art criticism, art history, art nouveau, Arthur Danto "Live Flesh", Brainstorm by Thomas Dodd, Claudia Moscovici, Daydream by Thomas Dodd, digital photography, Dogma by Thomas Dodd, Echo by Thomas Dodd, Gustav Klimt, Maxfield Parrish, photography, postromanticism, René Magritte, Romanticism and Postromanticism, Someday by Thomas Dodd, Spellbound by Thomas Dodd, Surrealism, The images of Thomas Dodd: A photographic journey through art history, Thomas Dodd, Thomas Dodd Photography, William-Adolphe Bouguereau, Woodshedding by Thomas Dodd
The images of Thomas Dodd: A photographic journey through art history
by Claudia Moscovici
To explain the conceptual revolution that occurred in art at the end of the nineteenth century and the beginning of the twentieth century, some art historians claim that photography eliminated the need for representational art, or the kind of art that tries to imitate “nature” by depicting faithfully what the eye can see. We can add in parentheses, as E. H. Gombrich observes in The Story of Art, that the notion of the representation of what the eye can see has changed throughout the history of art. Needless to say, it too is shaped by social assumptions. Nonetheless, the difference between a kind of art that aims at faithful visual imitation of the three-dimensional qualities of physical objects and one that doesn’t remains relatively easy to discern.
The invention of photography had a lot to do with the move away from visual representation. To say that photography eliminated the need for representational art, however, is an overstatement. Undoubtedly, the invention of the camera encouraged artists to experiment with other means of representation in the same way that the invention of machines displaced hand-made crafts. The camera probably did for painting what the industrial revolution did for artisanship. But that doesn’t mean that artisanship—or hand-made beautiful objects—are no longer valuable. For what the human imagination, sensibility, eye and hand can create will always be somewhat different from what can be made with the aid of machines. The texture, sense of color and vision that are captured by painters are not identical to those that photography can produce, even though photography can bring us closer to visual reality and even though photography is also artistic. The painterly photography of Thomas Dodd illustrates that rather than replacing painting, photography can transpose and “immortalize” it, so to speak, in a new medium. In fact, Thomas Dodd, an Atlanta-based photographer whose works are featured in galleries and magazines throughout the world, offers a journey through art history. His images allude to the paintings of some of the best-known artists in the world, including William-Adolphe Bouguereau, Gustav Klimt, the Pre-Raphaelites, Maxfield Parrish and René Magritte.
William-Adolphe Bouguereau (http://www.bouguereau.org/)
During the nineteenth-century, the painter William-Adolphe Bouguereau (1825-1905) came to epitomize the standards set by the French Academy for Salon art: a polished execution and idealized genre paintings that focused on mythological themes and usually represented women and girls of an other-worldly beauty and perfection. During the second half of the century, however, the Impressionists, though originally ridiculed by critics, set new aesthetic standards for art. The changes they created became irreversible. The Impressionists’ greatest contribution to art was not so much to change the notion of painting as representing what the eye can see—or the standards of verisimilitude that had been dominant since the Renaissance—but to alter what the eye should see as well as where and how it should see it. Their violation of the rules of the Beaux-Arts system was not revolutionary—in the sense of transgressing its underlying premises or goals–but it was thorough, in the sense of changing almost all of the means of reaching those goals. The Impressionists considered that the best forum to observe and represent nature would be in the open air—which is why their works were called plein air paintings–where the play of light and shadows would be most natural, striking and intense, rather than under the dim and artificial lighting of the studio. Furthermore, the art students in the academies conveyed the three-dimensionality of forms by means of the subtle shading which was first perfected by the Renaissance masters. The Impressionists, on the other hand, evoked a sense of three-dimensionality by representing the dramatic contrasts of color that could be observed in vibrant sunlight. In seeking to capture visually the play of light and shadow—and its transformations—the Impressionists used rapid brushstrokes to produce paintings that looked rushed and unfinished as opposed to the well-rounded, glossy and polished forms and subtle shadings respected by the Beaux-Arts system. Similarly, rather than depicting a posed or characteristic angle of the objects painted, Manet and the Impressionists showed objects from uncharacteristic, and often, truncated perspectives. This truncation of subjects and objects, which is especially obvious in the paintings of Renoir and Degas, openly acknowledges the incompleteness of our field of vision and powers of representation.
Sometimes photography preserves and honors our artistic heritage, despite the irreversible changes that occur in the history of art. This is certainly the case with the photography of Thomas Dodd, who devotes several of his images to experimenting with the rich artistic legacy of Bouguereau. “Spellbound” retains the same softness and fluidity of forms and represents a similarly idealized feminine beauty that we found in the nineteenth-century French master. The woman’s sweeping movement, in a veil-like dress that envelops not only her, but the entire image, creates an aura of mystery. The focus, however, lies in her gaze: bold, powerful yet undeniably feminine. As if to emphasize that she’s the center of this imaginary narrative, Dodd surrounds the female figure with soft clouds that dissipate, at the corners, in a painterly roughness that seems created by a palette knife in oils. This contemporary image, however, doesn’t reproduce Bouguereau’s works. It borrows from and pays homage to them, taking us on an evocative voyage through art history.
While “Spellbound” only alludes to Bouguereau’s paintings, “Maybe Someday” deliberately mimics their setting and figures. The woman in this image (below) has a very contemporary look. Yet she appears cast in a Bouguereau painting, as if she were an actress on a painted stage. Her sideway glance, her costume, her posture, the clouds that surround her: all these gestures and props appear staged by Bouguereau, over a century ago. But her slim face, her painted toenail, her tossled hairdo remain contemporary, reminding us that the past cannot be fully recreated or brought back in its original form. It can only be taught, respected and evoked.
The American painter and illustrator Maxfield Parrish (1870-1966) was an iconoclast, though many see him as a traditionalist. He deliberately went against the modernist trends in art of his times to bring back Neoclassical standards. He is known for his luminous paintings, pastoral settings and idealized Neoclassical imagery. In the painting “Daybreak,” the girl’s calm repose has an angelic quality, as if she herself, not only her state, were in a liminal space, somewhere between reality and dream.
With digital photography and a masterful control of light, Thomas Dodd captures the spirit of Maxfield Parrish in the image “Daydream”(below). Like Parrish, he depicts a young woman, dressed in a white in a flowing dress, at sunrise (or sunset), when the light changes–and play of shadows–are most colorful, nuanced and intense.
There are certain art movements that never go out of style: Art Nouveau can be counted among them. Highly stylized yet in harmony with nature; ornamental yet profoundly philosophical; sexually daring and controversial yet utterly refined, Art Nouveau continues to please the public. It’s therefore not all that surprising that one of Dodd’s biggest artistic inspirations is the Art Nouveau movement, particularly the works of Gustav Klimt. As we know, art Nouveau is an ornamental style of art, architecture and decoration, which peaked in popularity at the turn of the 20th century, sometime between 1890-1905. Seen as, quite literally, the “new art”, Art Nouveau employed ornamental, floral motifs and stylized, curvilinear forms that are coming back in style today. Although the Art Nouveau movement was greatly influenced by the Czech artist Alphonse Mucha, some of the its main motifs and decorative designs were also associated with even more popular artists, including Gustav Klimt, Antoni Gaudi and Louis Comfort Tiffany, each of whom adapted and reshaped the movement according to his unique artistic style.
In his article “Live Flesh” (“The Nation,” January 23, 2006), the critic and philosopher Arthur Danto describes Klimt’s gilded, ornamental paintings as efforts to depict erotism to its limits, transcending, and perhaps immortalizing, the flesh: “Klimt, of course, depicted lovers clasped to each other in intense erotic embrace. There is nevertheless something operatic about Klimt’s lovers, as if they were figures in a myth. Like Tristan and Isolde they are caught up in the sweep of passion as the music swells around them. Sex is somehow meant to be transfigurative, a way of transcending the sweaty realities of the flesh depicted.”
This is precisely what Thomas Dodd does in his image “Echo,” an homage to Klimt. Although the painting doesn’t have the usual art deco floral motifs, the background becomes a gilded decoration which envelops the delicate face of the young woman. With her lips half-open and her eyes closed, the young woman’s state seems to waver between dream and fantasy. The erotism in this image, like the one depicted by Klimt’s paintings, is powerful yet subtle. Dodd’s image suggests a beauty not only beyond the realm of the possible, but also already transcendental, as the human form blends into the golden background: fluid yet at the same time, somehow, dry and crisp like a gilded leaf pressed for ages between the pages of an old book.
When we look at the image “Dogma” (above), it becomes clear that Dodd finds inspiration in Surrealism as well: particularly in the works of the Belgian modernist artist René Magritte (1898–1967) . Surrealist art often combines the best of both worlds: a “realistic” representation of objects, which requires talent and technical skill, and a fantastic imagination that takes us past the threshold of the rational and the knowable, so we can explore the mysteries of the subconscious. Surrealism offers an escape from the real world yet also probes the depths of a perhaps truer and deeper reality: the reality of human desire; of our dreams and nightmares; of our hopes and fears; of our collective past and a visionary future we can barely imagine. Surrealism can also be playful: at least in the hands of an artist like Miró as well as in Magritte‘s linguistic imagination, whose paintings are filled with visual puns and paradoxes.
In “Dogma” the young woman, looking poised and professional, holds firmly with one hand a book. Yet her head dissipates, along with the memorized and predigested knowledge of the book, into thin air. The background around her, rather than sustaining life, appears caustic, as if an acid were spilled upon the image to destroy its contents. Knowledge can be fleeting and even harmful.
One of Dodd’s most interesting Surrealist images, “Brainstorm”, depicts a more complex process of creativity. Dodd explains that “Brainstorm,” also called “Woodshedding“, refers to a phenomenon called “woodshedding” in Jazz music, whereby a musician shuts himself in a woodshed to practice and improvise new songs until he or she creates is satisfied with the performance. This creative process plays a central role in all kinds of creativity, be it music, the plastic arts, creative writing, or photography. As Thomas Edison famously stated, “Genius is one percent inspiration, ninety nine percent perspiration”. For further information about Thomas Dodd’s painterly photography, please take a look at his website http://thomasdodd.com.