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Representation and abstraction: Millais's Ophelia and Newman's Vir Heroicus Sublimis

Video transcript

two of my favorite paintings John Everett Millais a philia 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 they're pretty rough al was a Renaissance artist who really made things exact and very technical and 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 do we value art that challenges the establishment and I definitely appreciate that what this piece does is it still as aesthetically beautiful in a traditional sense and you also look at it and say well there was definitely skill there you know not I can't just show up at a canvas and produce something like that 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 read so that I'd 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 so for this one I I 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 Barnett Newman's veer heroic is sublimity the classic when people look at it and they say well you know that looks a nice it might look nice my sofa but there's a big difference here where most people would look at the left hand side and say you know Jesus it's pivotal challenging and very technically and beautiful and all well on the right they say well I think I could do that in fact you see on these like 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 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 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 and I guess the the the cynical and you know 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 some lines and it but it's not someone else could have done it or someone could do it now and so that's not why hey you are pretty you know what you just described you're appreciating the aesthetics of it and and it is a huge painting and I can see that but it's it's more that he was the first to kind of it actually is a lot more complicated than it looks and so it draws us into it and 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 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 I actually appreciated 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 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 to you go cross 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 you know paint the wall or something but they wouldn't they wouldn't put them in the same categories 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 and I think that what we're looking at on the right is a fundamental break you know the painting on the left was a fundamental break in its own day this pre-raphaelite it was more of a break-in style though but not like really hitting like 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's drowning who 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 have certain symphonies we'll do that but music is taken on it or a human voice that's right 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 Millay distracts us right from those things that Steven is referring to to color to shape to line the paint itself yeah in a way what the Newman is doing is in trading that yes and look at it don't be distracted by all yeah I'm not trying to be a scene out of Shakespeare 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 have 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 and so they do measure actually the size of the canvas in that way announce the true dimensionality of a canvas but at the same time there are different tones and they're different sort of qualities of density and they recede or they project forward so let me ask you do one of those lines move back this one come from no it isn't right it kind of has this kind of very core primitive dimensionality to it and you start to see I never thought of it that way before you're right the what's on the left is a lie it's something trying to be something that it's not while while on the right it literally is look it 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 and so there is a kind of fundamental truth to the painting on the right that was up ending 2,000 years of represent with cave paintings right yes yeah one could say 38,000 years of tradition and so how radical is that how brave is that how heroic is that you