At some point in the late 1980s my father came home with a painting by Paul Delvaux. He’d never really been into Surrealist art. On the contrary, at the time he was collecting work by Photorealists, a painting style that at first glance emulates the gloss and shine familiar from photographs, and relies on ultra-realism to make its point. But this painting fascinated him. Simply entitled Tête de Femme, it was a beautiful face of a woman, her shoulders rising and suggesting that her arms are aloft, like so many other women in Delvaux’s paintings. It’s smaller than most of Delvaux’s work, who used to paint relatively large canvases. There’s a reason it’s smaller.
Apparently he was unhappy with the painting, or at least the direction it was going. Delvaux cropped the head out of the canvas, and discarded everything else. I have always wondered what else there was. I’ve seen plenty of Delvaux’s work since, but the light on the face is unlike any of his other work. It’s not a painting he attempted again, nor are there any pencil sketches or water-colours of a related motif. Because Delvaux was a Surrealist, almost anything could have been happening right beyond that frame. It lit up my imagination, but the lack of information also frustrated me. I wanted to see the rest of the painting!
So when I began to reduce my own work down to various crops that held my attention, I realized that some of the images might be visually compelling, but I feared they would become meaningless without context. At the same time, I found a conflict between the elements I found visually compelling, and the narrative. The story told by the image may be interesting, but sometimes the beauty is in the smaller details.
The image above is one of two Paolo and Francesca pieces. The original image I created around the two lovers was very tall, the two of them laying spent at the bottom of a tall frame with soft fabrics rising high up into the darkness. But the two of them seemed lost in it, and it didn’t tell the story. It is hard to depict the trance two lovers enter into after they consummate real love with deep lust. So the image was cut down to leave only the lovers, impossibly folded into one another after they had exhausted themselves. I found their hands beautiful, they said so much about the moment, but after cropping two reduced little frames I felt there was nothing left to connect them to the story I had set out to tell. They had no context. I decided to retain parts of the image, but to present them differently. You can read about the physical production in my previous post.
Two nights ago I was sitting with my creative assistant Lars Theuerkauff, we were arguing over whether crops without context work, whether they sufficiently communicate the intended moment. He felt strongly they did, but I told him that context is key. If we know the image, then a visual abbreviation is all we need. We can mentally reduce an image to its visual shorthand (pun intended!) if we know what happens around it. Ironically enough, the Taverna we were sitting in near Kollwitz Platz in Berlin’s Prenzlauer Berg had this poster hanging from a cross-beam above the entrance:
But Lars made another valid point. As beautiful as Baroque religious art may be, most of it was illustrative in nature. Its goal was to tell a story to people who couldn’t read, not to communicate a feeling exchanged in a moment. Those paintings rarely elicited a sense of beauty and recognition within the eye of the beholder, but told a story while imbuing their viewers with a sense of awe. My goals are lot more earthly and simple.
…and sometimes, you simply can’t trust a crop.