Looking at Art—How to Apply Goethe's 3-Point Critiquing Method
Looking at art can be uplifting or unsettling, thought-provoking or confusing. The experience can leave the viewer either enriched with new insight or mortified by a lack of understanding. No one likes to be made to feel stupid, but often an encounter with a challenging or enigmatic art work can have exactly that effect. Instead of letting art intimidate you, take charge of your appreciation skills and develop a discerning critic's eye.
Johann Wolfgang von Goethe (1749-1832) was a German philosopher, writer, painter, scientist and politician - a great thinker often regarded as a genius. He was also an avid art collector. Goethe formulated three questions to ask when considering a work of art, and this list provides a framework for evaluating paintings, sculpture, photography, dance, music, literature, architecture or any other art form.
Goethe's three-point method leads you to examine the concept, the structure and the impact of the art work by answering the following questions:
1. What has the artist tried to do?
2. How well has he/she done it?
3. Was it worth doing?
This method of critiquing goes beyond a subjective, quick response of "I like it, therefore it must be good!" or "I dislike it, therefore it must be bad!" Forming an opinion about a work of art is more than a "yuck" or "wow" reaction - it's a constructive activity that step-by-step builds a bridge between you and the artist, based on your own observations and analysis. If each building block fits and holds, then you have solid ground for praising or panning a work of art.
Let's use the example of a painting by Giorgio Morandi and apply Goethe's questions. You don't have to know any biographical information about Morandi to work this through. His personality, background, and position within the context of modern art history may be fascinating facts but they are not necessary when you take Goethe's purist approach. Sustained looking, pondering and drawing conclusions directly from what is presented are the main activities in this exercise.
1. What has the artist tried to do?
Start by identifying the elements of the art work. What has the artist included and what has been left out? What aspects are emphasized?
Morandi's still-life painting shows a group of eight objects sitting on a tabletop or shelf. The individual pieces are placed close together to form a unit centred in the lower two-thirds of the canvas against a soft grey background. The direct light source illuminates the front of the objects, revealing a harmonious range of subtle colours - putty, slate, ochre, cream, beige and taupe - that tie the elements to one another. Each colour seems to be aware of, and dependent on, the one next door to it. A pale canteloupe-coloured rectangle in the front row casts its orange glow on the off-white surface of the adjacent bottle. The buttery hue of the left hand rectangle is echoed in the dusky yellow of the funnel-shaped vessel on the right. The small white object that steps forward to the front edge of the table reinforces the bottle shape, while punctuating the composition like a comma.
How has the artist treated the subject matter?
The objects are intimately related to one another through colour and line. They appear to be a figurative "family" group, bound together by the uneven black shadows that fill the spaces between individual pieces. The foreground elements seem to pulsate, while the silhouetted back row shapes stand at attention, creating the illusion of space. Morandi paints these domestic objects carefully, but avoids detailed description of edges, rims, textures and contours. The objects remain somewhat ambiguous and generic: it's not really clear what that bit of black behind the white bottle is (a handle, perhaps?) or whether the round object is concave or convex. The artist uses a thin layer of paint to delineate the negative space, filling the area surrounding the objects with scumbling, active brush strokes. The surfaces of the objects in the foreground are given flat coverage, with volume and weight suggested by tonal gradation.
My answer to the first question can be summarized this way.
The artist Morandi explores colour dynamics through the deliberate placement and stylization of a group of objects.
2. How well has he done it?
To answer this question, consider the artist's technique, the mood of the painting and its impact. What is special about the work? How do you feel after viewing it?
Morandi's straight forward grid-like composition and minimal rendering demonstrate a high level of restraint. His colours whisper; they do not shout. His drawing is sketchy, asymmetrical, wavering; never crisp or graphic. In some places the edges of the objects blur and then recover. Within a pictorial space that is controlled and rigorous, there's a hint of something subversive going on, an underground fault line.
A sense of expectancy makes the still-life dramatic in spite of its subdued, hushed atmosphere. The objects, like actors on a stage at the moment when the curtain rises, lean toward significance. They are alive with potential, and the viewer can't help but wonder what will happen next. Morandi's poignant characters inhabit a world where conformity and non-conformity are distinct possibilities. One can be aligned to the grid, or step beyond it. The tension in the painting, produced by the artist's manipulation of colour, sets up a push-and-pull between tenuous and stable components.
I am moved by the exquisite beauty of Morandi's painting, and intrigued by the combination of colours that are hard to name, shapes that seem familiar but cannot be pinned down as functional things, and lines that hesitate, wobble and falter in places. There is vulnerability and risk even within the formality of Morandi's strictly ordered world. I am reminded of these lines from Leonard Cohen's song "Anthem".
Forget your perfect offering
There is a crack in everything
That's how the light gets in.
- Leonard Cohen 1992
My answer to the second question is:
Morandi demonstrates his skill as a colourist by transforming a simple arrangement of everyday objects into a metaphor for life.
3. Was it worth doing?
Is the concept underlying the work valid?
Morandi's elevation of mundane subject matter from dull to extraordinary is achieved through sensitive handling of colour, tonality, line and volume. The blocks, bottles and vessels that he chooses to portray are plain and humble, but somehow poetic. They may appear to be insubstantial and inconsequential, but the various parts are stitched together to form a harmonious, coherent whole. The viewer is drawn into a private world that resonates with an underlying, universal truth.
Last, but not least:
Yes, Morandi's quiet still-life, composed of delicately-balanced colour relationships, is a brilliant work that shows how restraint and simplicity can be engaging, elegant and timeless.
Just Looking - A few guidelines
- Art work should be seen in the original, not in reproduction. Viewing a jpeg, slide or print is an approximation, and cannot replace the experience of standing in front of the real thing.
- It's important to see more than one work by an artist in order to get a full sense of what that individual's oeuvre is all about.
- Be open-minded and receptive to what the artist is trying to communicate, even if your initial reaction to the work is negative. Often pre-conceived notions about art get in the way of appreciation.
- Taking a break from looking helps to restore clarity. When you return to the work, you'll see it in a fresh light.
- Compare and contrast works by different artists. This helps to expand your visual vocabulary and strengthen your critiquing skills.