November 28, 2014

Only reason to analyze art is to figure out how to copy it.

That's my insight — probably intended as a bit of a joke and not a 100% truth — written in a notebook in 2002 as I studied the exhibition "Paul Klee: The Nature of Creation" at the Hayward Gallery in London.

Notes on Paul Klee

You can see the "→ Only reason to analyze art is to figure out how to copy it" appears after a quote from Paul Klee, which I transcribed from the gallery wall into the notebook: "Visual art never begins w/ a poetic mood or idea but with building one or several figures, w/ harmonizing a few colors & tones, or w/ calculating spatial relationships." I found this old NYT review of the exhibition, and it contains the next sentence after that: "Whether an idea then joins in is completely irrelevant; it may do, it doesn't have to.''

At the top of that notebook page is what — in this series of blog posts on the notebook — should be called Lesson 5 of How to draw/paint like Paul Klee.
• leave white blank small hole in gray washed rectangle. Add subsequent gray wash to build a pattern of black & gray squares surrounding. ("Study in Chiaroscuro.")
How delightful to read those old instructions and be able to find the artwork in question. An amazing amount of artistic crapola comes up if you do a Google image search on that title. But I restricted it with the artist's name, and found — after eliminating this — the painting that it must have been:

This success makes me want to go back to the 2 works analyzed in yesterday's post, the ones where I'd failed to record the title:
• Make a city based on placement of vertical lines on a field of unevenly spaced horizontal lines. Erase some of the horiz. lines to make "buildings," make lines in the sky closer together & lines in the foreground farther apart. add some deep doorways & steeples

• Start center bottom & build a structure of whimsical heads & bodies balanced one atop the other. At the top a head w/2 unequal eyes & a tear-like "fishing line" hanging from the bigger eye. Give whole structure a sense of weighted balance.
Ah! Success! The first one is almost surely "Picture of a City (Red-Green Accents)":

The second one is undoubtedly "An Equilibrium Caprice":


William said...

I'm guessing that this entry will not attract as many comments as the Ferguson one. I can form a reasoned, dispassionate opinion on Paul Klee but why bother. My available reserves of energy should be harnessed to explain the rectitude of my views concerning sex and race.

Ann Althouse said...


I know. I put up the Ferguson post in part to collect the conversation that seems to want or need to be had. I'm not inclined in that direction, and (as I noted there), I'm suspicious of the loudest voices among those who are.

This post is much more the sort of thing where I prefer to hang out. It's the small, intimate coffeehouse across the street from the trendy place where it's hard to hear what anyone is saying.

Over there, the talk is of minorities. Over here, we are a minority — not a minority with any claim to special empathy or compensation, just a minority to be ignored, the minority that inclines toward a closer look at old and studiously small artworks.

Anonymous said...

Re: "Ah! Success! The first one is almost surely "Picture of a City (Red-Green Accents)"
I considered this one when flipping through my books yesterday, but didn't see "make lines in the sky closer together & lines in the foreground farther apart" as applicable to it so I kept looking.
Which brings up the 'in-person' versus 'reproduction' aspect of viewing art: details that are strong when viewing in person (as attested by your notes) can be elided when viewing a reproduction -- esp. considering the varying qualities of reproduction: original photo quality and lighting thereof, printing method, mechanical quality of actual print, size of reproduction, etc; I had an art book once where all the pictures had a slight blue cast to them -- poor printing combined with poor quality control.
Also: some pictures just work better in person then others (perhaps surprisingly, I put Warhol in this category). As counterpoint, Dali translate to reproduction rather fully. This, of course, could be another conversation entirely....

Anonymous said...

RE: "studiously small artworks."

Speaking of Dali, I was surprised at how small some of his pieces actually are. "The Persistence of Memory" is only 9.5 in × 13 in-- I had previously imagined a much more 'epic' canvas.

pm317 said...

"Only reason to analyze art is to figure out how to copy it."

Agree with this wholeheartedly. Being short on the creative side and time-wise, I would rather reproduce a Cezanne or Matisse and still feel happy that I could. Only, I won't try to sell it to anyone and make money off of it.

Ann Althouse said...

"I considered this one when flipping through my books yesterday, but didn't see "make lines in the sky closer together & lines in the foreground farther apart" as applicable to it so I kept looking."

Yes, I see your point. I seem to be describing an illusion of depth created by the spacing between the lines, and this looks more grid-like.

Ann Althouse said...

The part that makes me think that's the right image is: "Erase some of the horiz. lines to make 'buildings.'"

That is a key trick there. You make your horizontal and vertical lines, then you take out some segments of the horizontal to create columns that seem like high-rise buildings. I can see several of those.

Paddy O said...

What are other potential reasons for analyzing art?

That's a genuine question I'm asking. Analyzing is the key word for me, rather than contemplating or enjoying or considering. Analyzing is an intellectual task, while most art, especially modern art, was intended (I think) to move behind the purely intellectual endeavor.

Maybe another reason to analyze art is to get to the intent of the artist and their goal for the viewer. But in doing that, one is now no longer focused on the art itself, and is analyzing (psycho-analyzing?) the artist. Analyzing the art for the art's sake seems to insist on a focus for technique, for critique or repetition.

Tank said...

pm317 said...

"Only reason to analyze art is to figure out how to copy it."

Agree with this wholeheartedly

I'd have to respectfully disagree with this sentiment. I don't have the talent to copy "it, but have taken some art classes (where I realized I didn't have the ability), and I like to look at art two ways.

First, does it have some impact on me? Simply, do I enjoy looking at it, and for more than a moment? This happens for me with various kinds of art, but most with the impressionists, Dali, and a few others.

Second, if I like a painting, or in some cases, a multi media creation, I like to get up close to try to see how the artist created the impression you get from five feet away, ten feet away, etc. I love it when close up the piece looks like a mish mash, but, from a distance, a clear and moving picture emerges.

Don't know much about art, but I like to look, and I like to hear people who know about it talk.

I remember being in Italy, and our guide "explained" how, for the "artist," (LOL, the artist !), The David emerged from the solid block.

That guide was very entertaining. We were passing through a temporary exhibit on the way to The David, and he glanced at the "art" and remarked, This, this is a sheet."

Eeyore Rifkin said...

The only reason to do art is to understand it. The idea is malformed (why it?, the self-reference). Two questions: what's behind the sense that there must be something behind art; what's communicated by the omerta of the artist? "This is art" says mimesis is finished. You, dear aesthete, must participate. You must enact. Enact what? Something. Something else? Something true to the modality of your acceptance of the challenge? Art resists objectification, verily rebels against it, yet requires objectification to complete one of its essential phases. What is this? This is an object of beauty. This is an object of contemplation. Oh, is that all?

Isn't mimesis always finished? The eternal copy machine can only be found in the museum of the imagination. We could use the logic of sets to prove its impossibility. Yet that would hardly be reason enough to shake our faith.

A virtual museum of copy machines.

Richard Lawrence Cohen said...

What's the matter, Ann, prejudiced against artistic crapola?

Ann Althouse said...

"First, does it have some impact on me? Simply, do I enjoy looking at it, and for more than a moment?"

That's not what I mean by "analyzing" the art, though you may be learning something about yourself or meditating or enjoying yourself. It seems more like a predeliction for avoiding analyzing the art.

Ann Althouse said...


Use your crayola to make artistic crapola.

Tank said...

@Althouse, yes the part you quoted is the non-analyzing part.

pm317 said...

@Tank, there are varying degrees of being engaged with a piece of art. For me, if something interests me, the immediate question in my mind is can I do it? can I reproduce it and if the answer is yes, I proceed to analyze how. Perhaps, it is my mediocre skill or laziness that makes me look at art that way but Althouse is probably referring to something much more intricate.

lee said...

It's funny. When I was a kid, we weren't too a Klee exhibit at the Museum of Modern Art in NY. I don't remember it. I don't remember Guernica, which for years my mom assured me was there, prominently displayed and hard to miss. But I do remember the little Paul Klee book they bought me. I lost it eons ago. But because I had it, and looked at it for several years after we'd seen the exhibit, I remember it well.

Ann Althouse said...

"@Althouse, yes the part you quoted is the non-analyzing part."

The other part doesn't fit my definition either. It speaks of what happens within your eye and brain, not what the artist did. Your concern is squarely within yourself, up close and far away.

Ann Althouse said...

"The only reason to do art is to understand it. The idea is malformed (why it?, the self-reference)."

It's a note to myself and my understanding is what matters here. The "it" refers to a particular artwork, a drawing or painting that you might choose to study and figure out.

Tank said...

What we have here is a failure to communicate.

My bad.

I hate that saying.

Eeyore Rifkin said...

My apologies, Professor, if it wasn't clear that the malformed idea I had in mind was my own.

Thank you for the forum and the mental stimulation, by the way.

Ann Althouse said...

Tank an Eeyore, I don't mean to hurt your feelings, but I'm trying to say something specific, and you may be talking about something meaningful that you do in the presence of art, but if it is about traveling inward, then it is not the analysis of the thing that I am saying is what you do when you are trying to figure out how to make your own artwork.

Jerry Herbel said...

The effect of a painting is what first draws a viewer to take a closer look..this effect is interior to the viewer. But to analyze this effect is not simply to feel and then think about feeling. The effect begins with the intent of the artist at the moment of creating the piece. What was (s)he trying to do? When I can answer that the effect is clearer, the object mediates between artist and viewer. I study the art to communicate with the artist. Analyzing the art is the same thing as analyzing the effect. To figure out how an artist achieved an effect is analysis without the intent to copy.

Christopher J Feola said...

@Betamax 3000 -- Have you been to the Dali Museum in St. Pete? I think the small Dali's translate reasonably well via reproduction, but the large ones...not so much. The first time I saw The Discovery Of America by Christopher Columbus, for example, I was stunned by Dali's brushwork and the enormous amount of fine detail. His precision and control is stunning. It's 14 feet tall by almost 12 feet wide; even reproducing it poster size would, by necessity, mean shrinking the detail into invisibility.

I'm a huge Dali fan, so YMMV, but the museum is definitely worth the trip.


Eeyore Rifkin said...

"Stop playing licks and get into yourself!"--Charles Mingus

Speaking plainly, imitation is productive as part of the learning process in any creative field. You want technical mastery, you're going to end up doing some imitation. If that's the only use you have for your analytical faculty, you're doing it wrong. You've missed something essential.

If you mark off a limit like "inward" that will be your limit. However much you grow as an artist, you will not grow past your own limits. You might limit yourself knowingly, for some kind of bonsai effect, or your limitations might more resemble a grotesque disfigurement, as if you jumped on a grenade--heroically no doubt. The rest of the platoon thanks you. Please don't resent them for making full use of their abilities.

jaed said...

I read the post title for a moment as "Only reason to analyze art is to figure out how to enjoy it" for some reason.

I think that's actually better. Good analysis increases your appreciation of the work by increasing your understanding, helping you notice patterns and details and implications. It adds depth to your at-a-glance enjoyment.