Tuesday, December 9, 2014

The Fabulous Flat

Being an architect, and having spent an inordinate amount of time being a professional purveyor of 3 dimensional illusions, the following post might seem odd…

I just stumbled across the drawing above in my files. It is from a July 2012 Wall Street Journal review of a Gustav Klimt exhibit at the Getty Center. It fascinated me then, and does now; but why? It is simple to the point of being crude. The face is nearly invisible, and the black clothing dominates without informing. It isn’t particularly beautiful, or balanced, or even entertaining. But it still speaks to me.
The answer, on reflection, is the creative tension between the flat surface and the three dimensional illusion. Yes, there isn’t much 3 dimension to go with here, but between the shape of the black dress and hat, and the suggested face, it is a complete likeness.

Klimt was quite capable of creating a three dimensional illusion on paper or canvas, but he was fascinated by the flat, graphic qualities of church icons. The contrast between stylized illusion and flat sheets of gold foil was a new and exciting idea in the established (dare I say dull) world of Beaux Arts painting, with its emphasis on the illusion of three dimensions. 

The result (Portrait of Fritza Riedler, 1906) is striking. It is a realistic portrait, but the overall effect is abstract; like a designer’s material board with a color photograph of a woman pasted in.  

Now, this of course was not the first time that serious artists had used flat expanses of color. Rembrandt left many paintings unfinished. His Portrait of the Artist’s Son Titus leaves the background as a dark scrumb, and rendered the body with a few brush strokes over an undifferentiated brown base. This however, was not a revolt against three dimensionality, but a short cut in an artistic experiment.  

Pierre de Valenciennes was a landscape painter of some skill in the late 16th century. His Villa Farnese - Two Poplar Trees features a flat blue sky along with flat shapes for the walls of the villa. But it is an exception to his usual painting style, so I wouldn’t call him a precursor in any way.

With the high point of the Beaux-Art influence came the birth of artistic protests. Berthe Morisot With a Bouquet of Violets by Edouard Manet (1872) is a surprising match for Klimt’s drawing above. The black of the hat and dress are barely modeled, the background is largely blank, but the face is realistic. And, the effect is created on purpose.

Self Portrait by James Whistler, at about the same time, is also flat by design. In this case the painting calls to mind Rembrandt’s hurried brushwork. The idea was to elicit the sense of reality while being blatantly two dimensional.

On the other hand, The Cowboy by Frederick Remington (1902), is a purposeful use of flat color to set off the well modeled horse and cowboy. And there are plenty of other paintings by Remington which use the same trick.

Sargent, about whom I have already posted, used a similar technique in Reconnoitering (1911).

It was natural that illustrators latched onto the idea of flat color. Reproduction of color art was in its infancy a hundred years ago, and blocks of solid color were easier to reproduce. This magazine cover is by Cole Phillips.

And, the game of optical illusion could catch eyes and sell magazines. This cover is by Valentine Sandberg.

As with all stylistic developments (or fashions), Architects copied the look in their renderings. Frank Lloyd Wright seemingly could not resist a new look; and this shows in this rendering of Ravine Bluffs Bridge (1915).

Cyril A.Farey was the most famous English architectural illustrator in the early 1900s. His rendering of the House at Silver End (Thomas S. Tait, architect) combines the naturally flat tones of a moonlit view with the realistic detail he was otherwise known for. 

I have occasionally played this game myself. A night view such as that above can include flat gray skies and dark silhouettes. I never loved oil pastel for finished renderings, but it works if you want to play around with a vague idea.

A computer rendering, with its detailed shade, shadow and reflection is often improved with a little simplicity. The extreme intricacy of this design by Hardy Holzman Pfieffer was eventually simplified even more by eliminating color entirely.

I have done quite a few montage boards in my career. Flat expanses of color are perfect surfaces for adding plans and elevations, even if there is some gradation. In this board the sky and street provide the background, but a vignette rendering can have plans or elevations surrounding the building on all sides.
Just as an unadorned wall is a good foil for ornament, a flat surface can emphasize and highlight a 3D illusion. In the “old days” I had to rough out the possible shapes on a pastel sketch, and usually had little time to make a decision. Today, with computer files you can try out dozens of shapes and colors in no time. Don’t be afraid to play with it; the results are worth it. 

Postscript (in regard to simple and complex): I attended a performance of the Ensemble Organum and Christos Chalkias last weekend in the Fuentiduena Chapel, at the Cloisters in New York City. It was a celebration of Saint Nicholas in Byzantine chants. What struck me was the contrast between the simple background drone and the extremely complex chanting of the text. The one without the other would have been boring, but together they kept my attention. Indeed, there were times when the effect was mesmerizingly beautiful.

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