Hugh Mesibov, Byzantine Figure, The Barnes Foundation

Hugh Mesibov (American, born 1916) Byzantine Figure, 1945-1946, oil pastel over black ink on cardstock mounted to multi-ply paperboard (14 x 11 in.) The Barnes Foundation (Gallery 22, east wall)

Since September I have been studying The Traditions of Art at The Barnes Foundation with the senior instructor for art and aesthetics at the Barnes, William Perthes. The intensive course follows the traditions of art through Greek, Egyptian, western Europe, the Italian peninsula, the Flemish, German, and French qualities of art, focussing on paintings, that are passed down through generations of artists, inventors, and creative masterminds. This report is one of the writing assignments, read my analysis, William Perthes’ comments are at the end, then look at the link or visit the Barnes to see if you agree with my thoughts. – DoN

Hugh Mesibov called his work Byzantine Figure, in what ways does the piece reflect or adapt byzantine qualities and in what ways is it non-byzantine? Be as specific as possible.

Byzantine Figure is a vertical composition of a multifaceted form in very shallow space that is primarily dark with layers of oil pastel layered roughly in sharply compartmentalized shapes. Even though there are design elements, like the table unit and window shape, having little spatial extension the drawing has little indicant of distance, the orangey triangle in the lower right corner tilts upward, creatively distorting the plane to emphasize flatness. The effect of the faceted planes separated by dark lines is like a stained-glass window, the multi-colorful, predominantly primary, express an atmospheric brightness. The abstraction of color chords and geometric compartments has a basic flatness yet lustrous, marked with striae, sparkly, restrained, modulated high key tones of reds and browns, silvery blues and purples and golden yellows, layered on black.

The bilateral symmetry of Byzantine Figure with a central figure, and patterning on both sides reflects the influence of the Byzantine Tradition in the plastic use of line, color, shape, and space resembling the composition-structure of an icon. The elongated nose, separated into distinctive, warm tones of red and ochre, triangular planes of the cheeks are compartmentalized colorfulness, the veil-like hair in vivid reds, pinks, and yellows, and the stoic gaze of the eye units resembles the sparkling tiles of a mosaic.

A field of golden yellow behind the figure, roughly drawn onto the black card stock with vigorous strokes is a color chord of orange, yellow, ochre, umber, and citron creating a haze of gold, like the halo floating about the Virgin. The screen of gold is Byzantine in that the color, the element, the metal, reflects light and illuminates the figure; the drawing uses a golden haze to accentuate the faceted, fields of the figure.

The drawing is not Byzantine in that the plastic use of oil pastel compared to tempera is un-smooth, gravelly, rasping, while the inspiration is smooth, contoured, and deeper exploration of illustrative detail. Byzantine tradition places the figure in a frontal, static, hieratic characterization while the oil pastel has the figure gradually torqueing in space creating a vibrating movement. Though the composition is geometrically compartmentalized the coloration detours from the tradition of smooth plastic application of source material like tempera to a mottled, dappled, cacophonous, jagged patterning of line.

The drawing makes a meager attempt at folded fabric, a few lines at best, while the tradition of folds, modeling, striping, draping and light effects of fabric to define the shape of the figure is ignored. There is little decorative patterning to add vitality instead using the mark-making of the crayon to express the concept. The oil pastel drawing is influenced by Byzantine tradition but the design is as fractured, fragmented and creatively distorted as Cubism.

DoN Brewer

Traditions of Art, Byzantine assignment, The Barnes Foundation


“Although, as it reads as a floor receding back to a corner it also creates a sense of depth. The contrast of shallow to space is something being explored here.

Just to clarify, a color chord is when two or more colors are put into close relationship to each other – through layers of glaze or several brushstrokes put right next to each other as in Cézanne’s work – rather than when larger areas abut one another as I think is the case here.

Mesibov has clearly fused byzantine with cubism. Departures from the byzantine also include the gentle “S” curve of the figure as opposed to the upright verticality of the byzantine, the asymmetry of elements in the figures and well as the background.” – William Perthes, senior instructor for art and aesthetics, The Barnes Foundation

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