Sunday, 29 April 2012

Punctum: Dujardin & Dietricy

What is punctum and how does it arise in imagery?

Before discussing the importance of punctum as a concept in the visual arts, I wish to clarify my use of this term as the meaning of the word has been enriched beyond its dictionary definition by the influential theorist Roland Barthes in Camera Lucida (1980). From a personal standpoint, the term “punctum” describes the effect of an element in a composition that functions as a psychological catalyst in the viewer’s storehouse of memories and associations in communicating a pivotal meaning. There is a difference, however, between this effect and a Proustian experience where a catalyst provides a metaphorical jumping board to past memories. For instance, if an artist wished to convey the vulnerability of a lost child in a forest, the imagery may feature a jagged rock juxtaposed beside the child’s body so that a viewer would recognise and intuitively sense the child’s predicament based on the viewer’s past experiences. In this simple example the focus on a sharp rock abutting the child’s skin is the punctum—the catalyst element—that conveys the meaning of imminent danger underpinning the illustration. Of course, most artists would use the centre-of-interest as the critical point for the catalyst in expressing meaning, but there is more to punctum than ensuring that the eye has a point of fixation to gaze upon. The following discussion will address two approaches employed by artists to generate punctum: the first is to engage a viewer with reflexive responses; the second is to engage a viewer in a reflective visual dialogue between contrasting pictorial elements
As an example of the first approach, let me propose how Karel Dujardin (discussed in an earlier post regarding drawing sheep’s’ legs) engages the viewer of his etching Shepherd behind a Tree (shown below) in a reflexive response (i.e. his treatment of the imagery bypasses the viewer’s conscious rationalisation of the portrayed scene so that the viewer reacts instinctively to what is represented). On first glance this image of a cow and two sheep quietly resting on the ground while a shepherd politely relieves himself behind a tree—assuming that is what he is doing-—is a conceptually unchallenging moment in everyday bucolic life. But after this initial cursory overview, the eye—certainly my eye—becomes fixated on analysing the urinating figure’s facial expression to determine what he may be thinking (see detail of his face further below). Of course, not all viewers may be equally riveted to reading the shepherd’s facial expression. Moreover I am sure that some viewers may even be revolted. But for those that are fixated on examining where the figure is looking and senses the very real awkwardness of being a voyeur to such a scene, this automated response from our animal past is the element of punctum underpinning and giving meaning to the image.

Karel Dujardin (c.1622–1678)
Shepherd behind a Tree, 1656
Etching on laid paper
13.7 x 18.4 cm (plate); 16.2 x 24.9 cm (sheet)
Third state (of three) with the top 3 cm of the copper plate removed including Dujardin’s signature and date in the sky at upper left.
Bartsch 1.23.1 (178); Hollstein 23

Condition: Rich impression without foxing or other blemishes. There  a previous collector ink stamp on verso and conservator hinges. 
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Detail of the shepherd

Whereas in the first approach the viewer has little conscious control over a reflexive response generating punctum (i.e. a catalyst like the shepherd’s facial expression capturing attention to reveal an underpinning truth about an image) the second approach is more problematic. Here a viewer experiences the mercurial state of punctum by reflecting on visual dialogue between elements in a composition to arrive at the moment of “ah-ha.” This means that the viewer must be in the right mindset to initially recognise two features in the imagery that are linked by variables such as shape, form, and treatment and to then reflect upon this relationship to arrive at the moment of understanding.
As an example of the second approach, I wish to discuss the curious etching, Heiliger Wilhelm (see below), by Dietricy (the more common name for Christian Wilhelm Ernst Dietrich [1712–74]). The subject of this print is engaging to contemplate: St. William is shown lying on his back against a rock with his upraised arms tied by the wrists to a tree. My fascination, however, is not so much with the circumstance that led to poor St. William being bound. Instead, my eyes are drawn to the relationship between the parallel angle of his bent leg and raised arms to the same angle made by a small tree dangling from the cliff face above (see detail further below). Although my moment of punctum is a personal experience in which I see the dangling form of the tree as metaphorically embodying St William’s plight—a fate laced with a note of spiritual transcendence—this arrangement of subject matter is not accidental and I would be surprised if other viewers did not share my awakening based on the compositional arrangement.

Christian Wilhelm Ernst Dietrich (more commonly known as Dietricy) (1712–1774)
Heiliger Wilhelm, 1760
Etching on laid paper
18.4 x 14 cm (plate); 19.2 x 14.9 cm (sheet)
Linck 161 iii
From the collection of Ernst Fabricius (Lugt 847 and 919 ter) and two other unknown collections (not in Lugt)

Condition: strong impression with minimal margins and light wear. Collectors’ stamps and pencil inscriptions from past collectors on verso
I am selling this print for $175 AUD including postage and handling to anywhere in the world. Please contact me using the email link at the top of the page if you have any queries or click the “Buy Now” button below.

Verso of Heiliger Wilhelm, 1760
detail of Heiliger Wilhelm, 1760
detail of Heiliger Wilhelm, 1760

For instance, beyond the relationship of shared parallel angles between the saint and the dangling tree, the notion of visual dialogue between the downward angled shrub and the saint is also sustained by the literally pointing limb of the tree to which St William is tied. Even the notion of spiritual transcendence may be experienced by the change in drawing style from a refined mimetic style rendering the saint and the tree to which he is bound upward to the much freer return-stroke (i.e. a zigzag motion of mark making) rendering the dangling tree and its immediate surroundings. This transition from bottom-left to upper-right is a perfect example of a shift through the pictorial zones from temporal to spiritual, as discussed in the earlier post about the Foote, Cone and Belding Grid.

Sunday, 22 April 2012

Female perception: Delasalle

What are the attributes of a female’s view of landscape?

Whenever a discussion moves to the topic of what constitutes women’s art, most sensitive (and sensible) folk know that a change of subject is necessary and required quickly. In short, the topic verges on taboo; a bit like chatting idly about religion and politics around the dining room table. While not disregarding that any discussion of what constitutes a female’s view of landscape is problematic—even more so when an answer is being proposed by a man—the question is not really about a how women see the landscape so much as the differences in women’s vision to the way men look at landscape. After all defining most problems involves comparison with what something is not. But before I set forth on what must be shaky ground of political correctness, I need to make my position regarding the following discussion very clear: my views are based solely on personal experience and reflection as a teacher. They are not the outcome of formal research and fact-finding missions. Instead, I see the following “answers” as an initial framing of ideas—very raw beginnings—and platforms of departure for future formal investigations into feminine ways of looking.

Let me begin by focusing attention on the passionate French painter-printmaker, Angele Delasalle (1867–1941). As shown in her etching, Montigny-Beauchamp (1907) (see below), Delasalle’s portrayal of landscape reveals an artist who has a well-formed personal perception of her subject. This is expressed in part by the uncompromising confidence of her line work with its signature style of freely laid and looped strokes that are clustered in shadow areas and spread out in the light. Delasalle’s perception of landscape is also expressed by the consistency of her approach: a type of pictorial democracy where no individual landscape feature is treated differently to the next. By this I mean that each feature is depicted in the same broad (i.e. non specific) way rather than each feature having been rendered to show its specific attributes of texture, sheen and incidental detail.

Angele Delasalle (1867–1941)
Montigny-Beauchamp, 1907
Printed by Louis Fort and published in the Revue de L’art Ancien et Moderne, 1911
Etching on cream wove paper
13.3 x 20.3 cm (plate); 22 x 30 cm (sheet)
Edition size unknown but scarce. Signed in the plate
Condition: Excellent
I am selling this print for $185 AUD including postage and handling to anywhere in the world. Please contact me using the email link at the top of the page if you are interested or click the “Buy Now” button.

Delasalle’s pictorial democracy is not in itself a hallmark of a feminine disposition. After all, the truly memorable male artists (such as Claude Lorrain whose consistency of style I discussed in an earlier post) portrayed their chosen subject with a singular vision. The element that makes Delasalle’s stylistic consistency feminine is what is missing at the centre of vision: a distant point of focus. Essentially, I wish to argue that Delasalle has showcased a peripheral field of vision (i.e. vision glimpsed from outer boundaries of the eye) and this interest in what is occurring outside the centre of vision is the attribute of a feminine way of looking. Compare, for instance, Delasalle’s portrayal of landscape with the tunnel vision of Maxime LaLanne’s (1827–1886) etching, Rouen (1884) (shown below) to see what I mean. In Lalanne’s landscape the funnelled focus on the distant spires is a man’s vision—the primeval hunter contemplating distant prey—whereas Delasalle’s landscape is like a mother’s overview (i.e. the “big picture”) of the surroundings to protect her children from any potential danger. Perhaps this argument of separating man’s vision from women’s vision based on foveal (i.e. centre of the eye) and peripheral propensities has a few flaws. For example, B. Dufernex, a critic at the time of Delasalle, saw her art practice as “the work of a man” (Magazine of Art, 1902) because of her “characteristic energy.” But one only has to look over the history of art to see male artists’ leaning to tunnelled perspectives with a single point of interest and female artists’ leaning to broadly scattered points of interest.

Maxime Lalanne (1827–1886)
Rouen (Hamerton’s title: Rouen from the Country), 1884
Published in P.G. Hamerton 1885, Landscape, Seeley, London
Etching on cream wove paper
15.8 x 23.4 cm (plate) 21 x 30 cm (sheet)
ii/ii, Signed lower right “Rouen. 1884 / Maxime Lalanne”
Villet: 151
Condition: Excellent
I am selling this print for $80 AUD including postage and handling to anywhere in the world. Please contact me using the email link at the top of the page if you are interested or click the “Buy Now” button.

Another attribute that I have discovered during my teaching experience is the female fascination with pattern and texture. For instance, when students are asked to take photographs in the landscape that they can later use as reference material, the men tend to find natural phenomenon like oddly shaped trees and rocks while the women are drawn to textures of bark and shadow patterns.

The same fascination with surfaces applies to the way women tend to make images. In the case of Delasalle’s print, notice how the line work appears to be woven like a textile (see detail below). Then compare this treatment with the line work in Lalanne’s print (see detail further below) and how different the marks are laid. This difference could be summarised (with much generalisation and tentativeness) as suggesting that women have an interest in expressing their experience by tactile representation whereas men have an interest in figuratively portraying what they see.

  Detail of Montigny-Beauchamp, 1907
  Detail of Rouen, 1884

The last attribute that I wish to propose is all about different mindsets. Without too much apologising for making sweeping statements, I wish to suggest that men lean to an analytical way of looking whereas women lean to intuitive response and feeling. This reality is clear when comparing Delasalle’s vigorous looping marks suggesting an authentic gut-level experience of landscape and feeling its mood and soul with Lalanne’s much more clinical approach of being ever mindful that the finished image is meant for public scrutiny.

Sunday, 15 April 2012

Portraying Trees: Muller, Calame and Waterloo

What do artists need to consider when portraying trees?

When I was a young boy growing up in the dry northern tropics of Australia I had trouble accepting that birds could actually live in the English trees that I saw in reproductions. After all, where I lived the trees had plenty of open spaces for birds to fly through and the foliage was so scraggy and thin that it offered little protection from either sun or rain. The reproductions of English landscape, on the other hand, showed trees that were so solid that a sculptor might well have moulded them in concrete. Mindful that there is a substantial difference in the attributes of trees in the tropics to those of trees in chilly England and Europe, this discussion is not focused on the tropical artists' approaches to rendering trees but rather on the conventions and issues facing artists in cooler regions where trees give shelter to birds.

First I wish to address the Western lighting convention employed to depict foliage. This convention is simple: an artist lights the subject from the top-front-left because Westerners scan images from left-to-right following the direction they read. Of course for Hebrew and Arabic artists this convention is reversed because of their reading direction. And, if I may speak broadly, for ancient Oriental artists accustomed to reading text vertically, the convention had little meaning at all as can be seen in the virtual absence of side lighting but strong vertical lighting of their portrayed subjects.

A fine example of the Western lighting convention is Anthonie Waterloo's etching, Traveller Near a Wood (shown below). Here the light catches on the foliage masses from the left as is appropriate for a left-to-right reading. The convention gives the foliage masses three-dimensional form. For instance, compare the same trees when the print is flipped as a mirror image (see further below) to see how the perception of form shifts to ambiguity in the reading of three-dimensions when the trees are lit from the right. This perception is the same as the “crater effect”: a perception that the moon has meteor craters when the light comes from the left and a perception of the moon having convex mounds when the light come from the right.

Anthonie Waterloo (1609–90)
Traveller Near a Wood, c. 1645
Third state
Etching on laid paper with 2.5 cm chainlines
11.5 x 14.3 cm (plate) cut just outside the plate impression as was the custom at the time.
Condition: a strong and beautiful impression on age-darkened paper with traces of earlier mounting on verso. Plate signed on the lower right with the artist’s monogram, “AW.F” (Anthonie Waterloo Fecit [drew the print]). The print is in excellent condition with no stains, tears or other blemishes.
Bartsch 2.053 S2 (601)
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This print has been sold

  Detail of Traveller Near a Wood
  Original and mirror images of Traveller Near a Wood

Another very important principle and one that is an extension of the Western lighting convention is the pictorial rule that the front face of foliage should be depicted in light tones while the more distant features should be shown in dark tones. A superb draughtsman who exemplifies this approach is the Swiss artist, Alexandre Calame (1810–64) (see lithograph below). Few artists ignore this rule as it so well established that only the briefest look through the history of art shows that it has a very long pedigree. The concept behind this tonal transition is self-evident as a viewer can easily make out the details on the front of a tree whereas its inner depths are hidden in shadow. But there is a perceptual conundrum with this seemingly logical arrangement: the tonal transition from light to dark is in the reverse order to the tonal transition from a dark foreground receding to a light toned distance that is necessary to create the illusion of spatial depth. 

Alexandre Calame (1810–64)
[Three Trees]
 Lithograph on heavy wove paper, 39.7 x 31.2 cm (sheet)
Condition: There are two closed tears that are virtually invisible (one tear is 1 cm towards the middle of the left side the other is 2 cm at the middle of the right side) otherwise in very good condition with no marks or foxing.
I am selling this print for $136 AUD including postage and handling to anywhere in the world. Please contact me using the email link at the top of the page if you have any queries or click the “Buy Now” button below.

Although there are very few artists who broke away from the principle that the front of a tree should be light in tone, a fascinating example of an image that presents a largely dark foreground plane of foliage is Jacob Muller’s, Landscape with Cattle Being Driven Through a River (shown below). Here a raking light of early morning or the setting sun’s final vestiges of light silhouettes the foliage masses. Interestingly, even though there is a clear tonal gradation from a dark foreground to a pale horizon, the silhouetted foliage is less than a convincing depiction. There is one missing ingredient that all great landscape artists take into account: the diminishing density of foliage from the centre of the foliage mass to the extremities of the final twigs. For photographers, this effect is known as the Sabatier Borderline effect. In short, what Muller has not portrayed in his landscape is the element of transparency amounting to a rim lighting effect to render the outlines of his silhouetted trees.

Jakob Muller (c. 1670–1703)
Landscape with Cattle Being Driven Through a River, c. 1690
Etching, 14.7 x 20.2 cm (sheet)
Hollstein 2; Nagler 2.
With fecit note “Jacob Muller fecit” and the address of the publisher, Jeremias Wolff (1663–1724)
Condition: Excellent impression on laid paper with watermark, trimmed along the platemark. There are faint red marks on the upper right but otherwise in a good clean condition.
I am selling this print for $78 AUD including postage and handling to anywhere in the world. Please contact me using the email link at the top of the page if you have any queries or click the “Buy Now” button below.

This print has been sold
  Detail of Landscape with Cattle Being Driven Through a River, c. 1690

Saturday, 7 April 2012

Commas and full stops: Rembrandt

How does an image arouse a viewer’s interest?

An important principle in telling a story is to intrigue the audience so that they want to hear more. This principle also applies to the graphic arts in terms of tantalising viewers with the hint of seeing something special so that they become engaged in looking.

Rembrandt’s 1648 etching, Beggars Receiving Alms at the Door of a House (seen below), is a fine example of a simple approach to sparking viewers’ interest: the art of partly concealing the centre of interest. Here, the image of a family of beggars receiving alms from a figure in a doorway is enticing to examine closely for two reasons. The first is part of human instinct that any huddle of people is likely to arouse curious scrutiny to see what is happening within the group. Second, a group of figures is even more intriguing if there is a glimpse but not a clear view of what they are doing. The critical element in Rembrandt’s group of the figures is that we can see the figure in the doorway giving a coin to the lady but by clever design our view is a privileged one because the foreground figure blocks a clear view of the action (see detail below). This partial blocking of a viewer’s vision is the visual equivalent of a comma in a sentence that phrases and articulates the reading of meaning.

Rembrandt Harmenszoon van Rijn (1606–69)
Beggars Receiving Alms at the Door of a House, 1648
Burin and drypoint, signed and dated Rembrandt f.
16.2 x 12.3 cm (plate); 23.8 x 19.3 cm (sheet)

Bartsch 50.176

Condition: pristine condition on laid paper.

This print is sold

Detail of Beggars Receiving Alms at the Door of a House, 1648

Rembrandt has added many other “punctuation marks” (i.e. pictorial devices acting like commas, dashes, brackets and full stops) to sustain interest and guide a viewer’s negotiation of meaning. For example, the converging lines of the drainage channel to the left of the foreground figure (see detail below) draw a viewer’s attention to the group but this inward reading directed by the angle of the channel is interrupted at a pivotal point in the scene by the bridge stone at the doorway that is directly below the centre of interest: the gift of alms.  Another device is Rembrandt’s use of freely drawn curved lines towards the upper right of the composition (see detail below). These lines focus attention on the group by marking a boundary on a viewer’s reading—the pictorial equivalent of a full stop in literature. Seen in conjunction with almost spherical arrangement of the figures these curved lines frame and tunnel our view on the charitable gift of the coin to the lady’s hand.

Detail of Beggars Receiving Alms at the Door of a House, 1648

Detail of Beggars Receiving Alms at the Door of a House, 1648

This print may also arouse a viewer’s interest at a subliminal level. For instance, the arrangement of shadow patterns in the image can be seen as a visual dialogue between the beggar group and the figure at the doorway. In this visual exchange, the shadow cast by the beggar woman’s cane on the man at the doorway (see detail below) connects her to him metaphorically as he is connected to her physically by his gift of a coin. Going further, a viewer’s attention is attracted to the pivotal moment of the gift by virtue of the beggars’ cast shadows framing a void of light immediately behind the hands that give and receive the alms (see detail below).

Detail of Beggars Receiving Alms at the Door of a House, 1648

Detail of Beggars Receiving Alms at the Door of a House, 1648

As in all good storytelling, a critical ingredient that may be even more important than intrigue is the notion of suspending all thoughts beyond the addressed subject. In Beggars Receiving Alms at the Door of a House Rembrandt removes irrelevant details to keep our interest focused on the essentials of what he portrays. Just look at the figures’ eyes to see how the pivotal moment of giving is fine tuned. Moreover, consider how the background is only lightly sketched in so that it doesn’t distract from this moment.

Beggars Receiving Alms at the Door of a House, 1648