There are many things that could be said about a work of art and I do like hearing how other people view it. Everyone has a different experience of life. Everyone has a different way of looking at things. The following is my experience of viewing a sculpture that I came across at the Los Angeles Contemporary Museum of Art in December of 2017. First I will give a description of the visible features of this work, then I will walk through some things consider when interpreting it.
It is titled Fluteplayer, by Ernst Barlach.
First impressions are what draw me to a work of art. If it strikes me, I move towards it to get a closer look. What initially struck me about this sculpture was its form.
What are the identifying features of this artwork?
As I walked around this figure of a cloaked man sitting and playing the flute, I noticed how streamline this figure was. The arms are tucked in the cloak and the flute is held in close to the chest. Even the knees slightly lean inwards together. Overall, this sculpture resembles a fairly simple shape: a cone.
Taking notice of repeating shapes can be revealing when viewing artwork. Not only is the sculpture’s overall shape suggestive of a cone, the flute is an elongated cone and even the body of the flute player resembles an elongated cone as the features hidden beneath. I could make a case for the hat as well, but the shape of the hat looks closer to the shape found at the end of the flute-at it’s opening.
The verticality of this form was also striking. This figure appears in a natural, fluid, almost animated pose. He is not rigid nor perfectly symmetrical. He has life. He is in the act of bringing music to life. He appears to sprout up with a curve, like a mushroom. He is positioned vertically and his flute runs vertically upon his chest.
A great work of art often directs your attention by design. It may have a strong focal point that draws you in immediately, but gives you more to look at when you get there. It may express something of contemplation by the artist-made for your contemplation.
What is this sculpture expressing? What is its focus?
I found the focus of this sculpted figure to be the act of playing the flute. The details of this figure are simple and minimal. The most interesting gesture is found in the hands. The flute, face and hands are prominent- undoubtedly features of interest, but are almost hidden beneath a cloak.
As the player plays his flute he seems to be slightly extending upwards, as if expelling his air lifts him. He appears to be playing music which cannot be heard.
Having looked at this sculpture and how it expresses a feeling of life in its appearance, through gesture, it seemed worth a closer look. I saw it for what it was, but I wanted to know why it made the impression it did on me. What about it gives it a sense of life while it sits there still and lifeless? It has a duality to it. It seems to channel an act of life in its gesture. Not only in its gesture, but in its design.
What can be said about the form?
Overall the form of this sculpture is conical. It is simple. It stands upright. There is a flow to it throughout. There is a suggestion of movement.
Down the center of this figure lays a flute upon his chest. This flute emphasizes a vertical axis in this form- an imaginary line that runs down the middle of this form from top to bottom. This line also divides the figure into almost identical sides-left and right sides that almost mirror one another.
The flute implies a long line if we follow it where it would extend to. It meets the player’s mouth and disappears into his head, and at the bottom it extends, following a crease between the thighs and spilling out from the robe to the ground.
But where does this line come from? If we follow it from the ground back up, to the crease at the knees, up through the flute, we find that it enters a face that is hidden under a hat. His hat is simple, like a bell. It is the peak of this sculpture and the brim is wavy which suggests movement.
The artist could have sculpted a flute player that didn’t wear a shawl-one that shows his arms, clothes and other features. But the player appears covered by a cape or blanket and this gives his figure a smooth, simplified form. This gives his body the overall form of a bell or cone. This form is also echoed by the open end of the flute and also resembles that of the player’s hat. The end of the flute is open and spills out sound into the world; the bottom of the hat is open and spills out a head, a flute, and two hands into the world.
Considering this repetition of forms, it looks like a flute, played by a man shaped like a flute, which sways under a bell. The hat looks like a bell that is swinging. The brim undulates like a bell that is ringing.
The expression of life in this figure is remarkable. It is a natural pose with the weight shifted to one side. Much like the sound of music, the details cannot be discerned, but the feeling of the flow under it all is understood. The knees give the player a human quality of bending, swaying or shuffling. And the player above appears lifted- as if rising and swaying with movement.
His form become more simplified and slender on the way up to his head. His shoulders all but disappear. It appears as if his whole form flows out from the hat His hands emerge from their cover as if from behind a curtain, and the face emerges from the hat above.
What is this work about? What is its theme?
The title of this work is Fluteplayer. It is indeed a flute player, but I see it as an analogy for creation. A player who comes flowing out from under a cap, brings music to life. From his flute, the flow continues to spill out to the ground between the movement of his legs. His hands emerge from a place unseen- a place concealed. The figure moves to an invisible flow as if animated by it. The flow begins from a place beyond, from mind of the player, and it flows through the manipulation of his hands out into the world, back into the intangible, the invisible, the ether of this world. The player is both creator and creation. He is channelling something from beyond. He is a conduit of the creative spirit.
Basis of Knowledge
How can I say all of these things about this simple sculpture? Are these observations based on evidence? Yes, some things are clearly evident. The flute player is a man which is evident by the mustache, physician features and clothing. Likewise, certain inferences can be made by the visible features in a work of art in the sense of an associated concept. For example, the sense of movement in the player’s leaning body is something we can easily recognize by his gestures. The sense of sound is something we would expect to hear from a musician who blows into his flute as he appears to be doing in this moment. Obviously, the sculpture is not moving or making a sound at all. But the figure appears frozen in the act of playing and swaying to something that is not apparent. Music.
Though this flute player does not produce a recordable sound, if viewed intently, it can evoke an association with sound, through visual cues. An association and expectation of musical sounds is natural based on what is presented before us. The flow of this figure and even the rhythm of the fingers suggest the characteristics of the sound which moves them. Even if your associations and expectations are enough to evoke the sound of music in the imagination, what you hear is suggested. The character of the music can only be interpreted through what is seen. The suggestion that music hangs in the air around this sculpture is not evident. It is not physically present. It exists as a concept. It is an inference made by the clues that point to the concept.
Many a great work of visual art contains more than meets the eye. If one stops to take more than a passing glance, they may discover things that take time to see. I could have walked past this sculpture and thought it to be a simple character of a musician. I probably would have forgotten I had ever seen it. But something about it made an impression on me and I stopped to take it in. I spent the time getting to know it better and I was delighted in what it had to say.
Drawing associations and relationships from a set of clues is something a curious mind naturally does. As a viewer, I want to piece them together to make sense and come to a conclusion from the facts that are given. This is where the subjective meets the objective. While certain clues may be evident in a work of art, not everyone will see them in the same way because they may not understand them in the same way. Our associations with particular objects may differ from our neighbor’s. However, the overall features of an artwork should give you context to make reasonable inferences as any theme or meaning behind it.
Perhaps The Fluteplayer is just a figure playing a flute and was arranged by chance. Perhaps there is no hidden meaning behind him. Perhaps there is even more to him but I just don’t see it. Sometimes there are certain things that, when pointed out to be true, cannot be unseen afterwards. Certain things, when understood and acknowledged, become the basis for further understanding. They help to see things more deeply.
So look a little longer. Ask yourself questions. Draw your own conclusions.
But look a little longer.