Simplicity in a work of art does not necessarily mean that it is lacking in content. If thoughtfully considered, an artist can say much, even with the most minimal of means. While it may be easy to initially dismiss a work that seems simple, that very simplicity may give you an unobstructed view into the true message presented in a work of art. Such is evident in a work like the painting Reflection by Gottardo Piazzoni. In the statements that follow I would like to share my general impression and my interpretation of this work of art.
I was not familiar with the work of Piazzoni until I came across one of his paintings at my local art museum-the Oakland Museum of California. It hung in a quiet little niche at the very back of the museum, in a room for California artists.
Piazzoni’s Reflection is a modest work. It does not scream for your attention. The use of contrast and color is limited and subdued. It is simple and straightforward.
Much like the experience of meeting someone new, we similarly get a sense of the character, or mood, of a painting. First impressions can say a lot. Those first few moments provide us with an understanding on a visceral, intuitive level. If something resonates with us and we spend more time with it and we may come to understand it better.
The picture presented to us here is simple. A figure that stands at the edge of a cliffside by the sea appears to be looking to a small beach below. Most of the space in this painting is flat, with little to no texture for these areas; it is bare. There are no plants, animals, or details in the landscape. At first this picture may seem to have little to offer, but this does not mean that it has nothing to say.
Piazzoni does not distract us with superfluous details. His message is given with a mood of subdued color. His image is solemn and the lack of action in it suggest stillness, solitude and contemplation. Even the title Reflection, suggests that this picture is about self-reflection.
Let’s begin with the subject of this picture. It is a lone figure who looks out beyond the edge of their world. This figure is the one subject we can identify with and relate to. But what is the figure doing? What are they relating to in the picture? The figure in this picture faces the world ahead-a drastically changing landscape, much different than the one behind the figure. This is where the message of this picture is to be found-in the relationship between the figure and the landscape that lies ahead.
Where is the reflection in this picture? When you see your reflection you see a figure that looks like yourself. Is there another figure found in this picture? No, there is not. But this picture is not a literal representation of reality, it is a picture by design. It is an arrangement of flatly painted shapes, and in this arrangement is there another shape that echoes the that of the figure? Ah! Indeed, there is one to be found. Two, possibly, but one is quite evident. The light, pale shape of the figure is echoed in the size, shape and tone of the foamy seashore below. I also found that sliver of land on the horizon to also be noteworthy when comparing the size and shape of the figure. These are the basic design elements which I found to be most similar in this picture.
If we associate the seashore with the idea of another figure, we connect them conceptually. They are the closest matching shapes in this picture. If the figure above sees this break upon the shore as a symbol for itself, what does that suggest? Why is this reflection down at the end of a darkened path? Is the transition from land to sea significant? Is this a reflection on one’s own mortality?
This idea of reflection is suggested by the use of lines. There are two major lines that run through the subject of this picture, directing our eyes along two paths. One of these is the horizon line that draws the eye directly across the picture. The other is the cliff edge which directs our eyes downwards and to the right. It seems to flow from the gown of the figure to reveal a a dark ravine below and a path to the shore. It shows what lies ahead. An eventual end.
If you thought deeply about the end of your life, how would you feel? If you saw it as the end of your journey? If you saw it as the dimming of a light? It might seem dark and depressing if that was all that you saw before you. But what if there was a place to look toward, beyond the end of your path? Would this not give you some hope?
The elements in this picture are artfully placed to suggest meaning. The seashore below, that echoes the figure in size, shape and tone, is also echoed back in the figure’s dress. The shape and tone are similar but smaller in the tail of the dress and even smaller at the figure’s waist. Perhaps the shape is crossed arms or a waist band. If we consider that the dark scene below unfolds from the figure above, then this shape of the seashore also must come from the figure and we see this pattern begin at the figure’s gut, then at their feet, then at the shore. Each echo in this progression grows bigger. Here the artist suggests the origin of the feeling that accompanies this reflection.
The placement of the figure’s head and shoulders above the horizon line is also intentional. It connects the concept of the mind to the island shore on the distant horizon. Placed high in the picture, they suggest that perhaps, if the figure is looking forward and not down, that there is vision of a place beyond. The distant shore sharply points our eye back to the figure. The space of the sky is the background, the headspace and the brightest area of the the environment, save the subject. It is flat color, but closer to gold than any other flat space.
Despite a gloomy mood in the picture, it is still a warm place. The realization that you will pass on someday is a bitter sweet feeling. That moment may not make the world as bright as before, but having a place waiting for you after all may bring some warmth and color to it. This picture is not an idyllic scene, but an honest one. It is a view of the world that is not as bright as it once was. If the figure does not look down, but to the horizon, there is another destination, other than the darkness below.
Do you feel different about this picture after considering some of these things?
Would the message of this picture be the same without the distant shore?
A well made picture can be simple and straightforward. Some pictures ask you to complete the message, and in a sense, to answer back. They provide clues to discover and make sense of. A proper dialogue with another person requires more than just hearing their words, it requires listening to what they suggest. A proper dialogue with a picture requires more than just looking at it briefly, it requires observation and inquiry of what is suggested.
So consider taking some time when a picture sparks your curiosity. There is value to be found in examining a work of art, no matter how simple. It is waiting there for you to find. The more you look, the more you see, and the more you understand the artist’s message. The more you connect with yourself.