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Current time:0:00Total duration:10:27

Art and context: Monet's Cliff Walk at Pourville and Malevich's White on White

Video transcript

so one I guess theme that I'm starting to appreciate more is that there's there's been some pieces where you just look at it you just experience it and I think you know this 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 I knew nothing about Monet they say well that's pretty and that's really interesting and really capture something nice and and then you have pieces like this which are clearly abstract and not that they're that one can't appreciate it I mean I think one can but it feels that the the piece of art by itself there you're like okay that's nice it's widel white which is literally its name it's it it's a it's a square inside at an angle inside of another square and I could see how that might look at statically nice above my sofa or something but there's not quite that same any sort of superficial level appreciation I you know here you can even appreciate other brushstrokes and it's not even knowing this was you know some O'Day 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 firs 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 mirror impression something you dashed off quickly yeah it looks like yeah I can imagine back then people a real painting you'd carefully every brush stroke you're trying to mimic reality this clearly yet it 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 second before and what I'm hearing is is that Monet he kind of did both you know and we really sight I guess 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 you know I suspect that he wasn't saying I'm going to be avant-garde and I'm gonna break all the rules he just wanted to do something that he thought would be compelling I think that that would capture a certain emotive state or a certain way of perceiving the world and that he felt was visually true and and that's why the someone like me you know not an expert connects with they're 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 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 when I see a painting like that and if y'all didn't tell me anything on so 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 Kasmir Amelia vich and think about what was happening in Russia at this moment this was the Bolshevik Revolution and today so these are very close together in time 36 years which is nothing it's it's a generation and I guess one thing that pops out of me when I see this is 1918 I mean we've looked at other modern pieces that at least on a superficial level look similar they're you know they're they're abstract they're not trying to show something in reality the the painting is itself it's not trying to show a scene of people at a cliff you know 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 does in 1918 well yes but this had a very different kind of meaning villiage understood this kind of abstraction what he called suprematism actually having an important litical almost spiritual message actually let me see if I can give you some sense of really what he made up that word Suprematist he did that's a is that a word now in the English language it's it was it's a word that refers to an art movement that he led Suprematist exactly melia vich 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 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 yeah that's right and because if you just go up to the Millea [ __ ] of the museum you'd say that's nice I mean that's I mean I after some of our conversations I I think I'm already turned appreciated more than I would have in the past and I want to start thinking about oh well this is abstract and this is the you know it's just white and some but but you're right I mean you appreciate it much more when you think about it and my brain keeps going back and forth as to is this good you know should the art be able to stand on its own which is how I personally traditionally viewed art it's like art should stand on its own and how I react to it is what matters and that's kind of what I'm talk to even when I go to the pavement just what do you think that's right versus in 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 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 you know is actually a fascinating way of thinking about it because you know any student of history you might look at a newspaper clipping from 1918 or you might read a book and and you actually capture a little bit of how people are thinking at that time or what they're years or their hopes are what I'm I think appreciating more is that a piece of art like this actually gives you a kind of a core subjective feeling of how at least what some of the people in the artistic community were we're feeling it gets worse though it gets worse it does get worse take a look at this you see 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 titanium on off-white or something exactly and so he's 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 couldn't be more two-dimensional could 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 how much is that reading into it well he actually wrote about that oh he wrote 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 so this is interesting because and I'm appreciating this more as once again if 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 I had some off-white pin and I felt like painting the 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 and 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 I transcends just his 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 our village 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 but I guess one question I asked us about the Picasso as well as an even million she lived in a time that was fairly modern and it sounds like his intentions were really to get to this purity and not this overly intellectual or what or I guess he was trying to raise people up but why do you choose this medium I mean why did he do it as a big titanium sculpture or you know why do you put radio waves in it some of you know why don't you do something else with it well certain artists that were at that moment actually tried to do that and you might think of people like tat lien 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 it 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 Malevich definitely would have I mean he was interested in technology deeply interested absolutely he 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 his utopian and as pure as the world that he was hoping to create you