Tom Strini

Now I really want the Packers to beat the Steelers

By - Jan 28th, 2011 01:39 pm
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Renoir’s Bathers with Crab. Girly art will be coming from Pittsburgh, if the Packers beat the Steelers.

I grew up watching football every Sunday afternoon with my dad and brothers. The habit stuck with me until I was 31, on a day I remember well. We were living in Long Beach, California. I was parked on the sofa as usual, when it suddenly occurred to me that I really didn’t care about the Bills and Dolphins. In fact, I barely cared about the NFL. I spent subsequent California Sundays playing volleyball on the beach.

I’ve watched maybe six Packer games start to finish since we’ve moved to Milwaukee in 1982 (compared with hundreds of Brewer games and dozens of UWM Panther soccer and basketball games). Never been to Lambeau and can’t say I want to go. But like so many fair-weather fans, I’ve taken more of an interest this post-season. I watched the whole Atlanta game and the last three quarters of Packers-Bears.

Has anybody every noticed this detail before?

I’m in for the Super Bowl, of course, and now more than ever. As we all know, the Milwaukee Art Museum has wagered Caillebotte’s Boating on the Yerres on the game, and Pittsburgh’s Carnegie Museum of Art has put Renoir’s Bathers with Crab on the table. (Boating is orderly, wry and masculine; Bathers is sensual, riotous and feminine. But far be it from me to infer that the art works say anything about the qualities of the two teams.)

Let’s not be too worried; the wager is for a temporary loan, not for keeps. But I stop by Boating every time I go to the museum, which is often. I’d miss it if it were in Pittsburgh for a few months. And I’d love to get a close look at that Renoir. (But if we should lose, let’s throw in this thing. No need to return it, Pittsburgh.)

In conclusion, let me publicly declare, for the first time in my life: Go Pack Go!

How do I feel about the Caillebotte? The same way I did last summer, when I wrote this:

The feeling of moving mass in the current below and gliding momentum on the surface comes through powerfully in Gustav Caillebotte’s Boating on the Yerres (Perissoires sur l’Yerres).

Impression and sensation count in this 1877 painting. Caillebotte went to some lengths to create the illusion not only of movement but also of force. (If you’ve spent much time in canoes, you know the feeling.) The three boats — sporty, kayak-like craft — glide on a stream that opens in a wedge shape. The tilt of the riverbank exaggerates the downhill flow of the water. The geometry of the painting, a rough wedge expanding from the top right to the lower left, promotes the sense of downward, leftward motion. The lead boat cuts an arrowhead of light into the shadow cast by the large tree. Caillebotte couldn’t have been more specific about the direction of the painting, short of adding a No Right Turn sign. Even the sun is at the backs of the boaters, as a solar wind.

We measure their progress against a neatly arranged grid, which also gives the painting a formal structure to contain and contrast with the loose brushwork and sketchy rendering. (Caillebotte [1848-1894], an engineer by trade, painted in his spare time. What engineer can abide disorder?) The neat horizontals of the first-terrace shrubbery stabilize the piece. The horizontals intersect at 90 degrees with verticals of three straight tree trunks and their wobbly reflections in the water.

The lead and trailing boaters are sketchy and anonymous. The middle one, though, shows his face and is very much in ours. He is the focal point of the painting, just off center overall. His face is also nearly at the center of a H, a sort of frame within the frame, formed by the bank and the middle and right tree trunks. He gazes directly at the camera, as it were, so we must meet that gaze. Caillebotte means for us to wonder about him and perhaps identify with him.

Anecdote counts, here, but it is not the only thing. Like his fellow Impressionists,  Caillebotte took keen interest in color theory, light, vision and the way the brain processes vision. Caillebotte’s color gives the painting resonance. Horizontal bands of varied shades of blues and greens harmonize as chords of color, with interspersed yellows as dissonant spice. The musical equivalent is something like this.

The fleeting, inexact nature of perception, especially in outdoor settings constantly alive with shifting light, wind and water, attracted these painters. In such settings, the hard-edged, realism of classical painting and even of photographs became lies, in their view. When you hold the central boater’s gaze for a few seconds, the flickering, quivering, ephemeral quality of the leaves and water comes alive in peripheral vision.

The literal content of this painting is easy to read, but Caillebotte rendered only the man-made, rigid boats in sharp relief. He merely suggested everything else and left it to our brains to fill in the rest. Note especially the four small “trees” in the “middle distance.” You read them as trees immediately, but take a closer look: They’re just a few dashed-off blotches of paint. Out of context, they wouldn’t be trees. This is Caillebotte’s Impressionist joke on us, and what a charming joke it is.

The Milwaukee Art Museum has wagered Caillebotte’s scene of manly recreation.

0 thoughts on “Now I really want the Packers to beat the Steelers”

  1. Anonymous says:

    Great essay on this piece, Tom. Love the compositional walk through. I’ll second the Go-Pack-Go cheer, as it would be sad to see this painting go!

  2. Anonymous says:

    Thanks, Kat. I love Brian Jacobson’s photoshopped Packer helment on the home-page too. Lots of comments and likes about it on facebook.–T.

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