Unreal Nature

June 16, 2015

Made To Serve in a Definite Way

Filed under: Uncategorized — unrealnature @ 5:43 am

… If motivated by the “play impulse,” a vigorous imagination would rekindle the legendary innocence and pleasure witnessed in “primitive” work …

Continuing through Renegade Regionalists: The Modern Independence of Grant Wood, Thomas Hart Benton, and John Steuart Curry by James M. Dennis (1998):

… [In his A-B-C of Aesthetics (1927)] Stein saw a good picture as “something that one looks into, but … keeps out of.” Whether an interior or exterior, its subject matter must constitute a “composed abstraction,” with some degree of distortion imposed upon “inventorial things.” Petals, leaves, and stems, for example, must unite across the surface as active components of a work. Whereas success in flat composition was quite common, a true painting, as opposed to an anecdotal illustration or stenciled pattern, must also be rhythmically arranged into a cohesive spatial order. The key to everything else is the “compositional relation of depth to the flat plane of the picture surface.” Diagonal (that is, perspective) planes should reciprocate with transverse planes, “like the successive layers of scenery on the stage.”

A picture could, in fact, be conceived as made up of transverse planes like successive layers of theater scenery, in which the object would be to emphasize the intervals, rather than, as in naturalistic stage scenery, to blend and so obscure them. These transverse planes are the means for creating a series of intervals and therefore for producing rhythmic movement in the deep dimension of the picture.

Grant Wood, Stone City, Iowa, 1930

… The rhythmically related intervals in Wood’s breakthrough painting of 1929, Black Barn, followed by those of his oil study for Stone City, Iowa, maintain a continuous back-and-forth movement, what Stein calls a “rhythmic throwback to the frontal plane.”

Grant Wood, Spring Turning, 1936

Stein also stressed a trait that Batchelder discussed as good “curve sense.” Wood eventually applied it in such later landscapes as his great, green stretch of a painting, Spring Turning and in the rather vertiginous drawing of the same year, Plowing. In their wide-open expanses of space, the broad surfaces of undulating, earth-mother groundswells acquire decorative patches of warm brown soil at the hands of the plowmen. The painter, with the lasting encouragement of his foremost teacher and the theoretical approval of a contemporary critic, amplified and manipulated visual information that to him might have seemed too familiar. Surrounding “hill country becomes transformed,” abstracted beyond the picturesque:

The lines are made to serve in a definite way instead of rolling accidentally. By moving the pictorial planes backward and forward, masses are flattened or developed at will. The plasticity of natural materials is in fact almost infinite, if only one has learned to mould them [Stein].

Batchelder stressed the “curve of force,” or, to borrow John Ruskin’s term, the “infinite curve,” as expressive of growth, a sign of fecund vitality. If motivated by the “play impulse,” a vigorous imagination would rekindle the legendary innocence and pleasure witnessed in “primitive” work and in the work of medieval craftsmen. Romantic historicism aside, it was arguably a play impulse that activated the dynamic curve sense in Wood’s major pictures.

Grant Wood, March, 1940

Wood superimposed streamlined compositions over his system of “thirds,” an intricate grid pattern of precisely drafted verticals and horizontals intersected by diagonals. … Through exaggerations of man-made angles and rounded topography, it stylized the inherent nature of even the most desolate segments of eastern Iowa farmland into an appealing abstraction.


My most recent previous post from Dennis’s book is here.




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