Emotion and Art

Art is a human activity, consisting in this, that one man consciously, by means of certain external signs, hands on to others feelings he has lived through, and that other people are infected by these feelings and also experience them.

Leo Tolstoy, What Is Art? (1897)[

 

I’ve been re-reading Entering Germany 1944-1949 by the acclaimed war photographer Tony Vaccaro.  He describes having made many photographs of dead soldiers but wanting to make one that would express the emotion that one gets from a musical requiem. “How,” he asks, “can a photographer transpose the feelings from music to a photograph?”  His answer was “White Death – Requiem for a Dead Soldier.” (See the photo here. ) Listen to Barber’s Adagio for Strings or Dvorak’s Requiem with the photo on your screen and decide whether or not he succeeded. (I say, he did.)

The problem of translating emotion to visual content is not a new one of course, but my work of the past few weeks has emphasized it for me.

I’ve just submitted two projects for the DeBlois Gallery Open Show.  The theme this year is “What Scares Me Most? or What Gives Me Hope?”

For the submission for “What Scares Me Most?” I illustrated a nightmare I had as a child that has remained  emotionally powerful.  In the dream, I stood in front of a panel of men who were clearly “the bad guys” and who intended me harm.  The cowboy hero Gene Autry showed up and I thought I was saved.  Instead, he accepted their lies and false reassurances and left without me.  Betrayal by a hero – what could be scarier? But could I recreate the feeling in a digital collage?

I started with several vintage photographs, altered and combined. Although the looming face takes up the most space, it is masked and stressed, while the men in the foreground are confident and even arrogant. The “hero” is reduced to a shadow, ineffective and spilling outside the frame. The background was created from a scan of a “ruined”  glass negative and then distorted to give it a swirling texture that would echo the swirl of emotions the dream brings up for me. I added shadows and text and then converted the whole to black and white.  The final version was enlarged (20”x30”) and printed on Kodak Professional Endura Metallic Photographic Paper, chosen especially for it’s reflective qualities and crisp lines and details.

Here’s the result:

It was an interesting process and pushed me into some uncomfortable places – both emotionally and artistically.  I’m glad that DeBlois issued the challenge and that I decided to take it on.

And I’m very excited to share that the piece was awarded “Best 2-Dimensional Work” in the show.

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