How to judge a painting

Published April 27, 2018, 12:05 AM


By Kerry Tinga

A HOUSE FOR ART Somerset House in London is home to some of the finest visual art pieces, including Wassily Kandinsky's On the Theme of the Last Judgment (below).
A HOUSE FOR ART Somerset House in London is home to some of the finest visual art pieces, including Wassily Kandinsky’s On the Theme of the Last Judgment (below).

On the banks of the Thames stands the impressive Somerset House. On the grounds was once the Old Somerset House, built as a palace for the Duke of Somerset, it became the home of Princess Elizabeth before she was crowned Queen of England. It stood amid the English Civil War and the Plague and the Great Fire of London, but after years of neglect the building was demolished and rebuilt. The New Somerset House ushered in new residents. No longer private quarters, it housed the Royal Academy of the Arts and the Royal Society, the substance of the House a reflection of the architectural marvel it had become. Now the North Wing is occupied by one of my favorite museums in London. Although a smaller collection compared to the National Gallery or Tate, the Courtauld Gallery has an impressive collection of Early Modern, Impressionism, Post-Impressionism, and Expressionist art.2

Over the weekend, taking in the last days of the heat wave (the idea of which is much more pleasant in this part of the world than it would have been back home in the Philippines), I walked along the Strand and into Somerset House. It was five in the afternoon but the sun was still bright. The Gallery would only be open for one hour more but since it is free for students I decided one hour would be enough to walk quickly through the collection. There is a Modigliani nude, a Van Gogh self-portrait, a Rubens portrait, a Monet landscape, a Seurat pointillist work, and the largest collection of Cezanne in the UK. I especially enjoy the Impressionism (“the boy bands of the art world,” as the Simpsons described them), and am usually not a fan of abstract art, but what caught my eye that afternoon was a colourful, almost cosmic work On the Theme of the Last Judgment, oil and mixed media on canvas (1913) by Wassilly Kandinsky described as a result of “slowly worked inner feeling.”

The short description beside the work referred to one of his essays, something I had never read before but the title of which got me interested: “On the Spiritual in Art” (1912). Later that night I tried to find a copy online but I only found extracts and quotes, about the meaning of art and giving art meaning, about how the artist is not simply trying to make a point but is attempting to solicit a reaction, to begin a dialogue, to make us feel something.

“In each picture is a whole lifetime imprisoned, a whole lifetime of fears, doubts, hopes, and joys. Whither is this lifetime tending? What is the message of the competent artist? … To harmonize the whole is the task of art.”

A few years ago my youngest brother had an Art and Artists unit at school. He came home exclaiming that his favorite artist was Kandinsky. At six or seven, he liked the colors and the shapes and the story he could create in his mind out of them. As cute as that is, it is also a testament to Kandinsky as a great artist. With mere colors he tells a story and in “On the Spiritual in Art,” he writes that it is color that can touch the soul for an “inner resonance,” deeper than mere visual appeal.

It explains the effect Picasso’s Blue Period works have on the viewer. It wasn’t like he sought blue walls to provide the backdrops for his subjects, but thanks to the consistency, his paintings  evoked somberness and depression in both the artist and the viewer. I might be stating the obvious. There is of course the common idiom “feeling blue,” but the idiomatic expression, alongside other expressions like “seeing red” and “green with envy,” only proves the color does have an emotional effect.

In 1960, Yves Klein registered the paint formula of his famed “International Klein Blue,” popular in his avant-garde work of the 1960s. “Blue has no dimensions,” he said, “It is beyond dimensions,” he said.

I believe art should have a place in our everyday lives for a reason we often forget—because of the way it makes us feel. Some of us prefer Impressionism, others Post-Modernism, still others prefer contemporary street art or even cave paintings. They are all perfectly acceptable forms of art, even if they do not conform to traditional definitions and standards or because your friends like something else, as long as they evoke something in the viewer beyond what meets the eye. And that may be different for each viewer. I mean, it certainly is different for each viewer.

Some people go to museums and post online just to look or pretend to be cultured. While I hope in writing this piece I have not strayed to that side, I write to stress the important thing to ask when looking at a work, or talking about a work, which is whether there is an “inner resonance” with the work, as Kandinsky put it. That could be a deep understanding and analysis of the contemporary work as a statement against something or, in my youngest brother’s case, just because you felt it. It is not about how long you stand in front of a painting describing what this and that means, it is about what is going on inside you.

Art, after all, is an expression, not an explanation.