News from an Angel
Here's an angel announcing to Mary that even though she hasn't had sex she's going to have a baby who is the son of god. All things considered, she's taking it pretty well. Next time you have something to tell me could you please enlist an angel as your go-between? Especially one that looks as cool as this one. Usually I just get emails these days.
I don't usually look at Renaissance painting very much, but I ran across this Botticelli Annunciation this week. I love it and have been having the best time drinking it in.
Admittedly both the figures take somewhat unexpected poses- the angel kneeling and extending his upraised hand with his fingers splayed out. And Mary bending her knees so oddly to the right. Is she curtsying, swooning, or what? In the hands of a lesser painter these two figures would look ridiculous but here they seem self assured and absolutely right. The empty space right between their outstretched hands looks like they're feeling the surface some mysterious and invisible sphere with their fingertips.
Anyone who has ever tried to paint hands will immediately realize Botticelli sweated bullets to get the hands and arms just right. To him this was an important story and he was determined to nail it no matter how many times he had to draw and redraw his figures. His overarching commitment to making his painting the best it could be has set the bar high, very high, for us painters who have to follow him.
There's a lot of reasons for Botticelli's success. He makes each part of the painting have its own unique personality (for example the busy ruffled robes of the angel are consciously played off against the more restrained smooth garments wrapping around Mary). She seems elegantly sculptural. One of the most beautiful accomplishments of the painting is how Botticelli paces himself, alternating between energized and tightly patterned surfaces (the robes and the plants for example) and purposely empty surfaces (like the cool grey walls). Botticelli knows when to let your eyes rest.
A lot of what's great about this painting is the intrinsic expressiveness of how the artist painted his silhouettes and chose his colors. It's easier to see the abstraction of his composition with the image turned upside down. Looked at this way, it's easier to forget what you are looking at and focus instead on how those forms have been painted. As you begin to do that, you begin to enter the artist's mind.
Botticelli was probably deeply religious and telling this bible story was critically important to him on that level. But even today for viewers who might not share the artist's theology, there is a remarkable emotional and human depth to the painting. I believe it affects us so because as the artist worked he got in touch with those parts of his psyche where his most profound feelings resided. Through long efforts, clear eyes, and a remarkable openness to his own heart, Botticelli made something that speaks to us all these centuries later.
Many years ago I was given a fantastic lesson by one of my instructors about how artists like Botticelli composed their paintings, I can't remember which Renaissance painting it was, but my instructor took a reproduction like this one and, turning it upside down, started tracing with a ruler some of the hidden diagonal trajectories the painter had used to organize his composition.
As a beginning artist I had been used to looking at paintings the way most people do- by identifying the objects and the figures. As the instructor looked and drew, a doorway started to open for me on a whole other way of seeing. My teacher was revealing to me another world of relationships between forms. He was helping me to see the nearly invisible choreography a painter has to use to pull their many forms together. He showed me that the painter knew the dance steps necessary to make power happen in a painting.
I don't paint literal annunciations like Botticelli did. But studying (and most of all enjoying) paintings like this one taught me a mountainous amount of knowledge. Some of it I can put into words, which is why I do things like teach painting and write blog posts like this one. But there's another level to color and composition that's deeper and can only be reached by relying on one's best intuitions. And discovering art you love puts you in touch with those heightened intuitions.
Below is the design for the announcement card Saginaw Art Museum will be mailing out to publicize their show of my landscapes, Unbroken Thread. They reproduced my oil Ascension. It owes a lot to my looking at the highly structured paintings of the past master painters like Botticelli. Look at the network of streams intersecting the low valley and how their rhythms are contrasted against the verticals of a few carefully placed trees. This is exactly the kind of language I learned from Botticelli as he played off his bending figures against the wonderful vertical geometry of his window frame and floor tiles.
I didn't used to think and see in this way. Looking at art taught me how to do it. Botticelli started a thread than wound down from his paintings, through the marvelous work of the Baroque painters like Rembrandt and Vermeer, to the wonderful American masters like Winslow Homer and Edward Hopper. Looking at someone like Hopper, I can pick up that thread and wind it through my paintings like the way my rivers wind through Ascension. And I'd be honored to think some young artist is going to look and my painting, and pick up that same thread once again. It's a long thread, very long. Who knows where he or she will head with it next.