|“For soule is forme,
and doth the bodie make.”Herbert Spenser,
‘Hymne in Honour of Beauty’, 1596
Understanding a Painting
Understanding a painting is an intellectual experience; caring about one is emotional. Both dispositions are necessary to fully grasp what a particular work is about.
To know and love a work makes its own demands on one’s thoughts and emotions. Perhaps to fully comprehend a painting a viewer must have knowledge, but to cherish it, passion is enough.
Too often viewers attempt to fit a work of art into some preexisting category. They try to define it in terms of art history. They often throw up an academic barrier between themselves and the art instead of experiencing the work themselves. In truth, to entirely understand a painting the viewer must call upon his or her intellect, but nothing should stand in the way of caring.
On Looking at Paintings
A viewer must not fail to regard and grasp the inner truth of the work, to feel its spirit. To do this the viewer can allow the intimate yet universal virtues of the subject matter — sunrise over the ocean, woods in twilight, still life with antique vase — act as a starting point for deeper feelings evoked by the abstract features of the painting — such as composition, color and value.
Paintings must be felt to be understood; their worth is in the reaction of the beholder. In fact, success exists in the minds of those who have beheld the painter’s work, who have felt its spirit.
Appreciating a Painting over Time
The first impression of a painting is only preparatory to a deeper response that evolves over time with continued contemplation. The true worth of a great painting becomes clear only with repeated study. In part, this comes from the viewer1s seeking out and sharing the emotion of the painter when he or she created the work.
Figurative Work, the Nude
One of the painter’s chief missions has always been to depict the human form. Few painters have not attempted to measure their talents against the technical difficulties of the nude and its shrouded mystery and emotion.
Nudes are arduous because of the required integration of form, line, mass, color, and luminosity. They are emotional and mysterious because the naked form viewed as a whole is a microcosm of life. There is nothing more sacred to us. Even our Gods are in human form.
Albrect Durer believed that the harmony of the classical nude did not depend on a set of rules but on a state of mind. But the nude is at once noble and base. If It is a female, then it is, perhaps, a symbol of creation, sacred, or, erotic. If it is a male, it is a symbol of primal urge, ecstasy, energy, pathos, physical strength.
In composition, the nude becomes central. If it is merely precise, it is frigid. If the remembrance reveals the beloved, or shows unrequited desire and suffering, then the painting is warm. The soul must always guide outward form, however magnificent that form. It is not, then, the literal rendering of a studio model but the reverence for the human figure that makes the nude succeed. The nude is more than a summons for desire, and it is not artificial but alive — an echo of the love of humankind.
Paint with Spirit
The painter must show spirit in his or her work. He or she must be bold, not only in color but in response to the subject at hand. He or she must lose the fear of being wrong and making a mistake — oil paint can always be scraped off, changes painted over.
The painter must not merely paint nice-looking pictures, nor feature the factual likeness of things; he or she should paint the dream, the poetry, the essence of nature, the spirit.
To risk another dictum: a painting is a statement of the painter’s grasp of the worth and loveliness of a subject. It has the power to broaden the lives of its viewers by sharing the aesthetic encounter of the scene as well as the soul of the painter.