Some things in life are just factual, objective information, not subject to interpretation. Most rules and regulations are fairly unambiguous — thou shalt not … . Math is very much black and white, right and wrong. Science searches for universal truth, not opinion. And there are some cultural universals — Illinois Nazis — we can all agree that “we hate Illinois Nazis.”
But in matters of taste, it is all up to individual interpretation. So it is with music and art, the works of Higher Beauty. The Supreme Court Justice Potter Stewart said in 1964, “I don’t know what pornography is, but I know it when I see it.” It’s the same for me and art. I know good art when I see it.
Of course, I love some art, especially the classics, that are loved by many. I am yet to meet anyone who doesn’t love the Impressionists. You rarely hear anyone say, “Stupid impressionists — with their fantastic use of color, light, and texture.” Years ago, I was walking around Denver Art Museum, the European floor, and came to several Claude Monet paintings. I stood staring at one of a Cathedral, in the blue light of morning, when a docent approached me and said, “You should really look at this painting from a little distance and from a side.” I moved to where she suggested, and almost gasped. All sorts of details came into sight, including colors I had not even noticed when I stood only a foot away. How did this make sense? I mean, he wasn’t painting it from 10 feet away and from an angle! But, from paint and brushstrokes, he created depth and layers of color and shadow.
And impressionist paintings of snow — snow shown not white, but multi-colored, like brilliantly cut diamonds. Also, how about the skin, the flush of the cheeks and warmth of it from Mary Cassatt’s work? The people in her paintings look alive, and if you watch them for a few minutes, you’ll swear you can see them breathing. And speaking of art that moves, Edgar Degas’ ballet dancers were painted with such love and attention, they transcend the canvas. I see them, and I believe I’m watching them live, just frozen in time and space. I can almost hear the music. The Impressionists were all about trying to capture the most accurate depiction of light, and the subjects were simple, natural settings, ordinary people, or ordinary places.
I know that my taste sounds generic. I love gazing at paintings by Van Gogh, Cezanne, or Renoir.
But I also have a dark side, and because of that, I also enjoy works that are less … shall I say mainstream? I really like works of Hieronymus Bosch, their freaky bizarreness makes me shiver. Have you ever seen a painting by Francis Bacon of Pope Innocent XII? In it, the subject looks hideous, all the colors running, his face melting, his mouth a gaping black hole as if caught in mid scream. This is a powerful, powerful painting, and it’s impossible not to know how the artist felt about the Pope. This isn’t a picture of a kitten frolicking in a field of daisies. This is a statement. I like this painting, even though Modern Art isn’t typically my cup of tea.
I am compelled to mention two more modern artists whose work I greatly admire. The first is Salvador Dali, the Spanish artist who belonged to the Surrealist Movement. Actually, as my husband correctly pointed out — Dali didn’t belong to that movement, he WAS the movement. Pick a painting, — any painting by him — and you are entering a world of dreams and hallucinations, fantasy and nightmares. Joke: How many Surrealists does it take to screw in a light bulb? Answer: A fish.
The second modern artist I adore is Georgia O’Keefe. Talk about lush. Her paintings of simple subjects, like flowers, are gorgeous. They are sensual and vibrant — even the ones with the deer skulls. If you ever find yourself in Santa Fe, New Mexico, do yourself two favors: First, eat some spicy New Mexican cuisine with roasted chilis, and second, go visit The Georgia O’Keefe Museum (although probably not in that order).
These are some of the painters whose works I love. All right, now your turn. What artist makes you think? What artwork makes you feel?