New Acquisitions Highlight Augustana Exhibit Print
Art - Reviews
Tuesday, 29 January 2002 18:00
Should the point of a visual-art exhibition be intuitively obvious based on viewing it? Or is it appropriate that one has to read significant commentary to get the exhibitors’ point? Whatever your view, to fully appreciate the new exhibit at Augustana College, you need to read the narratives.

The Artist’s Empirical Eye features roughly 60 works from the college’s art collection and is being shown in the Centennial Hall Art Gallery through March 23. The exhibit was organized by museum Director Sherry C. Maurer and Augustana student Nicole Serwinski, and it provides a venue to display new acquisitions by the college of works by Rembrandt Van Rijn, Mary Cassatt, Edgar Degas, James Abbott McNeill Whistler, and Henri Matisse. These five new acquisitions are significant, and we congratulate the college on obtaining these works.

Certainly, this exhibit will be interesting to people who want to see the new acquisitions. But the appeal of the show beyond that might be too esoteric for some tastes, catering to people who enjoy complex theoretical constructs that can be shown to support certain works of art, and those interested in art-history discussions. Maurer frames the exhibit simply, but her description hints at the wide range of works: “The empirical process, working from direct observation of the world, has been in use for centuries in art. It was found in still life paintings rescued from the Roman era ruins of the Mt. Vesuvius disaster. The Renaissance revived the enthusiasm, led by master artist Leonardo da Vinci. The process was still credible for science during the 19th Century. However, as mathematics and science came to probe worlds that can’t be directly observed, the empirical process lost credibility. This exhibit ultimately wonders about the nature of our concepts about authenticity and truth.”

Edgar Degas’ Le Bain, a new acquisition from Quinze Lithographies, uses a medium-colored paper and soft lines to create a modeling of the human figure that few draftspeople can achieve. I’m not sure what this says about Degas as an empirical scientific observer of physical reality, but this lithograph is a beautiful work of art.

Yet to some degree, all art is about an interpretation of reality. When one is drawing, or more broadly, creating art, the truly successful artist experiences a shift from thinking and observing in words to observing reality without the filter of a vocabulary. Degas clearly shows that he achieved this brain shift while creating the drawing for this print.

Art created while a person is still thinking in words is more fragmented. With art, we can feel interrelationships that we cannot articulate in words. Words cause compartmentalization because they require us to break apart the flow of life into discrete words. Seeing letters form words, sentences, and then thoughts leads us to believe that reality is composed of small building blocks rather than seeing the whole that a wordless perception of reality supports. The way Degas models the environment around the woman’s figure as she dries herself off after her bath shows the artist’s direct connection with what he is observing, without taking the time to define each object in words before he draws it.

A different view of reality can be seen in two political cartoons that are in different parts of the show: The Last Day for Submission of Paintings to the Salon by Honore Daumier and William Gropper’s The Senate … The Budget. You can see that political cartoons have not strayed far from Daumier’s style; his free style and visual satire have inspired generations of political cartoonists, and I admire the loose style that the crayon-on-stone technique gives Daumier’s drawings. (Of course, it could be that he had to pound out the drawings quickly to meet his publisher’s deadlines.)

Political satire in the visual arts is a more literary style and much easier for all to comprehend. These two examples are different but united by their lack of reverence for officials that we are taught to respect. While not as physically accurate as other works in the exhibit, these drawings still represent the artists’ perceptions of reality – one that suggests viewers should not take the subjects as seriously as they take themselves.

The Centennial Hall Art Gallery is open from noon to 4 p.m. Monday through Saturday. A gallery walk for the exhibit will be held February 5 at 11:30 a.m.