Thursday, September 24, 2009

Paintings I Like, pt. 37

Titian, Virgin and Child with Saint Catherine, Saint Dominic, and a Donor, about 1513-14. Oil on canvas, 54" x 73."

That black wall behind Saint Catherine and the Virgin and Child is so strange. What could they be seated in front of?

Compositionally, it sets up a mass and void relationship that is at odds with the natural figure/ground scheme established by the five figures. And it's the type of arrangement that abstract painters would take up in earnest about 400 years after this picture was painted: figure and field interchange.

On the left side of the picture the women and child are punched out of the large black field which seems to rise past the figures, right up to the picture plane. On the right the black robes are clearly figure against ground, but unlike the black field on the left, they simultaneously look like holes in ground. That particular tendency of black to punch holes in the canvas was a bugaboo for representational painters over the centuries - many had their own recipes for black, or just avoided it altogether.

But many abstract painters used it in just the way that Titian has here - to create a figure and ground relationship that refuses to give a stable account of itself.