Sure, if you even sneeze in the art museum or speak too loudly at The San Francisco Museum of Modern Art you’re glared at by half-dead museumgoers. If you get too close to the Lilly Pads to see those individual brushstrokes or if they really are moving, a burly security guards leaps out from behind the frame and growls. Surely the whole thing is commercialized and you can’t even get a cup of tea for less that five dollars, but there’s something you can’t get anywhere else but at the art museum. There’s a bit of empowering magic that you’ll never feel from a textbook or projected image. Though that luminescent backlight on a computer screen is lovely, there’s something so much better. Standing in front of a tangible work puts the viewer in the driver seat. They can stand on the tips of their toes to avoid that awful glare from the terrible art museum lighting. And if they’re willing to risk confrontation with snotty security, they can walk up close and discover things they might otherwise miss. The Burghers of Calais were meant to be walked through and around just like the very architecture they are surrounded by. This by no means is an endorsement of any art museum and what they do or provide, rather it is an acknowledgment that works of art should be experienced in person.
One of the many works existing today that are begging for a real audience is by Jean-François Raffaëlli. The Absinthe Drinkers (Les déclassés) measures 42 square inches that cover one’s entire field of vision. So, by sheer size alone it is attention-grabbing. It may look interesting, but not really inviting. The members of the very unlively scene are seated and slouched in the center and don’t look particularly ecstatic to be there. Perhaps because everything around them is either dead or dilapidated. Both men are dressed in deep black, unkempt clothing accompanied by black top hats. The gentleman on the left is seated and leaning forward onto the table they share with one arm pointed up to support his depressing face and the other reached forward clasping a glass of glowing yellow-green absinthe. The man on the right seems to have given up on his glass of poison as he has turned away from the table and now hunches over toward the viewer not even bothering to support his head. They are clearly seated at a table of a now run-down seemingly archaic vineyard. All the grapes have shriveled away. The vines behind and all around them are dead, dry, and rigid. The men sit in front of two dimensions that are a flat and flakey wall. Towards the upper-right of the wall is an illustration of a bunch of grapes that once called people to the bar to drink and be joyful. Behind this building, high above the horizon, on the left, and off in the distance even the landscape looks desolate. A small section there is dedicated to a rusty barn, a wire fence, and perhaps the first and already very old satellite dish of the 19th Century. That is only a guess. The brightest part of the whole painting is in the opposite corner on the bottom right. But it’s just a couple of hay-colored boxy wooden bar stools. They’re banal but seem to somehow glow like the absinthe the worn out men gather around. Even these though are more vibrant. Though this moment in time seems particularly uneventful, the strokes of paint, especially in these stools, seem to vibrate. Somehow, despite the lack of inspiration this scene offers, this painting is just loud enough to warrant a closer observation.
There is another painting in a nearby gallery that visitors could take a magnifying glass to. This painting by Joan van Noordt, Susanna and the Elders, might not offer much more cordial invitation than the other, but measuring 49 by 38 inches, it’s a size someone could imagine themselves walking right into the scene it contains. There seems to be a fascinating but wicked story to tell here implied by everyone’s positions and gestures. The majority of the painting is consumed by the pale and probably chilly figure in the middle. She is hardly covered by various fabrics full of volume that most people would just call “red” and “white.” She is a moderately voluptuous woman and seems contorted and uncomfortable. Her facial expression are not of total misery, but she turns her rosy cheeks and Autumn-colored hair away from the two nightmarish men behind her in the upper right. These men are painted in a darker light and look gnarled and gruesome. Their proximity to the woman is too close like they’ve sat down adjacent to her on an empty bus. They gesticulate as if they’re pointing to her and discussing. One man’s face glows orange as if lit by the reflection of the woman. His overweight face is slightly hidden by his downturned cap. The other man looks gray as if his body lays cold in a coffin. What’s left of his hair is white and curled and his nose is pointed like Dorothy’s main enemy. On the other side of the woman in the background a gray chubby statue has been erected. Behind that are a few uninteresting trees and some swirly foreboding clouds. Coming back to the woman, though, it’s worth pointing out the vibrancy of the fabrics she twists herself in. That magnifying glass would definitely reveal, especially in this cloth, a few very interesting colors and textures. It’s not necessarily the story here that is interesting but the forms that can be found by looking closer.
Form and Color in the Art Museum
If there’s one thing about The Absinthe Drinkers that might go unseen if not standing right in front of it, it’s that evil blood-red eye the man on the left has! It’s an interesting nuance but also a good hook to get the viewer interested in the colors of the painting. Most would agree that the actual point of focus, is the bright “green” glowing glasses of absinthe the men are drinking. A student on assignment studying the piece might reveal that the intense color of the drink is actually made of mostly yellow as well as blue paint in addition to the soft green. This remarkable combining of colors, though, is still not the most eye-catching paint on the canvas. There is another very similar but more vibrant swirling dance of colors in the lower right where the bar stools are depicted. The seats as mentioned, look yellow as only Crayola can deliver, but actually consist of brown, white, and even red. This stitching of colors to create a brightness and vibrancy isn’t even the most exciting subtle secret in the painting still! The lemon frosting that marks the tops of the stool might distract people from what lies below it. The legs of the barstools are not just the color of wood, they are brown with streaks of green and blue hues. There’s not that much green or blue timber out in the world but these colors when painted on act as highlights and shadows to create depth and vibration. A network of colors from the man’s evil eye, to the mercury ridden drink, straight to the barstools make the work appear to move. Using just color, the artist has given people only daring enough to look close several hidden surprises.
Two-hundred years earlier the artist of Susanna and the Elders was burying a scavenger hunt of secret surprises for his patrons. (Some bizarre secrets might be that monster foot of one of the elders that creeps to the foreground from the darkness or the woman’s man hand that she hides behind her otherwise very feminine arm.) But surely he was using preparations of design and color similar to that of the other painting to create a new and unique color palette of his own. He actually uses a technique that surpasses that of the earlier work. You can see impasto of colors that were clearly mixed right on the canvas. Because this work has much more texture, the artist’s technique of creating colors becomes more apparent. The background including the two frightening men would be the textbook demonstration of how to mix colors on the canvas. For instance, it’s clear to see in the sky that the artist, instead of mixing these dark grays and even orange on his palette, applied the wet oils to the canvas and mixed them there. The artist doesn’t hide his mark and it’s this painterly quality that makes his technique of mixing and creating his own color more apparent. Even in the whipped and fluffy cream that is the woman’s body are unexpected color combinations. The pale hue of the woman is actually made up of pink, blue-gray, and even the color of split pea soup. These colors are strategically placed and creatively mixed to create the contemptuous color of “whitey.” The most interesting form on this whole canvas, though, is the multi-racial fabrics. The beautiful red garment is actually made of red-orange, dark red, and brown. These colors, only when combined to match the shape and flow of the fabric create an overall red. Even white isn’t white anymore! The artist uses impasto again to create a crusty mixing of gray as shades and pinks for highlights. This addition of saturation to an otherwise monochromatic looks local but creates a fantastic sheen. Surely it might be worth mentioning the little parts of canvas that are bare, the vine-like texture the underlying canvas creates, the overall cracking of paint which may suggest more technique, or even literally what the heck is happening in the story. But, many would agree that the way in which colors are applied to fool the eye into seeing other colors, is the true reward for those who want a closer look.
Both of these artists are mixing colors in unusual ways, but in different ways. In the Absinthe Drinkers the viewer is lost in a whirlpool of brushstrokes. The dabs of paint are small and near each other, but all differ, often greatly, in their hues and shades. This side-by-side optical mixing seems very flat, but still vibrant. The vibrancy of Susanna and the Elders is more stealthy. Colors here are still made up of a complexity of many hues but are often so close they overlap and even occasionally create thick impasto. This layer-by-layer technique creates more of a translucent sheen. The magic of each painting remains the same, no matter how the artist chooses to execute it. Each painting in the art museum is using incredibly individual colors to make patches that look quite different when seen from a distance. It’s not only until getting a few inches away from the painting that you can see the artist’s mark and even their technique.
The art museum is waiting! So lean in! Try to figure out how it’s done! See how an artist can stray from local color without people in the art museum even noticing. Get close to see the blues and greens that make up yellow in The Absinthe Drinkers. See what’s been fooling the eyes of hasty tourists who just want to snap a photo. See how an artist can use translucency and glazing to fool people too. Crane your neck and move your eyes all around the painting that is Susanna and the Elders until you can figure it all out. Brave the awkward stares by others in the art museum to see just how many colors are in a red garment. The way color is used is just one element of design that can be used to create an image. But, it is this and others that make it so much more rewarding to actually see these works in person no matter where they are.