Thursday, February 19, 2009

Paint It Black

I wandered the Met for half a day a few weekends ago.  I went in thinking I would only check on El Greco, but wound up circling the Rembrandts, then the Whistlers.  I was struck by the contrast between their uses of black-- at least in the portraits on hand.  

In Rembrandt's Portrait of a Man, the sitter is wearing a fathomless black tunic, black without detail. The brush strokes are fanned and somewhat less tidy. I was quick to associate this blackness with the old European sensibility.  Death is everywhere, we are all poised on the brink of eternity. Naturally the black creates a perfect field for studying the sitter's face.  The face is brought out that much more because the blackness is secondary, something of which we're only marginally aware.  The whole trick of the face rests in a single pink wrinkle on the sitter's right eyelid.  The weathered character is brought out in perfect luminous detail and all the flesh suddenly has the gelid pallor of plated meat.

In Whistler black is just another bauble.  In contrast to Rembrandt, Whistler shows an astonishingly frank practicality.  He doesn't use black to invoke American puritanical austerity or severity.  If his sitters have mystery it is their own.  Take Madame X.  Every detail of her black gown is shown in true faith, yet her face is turned in profile and her eyes are nearly at the spot where the viewer would be lost to her peripheral vision.  What we have is a black dress fitting the figure of a pale woman with a striking profile, poise and elegance, but the flesh is reticent-- distant, apiece with the composition as a whole, flat.  

The difference might just rest in the technology of the day, the price of paint or patron expectations.  There may be a dozen Rembrandts where the black is dealt with in perfect detail-- or Whistlers where fathomless black fills the background.  The contrast got me thinking  about film noir, in particular Stanley Kubrick's The Killing.  The Killing is one of the most terrifying movies ever made-- partially for the casting, but mostly for the use of the dark.  Figures pop in and out of bottomless shadows when they're not brought into painful detail by bared light bulbs.  Lighting in film noir is at least a quarter of the story.  Here we have yet another use of black-- the invocation of the underside of reason and Modernity.  The unknown. Death is a portion of it, but it isn't the whole picture.   

For next time I'll try to think of a way to incorporate Malcolm X's cultural reading of the word black, Jean Luc Godard's Sympathy for the Devil and Richard Avedon's use of white.

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