TERRY FENTON

THE PICTURE BOOK


Giovanni Bellini (attr.), The Assassination of St. Peter Martyr

WHAT IS A PICTURE?

To begin with, it isn't something fixed and final­­because pictures, and the conventions which govern them, have changed over the years.

In a simple sense, a picture is an arrangement of visual elements on or within a surface which has more-or-less clear-cut boundaries.

But pictures are more than just flat objects (just as books are more than mere bundles of paper). We don't see them as just objects (not even as decorated objects) when we look at them. We see them as coherent or unified arrangements. Those arrangements usually create the illusion of some kind of space within their surface. Pictures are illusions.

Over the years­­and over the centuries­­we've learned to see certain arrangements on flat surfaces as pictures. We can see them as pictures because we've learned many of the conventions which govern picture making. (Because they haven't learned these conventions, some people in some primitive cultures couldn't see black and white photographs as pictures. That's probably changed since the widespread dissemination of television and newspapers).

 

WHAT IS A PAINTING?


Van Dyck, Marchese Balbi

A painted picture.

Painting is just a way of making pictures. (Other ways of making them include drawing, etching, and photography.)

However, in our culture most paintings are intended to be works of art, whereas many drawings and photographs aren't.

 

WHAT IS A PHOTOGRAPH?


Robert Doisneau, The Kiss

A picture made with a camera.

That's the basic definition. Photographs are taken mechanically and chemically (or digitally) and are reproduced by the same means.

But these mechanical, chemical, and digital processes aren't always used to make pictures. For example, printed electronic circuits are made photographically­­and are not pictures.

 

WHY ARE MOST PICTURES RECTANGULAR?

Probably because most walls and pages are.

The wheel has been called the greatest human invention, but the rectangle should get at least equal billing. After all, circles are found in nature and rectangles aren't -- it seems a short step from the circle to the wheel.

A rectangle is a neutral and stable shape. It doesn't call attention to itself very much in relation to its surroundings and to what it contains. As a result, it can isolate a picture from its surroundings without interfering with the picture's ability to call attention to itself.

 

ARE ABSTRACT PAINTINGS PICTURES?


James Walsh, Untitled, 1998

Yes.

They're pictures because they can be seen as pictures. Furthermore, they're intended to be seen as pictures. (The fact that some people haven't learned to see them as pictures doesn't alter this.)

 

ARE ALL PICTURES WORKS OF ART?

Arguably yes. Even though some aren't intended to be.

 

WHICH ONES AREN'T INTENDED TO BE?

Some are meant simply to be illustrations, to show or to explain in a way that words can't (this is especially true of many photographs.) That's the most common meaning of the phrase, "a picture is worth a thousand words."

 

WHAT'S ANOTHER MEANING OF THE PHRASE?

Good pictures­­whether they're representational or abstract­­defy description and interpretation and analysis. Whatever "meaning" pictures have is a kind of visual meaning, not verbal meaning.

 

IF ALL PICTURES ARE ART, WHY IS IT IMPORTANT TO DEFINE ART?

It isn't; at least, it isn't important to define art apart from good art.

The reason for the word "art" is probably the fact that good art exists and that lesser art isn't bad absolutely, but is less successful by shades and degrees. "Art" is just a word for a category of things that evoke an aesthetic response. Its a word that doesn't exist in some languages, but that doesn't mean that aesthetic response doesn't exist in those cultures. Most art, after all, is in some sense "art for use."

Artists don't usually just try to make art; they try to make the best art they can -- whether they're making "art for use" or what we call "fine art." Relatively speaking, sometimes they fail. It seems foolish to claim that these relative failures aren't art. And it seems equally foolish to claim that a great photograph which wasn't intended to be a work of art isn't art, either.

Anything that anyone (whether he's an artist or viewer is beside the point) wants to claim is art, is art for that person. (Remember, it might be­­and all too often is­­pretentious and vapid. That doesn't alter the fact that it's art. )

 

ARE SOME PICTURES REALLY BETTER THAN OTHERS, OR IS QUALITY JUST A MATTER OF PERSONAL TASTE?

Yes, some pictures are better than others. Common sense and the experience of centuries suggests that. The fact that paintings by Leonardo and Rembrandt and Cézanne are still admired today and that work by many of their contemporaries has passed into oblivion suggests that their pictures are superior. The fact that we have special museums­­art galleries­­to care for and display pictures (and sculptures) suggests that, too. But the proof of it lies with your personal taste. Only that can tell you what's best.

If quality were simply a matter of personal whim (not taste), everything would be equally good or bad. A painting on velvet­­even a blank canvas­­would be as good as the Mona Lisa.

 

CAN A PICTURE WHICH WASN'T INTENDED TO BE A WORK OF ART BE GOOD?

Yes, Pictures can be good unintentionally or accidentally. This is often true of photographs.

 

IF SOME PICTURES ARE BETTER THAN OTHERS, HOW CAN YOU TELL THE DIFFERENCE?

By looking.

By comparing.

By letting your own taste decide.

Good art stays looking good. Mediocre art and bad art doesn't. Sooner or later it stops calling attention to itself. It gets boring.

And remember: the best pictures are the pictures which look best, the ones that hold and nourish your attention. Pictures can't be good without looking good.

 

IF PICTURES CAN BE GOOD OR BAD, IS THERE SUCH A THING AS THE BEST PICTURE OR THE WORST?


Leonardo da Vinci, Mona Lisa

Theoretically, it may be possible; but, in fact, it's impossible to determine.

Certainly, some pictures seem supremely good; the most famous of these is probably the Mona Lisa by Leonardo da Vinci, but there are many others among the works of the "old masters." Even if we disregard the work of recent artists, it's virtually impossible to determine what's absolutely best from the past.

And there's not much point in trying to determine it, anyway. The real enjoyment of art comes from savouring the experience of it­­and each work of art presents a different "experience."

Some works of art are superior but, at a certain level, the differences between them aren't just like the differences between apples and oranges, they're more like the differences between the best apples and the best oranges.

As for the worst picture, who cares? Art that can't be savoured isn't savoured.

 

IS THERE A RIGHT WAY AND A WRONG WAY TO LOOK AT PICTURES?

There's no secret method­­apart from keeping your eyes open and keeping an open mind.

Certain conventions let us know that we're seeing a picture, just as certain relations of sound let us know that we're hearing music instead of noise. But sometimes conventions can get in the way of appreciation, especially when they lead us to expect something which isn't there and needn't be there.

Sometimes people mistake recognition for appreciation. They think they like certain pictures because they've seen them­­ or pictures like them­­before. When this happens, they're recognizing conventions, not appreciating art.

Keep your eyes open. Keep your mind open.

Above all, let the picture convince you.

 

SHOULD YOU LOOK AT ALL PICTURES THE SAME WAY, WHETHER THEY'RE ABSTRACT PAINTINGS, REPRESENTATIONAL PAINTINGS, OR PHOTOGRAPHS?

Yes, despite all arguments to the contrary (which usually begin, "But everyone knows . . ." or "Surely you don't mean to suggest . . ." or "What you fail to recognize . . .").

Yes. Just look.

 

WHAT IS A REPRESENTATIONAL PICTURE?

"Representation" is a more accurate way of saying "realism" (since both abstract and representational pictures are "real" objects).

Representational art attempts, in one way or another, to creat an illusion of the visible world. Theoretically, that's how it differs from abstract art; in reality, there's no hard and fast dividing line between the two.

Abstraction and representation are just descriptive terms. They have nothing whatever to do with whether art is good or less than good.

Until this century, pictorial art was representational.

 

WHAT IS AN ABSTRACT PICTURE?

Basically, it's one which doesn't try to represent the visible world. (This doesn't mean that it represents something else.)

Abstract painters tend to feel that pictures which exploit the elements of painting itself ­­shape and colour, paint and canvas­­ can be appreciated just as much as representational pictures have been.

 

CAN A POOR REPRESENTATIONAL PAINTER MAKE GOOD ABSTRACT ART?

Yes. And the opposite can happen, too.

Do we think less of a good football player if we learn that he's a terrible golfer?

(But we'd think him a fool if he insisted on playing golf for a living.)

 

WHAT IS SUBJECT MATTER?


Vuillard, Still Life

Basically, it's whatever is represented in representational art.

DO ABSTRACT PICTURES HAVE SUBJECT MATTER?

Devices like flat patterning, geometric motifs, emphatic surface textures, and intense colours­­the elements of traditional decorative art­­have been employed by abstract painters to make pictures. Some of these devices have been "abstracted" from the visible world; others seem to have been invented or imagined.

Most likely, everything in visual art is affected in some way by visual experience; but, it's often impossible to say or show how.

 

IF ABSTRACT PICTURES DON'T HAVE SUBJECT MATTER, WHAT ARE THEY ABOUT?

We tend to think that pictures have to be pictures of things (probably because representations represent things). Furthermore, we expect to be able to describe those things in words­­if only in a general way. If we can't see what they represent, we expect them to be about describable ideas, feelings, or spiritual forces.

The trouble is, we can seldom put our finger on what they're about exactly (and describably). That means we're stuck with appreciating pictures when and as we see them.

 

THEN, ARE PICTURES MEANINGLESS?

Pictures have meaning in two ways.

One kind of meaning involves their relation to society. It's a kind of external meaning. It has to do with the fact that pictures are art and the kind of art they are. Good pictures and poor pictures alike have this kind of meaning. In fact, all man-made objects (and many naturally-occurring ones) have it.

The other kind of meaning involves what is sometimes called "content" or "expression." It's a kind of internal meaning. It belongs to the picture, itself; apart from outside social and cultural conventions. When it's present in a picture, we say the picture is good; and, contrariwise, when we see that a picture is good­­when we appreciate it­­this kind of meaning is part and parcel of it.

The internal and external meanings of pictures often reinforce one another. For example, The Last Supper by Leonardo da Vinci is more than just a group of people sitting behind a table. For one thing, it represents Christ and His Disciples. That's part of its external meaning. But those actors are locked in an arrangement and placed within a space in such a way that a powerful psychological drama is evoked. Someone who knew nothing of the biblical story could still see the power and tension of the drama. Furthermore, he would see it in the abstract design and colour of the picture as well as in the gestures and facial expressions of the actors.

The relation between internal and external meanings is even more elusive in the Mona Lisa by the same artist. The fact that it's a portrait of a specific person is part of its external meaning. But, the presence and expression of that person is part of a vague, mysterious internal meaning. This mystery extends beyond the subject's famous smile; among other things, it's reinforced by the landscape behind her and the light which illuminates her.

The more pictures depart from specific storytelling, the more elusive, "mysterious", and inexplicable their internal meanings become. Landscapes, still lifes, and abstract paintings are given "meaning" through complex relations of visual elements. Words can't adequately describe those meanings. All words can do is point to the elements which seem to contribute most strongly to them.

WHY ARE CONTEMPORARY PAINTINGS USUALLY BRIGHTER AND MORE COLOURFUL THAN PAINTINGS BY REMBRANDT, LEONARDO, AND OTHER "OLD MASTERS"?

It depends how "old" you mean.

Before about 1400 AD, paintings tended to have brilliant colours and pale shading.

During the 15th Century, artists began to create strongly modeled figures in their pictures by emphasizing shading to create it in the abstract design and colour of the picture as well as in the gestures and facial expressions of the actors.

The relation between internal and external meanings is even more elusive in a portrait like the Mona Lisa. The fact that it's a portrait of a specific person is part of its external meaning. But, the presence and expression of that person is part of a vague, mysterious internal meaning. This mystery extends beyond the subject's famous smile; among other things, it's reinforced by the landscape behind her and the light which illuminates her.


Piero di Cosimo, The Death of Procris
This wonderful painting supposedly illustrates a
tale from Ovid. But what, exactly, does it mean?

The more pictures depart from specific storytelling, the more elusive, "mysterious", and inexplicable their internal meanings become. Landscapes, still lifes, and abstract paintings are given "meaning" through complex relations of visual elements. Words can't adequately describe those meanings. All words can do is point to the elements which seem to contribute most strongly to them.

WHY ARE CONTEMPORARY PAINTINGS USUALLY BRIGHTER AND MORE COLOURFUL THAN PAINTINGS BY REMBRANDT, LEONARDO, AND OTHER "OLD MASTERS"?

It depends how "old" you mean.

Before about 1400 AD, paintings tended to have brilliant colours and pale shading.

During the 15th Century, artists began to create strongly modeled figures in their pictures by emphasizing shading to create Leonardo and Rembrandt not only exploited this kind of modeling, but emphasized it by playing it off against dark backgrounds. Paintings of this type, tending to be rather dark in tonality, dominated European painting until the middle of the 19th Century.

The Impressionists, in particular, discovered light, clear tonalities. Someone once observed that, before their time, paintings were dark spots on the wall. The Impressionists filled those spots with light and colour.

Modern, color-fast pigments have also made it possible to paint in a light, high key, but many artists still identify darkness with profundity.

 

WHAT IS MODERN PAINTING?

Between about 1400 and 1850, pictures were thought of primarily as spaces (like empty stages) which could be filled with representations of objects drawn from, or suggested by, the visible world. (A picture-making machine­­the camera­­was invented in the early 19th Century to make pictures of this kind.)

After 1850, some artists began to think that the nature of the medium of painting itself ­­the fact that paintings were flat, rectangular surfaces covered with paint­­had more to do with whether paintings were good or bad than did the fact that they represented things or told stories. As a result, artists concentrated more and more on these "abstract" properties of painting and gradually abandoned representations of the visible world.

This process is called modernism. The painting which resulted from it is called modernist­­or modern­­painting.

 

IS SOME MODERN ART A HOAX?

The story about The Emperor's New Clothes seems to apply to the public's inability to appreciate modern art. Because traditional conventions and techniques have been discarded in many modern paintings, and because so much depends on the viewer's willingness to appreciate the new, many people have suspected that modern art is itself, a hoax or that-it's been undermined by charlatans.

Certainly, some modern pictures are as dismally empty as the emperor was naked and, certainly, some people profess to appreciate even the worst pictures, but the artists who painted those pictures almost invariably meant to make good art.

In fact, good art often causes more suspicion than bad art. Because it modifies and discards conventions it seems to lack the "meaning" that was attached to them; and because it's good it demands attention in an incomprehensible way.

 

WHY DO SOME ADULTS ENJOY ABSTRACT PAINTINGS BY YOUNG CHILDREN BUT DISLIKE ABSTRACT PAINTINGS BY ADULTS?


Emma Fenton, aged 4 1/2, Untitled

I suspect they like the idea of children's art better than the art itself.

 

WHY DO ART GALLERIES EXHIBIT ABSTRACT PICTURES WHEN MOST PEOPLE CAN'T, OR DON'T, APPRECIATE THEM?

For one thing, because so many people who care about art­­artists, collectors, and art lovers of all kinds­­do appreciate them. (This is mainly because they've learned to see them as pictures.)

For another thing, because so many artists nowadays paint them. (The very best­­and very worst­­paintings produced today tend to be abstract paintings.)

And, finally, because the curators and directors who run art galleries believe that people who really appreciate representational pictures can learn to appreciate abstract ones. (Remember, recognizing what's represented and appreciation are two different things.)

 

WHY IS SO MUCH NONSENSE WRITTEN (AND SAID) ABOUT ART?

Because art appeals to taste. And because judgments of taste (what your taste tells you) can't be proved.

In other words, the closest thing to proof that a work of art is good is that (a) you like it and (b) other people like it.

The appreciation of art is very satisfying. Because of this, and because it can't be proved, people often develop high-sounding theories to "explain" it. Speculation of any kind about art is liable to become sheer nonsense.

Just the same, writing (and talking) about art can be useful: it can point to the good art; it can point out aspects of art which might have gone unnoticed; it can clear away prejudices that interfere with appreciation. And that's worth the risk of lapsing (inadvertently) into nonsense.

 

SHOULD I BUY ART THAT I LIKE, OR ART THAT I'M TOLD IS GOOD?

You should only buy what you like.

But you should also listen to the opinions of others, especially those of people whose judgement you've learned to trust. They can sometimes guide you to art that you'll like even more.