Where sight ends and vision begins

PORTFOLIO

As blindness stalks Sophia Libman, her paintings take on a new expressiveness.

November 28, 1999|By Holly Selby | Holly Selby,Sun Staff

What is the difference between sight and vision?

For 40 years, Sophia Libman has taken great joy in creating paintings in oils and acrylics, collages from found objects and drawings in pencil and ink. But since 1992, a disease called macular degeneration has been stealing her ability to see.

She hasn't stopped creating art. As the 83-year-old's visual acuity has diminished, her ability to capture the essence of her subjects seems to have increased. Her brush strokes have become looser, simpler, more expressive. For years, the Westminster artist struggled to capture "realistic" details in her art. Now her paintings give us a deepened sense of sightedness, a sense of how we see. With proportion, a hint of gesture, color, the artist provides us with a framework -- and our minds supply the rest. We see -- we sense -- the shadows that she must peer through to create her art. The works make us wonder: When we look at art, why do we see what we see?

Paintings and drawings by Libman now are on display at the University of Maryland, Baltimore, in an exhibition sponsored by the Maryland Society of Eye Physicians and Surgeons and titled "Beyond Vision." The show, which was curated by Tammra Sigler, Libman's art teacher at the Jewish Community Center on Park Heights Avenue, includes works spanning 15 years. It shows the evolution of Libman's style as she changed from a full-sighted artist to a nearly blind one.

Other visual artists have struggled with a loss of vision and have continued to work. Art historians refer to an "old age style" when talking about certain artists from the 16th and 17th centuries. Some argue that with age and experience came wisdom and greater freedom. Others argue that age brought diminished physical ability.

"Rembrandt, Titian, Michelangelo -- all show a tendency toward a looser structure as they aged," says Joaneath Spicer, the James A. Murnaghan curator of Renaissance and Baroque Art at the Walters Art Gallery.

"Whether or not that comes from a sense of liberation and they no longer feel concerned about conventional surface polish or, frankly, as a result of an aging process that expresses itself in part through sight that is somewhat blurred, can be a subject of discussion."

Spicer cites Dutch artist Frans Hals as an artist whose loss of sight, not new-found freedom, caused him to alter his style.

Hals, who lived from circa 1580 to 1666, was a portraitist known for his ability to capture a fleeting expression or gesture. And, from the beginning of his career, he was renowned for the vitality of his brush strokes. The most interesting brushwork, however, appeared not in the faces of his subjects, but in the clothing or background, Spicer says. "The artist was subordinating himself to the individual likeness, but in the clothing he felt freer."

As Hals aged, his brushwork became even more expressive. Spicer suggests that the stylistic change may not have been intentional, in part because Hals was working on commission -- presumably he'd been hired by people who expected a conventional portrait. "In his work at the end of his life, the form almost disappears. His brush strokes have an amazing independent existence on the surface," she says. "It is very hard to imagine what the artist's intention was. Was this really what he wanted to do? Or is it, in fact, that he was influenced by what he was capable of doing? It leaves a conundrum for the commentator."

Monet, too, suffered from a loss of vision. The artist (1840-1926) had cataracts in the late teens and '20s, years in which he was creating the Nympheas (Water Lily) paintings. He often complained about not being able to see, and in 1923-1924, had a series of operations on his right eye. Later, he wore yellow- tinted eyeglasses that supposedly corrected for color distortion.

"It has been proposed that he really couldn't see what he was painting -- at one time he did have people identifying the colors on his palette. And it was said that is why he did such free, expressionistic brushwork," says William R. Johnston, associate director of the Walters Art Gallery. But Johnston thinks that Monet was doing exactly what he meant to do.

"I think Monet's intent had changed, that he then wanted to change from capturing color to conveying sensations. He was trying to transcribe the sensation rather than to record what he saw."

Libman's condition, macular degeneration, is a disease that causes the layer of cells under the retina, known as the retinal pigment epithelium, to stop functioning. "Normally these cells provide nutrition for the eye's rods and cones and act as garbage disposals," says Dr. Gislin Dagnelie, a researcher in the Lions Vision Research and Rehabilitation Center at the Wilmer Eye Institute. "What seems to happen is that the epithelium gets clogged so the digestion process stops, and then the nutrition and cleansing process halts and the rods and cones die."

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