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.