The Arts, the Senses, and the Imagination
ACTION FIGURES (for adults)
by Robert Millar on April 17th, 2014

When my sons were kids they got endless pleasure out of creating imaginative, action-packed scenarios starring toys that were called action figures --- miniature renderings of the Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles, GI Joes, and the like. I suppose boys have always had their action figures. In my generation it was flexible, cheap plastic versions of cowboys and Indians and pea-green GIs. In even earlier times, boys who could afford them made setups with tiny, meticulously-painted tin soldiers. But there is a different kind of action figure that began to attract my attention as I began to leave boyhood behind and move into adulthood --- adult action figures, you might call them, and I found them in Art.

Now I know I’m on dangerous ground using words like “adult” and “action” together in the same sentence. Type those two words into your internet browser and you may well be a bit unnerved by the results --- especially the images. As many of us know, much of today’s entertainment that is rated appropriate for “adults” and “mature audiences” requires neither maturity nor an adult-level sense of taste. But here, by "adult action" I am referring only to works of visual art that contain human figures and are marked by a complex level of dynamism or activity, either impending, in process, or just completed. Here are some examples:

The 18th-Century English writer, Samuel Johnson, who was a famous essayist, poet, literary critic, biographer, and creator of the first Dictionary of the English Language in 1755, was painted at least twice by the highly-esteemed English painter, Sir Joshua Reynolds (1723-1792). The most frequently seen painting is this typically flattering portrait that gives us a man of dignity, perspicacity, and gravitas.

But here is where things become increasingly interesting. In visiting the Huntington Library Art Collection in Los Angeles recently, I came across this other portrait of Johnson, also by Sir Joshua Reynolds.
In a way, isn’t this painting the more immediately engaging of the two? Here we see Johnson “in action” as he nearsightedly and vigorously examines the pages of a book. We don’t know why he is looking so intently. Is he proofreading, criticizing, or perhaps just incredulous at what he is reading? What we are struck by is his focused, almost childlike concentration and the completely unguarded candor of the moment. This work brilliantly reveals a very human side of the man not evident in the more formal portrait.

The Swedish artist, Anders Zorn (1860-1920), captures a similar spontaneity in this 1894 portrait of one of his benefactors, Isabella Stewart Gardner, a Bostonian patroness of the Arts. Zorn and his wife had been invited as houseguests of the Gardeners at their palazzo in Venice. He caught her at a moment right after the completion of a magnificent fireworks display as she had just turned back into the room from her balcony, thrilled by the pyrotechnics, somewhat breathless, arms extended enthusiastically. He thought this moment summed up something of the essence of the woman’s character --- warm, intelligent, full of life, and as he put it, “more magnificently princely than most and with a charm in her voice that enslaves the rest of us.” See how he has used the warmth of the lighting to help convey those qualities.
And then there is this wonderful painting, also by Sir Joshua Reynolds and housed at the Huntington Library in Los Angeles, that portrays Diana (Sackville), Viscountess Crosbie (1777). It is a large painting situated at the far end of a large room, and when you see it it’s difficult to repress a slight smile. The oversize frame is quite inert, and Diana seems to breeze right into it from the left at the last minute --- smiling, a little flushed and slightly disheveled, stepping briskly into the scene almost at the same moment our eyes arrive. It doesn’t take much imagination to hear the swish of the fabric of her dress as she moves. Her enthusiasm and impulsiveness are infectious, and her backdrop is a landscape that is impressive in its own right.
As you can see in these works, this is “action” of an entirely different type than that of our youth --- it is of a much subtler nature. But then, an increasing capacity for subtlety is one of the hallmarks of maturity. Yes, there is the implication of true physical activity in some of these works, but the bulk of the action manifests itself mainly in an active revelation of character. It is marked by the qualities of vitality, spontaneity and insight. In my book, that kind of action is truly worthy of the moniker “adult.”
To find out more about the individuals referenced in this post, click on the person's name.

Posted in ART    Tagged with art, Samuel Johnson, Sir Joshua Reynolds, action figures, adult action, Anders Zorn, painting, visual arts, Isabella Stewart Gardiner, Diana Sackville Viscountess Crosbie


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