Wednesday, September 26, 2012

Refuge, Sanctuary And Asylum As Synonyms

Deep is wild, with beasts one meets
usually in dreams. Here the giant octopus
drags in its arms. We meet it.
We are hungry in the upper air, and you

have the sea-spear that shoots deep;
you fire accurately, raising a conflagration
of black ink. The animal grabs stone
in slow motion, pulls far under a ledge
and piles the loose rock there as if
to hide might be enough. It holds tight,

builds sanctuary, and I think cries
“sanctuary!”—it dies at your second shot.
We come aboveboard then, with our eight-armed
dinner and no hunger left, pursued by the bland
eyes of fish who couldn’t care, by black
water and the death we made there.

from Underwater
by Michael Schmidt
quoted in Underwater This Is The Cathedral Sea

I don’t have a lot for today, and in particular I don’t have a real point for this post. But this is something I think about a lot so I’m going to do this post anyway.

This is a scan I found somewhere on the internet of an Andrew Wyeth painting called, “Refuge.” It is considered the “last” of the Helga paintings:

It’s not my favorite of the Helga images but I like it a lot.

I’ve been thinking about these images a lot because over the weekend just for fun I looked through the book, “The Helga Pictures.”

A long time ago when I looked through the Wikipedia entry for the paintings I was struck by this observation:

“For art critic James Gardner, Testorf "has the curious distinction of being the last person to be made famous by a painting".”

I suppose that’s true. But in my own mind I always think of the Helga paintings—just because of when they came out, around 1986—as being comparable in some difficult-to-define way to the photographs Victor Skrebneski took of Cindy Crawford.

I wrote about that business very briefly in, A Failed Post (And A Little Something Extra).

I know one was art and the other was advertising. I know one was painting and the other was photography. But they were roughly contemporary images and I think of them both as being the last two examples of models made very famous (mostly) just by images.

(And I know, of course, a lot of it is simply media dynamics. Some advertising catches on in the context of an era, some doesn’t, and a person could make the case that it is really the context that does the defining and not the content. So Skrebneski’s beautiful graphic portraits of Cindy Crawford may not have made such a fuss in a different context. And some people in the art world regard the set (“suite”) of Helga images as media manipulation from start to finish—after all, many artists create a series of a model. But, nonetheless, it seems to me that these two cases are examples where critics may have a point, but the reality of the content has a point, too: Both I think are examples of art that really does stand out even once the criticisms have been acknowledged as valid. At least that’s my subjective response, just my opinion, and that’s why I don’t think I’m wasting my time thinking about this stuff.)


So I’ve been thinking, again, about the differences between photographs of a person and drawings/paintings of a person.

Two things stand out to me right away. I can still remember how beautiful Cindy Crawford appeared in Skrebneski’s photographs. Obviously lots of photographers have photographed her, but to my eyes Skrebneski captured something unique, something almost magic, in his images. So I believe photography as a medium can capture amazing portraits. And I still remember how excited I was when I learned somebody had discovered and published a photograph of Victorine Meurent, Manet’s famous model. In that case, I don’t think the photograph captured anything special, anything unique, anything almost magic comparable to Manet’s images.

But it occurred to me a couple of days ago that although I have loved the Helga images for decades, I have never felt any imperative at all to ever see a photograph of Helga Testorf, the Helga model.

Once I thought that, of course, I made myself look around the internet. I checked out a couple of photographs of Helga Testorf. And I only shrugged. In photographs I just see an anonymous woman, nothing of the almost magic Wyeth captured in his drawings and paintings.

This is very interesting to me.

Many “drawn” images these days—illustrations and comics and graphics novels—are blunt copies of photographs. Many are, in fact, tracings of photographs, or hand-corrected (or “corrected”) digital variations of photographs that a software algorithm has rendered “in the style of a drawing.”

This is very interesting to me, and I can’t really even say why. Maybe it’s because it seems possible for some images to capture something like a spark of life to them, something almost like real life magic.

Photographs can do it, but almost never actually accomplish it. Drawings and paintings can do it, but almost always nowadays essentially force themselves to forsake the quality and, rather, to embrace the trivial superficiality found in most photographs.

The net result, of course, is that contemporary culture is to a large extent completely missing out on an essential content-component of what for centuries and centuries has been called, “art.”

(And I think about one other thing too, but I’m going to mention this quickly and parenthetically: In a very tangential way, a very internet sort of way, I once crossed paths with a young woman who very much wants to be a celebrity. In many ways she is succeeding. But I am always struck when once or twice a year I look in at her Tumblr. She seems to be always putting up photographs of herself. They seem to be always modern, extreme close-ups of herself. But there is no “almost magic” in these images at all. They are images that present the appearance of what simply might be just another, say, Kim Kardashian wannabe. So I think to myself: Why would a woman do that to herself? Is it because in our modern culture that essential content-component of art—the “almost magic” element that an artist, exceptional photographer or competent painter, can somehow sometimes capture—has become completely lost, and it never even occurs to current generations to look for it? I don’t know. It’s disconcerting and depressing and discouraging and, probably, other “d” words that I don’t want to think about.)

So that’s today’s post. Just an old fashioned kind of blog post—me rambling on about stuff I’ve been thinking about lately.

Looking for refuge
I think I’m lucky I’m not
in an asylum.

. . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . .

Jeanne H├ębuterne — Art As A Grail

All The Issues Of Perspective

Anna Kournikova’s Face

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