Monday, June 30, 2014

Cubism (pt. 1)

Separate from the Expressionists were the Cubists, who reinforced structured ideals of art theory.  Their notions of style spawned largely from the earlier works of Cézanne, who sought to better paint the object in its three-dimensional fullness.  Plagued by this problem of remaining flat on a canvas, painters sought to bring out their subjects' mass and volume through stylized brushwork and technical approaches to perspective, color, and form.  This was a discipline of art that focused on the theoretical aspects of constructing images.  Although artists such as Picasso echoed the freedom of artists like Van Gogh, the Cubists employed their unorthodox techniques for the sake of their subject matter and larger art theory on a whole.  Cubism itself was merely a style of painting which artists could use to try to show all sides of a three-dimensional object on a flat surface.
In order to accomplish this transference (from real life to the painter's canvas, let's say), shapes had to be broken up and then reassembled.  Imagine drawing a cube, an object with six surfaces or sides.  One would have to flatten the cube, breaking apart corners, in order to show the full picture.  Similarly, then, artists broke apart their subjects and tried to view them purely geometrically when contemplating how best to paint them.  Flowers, a landscape, imaginative material—even people had to be "disassembled" first, and we see that clearly in Picasso's portrait of Vollard, 1910.
The artist has almost dissected the man, and the chunks are laid out on the canvas to give the full picture of him.  Realism need no longer be worried about, for this painting is trying to achieve an effect, like Impressionism.  Painting here has become a science of experimentation.  Here, colors are not realistic; browns, grays, and drab hues are used to convey an almost rudimentary, black-and-white image (except for his colorful face) of this man.  Compare this to the patchy brushwork of Paul Cézanne, who, you will remember, painted the Mont Saint-Victoire in sections or chunks.  Cubism, seeking to break down both the subject matter (the object) and the technique (art itself), adopted this new stylistic approach to painting that became the staple fashion of artists like Georges Braque and Pablo Picasso.
Picasso is of course the most famous Cubist painter.  He became famous for his painting and collages and later extended his abilities to sculpture.  From a very early age, this Spanish painter showed the signs of sheer talent.  His paintings from the 1890s displayed a level of incredible realism that quickly distinguished him in the art world.  But Picasso chose to deviate from the realist style.  He wanted his art to be about something more than mere aesthetic traditionalism; his notions of Cubist art theory launched the artist into a creative period of experimentation and stylistic development that launched the careers of one of the most successful and well-known artists in Western art history.

Saturday, June 28, 2014

Expressionism (pt. 7)

German Expressionism would become famous for bellicose intensity in depicting bleak and often violent subject matter.  Alongside Germany's entrance into the First World War, this heightened emotionalism permeates geopolitical meaning, but the style of art continually draws back onto the artist, who is personally expressing him or herself through art.
Käthe Kollwitz painted, illustrated, and sculpted works of art that conveyed profound human emotion.  These works expressed the feelings of much of the population during wartime, but they also communicated subjects which were very personal to the artist.  She lost her son to the war and fell into a deep depression.  Death and the Mother is today considered one of her most famous lithographs conveying her personal sense of loss.
Again very primal, like Munch's The Scream, Death and the Mother is a simple etching of a crude woman, unclothed, holding a baby to her chest.  She is gripping her child tightly and covering its mouth to protect it from an encroaching form coming up from behind her.  A skeleton, ghost, demon, or simply skinny human being—whatever it is coming up behind her (the artist has labeled it Death), Death creeps up with its face pressed against the mother's in ravenous assail, and the mother widens her eyes and gasps in fear.  She is about to be separated from her child, and her muscles flex and tighten around her precious infant; but nothing can stop Death from approaching.  The tone in this Expressionist work conveys overwhelming emotion, but it accomplishes potency and profundity through simplicity.  This is just a simple drawing but no less full of powerful emotion, like the simple telegram which can change a mother's life forever during wartime.
Inasmuch as Death and the Mother was an expression of Kollwitz's own grief over the loss of her son, this was the sentiment of a generation of suffering poor who lost more than their financial stability from the war.  World War I left the entire Western world in devastation.  Chemical warfare, trench warfare, mechanized warfare—this had been a war like none other before in the history of the world.  It had introduced new technology, like the armored tank, submachine gun, and the flamethrower (just to name a few), which promised to make war more humane but delivered quite a different result.  If the artists of the late Victorian Era had found life in the Modern world demoralizing and bleak, then this experience of Modern war did nothing if not solidify their doubts.  International in scale, brutal in execution, and everlasting in aftermath, the First World War was a phenomenon that stayed with its generation long after it was over.  The effects of mustard gas and the diseases contracted as a result of trench conditions led to continuing massacre and decimation.  The influenza pandemic of 1918 alone wiped out approximately 20 to 40 million people (this statistic comes from Stanford University's virology website).  Untold masses of other veterans who were fortunate enough to survive the war without illness nonetheless suffered from severe post-traumatic stress and depression after their time on the battlefield.  The result was total devastation, not just literal or physical but psychological and emotional.
These events had a profound—incalculably profound—effect on artists of this generation.  It's difficult to approach the topic in one or two paragraphs; libraries could be filled with this type of analysis.  Suffice it to say, the war changed everything.  As we saw from late Victorian industrialism, this gloomy outlook on Modern life was already developing prominently among the literary and artistic circles in Europe and America; the "Great War" cemented this growing hopelessness.  An entire group of artists (mostly within the literary world) even gave up, effectively denouncing the world as unsalvageable, and fled to Paris to isolate themselves.  These "Lost Generation" writers (as they later became known) included F. Scott Fitzgerald, Ernest Hemingway, and T. S. Eliot.

Friday, June 27, 2014

Expressionism (pt. 6)

In the case of Ernst Ludwig Kirchner, Expressionist artwork could be about distinguishing the artist apart from the crowd.  In this painting, titled Street, Berlin, from 1913, the artist creates a highly caricaturized vision of the public crowd.
Elaborately dressed aristocrats step center stage onto a variant of a "rolling-out-the-red-carpet" event.  Shades of purple, black, and white convey a royal status of high-class social elites, as if to assert that these are the most prominent among the members of the public sphere.  But Kirchner has painted the scene with tension.  Behind the glitz and glamour of the rich is an artificial elegance that reveals itself to be quite flat.  What at one glance is a group of lively, wealthy, and exciting people is at another glance a bunch of stick figures painted two-dimensionally on a canvas.  From their pointy feet to their stick-skinny hands, these figures are anything but full (like the apples in Cézanne's still life).  Their fickle joviality is here mocked and satirized, instead of painted honestly through the Impressionistic lens of realism.  The two women in the foreground are identified as prostitutes and the men behind her, who are barely given distinguishable facial features, are characterized almost as animals.  In decadent society, Kirchner's painting seems to suggest, it's the only way in which one sees other people.  Conveying the stylishness of the contemporary culture, the artist adds a dark tone of portentous ill-omen that would foreshadow World War I.

Wednesday, June 25, 2014

Expressionism (pt. 5)

A developing Norwegian painter who moved to Paris and then Berlin, Edvard Munch laid the foundation for German Expressionism.  His art was considered grotesque in comparison to earlier Impressionist works.  He painted like Van Gogh, depicting how he felt about subjects instead of how he saw them; but Munch didn't so much turn to subjects like beautiful landscapes with cypress trees or the pretty night sky of Southern France.  A troubled man himself, Munch painted dark subjects with more overt intensity.  Similar to the Symbolists, he painted abstract qualities of the human experience, but his work is primarily Expressionistic because his perspectives are not third-person in topical approach.  The artist paints as one inside the scene, feeling the emotion or suffering the illness.  And the emotion in The Scream is: fear.
This Expressionist work shows the world through the eyes of people in intense anguish.  We are standing either on a dock or the deck of a ship; it is not entirely clear from the image.  This unfamiliarity with our present surroundings suits the subject; in fear we often feel thrown into an environment which we do not feel fully comfortable with or even fully cognizant of.  We're lost, and in this painting we are in no friendly place.  Fiery oranges and reds top the entire scene in swirly, lava-like flows of threatening color and menacing form.  The ocean swirls in tempestuous violence.  Near the horizon line the ocean even seems to have funneled into a maelstrom with two helpless ships about to be swallowed in it.  Everything in the painting appears unstable and shaky with curved lines and erratic brushstrokes.  (Compare the swirly forms of this scene with the night sky of Van Gogh's Starry Night).  In the direct middle of the scene (targeted, almost, in the dead center of the frame), is a frail and terrified person who appears to be crumbling away, like a ghost, and is screaming with his or her hands up at his or her face (the figure is sexless).  Its bald head communicates a sensitive mind that is undergoing severe psychological trauma, and its black clothing symbolizes its mortality and condemnation.  The shape of the person's head even looks like a skull, doesn't it?  The fear being conveyed here is very raw and primal in manifestation in similar fashion to how the painting itself is stripped from realism and balance.  The only straight lines we see are those of the fence and wooden platform in the foreground, as well as the two people walking away off to the left-hand side of the frame; but this is no more encouraging than the rest.  The pair of bystanders is walking away, when they could be helping our poor, helpless, unidentified subject screaming in the foreground.  Perhaps they can't even hear that individual's screams.  (Have you ever had those dreams where you try to talk or yell, but no sound comes out or the people can't hear you?)  And the planks of wood ominously receding back into the distance only seem to provide a stronghold for death, leading to no safe place but instead stretching off to the side and into the Unknown, outside of the painting.  They drag on and further isolate the center figure from anyone who can be of help, from the rest of the whole world, even.  This bears implications not just to the painting's own subject matter but for the work's placement within the developing state of art at this time.  Impressionism sought a connection with the Modern world; that the painter of Modern life was a person of the crowd, within the circle of the public sphere.  Here we see the radical opposite of that.  In the works of Vincent Van Gogh and Edvard Munch, the artist is someone totally separated from the rest of the world.  In The Night Café, The Scream, the Portrait of Dr. Gachet, etc., we can see references to isolation and social exile.  The Expressionist artist, therefore, turns inward—not to the crowd, not to the world, but to himself.

Tuesday, June 24, 2014

Expressionism (pt. 4)

One of the most famous offshoots of Expressionism was German Expressionism, which not only focused on a specific nationality of artists but dealt with consistent cultural approaches to subject matter.  Significantly in music, this style of approach manifested itself prodigiously in the works of composer Arnold Schoenberg.  The theoretical tenants of German Expressionism did away with traditions and conventions in art in order to better convey deeper emotion.
The paintings of artist Franz Marc, then, are not Impressionistic, though the wispy brushwork resembles the earlier styles of Renoir.  His colors, which are more vivid and unrestrained, represent the flare of emotional life to be read into his work.  The artist frequently painted horses, but he painted them in different colors, like yellow or blue.  This painting of Yellow Horses is one of his most famous works of art.  The majestic beauty and pastoral tranquility of these noble beasts is conveyed through broad brushstrokes and wide circles of vivid hues, similar to the weighty look of the fruit in Cézanne's Still Life with a Peppermint Bottle.  The yellow of their bodies receives proper shading and reflective light (in greens along the mane and legs), but they are nevertheless painted very simply, almost as mere blotches of color.  Expressionism, while trying to convey often the deepest of emotions, sought to simplify the subject matter in a work so as not to distract or deter both viewer and artist from the real aspects of the work which were to be stressed.  Photorealism was too sharp a style for a phenomenon like Expressionism, given not just that emotions are abstract but that painting itself is not a concrete art.  Oils applied to canvases denote a form of technique, but the accomplishment of a painter lies in something far less tangible than clearly defined physical or visual elements.  Marc's horses appear in their own world, with clouds in the background and mystical, rolling blues and pinks.  We are almost in a fairy world, but we can't be sure; the horses in the foreground are all that matter.
Franz Marc most often painted nature scenes with animals, as if to connect with the old, Romantic affinity for nature's sublimity and peace.  Not all Expressionism was about personal self-expression (like Matisse's paper cutouts), but certainly the movement allowed for greater freedom among painters to paint how they felt about their given subject.  Horses and nature, thought this artist, ought to be painted with the fervor of old Romanticism.  Marc didn't paint in a Modernist way but in fact revered the later paintings of Vincent Van Gogh.  As the onset of war grew nearer, however, the artist did adapt his subjects to the times in a way that brought more undertones of impending death into his scenes.  The peace was lost.  After Germany declared war on Russia in 1914, Franz Marc enlisted in the military and was later killed in battle.  He died just shortly after his 36th birthday.

Monday, June 23, 2014

Expressionism (pt. 3)

Expressionism concerns itself with subjectivity and the emotional experiences of subjects rather than their physical appearances.  The art style does not necessarily lead to self-expression, though that is its most common form (and probably the most popular).  In the case of Henri Matisse, art took on the specific role of expressing oneself.  As a form of heightened Impressionism, the artist now employs him or herself in portraying his or her own metaphysical qualities, like giving an impression of oneself.  The subject is the artist; the art is open unto itself, metacritical.  When Matisse arrived at a new technique to build his style off of, paper cutouts, he indicated it as a fulfillment of his endeavors as an artist.  "Finally," he said, "I have found the most direct way to express myself—the paper cutout."
This is one of his more famous cutout artworks, from 1947, titled Icarus.  The artist has cut out pieces of colored paper and pasted them onto a surface, which was then printed.  This is what makes the edges so sharp and the jet-ink colors so stark.  We see a black silhouette against a deep blue sky with yellow flashes all around.  Given the artwork's title, after the mythological character who flew too close to the sun, we can suppose that the figure in this work is flying or floating in the air, and that the yellow spots around him are stars.  These stars are quite expressively fashioned, like Van Gogh's in Starry Night, each one unique and seemingly full of organic life and energy.  Icarus's arms look more like birds' wings, which appropriately references the story of the Ancient Greek character, and his heavy legs, disproportionately large to the rest of his body, appear to be weighing him down.  The black figure remains otherwise totally anonymous and undistinguished—but Matisse has placed a tiny, red dot inside the silhouette's chest area, indicating a heart.  Perhaps that small circle of color alone, no matter how small, makes him more vibrant and alive than all the other flashing stars combined.
Referencing Ancient Greek mythology and invoking complex ideas of the struggle of humanity to soar above earthly restraints, this work of art becomes increasingly elusive the further one goes into studying it; but the artist has first and foremost created a simple image, of mere paper cutouts, to more directly convey the most bare and universally communicable messages to the viewer.  We see a human form, black, against a colorful background.  The human has no color, but inside him is a heart that has the richest color of the whole canvas.  This is about self-expression and a quasi-Romantic return to the emotional reverence of the nobly naturalistic heart of mankind.  Through simple forms more complicated and deeper emotions can be conveyed without getting lost in too much subject matter, too many colors and shapes and all other manner of painting elements.  This work pre-dates Minimalism.
Matisse's later works of paper cutout art was what the artist most identified himself with, stating that it was the culmination of his artistic career.  Therefore, we can't talk about Matisse without bringing up paper cutouts; however, those came much later, and we're getting out of our chronology here.  We must come back to the Expressionist painters at the early 20th century.

Sunday, June 22, 2014

Expressionism (pt. 2)

Concerned with design and aesthetics (which, we must remember, is wholly loyal to the medium of art), Matisse painted with specificity of attention.  What he found really important in his artworks around this time was color.  This painting, entitled Open Window, he produced in 1905.
We are looking at an open window, with two panels on either side and an assortment of potted plants on the pane below, which opens out onto a seaside landscape.  This is very similar to Morisot's painting of her husband Eugène looking out of a window onto a harbor.  Here we can distinguish the images of boats at a dock, but they do not look realistic at all.  For one thing, they are not the right color.  The artist is utilizing his freedom of independent expression to embody subjects with new light, or at least with the unique light of the artist's own eye.  But the boats (along with everything else in the painting) are also conceived very simply on the canvas, with a single slide of the artist's brush to account for the mast and a few more crude dabs of color to fill in the rest of the boat.  The potted plants are mere dots of color speckled randomly in the frame of the window.  This is hardly Impressionistic; it's too extreme.  Critics were shocked by the simplicity and unrealistic qualities of Matisse's paintings, but the artist used simplicity because he wanted a more direct form of expression.  Too much form would have distracted from the colors, and Matisse's colors are the heart of his painting style at this point in his artistic career.  Later on, however, the artist turned to different techniques.

Saturday, June 21, 2014

Expressionism (pt. 1)

After the Post-Impressionists, a group of French painters, led by Henri Matisse, rose to the scene by about 1905.  These artists called themselves Fauves, which literally translates to "Wild Beasts."  These Impressionistically trained artists took Van Gogh's ideas of colors, movement, and design, and made a style that was unrealistic, free, and wild.  Fauvism takes direct inspiration from the later works of Van Gogh and is usually considered as a branch of Expressionism, an art style that conveyed personal emotion over objective subject matter.
Matisse, like Van Gogh, began painting realistically according to the tradition of art developed during the Victorian Period, but he was mainly interested in design, not lifelike images.  With all the possibilities of art opening up at the close of the 19th century, the new millennium saw the outpouring of radically unique styles from all sorts of different angles or viewpoints.  For Matisse, paintings did not need to convey realistic-looking shapes or colors to convey the feelings or aesthetic qualities of a given subject.  He made use of flattened, arranged patches of color, almost like Cézanne's later work, and did away with unnecessary details.  One gets a good example of this technical form in the artist's painting of a Woman with a Hat.
Remembering the explosion of color thrown into Van Gogh's paintings and even the Tahitian paintings of Paul Gauguin, we can see here the approach to color taken to an utmost extremity.  Hardly anything is painted in its proper hue, except maybe the woman's eyes.  Everything is painted with an unpredictable overflow of artistic independence and creative license.  The woman is the artist's wife, and Henri Matisse has spared no expense at infusing his wife's image with as much characteristic flare as possible.  How else could a painting be able to convey the breadth of human personality?  How else can one truly recreate a proper image of someone so expressive and so full of life?  Matisse's painting is almost trying to escape from itself through vibrant colors; they vividly radiate off the canvas and burst out of the frame with activity and energy.

Friday, June 20, 2014

Post-Impressionism (pt. 18)

Vincent left Saint-Rémy and was perceived to be improving.  He was, nonetheless, kept under surveillance by Dr. Gachet as well as his brother, Theo, whom the artist moved to live nearer to.  Out of the institution, Van Gogh painted outdoor scenes in his final days.  These scenes feature dark, foreboding skies and autumn imagery of wheat fields growing ripe for the approaching harvest.  Once again, these images are painted wildly with thick paints and violent dabs or brushstrokes.  The artist almost attacked the canvas with paint and sculpted his colors into their place with his bare hands.  His raging passions are clearly seen in the most expressive manner.  Yet these paintings almost harbor a transcendence of their own, like the earlier landscapes with the cypress trees.  There is something eerie but tranquil about these works.
In late July, 1890, Van Gogh walked out alone into a wheat field very much like the one painted here (in fact, it has been traditionally held that the artist went out to the very same field) with his easel and paints, assumedly to construct another work of art en plein air.  Instead, the artist shot himself with a pistol and returned, after spending who knows how long out alone in the field, to his lodging, where he was attended by physicians who arrived as quickly as they could onto the scene.  Several hours later, he died and was buried the following day, July 30th.  This painting is held to be the last of the artist's works.

Wednesday, June 18, 2014

Post-Impressionism (pt. 17)

In the last weeks of his stay at the hospital in Saint-Rémy, Van Gogh changed doctors.  Dr. Paul Gachet took charge of his care, and the artist chose him to be the subject matter of his next painting.  The Portrait of Dr. Gachet is still today one of the highest selling artworks in history, having been bought by a private collector in 1990 for just over $80 million.
Typical to Van Gogh's style, we see a lot of energetic brushwork here, conveying liveliness, intensity, and passion.  The world around this doctor is busy, with fluttering lines of light and color buzzing all around him.  (No clear background is distinguishable behind the sitter).  The doctor's uniform is a part of the external chaos, with its own vibrant colorization and form.  He's leaning on a table with two books and a vase of flowers.  The books indicate the doctor's breadth of knowledge and training.  The flowers are a species which were often used as medicinal herbs for treating unstable heart conditions.  They are extremely poisonous to ingest alone.  As to the doctor himself, he slumps, leaning on the table and resting his cheek on his hand.  He looks as if he were in a thoughtful pose, but the man's face betrays more than just deep contemplation.  Deep emotion appears to be "infecting" this doctor, turning his face an almost sickly green color and causing his eyelids to languidly droop.  He is anxious, sad, uncertain, and wholly despondent.  Van Gogh famously identified the look of the man with his generation and the commonly pervading sentiments of doubt and despair in the early Modern Age.  The artist has literally put a face to the gloom and hopelessness of the post-Victorian generation; and it is the face of a doctor who works in an asylum treating others' illnesses when he has no one to treat his own.
Here the patient is diagnosing the doctor.  Do you see?  Vincent Van Gogh was the mentally unstable patient under this learned and experienced doctor, but he commented in a letter to his brother in July, 1890, that he thought Dr. Gachet "sicker than I am."  And the artist has once again infused his own feelings and artistic style into the work; this poor doctor is crudely fashioned into a wobbling form, thin and crooked, as pitiable as one of his suffering patients to whom he so loyally attends.  Van Gogh paints him the way he feels the man really is, kind of like his own diagnosis of his doctor.  And it's quite a sad revelation; apparently both doctors and patients alike are unhappy.  The melancholy of Modernity infects all: doctor and patient, sane man and sick, student and teacher, artist and layman.  Although painted roughly enough, the themes of such a painting penetrate deep to the intricate recesses of the heart and mind.  The face of Dr. Gachet in the portrait conveys so much symbolic meaning which extends toward not just Van Gogh's own generation, but all of Modern society, all of humanity; and that this alleged healer of men's diseases should be himself more diseased than the worst of them is a statement on the human condition.  It's a profound work of art.

Tuesday, June 17, 2014

Post-Impressionism (pt. 16)

Art, now removed from a general audience and deviating from subject matter and realism, comes to be about the artist.  Stuck in a mental institution, Van Gogh is unable to be a flâneur among the crowd or a "painter of Modern life," as Baudelaire had defined for the previous generation.  Within himself, nevertheless, there is enough subject matter for a body of work that can last a lifetime.  If Monet established the complexity of particles of light and the simple subjects of haystacks and water lilies, then Van Gogh takes an even further step back to look into the complexities of himself.  Art, after all, is infinite; the possibilities are endless, since artists are not recreating reality.  The artist can paint any way he wants to; and Van Gogh chooses to paint the way he feels.
In this emotional work, of an Old Man in Sorrow on the Threshold of Eternity, the artist goes to absolute extremes to express himself through art.  The color scheme of the entire background and surroundings follow a consistent theme of browns, beiges, and oranges, but stuck in the middle of it all is a man whose color so starkly and intentionally clashes with the rest of the painting, that the painting appears to be in conflict with itself.  The deep blue of his clothes is so raw and vivid; Van Gogh wants to stress the image of this old man amid the cloud of his surroundings.  He sits alone in a chair and buries his head passionately in his palms, clearly overcome by some sudden pang of emotion.  Once again, the artist has saturated the canvas with paint so thickly that it sticks out from the painting almost in architectural relief form.  The amount of paint is over the top; the colors are intense; the subject is dramatic—this painting conveys nothing if not strong emotion.  We see an old man bent in agony and are given no context as to his situation.  Fear, regret, despair—whatever it is, his eyes are hid from us, and the only feature of his face that gets presented clearly is his bald head, emblematic of his old age and impending death.  This was a theme that Van Gogh doubtlessly felt personally.  He painted it less than three months before his own death by suicide.

Monday, June 16, 2014

Post-Impressionism (pt. 15)

While staying in the asylum at Saint-Rémy, Vincent's mental and emotional health did not show signs of improvement; if anything, his condition seemed to deteriorate.  Lonely, neurotic, and unhappy to an almost debilitating degree, the artist turned to painting as a means of coping with daily hospital life and avoiding total despair, mental breakdown, and insanity.  Art took on a therapeutic form—doubtless not for the first time in the history of the medium.  The psychological motivations behind the other painters we have looked at is left open for elaboration and investigation, but Van Gogh was one of the first to paint solely out of psychosomatic incentives: to release some of his emotions, his tension, anger, depression, and whatever else.  We are no longer looking at artworks made to be submitted to a salon exhibition or commissioned by a patron or other buyer; this art is a wholly intimate creation of the artist for the artist.  How, then, should we look at a painting like Van Gogh's Irises?
The influence from Japanese woodblock prints can be clearly seen here in the painter's use of color and shape.  A kind of pseudo-Impressionistic levity is employed in the artist's approach to realism and design.  We are given a nondescript, everyday view of something commonplace: flowers.  Nevertheless, any attempt at stylistic categorization is quite futile; this painting is violently rebellious against seemingly all other artistic approaches except Van Gogh's own.  This work is sheer chaos.  I hardly even know how to describe it; you can see for yourself.  We are looking at a tangled mess of cluttered stalks, shoots, leaves, and buds in anarchical placement within the frame.  Our eye is given no single linear pointer to direct us where to look; and inasmuch as there is no centerpiece to this painting, there is also no clearly distinguished background or foreground.  We have almost no idea which plants appear in front or behind others; they are lost in the dizzying forest of content patched randomly throughout the canvas.  We may take one look at this and immediately see the evidence of a troubled mind; and if we can understand nothing else from what we see here, we can most certainly spy the expressed marks of the artist's own neurosis.  As works of personal self-expression, paintings such as this of course betray insight into Van Gogh's mind, but they also extend the boundaries of what art can achieve.  The multifaceted development of art throughout Western history has been one of innovation and discovery, as we've come through seeing art as historical documentation, religious sermonizing, ideological propaganda, philosophical reflection, and even scientific study of the natural world (to name only a few)—and now, it seems, we can add medical/psychological treatment to the list.  That is certainly the function of this painting here.  Only someone as obsessive and neurotic as Van Gogh could have painted such an intricate maze of interwoven lines and shapes.  Our eye can't follow it, but it certainly speaks to our emotions the way it no doubt expressed some of the artist's own.

Sunday, June 15, 2014

Post-Impressionism (pt. 14)

Starry Night, probably the artist's most famous painting, carries reminiscences of the earlier work of the Wheat Field and Cypress.  Cypress trees stand in the nearest foreground and shoot up with wavy energy into the night sky above, drawing our eye there.  The sleepy town below is painted just so: sleepy, hazy, unclear in daubed, wandering brushstrokes.  Colors blend, and buildings mesh together with trees and bushes.  Amidst it all, a church is the only clearly delineated object that stands tall, like the cypresses to the left.  Both point our eyes upward to the night sky, as if to encompass the entities of nature and the establishments of humanity into common unity under the showy brilliance of the otherworldly expanse of the heavens.  But the subject is, quite simply, a starlit night.  This subject occupies a greater two-thirds' space on the canvas and is infused, through the artist's unique brushwork and stylistic technique, with the most light and energy of the entire painting.  The stars do not just glow; they radiate.  Each is pictured as a small orb with its own surrounding halo of light, a visible emanation of the star's brilliance in the eyes of the viewer.  In some cases, given their added radius of light, the image of a star even dwarfs the buildings in the town by comparison in size.  The moon is enormous.  Clouds or mist pass along in wavy energy, like the billowy clouds in the artist's earlier landscape painting of the Wheat Field and Cypress; but here, too, the sky itself is imbued with an aspect of organic restlessness.  With short bursts of paint, the artist has created a kind of stream (or gushing river) of linear motion which, the more we look at it, appears to have no direct or succinct path of movement.  (This leads us to conclude the artist is not painting wind, or else you'd expect everything to move in one direction).  Chaotically overflowing with color and vivacity, the sky itself is given new qualities by the artist.  It's practically a living thing.
The beauty of a starry night sky inspires one's imagination and emotions, and these are the qualities we see in Vincent Van Gogh's Starry Night.  One of the ideas most commonly associated with this painting is its liberation of the artist's potential for creativity.  Free to imagine the world in any fashion he chooses, Van Gogh approaches subject matter not just stylistically or expressively but wholly personally.  This is his view of the night sky, his interpretation, his reaction.  He has not painted a realistic vision of what the scene would actually look like in real life; he's painted his emotional response, his metaphysical connection and interaction with the subject matter.  The sky is alive; the stars are great, big, luminous bodies, and the air is full of color and vibrancy.  A normal night sky would be much more static and restrained, but that is too tame for Van Gogh.  He has instead taken from outside, tangible (or, at least, visible) subject matter and added his own creative vision of the scene.  Like Goya, he's painting from imagination; but also, he is painting from feeling.  Unsatisfied with the undemonstrative simplicity of a normal night sky, he can use the medium of art to create a more vibrant landscape that better relates to one's appreciation of it: full of overwhelming emotion.  Art, after all, allows for the capability of artistically adding to nature, anthropomorphizing the abstract, and inventing a world entirely one's own.  Actually, in art, just about anything is possible; and this is the creative freedom Van Gogh assumes and exudes here.

Thursday, June 12, 2014

Post-Impressionism (pt. 13)

Vincent Van Gogh was a troubled man.  He suffered from severe bouts of depression and loneliness.  A smoker and a drinker of absinthe, he is also believed to have suffered from the hallucinogenic effects of turpentine, a chemical found in many oil paints which, if ingested, can cause serious side effects.  Artists of the time who would commonly rest the tip of their paintbrushes in their mouths for meditation while painting could run the risk of acquiring turpentine poisoning.  Although much debate surrounds the cause of Van Gogh's mental illness, we do know that he was in fact ill—and Van Gogh knew it, too.  Shortly after cutting off his own ear (which he then wrapped in newspaper and handed to a prostitute at a nearby brothel), he was admitted to a hospital, where his condition continued to deteriorate.  When he was finally released, Van Gogh, knowing he was not well, checked himself into an asylum in Saint-Rémy, where he would spend the next year of his life.
From this asylum, Van Gogh painted some of his most memorable paintings.  Perhaps their celebrity comes partially from the significance of the artist having painted them while a patient in a mental hospital; with that context no doubt emerge special meanings and added, psychological interest.  The study almost becomes subjective when trying to appreciate such artwork, but for their sheer artistic value we will take a look.

Wednesday, June 11, 2014

Post-Impressionism (pt. 12)

Similarly, this painting of The Café Terrace at Night is expressive of the artist's ability to magically bring us into an environment.  This painting exhibits beautiful colors that exquisitely convey the aspects of this scene.  The warm, golden light of the café, inviting and homely, glistens and glimmers near the center of the work, with a light shining near the center and an awning hanging overhead.  A red carpet is laid out underneath all the tables and chairs, inviting people to come and sit.  The red is warm to match the yellow of the café; it establishes the place as a location of activity and socializing.  We can see people sitting in the distance in groups.  On the right half of the painting, the scene opens out into the night, blue and black, receding far into the background.  Small, dim lights glow from windows in the distance as stars shine in the sky above.  Everything else is dark and shadowed in the night, which would look foreboding if the warm café wasn't in the foreground making us feel comfortable and safe.  The stars are painted far too large, disproportionately large, but Van Gogh felt they were significant to the scene and therefore sought to exaggerate their presence.  After all, few sights can compare in beauty to a clear, starlit night sky.  The splendor and tranquility of such a scene is enchanting, and Van Gogh paints from a perspective of someone just about to walk into the door of the café, as if his painting's invitation is too good to refuse.  It's at night, and yet it's so colorful, so vibrant, and so expressive, that it almost makes no difference.  The imaginative quality in this work no doubt speaks for itself.  It is a picturesque scene, majestic and beautiful.

Tuesday, June 10, 2014

Post-Impressionism (pt. 11)

In this painting of a Wheat Field and Cypress, painted in 1889, we can also distinguish the artist's creative skill for depicting the energy and liveliness of the landscape.  Not similar to the static and still landscape works of Claude Monet, this painting shows wispy, twirling clouds gliding along in the sky and stalks of wheat and grass blowing in the wind.  The curvy lines of the trees and bushes lend vibrancy and energy to the scene.  Once again, rich colors, thickly applied, populate the canvas, and the artist's brushstrokes are clearly visible.  He is in the landscape, painting en plein air, and he is bringing us into the landscape with him through the elements of wind, air, and light.  In that sense, the painting is quite effectively expressive of itself, relating its own qualities to the viewer in a way that brings us on equal footing with the subject.  It's subtly transcendent in a way that (I think) communicates through abstracts and emotions.  We can look at it and almost feel the environment, picture ourselves in such a place, and be taken away from our current surroundings.  And it is once again a lonely scene and perhaps even in a way mournful.

Monday, June 9, 2014

Post-Impressionism (pt. 10)

The artist painted thick, gestural brushstrokes with layered globs of paint onto his canvases to create a sense of energy and movement.  He wanted to create and inspire feeling, emotion, even passion into his artwork.  This gave his approach to form a completely new look, but it also inspired his bizarre methods of painting.  In this Still Life of a Vase with Twelve Sunflowers we can clearly see the artist's brushwork.  Click on the image and enlarge it to see what I mean.
Van Gogh sometimes squeezed paint straight out of the tube onto his canvas and used his fingers to brush it one way or another.  Some of the thick globs of paint on his works are still wet today, there is simply so much paint there.  Talk about an overflow of emotion—the artist has almost poured out himself, in paint, onto the canvas.  Flowers are a delicate subject matter, but here we see an excess of paint and flood of bright, neon colors.  Granted, sunflowers are larger and bulkier plants than tulips, but Van Gogh's thick paint goes a level too far.  And observe his signature, one of the largest in the history of art: "Vincent" across the front of the vase in bold, noticeable letters—not his last name, which would be more professional, but his first name, more familiar, more honest, more open.  He is putting himself down into his painting.
This allows for an unprecedented level of stylistic uniqueness that distinguishes this artist from all the rest.  When we look at a Van Gogh painting, we are very aware that we are looking at a painting by Van Gogh.  This is the way in which he paints.  His art is, in a sense, a conversation with himself; and we as viewers are allowed in on the intimate discussion of color, shape, and design.  In truth, the artist's works were very personal to him.  Since Van Gogh wrote so many letters and documented his life in writing so thoroughly, we (on a surface level, at least) basically know everything about his life; and this allows us to enter into the world of his artwork.  This otherwise personal area of his private life is revealed to us as the ultimate form of Post-Impressionist method: the Impressionism of oneself.  This was a matter of self-expression for the artist, not about outside subject matter or the patronage of any viewership within the public sphere.  In his entire life, Van Gogh only ever sold one painting, and that was to his brother, Theo.

Sunday, June 8, 2014

Post-Impressionism (pt. 9)

The artist painted this scene of his Bedroom in Arles shortly after finishing The Night Café, and here we feel equally drawn into a cozy environment while once again feeling incredibly alone.  Here there are no people.  There are two doors, two windowpanes, two chairs, two portraits, two drawings, and two pillows—but only one person.  Van Gogh never married, but instead lived alone.  Here we can no doubt feel some of his loneliness.  Nearly all objects are painted in pairs, but the bed, like an enormous tombstone, stands awkwardly alone.  Through this painting we are not granted any profound insight into subject matter: since the subject is merely a still life-type look at the artist's bedroom (nothing significant about that).  It is instead an insight into the artist's own mind, his feelings and thoughts, more than it is a statement about any external subject.  The painting is of the bedroom, but the theme rests in the room's sole inhabitant.  They say a lot can be told about a person based on looking at the room in which he or she lives.  In the same way, Van Gogh has poured a lot of himself into the painting he has created.  This is self-expression through art, not analysis or coverage of an outside topic, like, say, sunlight or the king of France.  This painting is created within the confines of the painter's own knowledge of himself; but instead of a self-portrait we see his bedroom.  He has translated qualities of himself to an external subject, but it is still primarily about an expression of himself.
This type of approach to art would earn Vincent Van Gogh the label of Expressionist painter.  As Impressionism took from Realism in the sense that it sought to paint the physical world as it really appeared (or as it was impressed upon someone at a given moment of time), Expressionism did not take inspiration from the material world.  This kind of art functioned solely to convey the emotional feelings and reactions to various subjects.  Like Symbolism, this style focused on abstracts.  Van Gogh painted what he felt, not what he saw.  If the leading Impressionist painter, Claude Monet, painted exclusively as an eye; then this artist painted solely as a heart.  This could inspire how he painted objects, as well.

Saturday, June 7, 2014

Post-Impressionism (pt. 8)

Among other artists, Van Gogh fervently studied the Japanese woodblock printers and mimicked much of their work.  The colorful design of Hokusai's prints greatly influenced him, and he produced several works directly copying the style.  This would have identified him with the Impressionist movement, but as Van Gogh continued to develop his painting approach he took to new methods of painting that would completely distinguish him from the rest.
After a couple years in Paris, the artist moved to Arles in the South of France.  There his paintings grew even more unique.  This painting shows a popular café in the area which the artist visited, and it is shown here at night.
In this Night Café, we see only a few scattered patrons hunched over their tables in silent thoughtfulness or drunkenness.  A waiter dressed in white stands by a billiard table and looks at the viewer.  The clock on the wall tells us that it is fifteen minutes past midnight, and the crowds have gone.  If Van Gogh the Impressionist is trying to be a flâneur and observe the social night life here, then he is doing a pretty bad job of it.  Everyone has left; there are only a few people remaining.  Just what is the artist trying to accomplish here?
For starters, we notice the deep red of the café walls and the rich green of the ceiling.  The two colors clash and cause the room to appear more stark and vivid.  The lamps overhead also seem to add to this bluntness; Van Gogh has actually painted the light coming from them.  For all of Claude Monet's efforts to capture sunlight and its effects on an environment, here Van Gogh has simply brushed tiny, circular streaks around the lamps to, in effect, literally paint light.  There is no need to walk around it; he paints it stark and bare, vividly visible.  And we can see the boards of wood along the floor in the streaks of brushstrokes the artist has painted.  The perspective even seems to focus on this aspect of the scene; a good two-thirds of the canvas is devoted to the floor, as if the viewer had his head drooping down.  The painting has no center.  The closest to a central object would be the pool table, but this is off to the side for one thing and, what's more, is painted crookedly with awkwardly shaped legs.  It looks like it could fall forward, out of the painting.  In the closest foreground are two empty chairs, faced in opposite directions.  Their contrast matches the red and green of the top portion of the painting.  The café harbors latent philosophical contradiction.  The reds and yellows are warm and inviting, but the greens are lurid and foreign.  With its abundance of bottles and absence of people, its billiard table with no players, and its inviting warmth but downward-facing viewer, this café is a working contradiction within itself.  And the artist doesn't need to paint it full of people to capture the spirit of the environment itself.  We are brought into it all the same, but we are brought in quite alone.  The waiter's distant stare at us from across the room further isolates us, as do the placement of the few other people in the room, who all sit far away.  We are alone, looking into this room; and although the warm feel of the place and the generous supply of drinks help to invite us in, we look mainly toward the floor and hang in the back.  The contradiction of the café turns into the contradiction of the painting itself—and of the painter.

Monday, June 2, 2014

Post-Impressionism (pt. 7)

Throughout his life, like Rembrandt, Van Gogh painted and re-painted himself in different lights and with different approaches.  His self-portraits have been the fodder for intense and highly debated psychoanalysis, and doubtless for a man like Vincent Van Gogh this approach to studying his art can lead to very interesting, if not enlightening, conclusions; but I will endeavor to stick to the artistic side of his work, since my chief interest is in conveying the importance of his art's impact on our study of Western art history, and forget Freudian psychology (for now).
After his move to France, Van Gogh's paintings became almost immediately infused with color.  Vibrant, vivid, and even excessive, the colors in these later paintings of his surge with a kind of kinetic energy along the surface of the canvas.  We'll see this more in just a little bit, but for now we can see an immediate change from the previous approach to painting which we saw with The Potato Eaters.  Here the artist has painted himself with dots and quick, tiny brushstrokes of color that range all across the spectrum of the color wheel.  On his face alone we see beige, red, orange, green, brown, and blue—all quite extreme colors and not toned down or mixed to a lighter shade.  They are merely dabbed in scarcity here and there to add a vibrancy and electricity to the image.  We barely notice that we are looking at so many colors, but our eye nonetheless feels the attraction to look at this image.  On his coat we see even more colors: purples, turquoises, pinks, and reds.  White lines his collar, and a bright blue patch marks a necktie or cravat.  As if that wasn't enough, the background of this painting is sheer color.  The viewer is given no sense of location or environment.  All Van Gogh has done is paint dabs of color all around him, as if lost within his own painter's palate.  And the colors aren't even subtle, either.  Blue clashes with red clashes with green clashes with orange clashes with violet—what on earth is going on here?  All these dots of color spotted onto the canvas and surrounding the painter appears chaotic, overpowering, eclectic at best.  Why so many colors?  The answer to this simple but greatly significant question is made clearer as we delve a bit deeper into Van Gogh's artwork….