The pandemic has held us captive for almost a year. We’ve needed to make long-term and on-going adjustments to protect ourselves. As we approach our first anniversary with COVID19, we’ve seen the people who couldn’t cope: the ones in denial who said it wasn’t real, the ones who rebelled and met together in large unmasked groups, the ones who got tired of restrictions and ignored them.
How do we find the inner strength to keep up long-term vigilance? We who’ve persevered have learned to keep away from people, wash our hands in what used to be considered an obsessive number of times per day, wear masks outside our door, change our work and school schedules, and to learn challenging computer skills to communicate in new ways.
I looked at two artists, in different styles, who seemed to peer inside people and detect the source of their inner strength. This ability began with the ancient Greeks who discovered “contrapposto,” how to carve and paint an off-balance figure that is far more active and interesting than a static symmetrical person. To keep a sculpture stable, inner structure became necessary, just the sort of strength we find ourselves needing today. An upright statue’s bent knee, as if stepping forward, forms a visual triangle, one of the strongest shapes in nature.
Antonin Mercie, born in 1845, was four years younger than Pierre-Auguste Renoir, but Mercie worked in the older Neo-Classical realistic school founded in 1750. Renoir’s more abstract style, Impressionism, started in 1860 when nineteen year-old Renoir began to study art.
Despite their artistic differences, a powerful similarity united Mercie and Renoir: compositions based on dynamic off-centered triangles. When diagonal lines were arranged into skewed three-sided shapes, they became the most active compositions possible, compared to placid horizontal landscape profiles or the static vertical lines of buildings. People’s old staid habits no longer work to keep them and their loved ones healthy. We’ve had to find proactive new shapes to our lives, staying in place and talking to each other at a distance.
Artists and art historians are trained in composition analysis, to see and understand the inherent power in the basic shapes that make up a design or a scene. Scientific and psychological studies track eye movement around a work of art and nerve activity sparked by art, confirming more intense stimulation at the sight of off-balanced structures. Our new way of life feels off-balance at first, but also strongly motivates us to reorient to sources of strength within. The new inner structures Merice and Renoir found based on triangles are actually stronger, just as our concessions to COVID19 will preserve lives and strengthen our society as a whole.
In Mercie’s David the Conqueror, the raised right arm holding a down-pointing sword and the angled left arm formed an obtuse triangle. David’s bent right leg produced a wedge-shaped contour (with the straight left leg as a border) positioned below the large elegant triangle above.
Renoir’s The Washerwoman leaned forward, resting on her collapsed right lower leg while the left rose with the knee up, creating an acute triangle composed of her femur that’s angled upward, above her downward fore leg and the ground beneath. Her back, thigh and bent elbow added an oblique triangle atop the first.
Although Mercie’s realistic Neo-Classical sculpture had smooth skin, Neo-Classicists also believed the most powerful figures were composed of these abstract geometric shapes. Renoir used the same formula with The Washerwoman, although her roughened skin texture and indistinct features typified the vague perceptions that Impressionists captured. Both artists intentionally planned and created these dynamic shapes, just as we currently plan how to re-shape our lives to make everyone more secure.
When today’s viewer looks past surface texture and detail, Mercie and Renoir’s underlying compositions depict their figure’s tremendous vitality and importance. Even oblique triangles form a potent weight-bearing structure, as both artists knew. Each bronze sculpture contrasts two eccentric triangles, one on top of the other, to maximize visual energy. Although Mercie’s sculpture is a graceful boy and Renoir’s a humble washerwoman at work, an observer subliminally perceives profound strength and dynamism in both sculptures because of their vibrant structure. This is a large part of what made these two sculptures museum-quality art.
We aren’t works of art, but can be inspired by them and their creators. We face tribulation like some artists of old. Where can we find the resilience to continue to protect ourselves and others? Artists’ lives can provide examples. Vincent Van Gogh, a brilliant artist, suffered mental instability. Life’s pressures proved too much for him and he ended his own life. In contrast, Henri Matisse lived to be eighty-four years old. In old age, when his hands shook too much to draw, he used scissors to cut wonderful shapes from colored paper. These last works became some of his greatest.
When facing unusual difficulties, we need every resource we can imagine. As we approach our first anniversary with COVID19, perhaps we can visualize our core strength as imaginary steel triangles that give us the power to persevere like Mercie’s “David the Conqueror” and Renoir’s “The Washerwoman.” With this vision, we can remain resilient and willing to do whatever’s necessary each day to keep ourselves and others around us safe from this pernicious virus.