Art and context: Monet's Cliff Walk at Pourville and Malevich's White on White Art & Context: Monet's Cliff Walk at Pourville & Malevich's Suprematist Composition: White on White A conversation with Sal Khan, Steven Zucker & Beth Harris
Art and context: Monet's Cliff Walk at Pourville and Malevich's White on White
- So one theme that I´m starting to appreciate more is that there´s been some pieces where you just look at it,
- you just experience it and I think this Monet is kind of like that. Even if no one knew this was a great work of art
- or they just saw it for the first time in their life and they knew nothing about Monet, they´d say "Well that's pretty. That's interesting and it really captures something nice."
- And then you have pieces like this which are clearly abstract and, not that one can't appreciate it,
- I think one can, but it feels that the piece of art by itself - you're like "OK, that's nice, it's white on white. Which is it's name.
- It's a square at an angle inside of another square." I can see how that might look aesthetically nice above my sofa or something
- but there's not quite that same, at least at a superficial level, of appreciation.
- Here you can appreciate all the brush strokes not even knowing this was Monet.
- I think you're absolutely right. I think that now for us in the early 21st century, it is in some ways much easier to get a quick meaning
- that can feel satisfying when we look at the Monet. What's ironic though, is when Monet first painted Impressionism,
- people didn't feel that way. In fact this kind of art broke rules and boundries.
- It challenged people in ways that I think we have a very hard time understanding. Critics made terrible fun of this.
- They called it unfinished. In fact, the very word "Impressionism" comes from criticism in a newspaper
- that was making fun of Monet; saying this isn't real painting, this is a mere impression.
- Something you dashed off quickly, huh?
- Yeah, because back then a "real painting" you'd carefully -
- every brush stroke you are trying to mimic reality. This clearly looks quicker.
- But Monet was trying to do something that he felt was really important which was to register on the canvas
- not what his mind knew an umbrella or a woman on a cliff looked like, but rather what light actually looked like at that moment.
- And so we have the sense of the wind, we have the sense of the flickering of color and the way it might change a second later or a second before.
- What I'm hearing is is that Monet kind of did both. When we really cite these great moments in art
- he was able to do something that was a huge transition and influential of things that came after him.
- I suspect that he wasn't saying "I'm going to be Avant-Garde and I'm going to break all the rules,"
- he just wanted to do something that he thought would be compelling.
- I think that that's right.
- He wanted to capture a certain emotive state or a certain way of perceiving the world.
- And that he felt was visually true.
- And that's why someone like me, not an expert, connects with it not even knowing the historical context.
- I would argue that we connect with it because we live in very much the same culture that Monet lived in.
- Middle class culture, one of leisure, one where you work and then when you don't work you take a vacation
- and you go to a vacation by the seaside and you spend time with your family. I think our world is his world
- so it's an easy painting for us to relate to. But when we get to something like the Malevich,
- we go into a world that's very different from our world - a world of Russia during the revolution.
- When I see a painting like that, if you didn't tell me anything I would say this was done in the '50s or '60s. When was this done?
- So this is done in 1918 and it was done in Russia by Kasimir Malevich.
- Think about what was happening in Russia at this moment. This was the Bolshevik Revolution.
- So these are very close together in time. Thirty-six years, which is nothing, it's a generation. I guess one thing that pops out at me
- when I see this is that it's 1918. I mean, we've looked at other modern pieces that at least on a superficial level look
- similar; they are abstract, they are not trying to show something in reality. The painting is itself, it's not trying to show
- a scene of people at a cliff having a nice picnic or whatever like that. So one thing is when I see this,
- I start to think that all these other folks in the 50s and 60s are a bit derivative. I mean, he did this in 1918!
- Well yes, but this had a very different kind of meaning. Malevich understood this kind of abstraction, what he called "Supremitism,"
- actually having an important political, almost spiritual message actually.
- Let me see if I can give you some sense of really what he was after.
- Did he make up that word "Supremitism?"
- He did.
- Is that a word now in the English language, or the Russian language?
- Well it's a word that refers to an art movment that he led.
- I see, "Suprematist."
- Exactly. Malevich was absolutely for the Russian Revolution. Russia was this deeply corrupt culture that had had a tzar.
- There was a terribly destabilized society, desperate poverty, so there was real need for change. The idea that Russia could produce a
- kind of new utopia was something that he was absolutely swept up by. He tried to create
- an art that would express that. In fact, that wouldn't just express that but would help make that happen.
- So I want to go back to the experience of seeing these two paintings in the museum.
- You walk up, you see the Monet, and you get it, and you love it and you are right there with it.
- But you get to the Malevich and it's coming from a different world and you need all this art history.
- You need history to get it.
- That's right because if you just went up to the Malevich at the museum you would say, "That's nice,"
- I mean after some of our conversations I think I'm already starting to appreciate it more than I would have in the past,
- and I would have started thinking about "Oh, this is abstract, it's just white." But you are right, you appreciate it
- much more when you think about it. My brain keeps going back and forth as to "Is this good?"
- Should the art be able to stand on its own? Which is how I've personally traditionally viewed art.
- The art should stand on its own and how I react to it is what matters. That's what I'm taught, too. Just what you think,
- that's right versus all the context. It is true that all the context does make it far more interesting and gives a lot more
- texture and understanding to what the piece is but then I feel like the piece itself isn't necessarily the focal point.
- I think we maybe too much want the artist to be a hero. We want the artist to have succeeded in some way.
- Maybe the artist is, to a large extent, an accumulation of a culture at a particular moment
- and giving voice and vision to that culture.
- That's actually a fascinating way of thinking about it. Any student of history might look at a newspaper clipping from 1918
- or might read a book and have to capture a little bit of how people are thinking at that time,
- or what their fears or their hopes are. What I'm appreciating more is that a piece of art like this
- gives you a core subjective feeling of how, at least what some people in the artistic community were feeling.
- It gets worse though.
- It gets worse?
- It does get worse. Take a look at this. You called it white-on-white but in fact it's this cool, internal square
- and this warmer white square outside it. Notice that he has not aligned those squares. So the smaller square-
- It's like titanium-on-off-white or something.
- Exactly. So he's tipped that inner square a bit. That's not arbitrary, he spent a lot of time thinking about that.
- There is a reason for this. At first when we look at this canvas, it couldn't be more flat. It couldn't be more two-dimensional, could it?
- You have a square against a square. What could be less volumetric? But then, those are two different whites.
- Maybe we're actually seeing that darker, cooler white as deeper in space. Or maybe it's in front of that
- warmer white. So all the sudden now we have a three-demensional relationship.
- How much is that reading into it?
- Well he actually wrote about this. He wrote a good deal about it and he taught. He was really interested
- in art as a way to push society forward, that is, art itself had agency. It could have political power.
- This is interesting because - and I'm appreciating this more because once again, we saw this work in 1918
- in someone's grandpa's garage, and you asked the grandpa "What is this?" he's like,
- "Well I had some titanium paint and some off-white paint and I felt like painting a square inside of another square,"
- not so interesting. But all the sudden when you have someone who, to some degree, has a voice in their time
- and is able to articulate this, it's interesting not because of it's technical sophistication or anything like that
- but because society at that point in time thought it was important and gave him a voice.
- He was trying to voice what he thought was important.
- That's why it transcends just this aesthetic or its technical.
- I think it does. Although I think he would be disappointed if he heard you say that. Because interestingly,
- I think he wanted it to stand up by itself. Here was the Russian Revolution. He wanted to separate himself from
- Bourgeois culture of the 19th century. He did not want to do what Monet was doing because that was a culture of privilege and of wealth.
- Instead he wanted to create a kind of art that was so essential, that had worn down to its pure roots, so that anybody,
- no matter how little education they had, could actually understand it and be moved by it.
- We might say it failed. But nevertheless, that was very much part of his intent.
- One question- I asked this about the Picasso as well, and even Malevich - he lived in a time that was fairly modern.
- It sounds like his intentions were really to get to this purity and not this overly intellectual - or I guess he
- was trying to raise people up - but why did he chose this medium? Why didn't he do it as a big titanium sculpture?
- Why didn't he put radio waves in it? Why didn't he do something else with it?
- Well certain artists that were at that moment actually tried to do that. You might think of people like Tatlin - constructivists.
- Malevich really did stick with painting but this was a period in Russia which was quite poor and they didn't
- have the money to pull this off. They could create models, but there was a terrible civil war in Russia right after
- the revolution right after the First World War and the country was deeply impoverished.
- I get the sense that some artists would have done that if they could have -
- Malevich definitely would have. I mean, he was interested in technology.
- Deeply interested, absolutely. He was in love with the airplane, he was in love with the idea of movement, of speed,
- of that new technology. He was trying to find a language that he felt was as utopian and as pure as the world he was hoping to create.
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