Tuesday, March 06, 2012

Watercolors, Liminal Entities And Scripts

This is a watercolor painting, “Woman and Child on a Balcony,” by Berthe Morisot. It was painted around 1872 and Morisot also created an oil painting with an almost identical image. Here is the oil painting.

Painters typically create watercolor sketches to try out compositions before working in oil, but with the Impressionists sometimes they created watercolors based on oil paintings that they felt were very successful compositions. These images only have two or three differences so it seems clear one was copied from the other.

These are the best copies I could find, but they are not all that good. Can you see the differences between the watercolor and oil versions of this scene? And can you see the mistakes in one of the versions?

Today’s post is going to be a little strange. I’m going to talk about these two paintings and the slight differences between them in some detail. Then I’m going to close with a quote that I feel is inextricably bound to the topic of painting and image-making in general.

First of all, aren’t these images beautiful? I look at these and if I were the kind of person who was ever at a loss for words, these images would do it to me. But, really, I’m not, so I’m going to talk about these things.

I posted a little image of the oil version once before, when I did five posts about Morisot. This image is so typical of her. There is the pairing of the middle-age woman and the child. There is the intense sense of two places, here and there, the Parisian fringe and the city center. The woman, bound to the fringe by French culture, is staring at the child. The child is staring at the city center. The child isn’t wearing a hat but I’m not going to dwell on details today.

So there’s all this great stuff, conflicts and drama and commentary on French life, but the images are so simple! There are almost no details in either image. Almost all the elements—the distant horizon, the foreground figures—are well-conceived silhouettes. Even in the oil painting the woman’s face can clearly be seen to be turned down to look at the child, but its orientation is almost all conveyed by the design of the facial silhouette. There is only the simplest indication of an eye shape.

I believe the watercolor painting was created first.

If you look at the horizon, the only compositional difference between the watercolor and the oil is the oil painting has a very slightly lower horizon. I believe the watercolor was painted first, and then, to accentuate the conflict between the “here and there” dynamic, the painter lowered the horizon slightly and minimized the buildings slightly to make everything look even farther away.

But there is another notable aspect to the oil painting. It contains two mistakes!

Even in these less-than-perfect reproductions if you look at the balcony railing in perspective and if you look at the horizon split by the woman’s figure, you can see in the oil painting that the balcony railing to the left of the woman’s figure, and the horizon line to the left of the woman’s figure, both are misaligned in perspective to the balcony railing and horizon to the right of the woman’s figure.

The watercolor, on the other hand, gets both the horizon and balcony railing perspectives correct.

Here are the lines I’m talking about. If you look at the oil painting above, the differences are pretty easy to see.

These kind of perspective mistakes happen all the time in Cezanne images. Cezanne described himself as having a “lazy eye” for such detail. But subsequent critics and subsequent generations of painters from Picasso on have embraced this kind of “mistake” on the theory that mismatched horizontals and diagonals create visual “tension” and interest. Cezanne fans, for instance, generally assume that Cezanne subconsciously mismatched his lines expressly to create more exciting images.

I’m not going to dwell on that business. I don’t think the oil version of this image is any more “exciting” than the watercolor because of the skewed left/right halves of the image. And I don’t believe Morisot created the skewed lines either consciously or unconsciously to add visual tension.

I think the mismatched perspective lines are simply the result of the different media, the different styles of painting.

The watercolor image was created by sketching a very light, loose image in graphite pencil. Then Morisot painted watercolor over the graphite. Then some touches of opaque gouache were applied in only a couple of areas. The important point is that the graphite under-drawing remained visible during the entire painting process, and even in the final image the drawing is still visible here and there. So the general perspective could be sketched in properly at the start and maintained to the finished image.

The oil painting probably started with a reasonably careful painted sketch which would have had the perspective lines matching. But in an oil painting the initial laying in of the sky and background usually obscures the under-drawing. Even if parts of the under-drawing remain visible, by the time the foreground figures are painted the under-drawing would be invisible. So tricky elements like the balcony railing and the horizon line have to be re-asserted by the painter. And when they are painted in, again, while the painter is concentrating on the foreground figures, it is easy to create what appears to be a visual match but which, when a straight-edge is applied, is seen to be skewed.

I think in this case it is just an artifact of the two media.

Watercolor is a wonderful medium, I think the most thoughtful of all media. Since watercolor is transparent, or translucent at least, the entire composition—and often the thinking of the painter—is always visible. To both the painter and the spectator.

The original thought really can’t get lost because the original thought is always right there, still visible, under the transparent applications of paint.

(Of course, there have been watercolor painters who painted so heavily, or with so much rubbing off/washing off and repainting, that the clarity of the medium was obscured. But that was a stylistic choice that pushed the medium to an extreme.)

Anyway, I love these images. And I think looking at little details like the skewed horizon and balcony lines underscores how trivial and irrelevant technical details are to images overall.

The power of the images is the composition. The conception of the composition.

Which brings up, to me, an interesting point.

I’d guess almost any art student, today, would have the skill-set necessary to create an image like either the watercolor or the oil version here. Both images are, as I’ve said, mostly carefully constructed silhouettes.

But how many painters—today—would conceive of such an image?

The images are so simple, yet they embody so much, they evoke so much.

So obviously I strongly suspect this whole episode can be seen in itself as a metaphor.

When I’ve done posts about the Frankenstein mythos I’ve stressed the dehumanization of the modern world, the notion that instead of building up a Frankenstein’s monster from spare parts, a whole human can be ripped apart and put back together into a monster.

The Princeton psychologist Julian Jaynes wrote of vestiges in the modern world of what he termed “diminished consciousness.” Modern incarnations of an ancient frame of mind. He characterized the diminished consciousness as having four aspects:

the collective cognitive imperative, or belief system, a culturally agreed-on expectancy or prescription which defines the particular form of a phenomenon and the roles to be acted out within that form;

an induction or formally ritualized procedure whose function is the narrowing of consciousness by focusing attention on a small range of preoccupations;

the trance itself, a response to both the preceding, characterized by a lessening of consciousness or its loss, the diminishing of the analog ‘I,’ or its loss, resulting in a role that is accepted, tolerated, or encouraged by the group; and

the archaic authorization to which the trance is directed or related to, usually a god, but sometimes a person who is accepted by the individual and his culture as an authority over the individual, and who by the collective cognitive imperative is prescribed to be responsible for controlling the trance state.

the General Bicameral Paradigm
from The Origin of Consciousness
in the Breakdown of the Bicameral Mind

by Julian Jaynes

Watercolor paintings, I think, are the most thoughtful of all media. Everything is right there. The reality. The response to the reality. The thinking about the response.

But I wonder: How much of this can even exist in our world?

And I wonder: How much of this can exist, now, in my world?

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