Friday, April 06, 2007

Comparison and Contrast

Donatello's David, 1430-32 and Martin Puryear's Sanctuary (1982).

Aside from an insouciant, nonchalant air, both of these pieces have, it seems, little in common. Both are masterworks, though one is iconic and the other, well, I went to the Art Institute a while back and asked where the Puryear was located, but the woman looked in the computer and in a book or two and told me she couldn't find anything about it. Imagine anyone at the Bargello not recognizing the David. Sister Wendy does feature it in one of her programs.

When we compare things we locate what similarities they have and when we contrast them, we find their differences. This can result in a table of sorts-a useful starting point, where we can sort out the various things we have to say about them-but the goal is-in my classes-to find what you can say about one or the other of the pieces. In a comparison of this sort, then, the goal is not both objects, but one or the other-or both, if you insist, but separately. For example, it is important that David is nude. This can make you think about the Sanctuary figure, whose unclothed state-in a state of nature, you might say-is equally revealing, though less significant. Both figures may be considered sensually, not only as we see them, but as they convey the sense of touch. I start thinking of this because David touches himself (not THAT way!), and Goliath's feather rests against his leg, and because the element of bronze seems so tactile. So, I turn to the Puryear and think of the sense of touch, where again I am rewarded by the initial comparison. I would have thought of it anyway, but I am taken there more surely by the initial comparison.

It is important that Sanctuary presents with "feet" on a wheel, which contrasts with the severed head of Goliath. More importantly, the wheel contrasts with the box (the "head" in the implied personification) which is fixed to the wall, as the dead head contrasts with the lively on in the Donatello piece. Ultimately, the wheel tells us something about Sanctuary and the head something about the David, and once we have figured that out we probably don't need to belabor the contrast. Each work is named something significant. David sends us to the Bible for reference, Sanctuary to, er, the dictionary. For each, we are compelled to find some meaning to the name beyond the immediate reference, however, which will get us thinking about the meaning of the piece as a whole. Donatello's David, we learn from research, symbolizes the city of Florence; he is also symbolic of Christian faith. Puryear's figure is more likely to symbolize some generalized conception of a person, a human, perhaps the artist, or any artist, and the term "Sanctuary" may lead us to consider the figure in terms of faith. Again, it is not the comparison and contrast that counts here-we don't learn about the two pieces as a unit, but we can learn from them.

So, why do we compare and contrast? Because it gets us started, it gets us thinking, and it can help us to see things we might not have noticed before. We use one to bounce ideas off the other and then, for the time, discard the one to investigate the other further. We will often go back to the one for more ideas, but whatever conclusions we draw will be on the one, not on the pair.

Now, this is not always the case with comparison and contrast. Donatello did an earlier David (1408-9, 16) which may be compared with his more celebrated later version, leading to an understanding of both objects considered together.

Comparison and contrast, then, in my classes, is introduced as a heuristic, a relatively simple way to get started with a work. It can be especially useful if you use a familiar piece to get started with an unfamiliar one.

Probably the most useful set of terms to compare and contrast paintings with derive from the work of Heinrich Wolflin, as described here.