Friday, August 23, 2013

What You See, and What You Think About What You See


I've spent a lot of time over the last two years following Tumblr blogs that focus on art, and reposting things I like to my own page on Tumblr. One interesting subgenre of painting that I've taken an interest in is paintings of people reading. One not-completely surprising fact about the subgenre is that the vast majority of paintings of readers focus on women reading, and so over time I've tried to keep an eye peeled (there's a saying you don't hear much these days) for paintings of men reading. An unfortunate truth of contemporary American culture that Michael Thompson and others have noted is that our young men are increasingly likely to see literacy based activities like reading and writing to be girly things. Even the boys who love to read and write are often at some pains to keep that fact from becoming known. I had a student several years ago, a middle linebacker on the football team, who made a strict discipline of shuffling into my English class and dropping himself into the chair, where he would maintain the appearance of complete disengagement. It was several weeks into the semester before I was able to determine, from the writing assignments he was handing in and the occasional offhand remark he would permit himself in class, that he was in fact listening intently to every word that was said, thinking about it afterward, doing his reading and writing assignments at home with care and thoughtfulness, and was as smart as a whip (seems to be my day for paleologisms). He just couldn't afford to let any of his peers know that; that would have been very uncool.

So today I began using a new LMS with my classes. My school has been using Moodle for a number of years, and we have a handful of teachers using Haiku, but we've been looking at other alternatives and one of the ones that often comes highly recommended is Canvas, so I signed up to be one of a group of teachers who would pilot Canvas this year in order to see how it compares to Moodle. I spent part of the afternoon designing a home page for my sophomore course, and I thought it would look better with some kind of artwork on it, so I went into my tumblr archive to see what I could find that might serve, and wound up selecting this painting by Martha Kiss:

via antelucanhourglass


One of the functions of art, and of teaching, is to arrest one's attention, to make one stop, and linger, and look again, and, in the best-case scenario, to start thinking about, well, something. This painting does that, at least for me. It's well-executed and interesting to look at, and it raises questions. There's a guy sitting at a table reading a book. He seems to be enjoying whatever he's reading; he's smiling. There's a bowl of apples on the table. Simple enough. Behind him there's a painting on the wall of a woman. (Not just any painting of any woman, it turns out, but a carefully rendered re-presentation of a well-known Modigliani, a portrait of his wife Jeanne H├ębuterne.) Everything in the painting is pretty straightforward, except, of course, for the one thing that throws everything else up for grabs. The woman in the picture on the wall is reaching down onto the table to grab an apple. Okay, question time:


How is it possible that the woman in the painting could extend her arm OUT of the two dimensional plane of the painting on the wall into the room where the man is reading?

Is there a some sort of implicit connection between the left hand side of the painting, where the man is reading, and the right hand side, where the woman is swiping the apple?

Do the apples symbolize something? (There's a sufficient history of apples in art to suggest the possibility.)

Why Modigliani's wife? Does her story have something to do with his?

What's the connection between the man reading and the woman in the painting? (There are enough compositional connections—the tilt of their heads, the light on their foreheads, the length of their noses, the downward angle of their glances—to suggest that the artist is nudging us to see one as a counterpart to the other. What sort of counterpart?)

Is this a painting about reading? A painting about art? A painting about the intersection of parallel worlds? Or what?

I don't have ready answers for any of those questions. I've got some hunches, which at this point feel subliminal or preverbal, and it would take a fair amount of time to work through them deliberately, and that's not going to happen tonight. But they are interesting questions, and this is a painting that I'm looking forward to living with for a while in my head. I'm also more than a little curious to see what my students will make of it. Especially the boys.






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