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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. Created by Beth Harris, Steven Zucker, and Sal Khan.

Video transcript

SALMAN KHAN: 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. And I think this Monet is kind of like that. Even if no one knew this was a great work of art and they just saw it for the first time in their life and they knew nothing about Monet, they'd say, well, that's pretty. And that's really 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 there. You're like, OK, that's nice. It's white on white, which is literally its name. It's a square at an angle, inside of another square. And I could 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-- appreciation. Here, you could even appreciative all the brush strokes, not even knowing this was Monet. SPEAKER 2: 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 that when Monet first painted impressionism, people didn't feel that way. In fact, this kind of art broke rules and boundaries, and 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 and saying, this isn't real painting. This is a mere impression. SPEAKER 3: Something you dashed off quickly. SALMAN KHAN: Yeah, I can imagine-- because back then, a real painting, you'd carefully-- every brush stroke-- you're trying to mimic reality. This, clearly, it looks quicker. SPEAKER 2: 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. SALMAN KHAN: And what I'm hearing, is that Monet, he kind of did both. And when we really cite these great moments in art, or whatever-- 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 avante garde, and I'm going to break all the rules. He just wanted to do something that he thought would be compelling. SPEAKER 2: I think that that's right. SALMAN KHAN: That would capture a certain emotive state, or a certain way of perceiving the world SPEAKER 2: And that he felt was visually true. SALMAN KHAN: And that's why someone like me, not an expert, connects with it, not even knowing the historical context. SPEAKER 3: I would argue that we connect with it because we live in very much the same culture that Monet lived in-- a 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. And 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. SALMAN KHAN: When I see a painting like that-- if you all didn't tell me anything, I'd say this was done in the '50s or '60s. When was this done? SPEAKER 2: So this is done in 1918, and it was done in Russia by Kazimir Malevich. And think about what was happening in Russia at this moment. This was the Bolshevik Revolution. SALMAN KHAN: And so these are very close together in time-- 36 years-- which is nothing. It's just a generation. And, I guess, one thing that pops out at me when I see this--this is 1918. And we've looked at other modern pieces that, at least on a superficial level, look similar. They're abstract, they're 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 kind of start to think that all these other folks in the '50s and '60s are a bit derivative. I mean, he did this in 1918. SPEAKER 2: Well, yes. But this had a very different kind of meaning. Malevich understood this kind of abstraction-- what he called suprematism-- actually having an important political, almost spiritual message, actually. Let me see if I can give you some sense of what he was after-- SALMAN KHAN: Did he make up that word "suprematism?" SPEAKER 2: He did. SALMAN KHAN: Is that a word now, in the English language, or the Russian language? SPEAKER 2: It's a word that refers to an art movement that he led. SALMAN KHAN: Supremacist. SPEAKER 2: Exactly. Malevich was absolutely for the Russian Revolution. Russia was this deeply corrupt culture, that had had a tsar. There was the terribly destabilized society, desperate poverty. And so there was real need for change. And the idea that Russia could produce a kind of new Utopia was something that he was absolutely swept up by. And he tried to create an art that would express that. In fact, it wouldn't just express it, but would help make that happen. SPEAKER 3: 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're 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. SALMAN KHAN: Yeah, that's right. Because if you just go up to the Malevich at the museum, you'd say, that's nice. After some of our conversation, 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, well this is abstract. And it's just white. But you're right. You appreciate it much more when you think about it. And 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, is like, the art should stand on its own, and how I react to it is what matters. And that's kind of what I'm taught, too, even when I go to the PMA, just what you think, that's right, versus all the context. And it is true, 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, well, the piece itself isn't necessarily the focal point. SPEAKER 2: Well I think we, maybe too much, want the artist to be a hero. We want the artist to have succeeded in some way. But 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. SALMAN KHAN: It's actually a fascinating way of thinking about it. Because any student of history, you might look at a newspaper clipping from 1918. Or you might read a book. And you actually capture a little bit of how people are thinking at that time, or what their fears or their hopes are. What I'm, I think, appreciating more, is that a piece of art like this actually gives you a core subjective feeling of how-- at least what some of the people in the artistic community were feeling. SPEAKER 2: It gets worse, though. SALMAN KHAN: It gets worse. SPEAKER 2: It does get worse. Take a look at this. You see, he called it White on White, but in fact, it's this cool internal square and this warmer white square outside it. And notice that he has not aligned those squares, right, so the smaller square-- SALMAN KHAN: It's like titanium on off-white, or something. SPEAKER 2: Exactly. And so he tipped that inner square a bit. And that's not arbitrary. He spent a lot of time thinking about that. And there's 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. And maybe we're actually seeing that darker, cooler white as deeper in space. Or maybe it's in front of that warmer white. And so, all of a sudden now, we have a kind of three-dimensional relationship. SALMAN KHAN: How much is that reading into it? SPEAKER 2: 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 actually push society forward. That is, art itself had agency. It could have political power. SALMAN KHAN: So this is interesting, because-- and I'm appreciating this more-- once again, if we saw this work in 1918 in someone's grandpa's garage, and you asked the grandpa, what is this? And he's like, well I had some titanium paint, and I had some off-white paint, and I felt like painting a square inside of another square-- not so interesting. But all of a 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 its technical sophistication or anything like that, but because society at that point in time thought it was important-- gave him a voice. He was trying to voice what he thought was important. That's why it transcends just its aesthetic or its technical-- SPEAKER 2: 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 born down to its pure roots. So that anybody, no matter how little education they had, could actually understand it and could be moved by it. We might say he failed. But, nevertheless, that was very much part of his intent. SALMAN KHAN: But I guess one question I ask, just about the Picasso, as well, and even the Malevich-- he lived in a time that was fairly modern. And it sounds like his intentions were really get to this purity and not this overly intellectual-- I guess he was trying to raise people up. But why'd he choose this medium? I mean, why didn't he do it as a big titanium sculpture? Or why didn't he put radio waves in it somehow? Why didn't he do something else with it? SPEAKER 2: Well certain artists that were at that moment actually tried to do that. And you might think of people like Tatlin, constructivists. Now, 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 actually 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. So I get the sense that some artists would have done that if they could have. SPEAKER 3: Malevich. definitely would have. He was interested in technology. SPEAKER 2: 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. And he was trying to find a language that he felt was as Utopian and as pure as the world that he was hoping to create.