Tuesday, April 11, 2006
Look At Her Arm
One of my readers asked if I wrote often about painting. I took that to mean: Write often about painting. OK.
I don't know where I got this painting. It's by an American fellow named William MacGregor Paxton, I made a note of that when I found it, but I can't find out much of anything about him, and I can't for the life of me remember where the digital picture came from. The MFA in Boston doesn't seem to have it. Visit it anyway, it's got lots of other neat stuff. Paxton was born in 1869, and died in 1941. That much we know.
I rolled those dates around in my head. Can you imagine being born in the United States just after the Civil War, and breathing your last thinking that civilization as you know it was winking out all over the globe? The Ecole de Beax Arts in Paris was mentioned in the few mentions of Paxton I could find, so I imagine he could very readily picture France itself under the yoke of the Axis. Did he perish before December 1941? I don't know. I hope he did, I guess; why die without hope? But does any man die without hope? Does any man die with hope?
Every picture I can find by Paxton is a nude woman or a flower. God bless him. What else is worth painting, when you get right down to it?
You're likely never going to see a flattened blue lady with her nose on the side of her head written about on this page. I never can get out of my mind's eye a vision of Picasso -- young and still trying to paint like Paxton and his brethren --- saying to himself: I'm no good, I'd better fool them instead. It might not be true, but I can't imagine it any other way.
I only have one rule for professional anythings: you have to do it better than me. Not different, not necessarily faster, better. The rule applies to plumbers and artists alike.
Paxton is a realist. Realism was getiing a real bad name about the time Paxton shuffled off this mortal coil, and that might have weighed on him too. I imagine Big Band singers got the same sensation when they heard Bill Haley and the Comets. The end is near, and no one cares what I know anymore.
Artists often know things that no one else cares to know. They look in their hearts, and minds, and pull their vision of the world out and try to pin it down before it flutters off. I think the fellows that absolutely must do it would do it even if you burned the canvasses right after they finished. Haven't you ever spoken aloud when there's no one else around to hear it? Some things must be expressed, whether it's because you hit your finger with a hammer or you need to show the world you know how to depict a woman.
I wouldn't presume to guess what the circumstances depicted in the painting are. The light is strong, reflected in the mirror through the blinds (showoff!) but the light leaves her face indistinct, and Paxton doesn't care about her face anyway. He is revelling in the way the light reflects off her outstretched arm, and the gentle convex slope of her breast and belly. He simply stopped painting her left hand; it is superfluous, and I didn't notice how indistinct it was until I'd looked at the picture ten times. In a photograph, I'd see it clearly. It's hard to make a photograph capture important things; it captures everything. If you've ever had your picture taken by a really good photographer, they spend all their time arranging the lights. The human is easy compared to the light. Tell him a joke or call him name, and then click the button.
Now her right arm, reaching into the light, sublimely rendered, the cool blue and pink of her untanned flesh, her hand reaching with her delicate fingers for her clothes, you know it now-- why she's nude and reaching for her clothes in the shuttered bright of the day.
You can never really look at a painting until you see it for real, and I wish I could see this one. Pictures are great for reminding you what you've seen, but you need to see it to really get it. I've only been to Europe once. I ransacked the great Uffizi in Florence for the picture I had gazed at in a book a thousand times, but I still wasn't ready for the effect of the real Madonna Doni, by Michaelangelo di Lodovico Buonarotti-Simoni.
I knew how the mannerists did it; how they moved their models into odd angles, contortions really sometimes, to put motion into static pose, to bring forth the musculature, to inject a kind of heroism into a simple Madonna and Child. It was Michaelangelo's only easel painting. His patron didn't want to pay for it. The patron eventually used the original frame to frame something else. Eventually, art critics would say the whole thing was unworthy of Michaelangelo's effort anyway: "A Hercules at the spinning wheel."
The composition is busy. There is a mother kneeling in the foreground, reaching over her shoulder for her baby, with her husband behind her too. They form an interesting circular racetrack for your eye to circle, and there's all sorts of nude so and so's loitering in the background. The Madonna is contorted, reaching over her shoulder for her baby, and it gets the ball rolling in what's normally a very static sort of scene. And her arm comes right out of the picture. I looked at that Madonna's arm. I was a foot from the painting. It had the most delicate line drawn around the outline, a line many artists would begin with, not end with. I had no idea how he managed it. I didn't care how he did it. I could look at that painting forever and not be bored with it. A man understood the persons in the painting. He could make me understand what he knew, though the dust of five centuries lay atop him.
Look at Paxton's nude's arm. He knew. He knew how. So we could know too.
(Note: Maybe he's not American. Maybe North American? William MacGregor Paxton sure sounds like it could be Canadian. I'm related to MacGregors in Canada, through a MacGinnis gene pool raiding party. Can anyone tell us something about Mr Paxton?)