Art for dummies (like me)


Can you guess what the following statements refer to? “The connoisseurship of —— offers, from time to time, investigations as fascinating and complex as a detective story.” As a follow-up, “His motives were mixed.” And from another page, “In this connection the small wicker basket is revealing.”

Sounds just like a murder mystery, doesn’t it? Maybe the murder has just been discovered and the scene is unique. Maybe the murderer was both jealous and greedy. Maybe the murder weapon is in the wicker basket. Close but no….no, not even close. The sentences in the lead paragraph are descriptions of paintings that look like, well, paintings. Not being burdened with an art degree, I think about art as I think about wine. I know virtually nothing about it, but I know what I like. To imbue a five hundred year old canvas with all sorts of encoded and obscure meaning is beyond me. If someone has painted a picture of a dog, mostly I see a dog. I do not see man’s internal struggle to be master or mastered. I do not see a tortured soul yearning for companionship and succor. And I surely don’t see a horse.

Trying to broaden my horizons and not go crazy during the winter months, I started reading a book about the National Gallery of Art in Washington, D.C. It’s a huge, somber, weighty tome with over one thousand color plates reflecting the contents of the National Gallery. I enjoy looking at the paintings, marveling at how the old ones survived wars and floods and exoduses and bankruptcies. But I still don’t get the conclusions drawn by someone (who no doubt IS burdened with an art degree) writing about the works this many years later. It all seems overblown, not to put too fine a point on it.

He writes of a Jan Vermeer painting, “Woman Holding a Balance” : “Vermeer was a master of stillness, of those moments of life when all action has ceased, held by an ephemeral adjustment of forces. The woman is absorbed, wrapped in the serene and mysterious thought of approaching maternity.” In the painting, the woman’s pregnant body hides half of a painting behind her evoking this thought, “The truth of life could be seen only in the shadow of death; living and dying were simultaneous and inseparable.” Well, duh.

If ya gotta have an adjustment of forces, I suppose it might as well be ephemeral. The author happens to be male so I’m not entirely sure how he is so certain pregnant women are wrapped in anything but odd cravings and swollen ankles. Seriously, who talks like that? My guess is if some sweltering Midwest August, you met a woman who was eight months pregnant and asked her if she were wrapped in serene and mysterious thoughts, she’d try to strangle you and there is not a jury of her peers in the whole country who would convict her.

At the risk of sounding like a Philistine (too late, probably), I was surprised to read the description of Rembrandt’s “The Mill.” “The Mill” is, guess what?, a painting of a mill. The author informs us that the sentiment has been expressed by chiaroscuro only, that it is a mood of sublime sadness, and is indescribably moving. After I looked up “chiaroscuro” in the dictionary I still couldn’t get past the fact that I was looking at not just sadness, but sublime sadness. I’m embarrassed to use only a four-syllable word when five-syllable words are evidently required, but isn’t that an oxymoron? And if it’s indescribably moving….

Imagine the next poor art critic coming along, studying “The Mill,” and seeing, guess what?, a painting of a mill. He or she would be too humiliated to simply say, “Hey, that’s a great painting of a mill.” No, just to remain credible, they’d have to wax poetic about what Rembrandt was really thinking, really feeling, and perhaps what he had for breakfast. They’d have to out-sublime sublime sadness. They might have to look up “chiaroscuro” too.

Marla Boone resides in Covington and writes for Miami Valley Today.

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