February 09, 2005

Writing About Art

Last Thursday in Advanced Composition, I was asked to describe a painting that the professor had scotch-taped to the blackboard in a brief in-class writing exercise. I didn't bother to write down the title of the painting, which was probably my first mistake. During the lecture yesterday, after having received my paper back with a B plus marked on it, I learned that the title is central. Further, to write about art we need to look at the visual elements as well as look into the verbal framing: the historical and cultural context. We need to know what the points of reference are. We should mention the themes, discuss the archetypes, and try to answer the question, what makes a painting from this time relevant today? If it makes it any easier we can invent a little narrative to talk about it.

After hearing a few of the selections from the other students, it was apparent to me that I had no innate strategy for writing about art. As everyone was leaving, I approached my teacher with the expressed desire to improve upon my writing. I craved another crack at it. She offered me La Belle Dame Sans Merci, a painting by artist John William Waterhouse. What follows is my second attempt at writing about art.

Using what resources the Internet has available, I translated the title of the this painting as The Beautiful Lady Without Mercy (I thought as much, but it is always best to check and be sure). This work of art is from 1893 and it depicts one of John William Waterhouse's favorite themes: the femme fatale. His subject comes from a poem by John Keats, of the same title as the painting, which was written in 1819.

Looking at the painting, in isolation of the poem, I am first struck by the earthy colors; various shades of fall foliage: forest greens, rich browns, and deep reds. Generally, red denotes passion and it is significant that the largest proportion of this color is contained in the dress that the lady is wearing. It appears as though the knight she is holding captive with her hair has a hint of red wrapped around his waist. This detail doesn't jump right out at me; I only noticed it upon closer inspection.

At the center of the painting is the closing distance between the man and the woman. Their two countenances, slightly above and to the left of center, are coming together for a kiss. The knight looks off balance so I think it is safe to say that the lady is reining him in with her tresses.

As I continue to look, this painting is elaborating on my narrative that concerns a knight on his way off to battle. He has been blocked by a maiden who wears her heart upon her sleeve. Accordingly, her desire for the man is most apparent. She is a creature of the forest with the bare soles of her feet peeking out from the folds of her gown. Flowers adorn this already fair lady.

Bearing silent witness to this scene are the trees and the river in back of them. Where are the other woodland creatures, I wonder? Could it be that they are repelled by this woman's presence? And if so, what is it about her? All I can say with complete assurance is that the man won't be departing her anytime soon.

-- CrystalShiloh @ 04:21 PM