Terry Barrett’s Interpreting Art

by Jeanne Beck

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This is the first in a series of monthly posts responding to Terry Barrett’s book, Interpreting Art: Reflecting, Wondering and Responding, chapter by chapter. You are welcome to read along and add your ideas to Barrett’s (or mine!) or relate how the ideas in the book influence your reactions to your own or others’ works.

Chapter 1: About Interpretation: Renee Magritte

Terry Barrett, an art education professor at Ohio State University, guides the reader through an examination of Renee Magritte’s (1898-1967) painting “The Postcard” (1960).

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Barrett investigates this painting in relationship to the imagery in some of Magritte’s other works, the Surrealist movement of this time period and Magritte’s personal history and ideas about his art. Choosing a widely known artist and richly symbolic piece of art helps Barrett raise questions and gather insights that aid in interpreting a work of art. Throughout the chapter the author emphasizes that thoughtfully interpreting and responding to a work of art are what make it meaningful.

I won’t restate the detailed observations from multiple sources that include Barrett, writer and art critic Suzi Gablik and French philosopher and psychologist Michel Foucault. However, a brief summary of important basic points from each chapter can help us carry the important points the author makes with us as we observe and respond to other artists’ works.

According to Barrett, we engage in the process of making a working of art meaningful by direct observation of the work and observing the elements it contains. We broaden our engagement with the work by exploring and placing it in a variety of contexts: the time period it was created, the artistic movements of the day, the artist’s whole body of work, the relationship of this one work to the others, the artist’s personal history and philosophy and other artists that have or had an influence on them.

When we view a work of art, our tendency is to take quick look, decide whether we like it or not and move on. In order to truly interpret a work of art, we need to spend time with it. We can then engage in a conversation with it and study it fully and carefully for the clues that reveal information about its composition, materials and references as well as the intentions of its creator. Interpretations may be both objective and subjective, as long as the subjective responses relate back to the work.

Here are some questions we might ask to help us begin to interpret an artist’s work. You are welcome to post additions or revisions to this list.

  • What are my initial reactions to this work?
  • Does it stir an emotional response in me? If so, what emotion and why?
  • What are the elements within the composition and how do they relate to one another?
  • What do I know about this artist’s other works?
  • What do I know about the time period the artist lived in and other artistic movements the artist was involved in or may have been influenced by?
  • What historical events were taking place during this time that may have impacted the work of this artist?
  • Why did the artist make these choices at this time?
  • What ideas did I discover in spending the time to get to know this work?
  • Do I feel differently about this work now that I know more about the artist, the time period, the piece itself and its meaning?

Even though Barrett’s first chapter focuses on a particular work by one particular artist, he makes sure to include a variety of sources and opinions other than his own in the discussion. He does this to highlight an important point about interpreting works of art — there is no one definitive interpretation, no matter how exhaustive or thorough, that can be accepted as an ultimate authority on an artist’s work. From high school students and museum goers to professional authors and art critics like Suzi Gablik, who lived with the Magrittes for eight months as part of her research for writing a 1970 book about the artist, each observation and response to the work adds to our understanding. As we become more aware of artists and artistic movements, our observations of one assist us to become more observant of the next. In short, we develop a more sophisticated way of viewing and responding to the artists and work that we see and become engaged in the ideas and philosophies behind the actual work.

If you want to take this further:
1. Spend some time making lists of every observation/attribute mentioned about Magritte and this specific painting in this chapter.
2. Select another work by a different Surrealist artist. Make a list of similar observations/interpretations about this piece.
3. Observe and jot notes down about how reading this chapter influences your own perceptions as you view other art works, including your own, this month.

Next month: In Chapter Two, Barrett introduces Edouard Manet’s painting, “A Bar at the Folies-Bergere” and the idea of multiple interpretations and reactions, both positive and negative, to a particular work.

(Jeanne Beck, www.jeannebeck.com, is an artist, writer and teacher who lives in the Finger Lakes Region of New York State.)

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23 Responses to “Terry Barrett’s Interpreting Art”


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  6. 6 cathy arnett March 14, 2007 at 7:40 am

    I am appreciating the blog format after having been unsubbed from the list for a long while. Thanks for the switch.

    Regarding the painting at hand: many views and slow thought have led me to answers for the first three questions.

    Initial reaction: Double take. The images are incongruent with my real world experience. Giant apples do not float in the sky.

    Emotional response: Eerie calm. The greyed color palette, the stillness of the figures give me a sense of peace, yet that incongruency is still problematic. If I was standing next to the man, I imagine there would be no breeze, no noise. Ah! ‘Calm before the storm’…that’s the kind of eerieness I feel. Not quite the same as impending doom. But I don’t get a sense of the storm ever coming for the man.

    Elements: man, wall, mountains, atmosphere, giant apple. The elements are lined up in an almost symmetry. All but the giant apple suggest a scene that could be found on Earth as we know it.

    Beyond that, I know nothing of the artist’s other work. I’m guessing from your discussion that he was a contemporary of Salvador Dali and Dada-ism. There is much to learn.

  7. 7 jeanne March 14, 2007 at 5:28 am

    I am back from doing a class and lecture (my first Powerpoint digital presentation, big hoorah for mildly techno-phobic me). I want to join in with June on attempting to observe this piece a bit more.
    The male figure has somewhat narrow, sloped shoulders and the posture is erect but contained. The man’s arms rest closely at his sides — there is no expression of movement through the positioning of the figure. It is still, yet does not feel inactive. The suit the man is wearing suggests the individual is some sort of business professional yet the individual is not wearing a hat, which would have been more in keeping with the time period.
    There is a feeling of slightness of the form because of the proportionately huge apple hanging in space above it and the expanse of mountain ranges in the distance. The gentleman’s holds his head straight which implies a forward gaze, although I could imagine that his eyes might even be closed. The head and body face directly toward the distant mountainscape, forming a parallel plane to the nearly chest high brick wall directly in front of him that creates a strong horizontal line across the lower part of the composition. This strong horizontal element echoes the strong horizontal lines of where the mountains and sky intersect. The figure of the man with the apple above it form a strong vertical line at almost the direct center of the composition.
    Because of center placement of the main elements, the parts of the composition that relate to humans appear very formal and still –a very precisely built straight wall, a very still, erect figure. What seems to break the complete symmetry are the slightly off-center placement of the stem of the apple and
    the rolling, irregular shapes and lines of the mountains. It is interesting to me to note here that the area of the composition that has the most life or movement (am I now interpreting?) seems to be in the tilt of the apple and the glow of light that reflects off its surface as some sort of light illumates it from behind and to the right of the scene.
    The apple commands the eye’s attention and its size appears to dwarf the size of the man’s head below it. The unclothed portion of the man — that small exposed area on the right of his neck and head and one ear — reflects the light source. So the skin of the apple appears to glow with life and energy and movement and its large scale commands the majority of space on the canvas, while the figure of the man placed below it seems to absorb rather than reflect light except for the right side of the head.
    I am wondering as I look at this whether the artist is painting two light sources. In the distant landscape the light seems to be emanating from the horizon line — the sky above grows increasingly dark and muted. But another light seems to shine from behind on to the top of the wall, the apple and the right of the man’s head.
    I am finding it harder than heck not to jump right into interpreting and analyzing!

  8. 8 terry grant March 13, 2007 at 10:28 pm

    I think I can identify with Magritte’s desire not to have the work “interpreted”. Like a lot of art, for me words are extraneous and the work is about the visual.

    One way, I think, of looking at this piece is as an abstract. It is a composition of shapes–large circle, triangles, squares, a column, then he gets witty on us and makes the parts into recognizable objects. What is their narrative relationship to each other? Nothing, except what you can put together by creating a story about the objects that is pure conjecture. What is their visual relationship? Scale, repetition, color that repeats and reflects and mostly the strength of the composition.

    Magritte always plays with us by turning things on their heads. One artist might take a realistic scene and turn it into an abstraction of the forms in the scene. Perhaps what he is doing is taking an abstract scene and turning the forms into realistic objects, creating exactly what June suggests–the impossibility of making sense. I really love that!

  9. 9 June March 13, 2007 at 3:12 pm

    I think I should clarify further — one of the points I could make (interpretation????) about the Magritte painting is that he taunts us with his non-sequiturs. He really really really begs us to try to interpret this “non-sense.” So in a sense, we have taken his bait.

    In fact, this comment takes the bait too. It’s going to be a hard battle to win — I’m still working my way through the Barrett chapter, hoping to be given The Truth by the end.

    Are we being teased? Laughed at? Tormented? Faced with the impossibility of making sense?

  10. 10 Beth March 13, 2007 at 2:49 pm

    June, I see what you mean! I see the need for initial observation. I unfortunately don’t *have* the book yet, (ordered, not received)… just trying to jump in here and contribute!

  11. 11 June March 13, 2007 at 9:27 am

    What’s fascinating about the 4 comments since I made mine is that you jumped immediately to interpretation. Barrett would suggest that you mull and think and look longer. He asks, for example, if green apples in 1960 in Belgian carry a different connotation than sour (as they do, for me). He also can’t tell whether the man is seeing the apple, whether it’s suspended over his head, or whether he might be conjuring the apple in his imagination.

    I would add that this is definitely a middle-class white guy, uptight because of the way he stands, pale and muted, and all the grandeur is beyond or above him — whether apple or mountains. And then thre’s that wall, just the kind of thing we find in the national parks in the US. But was it the same kind of wall in Belgium in 1960?

    If you read the Barrett chapter, you’ll find that Barrett himself leaves interpretation for way last, long after he looks and looks again, and does his research. He begins with observation and some information about the time period and the artist.

    The first rule is to observe and what I observe here is representational blandness countered by that big honking apple and the apparently unrelated title. We are being pushed to try to make sense of the apparent senseless — and on top of that, M. would say — don’t make sense of this. On the other hand, he also says that people who talk to him need to talk about his art — which is just what one would expect him to say.

  12. 12 Lisa March 13, 2007 at 9:00 am

    Spaceship from the a far off planet (you can see the face of an alien from this planet painted on the side of the apple shaped spaceship – the face is in profile with a big white eye – they rather flat noses on this planet).

    They are coming to abduct the unsuspecting tourist at some national park standing on the deck at the scenic overlook – the tacky hotdog stand is behind him but I can imagine the discarded popcorn containers at his feet.

  13. 13 Olga March 13, 2007 at 5:39 am

    An ordinary man with no distinguishing features, my dreams are distant horizons: enticing views beyond the barriers of my everyday looming preoccupation of shopping for healthy food.

  14. 14 Clairan March 13, 2007 at 5:22 am

    The “Edenic” apple (though green suggests sour, doesn’t it?), rather than the sun, hovers near or over the man, the tourist? of the postcard. Wish you were here. Wish I were here, possibly he says. Maybe as man can no longer get back to Eden, to the garden, he can’t get back to nature at all.

  15. 15 Beth March 13, 2007 at 3:21 am

    My first reaction to The Postcard interprets the apple as representing Eden and the wall showing that the man is cut off from it.

  16. 16 June March 12, 2007 at 9:29 pm

    Perhaps the most important thing that Barrett says, over and over, is that to appreciate art, you have to look it it. And look again. And examine. And contemplate. And look again. His very first question is “What do I see?”

    When I’m faced with something that goes beyond the obvious prettiness of the gently folded iris applique, an art work that puzzles me, the best thing I can do is to describe what is in front of me.

    In the Postcard, I see a green apple, a big green apple, hovering above or just in front of a man with his back to the viewer, in a suit coat. He has well-groomed hair and stands in front of a dressed stone wall, beyond which is a range of mountains, seemingly snow covered. He is clearly middle-class, white and clean. The Apple and the man are centered vertically and the painting has the classic 2/3 1/3 horizontal division. The apple isn’t touching the man’s head, and it isn’t clear that he even sees it, although he might.

    The apple is what I would call a granny apple, and it, as well as the other elements are clearly representationally presented. There is no ambiguity about what we are looking at. The color are muted — the mountains gray, the wall darker gray, the suit coat darker gray yet. The apple is a muted green, the man’s hair is a washed-out brownish beight, the sky is bluish gray, going from lighter on the horizon to darker at the top. Nancy Crow would hate this range of values.

    The title is the clincher for the confusion. Not only do we have an apple bigger than a man, hovering, unattached, in the air, but the title has no relationship to anything we see in the painting. And yet everything is clearly something we recognize. This artist is intentionally ambiguous, clearly ambiguous, obviously confusing.

    It’s exactly that familiarity which doesn’t add up to any scene or narrative that we have encountered (except in other art, of course) that seems to be the key to the painting.

    The second question Barrett asks is “What do I feel when I look at it?” Since I have an unembarrassed love of green granny apples and since I was one of the gang of green-apple stealers in my youth, I immediately sense a kinship with the apple. The apple is well-presented, although it might, because of its muted color, be a bit on the old, growing mushy side. On the other hand, the apple is too big for that man’s head and menaces it a bit — what if it fell on him? Perhaps he too is a lover of green apples, but has, like myself, gone too far.

    But no, he doesn’t seem like a lover to me. The cool mountains in the distance, the way he stands with his arms at his sides, stolid, solid, perhaps a bit tight, with his head absolutely still and erect — nah, this is no lover. The wall protects him from the mountains, which are dimly present, although they could be magnirificent. Still, even if he’s a diffident soul, he’s still at the center of the painting, taking up 1/3 of the space (the apple takes up the other 2/3s).

    Back to the title — makes me think of something coming in the mail — something perhaps trifling, something telling of someone else’s vacation — having a great time; wish you were here. Perhaps this gray man has walled himself off from adventure, receiving it only through postcards, which come, like puckish green apples, to him through the mail.

    OK, that’s my view for the night. Someone else want to tell me what I missed seeing or describing? And what you feel when you see this image?

  17. 17 June March 12, 2007 at 12:41 pm

    Clairan,

    I’d be happy to upload another image — tell me what and where or send it to me via email and I’ll upload it. It will have to go on the main post — I don’t know how to put images into the comments (yet). But I can put it at the very end of Jeanne’s entry.

    Thanks, Clairan, that would be great help in furthering the discussion,
    And now that I think of it, so long as Jeanne doesn’t object, you yourself can add an image to the post as easily as I can. I wouldn’t suggest you do it without approval from the originator of the entry, but because you are an Editor, you can “edit” Jeanne’s post by adding another image.

  18. 18 Clairan March 12, 2007 at 12:35 pm

    I would be interested in having an image (not from the Barrett book) posted so we could interpret it. It could be (but would not have to be) Magritte or another surrealist. Is anyone else interested? And if so, Terry or June would you be willing to upload it for us?

  19. 19 Clairan March 12, 2007 at 12:24 pm

    Sorry Eileen, I know you believe art has many interpretations — “no” interpretation could be just one of them. He seems to have wanted us to have a mystical vision when viewing his art. Wish I could. . . .but, nope, all I can do is peruse and ponder and come up with (what I hope is) a thoughtful interpretation. Just as you do.

  20. 20 eileen March 12, 2007 at 9:55 am

    Clairan, yes I do believe art is open to multiple interpretations – I thought I made that clear in my first paragraph, but maybe not. What I can’t get over is that Magritte seemed to want *no* interpretations of his work. To me, *no* is not at all the same as *different*.

  21. 21 June March 12, 2007 at 9:43 am

    One of the things I’m mulling about as I stitch is the variety of paintings Magritte did with this apple image. And how that informs all the images and makes them something more than they are individually. I’m not ready yet to comment, except to say — hmmmm.

    I also think Magritte has a lot in common with a lot of quilt artists — he’s in a situation where there isn’t a lot new to be done with representational oil painting on canvas. It’s all been done. With much of the wall art quilts, I sense that there isn’t a whole lot more to be done in the usual manner. So we have to go to the unusual — maybe that’s why people keep running to new materials. But there’s a lot to be done if we move away from collaged abstractions with glitz and work outside the art quilt box.

  22. 22 Clairan March 12, 2007 at 9:09 am

    Eileen,

    I want to be flip and say “Who cares?” Magritte is dead and his work lives on. But I think you have to see it as part of “the artist’s intention” being only a sliver of the interpretation of art. Don’t you feel as an artist that what you intended and what you expressed, coming as much of it does from the unconscious, are different or maybe open to different interpretations? I think art is larger than 1 person’s interpretation, even if that person is the artist herself. I think we can’t easily know why Magritte exhibited (if not to be seen) or how exactly he intended us to see. But we can look now, and see what we see, in an informed way.

  23. 23 eileen March 12, 2007 at 5:44 am

    Terry Barrett’s statement that “interpretation of artworks need not be limited to what the artist intended in making those artworks” was like the lightbulb going on above my head (when I first read it a few years ago). I found it personally empowering – that my own views had validity, that there is no ‘right’ or ‘wrong’ interpretation (although there are good and bad ones). When I talk to a viewer of my own art it is fascinating to ask them what they see in it; and when I give a lecture to quilt guilds I make a point of telling the audience that their own interpretation of art is just as valid as the artist’s, hoping to click on their lightbulbs too.

    Specifically about Magritte as discussed in the book – I am still trying to wrap my understanding around Magritte’s wish that his art not be interpreted at all, that “the images must be seen such as they are”. It seems to contradict his act of making this style of art which is so full of mystery and oddness (for lack of a better word). Does the act of exhibiting work automatically mean the artist has made a pact with future viewers to interpret the art? If Magritte didn’t want them interpreted, why did he exhibit them?


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