Friday, December 20, 2013

The Romantic Era (pt. 12)

Nature's beauty was not its only characteristic to receive the praise of the Romantics.  They viewed nature as the ultimate power in the world, a kind of deity or earthly representation of the heavenly throne in might, majesty, and truth.  It's hard to describe a love for nature, but it is something which, I think, most people can easily enough understand.  Nature is a powerful, awesome force that is worthy of humankind's respect; but for the Romantics, reverential views toward nature took on pseudo-spiritual qualities.  Thomas Cole's epic series, called The Course of the Empire, comes across didactically, almost like a sermon.
The series was painted in the 1830s by American painter Thomas Cole.  It is a series of canvases that follow a linear storyline about the progression of time and, through it, man's brevity and nature's constancy.  Each image in the series has a title, explaining the timeline of this "course."  In order, they are: 1. Savage State, 2. Pastoral State, 3. Consummation of the Empire, 4. Destruction, 5. Desolation.
       1. Savage State

       2. Pastoral State

       3. Consummation of the Empire

       4. Destruction

       5. Desolation

The Romantics had a fear that increased industrialism would lead to a modern dystopia; and that machines would replace man.  They feared the opening of steel factories and mills; their polluting influence on nature was viewed as a kind of "rape of the land."  The mechanization of mankind through industrialism, the mindless production of materials for socioeconomic, consumerist ends, was the pervading dread of the Romantics, and paintings like this—of Nature taking back what's hers—are good examples of the deification of nature during this time.  In Thomas Cole's series, nature is incorruptible, unbeatable, and eternal; nature is God.  When the later Victorians came and "killed off" nature, so to speak, questions of the existence of God immediately followed, and what Matthew Arnold described as the withdrawal of faith brought us into the Modern era.

Thursday, December 19, 2013

The Romantic Era (pt. 11)

One prominent English landscape painter was John Constable.  He wanted to paint the sky, meadows, hills, and streams as the eye actually sees them.  To produce this realistic recreation of what he saw, he kept a small sketchbook during his walks through the fields.  His paintings of countryside landscapes are colorful, calm, and peacefully inviting.  A popular painter during his time, he was commissioned by several patrons to produce artworks representing their own estates.  One such patron, his father's friend, asked him to paint his estate at Wivenhoe Park, in Essex.  Constable's own vision of the estate was painted like so.
You can hardly even see the estate; it's all about the natural, pastoral landscape around the house.  Half of the entire canvas is just clouds!  This fixation on the beauty and perfection of nature is a very Romantic concept; and while it was readily accepted by many, some on the more traditional side still would have preferred to see the estate.  Which do you like better: looking at the house or the natural setting around it?

Wednesday, December 18, 2013

The Romantic Era (pt. 10)

Another big part of the Romantic Period in art (and actually, probably the biggest part) was its focus on Nature.  You will recall the ideals of nature's purity and goodness as expressed during the Enlightenment by philosopher Jean-Jacques Rousseau (as well as others).  The ideas of the natural sanctity of pastoral landscapes, untainted by the establishment of the rich and industrious landowning class, became especially popular after the French Revolution, when the aristocracy was overthrown and the common man took to power (ha, but not really).  The common man, thought to be closer to nature and, consequently, more innocent of the corruptive influence of society, began to be pictured more—again, in hindsight of the Revolution.  But one of the most common phenomena of Romanticism is an extolment of nature and the beauty of its unpolluted holiness.  Romantic landscape paintings are beautiful and seek to praise the pastoral setting they depict.  These subjects also took inspiration from a period in history when the continent of North America was still being explored, settled, and established.  Explorers like Lewis and Clark and John Muir were discovering beautiful landscapes that, once painted, could inspire more people to move out West.  The "New World," as it had been termed so long ago, was still largely "new" at this point; much of the land was still to be domesticated.  As settlers learned to find a living for themselves in pioneer territory, news spread not just through America but all across the Western world that man was again connecting to nature in a new and fresh way.  The enticing, pastoral beauty of the American frontier certainly sparked the interest and imagination of the world, and when gold was discovered in California in 1848, interest (as you can imagine) only increased.  Nature was seen as an altogether glorious thing; and the idea of tabula rasa, a clean slate, attracted many people to "go West" and start afresh with a new life in nature.  This, too, was held to be a very Romantic ideal.

Tuesday, December 17, 2013

The Romantic Era (pt. 9)

After travelling through Morocco, Tangier, and Algiers in 1832, Delacroix became newly inspired.  His later works invoked these new, exotic settings which Delacroix loved to paint so much, and combined them with another of the artist's favorite motifs: dramatic action.  He completed The Lion Hunt toward the end of his life, and it marked one of the most artistically important accomplishments of his life.  In it we see the dominant theme of action and the exotic setting and subject matter no doubt inspired by the artist's own travels.  Color was the most important element in the painting for Delacroix.  Emotion, instantly evident, bursts from the chaotic scene, and our eye darts across the canvas, this way and that, as swiftly as we can imagine the figures in the scene must have been moving.  The fierce moment of conflict—the thick of the battle—is marvelously captured on the men's faces, but notice how the painting's wavy lines and incoherent geometrical construction lends to its sense of motion and kinetic action.  We almost can't see the faces of the men and can't judge some of their expressions because things are moving too fast.  This technical concept will be adopted more thoroughly in the years to come.

Monday, December 16, 2013

The Romantic Era (pt. 8)

At the age of 33, our Romantic artist par excellence suddenly died from a fall off of a horse, leaving his friend Eugène Delacroix to take up the Romantic Movement after he died, even though not everyone liked him.  His famous painting of Liberty Leading the People has, even through to today, come to define the Romantic vision of the French Revolution of 1830 (not to be confused with the 1789 Revolution).  This is so much more than a political painting.  A magnificent homage to the overthrow of Charles X, this painting is nothing if not Romantic.
A pile of bloodied corpses lays across the ground on the bottom half of the painting, the beaten bodies of military officials on the right and, on the left, one sacred cadaver stretched out in the sunlight with his pure, white garment and the naked flesh of his humanity both being blessed from heaven above with the lighted splendor of the sun shining down upon his ended life and the cause for which it was given: the glory of death.  One among the pile leans weakly forward and looks up at the spectacle which immediately bursts out of the canvas.  A woman, clothed in majestic, golden, flowing robes and with the full light of radiant truth behind her, stands tall (the tallest in the scene) over the sprawling death underneath her, the slain gendarmes and the one, nobly sacrificed martyr who fought for the right side.  She is Liberty, and she carries a musket rifle in her left hand, as well as holds up a splendid French flag in her right.  Beside her is a poor boy, of all warriors, with patches sewn on to his pants and a poor man's cap, fighting wildly with two pistols, one in each hand.  He even has his mouth open, no doubt shouting fierce war cries to further express his courage and determination in the face of battle.  Recognizing him as not much more than a child, we instantly fall sympathetic to his cause because of the youthful innocence and purity of his age—and how much more are we to join him since he is so passionate!  On the other side, a wealthy man, too, fights for the same cause as the poor boy.  This is the aristocrat in the top hat, pointing his rifle forward to show the enemy no mercy—his image bears striking resemblance to that of Delacroix himself and may in fact serve the role as a cameo self-portrait.  Behind him, another man of the lower-class with a holstered pistol and a drawn scimitar charges forward; behind him: the entire mob of French peasants, farmers, landowners, rebels, and revolutionaries, all with drawn weapons and banners proudly displaying La Tricolore.  Way far back in the distance behind these, we can see the cathedral of Notre Dame being overtaken, with French flags raised along its towers and buttresses.  Even above, notice the three colors with which the artist paints the very sky above: I see bleu, blanc, et rouge.  Leading all of this—the boy, the rich man, the entire French mob, and the overthrow of the whole city of Paris (and, in turn, the entire French nation)—is Liberty, equally as beautiful as she is fearsome and mighty.  She walks barefoot over the strewn corpses like the Messiah, Christ, who stepped barefoot over the Sea of Galilee to save His drowning disciple, Peter.  We see a stunning profile image of her face as she glances back to her loyal followers and ushers them, with the flag of their own beloved country, forward.  The crimson sash across her waist is symbolic of the loss of life which the fight for their cause will entail—revolutions are bloody affairs; but for what cause and what more noble emblem would you not risk all for the victory?  And the cause is: Democracy.  To overthrow the absolute monarch and institute a democratic government alike to that of the Ancient Greeks—that would be freedom, or liberty, indeed.  Liberty herself invokes reference to Ancient Greece in the sculpturesque uncovering of her chest, very much similar to the Nike of Samothrace, whose breasts project outward in a heaving inhale of graceful might and vitality.  But in Delacroix's painting, Liberty's bosom is bared to display her honest-natured, maternal humanity.  She is pictured not just as the leader of her people, but as their mother, who will ever more fiercely watch out for her own: Liberty will guide her followers safely and supply them with all the strength they need.  And all of this is just a brief overview of this iconic painting.  Propaganda—perhaps, yes; romanticized propaganda—yeah, it is.  Nevertheless, what a painting!
I said Romanticism was unconcerned with political propaganda, having adopted their larger focus onto human elements of pathos and emotionalism.  While a painting like Liberty Leading the People deals itself heavily in a political subject (a revolution), its more everlasting and more quintessentially Romantic overtones do rest with a very honest and emotional look at people.  Its propaganda elements are only ankle-deep, for anyone, loyalist or revolutionary, French or British, can look at this work and receive an emotional reaction from it.  The little boy and Liberty's bared breasts are symbolic of these characters' humanness, their childhood or motherhood, etc.  These symbolic images are commonly understood by all humanity, and in that sense the work is not merely a painting of a single historical event or a contextualized political philosophy.  This is a painting of humanity, of people rather than politics and revolutionaries rather than revolutions.  Hypothetically speaking, even if I'm opposed to the French Revolution of 1830, I can still look at this painting and identify with the human spirit depicted herein: the heart of the individual to fight for his cause and the heart of the united masses to stand up against tyranny and oppression in general.  It's universal because the human spirit is universal.  That is the Romantic ideology of it, at least.

Thursday, December 12, 2013

The Romantic Era (pt. 7)

Perhaps this ever-changing movement of the times influenced the Romantic style, which often included diagonal design, twisting figures, strong emotion, and dramatic use of light.  We see this best in Théodore Géricault's masterpiece, The Raft of the Medusa.  This painting, produced in 1819, signaled the birth of a new art style in France.
The Raft of the Medusa was based on a real event in which a French ship, the Medusa, wrecked and was abandoned by her crew.  Those crewmembers who could not fit into the inadequate lifeboat quickly built a raft of their own and escaped the sinking vessel.  These men (some estimated 149 passengers) drifted at sea for almost two weeks without food or clean drinking water.  When they were finally found, there were only 15 survivors left.  During their two-week voyage, many of the crew had starved to death, drowned, or committed suicide.  These shipwrecked men were brought to the very limits of what human nature can bear: starvation, desolation, dementia.  It is reported that the men even sunk to cannibalism.
Nothing but the most dramatic depiction of this event could do for a painting—or, at least, such was the way the great Romantic painter Géricault saw it.  The Raft of the Medusa displays a theatrically staged scene of epic emotional depth and powerful imagery.  We see naked bodies strewn across the hard wood and tossed against the cold sea, some discolored with sickness, others faceless, maimed, and inhuman-looking.  One man poises against the lifeless corpse of his neighbor, deep in thought, with a hard face that is covered in shadow, no doubt contemplating the deep questions of human suffering which such an occasion would generate.  One can see reference to the solemnest of subjects, the Crucifixion, in the tattered arms that stretch across the raft's wooden boards.  Agony, despair, death—this painting is a gritty tableau of human pain and emotion.  The dramatic lighting sets the mood of our thoughts when we look at it.  A major diagonal (from the lower left to the upper right of the painting) carries our eyes through the scene, ranging in between places of despair and hope.  At the upper right we see men looking ahead and stretching their arms toward something they see on the horizon (probably the rescuing ship).  For those men's faces shadowed from our view, the display of human emotion is expressed in the stormy sea and dramatic sky.  Huge, billowing clouds drift across the sky much as the raft drifts across the surface of the water; and great waves swell up in fury no doubt equaling the passion of the men through this unimaginable circumstance.  The painting reflects the style of Rubens and Michelangelo, but it showcases a contemporary event as it actually happened, rather than a scene from the Classical past.  Of course, this image is no realistic snapshot to be completely trusted.  We can see that Géricault's painting is heavily infused with emotion, but this emotion is different than propaganda, like the works of David.  Romantic emotionalism, unconcerned with political causes, instead speaks to deeper matters of the heart, the broader spectrum of human emotion, the pathos of mankind.  All of this is most archetypally exemplified in Géricault's Raft of the Medusa, making it a staple work of Romantic art.

Wednesday, December 11, 2013

The Romantic Era (pt. 6)

Napoleon was finally defeated at Waterloo in 1815 and later exiled to the island of Elba.  He died in 1821, and France returned to the monarchy system (with some changes).  Louis XVIII took power and reigned for a whole decade during the Bourbon Restoration, and it would not be until 1830 that the nation would rebel against its current absolute monarch, Charles X, and institute a constitutional monarchy.  In 1848, revolution in France would break out again (and all across Europe), and the nation would elect Bonaparte's nephew and heir, Napoleon III, as president of the French Second Republic.  Three years later, Napoleon III would establish the Second French Empire.

Tuesday, December 10, 2013

The Romantic Era (pt. 5)

Francisco de Goya was an official court portraitist painter in Spain who had a promising career ahead of him in the late 1780s and early 1790s, but then the unthinkable happened.  The artist went deaf by the year 1793, and his condition left him increasingly meditative and introverted.  After the French invasion of Spain under the leadership of Napoleon in 1808, Goya witnessed the brutality of warfare first-hand.  Shortly after, his wife of almost forty years died, and in his middle age, the artist was left alone, debilitated, and scarred by the wartime atrocities which he could not erase from his mind.  He took to isolation, spending hours by himself in total seclusion, and during the last decade of his life, his art changed.  A new spirit was awakened in him, and his art turned very dark.
When Goya became more bitter and disillusioned in his old age, he focused more on subjects not found in the real world, such subjects as can only be found in the deepest recesses of the tormented human psyche.  He attempted to show these supernatural objects in demonstration of his otherwise inexpressible feelings and thoughts—perhaps the beginning of Expressionism (which comes much later, and which we still live in largely today).  Others did not always understand his dreams and visions, but Goya didn't mind rebelling against all formalities, given his own neurosis, spawned from his tragic life.  His inspiration now came almost purely from himself; and as an old, lonely, deaf man, battered in his mind from the military captivity of his own country, he drew inspiration that was only of the darkest and most macabre nature.  Some of these "Black Paintings" are quite nightmarish to look at, gruesome and horrific, and perhaps they should only be viewed under the context of psychoanalysis.  Some elements of human psychology cannot, and should not, be explained through artistic theory.  (Unfortunately, this distinction is often crossed in Expressionist art philosophy, but we are too early to get into that just yet.)
To look at just one of these late works of the artist, Goya's The Giant is among the most famous.  This apparently simple etching is full of dark meaning.  That it is etched so simplistically, with a very primal hand, almost lends to its eeriness.  A mysterious and unidentified form sits on top of a bare, unmarked bed of land that has been scratched and scraped with harsh strokes of the artist's hand.  Above this earth, the night sky with its glimmering moon and stars shines above.  The blackness at the top caps it all, as if to suggest itself as the highest authority over everything in the print: the Unknown.  The monster sits on top of the world in a position of dominance, looking huge and menacing.  While the rest of the world sleeps under the cover of moonlight, this figure sits quietly alone, musing to itself or peacefully slumbering—what thoughts or reveries cross its mind we shiver to guess.  But something has awoken or startled it.  It turns its head—and our imagination is left to fill in the rest.  The awakening of a monstrous colossus in the night is certainly a motif from the subconscious world of nightmares and dark dreams, but the subject may also be understood to represent much nearer realities, and more terrifying.  The giant could be a symbol of war.  Or it could be simply a frightening incarnation of Goya's own somber forecast of the future.
You can see how this type of artwork is uniquely independent of its contemporary technique, and perhaps, having looked at Goya's personal life, we can understand why that is.  But this is not exactly Romantic art, though emotionalism is involved here.  I have to bring up Goya because he lived during this time period, but we can discuss his artistic style and impact on the art world better as we go along.  For now, we'll get back to the Romantics.

Friday, December 6, 2013

The Romantic Era (pt. 4)

Francisco de Goya is considered a bridge between art of the past and art of the present because he was the first to so uniquely ignore traditions like realism (lowercase "r").  He took his inspiration from his own imagination and set a revolutionary precedent over artists to come.  A man who was way ahead of his time, Goya does not really fit into any stylistic period of art history, one might say; nevertheless, much of his work did take inspiration from Romantic art theory.  To observe his artistic style, however, is to take a look at something that is unique to itself, a kind of exception to the rules, and something only to be understood when understanding the man himself.  Let's take a look.
The Duchess of Alba was one of the wealthiest persons in Spain.  Her eccentric personality led the public to hold in its eye a rather controversial opinion of her.  This general disfavor was not just based upon her manner or her private life but more largely on her scandalous behavior in public.  The story goes that she had invited the queen to a ball but had sent spies to the queen's palace to find out what gown she was going to wear.  She then had all her servants dress identically as the queen.  Naturally, the queen was so insulted by this prank that she rebuked the prankster, and the Duchess of Alba was then promptly exiled from Madrid.
It has been rumored that the duchess and Goya were lovers, but it is not known for sure exactly what the extent of their relationship was like.  Goya's portraits of her (of which there are several) all picture her delicately and beautifully.  Here she is seen looking straight at the viewer with large, black eyes.  She wears two rings bearing the names Goya and Alba, implying a union between the two.  Whether they were or were not lovers, however, it would seem that the duchess eventually left him anyway, and when Goya's painting was cleaned after his death, the word "solo" was found inscribed in the sand before the artist's name at the bottom.  The duchess, you will notice, is pointing to it.

Thursday, December 5, 2013

The Romantic Era (pt. 3)

But as time progressed, Napoleon's regime became increasingly less "heroic," and the Spanish painter Francisco de Goya took to exploiting the more atrocious side (and no doubt the more accurate side) to the story, producing a little propaganda of his own.  In a controversial indictment of Napoleon's cruelty, Goya created a painting memorializing the victims of his troops' brutality.  The painting's title, The Third of May, 1808, stands out as a direct reference to the real, contemporary historical event.
After the French invasion of Spain, an insurrectionist group arose to fight back for their homeland.  The rebels were quickly defeated, and the French soldiers took them captive, disarmed them, and executed them.  These were common citizens, not military captains, aristocrats, or people of political authority.
Goya's painting has a black backdrop and is only lit by a lantern placed on the ground.  The Spanish prisoners have all the light shining directly on them, symbolizing God's presence with them and their cause; and each illumined face has a different expression of fear and sadness.  None of the soldiers' faces are seen.  They are stripped of their humanity as they all lean forward, single-file, pointing their bayonets and preparing to fire.  They are not really pictured as human beings but more like heartless robots, all identically lined up to perform the inhumane act.  We see the grossness of their deeds already committed on the far left in the image of the dead bodies piled on the ground.  Next to them, a priest prays for mercy, a sign that he is a devout man not deserving of such cruel treatment.  All of these men are helpless civilians about to be coldheartedly executed; the scene stirs great emotions in us as the viewer.  But the painting's emphasis is on a single rebel in particular, who is seen clothed in pure white with his arms outstretched.  He is completely vulnerable, baring his chest (and his heart, no doubt as spotless as his shirt) to his executors and holding out his arms in a likeness to the crucified Christ.  His hand is even marked with the stigmata of the sacrificial Lamb of God.  The painting passionately commemorates the death of these Spanish patriots, imagining them as martyrs and saints and imagining their executioners as ruthless, tyrannical animals.  Goya viewed war as only destructive.  His painting shows only death and suffering and no heroism or honor.

Tuesday, December 3, 2013

The Romantic Era (pt. 2)

For one thing, Romanticism took from the Neoclassical attitude of seriousness adopted after the Revolution.  A further backlash against the licentious lewdness of the Rococo Period, Romanticism (as we mean it here) was a style of art that portrayed dramatic and exotic subjects perceived with strong feelings.  This heightened sense of emotion is one of the key differences in Romantic art.  Neoclassical paintings like Ingres' Apotheosis of Homer was painted flatly and linearly, you will recall, with not a whole lot of bursting emotion.  Romantic paintings breathe emotion.  They also shift their focus primarily onto the present, instead of looking back to the Classical past (again, as Ingres' Apotheosis painting did).  These paintings often deal with current events but portray them in the fashion one would portray an ancient, epic event of Classical Greek or Roman mythology—dramatically.  Romanticism sees all of contemporary life through the Classical lens of epic drama and passionate emotionalism.  The changes can be heard in music at this time as easily as the difference between Mozart and Beethoven.
In one sense, then, the court paintings of Jacques-Louis David could be considered Romantic—and they very often are.  I placed them under the Neoclassical Period of art because: (1) that is how I was taught; and (2) it helps one to better see the immediate withdrawal away from the Rococo style after the French Revolution.  But it is true that David's paintings of Napoleon are as much Romantically inspired as they are Neoclassically styled.  His paintings were of contemporary events, like the emperor's coronation; and they were often shown in dramatic fashion, like his painting of Napoleon Crossing the Alps.  Romanticism and Neoclassicism share much in common, so I will pick up where we left off and return to another David painting, now under the category of Romantic art.
Just after Napoleon's Syrian Campaign, his troops won a decisive victory over the Ottoman Turks at Jaffa in Israel.  After the conquest, many of Napoleon's men were infected with Bubonic plague and deemed incurable.  Their emperor had them poisoned to prevent further spread of the disease, but in so doing he fell into disfavor with many among the general public (understandably so, I think).  To counter the negative sentiment towards his name, Napoleon turned once more to his favorite painter in order to generate some more promotional propaganda.  This time, we see Napoleon at a "pest house" (or plague colony) of infected Bubonic plague victims.  The highly contagious nature of the disease made it necessary to isolate those suffering from it to prevent further contamination.  It would have been considered absolutely dangerous to enter into a plague house such as we see here, but Napoleon stands upright and calm.  It would have been considered even more dangerous not to have a cloth or handkerchief covering one's mouth while among the colony.  It would have been considered complete suicide to touch one of the sick, but Napoleon, with no glove or cloth to protect him, stretches out his helping hand like the great Healer, Christ Himself.  Meanwhile we can see the city of Jaffa burning in the background with a French flag staked over it, but this is conveniently pushed away from the scene at present.  What artist Jacques-Louis David has painted is an extraordinary image of Napoleon as a fearless general, a compassionate leader, a helper of the weak, and an inspiration to his men, a great emperor, and no less great a man than the Son of Man.  Propaganda makes heroes.