Images have their own language, each with its own story to tell. While it’s possible to simply observe an image and appreciate it for its visual beauty, if we take a pause and dig deeper, we can often uncover an elaborate story. This is true of the earliest paintings, all the way through the Renaissance and modern times. It can be true of art on all scales – the smallest quilt block to the largest mural. And it is true in all different mediums, from pencil sketches, to globs of paint, to intricate embroidery.
A People’s Progression Towards Equality
Mural by Jared Bader in downtown Philadelphia
This incredible mural in downtown Philadelphia creates the illusion that we can see through the side of the building to what is happening inside. An enormous statue of Abraham Lincoln is being constructed by a team of people. The people seem to move through time – those in the basement are wearing clothes that look much older than those in the middle section, and those on the top floor are more modern in jeans.
In the basement, we see they are doing the very beginning work of forming the armature and cutting the pieces to wrap around the form. There are two men having a discussion while looking at a map, which appears to show a division of north and south in the United States. In the second level, people are coming together around written text, rather than a map. The form is beginning to take more shape, and a woman is involved in the building. Off to the right is a line of soldiers, with their commander yelling something at them. They are holding older looking guns and big mallets.
On the top floor, the people appear to be working more closely together, looking at the physical space between them. A white woman and a black man are putting the finely detailed finishing touches on the face of Abraham Lincoln, implying that the statue is close to being completed. However others on that top floor are looking upward, and in fact moving upward through the roof of the mural, implying that there is still more to be done.
The Cycle of Terror and Tragedy: September 11, 2001
Painting by Graydon Parrish hanging at the NBMAA
To fully understand the power of this image, you need to envision its size. Spanning over 18 feet in length, this painting covers an entire wall at the New Britain Museum of American Art. Two men stand at the center, twins, towering over you. They are blindfolded, seemingly oblivious to what is happening around them. Yet at the same time, they have their hands outstretched, almost welcoming the scene or inviting us in. They are open and vulnerable.
The cycle referenced in the title is echoed in the progression of age from left to right of the individuals in the image. There are young children on the far left, holding very large toy planes. The children too, are blindfolded, indicating oblivion to what is happening, or perhaps to the consequences of their actions. The characters in the middle of the painting are of middle age, one still with a blindfold, but the others with open eyes. These individuals are outwardly weeping, yelling, and appear to be suffering as they look towards the two men in the middle. They are naked, again showing vulnerability.
On the far right is an older man, modestly covered, laying back in a bed of flowers. It’s hard to tell if the man is dead or alive. He is looking towards a young girl – coming full circle from the age of the children on the left, and holds in his hands a red blindfold like the one on the men. It is hard to interpret whether he is attempting to remove the girl’s blindfold, apply it, or if he himself is simply caught up in it. The entire background of the painting is filled with smoke, and has a warm glow reminiscent of the day the towers fell. Behind the two men, you can see the vague wreckage of a city outlined.
Gone: An Historical Romance of a Civil War as it Occurred b’tween the Dusky Thighs of One Young Negress and Her Heart
Paper Cutout Mural by Kara Walker, as displayed at the MOMA
Kara Walker has intrigued me since I first encountered her work in New York City many years ago. She leverages an art form of intricate silhouette paper cutting, historically depicting traditional activities around the home and farm. However Kara Walker turns this craft on its head. Her scenes are often large in scale, taking over an entire museum wall. When you turn the corner, at first glance you think you are seeing something fun, perhaps from a storybook. However the closer you get, the more you realize that something sinister is taking place.
Kara Walker takes on black history and racism through her work, creating something that is simultaneously beautiful and heartbreaking. In this mural, as the title implies, we see a romance to the left, a young man and woman kissing. However right behind them a child is holding a goose by its neck. Perhaps meant to represent the feelings or the heart of the woman he has left behind, a black woman who has been pushed into the water. On the hill behind her we see a young, interracial sexual act taking place. And then a woman who is crassly pulling babies out of herself, and disregarding them. The stories we could weave from Kara Walker’s pieces of art are seemingly endless – and force us to face our often gruesome and torrid past in American history.
The Visitation, from The Life of the Virgin
Print from woodcarving, Albrecht Durer
I came across these carvings by Durer when reading the assigned text this week. The images show an incredible attention to detail, and remind me of a photograph in their ability to capture a moment in time. In this image, we see lush forests and a city sitting in the backdrop on a mountainside. In the center of the image, two women are greeting each other. They are wearing long, heavy looking dresses, and their heads are covered. Their faces look serious and solemn. To the left is a building, and out of the doorway appears an old man, holding out is hat, asking for something. At his feet is a scruffy dog, also appearing to look for food. To the right are three cloaked women, standing close together. They are perhaps waiting for one of the women to reunite with them, going back to where they came from.
A Bend in the Road
Painting by Stone Roberts (at the NBMAA)
This painting captures an everyday scene, a snapshot taken in the middle of a sunny day on a busy street. The flowers in the window and the green bushes indicate spring or early summer. The picture instantly reminded me of living in Boston, although I believe the actual location is in NYC. There is so much going on, and the humans in the image come alive against the stone backdrop of the buildings. They bring warmth and motion, even though they are all frozen at this exact moment in time.
In the middle, a man holds a bucket in one hand, while bracing himself on a street sign with the other hand. Under his feet is a pool of sudsy water, we can imagine he has just poured that water onto the road from that bucket. Behind him a man is walking dogs, with both man and dogs looking downward, dejected. They pass a woman standing in the road, waiting. We could imagine a million storylines for her as she stands in the bottom right corner of the image, almost off frame. Her arms are crossed not in front indicating frustration, but rather in behind her, expressing ease and patience.
Other characters in the story of this photo talk on cell phones, carry wooden planks, books and shopping bags. A man enters the building in the top right – or is he leaving and locking the door? This painting is incredible for its attention to detail. It shows us how complex an ordinary day can be. It captures just any moment in time, but really it is this specific moment in time. It’s amazing in its ability to transport us there.
Are You Really My Friend?
Series of Photographs by Tanja Hollander, on exhibit at the MassMOCA
Tanja Hollander is a photographer who has traveled around the world photographing people who she has connected with as “friends” on Facebook to explore the meaning of friendship and the diversity of the lifestyles of the people in her life. This is one of those photographs, and each tells its own story.
In this picture we see people whom we might assume are a couple – they are of a similar age and sitting together in a living room that we know is their living room, based on the premise of the project. Their furniture is contemporary and white, indicating perhaps a bit of financial comfort. The couple is biracial, and on the lap of a woman is a baby who appears to be their son. They are all dressed in shades of green – perhaps a deliberate choice as they knew their photograph would be taken that day. While the house appears neat at first glance, we then notice a treadmill is pushed behind the couch, a baby bouncer is off to the side, and plastic toddler bottles litter the floor. This is a family in transition – litter of a baby has begun to creep into the picture of their pristine living room. In the background some boxes are piled up, and on the bare wall hangs one lone item, a calendar scribbled with multiple notes and reminders.
Speaking Truth to Power / Disrespecting the Most Powerful Man in the World
Photograph by a professional White House photographer
This photograph is an interesting example of how a picture can be interpreted differently, depending on who is putting the spin on it. I am strongly politically biased, however I will try to analyze the details based on what I am seeing, rather than what I want to project is happening here.
A group of people has gathered around a large table. The art on the walls, the curtains, and the furniture give us the sense that this is an important room. The people in the room are all dressed in professional or business attire, with close cropped hair, no beards, and many of them wear ties. In front of each person is a pad of paper, a pencil, and a glass of water. Some of the glasses are quite empty – they have been sitting there for a while. The name tags indicate these are people of importance – their dress indicates they want to be taken seriously. Around the table are all white men, mostly with grey hair indicating advanced age. The men all appear very comfortable in their positions. Some are sitting back in their seats, with hands crossed. Many are looking down, or even have their eyes closed to the situation that is happening. The man in the middle of the right hand side of the table has his mouth slightly open, as if he is about to speak or has just spoken.
This would be a fairly mundane photograph, taking into consideration everything that has been mentioned above. However, something truly profound is happening here.
On the left hand side of the table stands a woman, the only woman at the table, and one of two women in the entire frame of the picture. She is wearing a bright blue suit, she is standing with her finger pointed, eyebrow raised, and mouth slightly open. She appears to be speaking directly to the man with his mouth agape. Her finger and raised eyebrow indicate disagreement, perhaps even scolding.
Whatever political slant you want to read into this photo, I will leave to your interpretation. However there is no denying the fact that in this photograph, the lone woman who is allowed at this table, has stood up to make herself known, has captured the attention of the room, and just may be upsetting the current balance of power in this moment.
Still photograph, Adelita Husni-Bey at the MOMA
In this still image created at the MOMA, we see a similar setting of people gathered around a table, however the mood in this photograph is much different. There are a number of people assembled, however there is more ethnic diversity as well as a different balance of men to women. The individuals are dressed dramatically different – some wearing white coats, others in track suits, and others dressed up in more formal attire. Socks and sleeveless shirts suggest informality, while several women wear crowns which might suggest positions of importance.
Rather than standing up and speaking out by pointing, there are several raised hands requesting attention from the room. There are large sheets of cloth or paper in the background, where floor plans have been drawn and ideas have been shared. Rather than a clean and organized table, everyone seems to have brought something different, and all of these items are strewn in disarray. Various words are written on paper and boards, indicating things which are important to the group. Most intriguing is the abundance of plants. On the floor is a plot of grass and a shovel, while ivy adorns the table and some participants appear to be carrying plants of their own.
Starving Polar Bear on Iceless Island
National Geographic Video filmed by Paul Nicklen and Cristina Mittermeir
This is a still scene from a video of a dying polar bear in the Arctic. The image is immediately jarring as so much of it is in contrast with the mental model we have in place of polar bears – fat, furry white creatures walking powerfully through a snow-covered landscape. Here, in this image, a highly emaciated polar bear is struggling to pull itself along. The bear is hunched over, and appears to be in pain rather than strong and proud. The ribs of the bear are showing – indicating starvation not just in the short term, but over a sustained period of time. The bear is dragging its back legs, showing weakness, and has lost its fur in patches, again indicating that it is sick and failing.
While we cannot interpret the cause of the polar bear’s condition from this photograph, the lack of snow on the ground leads us to believe that either the bear is not in its natural climate OR that the natural climate of the bear has changed from what we would typically imagine. The barren land, and cruel rocky background make us infer that the environment the bear is living in may have contributed to its current condition. This photograph is heartbreaking, but watching the bear suffer in the video is even more devastating.
Halloween Greeting Card
Found online from an ad from this website, original origins and artist unknown
In contrast to the devastating realistic photograph of the polar bear, this is a fun scene – it’s lighthearted and illustrated in a surreal, cartoon style. However it too tells a story. Starting in the bottom left, three kids dressed in costume and carrying sacks are approaching the door of this mansion. The kids are smiling, having fun, and we recognize that they are trick or treating.
On the first floor there are objects, both fun and creepy. A happy carved pumpkin and small friendly looking ghosts. But also a door opening up to a giant eye, suggesting perhaps a creature lives inside. On the second floor, another creature tries to escape a locked room, its long tentacle pushing outward. A sinister looking witch mixes a bubbling brew in her pot. On the third floor, Dracula appears to be resting, as a strange two headed creature enters the room. But a skeleton is also there, with a welcoming smiling face. This simple greeting card image is full of life and potential stories, the mystery all hinging on what happens when those kids open the door!
Even the smallest detail in an image can tell us a story. Artists of all stripes are mindful of including detail which will elaborate on their story and push their view of the world. In analyzing images, it’s important to pay attention to the details. What at first glance may seem insignificant, may in fact be the most important part of the story.
Kristen, I enjoyed your selection of images (many i’ve never seen before). I also used the “Starving Polar Bear” photo in my blog post. it’s such a heart-wrenching pic!
My favorite is “The Bend in a Road.” You described the details nicely, Your analysis made me feel as if I were in the painting and/or a people watcher.
I would’ve cited some of our readings and/or included a quote from one of the authors to reinforce our learnings. Otherwise, terrific work!
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Julia, The Polar Bear video is so moving that I can’t even watch it anymore. I think it’s the contrast with what we’re used to that truly makes it so powerful. I agree about linking to readings – I read every single piece of assigned reading but in the end felt like it was too forced to squeeze quotes and such in there. C’est la vie!
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Hi Kristen. Your choice of images that contain so many details is impressive, and you did an excellent job describing them. I especially enjoyed the contrast between “Speaking Truth to Power” and “The Council.” The two different angles definitely added to the feel of each photograph; inequality in the first and equality in the second.
“Gone” was also fascinating. That’s a piece I would love the opportunity to see in person. Your choices really made me think.
I am curious … if you had to could you choose a favorite? And if you can, why is it your favorite?
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Thanks Holly! The majority of this work I have seen in person, and the images had a profound impact on me which made them easy to recall for this assignment! I have two favorites.
The first is The Cycle of Terror and Tragedy. I think in my notes I mention the scale of this – it takes up an entire wall of the New Britain Museum of American Art. And it is POWERFUL in its size. I appreciate the allegory, and the quality of the painting itself is incredibly beautiful. I also think that since September 11th was such a formative event for me, I have strong emotions relating to it that I connect with this image.
The second is the picture of Nancy Pelosi standing up at the table. I don’t think my politics would surprise anyone, but to me that image symbolized a turning point in the power struggle currently happening in the government. In a larger sense, I think it captures so perfectly this moment of time when women are gaining momentum in standing up to accusers and wrongdoings and fighting so hard to create a balance of power between the sexes. It’s currently my Facebook header image. And I think it will be an image that will go down in history.