Monday, February 18, 2013

The Specter in Walter Gay's Rooms

Above images from Architectural Digest and also a snippet of the article:
Before photography became the dominant medium to record the world around us, homeowners of a monied milieu—kings, nobles, landed gentry—relied on meticulously detailed paintings, particularly watercolors, to portray their rooms . This was especially true in the 19th century, as Mario Praz’s An Illustrated History of Interior Decoration (Thames and Hudson, 1964) colorfully attests, with some 400 antique images depicting everything from Yorkshire dining rooms to Mitteleuropean salons. Such depictions, Praz observed with an understandable swoon, “seem to me vibrant with expectation, still animated by human warmth, like a bed only recently abandoned by the man who slept in it.” 
 Walter Gay captured atmosphere perfectly. There is no mistake that he actually sat in the rooms he painted rather than conjuring them up wholly in his imagination.  Yet, "Gay rarely painted a room just as it was. He imposed his taste upon it, minimizing or removing elements, moving things around and adding objects that weren’t there. “He’s making a composition, not just painting a room,” Taube said." (source).  This approach is similar to landscape paining in that an artist is obliged to add a shrub here and eliminate a branch there. The best landscape paintings don't represent real landscapes but, like Gay's paintings, look perfectly organic.

"Still animated by human warmth" is totally accurate. Not just the beds but the chairs, look as though someone just got up and will be back in second. There are plenty of photos of interiors. Even when there are knickknacks scattered strategically on coffee tables to make the spaces look "lived in", the spaces are not animated by human warmth. Even if the inhabitants of the space are actually in the photo, the whole thing often still looks phony.

 Most photos of interiors have the atmosphere of highly sophisticated three dimensional diagrams of what a space should, theoretically, look like if someone was inclined to recreate it (for better or for worse). Details are perfectly captured in photographs. While Gay's paintings are blurry and full of uneven lines and odd angles, they look more natural than photographs. This is quite a mystery.

For a long time I had the theory that the impressionist style was created in part by the fact that Monet should have worn glasses, but didn't. He was nearly blind by the end of his life, so it wouldn't be a stretch to guess that he might have developed the blurry vague style because that is actually how he saw the world. This guess came about because of personal experience. When I got glasses for the first time I realized I had been living in an impressionistic world. Then I read Secret Knowledge: Rediscovering the Lost Techniques of the Old Masters by David Hockney which presented the Hockney-Falco Thesis. I will write a full post about it later. Anyway, Hockney examines a still life of some fruit painted from life. I don't remember which still life he used for his example but it looked like this one by Cézanne.

The point was that the human eye technically doesn't ever see the same exact shot twice because every time one blinks the image one sees changes slightly. The result is that if one were to paint anything from life, the lines wouldn't be very crisp because the artist would see the line in a slightly different spot if she looked at that line and happen to blink while doing it. In figure painting class you learn to just "commit" to a line because otherwise you end up chasing the "right" line forever (you will never find it again). So, it isn't that Monet was nearsighted (even though he might have been), it's that at any given glance the world looks clear but if you were to layer all your glances at one single object the result would be the above still life. Of course there is much more to the Hockney-Falco Thesis (Falco is, by the way, an optics expert), it does explain why some paintings do look like they realistically capture one singe glance but I will go into that another time.

Earlier I compared these rooms to landscape painting, the comparison goes farther. The role of light in these paintings is the same as in impressionistic landscapes. While lines of shapes can be frustratingly evasive, light is easier to capture naturally because often the borders are not as rigidly defined as the borders of solid objects (there are exceptions, example: paintings of tinfoil). Indeed Monet's work with his haystacks demonstrates that layered glances at light do relate to the way people interpret light. If the light looks real then the rest of the piece looks real (it works the other way too). It doesn't just look convincing, it looks enough like the (physical) vision of the artist that the viewer feels that they are viewing what the artist actually saw.

If one squints, the  paintings look even more real. These paintings are imbued with effect of a very particular atmosphere because of the skillful way in which the impressionistic style was applied. The focus on light above all else is what makes the spaces look natural, therefore real. The disarrayed piles of books are really a bit of a trick. The specter in Walter Gay's rooms, is you. 

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