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.