Art Criticism


Paul Cezanne - The Bathers (1998-1905)

Paul Cezanne - The Bathers (1998-1905) - oil on canvas - 127x196cm

When you go to an art galley or one of the larger art museums and you have some interest in art, but you only do this occasionally (because most of the time you are working on other interests or making a living), you are likely to come into contact with an unfamiliar work. You are then in a similar position to that of the art critic, maybe many years ago, when faced with something new. However, you are now told how great the work is, but you don’t see it and you reject it. You are at a disadvantage here because the art critic has had more time, maybe many years of familiarity with the work, as well as a probability of greater historical reference and knowledge of contemporaneous works of art, all of which may contribute to a point of view about its quality. However, all of this is irrelevant if the art work doesn’t have some totally independent intrinsic quality. So your suspicions are justified. All the critic can do is try to argue and impart its merit or otherwise in an attempt to sensitize you to its quality. Art is about illusion. If you don’t see some illusion then the art work will look like a very ordinary thing, a piece of board with some awful paint on it.

In the Cezanne painting above we may see what looks like bad drawing, drawing that is different to what we might expect in a work of art. This can get in the way of our appreciation of the work. However, over time we may feel this drawing is much more interesting and moving than a large painting of correct and exactly drawn figures. We may eventually see the drawing as great rather than clumsy and enjoy the pleasure a painting by Cezanne can give despite our initial misgivings. If we are fixated on one aspect, we may fail to see the other positive aspects. A lot of paintings by Cezanne can have an odd look to the drawing. Cezanne has come to a point where he is happy with the painting, or at least part of it, and has stopped work on it, but we may think it still looks unfinished.

Pablo Picasso - Les demoiselles d'Avigon (1907)

Pablo Picasso - Les demoiselles d'Avigon (1907) - oil on canvas - 244x234cm

Some new work can seem illogical. It doesn’t conform to the prevailing accepted logic of what a work of art should be and confounds people when first shown. These people may include other artists and critics. This has occurred with the impressionists, Cezanne, Picasso, etc. A good example for this is Picasso’s Les Demoiselles d’Avigon. When Picasso first showed this painting to his friends who included the most up to date cultural commentators and other artists like Matisse, the reaction was so strong that Picasso put the painting away and didn’t exhibit it for many years. Matisse thought Picasso must be playing a joke on them; and Matisse at the time was regarded as the leader of the avant garde. However, some of its qualities gradually took hold, even with Picasso himself. Another artist it effected was Georges Braque, and from that point on its influences are legendary. Although the stylistic inconsistencies are obvious with areas looking like later developments not carried throughout the painting, making the painting look unfinished, Picasso always has a very good sense about when to stop work on a painting and this inconsistency is overcome by the energy and vitality it gives to the work and scope for interpretation of meaning.

Georges Braque - Large Nude (1908)

Georges Braque - Large Nude (1908) - oil on canvas - 140x100cm

When critics are faced with this situation they gradually develop phrases and commentary to deal with the kind of irrationality that they now find effective in new art. As with any history, it takes a while for the narrative to be developed to fit the events. These phrases, arguments and narrative can then tend to become standard entries in art books and curatorial catalogues, and this is what you encounter now to help you deal with your initial impressions of an unfamiliar work. Hopefully, this can slow down your looking and indicate aspects of the work you hadn’t noticed before.

Cezanne is a good example for this. His place in the history of art tends to overshadow other references to what pleasures can gained from the paintings themselves. He is often quoted as saying he wanted to “treat nature by means of the cylinder, the sphere, the cone”. This is then interpreted by the critic as substantiating his position at the beginning of cubism and abstract art, although this quote is really not an accurate indicator for what you actually see in his paintings.

Generally, I find artist’s explanations of their work very unhelpful which is a curious thing. As yet I have no convincing explanation for this. If anyone should know what their work is about, where the emotional qualities lie, what the good qualities are, it should be the artist.  Either their comments are too metaphysical, esoteric, or concentrating on aspects that are not the obvious ones from the point of view of another person.

Henri Matisse - Blue Nude (1907)

Henri Matisse - Blue Nude (1907) - oil on canvas - 92x140cm

Some works take time, and in some cases, a lot of time before they are fully appreciated. As well, there are current fads and preferences that play a part in their appraisal. Appreciation is a sensibility that can be learned, not necessarily through description, but simply through the process of taking a longer look,  to see detail and aspects you hadn’t noticed before, by being familiar with the work over a longer time and letting its character grow on you. Conversely of course, some works can be very exciting at first, then suffer rapid fade out.

Finally, the emphasis is on your appreciation of the work, and not on what the critic is telling you. You have to see something in the work, if not, you simply move on. The critic will describe the work. But you can do this yourself by taking a longer look. The critic will try to put it in an historical context. This is marginally relevant to your appreciation and can’t be the only reason for the work to be of interest. The most useful thing the critic can do is provide information about the creation of the work; the many borrowings, influences, failed attempts, revisions, quotes from the artist (less useful), as well as indicating what it is about the work that effects the emotions of the critic, or what aesthetic elements the critic believes are helping the work achieve its effect . This will encourage you to look longer, to see details or aspects not previously noticed. Popular artists just do their work, with a mish-mash of ideas,  often poorly expressed verbally, if at all. But the critic may eventually see the subconscious drivers that the artist is channeling to match the subject with form and aesthetics.

Postscript –
For an interesting piece of art criticism that may change how you view Matisse’s Blue Nude painting shown above, see the Artnet article – How Deep is Her Ocean? – by Charlie Finch


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