Sunday, October 21, 2012

Looking at Art - Kandinsky

One of the things I am learning in the Lisa Call "Working in a Series" workshop is how to look at art critically.  This is something I always thought I "sort of " knew, but never had any concrete way of doing, other than staring at a piece, thinking about "What does it mean?" and "How did s/he DO that?"  Lisa has provided a couple different ways of evaluating or critiquing.  One is a standard four part format that I've seen a few other places as well:  "Description, Analysis, Interpretation, Judgement."   This method produces the type of critique you would read in a review of a show or exhibit.

The other method Lisa offered was a much more detailed set of questions to guide thinking about the design elements that are used in the work of art.  I decided to try out her questions and evaluate one of my favorite works of art, Yellow, Red, Blue, painted in 1925 by Wassily Kandinsky.

Here is my analysis, with thanks to Lisa for permission to reprint her questions.

Yellow-Red-Blue -  Wassily Kandinsky

Write answers to the following questions about the elements that make up the design:

§  What is the color and value usage?  There is a wide range of values from almost-white and very light yellow in the background and the left figure, to the dark red, blue and purple masses of the right side.

§  What impact do the colors have on you? They seem to represent an opposition of a dark, sinister element with a bright happy one. Although I don’t know what they are or if they are anything objective, but I sense opposition between them.

§  How are they using the space?  The two major figures occupy most of the picture plane, both of them seem to float in mid-air.

§  Flat picture plane or 3D?  At first it seems mostly flat, but especially in the dark element there are checkerboards and fields of color that are shown in perspective, as if they are floating off into the distance.

§  How are they achieving the 3D illusion?  Perspective (vanishing point) and smaller size.

§  How does the use of space make you feel? The dark element seems to be menacing or crowding the light one, while the light one firmly stands its ground.

§  What is the figure?  There are a number of figures, the mass of dark elements collected together, but with small peeks thru them to the yellow background, then the yellow figure which is more ambiguous.  Parts of it are really yellow background, but the whole collection of “things” plus the yellow background seem to be figures on the blue ground.

§  What is the ground?  The ground is a blurry fog of pastel colors, violet, yellow, blue/green.

§  What is the ratio between them?  The figures take up at least 75% of the picture plane,  with the dark one pushing close to the border, crowding the image, and adding to the aggressive feel it has.

§  What story does that relationship tell?  The figures are the point of the story, the artist wants them to be the only thing you observe, there is “nothing” in the background to distract you.

§  What quality do you notice about the lines?  Lines are an important element in this work, and there are a number of different types of lines, thick, thin, straight, geometric arcs, different colors, some vary in width, many are grouped in parallel groups, some equal size, some not, etc.  One of the most noticeable lines is a freeform squiggle that is the foremost element in the dark shape.

§  What story do the lines tell?  What is interesting is that the light figure is mostly amorphous color, with few lightly drawn more geometric lines and shapes, while the dark figure has colored shapes without any lines bordering them.  I think this is a message Kandinsky was trying to convey, I’m not sure exactly what it is, but I have always interpreted this painting as a representation of Good vs Evil.  I’m not sure if he had something more specific given the political climate at the time, and knowing the fact that he had been forced to flee his native Russia and then later to also leave France (?) for Germany I think he may have been representing the chaos of totalitarian governments in the dark figure with lack of borders and haphazard organization while the light figure represents the good in human nature, free, open, light thin, controlled shapes. 

I like to imagine that each of the different pieces of the composition represent different elements of the artists’ life or maybe different aspects of good and evil  I know the labored over each element and how to portray it in the picture.  Maybe they represent truth, beauty, goodness vs. greed, hatred etc….

§  What shapes are they are using?   Kandinsky uses lines for lines’ sake, mostly they are “just” lines, but there are also lines that make up squares, circles, and other geometrically created shapes as well as dark heavy lines being shapes themselves.

§  How are the shapes related?  The lines from each figure are intertwined, overlapping and layered.  But there is only one single point where the end of one thin line on the light side touches one of the dark figures.  This becomes a focal point of the painting.

§  What response do these shapes evoke?  They evoke a sense of tension as the dark figure seems to be menacing the light one and encroaching on its space.  I have a sense of fear for the light shape, and it’s abstract form for me seems to resemble the side view of a human head, with the red circle the eye and the blue arc shape the nose, so I feel like the light shape has its back turned to the dark one. Does it know he’s coming or is he oblivious to the threat?

§  What texture does the artwork have?  none that I can tell, though the background appears to have a misty translucent quality.

Next consider the overall design of the composition.

§  How have they used repetition?  Lines are repeated in groups, the concept of line groups are repeated.  Other repeated elements include the Circles with glowing halos, the translucent squares with outlines, the translucent shapes with no borders, and the checkerboards.  The types of elements are completely confined to one side or the other, except that a thin “mast” carrying three light yellow lines seems to be a flag standard trying to march toward the other side.

§  How have they used variety?   Each group of shapes has its own character, no two are exactly alike.  They seem to indicate that there are unlimited possibilities to be considered on each side.

§  Is it a big variation or small? The shapes are mostly in proportion to each other within the picture plane, other than the big black squiggle that seems to dominate the space.

§  What is the rhythm? The grouped lines create rhythm within each group itself, but not really any in the picture as a whole.

§  Is the design balanced?  yes, somewhat.

§  Is it symmetrical, asymmetrical or off balance?  It’s symmetrical in the sense that the plane is divided into two halves, but there is no actual symmetry of repeated elements on each side.  It is off-balance due to the heaviness of the dark figure and the way it encroaches on the light one.

§  What is the focal point of the artwork?  Hard to say.  at first it’s the bright yellow shape, but many of the other shapes vie for attention.  I think the thin line touching the gray shape is a focal point when you begin to look closer
§  How does the artist achieve that emphasis? The yellow space is one of the few pure colored areas, versus the ones that have a misty or cloudy quality.  It is surrounded by a brownish shadow to call further attention to it.

§  Is the message of the artwork clear without a lot of distracting elements?  Have they added only what is needed?  At first it seems like a lot of distracting shapes, but I think they are all necessary to convey the message the painter had in mind, the careful graphic balance of them makes them all necessary to the balanced appearance of the whole. 

§  What story are they telling?  See discussion under lines. 

§  Is the artwork successful?  Yes, extremely.  it draws the viewer in, wanting to know more, understand more, see more.  

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