Our visual powers

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Frida Kahlo (1907–1954). © ARS, NY. Self-Portrait with Monkey. 1938. Oil on Masonite, support: 16 × 120 (40.64 × 30.48 cm.). Bequest of A. Conger Goodyear, 1966. Albright-Knox Art Gallery, Buffalo, NY, USA.

Kahlo, like Rembrandt, painted self-portraits throughout her life. She has become recognized as one of Mexico’s greatest painters.

Historically, the self-portrait is one of the most enigmatic and fascinating modes of painting. In a sense it echoes back to the cave paintings of 30,000 years ago, when the painters placed their hands on the wall and painted around them—leaving the most primitive of self-portraits.

Page 92PERCEPTION KEY Four Self-Portraits

1. Which of these portraits is most dominated by detail? How does color control the detail?

2. In which of the portraits is the facial expression most mysterious?

3. What do these paintings reveal about their subject matter? With which of the paintings do you find it easiest to participate?

4. In which portrait does line play the most important role? In which does color play the most important role?

5. Which painting has the most complex composition? Which has the simplest?

6. Which painting tells you the most about the painter’s personality? Which is most psychologically revealing?


Photographs of paintings, as in this book, usually do not include their frames, the exceptions being Figures 4-1, 4-2, 4-7, and 14-9. In general, it seems obvious that a “good” or appropriate frame should harmonize and enhance rather than dominate the picture. For example, the frame of the Cimabue (Figure 4-1) delicately picks up the colors and lines of the Madonna’s throne. Furthermore, an appropriate frame usually should separate the picture from its surroundings, as again with the Cimabue. Sometimes the artist doesn’t bother with a frame. And sometimes owners have the frame removed or remade to their taste, often at variance with the intent of the artist.


Painting, whether abstract or representational, sets forth the visually perceptible in such a way that it works in our experience with heightened intensity. Every style of painting finds facets of the visually perceptible that had previously been missed. For example, the painting of the past hundred years has given us, among many other styles, Impressionism, revealing the play of sunlight on color, as in the Monet, Manet, Renoir, Hassam, and Cassatt (Figures 4-13 to 4-17); Post-Impressionism, using the surface techniques of Impressionism but drawing out the solidity of things, as in the van Gogh (Figure 4-20) and the Cézanne (Figure 2-4); Expressionism, portraying strong emotion, as in the Blume (Figure 1-3); Cubism, showing the three-dimensional qualities of things as splayed out in a tightly closed two-dimensional space—without significant perspective or cast shadow—through geometrical crystallization, a technique partially exhibited in Picasso’s Guernica (Figure 1-4); Dada, poking fun at the absurdity of everything, as in Picabia’s The Blessed Virgin (see Figure 14-12); Surrealism, expressing the subconscious, as perhaps in Siqueiros (Figure 1-2); Suprematism or Constructivism, portraying sensa in movement with—as in Expressionism—the expression of powerful emotion or energy, exemplified in the Pollock (Figure 3-3); Pop Art, the revelation of mass-produced products, as in the Dine (Figure 2-1). And today and tomorrow, new dimensions are and will be portrayed. In Chapter 14, we will study some examples of avant-garde painting. Never in the history of painting have there been such rapid change and vitality. Never in history has there been so much help available for those of us who, in varying degrees, are blind to the fullness of the visually perceptible. If we take advantage of this help, the rewards are priceless.


1. What importance does the frame have for our enjoyment of a painting?

2. Giotto’s frame (Figure 4-2) is plainer than Cimabue’s (Figure 4-1). But would a more decorative frame be appropriate for the Giotto?

3. Howard Hodgkin is famous for painting directly on the frames of his works. Examine his Dinner in Palazzo Albrizzi (Figure 4-22). How effective is his use of the frame? Is there any question about whether it is part of the painting?

Sometimes a frame overwhelms a painting, as in Raphael’s Madonna (Figure 14-10), and sometimes paintings have no frames, as in almost all of Mondrian’s paintings. The consensus seems to be that a frame is valuable when it complements the painting, either by establishing its preciousness—as in the ordinary gold frame—or by establishing its shape and purpose, as in the case of the Giotto and Cimabue frames. Neither is very ornate, both are sufficient and useful. Clearly, the fact that almost all the paintings illustrated in this book lack frames tells us something about the frame’s ultimate worth. Yet, all museums include frames in most of the paintings represented here. Frames stabilize the canvas, establish the period and value of a painting, and set it off from the wall. They also “finish” the painting—almost like the final chord of a great symphony or the closing of the final curtain on a play. They say, “the end.”

In the case of Howard Hodgkin, the paintings for which he is best known are all marked by the existence of a frame, sometimes a large and heavy frame, but Hodgkin inevitably paints brightly over the frame, in some cases giving the impression that the painting does not end at its borders, but could continue.

Dinner in Palazzo Albrizzi is a brilliantly colored painting seemingly representing the vegetables and seafood that are popular in Venice, where the palazzo—which has been owned by the same family for 500 years, and which hosts gala high-society dinners—sits on the canal. Brushstrokes in bright red, and in darker red, are clearly visible on the frame, which is itself clearly identifiable as a frame, not part of the canvas. Hodgkin seems to be saying that no frame could contain his painting—its astonishing energy, as expressed in brilliant colors and striking shapes and visual rhythms, seems uncontainable. Here we can say the frame is functional, that it shares center stage with the painting.

Howard Hodgkin, Dinner in Palazzo Albrizzi. 1964–1988. Oil on wood, 46¼ × 46¼ inches. Modern Art Museum of Fort Worth, Fort Worth, Texas.

This is typical of Hodgkin’s work in that he includes a frame upon which he ordinarily paints freely. His abstract paintings are notable for their intense and characteristic colors. While appearing instantaneous and improvisatory, his brushstrokes are often the product of months of careful work.


Painting is the art that has most to do with revealing the sensuous and the visual appearance of objects and events. Painting shows the visually perceptible more clearly. Because a painting is usually presented to us as an entirety, with an all-atonceness, it gives time for our vision to focus, hold, and participate. This makes possible a vision that is both extraordinarily intense and restful. Sensa are the qualities of objects or events that stimulate our sense organs. Sensa can be disassociated or abstracted from the objects or events in which they are usually joined. Sensa and the sensuous (the color field composed by the sensa) are the primary subject matter of abstract painting. Objects and events are the primary subject matter of representational

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