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

Video transcript

DR. BETH HARRIS: Two of my favorite paintings, John Everett Millais' Ophelia, a Pre-Raphaelite painting. SAL KHAN: What do you mean by Pre-Raphaelite? DR. BETH HARRIS: 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. SAL KHAN: They were Pre-Raphaelite, but Raphael was a Renaissance artist who really made things exact, and very technical, and-- DR. BETH HARRIS: 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. And the Pre-Raphaelites said, we want to go back to look at the art before Raphael because we've descended into a formula, and we've lost our real connection to looking and observing the world. And 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. SAL KHAN: And I definitely appreciate that. What this piece does is it still is aesthetically beautiful in a traditional sense. And you also look at it and say, well, there was definitely skill there. I can't just show up at a canvas and produce something like that. DR. BETH HARRIS: Yeah, the painting is incredibly absorbing. I mean, in person, it's 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-- SAL KHAN: And even the choice of subject is very-- DR. BETH HARRIS: Beautiful. SAL KHAN: Beautiful. DR. BETH HARRIS: Yeah, the subject and the way it's painted are both beautiful. And the way it's painted shows great technical skill. SAL KHAN: 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 on the right-hand side? DR. BETH HARRIS: Barnett Newman's Vir Heroicus Sublimus. SAL KHAN: This is kind of the classic when people look at it. And they say, well, you know, 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, geez, it's pivotal, challenging, and very technically and beautiful and all. While on the right, it's like, well, I think I could do that. In fact, you see on these home improvement shows, people say, oh, we need a piece of artwork. And literally they'll produce something that looks not too different than that in a little amount of time. DR. BETH HARRIS: Absolutely, 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. And so when you're in its space, you feel really overcome by it. You feel it kind of calling out to you. And so you're 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. SAL KHAN: And I guess the cynical-- and there are people who look at that and say, oh, I can appreciate that. It's a big aesthetic. It's a big red thing with some lines in it. But it's not-- someone else could have done it, or someone could do it now. And so that's not why-- what you just described, you are appreciating the aesthetics of it. And it is this huge painting, and I can see that. But it's more that he was the first to kind of-- DR. BETH HARRIS: It actually is a lot more complicated than it looks. And so it draws us into it. And then 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. And 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. SAL KHAN: I actually appreciate it in a very similar-- I've actually never visited it in person. But I can somewhat imagine on a larger scale, especially if you go up close and you see the detail there. But 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 across culture, really almost any time 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? DR. STEVEN ZUCKER: 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 a history of art making that has to do with representation and depiction. And I think that what we're looking at on the right is a fundamental break. The painting on the left was a fundamental break in its own day, this Pre-Raphaelite idea. SAL KHAN: It was more of a break in style, though, but not really hitting what is art. DR. STEVEN ZUCKER: 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's drowning, who's submerged in this stream, and it is beautiful. But in a sense, it's a lie. This is colored 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? So 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 has taken on its own-- SAL KHAN: Or a human voice. DR. STEVEN ZUCKER: That's right. But music has 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. DR. BETH HARRIS: And you could say, in fact, that the Millais distracts us. SAL KHAN: Right. DR. BETH HARRIS: From those things that Steven is referring to, to color, to shapes, to lines. SAL KHAN: The paint itself. DR. BETH HARRIS: Yeah. In a way, what the Newman is doing is concentrating that. And look at it. Don't be distracted by all of these other things. SAL KHAN: Yeah, I'm not trying to be a scene out of Shakespeare. DR. STEVEN ZUCKER: But can I still be as profound? Can I still be in fact as emotionally powerful? And so here an artist is saying, you know what? 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 moved from the top to the bottom. And so they do measure actually the size of the canvas. In that way, announce the two-dimensionality of the canvas. But at the same time, they're different tones, and they're different qualities of density. And they recede or they project forward. DR. BETH HARRIS: So let me ask you, do one of those lines move back? Does one come forward? SAL KHAN: No, it is interesting. It kind of has this very core primitive dimensionality to it, and you start to see-- I never thought of it that way before. You're right. What's on the left is a lie. It's something trying to be something that it's not, while on the right, it literally is, look, 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. DR. STEVEN ZUCKER: And so there is a kind of fundamental truth to the painting on the right that was upending 2,000 years of representation-- SAL KHAN: Or longer, probably. DR. STEVEN ZUCKER: Absolutely. SAL KHAN: And with cave paintings. DR. STEVEN ZUCKER: That's exactly right. One could say 38,000 years of tradition. And so how radical is that? How brave is that? How heroic is that?