reveal deeper, hidden motives. Is this person telling the truth? Will he double-cross me? Can I trust him? One might add that the rich brown palette of a Hals’ portraits fits nicely in the dark cave-like interiors of the gilded age.
Where to See Frans Hals
After the Metropolitan Museum, the largest collection of Hals in this country is that of the National Gallery in Washington, with an impressive cluster of portraits, most of them assembled by the industrialist Andrew Mellon. But perhaps the best way to get into the Hals spirit is to see his work in the actual home of a robber baron.
Two of these settings come to mind. One is the Frick collection in New York, already mentioned, in a mansion designed by Carriere and Hastings for Henry Clay Frick. The other is at the Taft Museum in Cincinnati, the home of Charles P. Taft, the brother of Supreme Court Chief Justice and U. S. President William Henry Taft. (It has a remarkable group of works not only by Hals but by two other top figures in the art of portraiture, Rembrandt and John Singer Sargent, including the latter’s wonderfully nervous Portrait of Robert Louis Stevenson, showing the author in a wicker chair, nursing a cigarette.) Of the Taft Museum’s portraits by Hals, surely the most remarkable are those of a married couple: A Seated Man Holding a Hat and A Seated Woman Holding a Fan. Each is a masterwork, and there’s a delightful interaction between the two.
There are other Frans Hals experiences worth seeking out in the United States.
I always feel a bit wistful when I look at Hal’s Portrait of a Woman at the St. Louis Art Museum, or the Portrait of a Man in the Nelson-Atkins Museum of Art in Kansas City. They’re a couple, but somehow got divorced, and ended up at opposite ends of the state.
Finally, it’s well worth studying the two examples of Hals’s work at the Cleveland Museum of Art. The larger of the two, Tielman Roosterman (1634), is not only one of the artist’s best large-scale portraits but one of the very best preserved. Its condition is near perfect. The other, portraying an unknown woman, has a surface that’s been abraded and rubbed, like a garment that’s gone too many times to the drycleaners. If you study these two paintings you’ll see the distinction between a painting in good condition and one in poor condition, and you can apply this knowledge to every old master painting you encounter.