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Painting

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On a recent visit to the Art Institute of Chicago, this painting arrested me more than any other. It presents the appearance of extreme simplicity, a mere line drawing, but this appearance is deceptive. Klee neatly divides up the labor in the painting: the black lines do the main representational work, while the color provides the mood and representational accents (e.g. the red that gives the mouth body). I am struck by the placement of the hands. More than anything else in the painting, this placement conveys its eerie, unsettling emotion. And then I notice that in fact the head is connected to the body only by the hands. It took me a while to catch this, the drawing of the figure seems so natural. I am struck as well by the horizontal lines, which divide up the space on the painting. The way that the spaces they create break up or merge together as one travels horizontally along the painting gives it vibrancy, a sense of motion. And it is the fleeing figure that marks the breakpoints, integrating foreground and background together.

I am a novice to painting, so my opinion is not worth much, but this painting speaks to me in a way no other painting ever has. Thank you, Mr. Klee.

In a recent visit to the Carnegie Museum of Art, two paintings caught my eye: Robin, by Marsden Hartley, and Early Spring near Mantes, by Jean-Baptiste-Camille Corot.


Marsden Hartley, Robin

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I found this painting strangely arresting. A dead bird on snow, off-center, only the snow seems not granular but liquid, as if it is flowing around the bird. The snow becomes most intensely white as it nears the bird—in the distance it is tinged with the brickish brown of earth. Meanwhile, the bird itself seems to merge with its shadow. At first it seems mere wing, suggesting a strangely twisted position. Only when you notice how it mirrors and magnifies the shape of the beak does it become apparent that it is the bird’s shadow, which it wears as if it were a cloak.

The beak points toward the ground, as if in mourning.


Jean-Baptiste-Camille Corot, Early Spring near Mantes

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The painting immediately gives an impression of wind, an unremarkable fact: so many painters have painted windy days. What is another? But look more closely. For the primary effect contributing to this impression is in fact quite strange: nearly all the tree branches point in the same direction. No normal wind could cause that. It is as if the trees grew under the pressure of a wind that for years did not relent, that still has not relented. On realizing this, the painting is lifted out of time: it does not capture a single day, but a perpetual reality. The bent figure laboring against this wind, we come to think, has never been able to walk upright.