Saturday, September 16, 2006

Stampedes of Nudes, or Why I Don't Like Still Lifes

Here's a humorous selection from a short article in The New Yorker, March 20, 2006. It's just one of several ideas that the author, Jack Handey, suggested for improving today's art:

Stampedes of Nudes

The trouble with most paintings of nudes is that there isn't enough nudity. It's usually just one woman lying there, and you're looking around going, 'Aren't there any more nudes?' This idea solves that.

What has frightened these [stampeding] nudes? Is it the lightning in the background? Or did one of the nudes just spook? You don't know, and this creates tension.

I laughed when I read this, but the truth is, Mr. Handey is onto something.

As for me, I've never enjoyed looking at still-life paintings. You know the type: a standard white bowl made of bone china and filled with pears, grapes, and an apple, plus an empty vase and a single pear resting on the counter beside it. Oh, and a pair of spectacles.

Why always spectacles? Are they symbolic of — let me guess — curiosity? And why pears? Why not something really symbolic, like pomegranates?

Anyway, the only time there's any tension in these paintings is when the artist, through lack of talent, makes the table look as if it's slanted forward.

Have you noticed that a lot of paintings of nudes are the same. The nude is just standing/sitting/lying wherever it happens to be easiest to see him or her, meaning all of him, meaning the whole tamale, as it were. But what's the point of that? Photographs are much better for this purpose, and they're readily available on the Internet. Some of them even move and have sound.

Back to still-lifes: Whenever I look at them, I always feel like I'm back in art class. Worse, I feel like I'm an art student who's snooping over some other art student's shoulder, perhaps taking a peak at his final exam sketch. I want to say to him, "That's a nice...grape."

If I'm going to have a bowl of china with fruit in it, I want to see that bowl being thrown across the room by an angry housewife, shards flying, fruit bouncing, husband ducking, and dog hiding under the table. Or if it's a nude, I want to see his arms flailing against the angry Furies or him leaping skyward with his arms wrapped around his lover and his eyes aimed at the heavens. A lot of nudes stampeding would be fine, too, as long as I can determine what spooked them.

At the very least, make the nude tell me something meaningful, say for example, by means of a well-planted foot, a plaintive reach, or a furrowed brow. That way I don't have to spend all of my time focusing on his or her pleasant but otherwise standard parts, and instead I can ponder something more important — and more rare.

That is art; everything else is just a painting.

[Edit: I learned that still lifes are even more boring than I imagined. I'm told that the spectacles aren't symbolic of anything. They just provide a reflective surface, which is difficult to paint. (I also fixed the links to Orestes and Psyche).]

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