Mar 27, 2011

Degas' Obsession - MASP II

Edgar Degas was obsessed with the female form. This much was obvious just from the few works that they had from him at MASP. I would go further and say that more specifically, Edgar Degas was obsessed with the form of the female back.

Bending, leaning women fill Degas' frames, each one showing off a brilliant, muscular back. The focal point, they are often offset by heavy outlines, low cut ballerina leotards, or illuminated by bright colors. The faces of his subjects are often positioned away from the artist, with unfocused gazes or looking into the distance. Like all men with obsessions, he's not interested in the personailities of his subjects, but merely the object of his obsession: the various forms that a female back can take.

Some of his paintings do not show a woman's back, but her bosom. Though in these images the women are typically in the act of bending over or down, thrusting out their chests as they do. One could use these to question my hypothesis, claiming that he was just as obsessed with bosoms, as when a chest is thrust out in this manner it shows off these assets as well, so to speak. I acknowledge this interpretation, but would suggest that the manner in which the women are pushing out their bosoms and leaning down is, in fact, the best way to display a human back, adding muscle definition as you extend out the spinal column. It's a lot like bending over in a yoga sun saluation - you're extending and working out your back muscles by pushing your scapula forward and pulling your shoulder blades back. Degas paints women in this manner because it's merely another perspective of a woman's back - that from the front. Like a burlesque dancer that merely hints at what's under her corset, Degas' front facing subjects are seductive suggestions of what they would look like from behind.

So why ballerinas and bathing women? Because ballerinas and women in the act of bending over to wash are the few or only examples in Degas' time that you would have of women in the act of displaying their backs. Ballerinas, like modern yogis, bend and extend their backs, displaying them in leotards with low cut backs that would have been hard to find in other situations. Similarly, women who are seated and washing their feet are the best exposition of a woman's naked back.

No one at MASP seems to have figured this out - in their exhibition on Obsessão da Forma, his sculpture of woman bathing was positioned so that we could see her front bent over a wash basin: her detailed, perfectly scuplted back was facing away from the viewer, towards the center of the collection of sculptures.

What do you think?

The Art of Portraiture - Olhar e Ser Visto - MASP I (Or how you'll never want to have your picture taken ever again Or Facebook is Evil Infotoate)

Tuesday is free day at the MASP (Museu de Arte de São Paulo). So I went.

The MASP building is impressive but compact, which makes sense for a building that's on Paulista, home to some of the skinniest office buildings I've ever seen. The building itself is a huge concrete block that rests on four large red concrete posts. Currently, the outside of the block is covered with a cloudscape, a work of art called Tramazul. The ground floor level is open, a plaza that at night serves home to several of the street-wanderers. Sundays, it's an antique market.

The museum itself has four actual floors, but only 3 of art exhibitions. The top two floors, that reside in the concrete block above the plaza, hold paintings, sculptures, and prints of the current permanent and temporary exhibitions. The top floor (2) holds the permanent exhibitions, currently Olhar e Ser Visto, Romanticismo, and Arte do Sagrado. The first floor (one up from street level) holds a tribute to Brazilian print art, Papeis Brasileiros. The first subterranean level holds a café, library, and gift shop. The second subterranean level: a por-kilo restaurant (must come back to try this out!) and the last exhibit in the museum: a collection of statues showing "Obsession with Form" (Obsessão da Forma).

Hands down favorite was definitely the exhibition on portraiture, Olhar e Ser Visto. In this exhibit, the curators had divided the portraits that they had on hand into several different categories, demonstrating the rise of portaits in the 13th century, mostly busts or full length photos of the wealthiest class of European cities. The exhibit then moves from these full length portraits with no background to, gasp, full length portraits with backgrounds and scenery. From there, the exhibit jumps forward to more modern portraits: two or three of Modigliani's women, a couple of Van Gogh's, Picasso's Athelete.

The idea of the entire exhibit was to demonstrate how art went from representing reality to representing an idea or an image. Using portraits to show this contrast was clever, but I disagree with the premise that the original portraits, from the 13th to 15th century, were necessarily attempting to "reflect reality" more or less than the portraits that they had on display by Picasso, Van Gogh, or Modigliani.

Based on my observations, the portraits from the 13th century only attempted to be an accurate representation of a person's face - more specifically their eyes, brow, nose, and perhaps mouth. Anything outside of these four key facial features was left to the discretion of the artist and/or patron who was paying for the picture. In other words, the only actual portion of the photo that was "depicting reality" was the face - it had to actually look like the person that it was attempting to replicate. But only their facial features - beyond the face was the realm of the imagination. This contrast was easily seen in many of the portraits: the brush strokes used for facial characteristics were small and concise. These parts of the portraits looked the most real, had the most life out of any of the canvas. The rest of the work of art was often painted in with larger brush strokes, unclear lines. Buttons that lack shine, hems painted on in broad strokes, bushes that fade away on the edges. The most obvious indication of a facial focus: necks bent at strange angles, noses and eyes that appear to float above and off of the face that they're supposedly attached to.

This same detail to facial features persisted throughout the paintings, regardless if they were modern or older. Let's call this the "Can you see me now?" game. In the older form of portriature, "Can you see me now?" was done in order to please the patrons - failure to accurately represent the facial features of your boss most likely would result in starvation and the end to a relatively short lived artistic career. In the modern age, "Can you see me now" became an attempt to depict a person through the lens of an artist - rather how badly can I distort a person and you still see that person? In other words, how far would reality bend before you lost all connection to reality entirely? Modigliani's portraits of women are impressive in this regard: even with the vacant eye expressions, and the childish coloring job that looks as though it could have been done by a two year old with crayons, you can still get a feeling for the subject's personality and attitude.

The portrait that best expresses this idea of "Can you see me now?", Modern Edition, was the Athelete by Picasso (see above). Following the tradition of older portraits, the face is the focal point in the painting - that is to say that the background and even the torso of the man have been neglected with respect to the detail of the strokes and the accuracy of representation. The face of the man, however, appears to be made steel planes and plates, fused together with human flesh - the first Terminator, perhaps? This fusion STILL MANAGES TO MAINTAIN the essence of the man himself: he's old, he's tired. This athelete has seen better days. Picasso has taken a man, distorted him with metal plates and cubist looks, but has still maintained the agony of age and the weathering of years on his face.

So what is a portrait? A piece of art modeled after a person that attempts to reflect their presence and personality, both as felt by themselves as by the people in the world around them. A portrait must be recognizable both to the subject and to those that are familiar with the subject. As such, portraits are fascinating revelations both of who we see ourselves as and how others perceive us.

Thinking beyond the portraits at MASP, my realization of what a portrait attempts to capture led me back to my current relationship with photographs of myself - I'm largely unhappy with them.

(CAUTION: If you're currently a fairly happy, non-introspective individual with a good relationship with your personal Facebook page and who likes to have their picture taken with and by friends, proceed with caution. The following might forever alter how you view yourself and your relationships with others.)

Cameras and photography bring an interesting angle into the question posited by the MASP curators: does art reflect reality or merely our interpretaion of it? By design, cameras can only reflect reality. They make impressions and record what actually happened: that facial expression would not exist in that photo if you at some point had not been making it. That happy grin, those angry eyes, that sleepy expression: all of them at some point flashed across your facial features.

So my discomfort with photos of myself is in fact a larger discomfort with the face that I present to the world. It's not the photos that I dislike but the self-portrait that comes back through them: I'm dissatisfied with the depiction of my personality, of my attitude, of the face that I give to others to see and perceive. So I've stopped taking as many photos of myself (though it's hard not to want to see, from time to time, what it is that I'm reflecting into reality. I'm curious by nature).

Though this discussion of obsession with photos of the self leads me to a deeper debate that I've been having with myself: how much of the expression and self that I show to a camera is a reflection of who I am in that moment, and what part of it is a reflection of my current relationship with, as a proxy, cameras and, by extension, myself? That is to say, knowing what I do about a camera's ability to display reality, to what extent to I show my loathing for that ability in my expressions that I give to a camera? Cameras make me nervous - I feel as though I must perform for them so that they will capture that which I wish to see myself as. I'm using them as a way to mold my understanding of myself, thus controlling and actively shaping how I define myself. It's like taking a badly written personality test - you don't end up finding out anything new about yourself but only a rough outline of what you want yourself to be like.

My problem with photographs is that I am unable to fake being what I want to be, at least for the camera.

Further mind-fuckage: for those of us who are not as deeply obsessed with their self-relationship as I am (when someone takes my picture, I'm largely focused on my future self that will be looking at the photo and attempting to represent for her the face that I think that she would most want to see in that situation, as opposed to being focused on the moment or on who's taking the picture), imagine what portraits tell us about the relationship between the person making the portrait and the person being represented.

There was an interesting notation on one of the portraits at MASP about the diversity of portraits, especially whether or not the subject was staring off into the distance or looking directly at the artist. Of course, part of this has to do with the person in the portrait: are they a person that tends to look others directly in the eyes, or someone that, on average, tends to avoid the eyes of others? Are they more introverted or extroverted, more of a dreamer or a practical person oriented person? Do they enjoy social interactions or do they avoid them?

But taken further, what kind of person is the artist? Is he or she someone that most people are used to looking at, the sort of person who draws attention from others and is comfortable with it? Are they used to calling attention to themselves?

And finally, what is the relationship between the artist and their subject? Is the subject able to relax around the person that is depicting them, are they comfortable looking at the artist in the face, are they willing to show who they are to the artist?

Now go look at your Facebook photos. Find the ones where you look the happiest, where you look the most relaxed. Who were you with? Who was taking the photo? How much of your expression, your revelation of who you are is affected by that other person? Now look at the photo's that you've taken of other people. Do they look relaxed and happy to see you? Are they looking you in the eye or looking away? Do they seem nervous or uncomfortable? How much of this is you and how much of it is them? Well, that's an easy question to answer: go look at their other Facebook photos. Are they always comfortable in photos? Who else makes them look the way that they look in the photos that you took togehter? What is their relationship like with that person?

So I'm shying away from cameras for the moment. I've turned off Facebook so that I no longer have access to that repository of photos of myself (all in various stages of understanding the power of a photo to reveal your personality! "Wow, look at this one from 200x, I was super happy then, just wait until I figured out what photographs can say about you" ... "Here it is! The first showing of that angry, suspicious expression, yup late 200x, just as I suspected...What a great 'Die Camera, Die' face!.. Man I was super unhappy at that party, look how much I wanted to be taken seriously...")

And thus, Facebook is Evil Infotoate.


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