Friday, May 30, 2014

Post-Impressionism (pt. 6)

And here is where we arrive at Vincent Van Gogh.  A Dutch Impressionist painter who later moved to France, Van Gogh did not begin his career as an immediately distinguishable painter.  His early work mimics the traditional techniques of Realist artistic style, and this we can see in paintings like The Potato Eaters.
Though definitely stylized and uniquely drawn, the painting nevertheless borrows from established conventions of art theory which were still popular at that time.  The subject matter is of peasants (very Realist), and they are painted under dim light, similar to Millet's painting of The Angelus.  They are, however, characterized by a new, unrealistic look.  Van Gogh has almost drawn caricatures instead of real people.  The poor crowd around the table appear shabbily drawn, humbly undefined, and simple.  Through this technique the artist gives a statement about the Dutch lower class and how such a people were viewed by society.  This approach to subject matter is typical of Impressionism, as we have seen (such as in the works of Toulouse-Lautrec).  And the light overhead connotes God's presence with these humble folk, again very much taking from traditions of Realism and Millet.  Yet there is a boldness to the brush, isn't there?  Paint is almost scratched onto the canvas here.  The scene is painted quickly, according to Impressionist practice, but instead of a light, airy snapshot of some ephemeral moment, this scene feels heavy.  The dark colors are dense and vivid.  If Impressionism was about the study of light, then already Van Gogh here is demonstrating a level of rebellion in his own art style.
This was the early work of the artist.  His paintings are rich in color, but nowhere near the excessive overabundance which would appear in his later work.  One or two hues would suffice for his artwork, and they were always dark.  This is how he decided to paint the peasants of his Dutch home, with moody and dark overtones and a humble suppression of photorealism or image clarity in order to effect caricatures or impressions of his subject matter.  This is Impressionism, but rather dark Impressionism (if there is such a thing).  It was the artist's move to Paris that inspired his style to explode into a completely new form of art that would forever change the dynamics of art history.

Wednesday, May 28, 2014

Post-Impressionism (pt. 5)

Taking plein air painting to new extremes, Gauguin sought exotic locations in which to paint, looking for the perfect "paradise" to depict in his artwork.  This infused his art with vibrant colors far from the soft pastels of the Impressionists.  Everything seemed brighter and more strikingly vivid in the South Seas, Martinique, and Tahiti: crimson rocks, gold trees, and violet hills—so different from the industrial mire of London and the other Modern cities which had defected from their pastoral purity and been turned into colorless, characterless metropolises.  But hints of the old Romantic atmosphere could be found in the exotic locations of French Polynesia (among other places).
Met in these places by not just color and atmosphere, Gauguin found operating within this new hemisphere an entirely new culture and an apparent simplicity of life (noble savage).  When the artist went to Tahiti, it changed his style and his art.  He instantly took to painting the natives and depicting them in their environment and their culture.  Since everything in their exotic location was so full of color, and since he found their culture so rich in Romantic purity, the artist painted his Tahiti scenes with utterly vivid colors—some of the most vivid ever to enter into the history of Western art.  His canvases are resplendent with color, but even this was not enough.  The enchanting experience of living within this quixotic environment became Gauguin's subject matter, in all of its magnificence and profundity.  His paintings became about the wonder of exotic Tahiti and the poignancy of life among the native peoples.  He would start with subject matter (such as portraits of the natives) and then "shut his eyes in order to see."  This visionary approach resulted in such famous products as this painting of a scene By the Sea (Fatata te Miti, as it is titled), from 1892.
In this work of art, the painter is not concerned with creating a real sense of space but focuses on flat, colorful shapes and contour lines.  Gauguin simplified the shapes he observed as part of his technique to convey the uncomplicated purity of this society.  We can hardly tell where we are in this painting, only gleaning impressions of flowers, plants, and wavy water lines.  The rich colors depict Gauguin's image of an earthly paradise, utterly unique from anything our minds could have imagined.  And yet within this wondrous world are still some familiar elements of brooding uncertainty.  The horizon line atop the far right-hand corner of the work fades into the distance, undefined, and gradually growing darker.  The farthest figure out in the water is a hunter with a spear, carrying with him the notions of killing and mortality.  The woman diving into the water toward the middle of the work seems to be more falling forward than purposely diving in.  She stumbles ahead into the future and will eventually fall into the water to be buried under its surface (again, symbolic of death).  Even within such a wonderland, Paul Gauguin found some ancient and grim truths sneaking onto the scene like a snake in the grass, and these more philosophical concepts fueled much of his later Symbolist artwork.

Tuesday, May 27, 2014

Post-Impressionism (pt. 4)

Paul Gauguin exhibited as an Impressionist before moving on to his own style.  Unsatisfied with Impressionism as it currently stood, he began work on developing new ideas inspired by the Japanese woodblock prints which had been so inspiring to his contemporaries, finding within them not merely a lack of spatial construct but a cultural tone of symbolic significance.  He saw that the way in which something was painted communicated ideas about that thing, and that through art painters possessed greater liberties in communicating with an audience because they could not only paint selected scenes and items but could paint them stylistically.  In effort to push Impressionism forward, then, Gauguin joined the artistic school of the Symbolists.  Symbolism was, essentially, the artistic theory that art could, given its unique medium for creative expression, and should, given artists' higher calling to record truth around them, concern itself chiefly with the representation of intangible truths and ideas that could be expressed in no other ways.  To put it in terms of an example, no other medium could, theoretically, put an image to the abstract quintessence of, say, love or sorrow.  A painting could, in effect, record such a thing.  These artworks could be symbols of the immaterial aspects of everyday life in the way that Impressionism was about recording visually the scenes of everyday life among the multitude.  These paintings, therefore, frequently show angels or representative beings like Death, Wisdom, et cetera (just what Courbet promised he would never paint).
With these motivations, then, Paul Gauguin painted The Yellow Christ, a totally new look at an old topic: the Crucifixion.  We can see immediately that the artist has painted this scene in a wholly untraditional light.  It has been stripped of its realism and painted with the simplicity of cartoon imagery.  What's more, the scene itself appears toned down, and the thematic material, softened up.  Never has the Crucifixion looked so pacified and tame.  There is no blood in the painting, and Christ's crown of thorns is noticeably missing.  The expression on Jesus' face seems to be one of calm relaxation, not excruciating agony.  Golgotha, the place of our Lord's death, has here been changed to a peaceful, pastoral setting, filled with rich, red autumn trees (which, by the way, form hearts).  And replacing the mocking crowd of jeering spectators is a group of humble nuns who quietly accept the scene with some passivity.  Some people are offended by this painting.  It almost looks sacrilegious.  Just what is the artist doing here?
As a Symbolist, Gauguin painted the qualities of ideology attached to a subject matter within a painting of that subject.  When considering the sufferings of Christ on the cross he thought of the widely instituted religious connotations that such a scene had come to signify in his contemporary culture; that Christ's Passion was an expression of His love, and that His death was a gift bringing peace and redemption to those who would put their faith in Him—(haven't researched Gauguin's personal religious beliefs, so don't misinterpret me; this is a staple of broader Christendom at that time, not necessarily his own convictions).  Therefore, the death of Christ represents something sweet to the Believer, something in which he can take comfort and look to with fondness—(and, by the way, these ideas are not expressive of my own beliefs either, let it be clearly noted).  Through Symbolist style, then, the artist sought to re-imagine the Crucifixion in the way people tended to think of it, or respond to it: with sentimentalism.  That is why it does not appear realistic.  The intensity of the colors (their brightness and purity) is exaggerated because the event has so starkly continued on into the Modern world in its telling and retelling, losing (allegedly) its accuracy over the years and entering into the category of traditional folklore or childlike faith, rather than splendorous revelation of profound truth, like the Renaissance artists portrayed it as.  Everything is moderated here.  Do you remember Grunewald's depiction of the Crucifixion?  Compare that to this, and the difference goes beyond black-and-white extremes.  Religion, however, had grown to become the societal institution for moral order and peaceable courtesy.  In the Victorian Age, a "good Christian man" came to mean a well-behaved, genteel man of upstanding character and reputation; it was something respectable, temperate, and nice, so no wonder this Symbolist representation of the Christian faith is painted with such gentleness and pleasantness of form.  Christ's love, forgiveness of sin, reconciliation with God the Father are all positive things; so why paint a Crucifixion scene that's depressing, violent, and austere?  (These are some of the notions of the Symbolist art theory behind this painting).

Saturday, May 24, 2014

Post-Impressionism (pt. 3)

In pursuit of the best method for painting the object in its honest, physical bulk, Paul Cézanne turned to a technique that simplified surface areas of space into compartmentalized sections of color and brushwork.  Cézanne painted small cubes of color that distinguished different textural planes of an object's outward surface.  Through thickness of paint and changes in the direction of the brushstrokes, he could delineate the subtle alterations of an object's mass.  This may sound complex, but in fact the artist was trying to formulate a less complicated way to paint the three-dimensional by narrowing down the focus onto specific qualities of mass, volume, and external surface texture.  These ideas later became the foundational inspiration for Cubism; and there they are perhaps more readily explicable.  For now we can see examples of what Cézanne is doing in his Mont Saint-Victoire series.
This is just one of a series of paintings the artist made of a mountain in southern France.  Cézanne painted it 60 times.  With a closer look at the artist's brushwork, we can detect his method for blocks of color.  The mountain is painted in chunks, with altering directions of brushstrokes wherever the mountain surface has changed.  This is also true of the valley around it.  Trees, bushes, and flatland have all been compartmentalized into chunks of color and consistent paintbrush movement.  This breaks down (almost mathematically) the three-dimensionality of the scene and therefore better translates it to the flat canvas of the artist.  In theory, this was the problem which Cézanne was attempting to solve with his techniques, but it simultaneously lessened the realism of his works.  He was more concerned with conveying the ideas behind a certain aspect of the object than in painting realistically an entire scene.  This, too, was a form of Impressionism; but the Post-Impressionists took the physicality of Impressionism (its emphasis on the visual world, on sunlight and atmosphere) to new levels.

Wednesday, May 21, 2014

Post-Impressionism (pt. 2)

Through still lifes the artist was allowed to paint the same subjects over and over to perfect his work.  Cézanne did not even begin to seriously paint figures and landscapes until later on in his career.  His still life paintings were a way in which he could perfect his craft and develop his style.  Again, like the Impressionists, we see an emphasis here on the technique of painting, not necessarily the artistic inspiration of a particular subject matter or theme.  Artists in the Modern Era are redefining paintings, and this lends an objectivity to their work.  No great Classical scene is being shown here; no important person or significant biblical scene—not even an implied moral message—is being shown here.  Cézanne's Still Life is simply a study of fruits, bottles, and tablecloths.  The artist, nevertheless, famously said, "Je veux conquérir Paris avec une pomme" ("With an apple I will astonish Paris").  In this Still Life we see a peppermint bottle, glass carafe, and empty wine cup along with various fruits on the tablecloth of a mostly hidden table.  The cloth appears massive as it falls off the table and swirls around the objects.  The whites and blues of the wall, bottles, and tablecloth all generate a cool temperature of color within the painting, but Cézanne wants us to look at the fruit; these he has painted with vivid reds and yellows that instantly attract our eyes.  The artist has painted these so starkly in order to communicate their sense of mass and volume to the viewer.  The tablecloth, after all, is flat (or would actually be if it were lain out straight, instead of bunched up on the table), and so is the wall in the background.  These objects are therefore not as "full" as the fruit.  The glasses on the table are empty (through one we can even see another fruit behind it).  The only items in this still life which bear weight, either literal or figurative in this case, are the apples, peaches, tomatoes, and lemons, because they have mass and are fully three-dimensional objects of space and volume.  They are solid.  So the artist gives them rich colors to define their presence in the scene.  And don't they look stunning?

Monday, May 19, 2014

Post-Impressionism (pt. 1)

The French art movement that immediately followed Impressionism still regarded light and its effects on color; in addition, the most influential artists of this developing Post-Impressionist style, such as Paul Cézanne, Vincent Van Gogh, and Paul Gauguin, wanted more intense color and stronger forms.  This is the type of art we see during the late 1880s and 1890s in Paris—and Paris was the art center of the world.  In continuation of the artistic theories of Impressionism and then of the preceding generation, we begin this period with a look at the works of Paul Cézanne.
Cézanne believed that Impressionist paintings lacked form, solidity, and structure.  The wispiness of their brushstrokes did not definitively convey an object as the chosen center of focus, and the scenic layout of their works threw away a convention which Cézanne thought necessary to keep for art's sake: structured order and strategic placement of objects (like a still life).  His goal was to make "something solid, like the art of museums."  So he painted arranged objects, rather than painting them as he found them.  This approach was not too realistic, then, but Cézanne did not mind constructing a fake structure around the image so as to better depict the object.  He discarded anything that he felt was unnecessary.
In this still life painting, he has arranged four skulls in a pyramid-like fashion, not as they would naturally appear in the real world.  He has moved them onto a tabletop or some other surface (the artist doesn't delineate) and intentionally placed them in this construction, a fake layout, quite different from the candid images of Impressionist art.  The Impressionists sought to make observations about the natural world through art, so artists like Renoir and Monet painted scenes as their eye saw them, not always containing formatted structure or clarity.  Cézanne's art took greater liberties with rearrangement and alterations from the natural forms of objects in order to better narrow in on the painter's own objective, which, in Cézanne's case, was to focus on depicting the object itself.  The circumstances around the object and the object's own placement within an environment didn't matter—after all, this was art.
This is why his early still life paintings don't look realistic.  The artist was willing to sacrifice realism in order for certain objects to appear solid and heavy.  It was part of his devotion to the object; that it had to be depicted in as comprehensive a manner as possible for art.  And arguably the most daunting aspect of any object when contextualized in a painting is its mass and three-dimensionality.  So Cézanne would brush up his canvases with thick strokes of paint to convey the thickness of an object's volume.  Up close, this style appears flat, but when you stand back the items in these paintings take on a solid, semi-3D form.  This technique better delves into the nature of the object, as opposed to the effects of light or atmosphere on the object's appearance, and therefore (theoretically) gives a better impression of that object's true essence.

Saturday, May 17, 2014

Impressionism (pt. 33)

This painting is titled L'Étoile (The Star).  We see a lone ballerina on the stage, the stage lighting shining brilliantly onto her and her performance.  She is en pointe, balancing gracefully on one leg and maintaining a majestic pose.  There are flowers on her white dress; her ribbon flows out from her extended neck; and she wears a crown atop her head.  She bends her head back and closes her eyes in sweet triumph at the success of her performance (perhaps the audience is clapping for this young star at this moment), and her rosy cheeks blush with the satisfaction of accomplishment.  She almost could be a star, ascending to the heavens with her great feats of physical strength and perfected gracefulness.  Maybe in this moment she feels, like a star, on top of the world, but one glance to the left and we can see, hiding behind the curtain, a foreboding, black figure standing calmly and watchfully to the side of all the action.  This is the young dancer's patron.  His is the world of violent brushstrokes and threatening forms, as seen in the stylistic upper-left-hand section of the painting.  The stage curtains are painted frenziedly, and that whole side of the painting seems to be inching toward the sanctity of the star's glowing brilliance.  The lines bear down over her and seek to engulf her.  This is the reality behind this radiant performer.  Soon her act will be done, and she will have to go back to her controlling male patron.  She is most likely, in reality, a prostitute—his prostitute (this was the reality of the ballerina business during the late 1800s).  Her life is probably actually quite far from being so bright off the stage, but here, for this brief moment of time she can break free from all of that in a dance that will elevate her to stardom.  So she closes her eyes and dances away in happiness; but it is all farce, for a haunting and inescapable reality awaits just behind the curtain.  For late 19th century female performers, this was the unfortunate reality, and Degas tapped into it with an almost obsessive devotion.  Symbolic of the industrial dystopia created under Victorianism, a star such as this would have been snuffed out behind the smoke and exhaust of steel factories and mills during this time.  An overall negativity and hopeless cynicism developed in writers and artists as Modernism developed into an established philosophy.  Artists like the Impressionists approached the Turn of the Century with doubt and pessimism for the coming millennium.  There was a gloom that seemed to pervade over the future.

Wednesday, May 14, 2014

Impressionism (pt. 32)

Ballerinas were Degas' favorite subjects (alongside horses).  The majority of his paintings depict scenes of ballerinas.  But Edgar Degas painted them, like Monet painting the haystacks, at different times and from different perspectives.  Performing, rehearsing, dressing, resting—he effectively catalogued the life of a late 19th century ballerina with his exhaustive artwork on the subject.  In sketches he would practice drawing the female form in all of the various complex poses into which ballerinas contort themselves during their performances, and he would then use these illustrations to help him in creating his paintings.  His finished paintings of ballerinas are quite spectacular.
Painted, like Toulouse-Lautrec's art, with various mediums, including oils, pastels, chalk, and other materials, and contrived, like many of the Impressionist artists, with quick, imprecise brushstrokes to convey the sense of movement and vivacity of the scene, Degas' ballerina paintings appear cloudy and indistinct, no matter the situational subject matter.  Whether tying their shoes or performing the great stunt of their show before the audience, these dancers are painted as candidly as possible by the artist.  The frequency with which he painted them perhaps reminds us of Claude Monet's thirty canvases devoted to the façade of the Rouen Cathedral and how his art of Impressionism was based on craft.  Here, similarly, the artist paints and repaints scenes of a single subject matter to develop a comprehensive image or understanding of something (in this case, ballerinas).  Through craft, the artist can perfect his technique, and through technique the artist can craft his art.  The subject matter is almost superfluous to the medium, and yet Degas' preoccupation with ballerinas bears more ties to the Impressionist philosophy of art than might be ascertained at first glance.
Of course Degas participates in the Modern practice of being a flâneur when he observes the lives, both personal and public, of ballerinas, but as an artist choosing a specific subject matter to zero in and focus on, he is distinguishing himself stylistically through his subject choice.  Whereas Monet applied his talents both to people and water lilies, church buildings and haystacks, Degas is more selective, and it is because he can narrow in on a microcosm by doing so.  His ballerina series show not just the world of stage performers of the latter half of the 19th century; it portrays on a more subliminal level the condition of women in the late Victorian Age.  Most ballerinas at this time were young, orphaned girls who acquired employment and pay only via the patronage of older men, men who would often require sexual favors from these helpless minors.  Many of them were in fact hired as prostitutes alongside their dancing careers, and Degas would have known this quite well.  We see evidence of the fact in his paintings when a tall, dark, male figure standing along the sidelines of the scene, looming, ominous, menacing.  Painted more as eerie ghost-like figures than as responsible theater owners, these men remain in the shadows, concealed and anonymous, but their presence pervades each of Degas' works with an undeniable aura of haunting disquiet.  Suddenly the ballerinas become an object of our sympathy not just for the long, thankless hours spent in exhausting physical strain but for their very situational states.  But the pathos to their condition is presented here with more sarcasm and social critique than poignant sincerity.  These subjects are sad, and the artist wants to present them with the object of generating sympathy in the heart of the viewer; but also Degas took pleasure in criticizing the establishment, mocking the hypocrisy of Victorian society's supposed "domesticity" and propriety.  Artists like Edgar Degas made it their mission to expose the darker side of the Modern scene through paintings such as these.

Tuesday, May 13, 2014

Impressionism (pt. 31)

Degas also took interest in drawing and sculpting, which distinguished him from other Impressionists.  He was concerned with the line, form, and movement of the human body, particularly the female body.  After his death, dozens of wax and clay models were found lying around his studio that demonstrated the artist's devotion to detail in depicting the female body.  The statuettes were all of the female figure in various poses, and these were Degas' form of practicing his craft for a painting he was going to make.  Since the artist gradually went blind toward the end of his life, sculpture reinforced his methods in a physical way that he could continue even on into his old age.  It was rare, however, that the artist should publically submit a sculpture of his to a salon exhibition, but in the case of The Little Dancer we have an exception.
Here we see a young ballerina dancer who, according to the sculpture's title, is "aged fourteen."  The sculpture is unique for, among other reasons, its adornment; Degas has creatively dressed the little dancer in a bodice, skirt, and hair ribbon.  In the case of her shoes, the bronze has been tinted.  The girl is standing in her finishing pose, with her head held up high and proud upon the completion of her set.  Her arms are folded back gracefully, and one foot steps out forward in decisiveness.  Everything about her demeanor implies success, and yet the art critics of the 1881 Paris Salon were less than impressed, complaining that the dancer was ugly and comparable with a monkey.  This was not the image of a pretty ballerina they wanted, but for Degas, sculpting her facial features and body figure the way he did was a form of Realism, about getting as accurate as possible to the way people really look.

Monday, May 12, 2014

Impressionism (pt. 30)

Even though Edgar Degas never considered himself an Impressionist, his art was inevitably categorized under that very label.  He, too, was influenced by photography and the Modernist perspective on art theory, of the painter of Modern life as the observer of the world around him and a man among the crowd.  His paintings contain cutoff figures, unusual points of view, and candid poses, as with this work of his, called The Glass of Absinthe.
This painting leads your eye on a tour of its subject material.  The objects on the table closest to you are out of focus, being nearest to our point of view.  A newspaper connects two tables, and then across another table are two figures: a sad, lonely woman lost in thought and a man preoccupied with something outside of the frame of the painting.  Here, again, are two total strangers who Degas simply observes as a part of the scene of everyday Modern life through his artistic role as a flâneur, and the scene is decidedly less than positive.  Painted in bleak browns and sickly yellows, this artwork conveys a general disenchantment and disgust with the conditions of Modern life.  Perhaps this is the precise attitude of the woman who stares so glumly into space with a wine glass before her on the table.  Absinthe is a kind of alcoholic beverage popular to that time which was believed to cause hallucinations.  This woman appears driven to it out of disappointment or discouragement.  You can just picture the hopelessness in her eyes.  Among the common sentiments of the late Victorian Age was a feeling of being washed out onto the new world stage of industrialism; there were many who turned to alcoholism and drug use.  Here the artist is showcasing that world in a scathing exposé which could be read either as a moral warning against the negative effects of substance abuse or as a critical indictment on an industrial world culture which would drive women such as this poor lady here to partake in strong drink.

Saturday, May 10, 2014

Impressionism (pt. 29)

Within the artwork of Henri Toulouse-Lautrec—his canvas paintings more than his drawings and prints—is a thoughtfulness and poignant reflection, like we saw with Manet's Bar at the Folies-Bergère.  The vibrancy and immediacy of the world around us plays a chief role in Impressionist works of art, but it is almost as if the art also balances out against such ephemeralness and materialism.  The painting, after all, brings us out of the world and into a captured idea or a frozen moment in time, causing us to stop and consider life from a different angle, the world from a different perspective.  Modernist art inspired this approach, and Impressionist art fully embraced it as the new style of painting.  We saw it in the paintings of Berthe Morisot, who chose to pause from the busyness of daily life and observe a woman preparing to leave for a party or a man looking out the window for a brief moment.  These images are painted with an energy of quick and kinetic brushstrokes, dynamically chaotic lines, and vividly brilliant colors (recall Renoir's painting of the Moulin de la Galette), but their thematic content is often (though not always) decidedly less active or participatory within the moment.  Artists as flâneurs witness these scenes as onlookers and bystanders on the side or in the back.  It's as if we are looking through a keyhole at a candid image of the world as frozen in time—and some sense of it communicates almost like a Dutch still life painting, doesn't it?  The themes of life's transience certainly appear here as well.  Monet's plein air painting showed the brevity, irregularity, and unpredictability of sunlight on a subject as simple as haystacks.  The Modern world appeared to be transitioning a little too fast, and the Impressionists, though seeking to capture all the propulsion and movement in their sketchy and unclear style of brushwork, sought also to capture the poignancy, even the sadness, of such a world.  For this reason we see paintings being made of prostitutes and drunkards, like Manet's bartender at the Folies-Bergère.  It's to communicate pathos to the viewer.  The occupation of a flâneur, after all, in seeking truth among the crowds of the Modern urban metropolis frequently led to profound observations of the human condition.  We saw a mother staring thoughtfully at her sleeping baby; we saw a man sitting on a stone, contemplating Hell; we saw a young girl two years after the death of her father and just months before the death of her mother, which would leave her an orphan.  These have all been poignant images of remarkable pathos, and they tell us a lot about the ideology of the Impressionist approach to art and of its similarities to the genre of still life paintings.
Though I'm not going to go as far as to say Impressionism was directly inspired by Dutch still life artwork, the same thematic elements seem to (either coincidentally or otherwise) be at play here as well.  This is an oil painting by Toulouse-Lautrec which he painted on cardboard instead of the traditional fabric canvas.  The effect is that it appears very flat and very sketchy in a dry kind of way, almost like a bad watercolor painting.  It is of a Red-Headed Woman in the Garden of Monsieur Forêt (the garden was actually a public park that had been nicknamed such).  The verdant greens of the foliage have been painted with energetic rapidity and electric fervor.  They are lush leaves conveyed in the painting as chaotic splotches and dabs of color speckled and slashed across the canvas.  The whole scene appears to be moving, growing, progressing—but the artist has painted a woman rising into the center of the frame, wearing a blue dress that counterbalances the luscious energy of the bright greens around her.  She appears calm, statuesque, still.  We see her from an awkward angle, from the left side and partially from the back.  We can only see one arm and the outline of one breast, utterly symbolic of her femininity, which we almost need in order to recognize her, since she's nearly fully turned away from us.  The bosom outline helps declare in an expressive voice that she is a woman, but so does the other, starker component of this painting: her hair.  This unidentified woman's hair is a dazzling, bright honey color, red-orange and vibrant.  This contradicts the subtlety and mellowness of her soft-blue dress, but neither does it blend with the lively greens around her.  The red exceeds them all.  It is the area on the canvas which, if you ever have the opportunity of seeing the actual painting in person, is the most immediately startling and captivating aspect of the work.  And it's been done up, but part of it falls gently down.  Her bangs hang loose, and one or two other locks break away from the neatly arranged order in a fashion that conveys a kind of candor to the scene; that we're seeing her at a moment when she is perhaps not looking her best.  The way her hair hangs down also mirrors perfectly the way it so vividly leaps from the canvas surface itself, uncontainable.  Her red-headed hair certainly stands out as a radiant and fiery expression of something altogether incredible in this woman's nature, be it her sheer physicality and femininity or her character and deeper spirit, but even though it so fascinatingly glows bright from the painting, it is muted is it not?  There is the blue of her dress, a much subtler, softer, and more subdued color that appears to almost be at war with the passionate, intense red of her hair.  But apart from her clothes and her hair, where does the woman herself stand?—in between.  Her face is turned from us so that we can only see the side of her.  She is looking downward, either tranquilly (and in accord with her humble outfit) or full of emotion (and in accord with her stunningly expressive hair).  She looks sad.  Amid all the greenery and energetic life around her, she stands like a raincloud in the middle of a sunny day, and her inner turmoil is just as thunderous and powerful.  Here the artist has painted the image of a woman conflicted within herself, hidden between blue and orange (total opposites on the color wheel); and the conflict is epic and dramatic, is it not?  I mean, this nameless woman suddenly breathes symbolic of an entire generation of conflict, the Victorian Age of contradiction.  This is the face of the Modern individual, singled out, female, obscured from full view.  What is this woman's story?  Why does she look so sad?  We'll never know.  Inasmuch as the painting appears hastily completed and the brushstrokes therein look unfinished, so this woman's history remains a mystery; and the world plunges into the Modern Era never fully grasping what hit it and never knowing why but only pausing briefly, momentarily reflective of the loss for a fleeting second that, with a glance, vanishes and is gone.

Thursday, May 8, 2014

Impressionism (pt. 28)

Art Nouveau, just as an added note, developed around the 1890s and into the beginning of the 20th century as more than just an art style; it was kind of more like a way of living.  The movement was really more akin to overall fashion, and the ideological implications of its development go far beyond what studies of paintings can describe.  Inspired by the comprehensive look and feel and lifestyle-to-art approach of Japonism and Bohemianism (gypsy-like culture), Art Nouveau may have found its roots in art theory, but it quickly extended to much broader genres and mediums within everyday life, including: sculpture, architecture, furniture, jewelry, ceramics, textiles, clothing, and on and on.  A person's entire life, from the interior design of his house to the fashion of his clothes, could operate within this broad and eclectic style of…art/fashion/culture—it's difficult to label.  It grew to becoming an international phenomenon, and in my opinion the feel of Art Nouveau continues on to this day.  We can discuss its impact in contemporary culture as we move along, but right now I won't delve too much into it because we need to remain focused on Impressionism and where it will lead us in the history of Western art.

Tuesday, May 6, 2014

Impressionism (pt. 27)

When wandering among the crowd of the Parisian night life, performing the duties of a flâneur, one will almost certainly be bound to run into some strange people.  This is true of contemporary times, and it was true back in the 1880s and 1890s.  You stepped into a strange environment (or at least, what seemed strange) when walking into a night club within the less reputable districts of the city, and as the given painter of Modern life, the artist must portray this side to society as well as the more commonly seen subjects.  Henri Toulouse-Lautrec was just such a figure.  Standing at just four and a half feet tall, Toulouse-Lautrec was a midget whose physical disabilities inspired him to seek a career in art.  But his art tapped into a newly developing style that would eventually break away from Impressionism and extend to Post-Impressionism and Art Nouveau.  His art style took inspiration from the Modern art theories of Charles Baudelaire and Édouard Manet and further implemented influences from Japonism and Bohemianism in addition to the established Impressionistic approaches to subject matter.  He was another one of the artists who adopted the flâneur lifestyle, and it took him to places like the Moulin Rouge in Paris.
Prostitutes, criminals, freaks—a host of odd characters would flock to these night clubs and brothels where Toulouse-Lautrec spent his time observing the people and environment around him for his art.  The late Victorian brothels and pleasure houses were strange places indeed.  Here one could be introduced to new phenomena of Modern life, to drunkenness, prostitution, gambling, lesbianism, drug use, crime, and no telling what else.  This had grown to become a staple part of public society by the late 1800s, and artists like Toulouse-Lautrec were among the first to publish on a blatantly open and deliberate level graphic images of these aspects to Modern society, his observations as a flâneur.  And he found a level of honesty within the society of alcoholics, scoundrels, and whores, and he also discovered a world of constant energy and variability.  (A character in Dostoevsky expresses it in his confession: "I like the public, even the cancan public.")  The sociology of this sect of the public breathed fashion, commercialism, and an independent style of etiquette and patois all its own.  This inspired Toulouse-Lautrec to paint his canvases with a vibrant style that was outspokenly distinctive and unique.  He often drew with pastels and chalk in addition to oil paints, and instead of traditional canvases he frequently chose to use paper or cardboard.  His art is about style, the style to convey the manner of characters he portrays.
In this painting of the Moulin Rouge (a newly opened cabaret that the artist frequented) Toulouse-Lautrec characterizes his subjects through his style.  Wavy lines convey a sense of erraticism that describes each of the figures' often vibrant and changeable personalities.  Scribbled and undefined lines and outlines express the people's ambivalent personalities and natures.  They are painted stylistically because these people are all about style.  Their expensive frock coats and ornate hats which communicated to the fashion of their time was now a chief element the artist needed to convey through his medium.  How else does one paint style except stylistically?  In relaying his observations as a flâneur Toulouse-Lautrec had to develop a style that matched the stylishness of the people he observed.  This is the Impressionistic approach he took to his subject matter, and because his adopted techniques became so stylistic, his art quickly began to deviate from realism.
This was, after all, a bizarre world of strange people and peculiar places.  Here the artist has painted the Moulin Rouge with warm golds and cozy browns to communicate the warmth and perhaps stuffiness of the crowded nightclub, but he has also contrasted that with muddy greens and murky turquoises to make the place seem slightly less inviting.  A circle of friends and acquaintances sits around a table, each as uniquely distinguishing as the next.  Some have been given richly colored faces, some sickly colored faces, and some pale.  And notice the woman walking toward us in the immediate foreground on the right.  She is one of the cabaret performers.  Toulouse-Lautrec has given her face a ghastly appearance, being characterized most bizarrely and almost unsettlingly by the lighting of the nightclub.  She looks green and quite menacingly alien.  Her presence seems to convey the notion that we're not in Kansas anymore (maybe because she vaguely resembles the Wicked Witch of the West—ha!) and that we are entering a mysterious and strange world when we walk around the crowd of the Modern metropolitan sphere as artists, flâneurs, or even simply as ordinary people.  The artist has painted himself at the far right of the table, the man sitting in profile, wearing the top hat, a fitting addition to this scene of social oddballs, strangers, and freaks.  But Toulouse-Lautrec, the midget, appears comfortable within the scene; he identifies with this crowd.

Monday, May 5, 2014

Impressionism (pt. 26)

The artist's most famous painting is probably this one, titled The Boating Party.  It was done during a summer vacation Cassatt spent on the French Riviera.
The curves of the boat and the sail lead your eye to the center of interest: the mother and child.  The oarsman's gaze is directed toward this very center, and we also see the mother and child clearly, while everything else is out of focus.  We see them at eye-level, as if we're sitting in the boat, too, behind the oarsman.  The vibrancy of the almost neon colors in the painting infuse the work with an energy that we as the viewers don't know how to respond to.  Thank goodness for the calm mother, sitting tranquilly with her content baby in the center of the frame, to provide balance and softness to the subject matter.  They are the redeeming light of all the electric chaos occurring along the water and throughout the wind on such a bright day (the wind must be noticeably strong; the sail is full).  And they balance out the impending figure of the darkly-dressed oarsman, who, with his back to us and face partially covered, looks slightly foreboding and unsafe.  He sits in a wild pose, bracing his right leg against the sitting board in front of him and stretching his arms far out in order to row.  He is holding on tight, being rocked to and fro by the unsteady movements of the boat; but notice how calmly and straight the mother and child sit (well, the mother, at least; I suppose the same cannot be said for the child).  The mother is tall and erect, in a stately pose of grace and refinement.  For such a high horizon line, too, Cassatt has painted the mother as the only figure in the painting who stretches over all planes (the tip of her hat touches the sky).
If Modern painters were looking through candid images of everyday life to better paint the world around them and try to reconnect with the world now overrun by industrial Modernism, then certain paintings like this can be seen as new interpretations of traditional ideas.  The mother and child, though not of themselves communicating any inherently religious message within the painting, nevertheless convey the latent reference to Raphael-style paintings of the Madonna and Child (which we looked at during the Italian Renaissance).  The Modern mother figure looks quite different, as well as the babe, but there is still red in her dress.

Sunday, May 4, 2014

Impressionism (pt. 25)

Mary Cassatt studied in both the U.S. and Paris.  She gained notoriety at Impressionist exhibitions and became famous as the first female American painter of significant international acclaim.  She was greatly influenced by Degas' work.  Most of her works are of peaceful scenes of mothers and their children.  We can recall Morisot's The Cradle in works by Cassatt such as this one, entitled The Child's Bath.  Once again, this is women's Realism of the late 19th century; that women were called upon chiefly as mothers and "angels of the house," and that was all they knew.  With the rise of women's activist committees, however, and eventually the suffragette movement, women would gradually gain admittance outside of the home and—really launching into effect during the Second World War—the workplace, as well.  For now, however, Mary Cassatt turned to the personal realism of her own life to depict subjects of motherhood and quiet, homely life.  You can see in this painting the flatness of the image as inspired by popular Japanese woodblock prints of the time.  The candid scene of this tender but largely insignificant moment (unless you want to read into "the washing of one's feet," but I don't know that I would) also draws back on influences of photography and Modern artistic subject matter.

Friday, May 2, 2014

Impressionism (pt. 24)

Photography also played a major role in influencing painters' techniques at this time.  The camera showed candid views of people that were thought to convey more truth than the modeling and artistic poses of paintings.  Photography itself became a kind of art form (and is still today, as we all know), and the Impressionists were influenced by this new art of photography.  Morisot was impacted by these more candid approaches to subject matter and used this to inspire her paintings like The Woman at Her Toilette, which displays a woman from the back who is still fixing her hair and makeup (few images are more candid than that).  Camerawork and camera technique also inspired the artist Gustave Caillebotte to generate in his artwork a new kind of Impressionistic realism.
The influence of photography as well as of the style of Japanese prints is seen in one of his most famous paintings, called Paris Street, Rainy Day.  It shows the everyday scene of pedestrians crossing a wide boulevard in Paris on a rainy day, but it shows them with a sense of realism the likes of which no painter had ever conveyed before.  For starters, there is no center of the painting, and the linear perspective trails off in not one but two vanishing points.  We have been looking at the tradition of one-point linear perspective in art ever since the early frescos of the Italian Renaissance (most notably, Masaccio's Holy Trinity), but in this painting here we see two vanishing points, receding on opposite sides of the horizon line.  Two-point linear perspective looks a little something like this.
Back in the 1860s, there was no such thing as a snapshot photograph; cameras weren't that fast yet.  The only clarity to come through early photographs was in staged portraits and still images.  A busy street such as this one would never have turned out well in a photograph during this time period; the people would have appeared blurry and indiscernible because they were too rapidly in motion.  This is the reason for much of Monet's and Morisot's lack of detailed clarity in their works: that the objects they were painting were constantly moving or changing.  But by the mid 1870s, faster and more portable cameras began being produced (and a decade later the Kodak company would be launched to make the camera a more widely-available product to the general public).  A man named Richard Maddox had introduced a new, innovative way to utilize dry plates for exposure in 1871.  This not only allowed for more convenience in photographic production, it paved the way for more readily accessible photography and, in a few years, faster pictures—eventually, the snapshot.  Here Caillebotte has painted an image of considerable clarity in this painting, almost as if the figures in the scene were not moving at all but standing perfectly still, frozen in time.  This image acts as a kind of snapshot but it also relates to early camera functions in a different way.  The artist has focused on a few characters in the middle ground of the scene, much like the lens of a camera.  The couple walking toward us in the close foreground of the painting's right-hand side appear just barely indistinct, while figures nearer the building in the distance on the left-hand side are totally vague and imprecise.  Only are a few, select persons painted with crystal-clear edges and sharp lines, and they appear in between the foreground and background.  We see this in the cobblestone street pavement as well; that as we go farther back into the distance of the scene, the delineations of individual cobblestones disappear altogether.  The overall backdrop of this work is clouded in a kind of haziness that is not just due to the rainy weather being shown; Caillebotte is making reference to a camera's ability to focus on different objects within its aperture.  In this painting, figures walk in and out of focus within the complex aperture of the painter's own eye (a kind of camera lens).  I think that the concept of photographic focus works metaphorically in this painting as well to suggest a comparison between art and pictures.  While the cameras of this time period progressed in innovations leading to faster times for developing images, Caillebotte's own "image" here took several months to complete.  His is, nevertheless, meant to be viewed as a kind of picture-painting, mimicking the functions of a camera and associating the artist with "photorealism" of a different kind.
Also within this pseudo-photographic image is the idea of candid views of normal, everyday life.  It goes beyond that we're looking at a painting entirely composed just of people walking; even the placement of the people throughout the scene is meant to convey a kind of Realism of subject matter, trying to come as close as possible to an accurate image of real life in the Modern world.  Figures are sprawled out here and there, in evidently random order.  Three people are bunched up close on the right half of the painting, while the left half remains quite spacious and open; but then, behind those right-hand three, is a huge gap of people, too.  A carriage goes by which we can't see entirely.  Many people's faces are hid under umbrellas or turned in a different direction.  Nobody is looking at us, the viewer (with one only vaguely possible exception).  The man on the right has his back to us and is even cut off from the frame.  This scattering of figures is meant to show the candid realism of photography, and Caillebotte makes the note that deviates from Monet and Morisot: namely, that even within a moment's freeze of time (like a snapshot) a world of complexity and minute detail thrives therein.  Morisot's Reader was about to move on from her book, and that inspired the artist to paint her subject matter with quick brushstrokes and overall hasty construction.  Here Caillebotte recognizes that these people are all in motion and that there is energy flowing through each and every one of their actions; but within a closer (or more focused) look at the quickly spinning world around him, the artist found new clarity and distinctness on which to focus his paintbrush like the lens of a camera.