Saturday, March 21, 2009

The chair in art

Lynda Lehmann brought my interest in chairs to the forefront with a recent post. One of the positive aspects of writing a blog and following other blogs is the stimulation and cross pollination of ideas. This post is a perfect example of this. I wouldn't be thinking about chairs today if I hadn't read Lynda's post.

There's a long history of chairs used as subject matter in art. Arthur Danto, Professor of Philosophy at Columbia University, wrote a thoughtful essay examining the use of the chair in artistic representation. He begins his discussion by focusing on a first century Buddhist carving of a chair placed below a tree and flanked by a group of alluring maidens who are sent to seduce the Buddha. Riders can be seen in the background. In this temptation scene, one never sees the Buddha, only an empty seat with a cushion is shown to symbolize his presence.

The second chair he speaks of is also empty. It is the unoccupied, rustic, yellow chair with a pipe resting on it that van Gogh painted in the late 1880's. The simplicity of the chair references van Gogh's "conspicuous humility". Danto refers to this work as "Self-portrait as chair". van Gogh's painting of Gauguin's chair around the same time was also unoccupied, but it was elaborate, authoritative and arrogant. If you would like to explore these two images further, this site provides visuals and an interesting commentary.

The final chair Danto explored is the electric chair Warhol used in 1967 in different formats. Danto describes it as an obscene and terrifying image and points out that it was an electric chair, not a flat bed or electric noose that the penologists came up with. Why a chair?

On Flickr, BillyRook questions artists' fascination with empty chairs. He decides that his interest is piqued only when the chair is out of place either spatially or temporally. It is this out-of-place-ness that raises interest and transforms this everyday object into a metaphor. I agree with this.

Jerseyside, NL 2006

Whenever I look at this photo I took several years ago while exploring my childhood haunts, it is a physical reminder of all the people who lived, worked and played in this area. The idea of a chair as a proxy for human presence is an intriguing one. There is presence and absence in this image. This duality is often explored in my work.

5 comments:

Leslie Avon Miller said...

I absolutely love chairs as the subject of paintings. This photograph of yours is so poignant. I feel the melancholy of the empty seat, and marker in the present of living energy of the past. How rich.

Blue Sky Dreaming said...

I so like this photo of the empty chair...it speaks volumes. One can just feel the mysteries, secrets and histories this chair holds in the soft sunlight.
I will be posting a photo of a painting I did as an Ode to Van Gogh and I will place a link to your site.

Lynda Lehmann said...

WOW, what a terrific post, Margaret! I'll have to check out those links. Now that you are thinking more about chairs, I am also thinking (again) about chairs. So I'm going to post a few more chair photos, soon.

My revered watercolor teacher at our Art League of Long Island always read and recommended Danto. I have him on my Amazon wish list but haven't read him yet. I didn't realize he teaches (or taught) at Columbia.

I love your statement about the chair implying presence as well as absence. I think that BY the absence, the presence is implied. Another strange paradox!

A fascinating post, Margaret. Thanks for feeding/reinforcing my artistic curiosity. And thanks for the mention, as well. :)

Sherwood Harrington said...

Hello, fellow Birr Castle Demesne Bothy tenant!

The most powerful chair I have ever seen is one by Columbian sculptor Doris Salcedo. It is a simple side chair... imprisoned in a block of concrete and steel rebar. It is on display in San Francisco's DeYoung Museum, whose explanatory plaque for the work reads, in part, “... a common household artifact... register(s) the loss of human life to political violence in her native country. Encasing a side chair […] in rebar and cement, she transforms a familiar object into [a] disturbing record of the people who have disappeared, a haunting reminder of those citizens who have suffered the effects of civil war and government corruption." The chair's position in the museum is powerful: directly next to a floating display of charred wood shards from an arson-torched southern black church. The chair brings humanity to the scene, as chairs do, right?

A photo of Salcedo's chair can be seen about midway down in this blog entry of mine.

Sorry for carrying on so; your blog, and especially this entry, kind of triggered a strong response! I stumbled on it while Googling for recent items about the Bothy and Birr Castle. My wife and I stayed in the Bothy for four weeks in the summer of '06 and will be there again in '10. We first visited because of the astronomical history of the place (I'm an astronomer), but subsequent stays have nothing to do with that, specifically, but with the general enchantment of the place, and of Lord and Lady Rosse themselves.

Click here for some of our photos from Birr Castle in '06, if you want!

Great, great blog, Margaret! You've gained a follower.

Deborah Hodgson said...

I like the description of the chair denoting somebody not in the picture. I research art history of symbolism in art and a chair can have different meanings. Sometimes it depends on what kind of chair, such as a three legged chair or stool represents marriage. A chair with lions on it, or with drapery behind it, can denote a throne or a monarch. Interesting blog post, than you. ;-)