Unreal Nature

February 16, 2017

Stratified Spaces

Filed under: Uncategorized — unrealnature @ 5:44 am

… [Monet’s] is the ocean of the vacationist, the tourist, but above all of the holiday …

This is from Worldview in Painting — Art and Society by Meyer Schapiro (1999):

… Painting has been an art of representation and, as such, of selected themes interesting to the artist. It therefore rests on a more or less explicit judgment of what is significant or valuable to him in objects and experiences; it exhibits a point of view, his ideas and feelings. Moreover, in representing objects the painter introduces an order among them; he imposes schematas; his picture of beings and things is also a habitual construction in a coherent style, with definite properties that may be chosen arbitrarily or in approximation to what is regarded as most characteristic or typical in the structure of bodies; it implies a widely held general aesthetic theory about what makes for the order, completeness, and harmony of the whole.

[ … ]

… We shall now consider landscapes that are not to be understood through texts and that have a more personal, often lyrical side — the landscape as an individual expression, a perception of nature, independent of a preexisting literary content. Our interpretation of such a work is based, to a large degree, on aesthetic components, as well as on the factual, concrete elements of the landscape. The choice of site, of season, the time of day, the moment, the dimensions, the light, the colors, the texture of the painting, and “execution” — all these enter into the meaning and expressive qualities of the landscape.

[line break added] Here we make no strict distinction between the forms, the ideas, and the meanings; the ideas are not only the explicit ones that can be put into words, but — thought I am embarrassed to say this so categorically — there are also implicit ideas, a disposition of the artist toward a particular set of values, what is vaguely called his outlook, or Weltanschauung, his mode of conceiving nature generally, though linked, of course, with behavior, with habit, and with response to situations.

Caspar David Friedrich, Monk Before the Sea, 1808-10

We see several pictures of the same theme — the ocean — on which we have a large body of poetic and prose texts from the nineteenth century. The first example is the painting of Caspar David Friedrich, a German Romantic, where, viewing the immensity of sky and water, stands a solitary central figure. He is in black, a monk in costume; his bald spot, a small white point, is contrasted with the vast extension of matter — as in Descartes’s philosophy where spirit is located as a point in a little gland and is held to be irreducible to matter, as extension, which it confronts in thought and which is able to activate.

[line break added] The monk is isolated on the pedestal of the earth, a cold zone, without vegetation, the bare elemental, primordial, inorganic earth. He faces the ocean as a darkness out of which rise in the distance, from the horizon, the clouds that become lighter and lighter. The whole upper stratum of the picture is luminous. One can interpret the painting in terms of a spiritualistic conception, God or spirit manifesting itself in nature through light. Spirit apprehends Divine Spirit, its source, which permeates nature; the material body culminates in mind, as the material world in the celestial light.

Gustave Courbet, The Sea, 1865 or later

Compare that landscape with Courbet’s picture of the ocean. Here, too, are distinct strata of earth, water, and sky; a little boat in the distance shows that man can venture on this immense void, but the foreground is strewn with great rocks, the signs of historical natural catastrophes, movements of the earth. The water is not a still darkness; its gigantic waves advance toward one, the clouds, too, are in motion — massive, heavy; and the light that seems to emerge from them is on a slanting line, unlike the horizontal lines of the waves, but more related to the rocks, which are peaked like the clouds. This conception corresponds, we may say, to Courbet’s avowed materialism.

[line break added] I don’t mean materialism in the sense of selfish interest or concern with money; it is materialism in the philosophical sense, the belief that substance is the only existent and has varied forms. It is the materialism of the scientist and of Spinoza, who speaks of God as substance; among the attributes of substance at a certain level of articulation or complex development emerge thought and feeling. In contrast to the thin painting of Friedrich, Courbet applies the paint very thickly and loves the textures that simulate flesh, hair, fur, foliage, wood, cloth, water, sand, earth as substances.

Claude Monet, Garden at Sainte Adresse, 1867

… In contrast to both Friedrich and Courbet, is an Impressionist view of the ocean — Monet’s picture … of the harbor of St. Adresse, outside of Le Havre; Monet’s family, his father and others sit in the foreground, enjoying the scene; there is nothing here of the philosophical mood of either Courbet or Friedrich, no suggestion of mystical illumination and divine presence, the moment of apprehension of spirit through light in an oceanic void.

… The water is enlivened by the movement of the dozens of boats and the puffs of smoke in the distance; the sea, too, is a human space for multiplied pleasures, for stimulation of the senses; the distinct sky, water, and earth are unified through common notes of bright color, elements of gaiety and charm. It is the ocean of the vacationist, the tourist, but above all of the holiday, the occasion of rest and joyous contemplation of the surroundings.

Claude Monet, The Port Coton “Pyramids,” 1886

… When Monet painted the ocean without human figures, as in his later views at Belle-Île, he fixed upon the great rocks and the water dashing against them. It is a more picturesque conception of the ocean as inhabited by the rocks, which are like outcroppings of the earth within the ocean. Sea and earth, through color and light, seem continuous, unlike the stratified spaces of both Friedrich and Courbet, and in that respect are nearer to Monet’s view of Saint Adresse.




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