"The Humanities - - An Enrichment For Life"
by Ruth H. Barrus
Talk and presentation given at Idaho State University Language Arts Conference - April 6, 1978
A few years ago I was in the home of a famous scientist who headed the Physics Department of a great university. He was valedictorian of his college class. He spent several years at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology on secret studies that ultimately lead to the atomic bomb. Following the Second World War he entered Harvard University and graduated Magna cum laude with his doctorate degree. After many years of projects with the government he felt he had to settle more permanently to raise his eight children, so he settled into university life, with a provision that he would have certain released time for some government service on special projects. I asked this brilliant man, whom I had known from his youth, what was the most important quality a scientist must possess. He thought a moment and then said, "Imagination." I then asked, "Where does that imagination come from?" Quickly he arose to his feet and took a book out of the vast library that covered the walls of the room we were in - a library abundant with books that bore titles dealing with art, music, literature, and strangely lacking in science. The book he had chosen to show me was a beautiful volume of the Greek Sapphic odes. "Have you seen this?" he asked. As we discussed this work he finally stated, "Where else can imagination come from more abundantly (and his arm swept from his grand piano piled with music, to his fine paintings, and to his books) than through the arts."
John D. Rockefeller III was appalled at the lack of imagination and motivation in the young people of America today, so he, through special funding, established a three-year project to be piloted in the public school system in University City, Missouri, which program was aimed at making the arts a vital part of the public school curriculum. Music, dance, painting, photography, poetry, drama, and other visual and performing arts were integrated into regular subject areas, such as English, social studies, and science, from Kindergarten through the 12th grade. The pilot study has been completed, the reports are out, and the project has been acclaimed a "whopping success."
This study is one of the most important experiments with arts and education that has ever been completed. "All the Arts For Every Child" was planned with such attention to every facet of educational philosophy and practice, and was executed with such diligence and efficiency, that even the most cynical doubters were disarmed. The report of this project is available at Fund Office, 50 Rockefeller Plaza, NY 10020. The proof of the success lies in the fact that students, teachers, parents and administration of the University City Schools have elected to continue it.
I would like to emphasize today that the study of humanities is fun and enriching - for both the mature and the young. Professor Wallace Woodworth of Harvard University says that "Creativity, originality, independence, non-conformity . . . these traits we seek to develop in bright young people to make them more useful in all fields. These characteristics are nourished by enjoyment of the arts."
But real satisfaction does not come with just talking about the arts, but in experiencing them. The completeness and constancy of visual art make it a good spring board to experiencing all the arts. Unless we have a stimulus of direction in the enjoyment of visual art we will probably accept (as I did at one time) only those pictures the "look real," to us, or possibly would "look well in our front room," or "that which agrees with our standards of entertainment." I was trained as a musician, and it isn't hard for me to like pictures that deal with the subject of music; nor would it be hard for a hunter or fisherman to like scenes in nature. If we choose only those pictures that agree with these three measurements: "does it look real," "would it look well in my front room," or "does it portray the entertainment I am already in love with," - - it is obvious that the great body of significant art would immediately be pushed out of our lives. And if these measurements are passed on to our children, significant art might never enter their lives.
Just what is a painting? Definition can range from the very simple to the complex, and each definition deserves its consideration. First, it can be simply layer of pigment on a surface. Second, an arrangement of shapes and colors. Third, a projection of the man who painted it. Fourth, a statement of the philosophy of the age that produced it. In the few minutes we have together we cannot deal satisfactorily with all these definitions, but we can talk about some of them.
First, will you consider that the subject in a work of art is only a point of departure into what the painting is really about. I am sure you have all dealt with layers of meaning that are contained in what appears to be some of the simple poems of William Wordsworth and Robert Frost such as "I Wandered Lonely As a Cloud," and "Stopping By the Woods," and have thrilled at the lights that have turned on in young eyes as these layers of meanings are experienced.
As we look at this painting by Whistler, if it isn't about his mother, then what is it really about? The essence in this work is not necessarily in the subject but is achieved through line, shape and color. How has Whistler done this? What geometric shape dominates this painting? Count the rectangles. Do you see one, five, eight, or even more? Do you see rectangles in the drapery, the wall, the pictures on the wall, the floor, the footstool, the head, the body, the lap? The rectangle is the symbol of solidity, strength, permanence, eternalness. Have you ever wondered why so many are going to the mountains today and bringing back huge rocks to plant in their yard? In our frustrated and chaotic world do they bring a sense of permanence and endurance into our lives? Observe the lines, how fluid they are - the gentle curve of the hair line, the shoulder and back, the arms, the lap - erect enough to maintain dignity, determination and strength, but softly flowing enough to tell of gentleness and compassion. The dark colors speak significantly of toil, sacrifice, reflection, and by contrast, great vision. It is saved from being a melancholy picture by the flecks of light in the curtain and the dainty lace in the cap and handkerchief. Whistler called this painting "A Study in Grey and Black." What is the real subject: it is mood. It is a compound of gentleness, dignity, endurance, vision and, to me, the greatest of all virtues - resignation, which is not just "giving up," but "enduring to the end."
A quick glance now at a painting by Ingres called "Madame LaBlanc." You see here a portrait of a beautiful woman whose good points have been magnified by many gracefully curved lines that commence in the waves of the hair (compare it with the fluid line of Whistler's painting). This graceful curve is repeated where? In the eyes, the chin, the mouth, the bodice and necklace, the folds of the dress, the velvet on the wrist, the table, and so on. Her body gently curves also. Notice how the whiteness and softness of the flesh is accentuated through the vivid contrast with the rich dark background and velvet dress. She would make a marvelous cosmetic add today, wouldn't she. Notice too, her tapered fingers. Mine don't look like hers, I assure you. This painting is all it appears to be - a superb portrait by a superb artist, refined, elegant, graceful.
Look now at "Madame Renoir" by the great impressionist Auguste Renoir. If I were to ask you at this moment whom you would prefer to paint your portrait, Ingres or Renoir, what would you answer? But before you commit yourself let's talk a little about Renoir and this piece of art. Renoir was an optimist with a joyous adoration for life, and his unique genius was his ability to translate that joy into visual expression. He also had a lofty view of womanhood and translates it to portray woman as the source of all light, life and warmth in the world! Oh, that we might deserve so great a compliment! How has he done this? Do you see a solid, enduring geometric shape that repeats itself many times and that speaks again of permanence, strength, and eternalness. Do you see the oval? Where is it repeated? Do you see it in the crown of the hat, the brim, the flowers, the eyes, the splashes of pick in her cheeks and chin, the body, the hands - even in the button? Does the geometric shape speak of the warmth, strength and the endurance of woman. The body is thrown a little off balance to eliminate rigidity. And grace and joy are expressed by contrasting V's in the jacket and the vivacious curls in the hair and in the flowers. Compare in your mind the hair line of Whistler's mother, Madame LaBlanc, and now Madame Renoir. Does the hairline alone tell you something about these women? The light values achieved by vivid diagonals of soft white, yellows, pinks and blues in the background and the garment, give one a feeling of life and joy. Now, whom would you like to have paint your picture?
Degas, now, was a pessimist, but he was still fascinated with life. Especially did he like to catch moments of life, to become the observer, unobserved. He likes to function with his brush much like the candid camera buff does with his camera. In this painting, "Woman With Chrysanthemums" by Degas, he truly is the observer, unobserved.. You see a woman crowded inconspicuously to the far side of the picture in a rather drab dress of browns and blacks, with her hand nearly covering her face, and yet you cannot keep your eyes from her. Why: With line, an artist directs exactly where your eyes will go, and even directs the speed they will go. In what appears a chaotic world of color, line, and organization in the chrysanthemums and the wall paper, through the lines of the white chrysanthemums your eyes are either directed to the white of the hat, which whiteness takes you to the center of her forehead and then your eyes drop to her face. (What if the whiteness on her hat had gone clear across the hat - your eyes would be swept out of the picture); or, your eyes would follow the whiteness of the chrysanthemums in the lower part of the picture and then your eyes would be swiftly carried to the elbow of the woman which would shoot you directly to her face. What fascinated Degas in this scene? Do you see a controlled, enigmatic individual in a fragmented and chaotic world?
The Mona Lisa by DaVinci is no longer a painting but an institution. We have heard so much about her for so long we fall quickly into the stereotyped interpretations regarding her. Nevertheless, she still fascinates us all. Again, through line, color and organization DaVinci has revealed the essence of this work. See how her body shifts and turns - her head one way, her neck another, her body another, arms and hands back and forth. The timeless background also twists and turns - all breathing the mysterious and enigmatic. If you wonder why her eyes look different, it was the custom of the women of that day to shave their eyebrows. Also, her eyes will follow you wherever you go. ( This can be achieved by painting the subject as if looking directly into the eyes of the artist.) Through dark values and beautiful flesh tones, through line, color, organization, DaVinci has created the enigma of the ages. What is the Mona Lisa thinking? This question will continue to puzzle the ages.
Since the Greeks, western man has observed the vacillation between two emphases. If emotion or feeling dominated the philosophy of the time (as in the Middle Ages and the Romantic Period in the 19 century), then romantic art came to the fore, which emphasized, either realistically or through the exaggeration of expressionism, feeling, movement, color and emotional drama. But if reason dominated the philosophy of the time, as with the Greeks, and in the Renaissance and the 18th and 20th centuries, then classic art prevailed, which emphasized idea, design, balance, and form. This is not saying that idea and form are lacking in romantic art, nor emotion is lacking in classic art, but the difference is in the emphasis. Romantic art emphasizes emotion, feeling, and movement; classic art emphasizes idea, design, and form.
The following two pictures illustrate these two concept. First, "The Abduction of Rebecca" by Delacroix. Notice how the artist involves you immediately in movement as lines and colors twist and turn, almost fuse through motion. Notice, also, how you are quickly caught up in the emotional drama and plight of Rebecca, a favorite heroin of Sir Walter Scott.
Now look at Botticelli's masterpiece "Calumny" that personifies the classic spirit. It is caught motion, everything in balance and design. The setting and mythological characters all speak of classic Greece and Rome. An innocent victim is being dragged to the throne of King Minos, the mythological judge. Deceit, gossip, and lies, portrayed by beautiful women, are whispering calumny into the ear of King Minos, prejudicing him against justice. On the left, hate and death, clothed in black, is blocking the way of naked truth, who gracefully raises her arm in supplication toward heaven for justice. It is a perfect example of classic art, right out of the Renaissance.
It is relatively easy to appreciate realistic art, especially if it portrays something we already like. But most people have difficulty liking expressionistic and abstract art because of its distortion and often complete lack of subject.
Let me quickly define these three forms so the words will have similar meaning for all of us as we discuss these examples:
First, realism - that which reveals the subject in natural proportions, similar to a photograph, but not necessarily like a photograph.
Second, expressionism - that which exaggerates or distorts the subject in order to emphasize how the artist feels about a subject.
Third, abstraction - that which is the intellectualization of the ideas or subject, and the reducing of it to geometric forms which may be fragmented and rearranged.
"The Old Violin" by Harnett clearly illustrates realism. Everything is in natural proportion. The 18th century door with latch, the curled and yellowing music and newspaper clipping, the worn places on the body of ;the violin - all speak of the age of the violin. The rapid notes on the manuscript and the clipping and letter speak of the use, travel and worth of the violin. It isn't hard for me to like this picture for it talks about what I especially like.
"The Yellow Violin" by Dufy is an example of expressionism. The lines look hastily executed, yet they are deliberately so to give you the impression of motion. Through exaggeration you get the impression of notes being played that were not intended to be played. The perspective is flat, and it looks as if the violin is on a table whose top has been turned toward you. By this means Dufy has given you both top and side view of the violin. Gold, the color of great and eternal worth, dominates the picture. Has Dufy, through expressionism, also said something about the life, activity, and worth of this great musical instrument?
Braque, in "Musical Forms" gives us an abstract painting. You see now the reduction of the violin to geometric forms, fragmentation and rearrangement. Slightly diagonal, slender cylinders give rhythm, motion and balance to the picture. Fragments of the pegs, the back, the strings, the F-clef of the violin symbolize the instrument in the context of the rhythm and movement of the geometric columns. The French word Fete at the top speaks of the monumental occasions of performance, and the word Journ speaks of journal or journey. The violin has been praised in its travels. Does Braque too, in his way, say something about the worth of the violin?
Now come back to realism in Vermeer's painting of "The Artist in the Studio." Everything is in its natural proportion and everything symbolizes the solid middle-class Dutchman of the 17th century, whose merchant ships gathered wealth from all the world, and whose homes became the center of cultural beauty and activity. The rich drapery and tile, so common today; were very uncommon then, especially for a middle-class citizen. The map of the world on the wall describes the Dutch trade routes - his world. The trombone is a symbol of music in the home; the book represents literary activity in the home; the masks on the desk - drama in the home. But most important, the crown of laurel leaf of the head of the woman symbolizes the honor of woman in the home - she is the queen of the home.
In abstraction, Picasso interprets "The Studio". The subject has now been reduced to geometric forms. The grey oval on your left, in the frame of a large gold rectangle, represents the artist. The oval is the substantial shape and represents the mind of man - the "grey matter." Notice that the oval contains three eyes - the third, the all-seeing eye of the artist. Whereas, the model, the oval to your right, has only two eyes and is white. Diagonal lines and color keep your eye moving toward the artist. Do you remember earlier I said the subject is only a point of departure into what a painting is really about? The abstract artist said: if the subject is only a point of departure, why have one? Why not deal with the essence of art in the first place - which is space, line and color.
I don't know if these examples have helped you to like art more or not, but I hope it will aid you to understand art better, and aid in the interpretation of life in general - for the subject of art if life, and the function of art is interpretation. Leonard Bernstein recently commented, "It's the artists of the world, the feelers and the thinkers, who will ultimately save us, who can articulate, educate, defy, insist, sing, and shout the big dreams. Only the artists can turn the "not-yet" into reality."
The arts can be fun. They nourish our imagination, interpret the ages, motivate our reasoning power, lengthen our perspective, and help to give our lives direction and purpose. We need them in our lives, and our youth need them. To return to Professor Woodworth of Harvard, quote: "Art and Music should be taught more seriously for purely educational reasons. They are rigorous intellectual and emotional disciplines. They sharpen the senses, awaken the imagination, shape the personality. Every youngster, whatsoever his capacities, can benefit from them."
To end this hour I would like to return to realism and romanticism and give you an example of how the arts can inter-relate. This painting by Lamoine, called "Raindrop Prelude," was conceived after the artist listened to the famous Chopin composition called "Raindrop Prelude." These lines from a poem also help fix the subject and mood.
"...Rainy evening, idle - only Music."
[editor's note: The talk ended with music - the "Raindrop Prelude" by Frederic Chopin.]