"Rücken-Figures" and the Role of the Viewer
As I’ve discussed in my last Canvas entry back in April, it can be difficult to write about visual art because the whole point is the visual. They say a picture’s worth a thousand words, but I don’t think anybody’s been able to come up with a precise write-up of those particular thousand words. Besides, so much of engaging with visual art depends on you as the viewer. What kinds of images strike you? Which leave you cold? What combination of colors grabs your attention? Which palettes become discordant in your eyes? What subjects appeal to you? Of course, nobody has the same answers. Unless you’re talking to a colony of clone robots, but that’s probably unlikely. Probably.
The viewer is a central and often invisible part of the creation of visual art. Much how writers rarely pen a work that’s not meant to be seen, excluding Emily Dickinson and the like, artists are aware that their piece will have a viewer who will respond to it in a unique way. But of course this isn’t always the case. According to Wikipedia, the German Romantic art movement coined the term Rückenfigur, or “figure seen from behind.” This practice involved positioning a viewer-surrogate in the forefront of a landscape painting. The figure is seen from behind and given few visual characteristics because they’re not meant to be the focus of the painting. Instead, the figure is meant to connect to the audience: “The viewer can identify with the image-looking figure and then recreate the space to be conveyed.” Using this technique, the viewer is no longer an ambiguous, invisible presence. The viewer is rooted in the work despite not being its focus.
Fast-forward to modern times and we find freelance illustrator Kevin Jay Stanton and his landscape series “Rücken-Figures,” which twists the Rückenfigur technique to primarily again assign focus to landscapes and render the viewer invisible. Instead of positioning a surrogate viewer in the frames of his landscapes, Stanton makes the viewer feel as if they are present in the landscape. The inanimate objects - trees, flowers, mountains, rivers, and the like - are granted souls. Stanton also wonderfully experiments with color palettes and shapes, creating downright beautiful pieces of art.
I find it fascinating how he named this series, considering it’s a play on the Rückenfigur technique more than an actual practice of it. I’m especially enamored of, again, his choice of colors; even in dark palettes he finds a lighter contrasting color that brightens the piece in a very striking way. Stanton also conveys a sense of motion through the shapes he chooses; even tranquil scenes are rendered dynamic and active, and the images that already depict the world in motion are all the more powerful, especially this one depicting a lightning storm.
“Rücken-Figures” is an ongoing project with almost one hundred entries, and the entire Tumblr of pieces is worth a look; I’ve only selected some of my favorites. Here, we as viewers are challenged with art that seeks to engage us more directly. The only question - the perpetual question - is how do we respond?