Monday, October 21, 2013

On Describing a Painting

Harvard art historian Jennifer Roberts bills her article thus: The Power of Patience: Teaching students the value of deceleration and immersive attention. OK. But I take a different lesson from it, one about one of my current hobby horses: description. Roberts focuses on an 18th Century painting by John Singleton Copley, A Boy with a Flying Squirrel. Her point is that the more you look at the painting, the more you notice and hence the more you can note in a written description. She asks her students to spend a full three hours with a single painting.

Of her own experience with that painting she observes:
It took me nine minutes to notice that the shape of the boy’s ear precisely echoes that of the ruff along the squirrel’s belly—and that Copley was making some kind of connection between the animal and the human body and the sensory capacities of each. It was 21 minutes before I registered the fact that the fingers holding the chain exactly span the diameter of the water glass beneath them. It took a good 45 minutes before I realized that the seemingly random folds and wrinkles in the background curtain are actually perfect copies of the shapes of the boy’s ear and eye, as if Copley had imagined those sensory organs distributing or imprinting themselves on the surface behind him. And so on.
She begins her next paragraphL "What this exercise shows students is that just because you have looked at something doesn’t mean that you have seen it." Just so. And just because you've read a literary text, or seen a movie doesn't mean that you know, in any precise and focused way, what's in it.

She tells us something about the (rather interesting) origins of the painting and goes on to make a number of art historical points about the painting:
We can see this directly in the painting, which is full of allusions to time, distance, and patience. The painting is about its own patient passage through time and space. Look at that squirrel. As the strange shape of the belly fur indicates, if one takes time to notice it, this is not just any squirrel but a flying squirrel, a species native to North America with obvious thematic resonances for the theme of travel and movement. (The work’s full title is A Boy with a Flying Squirrel.) Moreover, squirrels in painting and literature were commonly understood to be emblems of diligence and patience. Then: the glass of water and the hand. Across his long career, this is the only glass of water that Copley ever included in a painting. Why? Well, for one thing, this motif evokes the passage of a sensory chain across a body of water and thereby presents in microcosm the plight or task of the painting itself. Or think about the profile format of the portrait—unusual for Copley. It turns out that in the eighteenth century, the profile format was very strongly associated with persistence in time and space. Where was one most likely to see a profile? On a coin. What is a coin? In essence, a coin is a tool for transmitting value through space and time in the most stable possible way. Coins are technologies for spanning time and distance, and Copley borrows from these associations for a painting that attempts to do the same thing.
Obviously, you have to note those things in the painting before you can make the contextual links. At the same time contextual knowledge sensitizes you to what's in the painting (the so-called hermeneutic circle).

Paintings, like literary texts or movies, are very complex objects, with many properties. It is through description that some among those properties enter into the intellectual record for further notice and discussion. 


  1. "She asks her students to spend a full three hours with a single painting."

    For me, all it took was the description and date to lead to the conclusion could it be probable not? Strongly reinforced by the date, reading its a flying squirrel and a child in the first instance, but you reject the thought but then reading that a glass of water is on the table you are back on the chase.

    Its not whats in in the painting but what you bring to it in the first instance. For me, descriptions, experiments and philosophical notions regarding wild children and the potential to educate.

    Not suggesting its in it, its what I bring to it although in this case I have a few descriptions and dates of exactly what year observations in regard to two of the objects were made. If they pre-date it I need to perhaps at least have a closer look to confirm or reject a potential relationship.

    So before looking at it I need to check that I am not imposing something that's not in the painting before I look at it, the temptation to do so spending more time with it would be high as it does look highly suggestive of the subject.

    I would not wish three hours with it at the moment as the danger would be to get to attached to the idea that what I have a strong tendency to relate from text of the period into visual metaphor is indeed the case.

    Don't disagree with the general points but if I was teaching I would want students to develop strategies to deal with the picture in a variety of ways based on the remarks made rather than imposing a method I may personally find useful.

  2. BTW, Jeb: Take a look at the previous post, on entrainment in conversation. A commenter over at Language Log remarked that he had trouble in acting class because he couldn't get the timing right in acted conversation.

  3. Difficult to make full sense of commentator. Was uncertain how to read you're comment sent an e-mail as I think I utterly mis-read it.

    Rhythm of the audience part made no sense as they fall out of rhythm all the time due to local distractions etc and remarks with regard to timing were very general.

    I wrote something very fast and sloppy before reading you're comment ( as a means of not forgetting this as it looks interesting). I used the sub heading mind the gap (recorded message on London tubes making sure you don't fall down the void between the platform and the train). My way of flagging an issue relating to synchronization and its pitfalls although not exactly thought through.

  4. The thing about conversation is this: In natural conversation people synchronize their internal conversational/mental rhythms. This shows up in the precision of turn-taking. There is always some small gap between one person and the other. But the gap isn't of just any arbitrary small length. It appears to be at small fixed intervals (divisible by roughly 50 msec) suggesting a periodic entrainment.

    Now, when actors converse on stage. It isn't a "real" conversation. The actors are uttering prepackaged bits of language. One could do that without actually entraining with one another, and that's what the commenter at Language Log seems to be suggesting. OTOH, musicians entrain w/ one another all the time. It's the bedrock of their performance. I should think actors do the same.

  5. I think the commentator had difficult getting experience in to language and the language he did have which I suspect may have come directly from the classroom (it often does) was less than helpful in regard to resolving the issue, which appeared to be with multi-tasking and scanning in particular.

    "I should think actors do the same." Yes. A movement exercise (more related to developing movement). You enter a room, metronome is on, you are made to skip with a rope to a different rhythm, tutor hits the floor with a stick to yet another beat which vibrates along the floor and through you're body. Its very difficult to maintain the rhythm, usually done first thing in the morning to add to the stress.

    For the first half hour as soon as one person goes its like a ripple moving out and distracting everyone else until the whole group falls apart (not dissimilar to issues you can have with an audience often from unwanted noise or movement). It takes ages to get everyone working together and absorbed as the concentration required is horrific.

    Just when everyone in the room has got it the tutor adds his final evil twist into the mix. The music teacher starts up on the piano and you have to belt out at full performance pitch (and with the full tone of joy) Oh what a beautiful morning, oh what I wonderful day.

    The experience is very far from wonderful but eye opening in a range of ways. We had to perform A range of different exercises for months to prepare us for that one.

  6. p.s Bill its off topic but I read ages ago in a book you mentioned on this type of thing that these forms of activities lead it a bond of empathy between instructor and tutor. If you Google the name Rudi Shelly you will see some examples although also other features at play.

    I find this one interesting in regard to cultural identification and use of distinct terminology although the aim of the classes was to make them memorable and unforgettable.

    It also gives one classic example of the way you are taught with regard to description and detail and inflection. Mid way down the page, the fart in the wicker basket bit is the start.

  7. Interesting stuff, Jeb. And, as you know, far away from anything you learn about in a college course on drama, which is all about "the text" and not a whit about how one goes about performing that text.

  8. Yes. I think this activity from the article in particular caused issues with later time at university. The way academics classify and group leads to serious mutual mis- understanding. From my perspective it makes it very difficult to explore fully the nature of inflection and the way things are grouped together and classified (tale typing and indexing an example) seemed mad. its mistaking how you order a filing cabinet for something else (somewhat harsh but that was certainly the emotion) as it seemed to order the whole way you approach the subject.

    Although slightly ironic with regard to my first comment on spending hours looking at subjects in tiny detail.

    "I remember one term we spent each lesson studying one word from a line in Webster's The White Devil: "What have I gain'd by thee, but infamy."

    I remember this as well vividly. Its in part to cope with the issues that were raised with regard to holding a varied audience as it allows you to shift fast and in a range of ways. You explore the full inflection range looking for a range of ways to inflect differently. Its what I do when I look at pictures or indeed any number of things.

  9. You really notice the issue when you read post modernism and its offshoots, its clearly been useful in enabling English lit. to identify standard and routine features but they are in all cases trumpeted as new ideas and identified as emanating from English lit.

    Disconnect and levels of ignorance are considerable.

  10. What has happened to criticism, it seems to me, is that literary texts are being used a vehicles to lend authority for ideas which exist independently of those texts. The critic is reluctant to advance those ideas on his or her own authority and so saddles them to the back of a text.

  11. Certainly a dilemma of performance when you are working out inflection pasterns and full potential range and impact on the minds of a contemporary audience. You do want to predict how its going to hit and how it may transform in a different environment and context from the original.

  12. Acting, I don't know about. Musical performance I do. And preparing music is certainly like you describe acting. All sorts of things and nuances you work on.

  13. Learning and playing a musical instrument was a mandatory part of the first performance you were allowed to do (strictly forbidden to perform for a considerable period). Learning to work as an ensemble in synch and under as much stress as they can throw at you. Medieval song, with horrifically intricate vocal parts that are a nightmare to learn. Baptism by fire and I suspect the exercise was thought through and planned very carefully indeed. Looking back retrospectively the attention to very small details in these exercises that were worked out over years seems considerable.