Art Term Tuesday: Mood

Katy Thompson, Associate Director of Education

“This artwork is a MOOD.” Recently, as part of our Gallery on Wheels program, we took our “Crash Course in Curation” presentation to a group of middle and high schoolers. Their activity was to look at a group of works from the FWMoA permanent collection and curate their own exhibition based on their chosen works and what they shared (theme, colors, medium, subjects, etc.). Their reaction to the Kirsty Mitchell photograph, one of my favorites, was surprising to me: “She creepy”. “Oh, is she dead?” “Yea, she super dead; dude, that’s scary”. Does the photograph, below, scare YOU?

A woman lays in a lilac field, one blue eye open and a ship in the crook of her arms below her chest. She wears a lavender dress and her hair and skin and tinted lavender.
Kirsty Mitchell, British, b. 1976. Gammelyn’s Daughter–A Waking Dream. Archival pigment print, 2012. Museum purchase, 2018.93. Image courtesy of FWMoA.

I quickly countered the student exclamations with, “She’s not DEAD, she’s ASLEEP”. They retorted, “her eye is open”. Well then. I’d always responded positively to the photograph; I love the multiple hues of purple and the vibrancy of the colors, whether lighter lavenders or deeper purples. I love the spring feel, like an awakening, and viewed the woman as an embodiment of the season emerging from winter. How can one work elicit such varied responses? Through color, style, concept, and subject the artist can create a unique emotional response driven by the viewer’s own personal history, understanding, and previous connections; or, mood.

Mood is the atmosphere or feeling, both expressed in the work of art and generated by it, through visual cues, predominantly color. These visual cues help the viewer to connect fully with the work of art, and the composition and contrasting elements can either temper or activate the color to evoke the desired atmosphere. Fiesta de las Calacas, a screenprint by David Martinez, uses color to brighten what might otherwise be a macabre scene. The frenzied, energetic purple skeletons dance in the desert, their arms flailing and legs stomping the bright yellow and deep orange sand that is spotted with verdant cacti plants. The pink and purple night sky, dotted with stars, brightens the composition and suggests an early dawning, as if the party has raged all night. By using bright colors, in contrast to black and white skeletons in a dark graveyard, Martinez conveys the celebratory mood of Day of the Dead. The skeletons are having a reunion party; here, death is nothing to fear.

A color screenprint of white skeletons in purple shadow dancing in the desert. A pink and purple sky includes a moon rising above orange/brown mountains in the background.
David Martinez, Mexican, b. 1943. Fiesta de las Calacas. Color screenprint on paper, 1995. Museum purchase with funds provided by the American Art Initiative Capital Campaign, 2013.44.3. Image courtesy of FWMoA.

Conversely, in the photo below, Melonie Mulkey has used a soft yellow light and a cooler blue to create an eerie and mysterious scene. Designing her rooms to evoke specific moods, they suggest a lingering of human spirit through the wispy curtains and soft light and shadows. An attic room in an 80s dollhouse, perhaps, the open window adds to the mystery, as do the maps on the wall. In tandem with the softer palette, these details provoke a Haunting of Hill House vibe.

A view into a room with patterned wallpaper. On the wall hang two tiny maps. A window on the left wall is open, curtains drawn, letting in an unknown source of light. From the window extends a ladder that goes into a window in the floor, from which a bluer light source emanates.
Melonie Mulkey, American, b. 1984. Second Phase. Archival pigment print on paper, 2017. Gift of the Artist, 2018.155. Image courtesy of FWMoA.

What about a more subdued composition? Below, David Shapiro presents an almost monochromatic canvas in a muted, dark green. Inspired by Buddhism and meditation, his circling lines calm the eye and, subsequently, the mind.

A rectangular canvas cut in half. On the left is a dark green background with a white line pattern in a diamond shape directly in the middle. On the right the background is a lighter green and a spiral in darker green is set against it.
David Shapiro, American, 1944-2014. Twice Told Tale 1. Aquatint, carborundum, etching on paper, 1984. Gift of Yara Trokel, 2016.349. Image courtesy of FWMoA.

Eliciting a meditative response, how would this be different if he had chosen orange or red? In Origin and Return 132, Shaprio’s brighter color choices exude warmth, energy, and happiness. Here, we don’t have a full bullseye to focus on; instead, the canvas is cut into quarters and the mood is much lighter and less contemplative. Which do you prefer?

A rectangular canvas cut into quarters, from left is a reddish-orange background with a lighter line circling, a yellow background with a lighter yellow circle in the center, a deep red with multiple lines painted throughout, and a light orange with a light yellow line painted in a circle that reaches the edges of the canvas.
David Shapiro, American, 1944-2014. Origin and Return 132. Acrylic on canvas, 2009. Gift of Yara Trokel, 2016.255. Image courtesy of FWMoA.

What about a work with no color? Does a black-and-white artwork automatically evoke sadness and despair? Not always! Compare and contrast these two black-and-white images of staircases:

John Bower’s photograph, on the left, captures a seemingly endless spiraling staircase while the etching on the right, by Martin Lewis, depicts subway stairs. Bower’s photograph is quiet and eerie, with no living things in sight. The spiral lines lead our eye up and up, eventually into nothingness. What could be at the top of the stairs? In comparison, Lewis’ work is moving quickly as women ascend and descend the stairs. The city is bustling, and the woman and child in the front seem to trudge up the stairs while the woman on our right, descending opposite them, is mid-step; she has lifted her skirt as if in a hurry. In the background a woman walks past the stairs, a hand to her hat as if to keep it from blowing away (perhaps the reason the woman holds her skirt as she descends?). While there is a sadness in the littered subway steps and heavy movement of the lady and girl ascending, the overall mood isn’t depressing, per se. It’s mixed with the energy and vitality of city while Bower’s photo elicits a silence, a different yet similar meditative mood to Shapiro.

Kathe Kollwitz’ lithograph, Brot!, is another black-and-white composition that more closely fits the despair we often assign to that color scheme. Here we see two toddlers and their mother, her back turned to the viewer. The toddler in front is in despair, looking up at her mother pleadingly while the one behind her skirts has his mouth stuffed with bread. There is something forlorn about the characters, in their lack of color and simplicity of clothing and face. Lacking the full narrative of the subway stairs, the mood of this lithograph centers more fully on the mood of the toddler: despair, sadness, and upset.

A lithograph of mother, back turned to the viewer, and two children. One child faces the mother, head up and pleading while the other child grabs her mother's skirts and has a piece of bread being stuffed into her mouth by the mother's hand.
Kathe Kollwitz, German, 1867-1945. Brot! (Bread!). Lithograph on paper, 1924. Gift of the Franklin B. Mead Memorial Collection, 1951.01. Image courtesy of FWMoA.

Photographer Natalie Christensen is influenced heavily by psychology and, in particular, the work of Carl Jung, who was one of the first to champion art therapy and the ways art can affect our mood. While the reaction we have to color is cultural, (for example, in the West red is linked to anger and danger while in the East it is a lucky color) every society has cultural and social ideas associated with colors. Christensen draws on these associations specifically; formally a psychotherapist, she strips her scenes of color fields and shadow to show what is hidden, everyday, in plain sight. Have you contemplated the way the walls of a building meet to frame a cloud or the many blues of a swimming pool? How does looking at her photos make you feel?

Abstract art is all about connecting through emotion. Made of line, shape, and, most importantly, color, our eyes create their own patterns to make sense of the whirling, twirling composition. Inspired by her garden, Alma Thomas’ painting in hues of green suggests a natural energy that lifts my mood every time I see it. A spring day after a rain, the fresh growth is bright and alive. How do her dancing brushstrokes affect your mood?

An abstract painting with thick brushstrokes in blocks of green and teal.
Alma Thomas, American, 1891-1978. Wind Sparkling Dew and Green Grass. Acrylic on canvas, 1973. Gift of Vincent Melzac, 1976.04. Image courtesy of FWMoA.

The next time you find yourself in an art museum or gallery choose three or four works of art to look at closely and see how they affect your mood as you move from one to the other. What is it that elicits that response? The subject? The shape? The color?

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