Thursday, April 30, 2009

Sister Wendy

I have been watching the TV programs of Sister Wendy Beckett, who does art criticism and had a few television programs that aired on PBS in the late 1990s and 2000/2001. She is a fascinating art critic: she is confident in her opinions; she comes to interesting (to me!) conclusions; she has a gift for unfolding a painting so that you see much more in it than you ever would have thought was there. Sometimes she comes out with horrible statements like "The natural outcome of committed love is offspring," but whether or not I agree with her, I find her interpretations interesting, and I think her criticism is worth watching. It has taught me a lot about art. I have recently seen disk 1 of her Sister Wendy's American Collection program, and in this program, she goes to the Chicago Art Institute and the Cleveland Museum of Art. It so happens that I have been to these places myself, so I was doubly interested to see what she had to say about them. She is particularly fond of the Cleveland Museum of Art, which makes me happy; I will go visit it again the next time I'm in Ohio.

Sister Wendy is great at communicating enthusiasm for art, and unlike most critics (but like most nuns?), she is exceedingly modest, though she is not tentative about her conclusions. For her, the viewer senses, the struggle is to articulate her feelings/interpretations about the art in a way that will engage viewers and best represent the artist; I believe that she feels a responsibility to the artworks she discusses, and I like that sense of vocation/commitment. She can be quite funny and acerbic, which is a pleasure to see because it is unexpected, and when she is in raptures about a work of art, she speaks softly and clasps her hands together and struggles for words to express herself. She is very charming and intelligent, and her viewpoints are thoughtful. I really like watching her television programs; maybe I'll check out her books one day. From the PBS site for the American collection, here is a list of her other programs and books. This was completed circa 2001. I wonder whether she's done anything since.

One painting she considers at length is Diego Velazquez's Las Meninas, which she gives a great interpretation of in Sister Wendy's Odyssey (or perhaps her Grand Tour; I can't remember) when she goes to Madrid; she calls it, in fact, the greatest painting in the world. It certainly is really fascinating, and I love how, as she points out, the focal point (ostensibly) of the scene that is occupying the figures in the painting is not in the painting itself. Velasquez (the painter) is painting, probably, the portrait of the Spanish king and queen. He is looking at them, and so is his daughter (the silvery little girl with the people all around her), but we see them only in reflection in the mirror at the back of the painting. We, like the king and queen, survey the scene before us—and for a moment, you think that the painting has placed you in that position of royalty and has made you the central point of the artist's and the daugther's attention. However, as Sister Wendy (and others) point out, the true focus of the painting is not the absent king and queen, or even the pretty little girl: it is the painter, whose own canvas slashes across the left-hand corner of the painting itself—and who has replicated several other paintings done by other artists and painted them on the wall in his own painting. He has thus shown us he can do what the other painters can do, and better; furthermore, he stands proudly in the painting and meets us with a direct gaze. He has orchestrated all of the scenes we are considering: the one we are looking at of him and the princess and her maids; the one we are imagining ourselves part of (ourselves standing next to the king and queen); the ones in the images he has replicated on the walls. In cutting the picture with his canvas (the one on the left, the one he's working on), he reminds us of the act of painting, the work that goes into it, and the fact that it is staged, arranged, created—by HIM. It is really a great painting because it places the viewer in a unique place, engages him or her, makes him or her a part of the scene in the picture—and then calls our attention back to the great artist who has arranged it all for us.

1 comment:

  1. I love Sister Wendy! We should review the Art Institute episode before we go to Chicago again.