June 8, 2012
It was not entirely a laughing matter to tour the recent exhibition Infinite Jest: Caricature and Satire from Leonardo to Levine at the Metropolitan Museum of Art. While not an overwhelmingly large show (comprising 160 items), it covered the entire history of caricature from the Italian Renaissance to the present, providing an excellent survey of the subject. Jokes from a century or more ago can be quite difficult to understand. To grasp why they’re funny is often hard work.
Fortunately, the show has a well-written catalog by its curators, Constance McPhee and Nadine Orenstein, which led me smoothly through the challenging material. Of all the catalogues I’ve acquired lately, this one has been the most fun to read. At once erudite and entertaining, it lays out a wonderfully succinct and enjoyable account of a seemingly esoteric subject.
The History of Caricature
The modern art of caricature—that is, the art of drawing funny faces that are often distorted portraits of actual people—traces its roots back to Leonardo da Vinci, although we don’t know whether Leonardo’s “caricatures” of handsome and ugly heads were intended to be funny or were made as quasi-scientific investigations of the deforming effects of age, and of the forces that generate these deformations.
The word “caricature,” which fuses the words carico (“to load”) and caricare (“to exaggerate), was first used in the 1590s by the Carracci brothers, Agostino and Annibale, to apply to pen drawings of distorted human heads—generally shown in profile and arranged in rows to show a progression.
Caricature in the modern sense seems to have been created by Gian Lorenzo Bernini. He was apparently the first to create satirical drawings of recognizable people. Interestingly, he seems to have somehow turned this art into a backhanded form of flattery, similar to the celebrity roasts of today. Being important enough to satirize was proof of one’s importance.
In the 18th and 19th centuries, the art form developed as a curious mix of the crude and obvious, and the obscure and arcane. At one level, it reduces the language of visual expression to its most uncultured elements, and certain devices seem to be repeated almost endlessly: exaggerated faces, processions of funny-looking people, people with faces like animals, and a good deal of bathroom humor.
At the same time, drawings in which individuals were caricatured often contained sophisticated puns and in-jokes, rooted in wordplay. Perhaps the most famous examples of this are the series of lithographs by Honore Daumier from the early 1830s representing King Louis-Philippe in the form of a pear. The monarch’s face, with its large jowls, was pear-shaped, and so was his rotund body. In French slang the word for pear, le poire, was also a colloquial term for “simpleton.” Also the king’s initials, L. P., could be read Le Poire. The basic visual trope communicates its message clearly, even if we don’t grasp the wordplay. We can gather that the king was being ridiculed for being sluggish and obese. In many instances, however, particularly with political satire, this sort of punning became almost deliberately arcane, rather in the fashion of the iconography of medieval saints.
An early print by Eugene Delacroix ridicules censorship of the press by reactionary monarchists with a representation of the famous horse race at Longchamps being run by crayfish carrying a surreal set of riders. One crayfish carries a sugar loaf (le pain de sucre), which represents a censor named Marie-Joseph Pain; another carries a chair (la chaise), which stands for the censor La Chaize. Why are they riding crayfish? Because they are mounts “perfectly suited to these men who never rose to any heights and usually walked backward,” according to a long explanatory text accompanying the image, published April 4, 1822, in the leftist newspaper Le Miroir. Careful study of the print reveals that nearly every element contains a pun or political allusion. The unfinished Arc de Triomphe in the background stands for the liberal ideology that the censors were trying to displace.
Many of the key figures in the history of caricature were great masters of “high art” as well: Leonardo, Bernini, Delacroix, Pieter Breughel the Elder, Giovanni Domenico Tiepolo, William Hogarth, Francesco de Goya, Henri de Toulouse-Lautrec, Claude Monet and others. But many remarkable caricatures were produced by artists who are not well-known; and the form also produced an interesting set of specialists, such as James Gillray, Thomas Rowlandson and George Cruikshank, who made caricatures and very little else. Thus, the challenge of writing a history of caricature makes us rethink what art history is all about: both how to describe its major developments and who to consider a figure of importance.
The Print Room at the Metropolitan
The Metropolitan Museum of Art’s remarkable collection of prints and drawings is much larger and far more comprehensive than any other in the United States. It has about 1.2 million prints and 12,000 illustrated books. It contains a vast assortment of prints that most art museums would not bother to collect: ornamental prints, costume plates, broadsides, political broadsides and even baseball cards. Therefore the museum could assemble an exhibition of caricature, including popular prints, of a sort impossible to assemble anywhere else in America. There are autograph drawings by major masters and remarkable prints by figures such as Francois Desprez (French) and Henry Louis Stephens (American), who are obscure even to specialists in French or American art.
The History of Caricature: Caricature and Democracy
Facing a sprawling topic, the curators chose to organize the exhibit following four themes, with content within each category arranged chronologically. The first section explored exaggeration as it developed over time, starting with deformed heads and developing to strange distortions of the body as a whole, including peculiar creations in which human features merge with those of animals, or take the form of fruits and vegetables, piggybanks, moneybags and other objects. The show then moved on to social satire, much of it focused on costume or obscene humor; political satire, which often has narrative references related to the literature and political writing of a period; and celebrity caricature, a genre that emerged in the late 19th century, and reached its peak in the 20th in the work of figures such as Ralph Barton, Al Hirschfeld and the famous singer Enrico Caruso.
What’s nice about this scheme is that it allowed me to move quickly and easily from observations about the general history of caricature to detailed entries on the individual works. The scheme also carried some theoretical implications. Surprisingly little has been written about the “theory” of caricature: In fact, only two writers have focused seriously on such questions, both Viennese art historians, Ernst Kris and Ernst Gombrich. They were chiefly interested in the expressive nature of caricature and considered it from a psychological perspective—either under the influence of Freud, whose theories shed light on some of the deep emotional roots of caricature, or under the influence of Gestalt psychology, which provided clues about how we draw meaning by collecting clues from expressive visual fragments.
What McPhee and Orenstein bring out is the social aspect of the art form, which has a strong element of performance and seems to depend on the existence of a specialized audience.
Caricature requires an audience and the modern mechanisms of marketing, production and political and social communication. To a large degree, in fact, it seems to be allied with the emergence of modern democracy (or of groups within an autocratic system that function in a quasi-democratic way), and it seems to thrive in cultural sub-groups that are slightly estranged from the social mainstream. At times, in fact, caricature appears to evolve into a sort of private language that affiliates one with a particular social group. The ability to tolerate and even encourage such ridicule seems to mark a profound cultural shift of some sort. Generally speaking, totalitarian despots don’t seem to delight in ridicule, but modern American politicians do. Like the detective story, which did not exist until the 19th century, and seems to thrive only in democratic societies, the growth of caricatures marks the emergence of modern society, with its greater tolerance for diversity of opinion and social roles.
Cartooning, Cubism, and Craziness
Did I have criticisms of the exhibition? I have several, although to some degree they’re a form of flattery, for they show the project opened up major questions. My first criticism is that to my mind the show defined caricature too narrowly; it left out art forms that are clearly outgrowths of caricature, such as comic books, the funny papers, animated cartoons and decorative posters that employ a reductive drawing style. From the standpoint of creating a manageable show, this was surely a sensible decision. Indeed, what’s wonderful about the show and the catalog was the clarity and focus of its approach—the way they reduced the entire history of caricature to a manageable number of examples. But at the same time, this shortchanged the significance of caricature and separated its somewhat artificially from the history of art as a whole.
This first criticism leads to my second. The show failed to explore the fascinating ways in which caricature—as well as “cartooning”—were surely a major force in the development of modern art. The drawings of Picasso and Matisse, for example, moved away from the sort of “photographic realism” taught in the academy to a form of draftsmanship that was more cartoonlike—and that can still sometimes appear “childish” to people who feel that images should translate the world literally.
Some of Picasso’s most important early Cubist paintings—his portraits of Daniel-Henry Kahnweiler, Ambroise Vollard and Wilhelm Uhde—are essentially caricatures, one step removed from the celebrity caricatures of figures like Max Beerbohm and Marius de Zayas. One might even argue that Cubism was fundamentally an art of caricature—an art of representing things through distortions and “signs,” rather than more literal but more lifeless forms of representation. Could it be that “caricature” lies at the heart of modern art?
My final criticism raises issues that are even more daunting. While the works included in the show were delightful, the curators sidestepped one of the fundamental aspects of caricature—that it has an edge of nastiness that can easily lead into prejudice and bigotry. It often veers into ethnic and racial stereotyping, as in the caricatures of Irish-Americans by Thomas Nast or African-Americans by Edward Kemble. At its extreme, think of the Jewish caricatures created by Nazi German cartoonists—which surely played a role in making possible the Nazi death camps.
One can sympathize with the organizers of this exhibition sticking to the quaint political squabbles of the distant past and for avoiding this sort of material: After all, they didn’t want their show to be closed down by picketers. I frankly don’t know how such material could have been presented without causing offense on somebody’s part, but without it, a show of caricature feels a little muted. Caricature is a dangerous art.
It’s precisely that delicate line between what’s funny and what’s not acceptable that makes caricature so powerful. Caricature has often been a mighty tool for fighting stupidity and injustice. But it also has been used in the service of bigotry. A comprehensive history of caricature would more deeply explore some of the ways that this art form has a wicked aspect and connects with the dark corners of the human soul.
June 1, 2012
Not many people alive today remember Jackson Pollock, or can say they visited him in his studio and discussed painting with him. One of the few is Richard Field, now retired, who taught for many years at Wesleyan and then became print curator at the Yale Art Gallery. I first got to know Richard during my impoverished student days, when I was teaching a class at Wesleyan. A friend who made a regular trip to Boston would drop me off to teach; after the class ended, I would hitchhike back to New Haven, hoping to get there in time for an afternoon section I was teaching at Yale.
Not long ago, I ran into Richard by chance at a symposium on the South Seas paintings of John LaFarge. Slightly more gaunt today, his face has weathered into one that resembles a biblical prophet.
Field is one of those art historians who have worked all over the map, producing gemlike pioneering studies that have marked out new direction in the field, but are so modestly presented, so intensely focused that their true impact is often not recognized until years later. They have also been so diverse that it’s hard to believe they were written by the same person. I’m sure every profession contains figures who’ve done extraordinary work but who labor in relative obscurity and have never become household names. Richard Field is one of these people.
Field wrote his doctoral dissertation at Harvard on the Tahitian paintings of Paul Gauguin. Probably his best-known publication is a catalog of the prints of Jasper Johns—one of the first truly scholarly publications on the work of a contemporary artist. He’s currently working on an exhaustive study of the earliest surviving woodblocks from 15th-century Europe.
But curiously, he’s never published an account of one of his most memorable artistic experiences, a visit with Jackson Pollock in his studio on Long Island. I learned of this quite by accident, when I mentioned in passing my admiration for Pollock’s work. This led to a note from Richard shortly afterward about this experience, which I’m quoting here with his permission. To my knowledge this visit has never been mentioned in the extensive literature on Pollock. Perhaps this brief blog story will inspire a more extensive write-up, either by Field himself or by someone who interviews him in detail.
As Field himself would confess, part of what’s fascinating about his meeting with Pollock is the rather casual, even half-assed quality of the experience. He was quite young at the time, still an undergraduate, and the art world was not the super-heated, money-making machine that it is today. Pollock’s work was so new that no one knew quite what to make of it or how to describe it, and even Pollock himself was clearly a bit at a loss for words when trying to explain what he was up to.
Of course, in a sense, Field’s story is a confession of what was probably the biggest goof of his lifetime: that he didn’t purchase a painting by Pollock. But what’s interesting to me is the degree to which he was receptive to Pollock’s work at a time when most people, even at places like the art history department at Harvard, thought it was nonsense.
But enough of preliminaries! Let’s hear from Richard Field. What first awakened his interest in Pollock’s work was a show of abstract paintings at the Fogg Museum.
“By my senior year, I had become an art major and had chosen to write a long paper about Pollock in a seminar that was being given by Benjamin Rowland. He had kindly allowed me to work on Pollock, although I was an undergraduate, in a graduate seminar. I had been to see his shows in NYC regularly.”
The art world was smaller in those days and it wasn’t difficult to arrange to meet Pollock. In fact, he was thrilled that a student from Harvard was interested in his work:
“On Sunday March 15, 1953, my fiancée and I paid a visit to Pollock in Springs [a hamlet in East Hampton, New York]. He and Lee Krasner were wonderfully hospitable and not unfriendly.”
Pollock was not an art historian and thought about his work in a different way. Nonetheless, what he had to say was quite interesting:
“I was too dumb to be able to ask him the kind of questions that he might have answered fully. But we did talk and he did volunteer some insights about “finish,” namely how he knew when a painting was done, comments not unlike the statement in the opening pages of your book [Tom and Jack: The Intertwined Lives of Thomas Hart Benton and Jackson Pollock]. Really just that the work was finished when he perceived no further work to do. Self-serving in a double-sense, but obviously the truth. The work knew best, so to speak.
“He got out all sorts of paintings which I photographed, though I was too polite to ask him to pose with any of them (it would have changed the relationship). I was also too stupid to ask him to allow me to photograph any drawings.
“I also asked him whether I could buy for my wife-to-be a small painting, and we picked one out. It was to be $300, but he had to ask his dealer Sidney Janis (whom I knew) first. Since it was a large pouring and I had a convertible, there was no sense in taking it with us, anyway.”
Today a large painting by Pollock would be worth more than a hundred million dollars. Back in 1953, you could treat them more casually:
“Pollock also offered to lend me, for my seminar presentation at the Fogg (which did not own a work by Pollock) a rolled-up canvas of 12 or 16 feet. I had to refuse, again because I was afraid of damaging it.
“They invited Judy and me to stay for supper. Lee said they had only two pork chops, and we agreed to split them … truly!! When I told all of this to Jasper Johns, he thought the pork chop incident the most entertaining and burst out with one of usual sudden bits of laughter.
“After dinner we went over to Alfonso Ossorio’s house to bask in the great works he had acquired. I remember so distinctly how one walked into the space of two Clyfford Stills, and so much more. It was a great day.”
Here comes the sad part, which shows that one should never think about one’s life in a sensible way, since if you do, you’ll probably make a big mistake:
“Later my fiancée asked me how could we spend $300 on a painting when we only had $600 in the bank?? So I never bought that Pollock, which ironically I found one day about 25 years ago in the collection of a Yale collector (who was probably about to sell it for a million or so).”
“I still have a little letter (with a couple of ink spots on it) from Pollock, that and memories. An invitation to one of his exhibitions is listed as a screen-print in the Pollock catalogue, but I dispute that the one I have is screen-printed (I have done a lot of work on screen-printing). My name has never come up in the Pollock literature, but I believe there was an oblique reference in one of the biographies to my visit—which had pleased Pollock, at least in advance.”
Interestingly, at some point, Field’s appreciation for Pollock grew dim:
“For years I was able to get inside Pollock’s paintings, but when I went to Kirk [Varnedoe]’s show at MoMA the magic has vanished. I loved the work, but there was some interiority that was missing for me.”
Because I wrote Tom and Jack, a study of the lifelong relationship between Benton and Pollock, I always am interested in whether a lover of Pollock’s work likes the very different work of Benton as well. For many, Benton is the anti-Christ, but Field wrote to me:
“Since my earliest days of interest in art (14 years old) Benton has always been one of my favorite artists, and this was long before I learned of his abstract works.”
I’ve come to believe that if you know you’ve missed a great opportunity, it shows you’ve gotten pretty close. Most of us have great opportunities all around us and never know that we’ve missed them. While he didn’t become rich from investing in a Pollock, Field, through his early interest in his work, nicely revealed the wonderful intuitive intelligence that has made him one of the truly outstanding art historians of our century.
May 24, 2012
One of the more surprising and unusual works in the new American Wing of the Museum of Fine Arts in Boston is an early ceramic bowl by Jackson Pollock, decorated in black and fierce fiery red, which was acquired in 2010 by the museum. The MFA describes the bowl as influenced by El Greco, which is not entirely wrong, since Pollock made pencil copies after paintings by El Greco around this time. But I’d like to propose that it’s possible to pin down its source more precisely. I believe it’s inspired by a work by a now largely forgotten painter of the 1930s, Ross Braught—in fact, based on Braught’s most ambitious painting, a mural in the Kansas City Music Hall. Identifying this source opens up a whole new set of questions and speculations.
Pollock’s interest in ceramics was inspired by the work of his teacher, Thomas Hart Benton, who had discovered during his impoverished years in New York that it was easier to sell decorated ceramics than paintings.
Pollock’s surviving ceramics seem to have been made at two times.He made one group during four successive summers, 1934-1937, while staying on Martha’s Vineyard with Benton and his wife, Rita. The Bentons kept quite a few of these ceramics and eventually donated them to various museums. The others were made in 1939 while Pollock was being treated for alcoholism at the Bloomingdale Hospital. Just two of these pieces survive, but they’re Pollock’s most impressive early ceramics: Flight of Man, the piece now in Boston, which he gave to his psychiatrist, James H. Wall, and The Story of My Life, which he made at the same time and sold to a gentleman named Thomas Dillon in Larchmont, New York. The whereabouts of this last piece are unknown. At the time Pollock made these two pieces, he had just returned from a visit to the Bentons in Kansas City, the only time he visited there.
The Story of My Life contains a series of scenes: an archer shooting an arrow at some horses in the sky; a sleeping woman; a child in fetal position; and a boat sailing on restless seas. Pollock’s biographers, Steven Naifeh and Gregory White Smith, have described it as “an impenetrable allegory”; in fact, its meaning is easy to construe once we recognize its source, an illustrated book, Phaeton, published by Braught in 1939. Phaeton was the son of Apollo and obtained permission from him to drive the chariot of the sun. But since he was unable to control the horses, the chariot plunged down close to earth, scorching the planet. To prevent further destruction, Apollo was forced to shoot his son down from the sky. The two most significant images on Pollock’s bowl, the archer and the sleeping woman are both derived from Braught’s book. The third, the boat on restless seas, relates to paintings that Pollock had made earlier on Martha’s Vineyard, of the boat of Benton’s son, T.P., sailing on Menemsha Pond. Clearly Pollock saw Phaeton’s story as parallel to his own life as an artist. At one moment he was soaring to great heights, at the next crashing to earth.
If we accept this source, it’s not surprising to discover that Pollock’s second painted bowl, the one in Boston, was also based on a work by Braught. Its imagery resembles that of the most ambitious painting of Braught’s career, a 27-feet-high mural, Mnemosyne and the Four Muses, which he created for the Kansas City Music Hall. As the title indicates, the swirling composition shows Mnemosyne, or Memory, who was the mother of the muses, and four muses, who are emerging from clouds that float over a landscape of the badlands of South Dakota. Braught also made a painting of the landscape at the bottom, which he titled Tchaikovsky’s Sixth (1936; Nelson-Atkins Museum of Art). This was the last piece that Tchaikovsky wrote before he died—as some believe, by committing suicide. Perhaps that’s the music we’re meant to imagine when we look at the painting.
To be sure, Pollock didn’t follow his source very closely. What he took was Braught’s general formula: a central floating figure with outstretched arms, suffused with mysterious light, surrounded by other figures and cloud-like forms that fill the surrounding space. I suspect that close study would reveal prototypes for many of Pollock’s figures. For example, the over-scaled figure on the right-hand side loosely relates to a painting he had made shortly before, Naked Man with Knife (c. 1938; Tate, London). Compared with Braught’s design, Pollock’s is somewhat crude, with figures of differing scales, which often fill their spaces somewhat awkwardly. But it was precisely Pollock’s departures from traditional ideas of correct proportion or well-resolved design that led to his wildly expressive later work.
Who was Ross Braught? Why was Pollock interested in him?
Braught just preceded Benton as the head of the painting department at the Kansas City Art Institute. An eccentric figure, he bore a striking resemblance to Boris Karloff. He generally wore a black cape, and sometimes brought a skeleton with him on the streetcar, so that he could draw it at home. His work had a mystical, visionary cast. It clearly held strong appeal for Pollock at a time when he was going through intense emotional turmoil, and was also attempting to move beyond the influence of Benton.
Pollock surely met Braught in 1939, just before he made the bowl, when he visited the Bentons in Kansas City in January of that year. At the time, Pollock also socialized with Ted Wahl, the printer of Braught’s lithographs for Phaeton. While not well known today, Braught was getting a good deal of press coverage at the time, both for his painting for the Kansas City Music Hall, which was praised in Art Digest, and for his lithograph Mako Sica, which received a first prize at the Mid-Western Exhibit at the Kansas City Art Institute in 1935 (and became the subject of articles questioning its merit shortly afterward in the Print Collector’s Quarterly).
Sadly, Braught’s career faded at this point, perhaps in part because he was so unworldly and impractical. After leaving Kansas City in 1936, he lived for most of the next decade in the tropics, where he made drawings and paintings of dense jungle foliage. From 1946 to 1962, he returned to teach at the Kansas City Art Institute, but in 1962, when Abstract Expressionism was in vogue, he was fired because his style was considered too old-fashioned. The figure who had inspired Jackson Pollock was no longer good enough to matter. Braught spent the last 20 years of his life living in extreme poverty in Philadelphia, no one knows exactly where.
There’s been only one exhibition of Braught’s work since his death, a show at Hirschl & Adler Galleries in New York in March-April 2000, accompanied by an excellent, hard-to-find catalog written by David Cleveland. Both the Nelson-Atkins in Kansas City and the Pennsylvania Academy of Fine Arts in Philadelphia have paintings by him in their collections.
For two reasons, Pollock’s interest in Braught is worth noting. One is that when we identify Pollock’s sources, his creative process is illuminated and we can see the step-by-step process by which he moved toward being an original artist. In some ways it’s a bit deflating. Pollock clearly started off as a copyist. Nonetheless, while Pollock’s bowl is in some ways quite derivative, you can already sense his emerging artistic personality.
Second, perhaps Pollock’s interest in Braught will encourage a modest revival of interest in Braught. Braught’s output is so scarce that he’ll surely never be regarded as a major figure, but it is well worth a visit to see his work at the Kansas City Music Hall, one of the greatest Art Deco interiors anywhere, which also houses some good paintings made around the same time by Walter Bailley.
Braught’s Mnemosyne and the Four Muses is surely one of the weirdest and most unusual wall paintings in this country. As you stand in front of it, you wonder why Pollock chose it as a model for his own work and what to make of his artistic taste. Was he misguided? Or right to be inspired by an artist who’s now so thoroughly forgotten?
There’s a copy of Ross Braught’s book Phaeton in the library of the Cleveland Museum of Art. Some early ceramics by Jackson Pollock reside in the Nelson-Atkins Museum of Art and in a few private hands.
May 16, 2012
What happens when we walk through a museum? In a class I’m teaching on American art in the age of George Washington and Thomas Jefferson, this question came up. As a speculative exercise, we are designing an exhibition that involves trying to lay out a group of varied objects—including some that require close attention, such as architectural drawings—in a pathway that will make sense to visitors of different ages and levels of art experience.
To devise a good layout requires some understanding of what museum visitors do, and there’s surprisingly little literature on this topic. Most of the studies of museum-goers that I’ve seen rely on questionnaires. They ask people what they did, what they learned, and what they liked and didn’t like. No doubt there are virtues to this technique, but it assumes that people are aware of what they’re doing. It doesn’t take into account how much looking depends on parts of the brain that are largely instinctive and intuitive and often not easily accessible to our rational consciousness. Was there another mode of investigation and description that would illuminate what was actually taking place?
One of the students in my class, Andrew Oriani, is a physicist who spends much of his time doing mathematical proofs consisting of six or seven pages of equations. (He also has notable visual gifts: as a child he liked to draw elaborate cross-sections of ocean liners). He immediately grasped that the question we were asking was similar to one that comes up in physics all the time. How can one describe the activity of a group of subatomic particles that are moving unpredictably, seemingly erratically, in space? In physics this has become a subdiscipline known as statistical mechanics, and physicists have devised sophisticated tools, such as heat mapping, to describe how particles move in time and where they collect. In essence, physicists have found ways to describe and analyze events that are not specifically predictable, but that, when they’re repeated over and over again, turn out to obey recognizable principles. What would we find, Andrew asked, if we simply mapped the movements of visitors through a museum? What kinds of patterns would we find if we gathered enough data? Could we discern a recognizable pattern that had a shape? What would these patterns of movement reveal about the act of looking?
The preliminary results of asking these questions are provided by the three diagrams in this post. Perhaps there are studies of this sort that have already been published, but I haven’t come across them. Admittedly, Andrew’s diagrams are not precisely accurate—he worked freehand, without exact measurements—but for that very reason they have a wonderfully expressive quality: I must confess that part of what appeals to me about them is simply their beauty as drawings. Even without knowing what they’re about, we can sense that they contain information and they record something mysterious and interesting. In fact, what they record is not difficult to explain.
Basically, Andrew sat for about 20 minutes apiece in three galleries of the Cleveland Museum of Art, and as visitors entered he tracked their route and made notations of where they stopped and for how many seconds. A line indicates a path of movement. A dot indicates when someone stopped to look. The dots are accompanied by little notations indicating how many seconds the viewer stood still. There are also other scattered notations indicating the sex and general age of the people who were being tracked.
A more precise experiment would use some sort of electronic tracking device. You could record data in a fashion similar to a heat map, with spatial position indicated by lines and dots, and time indicated by a change of color. No doubt it would also be accompanied by demographic data, recording people’s age, sex, height, weight, income, profession, ZIP code and so forth. But what’s interesting to me is that even without such precision, this simple process encourages us to think about what museum visitors do in fresh and interesting ways. As usual, I have theories about the deeper implications of what Andrew recorded. By taking “psychology” out of the initial fund of data, and reducing the question to one of simple physical movement, the results end up illuminating what is actually taking place in psychological terms. But let me start with some observations.
- Museum visitors are surprisingly mobile: They move through a space in zigzagging patterns. One might even humorously point out that this is not the sort of walking in a straight line that police officers ask for when they’re conducting a sobriety test. This is the erratic track of people who are intoxicated. While rooms with a certain shape seem to affect patterns of movement, people make different choices and move differently. Some people like to turn left, others right; some people like to move in small increments along a wall, others to move across a room and back again. (With regard to people who move in opposite ways, I’ve always been impressed by how quickly my wife and I lose each other in a museum. Before cellphones, we would part ways in the first five minutes and it would often take two or three hours before we found each other again.)
- While most museum visitors would probably report they’ve looked carefully at art during their visit, in fact the looking time devoted to specific objects is often surprisingly brief. It’s often just two or three seconds, and seldom longer than 45 seconds. (If you asked them, they would probably say the time was much longer.)
- Different kinds of art seem to produce different patterns of movement. In the gallery of 17thand 18th century paintings, most visitors seemed to do a circuit of the room, moving from painting to painting. In the gallery with modern art, they tended to cross through the center of the room, looking first at what was on one wall and then what was on the opposite wall. While it would take a lot of study to isolate the key variables, even without knowing what they are, it’s clear that the movement of visitors is extraordinarily responsive to changes in the environment, including the placement of doorways and the arrangement of art.
- Even this quick study suggests that patterns of looking can be broken down into subsets. For example, in the 18th century gallery, women tended to move more regularly from one painting to the next, but to look at the individual paintings only briefly. Men tended to skip objects and follow a more erratic pattern of movement, but to stop for slightly longer when an object captured their attention. They also often chose vantage points farther away from the object. Not surprisingly, specific objects seemed to have particular appeal to particular groups. For example, a portrait by Benjamin West of his wife and child seemed to please middle-aged women, who often smiled. Men didn’t change their path or their expression.
With a larger body of data we could start to use the mathematical tools devised by physicists to analyze what was taking place. In the meantime, it’s rather fun to speculate about what Andrew has discovered so far. Perhaps recklessly, let me attempt to draw a few conclusions.
Writers about art museums and visiting art museums tend to be moralists. They’re distressed that museum-goers are looking in a “superficial” way—that they look too quickly, that they don’t really “see,” and that they don’t get much understanding from the experience. In a certain way, this preliminary study confirms this complaint. Indeed, it suggests that visitors look even more quickly than one would have thought.
Is this bad? I’m not sure. What strikes me is that museum-going seems to connect with very deep-rooted and “primitive” instincts. In fact, the way that patrons go through a museum is very similar to the way a hunter-gatherer would move through grassland or a forest or streambed or ocean shore, moving back and forth from scanning the whole environment to closing in on some interesting plant, mushroom or living creature. The process of visual recognition and assessment occurs quickly. Think of beachcombing and the curious way in which a shell or piece of beach glass in our peripheral vision can suddenly become the center of our focus. We stoop to pick it up almost before we’re aware that we’re doing so.
Curiously, it seems to me that the popularity of museums is connected with something that many curators probably view as a nuisance and problem: that the pathway of the viewer is difficult to control. Curators and exhibition designers sometimes spend a lot of time trying to arrange paintings in a logical historical order, but in fact, most viewers don’t seem to obey these sequences. They may skip over things or go through the sequence backward. Yet what’s interesting is that at some level I think the curatorial arrangement does matter a great deal and people who go through an installation backward are nonetheless aware that the objects have been placed in some sort of deliberate scheme of organization. Much of the fun of a museum, however, lies in the fact that we’re allowed to choose our own pathway. In essence, our movement through a gallery is a way of arranging these objects in an order of our own choosing.
Andrew’s lines tracing movement have a certain parallel with the time-motion studies of Frank Gilbreth (1868-1924) and his wife, Lillian (1878-1972). The Gilbreths noted that in manual work, such as bricklaying, some workers laid bricks both faster and more accurately than others—significantly, the faster workers also did a better job. They then devised a method of fastening lights to arms and hands of such craftsmen, and of using stop-motion photography to trace the pattern of their movements. The Gilbreths discovered that certain patterns of movement, as revealed by an arc of lights, produce better work.
Is there a pattern of movement that reveals more intense looking—that perhaps distinguishes the art connoisseur from the mere amateur? I suspect that there is, although its most desirable pattern is probably almost the opposite of what the Gilbreths learned to favor. The Gilbreths discovered that good craftsmen work smoothly, in clean, direct movement, with little wavering or hesitation. With museum viewing, on the other hand, I suspect that back-tracking and hesitation are good—at least in the sense that they indicate serious interest, a sort of closing-in on the object that’s being hunted or examined.
I’m conjecturing a good deal, I must confess, but the lesson of these diagrams, if I’m correct, is that looking at art is not merely a logical process but also harnesses some of our deepest and most primitive sensory instincts. We were designed as hunter-gatherers. Museums allow us to go back to these roots—to learn and explore in the way that’s most natural for us.
It was rare for most visitors to stop for long. Would it be better if viewers stood still and looked more carefully? My own feeling is both “yes” and “no.” It seems to me that one of the pleasures of museum-going is to rapidly compare objects with one another. But yes, it would be nice if viewers sometimes stopped to look at an object very closely—and of course this is what the most gifted art historians do. To do this kind of close looking, however—looking for an hour or more at a single object—often requires a good deal of knowledge about the process of painting and the work of a particular artist. I suspect it also requires something a bit peculiar: a sort of infatuation.
Visual processing is one of the most complex of mental operations and by some estimates takes up about a third of our thinking process, although we’re almost unconscious of what’s happening. Taking long looks at something surely doesn’t follow a single pattern. Sometimes, I suspect, it becomes a sort of reverie, similar to spiritual meditation. At other times, I would propose, it is intensely exploratory, and if we mapped our eye movements we would discover that they have the same sort of unpredictable pattern that we discover when we chart the path of visitors to a museum. With darting movements, our glance is ricocheting across the picture surface, quickly taking in the whole thing part by part and then, somehow, assembling all these fragments into a unified gestalt. In some strange way, the mind synthesizes different acts of sight to create a sort of composite. In other words, the hunter-gather instinct is still at work. Our eyes are not contemplative grazers; they’re active hunters on the prowl. For an experienced art historian, for the passionate “long looker,” a single painting has become a vast landscape, filled with individual objects of interest that need to be cornered, approached and investigated.
Let’s not pretend that wandering through a museum or looking at a work of art needs to be done in a logical or linear way. As hunter-gatherers, we’re designed to work differently. It’s all right to zigzag.
January 26, 2012
One of the most provocative exhibitions in the United States right now was organized by an institution that’s a bit off the beaten track: The Bone Creek Museum of Agrarian Art in David City, Nebraska. David City was the birthplace of the Regionalist painter Dale Nichols (1904-1995), and the Museum of Agrarian Art was founded just a little over three years ago when it acquired four paintings by him; it is still not an AAM accredited institution. This year the museum launched a major retrospective of the work of Dale Nichols, complete with a well-illustrated book-length catalog written by Amanda Mobley Guenther.
It’s impressive that such a small community has produced an ambitious exhibition and book of this scale, roughly on a par with those produced by America’s largest museums. More than that, the show shows the virtue of bringing new viewpoints into the discourse of art history, for seemingly without intending to do so—with seeming artlessness—the catalog explodes most of what we’ve been told about Regionalist American art of the 1930s and shows that we should take another look at what was actually going on.
Dale Nichols operated in a zone that was midway between “high art” of the sort exhibited in prestigious museums and calendar art and commercial illustration. He himself viewed his work and his calling in an extremely lofty light. He liked to think of himself as on a par with the great old masters, such as Caravaggio, and he also believed that he had special insights into the workings of the universe and thus was something of a prophet or seer. But Nichols also regularly worked in the sphere of practical commercial art, doing lettering and advertisements, and designing packaging. His paintings were regularly reproduced for advertising purposes on tin cans, plates and playing cards, by companies such as General Mills. In 1942 one of his winter scenes was even used for a U. S. postage stamp. Because of his close ties with the commercial world, some art critics would describe his work as kitsch.
While he did paint some other subjects, Nichols is best known for just one, which he painted in seemingly endless permutations: a red barn resting in a snowy field against an intensely blue sky, with a foreground containing figures engaged in traditional agrarian tasks, very often with a figure in a sleigh or wagon. It’s the sort of imagery one finds in the work of the 19th century American painter, George Henry Durie (1820-1863), although Dale Nichols handled the theme with a clarity of light and a simplicity of geometric shapes that’s more in the manner of Rockwell Kent (1882-1971), and it has a distinctly Art Deco feeling.
Nichols’s reputation reached its height quite early in his career, in the 1930s, the last decade when popular imagery of this sort also enjoyed the support of major art critics and museums. Then his reputation began a downhill slide. But recently his paintings have experienced something of a revival, if not among art historians at least among collectors, who have started paying large sums for his work.
The son of a farmer, Nichols performed back-breaking farm chores as a child and walked two miles to school. We don’t know how he decided to become an artist, but by the age of 20 he had landed in Chicago, where he attended the Chicago Academy of Art. Like many artists, he was not easy to teach, and his career as a student lasted only two months, though by the time it ended he had assembled a portfolio of his work and landed a job in an advertising agency, where his initial specialty was fine lettering. During his 15 years in the Chicago advertising business he seems to have worked in every possible angle of the trade, from lettering and illustration to package design.
Around 1933 he decided to embark on a career as a painter, and almost instantly he settled on the sort of red barn subject matter. In fact, he had been painting for less than a year when he produced what is still his best known work of art, End of the Hunt, 1934, which won an award from the Art Institute of Chicago and which was purchased in 1939 by the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York—then as now the most important museum in the United States—where it remains today.
For a few years, Nichols was viewed as one of the leading painters in America, a major figure of the Regionalist movement: in 1939, a dean at the University of Illinois declared that he “has already achieved a standing in art circles comparable with that of John Steuart Curry, Grant Wood, and Thomas Benton.” But Nichols’s career began to slip at that point, in part because Regionalism began to slip out of favor, and in part because the difficulties of his personal life made it difficult for him to settle down: Over the course of his career he had five marriages, some of them so brief their exact date and the full name of his partner is not known.
In the 1930s his center of his activity was Chicago, but in 1940 he moved to Arizona, where he adopted a cowboy persona, and supported himself as an art teacher. In 1948, he purchased about half the buildings in the town of Tubac, Arizona, to use as a campus for an art school that he named for himself, but this over-extended his resources and the venture lasted for only about a year. Throughout the 1950s he seems to have been in constant financial difficulties, and he became a roaming wanderer, moving from Brownsville, Texas, to New Orleans, to Marquette, Michigan, back to New Orleans, and finally to Biloxi, where he lived until 1960s, at one point making his home in a small yacht named Nefertiti harbored along the Wolf River. Yet somehow, no matter how down-and-out he might be, he never lost his immaculate look or sense of self-assurance. Photographs of him posing beside his boat might almost be confused for fashion illustrations.
In 1960 he moved to Guatemala, married a native woman, and supported himself in large part by making rubbings and drawings of Maya sculpture, which he sold both to tourists and to American archeology museums. During this period he founded a new intellectual specialty, which he called Psycho Symbolic Investigation Archeology, and wrote books with titles such as Pyramid Text of the Ancient Maya and Magnificent Mystery Tikal. These set forth his belief that he had discovered the secret code of ancient Maya writing and art: a sort of astrology based on the number nine, the day of birth, and the positioning of the sun and other stars and planets. He proposed that it would be applied to modern life as well, and created striking diagrams to assist modern users of his system. It’s not a document that Maya scholars take seriously.
After an earthquake in Guatemala disrupted life there, he became mobile again. In his later years he separated from his wife and moved repeatedly back and forth among California, Alaska and Nevada, where he attempted to start an art school. By the end of his life he was suffering from Alzheimer’s disease; he died of prostate cancer in 1997 in Sedona, Arizona.
In the course of these moves, Nichols turned for subject matter to the region where he was living at the time. In Arizona he painted scenes of the Southwest; in Guatemala he painted tropical jungle scenes. But throughout his life he continued to paint scenes of red barns in snow in a Nebraska-like setting, and to fiercely insist that he was the leading artist of Nebraska, a claim that often put him in conflict with other artists. His late barn scenes, executed in the 1960s, or even later, are almost indistinguishable from the first one, painted in 1934.
To a large degree his ideas about art were formed while working in print shops and advertising agencies in Chicago. Notably, he worked for a time for the printer and publisher R. R. Donnelly, which in 1930 published what has sometimes been described as the greatest American illustrated book: Rockwell Kent’s edition of Herman Melville’s Moby Dick. To his credit, Nichols seems to have recognized that Kent’s work had a strength and nobility that stood head-and-shoulders above anything else being produced around him. While sometimes responsive to other influences (such as the work of another very talented illustrator, Maynard Dixon), to a large degree Nichols modeled everything he did afterwards on Kent’s style. Indeed, in the summer of 1937 Nichols even made a trip to Alaska in emulation of Kent, who had spent a year there in 1918-19. The most notable traits of Nichols’ work—the clean lines, the clear sense of light and dark, the wonderful sense of design and proportion—are based on Kent.
For decades Regionalism has been dismissed as an essentially realistic, documentary mode of creating art, which consequently lacks any significant expressive or esthetic content. To cite phrases that are often used, it is “mere realism” or “conventional realism.”
In her catalog, Guenther shows that this assumption is completely incorrect as applied to the art of Dale Nichols. Actually, Nichols himself saw his art in an entirely different light. In a letter to his niece Ruth (the daughter of his brother Floyd) he stated: “Hell, Ruth, I’ve never painted a realistic painting in my life.” Nichols attributed the power of his art to what he called “applied psychology.” What he meant by this is sometimes difficult to figure out, but loosely speaking it seems to have meant that he saw his paintings as “symbolic.” His goal was to create forms filled with symbolism which would connect with the deepest truths of human existence, whether the workings of the universe or the inner mysteries of the Freudian unconscious.
Nichols’s paintings were not copies of any actual scene. He started with a set of geometric elements, which he moved around as if they were children’s blocks until he found the formal arrangement that satisfied him As he explained, in his idiosyncratic fashion, which sometimes takes more than one reading to understand:
I first compose my painting in an euphonious arrangement of rect-hedrons, tetrahedrons and spheroids, then relieve the resultant static effect by opposing line, adding textures, symbolic abstractions and certain fragmentations (following Freudian interpretations) in colors which relate to preconceived mood.
The word “rect-hedron,” of course, is a Nichols coinage. Incidentally, the above quotation, and the quote blocks that follow, all come from Guenther’s fine catalogue, one of whose best features is that it, in turn, quotes extensively and directly from Nichols’ writings.
Next, for Nichols, after this composing of forms, came the placement of a source of light—generally the sun. Central to his belief system was a devotion to “our galaxy of stars (of which our sun is one” which “forms the cosmic ocean of radiant energy on earth.” He believed that the unifying power of light was what filled his paintings with harmony and spiritual truth.
Of course he did eventually transform his geometric compositions into scenes that looked like red barns and other objects. But when he transformed his geometric blocks into “realistic” objects, he tried to paint them abstractly, in a way which expressed their inner reality, their spiritual essence. Thus, for example, when he painted a tree he tried to express the way in which it grows. And then he tried to go even further. He tried to connect with the deepest levels of the human brain. As he explained in a letter to his niece:
Now, what else can the tree do? Well, it can be forced into what is called a Freudian form to touch a “button” in the brain and make us feel again the warmth and security of mother: This extra liberty taken in the form of anything is called poetry.
In fact, beauty for Nichols was fundamentally an attribute of desire. He was fond of quoting the 17th century Jewish mystic, Baruch Spinoza: “We do not desire a thing because it is beautiful, but it is called beautiful if we desire it.” And for an understanding of desire, Nichols turned to a field of knowledge that was in active ferment in this period, Freudian psychology, with its focus on the unconscious, the subconscious and sexual desire.
Nichols’s interest in psychology appears to have been an outgrowth of his involvement with advertising. It was in this period that advertisers first became aware that subliminal, subconscious messages could play a major role in stimulating sales, particularly messages with a sexual content. Nichols believed that we respond to every object symbolically, that we see it in terms of metaphors, and in terms of the projections of our desire. The skillful artist should exploit this fact. Thus:
For example, the mountain is the most dramatic shape encountered by man. Man looks up to this pinnacled pile of rocks and feels its overwhelming power. He is conscious of its greatness over himself. It becomes a symbol of strength and stability. The basic shape of a mountain is triangular. To build the elements of a picture into a triangle is to put into the painting the awe-inspiring strength and stability of the mountain.
Seen in this light, a Nichols painting is the symbolic expression of human desire and of man’s relationship to the cosmic forces of nature. For Nichols his End of the Hunt of 1934 was not a painting of barns and snowy fields so much as it was an exploration of the mystical union of the male and female essence:
Foundations of building are at eye level for cathedral effect. Female curves in snowbanks, and other female symbols, especially in tracks and soft lines of snow on roofs and general shapes of trees, in the trees (buildings, of course, are also female) these give the charm of female appeal which is the strength of women. Also gives the picture gentle feeling of mother. The vertical lines of the man and his rabbit, including the trunks of the trees, are the strength of men, which is the theory of Havelock Ellis, English psychologist (studies the psychology of sex). Other gender symbols mentioned are Freudian. Also people tend to enjoy excavations, so I selected a farmyard with a hollow near the barn.
Of course, Nichols may have been misguided in his understanding of his art and of the reasons it had popular appeal. But then again, could it be that the strange appeal of a Nichols painting lies at this deeper level of expression?
Whatever one thinks of his art, the impulses that led him to make a painting are clearly very different from those which lead painters to create “mere realism”—they’re something much stranger. And this raises the larger question of whether Regionalism as a movement—the art of figures like Thomas Hart Benton and Grant Wood—can accurately be dismissed as “mere realism,” or whether it’s also something more complicated and peculiar.