Wednesday, April 30, 2014

Impressionism (pt. 23)

As I mentioned before, the Impressionist theory of art became increasingly more about the technical and stylistic approaches to painting as a craft.  After Manet established the realization of painting on a flat canvas, artists moved to focusing on technique and the method of creating artwork, not necessarily the art itself.  Subject matters were subservient to the medium and style in which they were presented.  Artists grew very specific with their approach to painting.  Particularly among the more specified art styles during the Impressionist period was Pointillism, a technique devised by Georges Seurat.  Seurat studied color theory and the physical qualities of light.  Since light exists in particles, he sought to depict light in small dots of color (this is why it's called Pointillism).  He would literally dab tiny points of oil paint onto the canvas, one at a time, and by this method, very, very gradually—painfully gradually—he would produce a complete work.  Most impressive of his Pointillist artworks is his painting of a Sunday Afternoon at La Grande Jatte, which measures nearly 7' x 10'.
It shows what would seem to be a normal Impressionistic subject of a common scene with ordinary people.  All are reclining casually on the beach of a small island in the Seine River near Paris.  The title alludes to the idea that this is a Sunday afternoon, a weekend day when people are relaxing and lounging around town.  There should be nothing formal about it.  And we've seen works by Renoir and Morisot, who painted their subjects with quick, messy brushstrokes to convey the constant motion and energy of a scene.  Here there is plenty of motion: boats are traveling along the river; children are playing on the grass; couples are taking a stroll; one man is playing a trumpet.  But Seurat has painted his figures quite stiffly, with straight lines and uniform placement in accordance with each other.  The majority of figures are paired or grouped in trois.  The ones standing are standing very tall and straight.  The ones sitting, though more relaxed in their poise, appear just as strictly geometric.  The man's top hat on the left is perfectly straight.  The woman's whole body on the right stands perfectly erect.  Look how straight Seurat has painted her.  This is quite different from Morisot's style of choppy brushwork.  Seurat has instead painted his figures ideally, geometrically, even perfectly.  He does so because his painting is not about the subjects; it is about his medium of painting, his style.  Through Pointillism, Georges Seurat hoped to adopt literally the most perfect approach to painting—by dabbing a canvas with paint one square centimeter at a time.  This painstaking process was about creating an ideal model of art technique; therefore, the figures appear idealized because this is a painting which employs that technique.  Think of it this way.  If the artist is the one showing us the world through the lens of his artistic style, then the entire world would look perfect through the lens of the artist with a perfect style.  The figures in Sunday Afternoon at La Grande Jatte appear so rigid and symmetrical because the style was rigid, and Seurat creates an idealized image of them all because his Pointillist approach to art was intended to become the ideal style of art.  So you see that the subject matter has been molded to fit the medium and stylistic approach of the art in which it appears.  But here the artist has not conveyed a practical meaning which relates back to the subject matter (as the stylistic approach to light on subject matter in Monet's paintings related back to the light on the actual subject matter); instead he has created an image based purely off of conceptual art theory.  This painting is an ideology of art; and though art does reflect back on the real world, this painting ultimately is about conveying its own technical significance and has in fact very little to do with the subject matter of the island beach, the people, or anything else depicted here, for that matter.

Saturday, April 26, 2014

Impressionism (pt. 22)

One other such painting is titled La Lecture (Reading).  We see a young girl sitting quietly, reading a book.  Not even this relatively uneventful subject matter receives clear detail, for it, the artist comments, is going to end just as quickly as the other busy scenes did.  Either she is going to get up, or we, the viewers, are going to move on in a matter of seconds.  We only get a flashing glimpse of it as the image which our quickly shifting eyes would gather in the moment.  This approach perhaps more than the others (which we're about to look at) defines how we view Impressionism today—as an image capturing a moment, the impression of something we felt, experienced, and is now gone.  Berthe Morisot's artwork, though largely overlooked until after her death at age 54, effectively marked the consummation of this style.

Friday, April 25, 2014

Impressionism (pt. 21)

Morisot's style of Impressionism also built on the brevity of scenes and the need for paintings to display what the eye sees over what the mind knows is there.  This portrait of her husband, Eugène, on the Isle of Wight demonstrates how she used very quick, choppy brushstrokes to identify a scene as transitory and short-lived.  Here we see Eugène pausing to look out a window at the seaside view outside.  Ships are out on the water, gliding along on errands each of their own personal importance, and a woman and little girl are just barely discernible along the walkway.  The scene will pass away in a moment—the little girl and woman will leave; the ships will move away; and the man at the window will turn back to his daily tasks.  It's as if Morisot is only catching an instantaneous, fuzzy glimpse of it.  That is why she paints it with such roughness and deformity.  She knows how she could paint all of these subjects realistically, but when she sees them in her daily life they are always moving too fast to get a clear picture.  Details are (forgive the pun) thrown out the window in this painting.

Wednesday, April 23, 2014

Impressionism (pt. 20)

Arguably the artist's most famous work, this painting, called The Cradle, is another one of Morisot's quiet and humble domestic scenes of ordinary, daily life.
I think there is a profundity here that speaks for itself.  All you mothers out there will instantly know this kind of scene and feel intimately acquainted with what thoughts could be going on in the mind of the woman on the left, who leans over the cradle and gazes into the face of her sleeping child.  Several decades later, in the wake of the Modernist period of literary history, James Joyce famously wrote that "whatever else is unsure in this stinking dunghill of a world a mother's love is not."
Like The Woman at Her Toilette, this, too, pictures a societal function of women; that they exist in everyday life as mothers, even to a degree that it defines them.  This is also a part of the domestic side to Modern life.  This woman here bends down over her baby's bed and very gently holds onto a bit of fabric near the child's feet.  In her other hand she rests her cheek in thoughtful muse.  Her face is not one of an angel.  Folds of her hair stream down somewhat untidily, and her eyelids droop nearly three-quarters of the way closed.  She is likely exhausted or perhaps even impatient about something.  But she stares at her baby with the face of one lost in meditation and reverie.  The sleepless mind of a mother's care.  But the artist has painted a veil over the infant, creating a strong diagonal line across the center of the canvas, splitting mother and child.  The baby is obscured from clear view and alone behind the protective covering—not even its mother lay inside with it.  Perhaps this is the embodiment of the generation gap and the parent's knowledge that ultimately the child will move on from him or her.  Definitely in the latter half of the Victorian Age there was an increasing lack of hope for the future generation, and we can see some of that in this painting, in the mother's almost unhappy eyes.  But the child's asleep and wrapped up in its own, private, safe world for now (in "The Cradle," which the painting's title describes); and it has its mother standing by ready to provide for it at a moment's notice.  Her dress even has a low cut in the front to imply her readiness as a mother to provide that most maternal service for her child (breast feeding is implied) at any time.  In our study of art history, this is definitely another one of the most profound images to look at and ponder.

Saturday, April 12, 2014

Impressionism (pt. 19)

Berthe Morisot liked to focus more on portraits and interior scenes.  In this painting, The Sisters, two young women who are dressed identically sit on a sofa.  They are almost exactly alike.  They are perhaps at home, and this couch which they're sitting on is maybe in some small antechamber.  They lower their gaze shyly and hold their pose patiently, as if waiting for something.  Morisot liked to paint scenes which she herself saw in her own everyday life.  Quiet, domestic scenes like this painting of The Sisters is typical of her work, since she sought to find the Modernist vision of Realist subject matter within the smaller but probably better known world of home life and private life.

Wednesday, April 9, 2014

Impressionism (pt. 18)

Morisot's paintings are not involved with the great multitudes, as were Manet's and Renoir's.  Her quiet scenes of women's more private lives take rather a large step away from the observations of the metropolitan crowd and instead take on the task of viewing and defining the Modern world through the microcosm of personal life.  Here is a painting of A Woman at Her Toilette.
In a way, this painting is connected to the bustling, party scenes of Manet's paintings because this woman is likely preparing to go to such an outing in the imminent future.  What we see, instead of the actual social gathering, are the few minutes before she goes out, when she is in front of her mirror, preparing her makeup and fixing her hair and so on.  It's showing the life of the crowd before entering into the crowd (if that makes sense)—in other words, that this, too, is part of socializing.  This is every bit a part of the Parisian social life as is sitting at the table of a restaurant or walking along sidewalks of a boulevard.  By observing this aspect of "society," then, the artist is still acting as a flâneur in this case.  When considered in this light, this painting's themes (of fashion, popularity, etc.) are the same as those in the Modernist depictions of the Parisian public.  This painting's unfinished look also implies the eagerness with which the woman gets herself ready for the occasion; that it is a brusque few moments in front of the mirror before she dashes out to avoid being late for the party.  On the table to the side of the mirror is an assortment of objects spaced out to look almost like a still life, foreshadowing the emptiness of her room when she leaves in just a few minutes.

Tuesday, April 8, 2014

Impressionism (pt. 17)

Berthe Morisot was the great-granddaughter of Fragonard.  In the Louvre, where she studied art, she met and soon became close friends with Édouard Manet.  For a long time she was a student of Manet, and eventually she went on to marry Manet's brother Eugène.  Her initial similarity in style to Édouard Manet's art appears in works like this still life of a Tureen and Apple, completed in 1877.
She paints her objects flat and very upfront on the canvas, and she uses very quick, featherlike brushstrokes to convey subjects with delicate levity.  Here it is just objects, but Morisot frequently liked to paint scenes in the lives of women.  Her approach to art technique imitated Manet, but her approach to subject matter differed greatly.

Sunday, April 6, 2014

Impressionism (pt. 16)

The Thinker (Le Penseur) is probably the artist's most famous work—and certainly also his most parodied work.
Actually, Rodin's Thinker was originally made for a specific topic.  He is contemplating Hell.  Originally part of Rodin's larger sculpted scene entitled The Gates of Hell, the statue has since been singled out, separated from its context, and taken today to merely represent a generalized symbol of philosophy.  But Rodin originally intended the work to focus on this specific issue, and an added element of proof for that lies in the figure's nudity.  The Thinker is nude in reference back to the Renaissance works of Michelangelo to hearken back to the more religious subject matter of artwork from that time period.  The nudity of this sculpture and Rodin's other sculptures also hearkens back to Classical traditions of Hellenistic pathos.  The Impressionistic edge to works such as this is to be found in the emotional impact they are meant to have on the viewer.  When we see this man in deep thought we are meant to likewise be inspired to think about the problem of Hell.  In that sense, Rodin conveys the idea of his subject matter almost more than he sculpts an actual figure.  The nude man could be anybody; it doesn't matter.  What matters is the latent subject of what he is mulling over in his head, and we get a feel for (or an impression of) the profundity of his thoughts by looking at the seriousness of his facial expression, the tension within his muscular body, and his weighty pose as he rests upon a formless slab of stone.  His head seems to rest heavy on his knuckles because his thoughts rest heavy on his mind and on his heart.  It's fun to parody The Thinker, and I certainly enjoy a good laugh; but at the end of the day, when considering its subject, the subject of Hell, this work of art sits heavy on my mind as well.  We ought all to fall sober at the contemplation of Hell—I know I do.

Saturday, April 5, 2014

Impressionism (pt. 15)

His Burghers of Calais is among his famous artworks.  The sculpture commemorates an event from the city of Calais' medieval past.  Six men came to the King of England (Edward III) in 1341 to offer their own lives to save their French city from destruction against the English invaders.  They came with nooses around their necks, knowing that they would be executed.  Although their deaths would save Calais, these burghers aren't pictured here as stalwart heroes but rather as ordinary people, vexed with understandably profound emotion at the prospect of dying.
They each have differing emotions on their impending doom.  One buries his head in his hands while another looks sad.  One tries to keep a bold face on but meanwhile clenches his fists tightly in unconcealable anxiety.  Their act of bravery was superhuman, but their emotions at the event are pictured here as completely human.  This is an end to the artistic depiction of the steadfast appearance of heroes within the face of adversity, as we've seen since, like, the beginning.  Now the artist wants to show us the real, honest side to human emotion.  And these brave men were not figures of nobility or rank; they were humble burghers who volunteered out of duty, not because they necessarily felt very strong in that moment.  Their emotion-ridden faces and gestures here create a powerful image of profound realism.  Rodin also placed his life-size figures on an open slab of bronze that was intended to be put at ground level.  The work was meant to be viewed up close (for viewers to walk up to it and around it) to remind people of the boundless capacity for love and self-sacrifice.

Friday, April 4, 2014

Impressionism (pt. 14)

Like the Impressionists, the French sculptor Auguste Rodin captured moments in time.  The sculpture of Impressionist style translates the same artistic theories to the three-dimensional.  Very much similar to the way in which Impressionist painters would dot their canvases with paint, Impressionist sculptors, like Rodin, produced uneven surfaces with added pieces, applied bit by bit.  Life's fleeting moments were thematically portrayed here, too.
Here we see the artist's envisioning of the Prodigal Son.  Not to mention the figure's passionate gestures and upward-stretching body, the way light and shadow play over the uneven surface of the figure gives it life and vitality.  This sculpture is rich in energy, movement, and emotion.  Rodin intended to express joy and sorrow and pain.  The prodigal son, with head and arms reaching upward, is a powerful image.  His wealth and self-esteem gone, at the edge of despair, he pleads for forgiveness.  Here the artist's vision of pain and desperation is so effective that, like the father to whom the son pleads, you, the viewer, are moved to show forgiveness.
This is not a contemporary subject, so it feels out of place with the other Modernist works we have been looking at so far.  Rodin's Impressionistic style characterized his sculpting technique and the way in which he wanted to portray his figures, but it did not spread into his subject matter.  Although he did sculpt relatively contemporary images, such as his homage piece dedicated to Balzac, finished approximately forty years after the famous French writer's death, most of Rodin's works deal in past, Classical, or philosophical subjects.