Representation & Abstraction: Millais's Ophelia and Newman's Vir Heroicus Sublimis Representation & Abstraction: Looking at Millais and Newman John Everett Millais, Ophelia, 1851-2 (Tate Britain) and Barnett Newman, Vir Heroicus Sublimus, 1950-51 (MoMA) A conversation with Sal Khan, Beth Harris & Steven Zucker
Representation & Abstraction: Millais's Ophelia and Newman's Vir Heroicus Sublimis
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- - My favorite painting is John Everett Millais' "Ophelia," a Pre-Raphaelite painting.
- - What do you mean by Pre-Raphaelite?
- - Well the Pre-Raphaelites were a group of artists in the 1850s in England, actually they formed a group in 1848
- and their goal was to challenge the official ideas of art and what it should be.
- - Raphael was a Renaissance artist who really made things
- exact and very technical
- - Raphael was a Renaissance artist who was revered
- in the Victorian era. But by then they were so used
- to looking at Raphael and painting like Raphael
- they so admired him that it had become a kind of formula for painting.
- The Pre-Raphaelites said, "We want to go back to look at the art before Raphael because we have descended
- into a formula and we've lost our real connection
- to looking and observing the world.
- So they painted directly from looking closely at nature.
- They really fit with these ideas that we've been talking about
- of how we value art that challenges the establishment.
- - And I definitely appreciate that. What this piece does it still is aesthetically beautiful in a traditional sense
- and you also look at it and say, well there is definitely skill there
- I can't just show up at a canvas and produce something like that.
- - Yeah, the painting is incredibly absorbing. In person it is
- astoundingly beautiful. The colors are rich and deep,
- you can look at how the artist painted every flower, every blade of grass, every reed. So that idea of technical skill -
- - I think even the choice of subject is very beautiful
- -beautiful. Yeah the subject and the way it's painted are both beautiful
- and the way it's painted shows great technical skill.
- - So for this one I get it on a bunch of different levels.
- It challenged people, it was kind of a pivotal piece of art, and
- it is beautiful and technically sophisticated.
- What are we looking at on the right-hand side?
- - Barnett Newman's "Vir Heroicus Sublimis"
- - This is kind of the classic when people look at it and they say "Well, that looks nice, it might look nice above my sofa,"
- but there's a big difference here where most people would
- look at the left-hand side and say "Gee, that is pivotal, challenging, and very technically beautiful,"
- while on the right-hand side they say, "Oh, I could do that."
- In fact you see on these home improvement shows, people say we need some artwork and literally they produce
- something that looks not too different than that in a little amount of time.
- -Absolutley. So it's not about technical skill at all.
- But for me, what the Newman asks me to do is something that I really value in my experience of art.
- What it does is it concentrates my attention.
- First of all, it's really big. So when you're in its space, you feel really overcome by it.
- You feel it kind of calling out to you so you are kind of drawn to it and you walk up close
- and it almost starts to become your world.
- The color is really intense. What happens to me when I'm in the presence of the painting is that I start to notice the color
- and its effect on me and the way that colors remind me of feelings.
- -I guess the cynical, and there are people who look at that and say
- "I can appreciate that, it's a big aesthetic, red thing with some lines in it.
- But someone else could have done it or someone can do it now."
- So that's not why -- what you just described, you are appreciating the aesthetics of it and it is this huge paiting and I can see that,
- but it's more that he was the first to --
- - It actually is a lot more complicated than it looks. So it draws us into it.
- Then when we start looking at the lines, we notice that they go from the top to the bottom, that he created the lines
- in different ways, that they have different qualities.
- These are hard things to tell when we're looking at the reproduction.
- It draws us in and I find myself paying attention in a way that I don't normally in my everyday world.
- I really appreciate that for that moment in the museum,
- I'm taken out of my everyday world of being distracted and surrounded by a million different things that I hardly notice
- and I'm being asked to really visually focus.
- - I actually appreciate it in a similar way, I've actually never visted it in person but I can somewhat imagine on a larger
- scale, especially if you go up close and you see the detail there.
- There does seem to be a fundamental division between what -- I mean they're both aesthetically captivating and interesting.
- The painting on the left, I think you go cross-culture really almost anytime in history, and you would have gotten some appreciation for it.
- While the painting on the right, they also would say "well that's an interesting way to paint a wall," or something but
- they wouldn't put them in the same category. Is that fair to say?
- - I think that what you're saying is fair. There is a real rupture here.
- The image on the left is still very much a part of history of art making that has to do with representation and depiction.
- I think that what we're looking at on the right it is a fundamental break.
- The painting on the left was a fundamental break in its own day, this Pre-Raphaelite idea.
- - It was more of a break in style though, not really hitting "what is art?"
- -That's right. It is pure abstraction. Barnett Newman was an abstract expressionist.
- He belonged to a group of artists that were thinking about painting in very different ways.
- They were asking whether or not art had to be something other than what it was.
- In other words, if you look at "Ophelia," you see this woman who is drowning, who is submerged in this stream
- and it is beautiful. But in a sense, it's a lie.
- This is color paste on canvas that is trying to represent something that it's not.
- It's a falsehood, it's an illusion.
- The image on the right is saying, "Can we be true to the materiality of our art and still create something that is profound?"
- Think about music for a moment. In music, we do not require a symphony to represent a landscape. It might,
- and certain symphonies will do that, but music is taken on its own
- - Or the human voice, right
- - But music is taken on its own terms. Music is about tone, it's about rhythm, it's about its own internal logic.
- Painting had never been that.
- - And you could say, in fact, that the Millais distracts us.
- from those things that Steven is referring to. To color, to shape, to lines.
- - The paint itself.
- - Yeah, in a way what the Newman is doing is concentrating that.
- Look at it, don't be distracted by all these other things.
- - Yeah, I'm not trying to be a scene out of Shakespeare.
- - But can I still be as profound, can I still be as emotionally powerful?
- Here an artist is saying that a canvas is two-dimensional; I am going to create something that seems at least at first
- blush to be absolutely flat. But then, look at those lines. How do they occupy space?
- Do they begin to create an illusion of space? In a subtle way, Beth mentioned just a moment ago
- that the lines move from the top to the bottom, so they do measure the size of the canvas and in that way, announce the two-dimensionality of the canvas.
- But at the same time, they are different tones and different qualities of density. They recede or they project forward.
- - So let me ask you, do one of those lines move back, does one come forward?
- - It is interesting, there is that, it has this core primitive dimensionality to it
- and you start to see -- I never thought of it that way before.
- You are right, what is on the left is a lie. It's something trying to be something that it's not
- while on the right, it literally is, this is the painting. The painting is what you are trying to see.
- It's not trying to be a TV set for the rest of reality.
- -So there is a kind of fundamental truth to the painting on the right that was up-ending 2,000 years of representation
- -Or longer, probably, I mean cave paintings right?
- -Absolutely. One could say 38,000 years of tradition. How radical is that? How brave is that? How heroic is that?
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