Limitless are the ways in which artists combine in their work both convention and innovation. And ever unanswered remains the question of whether it is easier for an artist to do one of these two things or the other, whether he or she is following his natural bent when he gives us what is expected, constructed out of what his audience is familiar with, as the way to make a painting or a play, or when he or she is listening to his own inner ear and eye and mind. Henrik Ibsen was at the height of his art in “John Gabriel Borkman”, crafting a play whose suspense was in the revealing of the relations of the characters rather than marked by changes in the characters. He was not being true to the traditions of Shakespearean or French Classical drama in that the play does not hinge on events but on making the audience think new things about the characters, but was that not, in fact, true to what is always true about drama, which is that surprises of one sort or another are what move it onto its inevitable or prefigured or quirky conclusion? Drama is still drama even if it unfolds in accord with fresh mechanisms. Let us make the same point, and deepen it, by considering three recent exhibitions at the Metropolitan Museum of Art, which seems no longer in the business of blockbuster shows but quite thoughtful minor ones.
The easiest case is that of Peder Balke, a mid-nineteenth century Norwegian artist, largely of seascapes and landscapes, who partly learned his craft from the previous generation Norwegian artist, Johan Christian Dahl, and modeled many of his paintings after those created by Dahl. So the teacher provided the conventions on which the pupil made innovations. Dahl had painted “Shipwreck on the Coast of Norway” (1832). It is a strong picture even if it depicts a standard subject matter. You can see people struggling to find their way on the rocks on the edge of the sea. They are in the middle distance so it is not easy to pick out their individual features, something done much better by Nicolas Poussin in his magnificent picture “The Crossing of the Red Sea”, a painting of two centuries before, where the people fleeing the closing of the Red Sea are caught a bit more close up and so one sees the anguish, fear and surprise on their faces from having just survived the cataclysmic event. The Dahl picture, to the contrary, makes the survivors the side event, the cataclysm of the sinking ship the central object and event in the picture. The survival is there to populate the picture with onlookers with whom the person looking at the picture can identify so as to fill out the storyline of a ship wreck. Balke, for his part, paints in his “The North Cape” (1845) a painting that is not about a shipwreck at all, but is a portrait of rough seas and rocks in front of a not too distant glacier. What makes the painting interesting is its lack of any human life. Nature has no mediator, the scene beheld only by overhead birds which are given no detail, only a suggestion of flight so as to fill out part of the picture and enhance the sense of it being an unobserved scene. Moreover, in what might be an ironic comment on Dahl, or perhaps to emphasize the loneliness of the place, the rocks depicted in the center of the picture have the shape and the color of a shipwreck, and so perhaps meant as a tribute to what might well have been a tribute to his teacher. Now, Dahl had also painted rocks in the midst of waves without any humans on the scene, but Balke makes that a meaning of his painting because of those suggestions that the picture might have been designed otherwise. That Balke took the bold step of removing people from the picture self-consciously can be attributed to intellectual history: he is more in the age of geology than was his teacher. It can also be the hard work of finding something new in a subject matter by removing the drama of a shipwreck, simplification being a very hard thing to pull off.
Balke also modifies the nightscape as that was done by Dahl who, in his “Moonlight View of the River Elbe at Dresden” leaves just enough light in the sky and off the river so as to provide details of the buildings and of the shore, his accomplishment being how much he can do with so little illumination. Balke, on the other hand, who in some of his paintings does also try to show how much an artist can do with the least light possible, nevertheless in his “Moonlit View of Stockholm” uses more light, enough to allow shade and color and so as to depict the silt in the river and make the spires of the town clear. The purpose is not to show the ability of painting to conquer self imposed limits but to give a sense of what night looks like when there is enough light to let the viewer know what a town looks like at night.
Another artist up for consideration as innovating on conventions, this time not of his teacher, but of the art period that surrounds him, is Fairfield Porter, who was one of those artists not sufficiently appreciated before his death. In the Sixties and Seventies he was doing representational paintings of the fields and streets of Eastern Long Island, which was, at the time, a hotbed of what was known as “Action Painting” but which is now better known as Abstract Expressionism. In “Sunrise on South Main St.”, Porter captures the look of the shadows of early morning and the dark green of the hedges that border properties as well as the multiple angles of Victorian houses. That is his natural subject matter, but what he does with it, whether in spite of himself or not, is to move into the territory of Abstract Expressionism. He sets out, in this and other canvases, an arrangement of colors, though that is not meant to undercut his representationalism. It does so, though, because his palette is neither pastel nor loud in an acrylic kind of way. Rather, it is made up of muted browns and greens that stand out in themselves, apart from the subject matter, and so fall, unwittingly or not, into what Rothko did far more boldly, let the colors speak for themselves, establish their own moods and provide design that is apart from meaning. In the sunrise painting, he gives hard edges to the hedges and portrays the lawns in muted greens.
In “Union Square, Looking up Park Ave.” Porter presents a cityscape of standard composition. There are classical pillars to the right and office buildings up both sides of the avenue into the distance. What is striking, however, is the color scheme. The colors are muted and non-jarring shades of white and gray and brown and dark green with a yellow cab in the corner which seems out of place, outside a usual color scheme, until one has adjusted oneself to looking at a Porter. Was Porter falling into a trend overtaking art or finding his way there all by himself?
Porter anticipates Hockney in a way that conveys a departure from the Abstract Expressionism that had come to be all of art for a while. Elaine de Kooning, in Porter’s portrait of her, is dressed in muted red and brown, sitting in front of a gray wall, on a couch with a very uninteresting floral print. This is not at all like a Matisse, who plays with the geometry of his flatish surfaces and so multiplies perspectives without topographically altering them, as Picasso does. Porter, like Hockney, swallows the figure within its setting, however commendable the figure in the portrait is made out to be, a fact of portraiture at least as old as Gainsborough. Is this the only way to deal with the onslaught of Abstract Impressionism: to beat it at its own game of color while retaining the representational mode? Doing so may be a form of resistance but also a tribute to what has to an artist’s mind has already become the new conventional way of doing painting.
The Caravaggio exhibition consists of only his last two paintings, the term “exhibition” perhaps justified by the fact that it took outside funding to bring the two pictures together in the same room that holds other Caravaggio paintings. The two are, however, worth while seeing for what they are, which is a modification of Caravaggio’s earlier work, a further innovation within his style, as if he had become anxious to do everything he could to be true to his inner vision even if that would be difficult for viewers to understand. The two paintings show Caravaggio’s usual concern with bringing multiple figures close to one another so that you can see the particular and intense emotions that are playing with each of their facial features. But by this time, at the end of his life, Caravaggio seems no longer concerned with having the story told in a picture make sense, as was even the case in the nasty emotions exhibited by all parties in Salome looking at the head of John the Baptist, even the dead head seemed caught at a moment of self-righteousness, or for the picture to have some resonance with its biblical sources. It does not make sense, in “The Martyrdom of Saint Ursula”, for her executioner to be so close up to St. Ursula, the juxtaposition there only so that Caravaggio can show the executioner’s anger and her surprise at being about to be dead. In “The Denial of St. Peter”, a woman intervening between the soldier questioning St. Peter and St. Peter himself is unfounded. Why is this the case? What is the backstory? There is no Biblical basis for this third party contact. It does, however, deepen a story by making it more psychological. St. Peter is portrayed as a bald-headed and red faced old guy (which he could not have been because he has a long career after that scene). St. Peter is pathetic rather than merely cowardly. The woman is covering up for him, which suggests that he cannot even lie for himself, but just stands there in misery while others determine what will happen to him. That is more devastating than the ordinary account, which is that, for a moment, he lost his nerve. But it is a made up story, full of Caravaggio’s essential despair rather than of New Testament weakness and recovery. Caravaggio had moved down this path before, providing an Annunciation that showed Mary dying, but that was withdrawn. Here, in “The Denial of St. Peter”, he is less willing to compromise. Caravaggio has allowed his own vision of life to simplify the requirements of a painting and that constitutes a breakthrough even if not one that will be followed up, Caravaggio continuing to innovate on what were regarded as the acceptable limits on painting.