Wednesday, June 27, 2012


Remember when painters went to great lengths to hide their brushstrokes? Think of the Flemish masters of the mid 1400s, just at the break of the Renaissance. Roger van der Weyden sat bending over the blood-gold head of the Virgin and the angel, using such minute strokes that he had to have a brush with only one hair, so the tool mirrored the image it created. Everything was in the sharpest focus—the pearl-studded brocade of the angel’s robe, the pattern of nails in the wooden window shutters in the background, the distant landscape outside—the way it might appear in the mind of God. The days of the guilds, before the annunciation of the Great Change.

Then Rembrandt upended it, and brushstrokes were no longer shamefully hidden but lavished on the canvas. Even pallet knives, once for mixing colors, were boldly used to scrape light across the surface of the painting, the artist no longer effacing himself with each stroke, but proud of his role in producing the image of the tomato-cheeked burgher. Rembrandt, too, was well worth portraiting, with his global nose that the light loved; the generous, orange lips; and the dark eyes tunneling back.

And later the hummingbird moment when paint and image hovered together, the prismatic brushstrokes of the Impressionists in balance with their subjects, the brush caressing the light. As in Renoir’s The Luncheon of the Boating Party:

The painter smoothed all the figures in yellow straw hats and blue dresses flirting or musing or lounging after their meal as if the strokes were of the softest hairbrush, fracturing the air into colors that included all possibilities and beauty in that one moment as delicious as the grapes and wine left on the table shielded by the white cloth.

But with Monet’s final waterlilies the brushstrokes began to revolt, to assert their own importance, almost eclipsing those liquid-dwelling flowers. The strokes were no longer content to portray the painter’s moonbridge, they jittered in and around the rails and the planks, not willing to settle in one place, the way a reflection is miffed by the wind.

Eventually the brushstrokes took over the canvas and became the sole subject. Abstract New York Expressionism, Jackson Pollock’s brush whipping across the surface like a day’s worth of air traffic, time-lapsed from above. Or like a magnified detail of a painting that is so large it could never fit in a home.

The circle was now complete. The Process was the end. And there it was finally, the heart of the artist itself, not a valentine chocolate box, but a visceral, beating organ with the blue veins and glossy membranes laid bare.

The angels were gone, though, like birds out of season, off to follow equatorial colors, latitudes with warmer numbers, their wings painting the blue air.

Other recent posts about writing topics: 
How to Get Published
Getting the Most from Your Writing Workshop
How Not to Become a Literary Dropout
Putting Together a Book Manuscript
Working with a Writing Mentor
How to Deliver Your Message
Does the Muse Have a Cell Phone?
Why Write Poetry? 
Poetic Forms: IntroductionThe SonnetThe SestinaThe GhazalThe Tanka

Praise and Lament
How to Be an American Writer

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