A visit to the museum is rejuvenating for the eyes and the mind. Also, how art taught me to stop caring about sharpness.

Blanton Museum ceiling. Main lobby. 
©2014 Kirk Tuck

I've been doing my part to staunch the flow of gratuitous images by not shooting anything that doesn't serve a purpose or inspire me to look at my newly captured image twice. I walked downtown yesterday and shot some more or less meaningless photography and then I did popular culture a favor by erasing the card on my way back to the car. But there are still things I like to see. And there are a few concepts I wanted to share that might be more effectively presented with images to show my point,  along with the words.

I went to the Blanton Art Museum on the University of Texas at Austin campus today and I had the same reactions I seem to have every time I visit. It's almost like reliving epiphanies. I'd say that I wouldn't have to go back if my memory were better but the reality is that time spent quietly with art is always rejuvenating and each time I go it's a totally difference internal experience. I guess that's because so much of every experience revolves around where our minds are, in the moment. 

My first reaction is that Art is so much different viewed in person than when viewed on the screen of my computer. For one thing it's generally framed and presented in its own space, free from visual intervention. My monitor is on a desk covered with hard drive enclosures, post-it notes and the general hysteria of technology. I am always amazed at how much I react to the different scale of all the pieces. 

Some paintings are huge while some are as small as 8x10 inches. I saw a octo-tych of Andy Warhol images of Marilyn Monroe that were each about the size of postage stamps. The Battle statue collection is mostly life sized. The various modern paintings can be the size of a fairly big wall. The point is that scale is so much a part of each work and it's the first thing to be denuded by viewing representational on a set screen size. 

There's also a lot to be said for being able to look at work from an angle or from a different vantage point. While it's true that you can move your head from side to side when looking at your monitor it is hardly the same thing. There's a satisfying feeling about being able to move close, within inches, to a painting in order to examine the very texture of the underlying canvas and then being able to move back to the other side of a room to take in the entire room and see the art work in context. 

Consider also that the room (gallery) in some ways become part of the work because it's almost impossible to divorce the work from its surroundings. The galleries at the Blanton are cool and dark and the paintings sit in little puddles of perfectly placed light. The dark surrounding submerges distraction while the bright light showcases the art. If you've seen art poorly presented ( and really, who hasn't ) then you'll understand exactly what I mean. 

As far as paintings go seeing the actual pieces, under optimum lighting and presentation conditions, is like seeing in infinite bit depth and with endless dynamic range. Reducing the interplay and inter-transparency of a painting to a 6 or (at best) 8 bit screen representation makes viewing the work a whole different, and wildly less satisfying, experience. 

I am a fan of classical painting but not for allegorical or hermeneutical considerations. I am a fan of the sensuous lushness of the color palettes and the unashamed sensuality of the rendering of most of the subjects in the paintings. They are beautiful to look at. The best paintings are richly layered with lights and darks and endless colors. 

Take the image of the painting "Flora" by Sebastiano Ricci. (below). It's intention was to be a celebration of "voluptuousness." I love so much about this piece. I love the modest rendering of Flora and the archly realistic rendering of the flowers in the foreground. I love the depth of the painting. Flora and the putti to the left, along with the flowers and heavy vase that anchor the right hand edge of the painting all sit in a foreword plane. The putti behind the flower pot is in a transitional planar layer. The figure just behind Flora with his finger to his mouth is one plane further removed while the two putts to the top left of the frame are distanced not only by the forced perspective but also by the atmospheric distancing caused by making them lighter, less saturated and less detailed. It's a frame that may not work well from the perspective of a computer screen but one which is wonderful to stand about four feet in front of and scan from side to side and from face to face. 

One of the realizations I have every time I visit a good museum is that good art repudiates our bourgeois desire for Perfection. Our culture seems to over reward measurement and under reward abstraction, creativity and the beauty of things which don't lend themselves to quantification. 

On photographic fora the mainstay of discussion is about resolution, sharpness and dynamic range. All of which can be, for better or worse, measure and quantified. We can give each parameter an objective number rating, a place on a scale, from "good" to "bad." And the engineer in each of us pushed hard to optimize each of the measurable features of our tools. We've created a culture in which "sharper" is better. In which more detail is always better. In which the widest range of tones possible is the aim point. 

We seem to imagine that the painters of yesterday worked as diligently as they could to reproduce the perfect version of reality onto their (almost) two dimensional surfaces. We think of great art as having been created by perfectionists and regard only 20th century art as the unknowable provence of sloppy, messy (Jackson Pollack) unintelligible sham. 

But one part of my realizations for today was the very obvious reality that for many painters in classical times it was the feel of the piece and the totality of the piece that mattered to them and not the obsession with endless master of detail. 

In the painting of Flora I was able to see several things that many would regard as flaws. In our current, binary culture a thing is either perfect or it is not. It's acceptable or rejected. But look below at the detail of the central flower. Notice the paint drip from the top right area of the flower. An imperfection caused by haste? An intentional spill? Or the decision of an artist who wanted to acknowledge his own imperfection because that is essential to what makes him human? A nod to the idea that imperfection is what finally makes a person or object truly beautiful.

I went pixel peeping on the painting (you can do that just by standing closer and putting on your reading glasses!!) when I noticed that there are defects in the canvas as well as a few discolorations (see below). But stepping back three feet, and viewing the work as it was intended, all the faults vanish. 

My final "craft" observation is that "sharpness", and the obsession with sharpness, is very much an affectation of our age. I looked at beautiful painting after beautiful painting and in very few instances was there any observable attempt to render the subjects with the razor sharpness that we seem to demand today. And it's not just that photography is a different medium because there are many beautiful and poignant examples of photographs through the decades, that work and deliver their emotion message, and visual magic, without the benefit of undue sharpness. 

That's evident in the work of Robert Frank, Alfred Steiglitz, Henri Cartier-Bresson, Cindy Sherman and many, many others. And those examples stand apart from the obvious repudiation of sharpness by the Photo Secessionist of the late 19th and early 20th century. Some of the work by Weston isn't overly sharpened and it's still collected by top institutions. My take away thought is that sharpness became important when photography became a commercial form of documentation and, because we do a poor job with visual education for most, the widespread adaptation of sharpness in cataloging and making marketing marketing representations infiltrated directly into the hobbyist sector and pushed its way into becoming an understood part of current photographic culture. Why communicate a feeling or an emotion if you can go straight to the vivisection? 

While the work of David Hamilton (look it up) is gooey with overly romantic images of young girls and women and I conjecture that a big part of its charm is the soft rendering of reality which allows his viewers to romanticize what many critics thought of as "soft core" pornography. While his content was  perhaps overly prurient his technique was in some ways a repudiation of the quest for sharpness and contrast that was on the rise during his working career. His work with young women is, in some ways, the technical counterbalance to the sharply etched aesthetic of Jeanloup Sieff's take on the same subject matter. 

While our cameras are very good at getting us to "sharp" they aren't nearly as good at getting us to "evocative". My all time inspiration for wonderfully romantic and flattering portraits is the head of the angel in Leonardo Da Vinci's, Madonna on the Rocks (madonna on the rocks louvre). She is the figure to the right of the Madonna. But I also like the image of the woman in the center of the painting, Three Marys at the Tomb, by Jacopo Chimenti (below). There is a softness to the skin that augments the affect of the soft light transitions and it's richly romantic. 

I like to visit museums because they remind me that we can have experiences outside the realm of our computers and our devices. That, when it comes to art, technology is a poor substitute for vision and concept. That Bernini's sculptures drove future sculptors into more and more abstraction, not because abstraction was, per se, the direction they wanted desperately to pursue, but because even with endlessly advancing technology no one can come close to the work Bernini created centuries ago. To continue making work in that classical styles means to be continually compared to his work. Better to differentiate oneself with a new and novel (manifesto driven) approach than to suffer by comparison. But isn't that the root motive for all attempts at differentiation? The realization that one pathway in a field had reached its zenith?

The past is interesting in some regard because it is littered with treasures. Those who have never taken time to savor those treasures are condemned to working without good boundaries and, to a certain extent, without inspiration. Mindlessly redoing the easy work of art over and over again and hoping that the newest tools will prevail where concepts are non-existent. 


Daniel said...

"We think of great art as having been created by perfectionists and regard only 20th century art as the unknowable provence of sloppy, messy (Jackson Pollack) unintelligible sham."

Clarify this one for us, please.

ajcarr said...

Possibly my favourite portrait painting is Lady Agnew of Lochnaw by John Singer Sargent. In the conext of this article, the face is sharp, but everything else less so. The most important thing here is the pose: the coquettish nature of the subject, including the sensual arm reaching down at the right.

Anonymous said...

Photography is nothing--it's life that interests me. - Henri Cartier-Bresson

I’m always amused by the idea that certain people have about technique, which translate into an immoderate taste for the sharpness of the image. It is a passion for detail, for perfection, or do they hope to get closer to reality with this trompe I’oeil? They are, by the way, as far away from the real issues as other generations of photographers were when they obscured their subject in soft-focus effects. - Henri Cartier-Bresson

David Hamilton wasn't the only one doing this (although he may have been one of the first). Bob Guccione was doing something similar at Penthouse magazine. TV commercials were being shot in this style.

If you are ever in D.C. go by the National Art Gallery and see Salvador DalĂ­'s "The Sacrament of the Last Supper." Even pixel peepers will love it.


ajcarr said...

Might I point out that for some reason modern American photographers ignore the great Anglo-German photographer Bill Brandt, whilst acknowledging Cartier Bresson, et al. Ansel Adams had an incredibly high opinion of Brandt. And if you want photographs that are less than critically sharp, whilst conveying a huge amount of atmosphere, Brandt is a good starting point. (Apparently he cropped tiny portions of his Rolleiflex 6x6 negatives and made his standard 8"x10" prints; Also, his second-hand ultra-wide-angle ex-police surveillance camera probably didn't have spectacular optics.)

David Mantripp said...

sort of amazing that you need to tell people to "look up" David Hamilton. Back in the late 70s / early 80s he was a household name… These days he'd be locked up.

Saul Molloy said...

It's not that often that you say something that I fundamentally agree with. There are several artists - Turner amongst them - who I didn't even realise I liked until I saw their work in the 'flesh'. I just don't think that there is any substitute for seeing real art in real life. Next week I'm off to The National Portrait Gallery in London, to look at some more un-sharpness, a trip I've been planning for 12 months with utter glee...a great painting has a power to awe me that photography (which anyone can grasp the basics of if they take the time to learn) just does not have. I keep hoping it'll rub off...

Anonymous said...

"On photographic fora the mainstay of discussion is about resolution, sharpness and dynamic range."

That would be the discussion regarding camera performance, not the discussion about the art of photography. Two different subjects, two different discussions. Let's not mistake one for the other.

I for one don't mind the cameras delivering great resolution, sharpness and dynamic range. Not at all. Whilst the camera is a cool gadget on its own, it is mostly just a tool, a means to an end. With all that measurable performance of the tool, it's up to us to make images that have meaning, tonality, emotional impact and individual style.
That measurable brilliance of the camera is not going to stop us from achieving that. Quite the contrary. If we don't achieve that, blaming the sharpness, resolution and dynamic range of the capturing device or the prevalence of the obsessive-compulsive geek culture is a poor excuse.

The obvious remedy would be to distance ourselves from the aforementioned geekery once in a while. Hardcore geekery and art hardly ever mix, anyway. Staying out of certain online forums and social media for a while might help quite a bit, as the internet is a great social amplifier.

Perhaps another good medicine would be to not take ourselves too seriously.

Whilst we stop to admire the evocative beauty of the Madonna On The Rocks by Da Vinci, we should also take some time to enjoy the vivacious verbosity of The Fallen Madonna With The Big Boobies by Van Klomp (look it up). ;-)

FWIW, we could try claiming that gear don't matter at all in photography, but that would be pretentious. Even this blog wouldn't exist without some moderate amount of gear-headedness, would it.
Nor would the classic paintings, if the painters weren't obsessing with all the technical nuances of creating just the right colour of paint from the raw ingredients of their era.

Besides, only the masterpieces of yesteryear have made it to our museums, not the mediocre stuff. That's likely to happen with today's photography, too.

"Better to differentiate oneself with a new and novel (manifesto driven) approach than to suffer by comparison. But isn't that the root motive for all attempts at differentiation? The realization that one pathway in a field had reached its zenith?"

Yes, suppose so, and it is quite possible, maybe even likely, that the big trend will start changing soon again. Although that doesn't mean the measurebators would stop measurebating on something, anyway.

mgr said...

Yeah, when you look up close at Diego Velasquez's Las Meninas there's nothing there but scumbled paint, but take a step or two away and it becomes perfectly rendered hair and lace. On the other hand, some of the etchings at the Blanton are mind-bogglingly sharp, microscopically so - every leaf of every tree perfectly drawn - must have taken hundreds of hours to scratch some of those plates. (The elms outside the Blanton look very different after staring at those etchings a while.)

I finally started to understand "warm" and "cold" while I was sketching a 15th century St. Catherine at the McNay - I'd been at it nearly an hour before I saw that one cheek was red and the other was blue. (Your "Flora" close-up shows the same technique, near the elbow.)

Not sure the middle Mary's right arm works. I'm all for wabi-sabi - the imperfections that make the art happen - but that arm just doesn't feel right. (Maybe that's the difference between a Chementi and a da Vinci?)

Have you seen Frida Kahlo's Self-portrait with Thorn Necklace and Hummingbird at the Ransom Center? That one nearly brought me to tears when I saw it in person. Not sure if it's there right now - that one travels a lot.

Just out of curiosity, do you know Carl Embry? UT grad, fantastic painter...

Great post. We're blessed to live in a town with great art - and great art advocates, like yourself. :)

wils said...

Many thanks .. great post and thoughts and observations Wil

Dave said...

You've put in towords the feelings I have about shooting with my Holga film cameras. Details are over rated.

Dave said...

I think Renoir and Mary Cassat's work appeal to me very much because they are idealized and simplified renditions with stories and truth in them.

Anonymous said...

An article partially titled "... you date the camera, you marry the glass" followed by this "... stop caring about sharpness." What a wonderful juxtaposition, both relevant to our pursuits. I enjoyed both, but I really liked this one. I look forward to spending an afternoon in your museum next time I am in Austin.
Jerry Kircus

Mark Davidson said...

Content has always been the goal of the artist, technical excellence the goal of the engineer.

The reason (IMO) that the art is less discussed is partly because most people feel unqualified or embarrassed about discussing the visual impact of an image and will then go to discussing the technical merits or demerits as those are "objective". The other reason is our desire to reduce everything to metrics and swift evaluations of quality.

It is hard to describe what we may feel about an image but that is the work of the artist: to make visible the indescribable.

Patrick Dodds said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
silvrmn said...

The same analogy can be made between electronically reproduced music and a live performance.

Sam said...

You know what digital photography really lacks? An underlying medium. I'm serious. I think one of the things that really pressed the urgency of sharpness in the age of digital photography is the lack of something unambiguously "in-focus" to settle the eyes when looking at the final printed output. Paintings, however soft, have their brushstrokes and the texture of the canvas. Wonderful grainy prints can be so evocative and satisfying with very unsharp subjects because we have those lovely sharp varied nuggets of film grain to fasten onto in the print. Digital has none of that. A blurry digital shot gives the eye no rest.

Kirk Tuck said...

Brilliant observation. Thank you !!!