Jun 082008

In part one of this chapter we talked about the power and the possibilities of imagination in general terms. In this next part we will get more specific and discuss a very effective method to interpret art.

Arrive Somewhere

Let’s continue with this basic premise: by using your imagination when doing art interpretation, your aim is to arrive somewhere. This place may be a new idea about the work of art, or a known idea, but coming from a different sphere of life and shedding light on the image from a fresh perspective. This place may be as complex as a system or a theory or as simple as a personal life story or event. Either way, the premise of this chapter (and, in fact, of all the other chapters as well) is to get from point A — the idea of the painting — to point B — your interpretation of it. Both the road towards that goal and the actual grasp of it when already there can be rewarding experiences.

But the most powerful feature of the finish line is also its problem: it, after all, is still an imaginary construct. This leads to the inevitable conclusion that you, the interpreter, is the only person in the world able to imagine your ideas in your unique and original way. This self-evident truth often gets forgotten and marginalized, possibly because of the responsibility it brings along. No one will ever be able to tell you what your finish line looks like — this is something you could and should be to telling everyone. What this chapter offers is some methods — some training — as to how to try and get a glimpse of it, what general steps to take, and in what direction.

Complete the Painting in your Mind

This technique presupposes that the image in front of you is either incomplete, or only a starting point for following (imaginary) events that would occur “later” in an imagined pictorial narrative. Creating that narrative — completing the painting in your mind — is your task.

  • Let’s examine several examples. First, imagine that the painting you see is a part of a film. The image before your eyes is the only frame at your disposal, but it may give many useful and interesting details. If there is a scene involving a group of people interacting, try to visualize what they would do next. Look at each actor, see what he or she is doing, and guess what would be the most common and expected next action. Then, try to identify how the group dynamics, as a whole, would evolve. That way you get a more vivid, objective picture of the actual depicted event: the next frames allow to make a comparison and sharpen the mental focus of the existing frame. You may arrive at some surprising insights, which would already be your interpretation.

  • If there are people or objects that move in a particular direction, imagining where they would end up may reveal important details about the rhythm of the work. If you see an executioner with a sword raised right above the victim’s neck, it is possible to assume with a considerable degree of certainty what would happen in the next few seconds — and how would the crowd below the scaffold respond. Try figure out from the executioner’s posture whether he intends to go through with his job, or is he struggling with himself. Follow the people’s expressions, see if they if they are terrified or vindictive. With this data available, you will be able to probe into the political climate, and interpret the painting from an entirely new perspective.
  • In landscape painting it could be more appropriate to speak in broader time sweeps; in months, or even seasons. Is there anything that gives away the approach of the next time of year? If it’s the summer, is there some growth with reds and yellows, denoting the slow onset of autumn? Perhaps, the growth is so explicitly abundant as to imply dead-ripe stage (decadence) — overabundance which in turn signals a nearing decline. In a winter piece, a spot of blackened snow may hint at melting and the onset of spring. Weigh all this data against known natural elements and states and see to which of them (according to your understanding) the material you gathered gravitates. Congratulations, you have just made an interpretation.

No Limits

The frame limits the painted area, but not your imagination. Try to visualize what happens beyond the edges, as if the painted surface continues there. Often artists crop their subjects to achieve certain effects; you would be able not only to benefit from the bigger picture (literally) but to tap into the effects on the cropped object more objectively.

Feel free to manipulate the painting in your mind: add more people, more objects, more colors. This method is particularly effective for interpreting still life. Does the composition look too vacant? Can you tip it over by adding just one more apple? What does it say about the stability of the composition? Finally, do these discoveries make you enjoy the painting more, less, or perhaps neither? Either way, your honest emotional response to your own interpretation will strongly support the latter.

Stay tuned for part 3!

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