Friday, January 31, 2014

Modernism (pt. 3)

If, then, the artist saw an image and knew that it would soon pass, Manet would paint it somewhat incomplete on his canvas, like his painting here, called The Railway.
It is an ordinary scene of a woman looking up from reading a book, a poignant moment because she is looking us, the viewer, right in the eye, but a moment nonetheless that is brief, as we expect she will go back to reading the very next second.  (Manet has contained the memory or the idea of her frozen in that self-same pose on his canvas forever, but the actual woman who was sitting at the railway that day is quite long gone).  The woman is a stranger to us and performing no memorable deed of public service or religious devotion.  She is reading a book while awaiting the train (something many of us still do today).  It's very commonplace, an almost indistinguishable part of the cumulative busyness of Modern life, but we do distinguish it here because she's looking right at us.  For this brief moment in time, we are locked in eye contact, and all the truth you want to associate to that connection can be read into the painting's meaning as much as you want—but only for an instant; because the next second she will return to her book, and the moment will be over.  This is why the artist did not give great detail to things like the woman's hair or dress (which are just dabs and strokes of color), her book, or the background (which looks quite messy and unfinished); he wanted to show only what the eye could see in a quick glance.
Also, a little girl stands on the right side of the painting with her back to you.  It seems wasteful to cover so much canvas with a figure whose face the viewer doesn't even get to see straight-on, but that is the realism of the image; that, in the city crowd, it's often hard to really see people.  They have their backs turned or are busy; even the woman reading the book is only taking a momentary pause to look up and will soon go back to what she was doing.  But the presence of the girl also adds to the painting's expert use of pattern and shape, since her bare, white arm cuts across the black, vertical fence.  Perhaps the clash of youthful frailty and vulnerability with the hard, cold steel of the fence betrays an indictment on an industrial society that sent most of the population's children to factories to work under horrid conditions (such as was to be found in England and such as was also most famously criticized through the novels of Charles Dickens).  The girl's hand grips the fence, and I remember thinking when I first saw this painting that the image reminded me of a prisoner gripping the bars to his cell in frustration.  Artists and philosophers of this time very much saw Victorian industrialism as a trap or cage, but could there be any escape from its mass expansion and development?  Manet only paints his figures on one side of the fence; the other side's lost in smoke.
The child's arm also connects back to the woman, perhaps to indicate that the woman is the child's mother; but we don't know.  These figures are as much strangers to us now as they were to viewers of the day; and strangers have no identity.  These two women figures (one young, one adult) have no identity, so the viewer cannot interact with the artwork in any other way but through the visual reception of its manifest content.  We stare blankly at the painting, just as the woman on the left stares blankly back at us, and there is nothing more able to be said or done.  There's a gulf separating us—or, if you will, a fence.  Neither can do anything but look at the other across the strange divide between three-dimensional, fleshly reality and two-dimensional, conceptual art.  What's to be understood from the meeting?  What can I learn from looking at this painting of an unknown woman looking back at me?  She's about to go back to her book, and I'm about to look away from the painting and go back to my own activities.  She has taken a moment to stop what she is doing and look around her, and in a moment I will do the same through the act of turning away from the painting (this mere collection of insentient oils on a flat canvas) and looking back at the real world.  Staring at this painting, after all, is only like staring through a fence one can never cross—like the little girl is doing on the right.  A good flâneur, like the woman on the left, takes the occasion every once in a while to gaze up from the art, the literary, the philosophical, the abstract, ideological world of concepts, words, oils, and canvases, and look around at the real world for a change.

Wednesday, January 29, 2014

Modernism (pt. 2)

Manet was close friends with Baudelaire.  In many ways his art takes from the inspiration of his friend's take on Modernist philosophy in art, in daily life, and in the higher sense of universal truth.  Consequently, Manet's artworks centered heavily around metropolitan scenes of everyday individuals, often complete strangers—because he was being a man of the crowd, as it were, and a flâneur, you see.  He was also more concerned with how to paint than with what to paint.  This is the reason for his very intentional style of brushwork; his art is inventing a new style of painting, ahead of its time, that would inspire the future generation of artists known as the Impressionists.
Ever since the Italian Renaissance we have seen artists making use of one-point linear perspective (going all the way back to Masaccio's Holy Trinity fresco).  Even though the canvas (or wall) on which an image is being painted is flat and two-dimensional, artists can, through visual tricks, generate the illusion that the looker is seeing a three-dimensional space—or at least the concept of three-dimensionality resides there in the painting.  If you think about it, it's quite extraordinary, actually; that on a flat canvas a scenic landscape of hundreds of miles can be reproduced.  This is done through optical devices of artistic style that deceive the viewer—emphasis on the word "deceive."  If people like Charles Baudelaire and Édouard Manet were trying to record truth by observing reality around them as flâneurs, then what role would deception play in their published works?  Manet decided that it should play no role and adopted this philosophy to his painting.  For if art is done on a flat, two-dimensional canvas, there ought to be no trickery or illusions about its two-dimensionality.  For this reason, Manet's artwork often appears flat—since it's a painting; and the artist knows it's a painting; and we know it's a painting; and we've all accepted the fact.  Just look at this crude self-portrait by the artist, which appears quite two-dimensional and unfinished, if not wholly indiscernible.  While visually it does not appeal to our sense of realism, Manet would suggest this painting's style and construction rings more idealistically true to real-life.
Furthermore, Manet's truthful approach to painting included the stylistic decision to paint busy, public scenes without much clarity.  He wanted to recreate things the way the human eye really saw them; and since the industrial pace of life had quickened so prodigiously for the new, Modern Era, things tended to move faster than one could keep up with (at least, one like Manet).  People came in and out of shops, tripping around the streets, hardly stopping to think or take in their surroundings; or, if they did stop, everyone else around them was still scurrying to and fro.  The world moved at an industrious rhythm now, and no pastoral quietude existed in the energetic metropolis of Modern urban life.  Sights, then, came to one blurred from this rapidity of city living or hazy from the smoke of factories and mills.  Manet's paintings, therefore, often lack detail or appear hazy and unclear because he intends to produce a different effect in his art: that not just of what the ordinary person would see in the late 19th century city scene but of how one sees it.

Monday, January 27, 2014

Modernism (pt. 1)

The other great painter of this time produced artwork of a slightly different style, one which stemmed from Realism and anticipated Impressionism but did not strictly adhere to either.  Édouard Manet was a Modernist.
The aftermath of Victorian industrialism was the creation of an entirely new world at the expense of the former.  Old, natural landscapes gave rise to mass mechanization.  The construction of factories and larger cities was altering the terrain of the Western world, requiring the "Modern man" to adapt to a new setting for survival.  Steel mills would replace pastoral landscapes, and the oil and grime of major cities (such as London, which, during the Victorian Era, was just filthy) would blot out man's connection to the terra firma, nature, Mother Earth, and, in a way, God.  Technology, which the Romantics had feared would replace humanity, was completely overtaking Europe's socioeconomic culture by the latter half of the 19th century.  This and the 20th century were ages in which scientific innovation skyrocketed on an exponentially increasing "J"-curve scale—and these advancements still continue to soar to this day (don't they, Apple users).  Modernism arose from the tragic separation which philosophers distinguished between man and nature, the innocent and the corrupt, the morally upright and the morally obscure.  It was the developing philosophy of the time which took into account the tragic loss of the old Romanticism of rural, countryside utopias but accepted this new, highly industrialized urban metropolis as the present reality which mankind sadly but inevitably must learn to live in. 
The world was completely changing in an unprecedented way.  Scientific inventions that would forever revolutionize modern life were being produced at a mounting rate.  The typewriter, the telephone, the motion picture camera, the machine gun, the gramophone, the internal combustion engine, the automobile, Coca Cola—these are just a few of the discoveries introduced in the latter half of the 19th century, and with these physical innovations came the expanded philosophy of the Modern mind.  Paradigm shifts of unequivocal proportion were being published nearly every decade.  In 1859, Charles Darwin published Origin of Species; Gregor Mendel's studies on genetics were published the following decade; in 1873, James Clerk Maxwell published his treatise on electromagnetism; and at the end of the 1890s, Sigmund Freud's Interpretation of Dreams was published.  Western history was advancing at a rapid pace the likes of which had never before been witnessed.
The atmosphere brought on by all of these great advancements was decidedly less positive.  In the latter half of the 19th century, prostitution in England rose to an all-time high; cities all across Europe became dirtier; and crime increased.  The effects of industrialism, then, were not specific to the scientific community alone.  The entire scene of everyday life was changed, to the point of an almost unrecognizable world, and painting had to change along with it.  Modernism, then—and the word invokes such a broad meaning, infamously difficult to define; so we're not using it here so much in its most comprehensive sense as we are using it in the context of its relation to art and art history—Modernism grew from the need of the "Modern man" to assimilate to this new environment and re-assess, so to speak, the world around him.  Most outspokenly, the French poet Charles Baudelaire wrote on this subject of the changing Western world and the new rules that sort of needed to be "invented" in order to operate within its foreign structure.
In a significant essay for the history of art entitled The Painter of Modern Life, Baudelaire described the way in which art needed to change to match the speedily advancing times and rapidly increasing industrialization.  His was a new conception of what an artist should be, and to describe this new type of artist he coined the term flâneur.  Baudelaire defined a flâneur as a "man of the world," an observer who spends his time in the crowds and masses to get a feel for what people are really like and what the world is truly about.  This individual connects to his fellow humans, is popular among crowds—a man of the people—and he uses his observations of daily public life to arrive at both personal and universal truth.  The actual word in French indicates someone who strolls idly around; Baudelaire's flâneur does spend the majority of his time as a bystander or spectator among the multitudes, but he does so in a more philosophical sense, seeking larger insight about mankind.  Because nature has been engulfed by this late-Victorian industrialization, the new sector for the discovery of profound, universal truth lies in the city, the metropolitan circle, with the collective organism, la foule, which lives and breathes in as flighty and energetic a manner as the forces of nature themselves.  The effect of so many people in a single urban environment Baudelaire likened to a "kaleidoscope."  Baudelaire argued that a true artist could never become bored in the presence of people, since therein would be found all of his inspiration, interest, and insight in the world.  After all, life is always active, kinetic, moving forward in a constant immediacy that, if you don't pay attention and keep up with it, is gone in a flash.  Studying the old masters was well enough, but newer generations of painters, Baudelaire wrote, would do well to live in medias res and address their art to the contemporary issues of their own present environment.  Truth was now to be found in the moment, given that the constant of nature (remember Thomas Cole's Course of the Empire) had been done away with and replaced by this new, industrialized, Modern world.

Saturday, January 25, 2014

Realism (pt. 9)

Most scandalously he is regarded today as the first painter to create an explicit image of the female genitalia.  It was a private commission, not intended for exhibition at a salon—and it would have been instantly rejected anyway.  It's a small painting, very straightforward, and Courbet entitled it L'origine du monde (The Origin of the World).  By straightforward I mean that the image focuses solely on the subject from the chest down—there is no face to the female figure.  The body is lying on a bed of white sheets, and no other context for the setting is given.  Because of this, and because the woman has no face, this painting has been held in extreme controversy as a work not of art but of pornography.  Now, I don't really want to have the discussion of art vs. pornography right now because, frankly, it's going to hold us up from continuing on with the material (and that's what I'm interested in).  It's a discussion that perhaps must begin here and will be more fully realized later on as we continue to move through the timeline of art history, but it's a discussion that's still going on to this day.  And to avoid a brusque dismissal of this important debate, I don't want to simply quip about it now with my own opinion and then move on.  This is something we can go back to.  For now, however, I suppose there are one or two things that must be said immediately.
Courbet titled it L'origine du monde, indicating this as a statement or concept painting that invoked "the world" as its ideological or philosophical subject matter.  This enlarges the interpretations of the otherwise narrow-minded, explicit content of the image; there is latent meaning implied through its title, giving the painting additional, abstract qualities of subject matter in supplement to its visual elements.  Paintings have been conveying ideas for centuries; this is nothing new.  Michelangelo's Sistine Chapel fresco of The Creation of Adam conveyed ideas about the inadequacy of Renaissance humanism as a spiritual philosophy for its worldly focus on self ability.  Going back even further, medieval illustrations and sculptures used images to express ideas and tell stories about the life of Christ.  It is no exceptional thing, then, to argue that Courbet is here using an image to convey an intangible idea (or several ideas).  Perhaps most readily, a student of the artist's life work can distinguish a satirical approach to the Renaissance-era idealization of female nudes in mythological paintings of goddesses, such as Botticelli's Birth of Venus or Titian's Venus of Urbino, artwork in which nudity is validated merely by putting it in the context of mythology or spirituality.  Courbet, the Realist painter, no doubt wanted to show the female nude in a new light—the way it actually looks.  There is a truth-seeking sentiment behind that, someone who wants to paint the world for what it really is for the purpose of honest self-examination.  If people are all born from women, then, Courbet suggests, it is a valid subject to paint.  This is the world's "origin," a kind of mock-biblical Creation account of mankind's genesis; and, also like in Genesis, there is the element of temptation in the painting.  Eve as the temptress, the seducer of Adam, is perhaps the subject—or even the serpent, if you look at how Courbet paints the form of the subject's cylindrical body stretching down on the bed, almost snake-like, and if you consider the more animalistic side to not attaching a human face to this figure.  There are several potential interpretations of the form and structure to this complex painting, not just the obvious, smutty reading of it as cheap, base titillation.
Written into the sincerity of the work is the desire for human connection, intimacy of race, of self, and the nakedness of the soul.  The philosophy is that the nude is more identifiable, more quintessentially human, and more true; that it is the most honest image one can have of those often elusive and otherwise unfathomable bipeds, people.  This is not the same as the spiritual self-discovery practices of the nudists; artists like Courbet (at least in theory) intend to tap in to the broader relationship of all human beings, on a whole, transcendent of individual distinction and collective in common bond to the concept of the Oversoul, hoping to thereby attain some higher truth about mankind.  On the subject C. S. Lewis begs to contradict and writes:

Are we not our true selves when naked?  In a sense, no.  The word naked was originally a past participle; the naked man was the man who had undergone a process of naking, that is, stripping or peeling (you used the verb of nuts and fruit).  Time out of mind the naked man has seemed to our ancestors not the natural but the abnormal man; not the man who has abstained from dressing but the man who has been for some reason undressed.  And it is a simple fact—anyone can observe it at a men's bathing place—that nudity emphasises common humanity and soft-pedals what is individual.  In that way we are "more ourselves" when clothed.  By nudity the lovers cease to be solely John and Mary; the universal He and She are emphasised.  You could almost say they put on nakedness as a ceremonial robe—or as the costume for a charade.  For we must still be aware…of being serious in the wrong way. (The Four Loves. New York: Harcourt Brace Jovanovich, 1991. Print., p.104)

Although the context of Lewis's statements deal with real-world observation, not artistic expression, they nonetheless provide valid points crucial to the understanding of this abstract concept of Nudity as an artistic or real-world motif.
This painting was so scandalous that it was not put on public display until 1988, 122 years after its creation.  It was only officially bought by the Musée d'Orsay some twenty years ago, but it attracted a lot of attention most recently in early 2013, when an art collector proposed he had found, in a separate canvas of just a female head, the "missing piece" of the original painting.  The tv specials produced about the find were almost completely censored from showing Courbet's painting.  (As highly controversial as his art was then, there are paintings by Courbet which are still to this day censored by the FCC from appearing on broadcast television).
I don't want to make the distinction.  It is for you to decide what your opinion is on artworks such as this, whether they are truly "art" or simply pornography that has been promoted to look like art with a lot of high-academic pseudo-intellectual babble.  However, in order to offer educated and really well-founded thoughts to the discussion, it is critical to know what we are talking about when we label something as art and something as pornography, lest we find ourselves making hasty and ignorant judgments about something we know nothing about and have no business talking about.  Part of the reason we are examining such a broad and comprehensive timeline of art history is for the goal of better understanding, so that we can better tell what art is.  With a more educated approach to art, we are all more likely to be well prepared and well equipped to face such heavily debated questions as the art vs. pornography problem going on right now—and not make hasty generalizations.  The study of art can lead to more rational, educational, and profitable discussion, which I would welcome.  …There, that is where we must stop now in order to continue on with the material.  Our discussion on this topic is not over—there is more to be said; this is just a piece—but there will be time for that later.  Not to silence any readers who would flag me here and now—I welcome questions and comments of course, as always—but for now I'll just march on until somebody stops me.  Next we move on to Modernism…

Thursday, January 23, 2014

Realism (pt. 8)

Also, to answer his Romantic elders and contemporaries, Courbet sought to paint the subject of nature in a different light as well.  Similar to Joseph M. W. Turner, Gustave Courbet fixed his efforts in painting nature largely to painting the abstract qualities of nature, or at least, nature for how it really looked and was.  Many of the artist's portrayals of nature are of dark, barren, craggy, and precarious landscapes; he did not idealize a pastoral setting by making it appear perfectly beautiful, like the Romantics.  If a rock was covered in ugly and discolored moss, he painted the rock with the ugly, discolored moss.  Courbet is noted to have said, in direct response to the Romantic technique, "Monsieur Delacroix peint des anges.  Moi je ne peux pas en peindre, je n'en ai jamais vu!" (or, put another way, "Show me an angel, and I will paint one").  The artist argued to have only ever painted what he saw, not what he imagined or believed.  Therefore, his landscape paintings appear different from the idealization of the Romantic tradition.  They are beautiful paintings but more often of muddier streams or cloudier skies.

Wednesday, January 22, 2014

Realism (pt. 7)

Courbet's Stone Breakers is also another of the artist's great works that receives a lot of attention from critics and scholars today—perhaps more so due to the intrigue of its history.  Actually, it is considered as one of the foremost important staples of Realist art and probably even the most definitive example of Realism.
It is a painting of two simple laborers, poor men, wearing rags.  We cannot see the face of either, but one is an older man, one a younger.  Interestingly enough, Courbet has placed them in order, like a timeline.  Perhaps the second image is the boy grown up, or the future generation, all one man.  This faceless worker is forecasted to continue laboring as a poor man for the rest of his life, breaking up stones for railway constructions or whatever purpose.  As viewers we never learn who these two figures are, and we never see them for anything but the labor they are performing.  On Courbet's canvas, these two heads will be turned away from us forever, keeping us from ever knowing them; and that, the artist wanted to observe, is the neglect tolerated by the lower class.  Courbet wanted to loudly observe this, so he painted this unattractive scene on a humongous canvas, 5' x 8'.  During World War II, this painting was destroyed by the Nazis.
It's important to observe the shifting focus onto the lower class at this time as stemming largely from political movements, not just artistic ideas.  Art is mimicking the world around it, not the other way around.  With the 1848 revolutions taking place all over Europe it was no wonder that Realists turned to the subject matter of the common people; their voices were being heard then for the first time in such a public manner.  And around this time the ideas of class systems were being published, most notably by Karl Marx in his Communist Manifesto, produced in 1848.  Courbet began painting this work, The Stone Breakers, just a year after it was published.

Monday, January 20, 2014

Realism (pt. 6)

Perhaps the most prominent artist of the movement was Gustave Courbet, a French painter and radical political idealist.  He took the Realist attention toward the common man to its limits, insisting on using commoners for models in all of his paintings and dressing in ragged clothes himself wherever he went.  His paintings showed honest scenes of how people really behave, such as this image of the Burial at Ornans.
It is the funeral of an ordinary villager.  Unlike El Greco's Burial of Count Orgaz, there are no saints—only commoners—and each is carrying a different expression on his or her face.  The priest routinely reads; the gravedigger seems bored and impatient.  The women mourners don't look convincing, and no one in the painting notices the cross.  Everyone is looking elsewhere, distracted, hardly present at the scene at all.  None of the pallbearers even look at the body.  The sky itself is cloudy and monotonous, the background scenery, uninteresting.  It is quite a boring event, isn't it; and the people in the painting appear bored.  This burial is just another routine event, a regular phenomenon in human life; nothing sacred or majestic.  Courbet's Realism shows the nakedness of human emotions in all of their earthly lack of grandeur.  It may not be very satisfying, but it's true to humankind.  The reality of life, the artist shows, is that the human animal is not saintly, not always beautiful, and is easily distracted from his present surroundings.  This scene is indeed of a burial, but not a very holy one; it's just another death in the life of lower-class society.

Friday, January 17, 2014

Realism (pt. 5)

The crossover of styles can be seen in works like Rosa Bonheur's Horse Fair.  An incredibly talented artist, Bonheur painted stunning works that earned placement into the prestigious salon exhibitions when she was just 19 years old.  She combined Romanticism and Realism in her works and especially liked painting live animals.  The Horse Fair is a scene full of tension and excitement.  It shows a thrilling blend of movement, drama, and realistic composition.  Its subject matter takes from both the Romantic majesty of nature and the Realist depiction of ordinary individuals at a commonplace contemporary event.  Horse fairs were regular occasions in mid-19th century France.  Tradesmen, middle-class merchants, and simple spectators would gather for these marketing fairs.  Bonheur shows with her bold, rich paints the excitement and energy of these fairs and the animals featured in them.  Hers is a masterfully constructed painting that immediately draws our attention into the action of the scene.  The size of the canvas on which it was painted, too, may have something to do with the masterful splendor of such a painting.  This work of art is huge, measuring approximately 8' x 16'.

Thursday, January 16, 2014

Realism (pt. 4)

Homer's paintings are frequently poignant and thematically simplistic.  They lack the grandeur of Romanticism because artistic Realism moved more toward honest, uncomplicated renderings of the simple lives of ordinary people—not like Géricault.  This painting, entitled Fog Warning, is an exemplary model of Realism in art.
This is a very intriguing painting because Homer has here captured an interesting and instantaneous moment of time.  A lone fisherman at sea is rowing farther out after having already reeled in two promising catches already.  By the looks of the two fish in his boat, he is having a pretty good day at fishing so far, but all that is about to change in the flash of a glance.  He turns his head, perhaps at a sudden noise of thunder or else just out of sheer luck, and sees a mighty storm on the horizon.  The hurricane is fast approaching, and one unfortunate boat in the distance already appears in danger, a forewarning of destruction to anyone found too far out in these waters over the next few hours.  We can see, based on his posture, that the man in the boat is paddling out to sea, but once having seen the stormy clouds coming his way, he is about to turn around and row quickly back to shore.  The painting Homer created is of the split second before the fisherman turns his boat around, the moment when he looks and realizes that his time is up for that day; and he must start heading back to safety before it's too late.
The fisherman is a common individual; he is certainly no aristocrat or church deacon.  The painting is a model of Realist artistic theory for this reason.  We're just looking at a normal man, a fisherman, and there is both everything and nothing Romantic about that.  We see a symbol of the middle class in his actual profession and in his actual style of dress, yet we perhaps do not view a scene like this without remembering what other common men were simple fishermen before their lives turned around dramatically by one Man to becoming "fishers of men."  In that sense, you can find some small elements of Romanticism within some Realist works.

Wednesday, January 15, 2014

Realism (pt. 3)

With the rise of industrialism in the Victorian Age, art changed subject matters from the glorious to the ordinary.  The art movement known as Realism spawned from such a thematic turn.  Images of the common man and everyday life, as we saw with Thomas Eakins' The Gross Clinic become increasingly prevalent during this time.  Young artists in France started rejecting both Neoclassicism and Romanticism due to the industrial changes occurring all around them.  They focused on peasants, factory workers, and common scenes of otherwise insignificance.  This new art form, Realism, represented everyday scenes and events as they actually looked.
The American painter Winslow Homer was a Realist artist who tended to focus on marine landscapes.  In the aftermath of the American Civil War, Homer painted a thoughtful scene entitled Veteran in a New Field.
The person we see here is an ordinary man, not a revolutionary, aristocrat, or priest.  In fact, he is so ordinary that nothing of his features stand out to us, the viewers.  He's got his back turned to us, and we can't see his face.  We can tell, however, by his clothing and the labor which he is performing, that he is a lower-class individual, dressed in farmer's attire, reaping crops for the harvest.  The scene is a humble one, like Millet's The Angelus, but no hopeful, inspiring, spiritually encouraging church steeple can be seen on the horizon.  There is no horizon.  Our lone farm worker is lost in a seemingly endless field of tall crops, and we cannot see what lies ahead.  The unidentified character keeps his head down, focused on his melancholy work.  He's holding an old-fashioned scythe, which no doubt conjures images of another Reaper who famously holds a similar tool in his deadly grip.
After the profound loss of life the United States witnessed during its Civil War, paintings like this one by Homer brought a sentiment of somber reflectiveness on the past and solemn assessment of the future.  America was in a period of Reconstruction.  After the assassination of President Lincoln, the South was more harshly dealt with as far as reparation demands extended.  The nation was falling into a Gilded Age of financial corruption and economic instability that would, in jest of the national single-partisan political period of half a century earlier (the so-called Era of Good Feelings), later be nicknamed "The Era of Good Stealings."  But for the veteran, the common soldier who had witnessed the bloodiest conflict in American history, post-war assimilation was a much deeper matter than money.  Homer's painting of the "Veteran" carries weighty, psychological implications for the soldier returning from war to the home that will never be the same again.  The hacked crops sprawled out on the bottom half of the work make sober reference to the carnage seen in the war; the veteran farmer's feet are buried in it.  He has returned from the battlefield to a new field that is, in its own sense, no less full of death.  His scythe, as I mentioned, is a symbol of death, and the rising wall of crops blocking our vision ahead connotes an uncertain future for the common man living in America.  But perhaps what is most poignant about the scene with the veteran is that he is alone, unaccounted for, as veterans sadly so often have been over the course of U.S. history.  This common farmer's plight is the stuff of Realism and the uncovering of the middle class struggle in the art world in general.

Tuesday, January 14, 2014

Realism (pt. 2)

In 1839, something happened that would change art forever.  If you ask me, the invention of the camera probably marks the key turning point in the history of art.  When considering in our culture today more contemporary art forms, such as Modern Art, it's often difficult to understand how such a style could have evolved from the long line of artistic traditions seen in a study of Western art history.  One simple answer is that photography made painting obsolete; but that's not the full picture, is it.  In 1839, when Louis J. M. Daguerre devised a method of exposing light to a silver coated copper plate to make a photographic image, the art world did not immediately change.  Realism, though affected by the camera, was already in progress before the invention of the Daguerrotype; however, this landmark discovery would definitely have a most direct and primary effect on later art movements.
It's kind of funny and sad at the same time, but it wasn't long after the camera was invented that one of its major functions became the production of pornography; however, this invention carried far greater potential in areas less squalid.  The importance of such a discovery seemed to alter the historical flow of time.  News could be spread faster; images could capture scenes in more accurate ways than art.  Photography meant someone could "live" forever.  But as honest an image as the camera could provide, much of early photographic images were used for propaganda, very little different from art.  Photographs, among other things, were used to make careers, even political careers.
Matthew Brady was hired as Abraham Lincoln's official photographer similar to the way in which artists had been hired in the past as court painters.  Brady's objectives were the same as those earlier artists: to make his subject look good.  In this photograph of President Lincoln we see similar artistic techniques to Jacques-Louis David's portrait of Napoleon in His Study.  You will recall that, in that painting, Napoleon was made to look tall through use of vertical line.  This image does the same.  We have to look up and down across the entire height of the picture to completely appreciate the man's full stature.  A column in the background (placed in the same location as in David's painting) adds to this sense of vertical loftiness.  (And of course Honest Abe was rather a bit taller than Napoleon—haha, I just had an image of Lincoln on the basketball court with Bonaparte, making slam dunks over the little dictator and blocking every one of his shots—hehe…okay, back to the photograph).  Also in this portrait we see President Lincoln with a small stack of books on a table beside him, much as David painted Bonaparte in his study with a bunch of pamphlets and documents.  Lincoln's left hand rests on a Bible, demonstrating him to be a man of moral principles and honorable character.  You can see how even early photography was used for propaganda purposes.

Monday, January 13, 2014

Realism (pt. 1)

In the mid-19th century, Royal Academies in Paris and London held yearly exhibitions to encourage interest in the contemporary arts.  Academy members could showcase their art during these exhibitions, or salons, as they were called.  Salons were important social events where reputations were acquired.  Scientific inventions, art, new fashion design, and other creative works could gain worldwide notoriety through being featured in these exhibitions.  It was a kind of world's fair, and artists who were good enough to enter into the salons held the possibility of making a great amount of money in selling their paintings to patrons and visitors.  Contemporary European art now had its own quasi-exclusive club that acted like a stable home for its consistent production, development, and growth.
In 1834, the British House of Parliament building was destroyed in a fire and was consequently under reconstruction over the next four decades.  As you can imagine, it was quite a historic event.  To commemorate this event, the burning of Parliament, J. M. W. Turner exhibited paintings of the scene which he made from memory (Turner was an eye-witness to Parliament's destruction).  He chose to paint the scene in a blurred mass of sketchy brushstrokes, done stylistically in order to produce the effect of the smoky air on that day.  His painting did not contain much detail or photorealism, and it was in turn highly criticized by the Royal Academy.  And so now we begin to see how many famous artists started out as Royal Academy salon rejects.
It's easy to critique paintings like Turner's Burning of the Houses of Lords and Commons because it looks unrealistically and hastily fashioned.  Critics of the day would argue that this artist, because of his style, lacked the kind of higher-scale talent required to enter into the prestigious Royal Academy salons, but let us not forget that these painters were all Classically trained.  We have looked at this painting as well as Turner's Snow Storm image of a Steamboat off a Harbor's Mouth and perhaps have thought the artist's style unique enough, but a look at his earlier work will remove all doubt that he was not perfectly able to create photorealistic images on his canvas.  In paintings such as this, his first exhibited artwork, we see just how masterfully the artist's brushstrokes and color palate could envision a stunningly lifelike image of nature as it really appears.  Artists like J. M. W. Turner chose to paint in other styles for different reasons—to experiment with new ideas or to express inner emotions—not because they weren't able to paint Classically realistic forms.

Friday, January 10, 2014

The Romantic Era (pt. 19)

Romanticism brought out the heroism of Modern life.  As the middle class had entered into the limelight of artistic interest, the problem of otherwise boring subjects were met with passionately exaggerated imagery of chivalry, valor, and courage.  In an increasingly industrial age, when most of the English middle class's daily routine consisted of the highly regimented monotony of unskilled labor, the Romantic artist sought to instill a spirit of grandeur and adventure into the otherwise ordinary mundaneness of life.  And although there are some elements of Realism in these paintings (graphic imagery or more honest subject matter), it's setting a precedent of greater weight than what it depicts.  Everyday events brought out the dignity of the common man and the honor in basic human behavior.
So we see Thomas Eakins The Gross Clinic as a Romantic exemplar.  Here we see the dramatic lighting of Géricault's Raft of the Medusa translated into the very ordinary setting of a clinical auditorium.  The figures (probably medical students) sitting in the stands fall back into the darkness, and all light rains down on the doctor after whom the painting is named (no, it's not called "Gross" because he has blood on his fingers; the doctor's name was Gross).  He is the stateliest figure, a picture of stalwart authority and wisdom, unflinching, and wholly professional in demeanor.  One viewer sitting to the side, an older lady, shrinks back in alarm at the profuse amount of blood involved in the operation, but the brave doctor carries on with the procedure with unwavering fortitude.  His fellow staff members work diligently on the body being dissected, handling their responsibilities very seriously so as not to injure the patient—but also so as not to injure their professional standing with the doctor.  He is their boss; he is the future generation's instructor and model; and he is perhaps the savior of this patient's life.  Risen to such a level, we can but admire the dignity of this most honorable doctor who is lit from above with a most dramatic lighting, as from heaven itself.  Perhaps a saint, definitely a hero, and most clearly a man, this otherwise common Pennsylvanian doctor here becomes immortalized under the artistic style of Romantic painting.  Painted in 1875, this late Romantic painting is considered Thomas Eakins' masterpiece as well as a masterpiece of late Romantic and Realist art.

Thursday, January 9, 2014

The Romantic Era (pt. 18)

Turner became an oil landscape painter after practicing first as a watercolor painter.  We can see the influence it had on his oil paintings, which largely appear, well, watercolory (for lack of a better term).  He did not pay attention to nature in realistic detail—as in, focusing on all of the minutiae to create a more photorealistic-looking image—but rather focused on the effects that light and atmosphere have on the subject matter.  He used blurred forms and intense colors to create the effect of a scene, rather than the scene itself.  (In other words, according to his philosophy, a night scene would be painted almost completely black, even though that doesn't make for a very exciting painting to look at, because it is how one would see it in real life).  Understanding this, we can see why Turner would approach, say, a snowstorm in such a stylistic manner.
This is Turner's painting of a Steamboat off a Harbor's Mouth during a snowstorm.  In the style of the Dark Romantics tackling the darker side of Romantic life, this painting is Turner's view of nature at its most violent.  His brushstrokes are harsh and disarrayed to demonstrate the wildness of nature.  There is not much color, and yet have you ever seen a more dramatic painting?  The fierceness of Tuner's subject seems to scream out at us—but no doubt in muffled cries overwhelmed by the almighty gusts of this tempestuous wind here pictured.  In fact, we hardly do see a subject at all; I can't discern too much of the steamboat in the painting, can you?  We can kind of see the flagpole and the flag in the center there, but not much else.  All we see is wind, icy and hostile, overpowering…something: it's too distorted by the awesome power of the storm to tell exactly what.  Nature in this painting is anything but tame and tranquil; this is nature at its most precarious, threatening, and utterly inhospitable.  Therefore different ideologically from its Romantic counterparts, the painting nevertheless falls into the same Romantic category of classification for reasons of historicity and subject matter continuity.  Even so, we can see how this is unlike any other Romantic work of art that we have looked at.  The style in which it was painted, too, proves wholly unique upon inspection.
At first wholly unintelligible, this work presents a dizzying image of the effect a snowstorm would have on an environment and one's vision of it.  Instead of detail, the artist has used bold, sweeping color and light.  Even though we can see the flagpole of the steamboat in the center, this work does not look very real, does it?  That is because Turner was painting abstract things like speed, wind, and atmosphere instead of tangible things like rocks, trees, and animals.  In this way, these kinds of paintings by J. M. W. Turner were remarkably ahead of their time, before Impressionism and Abstract Art would adopt the same approach to art—to create a feeling of an environment, instead of a literal, snapshot image; and to try to paint abstract concepts onto the canvas alongside the real objects.  This is a critical shift in art.  Just look at the splashing paint on this canvas.  If I hadn't told you it was a snowstorm, would you have known what this was an image of?
Although I connected some of Turner's subject matter here with the literary movement of the Dark Romantics merely by marking similarities on their treatment of nature as a darker entity than typical Romantic artists would have, there is still little explicit material to inextricably link J. M. W. Turner with the Dark Romantic movement.  He lived his whole life as a student of Romanticism, and even today his artwork still continues to be read as Romantic in style.  He died on December 19, 1851, and is noted to have said, as his final words, "The sun is God."

Wednesday, January 8, 2014

The Romantic Era (pt. 17)

Nature has been idealized for a long time, hasn't it?  We've seen the near-apotheosis of it in Thomas Cole's Course of the Empire, and artists like John Constable painted landscapes that became instantly popular for their beauty and serenity.  Nature, as we discussed, was held in high regard during the Romantic Period (one has only to read Wordsworth, Blake, or Keats to understand that most clearly), but another characterization of nature sprouted around the same time; and this alternate approach was the work of a separate sect of rebellious writers and artists called the Dark Romantics.  The Dark Romantics (as their name suggests) approached the same Romantic subjects as their contemporaries—i.e., nature, the noble savage, and the dual concepts of both pastoral and ideological utopian perfection—but approached them in a darker manner.  Mary Shelley's Frankenstein perfectly exemplifies the style, for in the novel the "noble savage" concept is flipped into the genre of Gothic horror; it gets pushed to unsettling extremes.  Nathaniel Hawthorne, Edgar Allan Poe, and Herman Melville are among the most prolific writers of this movement.  Contrary to the beautiful paradise which the Romantics had made of nature, the Dark Romantics took a decidedly negative, but no less reverent view, of the natural world.  In Dark Romantic literature, nature is a scary and dangerous place, and mankind, whether bred in tranquil pastures or industrial mills, is a dark being, naturally corrupt, not to be trusted, and often evil to the core.  The subjects range from the immediately didactic to the tacitly creepy.  Poe's poem "The Raven" subtly disquiets readers with eerie portrayals of nature's cold-heartedness in the form of the mysterious, black raven, and Herman Melville's epic novel Moby-Dick depicts anything but the friendly side of nature.  Hawthorne's The Scarlet Letter takes a dark view of humanity's moral state in an otherwise pure, natural setting (the Puritan colonies of the New World, in which the story is set), and Robert Browning's poem "Porphyria's Lover" goes quite a step further in characterizing the heart of man in only the most horrific and disturbing light.  Some of this stuff is pretty creepy!  (Goya's later art would fit well here, I suppose).
All this to say, whether or not you would call this darker interpretation of nature and the human condition a more "realistic" worldview does not enter into the classification of these literary works as Romantic—they are Dark Romantic.  Likewise, art of this time period which produced a negative view of nature was perhaps in opposition to the ideological tenets of Romantic philosophy but was no less Romantic in subject matter.  Therefore, at least traditionally, it falls under the label of Romantic artwork.  However, I must stress again the reality that art forms blended heavily together during the mid-19th century.  Romantic art is sometimes more Realist in execution, and vice-versa.  So, I learned Joseph M. W. Turner's work as being a part of Romanticism, even though he painted nature in quite a different light; but be aware that his work draws heavily from the soon-to-be-established Realists, which we will see in the next section.

Tuesday, January 7, 2014

The Romantic Era (pt. 16)

As we get closer and closer to Modernism in art, a new wave of artistic style is developed called Realism.  The initial stages of Realist development in Western art history was concerned with exactly what you might think: depicting things realistically.  This is not the same as painting in the style of photorealism, which was simply a device for making images look three-dimensional and life-like.  The realistic elements of this type of art form dealt with a different worldview—not so much how one paints but what one paints.  The early Realists asserted themselves by choosing not to exclude a scene's more racy or ugly elements so that they might paint an accurate picture of the world as it truly is.  We will see this in a little while more as a shift in focus, from aristocratic to middle-class subject matter, from majestic Greco-Roman themes to images of everyday life.  One way to see it is to remember Géricault's Raft of the Medusa, in which the artist did not hold back from displaying the haggard and naked bodies of suffering men—not necessarily an image we want to see, but nonetheless an image that we can see is real.  (Of course, Géricault painted his scenes in a quintessentially Romantic way, as we saw; but the concepts for future Realist painters were set down in artworks such as that).  For now, however, the early forms of Realism combined with Romantic techniques in highly stylized images of Romantic subject matter, such as nature.

Monday, January 6, 2014

The Romantic Era (pt. 15)

Millet's masterpiece, entitled The Angelus, is another, much more highly Romanticized version of the same idea.  Here is a scene neither of revolution nor of war.  We're on a simple farm, looking at two humble peasants standing in prayer, alone in the fields at dusk.  In this landscape we actually do see a church steeple far off in the background, and I think you know why.  The Angelus depicts these two farm workers ideally, as humble and reverent saints, the man taking his hat off, the woman with her hands clasped as if in prayer, and both with their heads bowed.  This shows them to be devout people regardless of their poor economic status—maybe even more devout for being "poor in spirit."  The light also (as always) represents God's presence; and here it is dramatically painted with exaggerated tenebrism to stress the notion that His compassion descends even toward the lower class.  After all, the center focus of this painting is on their piety, not the church way off in the background.  This natural faith of the common man is idealized as the perfect form of Christianity.  Jean-François Millet is artistically associating nature, the lower class, and a simple farmer's faith with spiritual perfection.  We've come a long way from grandiose artwork of Greek gods and biblical heroes.  These two, simple, faceless workers are nothing less than the heroes of the Modern age, and their plain, agrarian landscape, the new stage for the great drama of life.
It's hard to look at this painting without feeling a sense of profundity for the scene taking place, despite (or probably because of) its humble setting and characters.  In some ways, a deeply spiritual lesson or moral from this "story" is almost inevitable, and it was for this reason that future generations would lash against such a work.  Artist Salvador Dalí satirized it with a mock-recreation of the scene in his own painting with the same title as Millet's work.  (When we get to Dalí—still a ways off—we will look at his painting).  The original painting, it can be argued, does not lend any praise to the lower class at all but instead undermines its supposedly favorable characterization of the poor through prescribing aristocratic traits onto otherwise ignoble figures.  This is very Anti-imperialist.  The feeling is that only by showing these two peasants as subservient to the doctrines of Western evangelicalism are they held to amount to any importance in society, in government, and in the world as a whole.  (In other words, Millet's Angelus has been considered offensive for trying to make the lower-class peasantry seem good only by bestowing aristocratic traits on them—essentially, painting a portrait of the upper-class merely in more ragged and rural settings).  Did it not seem a little ignorant and impious for Marie Antoinette to dress up and play in her cottage Le Petit Hameau, pretending to be a member of the lower class when, in reality, the lower class starved under her ineffective reign?  A similar charge is placed here.
This all stems back to the Enlightenment idea of the "noble savage."  Millet's Angelus is a portrait of the lower class made "more likable" (for lack of a better way to put it) by their religious piety.  Just who is such a painting in favor of?  In the late 1600s, British Restoration writer Aphra Behn published a novel which best demonstrates the point here.  In her novel, Oroonoko, the title character, a captive, black slave from Africa, revolts against the British and tries to reclaim the lost princess of his tribe and the love of his life, Imoinda.  Our protagonist slave, nicknamed Caesar in the story, fights barehanded against traitorous Africans, despicable white slave traders, and even a wild tiger.  He is nothing if not heroic; but was this novel really in favor of the black population and opposed to the slave trade?  If you read Oroonoko in its entirety, it is impossible not to notice the glorious way in which Aphra Behn describes her main character—particularly in such a way that makes the black slave seem more like a white aristocrat.  The idea of the "noble savage" gets first introduced just five paragraphs into the text, when the narrator describes her notion of "these people represent[ing] to me an absolute idea of the first state of innocence, before man knew how to sin."  Caesar is described as being well educated, highly anglicized, and "more civilized, according to the European mode"—hardly a "savage."  A description of him that presents him as especially white, written in shockingly racist language by today's standards, reads as follows:

He was pretty tall, but of a shape the most exact that can be fancied.  The most famous statuary could not form the figure of a man more admirably turned from head to foot.  His face was not of that brown, rusty black which most of that nation are, but a perfect ebony or polished jet.  His eyes were the most awful that could be seen, and very piercing, the white of 'em being like snow, as were his teeth.  His nose was rising and Roman, instead of African and flat; his mouth the finest shaped that could be seen, far from those great turned lips which are so natural to the rest of the Negroes.  The whole proportion and air of his face was so noble and exactly formed that, bating his color, there could be nothing in nature more beautiful, agreeable, and handsome.  There was no one grace wanting that bears the standard of true beauty. (Norton Anthology, p. 2317 – see citation at bottom)

So we see that there are some problems with the Enlightenment concept of the noble savage: a major one being that it became easy to simply impart aristocratic characteristics to the otherwise "savage" figure in order to make him noble.  Individual, natural nobility, then, cannot be shown to exist independently of cultural upbringing, as the Enlightenment philosophers purported to argue.  There is a fundamental flaw.  What we think is characterization of the savage is in fact disseminated aristocracy—another kind of Versailles role-playing, dress-up game.  Likewise, Millet's Angelus is disputed for inaccurately portraying the lower class as an altogether civilized, Christian, and humbly subservient class of Western society.  It is aristocrats and kings, after all, who like to see peasants the way Millet paints them: with their heads bowed.
Did I explain that properly?  Probably not.  At any rate, we are quite out on a limb here and need to get back to the art.  I bring this up to reference the rising debate over British imperialism at this time that will peak at the turn of the century and inspire artists and writers to, perhaps for the first time, honestly assess the situation of racism in Western culture.  One of the ultimate literary attacks on imperialism would be published by Joseph Conrad in 1899, the novella Heart of Darkness (another book containing highly controversial language thought today to be too racist for some schools in the US and which has consequently earned a place in the American Library Association's list of top banned books of the 20th century).

Greenblatt, Stephen, ed. The Norton Anthology of English Literature. Comp. M. H. Abrams. 9th ed. Vol. C. New York: W.W. Norton, 2012. Print.

Friday, January 3, 2014

The Romantic Era (pt. 14)

If it's heroes taking the stage of mid-19th century Romantic paintings, then the Industrial Revolution saw the entrance of a new kind of hero.  With an increased labor force in England, the rise of the middle class was quickly underway.  As industry grew, so did the number of factory and mill workers; and as their visibility in the public sector grew, so did their socioeconomic influence, culminating in Parliament's passage of the Reform Bill of 1832.  This bill allowed for a wider range of suffrage to more middle-class towns and forever changed British government.  But this was not simply a political movement; the revolution was also an ideological one.  Behind the rise of the middle class we should see the influence of Romantic philosophy, established under the groundwork of earlier Enlightenment thought.  If nature's holiness could be transmuted to the people who freely lived within it, then a higher view of the agrarian farmer, the middle-class worker out in the fields, certainly is in order.  Separate from the corrosive influence of society, common workers like these Gleaners became a more highly regarded emblem of ideological and spiritual perfection.
The tranquility of nature is meant to be communicated here, very much like the landscape paintings of John Constable and Thomas Cole.  And look how artist Jean-François Millet paints this scene: using soft colors and smooth brushstrokes.  Never mind that the work of gleaning in harvesting fields is hard and exhaustive labor, the scene is affectionately painted because of its closeness with nature—that is its theme.  This painting (produced in 1857) crosses the art history timeline also, much as I said David's work could be considered alternately Romantic and Neoclassical.  For its depiction of the middle class, Millet's Gleaners is sometimes categorized under the Realist Period of art, but, again, with these crossovers it's hard to strictly define a work of art coming out of the 19th century.

Thursday, January 2, 2014

The Romantic Era (pt. 13)

Not only were landscape paintings being produced in America, the world's frontier land, but the country's stable political system was realized by many (Americans, mostly) to have risen to such exemplary standards as to become a model for other countries to follow.  During the 1848 revolutions in Europe, German American painter Emanuel Leutze thought to hearken back to the nation's "founding fathers" for inspiration and ideological clarity.  He needed look no further than the nation's first president, George Washington, who had, during his presidency, almost instantly become a public hero and national icon.  This well-known painting of Washington Crossing the Delaware, painted in 1851, demonstrated the epitome of the Romantic art style.
The nationalism of Delacroix's Liberty Leading the People is visible here.  (The American flag is placed almost directly in the center of the painting).  And Washington himself is given quite a noble image.  Clad patriotically in red, white, blue, and gold, he looks onward fearlessly to the awaiting battle ahead.  This painting is notoriously inaccurate historically, but what did we say about propaganda?  This is not about the truth; this is about emotional reaction; this is about an idea.  Here Washington is seen as a hero.  There is perhaps much in this painting to compare to Jacques-Louis David's painting of Napoleon Crossing the Alps, but I would not necessarily call this propaganda (after Washington's political campaign had already ended half a century ago).  The heroes which are made through propaganda are made as such in order to promote a cause, but Romanticism famously creates heroes merely for the sake of heroism (but I suppose you could argue that that's still a cause).  And paintings like this were meant to inspire and remind us that, no matter under what banner or in what place, land or sea, heroes still exist, modeled after great men like this, who uphold those ideals that are universally and always right.