Wednesday, January 11, 2012

Calling Out a Master

I recently had the wonderful opportunity of heading down to the Delaware Art Museum to see the "Howard Pyle: American Master Rediscovered" exhibition, in honor of the 100 year anniversary of the famed illustrator's death. I of course chuckle at the "Rediscovered" part of the title--who lost track of Pyle? Not I! But, I know what they mean--despite being the grandfather of American Illustration and the fountainhead from which poured forth some of this country's greatest painters directly or indirectly, he's not someone you run across in Art History courses. No, you'll spend much more time on any number of -isms of the period but you'll never hear Pyle or his school discussed. But illustrators know. Particularly, fantasy and children's illustrators know. We're inheritors of his school, after all.

I'll be doing another post that gushes about Pyle's work, with more photos--because no book yet does the paintings justice. But this week, I'm going to do something unusual--I'm going to call out the Master on a blunder. That's pretty brazen, right? I mean, I could only hope to be as good, can only dream of having a fraction of the impact of Pyle. But, while there are some painters who seemingly can do no wrong (at least, technically), perhaps because Pyle was an illustrator, there are a few pieces that evidence some surprising oversights. I can only blame them on his being an illustrator with deadlines. Still, though, they did leave me scratching my head a bit, amid all the awesome.

Here's today's exhibit:

This was not part of the show mentioned, but part of another exhibit featuring his work in another context (the museum is the chief repository of Pyle's work). Already, this piece exhibits a lot of Pyle's excellent qualities. The composition is gorgeous, with the massed darks being relieved from claustrophobia through wonderful use of filigree in the upper left, which the composition launches upwards toward. The foliage rises from lower left to upper right. Just at the woman's bosom, and again above her left shoulder, the branches jut left. This new angle is picked up by the branches behind her, leading out of the image in the direction she's rising. The intense red and green contrast works because while he's chosen colors that are exactly complimentary to where they at times exhibit visual vibration--usually a bad thing--he's limited the amount of red. Had the piece been equally both, it would have been visual chaos. The peppering of red down the image, through the leaves, is wonderfully done--it's enough so the figure continues to read, it keeps the foliage from becoming an impenetrable wall, but doesn't distract from the top half.

So after admiring it from a distance, something started calling out to me as odd. I began to walk closer.


Despite all the lovely painting, composition, and color, this piece, right in the heart of it, in the woman's face, exhibited some really funky drawing. Have you caught it yet? It's not a hard mistake to make, if one is rushed. But Pyle? What you're looking at is the woman's eye--it's completely off. It's too low and too far to the right, towards the outside of her head. At an angle, the features should all be on the same horizontal axis (in this case, now a diagonal due to the tilt of the head). Now, unless this particular story describes such a woman (doubtful), this is one of those pieces that could've easily been repaired. But it was not. Probably after delivering it and receiving it back, he simply tossed it in his closet and moved on, busy with things. Let's fix it up to show what I mean:

L: Photoshopped adjustment R: Original painting

By repositioning the eye, it now basically matches the same diagonal axis that runs across the lips and the nostrils, and headband about the forehead.

I will say that despite being overwhelmed by the exhibit, there were a couple other places in other paintings where some figure--usually a small background figure--was just poorly drawn. No two ways about it. Sometimes not even poorly as in wrong, but just lazily drawn in for someone of so mighty an ability, who in other multi-figure pieces could work with complete authority.

The important thing to remember is that the Masters are not gods. Most had off days here and there. Because something is hanging in a museum does not mean you should look at it uncritically. And to point out an error is not hubris on your part, rather to not notice errors in your own work but to see them in others' is the dangerous trap. I hope I catch many of my errors after the fact, even if I miss them immediately. I know I have a long list of them that I hope no one else notices, some of which I've gone back and fixed either before handing them in, or sometimes even after getting a painting back.