About 10 days ago the interwebs went all awwww! over this, an animated gif that William Wegman offered up on his web page. Wegman, the site said, “joins the ranks of reality TV stars, epic fails, and of course, feline internet sensations with our first ever animated gif. Be warned, this puppy is hypnotic!”
It is. But Wegman’s gif is also loaded with art historical mojo.
The Wegman gif doesn’t just work because cute puppy is cute. It’s cool because we believe that the bowl and the puppy are goin’ ’round and ’round. As best we can tell, they always have, and they always will. Wegman takes advantage of the medium’s inherent properties to eliminate transitions: It’s not clear where the gif starts or ends, where the ‘front’ of the image is or where the ‘rear’ of the image is, it’s just cute puppy turning, cute puppy turning, awwww!
As such, the Wegman gif is something of a digital extension of an idea that Henri Matisse brought to his sculpture early in the twentieth century. In a series of works from about 1899 to about 1909, Matisse made sculptures in which he sought to eliminate transitions between front and back, objects in which the idea was to create a dynamic line that ran through the form so as to create an even, 360-degree sense of energy. Or to put that in non-art-speak, as you walk around one of Matisse’s early bronzes, you almost feel like you’re always seeing it from the correct angle, that you’re always in front of it. You never have a moment of thinking, “I’m behind the bronze,” or “I’m looking at the side of the sculpture.”
In the catalogue for “Matisse: Painter as Sculptor,” Baltimore Museum of Art curator Oliver Shell writes that Matisse started developing this idea in drawings. Shell and the 2007 exhibition’s other curators present a series of drawings Matisse did for his Jaguar Devouring a Hare after Barye (1899-1901) and notes, “[o]ne of these shows the jaguar, viewed from slightly above and behind, and reveals Matisse’s fascination with the line that begins with the tail and spirals through the rib cage and shoulders almost like a helix to animate the beast.”
From Jaguar, Matisse progressed to Madeleine I (1901, at right) and Madeleine II (1903), sculptures in which he started to transfer the idea he pursued in Jaguar into the human form. Humans don’t attack or devour whole hares, so Matisse’s pursuit of a transition-free, 360-degree object doesn’t quite make it around the whole. Still, Matisse got to about 270 degrees and seems to have been content. (It’s hard to see that in the SFMOMA and Metropolitan images to which I linked above. But how cool would it be if the crackerjack digital teams at those institutions included animated gifs of their sculptures on their collection-object pages?)
Matisse returned to the idea later in the decade. His Reclining Nude I (Aurora) (1906-07, at left) the sculpture that helped inform the great painting Blue Nude (1907), is pretty darn close to being transitionless. The only place a viewer is conscious being ‘behind’ the sculpture is when looking at the figure’s scapula, the back of its elevated shoulder. Reclining Nude I has a wonderfully peculiar effect on a viewer: Walking around it, when you reach the scapula you’re suddenly aware of being behind it, for the first time, of having discovered a transition point… and then a split-second later you’ve left it. It’s the kind of thrilling art-viewing moment at which The Thing is revealed.
The next best example of Matisse nearly eliminating transitions, of attaining what Nasher Sculpture Center curator Jed Morse calls in “Matisse: Painter as Sculptor” an “insistent linearity,” is The Serpentine (1909). Matisse’s triumph here has been much noted by art historians. Alfred Barr said that in The Serpentine Matisse “thinned and composed forms so that the movement would be completely comprehensible from all points of view,” which it is. Morse too: “The limbs wrap around the body, encircling her, reaching out into the surrounding space and returning again to the figure. The composition leads the eye on a similar path and entices the viewer to move around it to see it completely.”
I don’t know if Wegman thought about any of this while making his gif. Probably not. The lessons of Matisse are 100 years old and I suspect that many artists dip into Matisse (or Rodin or Picasso or whomever) without quite being aware that they’re doing it. But it seems plain to me that with his gif Wegman is utilizing a recent technology to lead the eye on a path, to entice the viewer to completely see a cute puppy in a shiny bowl.