The 21st century has made many of us take to photography, as taking pictures has become easy and appealing over the years. Automatic cameras do the focusing and lighting adjustments for us, thus helping us capture the instance we want before we lose it. The mobility of cameras—that it’s also incorporated into our mobile phones—has allowed us to take pictures everywhere we go. And the digital era has let us see our pictures right after we take them—and now with mirrorless cameras, even before we do.
What comes with the prevalence of photography, and what in turn boosts it, is perhaps our desire for photographic truth: physical accuracy of the image of the object we see before us. Sure enough, camera lenses are increasingly clearer and image resolutions become bigger for us to not only faithfully capture a moment in our lives, but also immerse ourselves in that of others.
Since its invention in the 1830s, photography has been depicting the world more clearly and far faster than painting does. Accustomed to such clarity and efficiency, we may find photography superior to painting when it comes to producing a realistic image.
The inevitable question then is: Why paint at all or look at paintings? Some critics have even foreseen the death of painting or have already pronounced it dead.
Paintings tell us what the artist feels about what he portrays.
This is especially true for impressionistic and post-impressionistic works. Consider Vincent van Gogh’s The Starry Night (1889). The oil painting features the night sky over a town and beyond a cypress tree; the sky takes up more than half of the canvas. With its heavily lined swirls making up the sky and encircling the big, bright stars and the moon, The Starry Night makes the night come to life. Not only does it set the dark, black night we know ablaze with yellow starlight and in shades of blue. Through the wave-like pattern of van Gogh’s short, rhythmic brushstrokes, it too makes us think of—and perhaps imagine and feel—the wind blowing from the left side of the canvas to the right. It’s this wind that appears to sweep the clouds and set the stars atwinkle, giving the night its own beat. And through the stillness of the flame-shaped cypress, all the more can we see how van Gogh’s night feels: windy, bright, bursting with beauty and life.
Photographs can also capture the beauty of the night sky. Pictures of auroras, star trails, and meteor showers show a bright and captivating sky, and one that’s full of life. Ansel Adams’s Moonrise, Hernandez, New Mexico (1941) shows the immensity of the evening sky in black and white. His shot features the rising moon against a black sky and the setting sun covered by clouds illuminated white. Snow-capped mountains line the horizon, and a small town stands closest to the camera. It’s a stunning shot, and a rare scene to be shot. An unskilled photographer could’ve easily missed the moment, or not taken it with such clarity and contrast.
The difference between a photograph of a night sky and a painting of it is that with the former, no matter how much we are taken with the image, we don’t really know or feel how the night is like to the photographer, much less what he thinks about it. And while the night speaking for itself is important, the subjective experience is also valuable because our view of the night may not be the same again upon perceiving it the way someone else did. Van Gogh’s iconic work allows us to derive pleasure and wonder in something usually depicted and experienced as frightening and eerie. It’s as if he painted The Starry Night to share with us his fondness of the night, precisely so we may see and feel the night’s beauty and life, and be at awe.
For some of us, the night sky will always look like Adams’s: black and mysterious, hence forming a disconnect between van Gogh’s view of the night and ours. But it’s not as if van Gogh literally saw his night sky as blue with large yellow orbs. He expressed what he felt and imagined about the night sky onto the canvas. Aware of this, we may remember to look up and search for the stars, to bask in their light, and to imagine their warmth. We’ll look out for the breeze. We’ll marvel at how all these envelop us, tiny people. We may not experience the night exactly as he did, but we can come close.
As they offer us another way of looking and seeing—one that invites slowness, our close attention, and a lot of reflection, paintings can have insights that photography can’t express.
This is especially true for expressionistic works. Consider Pablo Picasso’s Guernica (1937). Rather than having a realistic war or post-war scene, the mural features a hodgepodge of characters: a mother weeping over a dead child; a dead soldier clutching a flower; civilians fleeing for their lives, and whose heads look fluid as though they’ve become ghosts; a horse screaming in agony; a curious or dumbfounded bull. They all form a picture of utter chaos and devastation.
Some of these characters clearly represent groups of people who suffer in a war, and the work even shows how they do. The women lose their loved ones and neighbors, and the pain and grief disfigures them from the inside out. Through their teardrop-shaped faces rising to the lightbulb, one can imagine them wail and howl, their spirits restless. Their loss is so immense, they feel dead or spineless—this amidst a neighborhood that must be rebuilt.
Men are forced to fight in a war someone else waged. War is practically their death sentence, and they die brutally in pieces, sometimes no longer recognizable. The faint flower can reflect the possibility of hope and rebirth. But it can also tell of how, at present, the call to peace was ignored, since the one who holds it was killed and possibly decapitated.
The horse and the bull are more ambivalent. Their presence makes us ask why they are there, and why they are depicted the way they are. We conjure up interpretations: that the animals refer to the bestiality of war—how war makes beasts of us, or perhaps our being beasts already to have sparked it; the senselessness and absurdity of war since countries wage war in spite of the hardships and risks; the great impact of war because even animals suffer (note the pierced body of the horse). In addition, the horse and the bull make us wonder where the scene takes place—indoors or outdoors?—and by association, where we are.
Picasso’s rich imagery engages our minds, because the opacity provokes and demands thought. On the other hand, a war scene, real and raw through a photograph, shakes and sickens us. A photograph sends a clear anti-war message at once by capturing war’s atrocities. For instance, The Terror of War (1972), the chilling shot by Nick Ut, is said to have been a factor in America’s pulling out in the Vietnam War.
In the picture, five children, two of them crying, run on a highway towards the camera. One girl, crying, is naked and seems to run with her arms hanging limply on her sides, compelling us to ask why this is so. (Ut accounted that having been hit by napalm, she stripped off her burning clothes.) Behind the brood, soldiers. And behind all of them, thick clouds of smoke, suggesting that their area was bombed. We could almost hear the children crying even after we’ve looked away. Upon presenting collateral damage and the very real suffering of the most innocent in our society, the photograph argues that war is not worth waging or continuing. And staring at the children, we can’t help facing that they were possibly torn from their families, orphaned, and traumatized for the rest of their lives.
We need the painting and the photograph; they speak to us and tell stories in their own way.
While the photograph exposes a happening in the real world, the painting makes us reflect on themes or ideas about what goes on around us. And that’s because the painter composes his own picture and is not limited by physical space and scientific laws; he is guided by his impetus and his own thoughts. We may not know Picasso’s intentions and thought process from viewing Guernica, but some of the insights that come to us will sit with us and help widen, if not deepen, our view of war and our appreciation of the painting.
Even realist paintings have an effect on us. Take for instance Edward Hopper’s painting Office in a Small City (1953), where a lone man sits still in the corner of his office and stares at the building before him (or perhaps blankly), seemingly in deep thought and absentminded from work. The man is framed by two windows and by the building he works in, suggesting his confinement in the office or his detachment from the outside world. His solitude is further evidenced by the vacant seat beside him, and how his floor looks nothing like the structure across from him and the bottom façade of his building. The white structure in the distance looks like the one the man is in, but we see no windows and therefore no other person; he is alone. Like us, he has a limited view, hence can find himself alone too.
The stark contrast of light and shadow on the interior walls; the desk; the corners of the windows versus the building’s white skin; the man’s white shirt versus his dark vest; and across the different structures and the sky gives the work some eeriness. And we feel that. The lighting, which can hint at the passage of time, and the man’s unusual stillness and aloneness make us experience this quiet scene with undercurrents of ennui and a nagging sense of something amiss.
Here’s another example: The well-imagined New York Movie (1939), which displays astounding detail. We see an ornate column and pillar sculpting. The film is black and white. The seats appear velvet. The rails are brass. The carpet bears a floral print. The walls sport picture frame moldings. The tassels tying the curtains look rough. Suffice to say, the cinema interiors wow. The usherette, though, looks uninterested, absorbed in her own thoughts with her chin on her fist. We can infer that she’s going through some things, and she refuses to distract or entertain herself with movies.
The usherette’s isolation from her surroundings is made more evident by the thick wall that divides the cinema and the exit, where she, alone, stands leaning in the corner. Being in the brightest area and with her curled blonde hair reflecting light, she catches our eye. We see her expressing her ennui or anxiety in a public space, and right next to a lamp. For whatever reason, she does that there, not in the privacy of the ladies’ room or in the dark. We wonder then if some part of her hopes to be noticed upon being in clear view of all those seated by the railing.
Compared to Office in a Small City and Hopper’s other later works, New York Movie doesn’t evoke eeriness. With a balanced contrast surrounding the multiple light sources and a clear, fairly bright view of the usherette, the painting instead gives us some warmth. As we see the usherette looking vulnerable, we derive a sense of honesty or intimacy. And with that, we are invited to look at her more, maybe even connect with her.
New York Movie, with its detailed setting and its composition, may have been inspired by real life. What makes it impressive is that the painting was created with someone’s imagination—Hopper’s. Hopper put together, as well as pared down, his vision and the details from the theaters he had access to, and he created a realistic work from them all—he brought what was in his head to life. The process is the same for Office in a Small City. As it is painted from an vantage point a person may not have, it seems that for this work Hopper used more of his imagination than scenes from real life. That takes clear vision and ingenuity.
When it comes to painting a realistic image, the artist depicts something from reality that he finds compelling, so that we can engage with the work. Hopper seemed to be concerned with what city life does to people and how they respond with their bodies in a given space. After all, Hopper has given us a picture of modern life by painting well-detailed spaces and by giving his lone characters a very emotive and arresting body language as a reaction to their inner lives and their surroundings. Moreover, his plays with light and shadow create a mood and intensify the implications of modernity: mystery, isolation, eeriness, and loneliness. His attractively bright colors catch our attention so that we hold our gaze long enough for the painted mood and image to settle in us.
A painting seems purposeful. It’s easy to assume there’s a reason for every line and color, as the canvas started out blank; the picture was created from scratch. From a variety of details from real life and the artist’s mind, we see what we see before us, a product of creativity and imagination having been at work. That said, the interpretations we have hardly ever feel in vain, and this is assuring for those of us who enjoy analyzing paintings.
There’s even a personal aspect whenever we stare at a painting and try to understand it. We pick up what the artist wants or might want to tell us or make us feel about his subject. His preoccupations are revealed to us, along with how he internalizes and expresses them. We can then find the artist’s honesty and emotional depth in his paintings. This might not inform our reading of the work, but it does help us connect somehow with the artist and his vision.
A lot of us champion a real thing as being able to speak for itself, and some of us can think that that is enough, so offering some personal insight or perspective is unnecessary. Yet the truth is that a moment in real life is not always so poetic or moving, so it may not resonate well with other people; it can’t always visually communicate a mood, idea, or sensation. Therefore the artist is compelled to create it, and he does so by creating another world. And although it doesn’t get the physical accuracy of a photograph, a painting still clearly shows aspects of reality that are beyond the tangible, and one can argue that reality is more than that. A painting is real and so is the artist’s vision, which can propel us to live with a perspective and attitude we didn’t have before.
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Realism in the Age of Impressionism: Painting and the Politics of Time, Marnin Young. Yale University Press. 2015. Book.
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“Piecing Together Guernica,” Gijs van Hensbergen. BBC. 7 April 2009. Article.
“The Meaning of Bull and Horse in Guernica,” Carla Gottlieb. Art Journal 24 (2). 1964-1965. Journal Article.
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