Staff Fabilli-Hoffer Essay Finalist Zack Rogow Contemplates Brushstrokes of the Masters
Posted March 31, 1999
"Two years ago I sat in front of The Luncheon of the Boating Party by Renoir at the Phillips Collection in Washington, D.C.," Rogow recalls. "I stared at it for half an hour trying to put thoughts on paper about why this painting was so gripping for me, but I couldn't do it. For some reason, the [contest] title 'Brushstrokes' enabled me to write about that painting and what happened before and after it."
The late longshoreman/philosopher/writer Eric Hoffer endowed the annual essay prize in 1970 for the best essays of 500 words or less. It is the only Berkeley campus prize open to students, faculty and staff.
In a 1977 letter explaining his gift, Hoffer wrote: "Wordiness is a sickness of American writing. Too many words dilute and blur ideas. ... There is not an idea that cannot be expressed in 200 words." (See his complete letter at the prizes web site, uga.berkeley.edu/fao/prizes.htm)
The faculty Committee on Prizes each year chooses the Hoffer essay topic, which have included "Where There Is Light ...," "What's Next?" and "What a Century!"
Remember when painters went to great pains to hide their brushstrokes? Think of the Flemish masters of the mid-1400s, just at the break of the Renaissance. Roger van der Weyden sat bending over the blood-gold head of the Virgin and the angel, using such minute strokes that he had to have a brush with only one hair, so that the tool was nearly identical to the image it created, almost disappearing into the canvas. Everything was in the sharpest focus -- the pearl-studded brocade of the angel's robe, the pattern of nails in the wooden window shutters, the distant landscape outside -- the way it might appear in the mind of God. Days of guilds, of the sweet illusion of cooperative hierarchy, before the Annunciation of the Great Change.
Then Rembrandt upended it, and brushstrokes were no longer shamefully disguised but lavished on the canvas. Even pallet knives, once for mixing colors, were boldly used to scrape light across the surface of the painting, the artist no longer effacing himself with each stroke, but proud of his role in producing the image of the tomato-cheeked burgher. Rembrandt, too, was well worth portraiting, with his global nose that the light loved; the generous, orange lips; and the dark eyes tunneling back.
And later the hummingbird moment when paint and image hovered together, the prismatic brushstrokes of the Impressionists finding a harmony with their subjects, the brush caressing the light. As in Renoir's The Luncheon of the Boating Party. The painter smoothed all the figures in yellow straw hats and blue dresses flirting or musing or lounging after their meal as if the strokes were of the softest hairbrush, fracturing the air into colors that included all the possibilities and beauties of life in that one moment as delicious as the grapes and wine still left on the table shielded by the white cloth.
But with the final waterlilies the brushstrokes began to revolt, to assert their own importance, almost eclipsing those liquid-dwelling flowers. The strokes were no longer content to portray Monet's moonbridge, they jittered in and around the rails and the planks, not willing to settle in one place, the way a reflection is miffed by the wind.
Eventually the brushstrokes took over the canvas and became the sole subject. Abstract New York Expressionism, Pollock's brush whipping across the surface like a day's worth of air traffic, time lapsed from above. Or like a magnified detail of a painting so large it could never fit in a home, or even in a museum. The circle was now complete. The Process was the end. And there it was finally, the heart of the artist itself, not the top of a valentine chocolate box, but a visceral, beating organ with blue veins and glossy membranes.
The angels were gone, though, like birds out of season, off to follow equatorial colors, latitudes with warmer numbers, their wings softly painting the blue air.
-- Zack Rogow