A Great Piece of Turf (1503) by Albrecht Dürer: before I saw this painting, grassy areas just looked like cluttered, messy greenness to me. It wasn’t until this picture pointed me towards the variety hidden in the weeds that I began to notice it all around me–or, actually, to rediscover it, since I certainly paid close attention to the weeds when I was a kid.
Here is some of that variety–pineapple weed, dandelion, broadleaf plantain, clover, daisy fleabane, bull thistle, and many others I don’t recognize–all from the same three feet square in front of my house.
This is a Claude glass. 18th century tourists brought these on trips to picturesque places. Turning their backs to the scenery, they would hold up the dark mirror and view the scene’s reflection in it. The effect was to even out the hues of the scenery, making more subdued and painterly. This is faintly ridiculous–in the same way that going through a museum taking pictures of all the paintings without looking at them is faintly ridiculous. But I wonder if it did for them something similar to what the Dürer drawing did for me–offered the impetus to look closely, to treat the scene like a work of art.
A drawing from life is an amalgam of many moments of close observation. I think that using my pencil to follow the slump and curve of these dry leaves and branches required me to attend to them more closely than I could by just looking. Drawing is a process of painstakingly selecting which details to suppress. It is this suppression that makes the image more legible than the object.
Representing what’s in front of you is always more fraught than it seems.
The suppression of details: consider the dragonfly landing on the tulip–a series of glints, the faintest suggestion of an outline disappearing into the shadow.
To recreate something with depth and texture on a flat plane, you have to take it apart with your eyes and reassemble it with your hands; destroy the object to create the image.
Artists sometimes use grids to break up the scene they’re depicting. Making the object less legible–chunks of color, simple curves within a square–helps to render it legibly.
On the other hand, there is a strain of art concerned with discovering legible images in the stochastic patterns of nature–finding faces in marble veins, making bodies out of coral branches and monsters out of bulbous pearls.
The subtle variegation in the stone suggests a scene; the artist follows it–like finding shapes in clouds.
A work of art like this has a different relationship with detail. Nothing is suppressed; there is so much complexity that the eye gets lost; looking at it demands a different kind of attention. The artist who made this platter, Bernard Palissy, cast his ceramics from life, using critters that he caught in the ponds around his house. I find his work enthrallingly ugly.
There is a point at which the virtuosity of the artist defeats itself, and the detail becomes so overwhelming that it collapses into clutter; to me, looking at this carving by the master boxwood miniaturist Ottaviano Janella just feels like looking at a clump of weeds, without Dürer’s hand guiding my eye.
These are the eyeglasses Janella used when carving his miniatures. Wearing these, he could whittle wood to such a thinness that it would flutter like a leaf when you breathed on it. Maybe if I could wear his spectacles and peer at his carving as closely as he did, my breath making everything tremble, the clutter would resolve itself into fine legible details.
Then again, attention itself magnifies. This is another boxwood carving, a prayer bead about the size of a ping-pong ball.
But when you stare at the scene inside, it feels like you could fall into it.
Janella’s box makes me think of this reliquary shrine. The enamel glows, the gold robes hang in elegant folds, but the source of the reliquary’s power are the two boxes of illegible clutter, the relics themselves.