Friday, May 14, 2010

sargent (good) and the (still-bad) painting

When Michael Kimmelman wrote about the Sargent-Velazquez pairing at the Prado Museum in Madrid (see May 9 entry, below), the piece encouraged me to look at Sargent again. I found a painting on the web that I had never seen before, a gorgeous, fairly typical lush Sargent, called "Nonchaloir (Repose)" from 1911:
Sargent often painted portraits where the subject (because she has paid) is shown as engaged, and lively, and enviable. Here, this (relatively small, at 25 1/8" x 30") work shows a woman who is not -- despite the painting's title -- in "repose": she is clearly restless, unhappy, and although her body has tucked itself into a corner of the sofa, her hair and the fabrics are only just under control. Her hands are clasped uncomfortably in a kind of confused show of fingers... she looks as though she might be wrapped in a sheet or some kind of elaborate shawl that might match the sheen of the skirt. There is just enough gold leaf on the table and frame above her to make clear her wealth... and her unhappiness.

Agnes Martin once said that "People think painting is about color/ It's mostly composition/ It's composition that's the whole thing/ The classic image -- /Two late Tang dishes, one with a flower image,/ one empty -- the empty form goes all the way to heaven" (from "The Untroubled Mind," in Writings).  The composition in this Sargent is so simple, but I think the horizontal lines work with the colored whites of the fabric to help us see the air inside the frame. The "empty" whites here pull you in... the viewer breathes the same air & wants to know more about the room, the moment... Even though the fabric shows strong brushstrokes,  the painter-li-ness makes it seem, somehow, touchable, something that could move in a slight breeze. Sargent and Vermeer both give space, even in their interior compositions.  They leave emptiness. I can't figure out how that works, but they do.

And then there's my poor thing, languishing in a corner of the living room. Despite the sanding that I thought had cleared it out a bit (May 3rd entry), it seems clogged and still:
It has no composition, as you can see. And therefore no air. A lot of white, but unreal, straight white. Insufficient emptiness.

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