Friday, February 29, 2008

"Aunt Fanny" (aka Old Lady in Black) by George Bellows

I do not consider myself a person who fully appreciates or completely understands the beauty and meaning behind a piece of artwork. I do however enjoy being able to look at a creation and make my own interpretations about what the artist might be trying to convey. Nobody but the artist is certain what the artwork stands for and there are even times when artists themselves are unsure of what message they were trying to send. The artwork came about from what the artist was feeling at that particular moment in time. The artist may never be able to interpret their artwork into words.
Sontage states that, “While a painting or a prose description can never be other than a narrowly selective interpretation, a photograph can be treated as a narrowly selective transparency.” (p.6) My question behind this statement is, what happens when a painting is the result of a photographic image? Does the fact that the artist recreated a picture by painting the same photograph take away from the interpretation that the viewer is entitled too, merely because the photographer of the original image captured a specific transparency?
When I first saw “Aunt Fanny” (aka Old Lady in Black) I was immediately intrigued, partially because I love portraits. The aspect I enjoy the most about looking at a person in a picture or painting is the interpretation or story of their life that I am allowed to create in my own mind. An established and possibly the only true fact about this painting is that George Bellows created “Aunt Fanny” in 1920. What I do not know as an observer is whether or not Bellows was painting the portrait based on a woman posing in front of him, a photograph he held in his hand, a memory of a woman he once knew, or even a figment of his imagination.
The lady, Aunt Fanny, strikes me as a woman who was once strong willed and was in complete control of her life. However, this painting has captured Aunt Fanny in a vulnerable moment in time. She seems pleased in her facial expression yet she is very dark and distant. Bellows might have painted her to try and capture both her old strong self and her new fragile self. I make this assumption because the woman has a small fragile face with many wrinkles from a hard life lived. I feel like Bellows captured a piece of her past by making Aunt Fanny’s hands large and strong like a man would have yet her wrinkles are still prevalent. I just wonder if Aunt Fanny was a real woman, would she be pleased with her image that has been left behind for all to see?
“To photograph people is to violate them, by seeing them as they never see themselves, by having knowledge of them they can never have; it turns people into objects that can be symbolically possessed.” (14) Sontage makes this statement while expressing her thoughts about cameras being violent on the same level as guns. I can understand where she is coming from on a certain level. Today we have individuals who happen to fall into a career that puts them in the camera lens and into the public eye. Some people are fine with the exposure they are inevitably forced to deal with. Maybe this is due to the fact that the camera has yet to cross them. With others, the camera infringes upon the basic rights that humans hold to privacy. The problem with the camera is where do we draw the line? Will this continued exposure of people’s personal lives eventually ruin us as a society?

"Aunt Fanny"
Ann Gute

The Experience of Interpreting Artwork

At first, I struggled to make any sort of connection between Sontag and the collections at the Des Moines Art Center. It was too far-fetched for me to believe that the two were so interrelated; however, when going back to Sontag’s “On Photography,” I read, “What is written about a person or an event is frankly an interpretation, as are handmade visual statements, like paintings or drawings” (4). After reading that, I started to realize that I didn’t have to try and recreate what the artist was thinking at the time, as it is only an interpretation – and I am free to interpret as I see fit.

One piece of art that struck me as both visually interesting and mentally stimulating was Vik Muniz’s, “Chuck.” As you can see in the picture (, Muniz uses hundreds of small squares with unidentifiable images on them; and puts together to create what seems to be a portrait of a man. In person, when you stand close to the artwork, it is very blurry. After stepping back ten feet, the image is clearer (but still not district). While at the museum, I tried to step into Muniz’s world and decipher what he wanted everyone to see, but could only come up with what I thought the image portrayed. This brings me back to Sontag’s aforementioned quote on interpretation. I really have no idea what Muniz’s purpose was seven years ago when he created “Chuck” but to me it seems to be an overall theme of analyzing people. Many times, it will seem clear who a person is, what they believe in, and where they stand on issues from a distance, but once you get to know someone, things aren’t always as they used to seem – things get more distorted and blurry up close.

Sontag also says in “On Photography,” “It means putting oneself into a certain relation to the world that feels like knowledge – and therefore, like power” (4). I thought of this quote when looking at Richard Diebenkorn’s, “The Table.” I stood there and started to wonder what significance this might have for Diebenkorn that he felt like he wanted to make a painting attributed to it. Going back to Sontag, I really think that this painting (even easier with photography) is one where someone can put them self “into a certain relation to the world” and visualize a table that they have seen so many times in their lives. It could be the table where everyday your family ate dinner, it could be the table where you got the worst news of your life at, or it could even be the table from college where all of your buddies played poker on every Wednesday night. If you can look at a photograph or any piece of artwork and feel yourself in that image, it is very powerful. (Here is the link to the image at the DMAC:

After realizing these things, it is much easier to see Sontag’s deep passion for photography. If one can disconnect from reality and entrance them self into an image – whether it be photography or a painting – it can be a very powerful experience. The experience can be a sort of recreation of past events in one’s life.

Overall, after combining Sontag’s writings and my visit to the Des Moines Art Center, I have realized that artwork is really just your own interpretation of the artist’s creation. It is that feeling of knowledge and power you feel when you can put yourself into the situation that is in front of you. The experience that you get by disconnecting yourself and experiencing the image is far greater than interpreting what the artist had in mind for his or her own encounter with the painting or photograph.

Sam Page