How Paintings Can Show More Than We Can Take In

Some paintings are like museums-there is so much going on that the mind is unable to acquire the whole.

This is the case with two superb 15th Century Florentine panel paintings at The Frick Collection in New York City. One of the beauties of The Frick is that, for all its elegance, it is just intimate and subdued enough to study such paintings thoughtfully.

The two paintings in the West Gallery concerning the Argonauts are separated by a passageway. On one side is The Departure of the Argonauts by Pietro del Donzello (1452-1509), and on the other is The Argonauts in Colchis by Bartolomeo di Giovanni (active 1475-1511).

The Donzello in particular defies the eye’s ability to frame it. Twentieth Century surrealism could have come as no surprise to anyone familiar with Donzello’s work.

The New Oxford American Dictionary describes surrealism as “a 20th century avant-garde movement in art and literature that sought to release the creative potential of the unconscious mind, for example by the irrational juxtaposition of images.”

But irrational juxtaposition is not quite what is going on here. The surrealist paintings of the 20th Century, with some exceptions, can be taken in at a glance.They have no stories to tell. But these Argonaut panels tell stories that would have been familiar to most viewers. It is not the painter who makes the images surreal here, it is the viewer’s eye.

The paintings remind us how much we miss when we look at anyone, anything. Here the artists recapitulate what we are likely to have missed, but we ordinarily do not have the benefit of an artist reminding us of everything we failed to see. We miss micro-expressions, gestures, background, side ground, foreground, colors, movement. We see, in fact, what we choose to see, and it is all colored by our memories. Whenever we look at something or someone we become memory painters, because our experiences change the way we see. Someone remembers gala colors while another remembers a somber scene.

And even when a Donzello or di Giovanni gives us the explicit picture, we remember it differently. For example, I remembered the Donzello at The Frick as thronged, but on revisitation it is clear it is the di Giovanni that is thronged. I remember the Donzello as hot, but upon a second visit it is clear the Donzello is cooler than the di Giovanni.

This suggests to me that eyewitness is less definitive, less reliable than it might seem, because the totality of our experience is at work repainting, refocusing what we have seen, so that what we initially thought we saw is not what we testify to having seen days or weeks or months later. The phenomenon is rather like the controversy over aggressive conservation. A painting can be restored to the detriment of the artist’s original vision. We, as conservators of what we have seen, can recover memories of things that did not actually happen and do not look the way we now say they do. We may heighten or mute what we have seen. What we actually saw may over time become pentimento.

You can see the paintings I am talking about by clicking here. Even if I had permission, it would be inappropriate to reproduce them in this context because the reader should be able to put what I am saying to the test independent of the argument.

What is so arresting about these two panels is their hyper-realism. They are more real than reality. It is not quite the same thing as magic realism, but these paintings foreshadow magic realism. What we actually see is not nearly as real, as substantive as these paintings. That is their magic, and yet, as I say, they are not magic realist works because they do not intrude upon the eye or mind. Glimpsing them for the first time is rather like discovering a faery race in the woods. One reason they are hyper-real is that the painter is managing the sun, casting its light as he chooses and yet not freely enough as to offend the viewer’s knowledge of light and shadow. Occasionally a marine artist will do this with the wind and only sailors notice.

I often noticed when I was a young reporter how different police testimony in court seemed from what I had witnessed at a crime scene and from what the police had initially told me. I am not talking about evidence tampering or mendacity, I am talking about the way our own memories color what we have witnessed, juxtaposing images. We are by nature revisionists and surrealists, and that is how our account of things comes out. We launder what we have seen. The phenomenon is not unlike reading six translations of Homer. Same events, same chronology, same cast of characters, but each version is different.

When I revisit a favorite museum I am often dismayed by how different certain paintings look. I recognize them, to be sure. I can usually spot a Jean-Baptiste Camille Corot or a Jackson Pollock, say, but many of the paintings seem to have changed. And yet not all. Picasso, for example, seems to remain constant for me. And Salvador Dali. But others, Arshile Gorky for example, seem to have changed between visits. My brain’s chemistry has changed between visits. I have read more, thought more, revised my thinking, changed my mind, so naturally I interpret what I see through different filters. If my mood is somber I may be annoyed by Hans Hofmann’s brightness. If my mood is light I may have little patience with Gustave Courbet or even Jean-Baptiste Simeon Chardin.

Rembrandt Harmenszoon van Rijn’s famous Polish Rider at The Frick is always as I remember him, but the ruin of a Roman arch in a small Corot appears to be on the wrong side of the painting. This cannot literally be, but my mind creates and then recreates its own realities. This is, I think, the root of surrealism. An El Greco never looks the same to me. No matter how many times I visit The Metropolitan Museum’s Toledo it looks different. At first I thought it was because it had been restored, but long after the restoration the painting continued to change for me.

My mind is simply never done with certain paintings. If Edvard Munch shows me people standing in front of a well lit manor house in a night storm the light inside that house is never the same. Sometimes it is pale, sometimes golden. Sometimes his famous screamer stands at the start of the bridge, sometimes in the middle of it. My mind is simply not willing to accept Munch’s word for it. I feel at liberty to revise Munch in a way I would not dare revise Rembrandt. It says nothing of the painters or their work; it is rather about my psyche.

The Frick Argonauts are on long-term loan from the Man-Cha Collection.The artists worked in Florence at the same time as the better known Botticelli and Ghirlandiao. Their presence in this sedate environment gives the visitor a chance to study them unhurried by the crowds with which one often contends in larger museums. This defines the special place of The Frick in the museum experience.

Djelloul (jeh-lool) Marbrook was born in 1934 in Algiers to a Bedouin father and an American painter. He grew up in Brooklyn, West Islip and Manhattan, New York, where he attended Dwight Preparatory School and Columbia. He then served in the U.S. Navy.

His book of poems, Far From Algiers, won the Stan and Tom Wick Poetry Prize from Kent State University in 2007 and was published in 2008. His story, Artists Hill, adapted from the second novel of an unpublished trilogy, won the Literal Latte first prize in fiction in 2008. His poems have been published in The American Poetry Review, Barrow Street, poemeleon, The Same, and other journals. The pioneering e-book publisher, Online Originals (UK), published his novella, Alice MIller’s Room, in 1999.

He worked as a reporter for The Providence Journal and as an editor for The Elmira (NY) Star-Gazette, The Baltimore Sun, The Winston-Salem Journal & Sentinel and The Washington Star. Later he worked as executive editor of four small dailies in northeast Ohio and two medium-size dailies in northern New Jersey.