Sunday, April 28, 2019

Arnheim on Cezanne

Madame Cezanne in a Yellow Chair, 1888-1890
Art Institute of Chicago

excerpted from 
"Art and Visual Perception - A Psychology of the Creative Eye"
by Rudolf Arnheim
 Chapter 1 : "Balance"

It follows from the foregoing discussion that an artist would interpret human experience quite one-sidedly if he allowed balance and harmony to monopolize his work. He can only enlist their help in his effort to give form to a significant theme. The meaning of the work emerges from the interplay of activating and balancing forces.

Cezanne's portrait of his wife in a yellow chair was painted in 1888-1890. What soon strikes the observer is the combination of external tranquillity and strong potential activity. The reposing figure is charged with energy, which presses in the direction of her glance. The figure is stable and rooted, but at the same time as light as though it were suspended in space. It rises, yet it rests in itself. This subtle blend of serenity and vigor, of firmness and disembodied freedom, may be described as the particular configuration of forces representing the theme of the work. How is the effect achieved?

The picture has an upright format, the proportion being approximately 5 :4. This stretches the whole portrait in the direction of the vertical and reinforces the upright character of the figure, the chair, the head. The chair is somewhat slimmer than the frame, and the figure slimmer than the chair. This creates a scale of increasing slimness, which leads forward from the background over the chair to the foreground figure. Correspondingly, a scale of increasing brightness leads from the dark band on the wall by way of chair and figure to the light face and hands, the two focal points of the composition. At the same time the shoulders and arms form an oval around the middle section of the picture, a centric core of stability that counteracts the pattern of rectangles and is repeated on a smaller scale by the head.

The dark band on the wall divides the background into two horizontal rectangles. Both are more elongated than the whole frame, the lower rectangle being 3 :2 and the upper :2 :1. This means that these rectangles are stressing the horizontal more vigorously than the frame stresses the vertical. Although the rectangles furnish a counterpoint to the vertical, they also enhance the upward movement of the whole by the fact that vertically the lower rectangle is taller than the upper. According to Denman Ross, the eye moves in the direction of diminishing intervals-that is, in this picture, upward.

The three main planes of the picture-wall, chair, figure-overlap in a movement going from far left to near right. This lateral movement toward the right is counteracted by the location of the chair, which lies mainly in the left half of the picture and thus establishes a retarding countermovement. On the other hand, the dominant rightward movement is enhanced by the asymmetrical placement of the figure in relation to the chair: the figure presses forward by occupying mainly the right half of the chair. Moreover, the figure itself is not quite symmetrical, the left side being slightly larger and thus again emphasizing the sweep toward the right.

Figure and chair are tilted at about the same angle relative to the frame. The chair, however, has its pivot at the bottom of the picture and therefore tilts to the left, whereas the pivot of the figure is its head, which tilts it to the right. The head is firmly anchored on the central vertical. The other focus of the composition, the pair of hands, is thrust slightly forward in an attitude of potential activity. An additional secondary counterpoint further enriches the theme: the head, although at rest, contains clearly directed activity in the watchful eyes and the dynamic asymmetry of the quarter profile. The hands, although moved forward, neutralize each other's action by interlocking.

The free rising of the head is checked not only by its central location but also by its nearness to the upper border of the frame. It rises so much that it is caught by a new base. Just as the musical scale rises from the base of the key tone only to return to a new base at the octave, so the figure rises from the bottom base of the frame to find new repose at the upper edge. (There is, then, a similarity between the structure of the musical scale and the framed composition. They both combine two structural principles : a gradual heightening of intensity with the ascension from bottom to top; and the symmetry of bottom and top that finally transforms ascension from the base into an upward fall toward a new base. Withdrawal from a state of rest turns out to be the mirror image of the return to a state of rest.)

If the foregoing analysis of Cezanne's painting is correct, it will not only hint at the wealth of dynamic relations in the work, it will also suggest how these relations establish the particular balance of rest and activity that impressed us as the theme or content of the picture. To realize how this pattern of visual forces reflects the content is helpful in trying to appraise the artistic excellence of the painting.

Two general remarks should be added. First, the subject matter of the picture is an integral part of the structural conception. Only because shapes are recognized as head, body, hands, chair, do they play their particular compositional role. The fact that the head harbors the mind is at least as important as its shape, color, or location. As an abstract pattern, the formal elements of the picture would have to be quite different to convey similar meaning. The observer's knowledge of what is signified by a seated, middle-aged woman contributes strongly to the deeper sense of the work.

Second, it will have been noticed that the composition rests on point and counterpoint-that is, on many counterbalancing elements. But these antagonistic forces are not contradictory or conflicting. They do not create ambiguity. Ambiguity confuses the artistic statement because it leaves the observer hovering between two or more assertions that do not add up to a whole. As a rule, pictorial counterpoint is hierarchic-that is, it sets a dominant force against a subservient one. Each relation is unbalanced in itself; together they all balance one another in the structure of the whole work.


I was intending to make this post a study of Thierry de Duve's 1993 essay about art education, "When Form has become Attitude -- and Beyond" -- but then I found an unfamiliar name whom he identified as one of "great modern theorists of art":

All progressive pedagogues of this century, from Froebel to Montessori to Decroly; all school reformers and philosophers of education, from Rudolf Steiner to John Dewey, have based their projects and programmes on creativity; or rather, on the belief in creativity, on the conviction that creativity - not tradition, not rules and conventions - is the best starting point for education. Moreover, all great modern theorists of art, from Herbert Read to E. H. Gombrich to Rudolph Arnheim, have entertained similar convictions and devoted considerable energy to breaking up the "visual language" into its basic components and demonstrating the universality of its perceptive and psychological "laws".

Who was Rudolf Arnheim (1904-2007) and what did he have to say?  That's when I discovered his book Art and Visual Perception  (1955/revised 1974)

He shares the following quote from Ben Shahn: "Form is the visible shape of content". ***

Or, to put it another way, content cannot be separated from form -- rather than the now prevailing assertion that content cannot be separated from context - i.e. political context - i.e. hierarchies of social power.

One might note that Shahn's statement would suggest that content can be comprehended anywhere, any time, by anyone with a healthy mind and  eye -- while in today's artworld,  a valid account of  context  is required --  the validation of which is the business of those institutions which require it.

Arnheim concludes chapter one with several paragraphs devoted to a painting by Cezanne that now hangs in my local museum.  So hopping on the train, I went down to the Art Institute of Chicago yesterday to take a fresh look at it.

*** It should be noted that Arnheim devoted a chapter in this book to "Form" -- wherein he  tells us that "
Whenever we perceive shape, consciously or unconsciously we take it to represent something, and thereby to be the form of a content.".  Shahn, however, used the word "form" quite differently.

After he wrote that "Form is the visible shape of content" in his  book, "The Shape of  Content",  he went on to write that "there is a great deal of content that enters into the twists and turns of abstract-to-nonobjective form"

Here's the painting in a bit more detail. Before discussing it, however, I'd like to briefly address the earlier part of Arnheim's discussion of "balance":

In short, just as a living organism cannot be described by an account of its anatomy, so the nature of a visual experience cannot be described in terms of inches of size and distance, degrees of angle, or wave lengths of hue. These static measurements define only the "stimulus," that is, the message sent to the eye by the physical world. But the life of a percept-its expression and meaning -derives entirely from the activity of the perceptual forces. Any line drawn on a sheet of paper, the simplest form modeled from a piece of clay, is like a rock thrown into a pond. It upsets repose, it mobilizes space. Seeing is the perception of action

Whether or not we choose to call these perceptual forces "illusions" matters little so long as we acknowledge them as genuine components of everything seen. The artist, for example, need not worry about the fact that these forces are not contained in the pigments on the canvas. What he creates with physical materials arc experiences. The perceived image, not the paint, is the work of art.

Why is pictorial balance indispensable ? It must be remembered that visually as well as physically, balance is the state of distribution in which all action has come to a standstill. Potential energy in the system, says the physicist, has reached the minimum. In a balanced composition all such factors as shape, direction, and location are mutually determined in such a way that no change seems possible, and the whole assumes the character of "necessity" in all its parts. An unbalanced composition looks accidental, transitory, and therefore invalid. Its elements show a tendency to change place or shape in order to reach a state that better accords with the total structure. Under conditions of imbalance, the artistic statement becomes incom· prehensible. The ambiguous pattern allows no decision on which of the possible configurations is meant. We have the sense that the process of creation has been accidentally frozen somewhere along the way. Since the configuration calls for change, the stillness of the work becomes a handicap. Timelessness gives way to the frustrating sensation of arrested time. Except for the rare instances in which this is precisely the effect the artist intends, he will strive for balance in order to avoid such instability.

figure 7                               figure 8

The above examples are adapted from a test designed by Maitland Graves to determine the artistic sensitivity of students. Compare a and b in Figure 7. The left figure is well balanced. There is enough life in this combination of squares and rectangles of various sizes, proportions, and directions, but they hold one another in such a way that every element stays in its place, everything is necessary, nothing is seeking to change. Compare the clearly established internal vertical of a with its pathetically wavering counterpart in b. In b, proportions are based on differences so small that they leave the eye uncertain whether it is contemplating equality or inequality, symmetry or asymmetry, square or rectangle. We cannot tell what the pattern is trying to say.

Somewhat more complex, but no less irritatingly ambiguous, is Figure Sa. Relations are neither clearly rightangular nor clearly oblique. The four lines are not sufficiently different in length to assure the eye that they are unequal. The pattern, adrift in space, approaches on the one hand the symmetry of a crosslike figure of vertical-horizontal orientation, and on the other the shape of a kind of kite with a diagonal symmetry axis. Neither interpretation, however, is conclusive. Neither admits of the reassuring clarity conveyed by figure 8b.

I like the idea that any mark placed on a sheet of paper is like a pebble thrown into a pond - producing the consequent waves of energy that ripple across the surface of the water (and mind)

But when considering the four examples produced by Maitland Graves to "determine the artistic sensitivity of students" I fear that I might fail such a test.

Rather than feeling that Figures 7b and 8a are "irritatingly ambiguous", I feel that they are enticing and soothing.

Rather than feeling "enough life" in Figure 7a or a "reassuring clarity" in 7b,  I feel that both  are  painfully tedious and annoying.  To borrow Arnheim's words from further down the page -- I find them "intolerably static"

But even if these examples produce a much different  feeling in me than in Graves and Arnheim -- I still agree that 7a  needs to be paired with 8b,  while 7b is paired with 8a -- regardless of any conceivable context.

And that demonstrable point is also important - maybe more so.

The quest for balance, however, is not sufficient to describe the controlling tendencies in human motivation generally or in art particularly. We end up with a one-sided, intolerably static conception of the human organism if we picture it as resembling a stagnant pool, stimulated to activity only when a pebble disturbs the balanced peace of its surface and limiting its activity to the reestablishment of that peace. Freud came closest to accepting the radical consequences of this view. He described man's basic instincts as an expression of the conservatism of all living matter, as an inherent tendency to return to a former state. He assigned a fundamental role to the "death instinct," the striving for a return to inorganic existence. According to Freud's economy principle, man constantly tries to expend as little energy as possible. Man is lazy by nature.

But is he? A human being in good physical and mental health finds himself fulfilled not in inactivity, but in doing, moving, changing, growing, forging ahead, producing, creating, exploring. There is no justification for the strange notion that life consists of attempts to put an end to itself as rapidly as possible. Indeed, the chief characteristic of the live organism may well be that it represents an anomaly of nature in waging an uphill fight against the universal law of entropy by constantly drawing new energy from its environment.

This is not to deny the importance of balance. Balance remains the final goal of any wish to be fulfilled, any task to be accomplished, any problem to be solved. But the race is not run only for the moment of victory. In a later chapter, on Dynamics, I shall have occasion to spell out the active counterprinciple. Only by looking at the interaction between the energetic life force and the tendency toward balance can we reach a fuller conception of the dynamics activating the human mind and reflected in the mind's products.

I enthusiastically agree with the above text and find it quite  inspirational.

Arnheim's discussion of balance in Cezanne's portrait, however,  is more problematic.

Assuming that his target readership are college students who hardly ever go to art museums, it was not a bad idea for him to begin by directing their attention to issues like proportion and movement.  But the best  and  most thorough way to become sensitive to these and all other visual qualities in a painting is by copying it and then judging the copies. Ultimately, balance is an issue that involves the instantaneous impact of the painting as a whole.  Compiling a verbal shopping list of balancing forces is a fool's errand.

It was also not a bad idea for him to introduce facial and other body expressions into  a discussion of balance.  Cezanne has been quoted as demanding that his human models pose inertly, as if they were apples -- as would be appropriate  for a painter who had an abiding interest  in the structure of pictorial space. But even Cezanne did not paint his wife entirely as if she were an apple -- and the repressed emergence of her personality as a woman rather than a fruit might even be offered as the theme of this particular painting. 

Regarding Arnheim's conclusions, I certainly agree that  " the foregoing analysis of Cezanne's painting ... only hints at the wealth of dynamic relations in the work"  -- but I would avoid any attempt to  "realize how this pattern of visual forces reflects the content trying to appraise the artistic excellence of the painting"  The arrangement of forces belongs to the painting.  All analysis and verbalized notions of content belong to the viewer.  

I would propose that judgment should directly follow the visual experience rather than any attempt to connect that experience to some verbal notion of content.  In a subsequent book, Visual Thinking (1969), Arnheim challenges the differences between thinking versus perceiving and intellect versus intuition and critiques the assumption that language goes before perception and that words are the stepping stones of thinking. 

I did feel that something like "the combination of external tranquility and strong potential activity." is what first, and continuously, strikes me in the portrait of Madame Cezanne who seems to be trying very hard to hold still  and stay in the same room with her husband. To ask "how is the effect achieved", however, is to ask what even the artist himself could probably not answer.

To quote from "A Few Words of a Kind" by  Dylan Thomas:

You can tear a poem apart to see what makes it technically tick and say to yourself when the works are laid out before you the vowels the consonants the rhymes rhythms, “yes this is it this is why it moves me so it is because of it’s craftsmanship,” but you are back again where you began; the best craftsmanship always leaves holes and gaps in the works of the poem, so that something that is not in the poem can creep crawl flash or thunder in........ everything happens in a blaze of light"


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