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Monthly Archives: September 2008

Have you seen the new Sharp ad for their LCD television? Change your TV, change your life. I tried to imagine how this prophecy could be fulfilled…by getting a herniated disk from carrying it to your car? The sheer outrageousness of pairing consumption with life-changing transformation got my attention (normally we buy gum to have better breath or a Mustang car to pick up girls), so I visited the Sharp website where the spiritual thread continues: a cardboard cube hovers in outer space, accompanied by orchestral music. It looks like the beginning of a creation story and is a lot prettier than primordial soup (which I always picture as looking like split pea).

Then, you go from the creation story to baseball (is this a reference to Angels in the Outfield)? Click on play ball and you find objects hanging over an old-fashioned pitching machine and a baseball player ready for some practice. Here you get to see how hyper-realistic LCD technology is by watching the bat come into contact with different kinds of matter. You select one of the objects and drag it into the pitching machine. The red pepper is the most satisfying; there’s a crunching noise as the red flesh bursts into a thousand little pepper pieces off the bat. The saddest one is the festive Christmas ornament, just like grandma’s, that is shattered into shards of red glass – isn’t that downright un-American? The most disturbing one is the blue baby toy with a cute little smile on its face. If you select this one the batter rubs his hands in excitement before the toy is shot out of the machine. In all, the movements are very realistic, but the batter never adjusts his cup or spits, which takes the verisimilitude down one notch in my opinion.

I know that Sharp isn’t trying to be serious; you’d have to be daft to buy a TV and then wait for your life to change (though maybe there have been a few reports of people doing it). What makes this ad stand out is the transformative and spiritual dimension of its claim. It’s as if a bunch of executives are visited by the Holy Spirit during Pentecost like in a Medieval painting: they hear the slogan raining down on them in celestial voices: change your TV, change your life. Only the real slogan, infused with supreme knowledge, would no doubt be throw out your TV, change your life.

The other day when I wrote about Young Woman at an Open Half-Door I left out one of the main reasons this painting attracts me: the asymmetric face of its subject. In fact, I got to thinking about the portraits I like in the Art Institute and realized that at least two others have asymmetrical features: Rêverie (Portrait of Gabrielle Borreau) by Gustave Courbet and Alessandro de’ Medeci by Jacobo Carucci. Gabrielle is what one might call “belle laide” in French: her unusual features, bordering on unattractive, are what constitute her beauty. Alessandro looks as if he broke his nose in a brawl; the coarseness of his face combined with the softness of the painting make the young Medeci indescribably sexy.

My penchant for unbalanced faces made me wonder if people in general find them more attractive, so I did some research (read: went on-line) and found that I’m a weirdo: perfection is preferred to imperfection (duh). Symmetric faces are perceived as more honest, more desirable, prettier, and healthier. One crackpot study even said that people with symmetric faces had orgasms more often! Doesn’t Jean-Paul Sartre’s face combined with his endless womanizing effectively put the kabosh on that theory? I found blogs for people with asymmetrical faces. The posts of the symmetry-challenged are particularly poignant in that many of them say that no one else notices their “defect” and yet they hate their face; many are considering plastic surgery.

However, it turns out that the truly symmetric face does not exist. The term chimeric face refers to a computer-generated mug of perfect harmony. The concept is simple: a photo is divided down the midline, the left or right of the face is copied, and then the two identical sides are combined to make a totally symmetric face. They are unsettling to look at, if not downright creepy. Certainly there are faces in paintings that look almost perfect and there are people (usually women) who look so good you want to eat them: William Adolphe Bouguereau’s ladies were described as if they were made out of whipped cream. Nevertheless, the practice of painting gives us (thank goodness) plenty of portraits celebrating imperfection. This is in part explained by the very nature of portraiture and painting. John Berger has pointed out that the closest we get to putting our best face forward is unfortunately in the bathroom when we look at the mirror: we automatically adjust our face in order to see ourselves as we wish to be seen. When a painter paints, the subject is disarmed, he is without this corrective prop: he is painted not as he sees himself but as how he appears to others.

Finally, the act of painting is an act in time: the painter begins, continues, corrects (unless he is an impressionist and even they cheated!), and then, with any luck, finishes. The moment of painting one eye is unique from that of painting the other; one nostril is separated from the other not only by the columella but by brush strokes and time. Seen in this way it is logically impossible for a right eye to be an exact copy of the left (this impossibility in painting is not present in photography where the image of the sitter is mechanically and instantaneously reproduced).

We are indebted to portraits that show perfection in imperfection. Indeed, they provide a great antidote to our world of Photoshop, airbrushing, Tom Cruise, and those cute little Manga faces. Maybe the craniofacial asymmetric bloggers could benefit from a visit to their local museum before they undergo plastic surgery?

John Berger: “A Cloth Over the Mirror” in The Shape of a Pocket

I’ve been wandering through the rooms of European painting for almost two weeks now. I’ve talked to some interesting people, watched visitors (are they alone or in groups? spending time in front of a painting or walking by them as if they were in an aisle at Trader Joes?), and have had guards watching me, particularly in room 225, where my protracted visits and notetaking probably make me look as if I’m preparing a heist. A museum is, of course, “peopled” with people. Among them are visitors, custodians, docents, and guards. Then, there are the silent ones, the painted ones: the portraits.

This brings me back to room 225 and to a portrait called Young Woman at an Open Half-Door, painted by someone from Rembrandt’s workshop. The colors are typical of Rembrandt and his students: the overall composition is dark and the subject seems to slowly come out of the darkness as if by magic to greet you with quiet luminosity and graciousness. Do these subjects fade back into darkness after the museum closes? One would have to get locked into the museum (or carry out a heist!) to find out.

If you stare long enough at this painting your eyes become adjusted to the dark and inevitably end up on the young woman’s necklace. My guess is that the beads are carnelian – they are too warm to be garnets. Like many paintings, the color that arrests your gaze is echoed throughout other parts of the painting, spreading outward like ripples in a pond. In this painting, the same red is found on part of her sleeve, part of the door, and on her lips.

The necklace might have become the focal point for the painting had it not been for the young woman’s face. She is looking away from us, but not in a coy or shy way. It is as if she has just opened the top part of the door and has seen something suspicious that she wants us to see; she is showing us with her gaze. Is it a boy who has just stolen some milk? an old man bothering a young girl? or is it outside of the painting? a visitor on his cell phone? someone chewing gum? the flash of a camera? In many portraits there are the politics of voyeurism, but in this portrait her gaze makes me a partner in her vision game.

Finally, the painting, like many great works of art, is mysterious. We aren’t sure who she is, nor do we know who painted her or what she is looking at. On top of that, by dint of my scholarly research, I have located an odd appearance of this painting in the 1960s television series Bewitched. It seems that Young Woman at an Open Half Door strangely showed up in the living room of Derrin and Samantha! I may be one of the first to have discovered this part of the painting’s travels from Rembrandt’s workshop to the Art Institute in Chicago. In that case, maybe the young woman is trying to warn Samantha about the impending visit of her overbearing mother Endora!

For a chance to see the painting, click here or, better yet, visit room 225 at the Art Institute of Chicago.

Today I interviewed Lu-Hsiang Huang who is heading back to Taiwan today. Lu-Hsiang came here with a program I had never heard about: The Work and Travel Program. Foreign college students apply and if accepted get a J-1 visa for some nasty four-week summer job at $7.00 an hour (for Lu-Hsiang it was flipping burgers at a MacDonalds in Wyoming!). Then, with the money earned, they travel in the U.S. It’s a win- win situation for the American economy (cheap labor and then reinvestment in American tourism!), but it does make it possible for students to visit who otherwise would not have the means to come here – let’s just hope that their first contact with American culture wasn’t making Nike shoes at ten for fifteen cents an hour!

Lu-Hsiang had visited San Francisco, Las Vegas, the Grand Canyon, and was ending his trip in Chicago. He is a mechanical engineering student in Taiwan and doesn’t visit art museums much. I asked him to meet up with me after a few hours to tell me what paintings had appealed to him and why. We met at 2:30 in front of Seurat’s Grande Jatte (a group of thirty or so Japanese tourists were standing in front of it, I thought about taking a picture but decided that it was too much of a cliché to even appear real). Lu-Hsiang told me that he had been overwhelmed by Luca Giordano’s painting The Abduction of the Sabine Women. Not a favorite of mine. The painting is a veritable in-your-face Renaissance tornado of fighting, writhing figures; enough to make you sick and dizzy if you look at it too long. Lu-Hsiang wanted to know the story behind it. I’m such a color hedonist when it comes to painting that I forget many people are attracted to paintings because of the stories they tell. When I was in Chartres Cathedral this summer I spent most of the time saying, “Wow, look at the blue!” like I was on some LSD trip while my friends spent the afternoon peering through binoculars to study the artistic rendering of the biblical stories. Anyhow. I explained to Lu-Hsiang that the Roman men needed women to breed with so they invited the Sabines, a neighboring group of people, to a festival and then abducted the ladies to make them future Roman citizens (and moms). He wasn’t too satisfied with the answer and then told me that it had made such an impression on him because it reminded him of 9/11. Wow. I was totally unprepared for that one. I asked him why and he said that it was because of the struggle and also because the buildings were destroyed.

I went back to the painting after we said goodbye, feeling all goosebumpy and looked at it. There were absolutely no destroyed buildings. If anything, the buildings are eerily stable and eternal, giving us the message that despite struggles, despite shifting populations, we can somehow count on the presence of buildings and (by extension) the creations of man – the antithesis of 9/11. I was about to walk away but I wanted to understand Lu-Hsiang’s opinion and reaction, so I stood there looking at the painting for awhile. The painting is organized on a center vertical axis by one of the Sabine women whose leg is wrapped around her captor and whose face is coiling away from him (talk about a mixed message!). The painting depicts the “union” of opposites: men and women, the opalescent color of the Sabines with the swarthy color of the Romans, the eternity of the Roman world (its architecture) and the ephemeral nature of life. And then I saw it. Framing the central Sabine woman, two big, white columns. Columns that have such a feeling of permanence that one imagines them still to be there (perhaps with a pizza vendor in front of them). There is a diaphanous cloth connecting the two, which made me think of Philippe Petit’s logic-defying tight rope walk between the towers in 1974.

Lu-Hsiang thought he saw destroyed buildings. In fact, he saw buildings that look unassailable. Isn’t that what so many people felt about the World Trade Center? Certainly the people of Dresden must have felt it too. And the people of New Orleans. Don’t we all feel it about our homes, despite the fact that in so many war zones today people see the landscape that they trust destroyed in a moment? It is this human characteristic (faith or folly?) that keeps us going despite setbacks, that keeps people going despite tragedy, and that kept Sisyphus going up the hill with that damn rock. I wish Lu-Hsiang luck in his studies! I hope that he sticks to mechanical engineering. Something tells me he wouldn’t be so good in structural engineering…

Last night I went to a members’ event at the Art Institute, my new home-away-from-home. James Cuno, the director, spoke about the new wing (the largest addition ever in the history of the Art Institute) which is scheduled to open May 16, 2009. The design (Renzo Piano, architect) is impeccable: an open building that looks out onto Chicago’s Millennium Park and whose overall style refers to the classicism of the original building while at the same time screams (in an oh-so-refined-way) “modern”. The only part I’m not crazy about is the bridge connecting the park and the museum. The bridge is planned to be a sort of funnel so that visitors to the park are lured into the museum and become viewers of great art. I love pretty much any subversive idea, so the vision of a group of people suddenly finding themselves in the ticket area of an awesome museum just when they were about to go have a brewskie is wonderfully strange in an almost sci-fi sort of way. However, I have to disagree with Mr. Cuno’s description of the bridge as a “gossamer thread”. To me it looks more like a tube at a water park which, now that I think about it, might make a visit to the museum in the summer even more fun: you could get wet in the Crown Fountain and then be swept away in the water tube toward the museum; there could even be a final slide into the entrance at the end! Of course, the only problem is how to get dry for the visit…

Finally, a whole paragraph needs to be devoted to Mr. Cuno who is cute, funny, engaging, enthusiastic, incredibly smart, and warm. Last night he had a sincere connection with the audience and spoke to them, not down to them. Where were the likes of Mr. Cuno when I was in a fancy-pants graduate school where academics spoke in a hushed tones about Derrida, had dour looks on their faces, never returned papers, had petty fights with colleagues, and were helpful only to the graduate students who slept with them? I might have finished my Ph.D. (which my father called “piled higher and deeper”, referring, I think, to bullshit)!

Yesterday was my first day at the Art Institute of Chicago. My plan is to go there three or four days a week to observe paintings and people looking at paintings. Several subjects interest me (more about those later), but one above all preoccupies me: what kinds of experiences do people have in front of paintings? What shapes their experiences? What kind of prior experience do people bring with them to museums? How do they apply this to how they observe painting? What can we as teachers (or art historians or parents) do to foster deep experience at museums? For this kind of experience ultimately permeates the experiences we have with ourselves, with others, and with the world. (This last statement is so bombastic that it makes me wince, but think of how a beautiful sky is deeply experienced by some people and not looked at by others. For some it makes their day a little less stressful, a little more meaningful. For others it is a reason to put on their sunglasses!)

I met a woman yesterday who was visiting the Art Institute for the first time; she had come to town for the Jazz Festival and her sister told her she would enjoy the museum. She was in the “check bag” line at the same time as me, asking the fellow working there how to turn off the flash on her digital camera. I asked her if we couldn’t meet two hours later so that she could tell me about her visit and she accepted.

What jumped out at me the most (other than the fact that I was ill-prepared to interview someone, I pretty much sucked!) was that she used exactly the same adjective for the four paintings that had made an impression on her: they were “nice”. How? What about them was nice? She didn’t know, they were just nice. Really nice. Now, I am not putting into question at all the experience of this person (who was kind enough to talk to a total stranger who wears (no!) patchouli about her personal encounter with painting). What I am wondering is if impoverishment of language can in any way limit a person’s experience? “Nice” as a word doesn’t have any descriptive powers. It is, like, “like”. In fact, isn’t it a bit like “interesting”? Both words can be used for almost anything, including things that are actually devoid of “nice” and “interest” when the interlocuter wants to be (hah!) “nice”.

I don’t know very well the protocol of blogdom (I’m totally new). I have a feeling that this “post” might be reaching treatise proportions, so I’m signing off with a question and a thought. First the question: does impoverishment of expression influence in any way impoverishment of experience? Second, the thought: it is taken from Wittgenstein’s Remarks on Colour. He says, “To observe is not the same thing as to look at or to view. […] One observes in order to see what one would not see if one did not observe.” Does observation depend on (one could look at it the other way and say elicit) deeper language?

Your comments, please!