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Rachel Cohen

Boudin

Garden Windows

Garden Windows

Édouard Vuillard, Foliage--Oak Tree and Fruit Seller, 1918, Art Institute of Chicago, detail




I was standing in our kitchen this afternoon, and the light from the garden was coming through the windows, garden light, unlike any other, and I started to think of painted gardens.  How it is that sometimes the paint itself is even more beautiful than the real light.


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Yesterday and today the air is full of light, sixty-four degrees, sixty-seven degrees, days like April.  The trees are rushing to throw off their silver February garb.  Green shoots are already up in the garden, although next week it is to freeze.


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A friend of my friend’s has died.  We are in different cities and cannot take a walk together.  He wrote that it would be nice to go to a museum.  


The last time we were in the same city – he was here, in Chicago – we went to the Art Institute, and looked at this and that, and what we were taken by was Vuillard. In one room, there are two beautiful earth-banners.  Landscape: Window Overlooking the Woods, 1899, is twelve feet long, eight feet high.  


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The other, Foliage—Oak Tree and Fruit Seller, 1918, is a little over nine feet across, some six feet high.  You could go every day to look at them.  


I had just seen them for the first time a few days before my friend’s visit, so we could begin together.  There is a woman on the left side, with a child, there, back in the leaves, that is the fruit seller.


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In making Foliage—Oak Tree and Fruit Seller, Vuillard used the medium of distemper, in which paint pigments are bound with melted glue.  You have to paint quickly, it dries very fast.  The wall text also points to the “closely ranged tones of the palette.”  Sage against olive against forest.  In life, friends are like this, right up next to each other, in contrast and bound in their shared medium.


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The abstraction of paint, that it may represent both the thing and the light, both the evanescent and the enduring, that would be a comfort, if we could go and look at it today.


Japanese Influence: Arthur Wesley Dow

Japanese Influence Arthur Wesley Dow

Arthur Wesley Dow, Spring Landscape, 1892, University of Michigan Art Museum



At my parents’ home in Ann Arbor as spring was arriving, I had a few minutes in the University of Michigan art museum.  I was surprised by a painting of Arthur Wesley Dow’s – very lovely, and very Japanese in its loveliness.

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The wall text said that, in 1891, a year before he painted this picture, Dow had made a visit to the Boston Public Library, where he saw Japanese woodblock prints for the first time.  “One evening with Hokusai,” he said, “gave me more light on composition and decorative effect than years of study of pictures. I surely ought to compose in an entirely different manner.”  

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This year I have begun tracing lines of Japanese influence in French and American pictures.  It is surprising how many there are and how they vein in and out.  Dow, it turns out, wrote a book that affected several generations of American artists called Composition: Understanding Line, Notan, and Color.  In it, he gives this definition, which I found quoted at the website of a book designer (link below):

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The term NOTAN, a Japanese word meaning “dark, light,” refers to the quantity of light reflected, or the massing of tones of different values. Notan-beauty means the harmony resulting from the combination of dark and light spaces—whether colored or not—whether in buildings, in pictures, or in nature. Careful distinction should be made between NOTAN, an element of universal beauty, and LIGHT AND SHADOW, a single fact of external nature.  





The capitals are his, but even with the emphasis I’m not sure I’ve grasped the concept yet.  Looking at this picture, and at the trees in flower in our neighborhood, one thing that strikes me is that in spring the trees themselves give off light.  First as a kind of yellow haze around the still-bare branches, then with the spangled beauty of tiny, starry leaves, and now in the leaning, blowing light-over-shadow way that they respond to every breath of the day.


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