Click image below for more "still life"

Click image below for more "still life"
Francis Cunningham "Three Baldwin Apples" (1964) Oil on linen 5'' x 16''

Friday, March 5, 2010

Further Thoughts on the Nude: The Relationship of the Contemporary to the Classical (Part 2/3)

Continues from part 1
                     Francis Cunningham Mimi Scherb (1971) oil on linen 50 x 32 in.

Returning to what is necessary in the making of an anatomically functional nude, you will need not one station-point, as with the conventional camera, but many, as in motion pictures or video. The difference is that in painting and sculpture multiple station-points are incorp
orated in one image in which the eye of the viewer does the moving whereas in motion photography multiple station-points occur by means of many images over time. In painting the life-sized figure, John Singer Sargent said you must draw it as if it were a mile away and paint it as if you were on top of it. That is because seen from a mile away (infinite distance) the parts of the body appear in their actual proportional relationships without visual distortion, whereas the color-value relationships that express the body’s forms only can be seen from close up.

Francis Cunningham Dancer - Regina (2003-04) oil on linen 77 x 54 in.

The way the artist overcomes this apparent incongruity – the body viewed simultaneously from a mile away and close up – is by employing multiple station-points in drawing or sculpting the figure. This is done by changing horizon lines and moving to the left or right of the principal vertical axis, so as to communicate the actual proportional relationships of the parts of the body one to another. It is a process that cannot be accomplished by measurement alone; it requires from the artist in addition to seeing, knowledge, and above all, empathy. The body has to feel right, and if it feels right it is right.
                                     Francis Cunningham Jeff (with skull) (1985) oil on linen 66 x 58 in. Private Collection

Francis Cunningham Sharon (with pelvis) (1986) oil on linen 76 x 56 in.

With measurement – the pencil held at arm’s length or the caliper – as with every other aspect of painting or sculpture, if you look uncomprehendingly at nature to provide answers to the questions you pose you will not find them. The process of transcribing and presenting multi-dimensional experience onto a flat surface or into a block of stone, plaster or bronze is man-made and has no counterpart in nature.  
        What Sargent did not have in his painting vocabulary was the complete abandonment to visually observed color-value developed by Charles Hawthorne (1872-1930) and taught by Edwin Dickinson (1891-1978) to all of us who studied with him.
                                                                     Charles Hawthorne The Italian Girl (1910) 20 x 16 in.
                                 Edwin Walter Dickinson Sheldrake Winter (1929) 29.9 x 25 in.

Within this training, what continues to be the subject of discovery and exploration for me is the fact that observed color-spots will create tangible sensations of three-dimensional form and space. The reason for this, I believe, is not difficult to discern. Our eyes are extraordinarily sensitive in discriminating among the differences in tone, both far away and close up.
Looking out over a valley several miles away we can tell the difference in greens between a stand of pine and a stand of hemlock, a stand of white ash and a stand of maple. In nature the color-spots which the artist will abstract, appear to lie in space. They are waiting to be seen, their relationships to be abstracted and, as color-spots, placed on the flat surface of the canvas. Through these observed color-values space is described and we are drawn into that space. 
                                            Francis Cunningham Limestone Farm, Sheffield  (1973) 32 x 50 in.

              On the other side of the coin, close up, the perceived color-spots appear to lie on three-dimensional forms. Onto the flat surface of the canvas the artist abstracts the relationship of these color notes, duplicating in painting the information the eye needs to perceive three-dimensional form. 
                                                               Francis Cunningham (work in progress March 2010)
Like black magic, these perceived color-spot relationships on the canvas communicate sensations of sculptural form. Bernard Berenson referred to such ideated sensations of form as tactile values, considering them along with movement and space composition, to be at the forefront of qualities essential to the figure arts.
We have today a tool for creating sensations of form and space that has hitherto only been hinted at in Western painting. To be sure, working with the changing light of out-of-doors makes the painting process more complex in landscape than in the studio, but not impossible. 
Sheridan Lord Landscape, Autumn (1974) 40 x 70 in. The Parrish Art Museum, Bequest of Joseph Fox

Compare distant space in a contemporary painting with how space is achieved in the Mona Lisa, in which it is suggested by conventional means – darker and clearer in the foreground, atmospherically more blue-gray and lighter as the distance recedes. Space is not continuous – there are in Renaissance art, zones of space – foreground, middle ground, background. 

                            Raphael, Alba Madonna, oil on panel transferred to canvas, c. 1510 (National Gallery of Art, Washington D.C.)
You are looking through a window. From the Venetian painters through the 19th century, with occasional passages of what might be called color-spot painting in the precursor plein-air painters including Corot and the Impressionists, the means for creating sensations of space have been primarily conceptual and a matter of convention – perspective, scale, overlapping planes, contrasting masses of tone – not observed color-value. Observation, with the Impressionists, passed through the prism of a particular way of representing the effects of light, as conventional in its own way as is the perspectival space of the Renaissance. 
                                          Francis Cunningham Chime Knife and Barking Spud (1970) oil on linen 28 x 44 in.
 Let us not forget that space is a property of nature which we all experience and which is there to be dealt with, deep or shallow. With still life the actual depth of space may be no more than two feet.
Francis Cunningham Highwood (1985) 50 x 86 in. Private Collection.

      I have discovered empirically that one can read space in a color-spot landscape or still life at a greater distance from the painting than in European paintings of the past. I have been a hundred yards from a large landscape canvas, still able to comprehend its space, whereas at this distance a painting in earlier techniques would read as a piece of colored cloth.
Francis Cunningham Moment  (1989 and 2004) oil on linen 108 x 78 in.
      With the nude it is the same. One can be at a distance of one hundred feet and more and the forms of the life-sized nude will read like sculpture. At this distance the sculptural qualities of an actual human being would not be apparent for they are dependent on perceptible halftones which in nature are confused or lost at such a distance. In the nature, the figure would appear to the eye as blobs of color, as in an Impressionist painting. What is the significance of this? We may be reminded that the distance from floor to ceiling in the Sistine Chapel is 65 feet and that to make his figures intelligible, Michelangelo had to enlarge them in scale, using Florentine methods of coloration then current in order to make his shapes discernable.
There are occasionally passages of what constitutes color-spot observation in Velasquez and Eakins, but as with the plein-air landscapists these are incidents within a conventionalized whole. With Velasquez, granted the acuity and detachment of his observation, the conventions he uses are those of Baroque painting. 
                                                            Velazquez Luis de Gongora y Argote (1622)

With Eakins one may say much the same; his conventions are those of Gérôme’s studio.
Any and all of these assertions should be tested empirically, as I have done with my own life-sized nudes, landscape and still life, and to a lesser extent with those of others. Specifically, I have placed my work alongside several American 19th century landscape paintings as well as portraits by Chester Harding, examining viewing distances with regards to the intelligibility of form and space. But most convincingly, in a lifetime of teaching I have watched the values of form and space emerge from the color-spot paintings of beginners. 
                                              Francis Cunningham Karen (1972-73) oil on linen 60 x 26 in. Private Collection.
Next Part 3 of 3

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