Monday, October 20, 2008

The Big Three

The enduring subjects of art are three: the figure, the landscape, and the still life. It may be possible to assign any given image to at least one of these categories. For instance, Jenny Holzer’s truism, “action causes more trouble than thought” refers to the human condition, and falls into the category of figurative art. Tomma Abt’s abstractions are landscape-based, as are Mondrian’s. Joseph Beuys’ great Lightning with Stag in Its Glare at MassMOCA, is a still life that incorporates by allegory both the landscape and the figure.

I’ve often wondered what makes these subjects so compelling, and as I continue to read Yi-Fu Tuan’s Space and Place – see the Oct. 6 blog – I’ve come to realize where their appeal lies. Figurative art is always the mirror ourselves, our humanity, and our compassion or lack thereof. The visions of Goya and Banksy belong here, as do Monet’s odalisques and Elizabeth Peyton’s portraits. But those are easy ones. It’s harder to articulate why we find landscape painting so compelling. A scene is just a scene, but a really good landscape painting evokes longing for the unknown, a world we are ultimately unable to become part of even with the aid of one-point perspective. A Canaletto seems to invite us in, but into a landscape that moves away from us in time and in distance. Caspar David Friedrich’s horizons are always far off, his sea is boundless, our boats too small. Conversely, a still life is intimate. We get the point immediately, and how lovely to possess a rose that never fades, a table always set, an apple always ripe. How satisfying to contemplate a Hopper house, to have the tank filled at a Ruscha service station.

Confusion sets in when one considers that some landscapes offer a glimpse of the intimate and the familiar, and so have the same appeal as still lifes. Thomas Kinkade’s smarmy cottage scenes come to mind, as do generic lighthouse paintings. These set up longing of a different kind, longing for art that will fit nicely in the home, perhaps, and longing that can be indulged in without pain. Conversely, Dutch still lifes are reminders of life beyond the grave. To dwell on the insect-nibbled peach is to have a glimpse not only of sin, but also of the fact that the wages of sin are death.

Confusion is resolved, though, in a great artist like Van Gogh, in whose singular paintings we see all three subjects: our selves reflected back by a starry night, infinity in a vase of roses, and timeless familiarity in the postman’s face.

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