Friday, March 28, 2014

Impressionism (pt. 13)

His most famous painting is Le Moulin de la Galette.  Here is the quintessential image of the observer of Modern life.  It shows a group of young people on an outdoor dance hall in Paris in the afternoon.  We have to see this as the new face of art in the Modern Age.  No longer focusing on subjects from the Classical past, this work of art is all about depicting the contemporary world.  As Baudelaire had expressed, the painter of Modern life would have to now turn his focus to the crowds, the metropolitan social circles, to rummage for whatever humanity and organic truth was left in the increasingly mechanized world of Industrialism.  (Art has always been against "the Machine").  For Renoir to choose this as the subject for his big canvas painting is a statement of shifting core emphasis.  Truth needs to now be found within the masses and the common everyday occurrences of urban life: this is the focus of Modernism, and Impressionism follows the tenants of Modernism.  In some ways, then, Impressionism is the culminating fulfillment of Modernist art theory.
It's an everyday subject of an enjoyable summer day in Paris, and the realism with which Renoir paints the scene makes us feel like we are there, amid the crowd, just walking by.  It's a happy painting of a vibrant social event, full of energy and liveliness as parties (at least, good parties) always are.  He has painted it with soft hues to demonstrate the scene's cheerful levity.  Blues and violets substitute blacks and greys.  Smooth, slick surfaces are richly textured with many short brushstrokes, and solid forms lose some of their solidity.  Blurred edges are put in place of hard, precise outlines.  These details are also missing because Renoir only includes within the painting what can be taken in with a single glance.  A party like this, especially a dance party, is a fast-moving scene; but this painting is so effervescently abundant in color and subjects that the canvas itself almost feels active, no?  Through its Impressionistic approach it captures all the instantaneous changeability of such a scene.  The painting features bright colors in dabs and dashes, blended together in lively commotion.  There is no center of the painting; our eye is made to glance here and there all across the canvas as one really would look at such a bustling scene.  And our gaze reaches far back into the distance as we see scores of more people in the background, dancing and moving energetically about.  Even the sunlight on this scene is lively, coming in through the overhead trees in patches of light.  Figures are in and out of shade; the sun's light is speckled throughout the painting in inconsistent pockets.  There is so much going on in this painting, but Renoir's brushstrokes have captured it all.

Wednesday, March 26, 2014

Impressionism (pt. 12)

Although his style may have mimicked Monet's, Renoir painted a different kind of Impressionism which I think continues on most prevalently to this day.  The artist chose Modern, everyday scenes and subjects (like a flâneur), unlike Monet's focus on purely technical elements (his subjects, remember, were twenty-some-odd haystacks, some water lilies, the face of a church building painted thirty times over, etc.).  Renoir, like Manet, focused more on people, the social life within Paris and the common centers of metropolitan popularity.  However, unlike Manet, he delighted in showing the joyful side of life.  His paintings typically do not show poignant and sad images of bar waitresses or prostitutes; they more often depict the happy partygoers, the socialites, the bons viveurs among the central urban patrons.  This more lighthearted approach to subject matter further inspired the artist to paint with whimsically capricious brushstrokes.  It better showed the frivolity of the people within the scenes he was painting, such as this scene of a Luncheon of the Boating Party.
Pictured here is a party scene of a group of people lounging about and conversing on the balcony of a restaurant in Paris.  It is a merry scene.  There is food and wine strewn out on the table, and everybody appears either pleasantly preoccupied in conversation or content in idle relaxation.  The scene itself is cluttered with figures, facing this way and that, some with their mouths open in mid-sentence, others in the middle of drinking a sip of wine.  There is liveliness to this painting as it recreates a kind of split-second, candid snapshot of the party.  Furthermore, these were all people who Renoir knew.  On the far right is fellow Impressionist artist Gustave Caillebotte.  Above him, in the upper right corner of the painting are two of Renoir's close friends.  On the far left (the seated woman playing with the little dog) is the artist's future wife.  These are Renoir's friends and acquaintances, and this is their casual, social lifestyle of cheerful merriment and partying.  Modern life, too, had its themes of idleness to be noted.

Monday, March 24, 2014

Impressionism (pt. 11)

Pierre Auguste Renoir suffered from rheumatism and was crippled.  He painted using a paintbrush tied to his wrist.  This caused him to adopt a painting style of light and wispy brushstrokes that in turn create something of a dreamy, cloudy impression of the subject.  Renoir's paintings dealt with light and atmospheric effects within environments, same as Monet, but his art took a step closer to a form of sentimentality.  He communicated a feeling along with each of his works; that, looking at a painting such as this (a portrait of Édouard Manet's niece), we can almost feel the softness of the subject's nature.  This young girl is painted with delicate brushstrokes to convey the gentleness of her character—and also the frailty of her condition.  This portrait was created just two years after the death of her father.  In less than a year she would become an orphan.

Sunday, March 23, 2014

Impressionism (pt. 10)

After Monet, other artists adopted the Impressionist approach to stylistic painting to create their own works of art.  Pierre Auguste Renoir took inspiration from Claude Monet to produce his early works like this painting of Le Pont Neuf.
Similar to Monet's method, Renoir focuses on sunlight here.  The entire painting is almost blindingly bright because it is depicting the warm afternoon sun's effect on the light-colored pavement of the street.  The Seine River and the buildings in the distance beyond the bridge appear much shadier, but the radiation of the sun on the bright pavement's surface causes viewers to feel an immediate intensity of glare which almost makes one think about putting sunglasses on when looking at this painting.  The vividness of the light is one of the clearest elements of this painting, and Renoir intentionally wanted to paint this busy Parisian spot right in the middle of the day, at the height of the sun's brilliance.

Thursday, March 20, 2014

Impressionism (pt. 9)

One of the major influences on late 19th century Impressionism was Japanese woodblock prints.  Artists like Vincent Van Gogh would later directly mimic this Japanese style in some of his works, but early Impressionist artists like Claude Monet took inspiration from the subject matter of these prints (which usually showed nature scenes of pastoral Japan).  The Japanese had invented an inexpensive way of printing a century earlier.  They used wood blocks with varying colors of ink and would apply them all to the same piece of paper.  These prints did not show depth, perspective, or shading, but the Impressionists took interest in their unique depiction of nature that characteristically described a thing in addition to merely showing it.
The Japanese artists Hokusai and Hiroshige had produced images like this (the above is a print by Hokusai) approximately fifty years earlier, and their work quickly attained European notoriety as a result of Japan's reentrance onto the world stage after nearly two centuries of national isolationism.  Near the end of the Tokugawa shogunate, Japan's foreign policy laws of domestic seclusion were superseded by a series of international treaties which once again opened up trade between Japan and the Western world (Europe and America).  Japanese finery soon became a popular fashion in Europe and grew to heavily influence an entire generation of artists entering into the 20th century.  This ensuing influence over Western art became known as Japonism.
This painting by Claude Monet shows one of his other staple subjects (added to the haystacks and architectural façades) combined with a Japanese influence.  We see a pond of water lilies in a garden that is explosively verdant with lush greenery.  Stretching across the pond we see a wooden Japanese-style footbridge.  Here the artist has simply taken from the subject matter of Japanese art, but later Impressionists would adopt the techniques of Japanese artists.  Earlier artists, like Manet, had already found inspiration in certain stylistic elements of woodblock prints, such as their flat sense of depth perception.  (Manet adapted this technique into his own Modern style to create a wholly new type of art which he believed would define the Modern Era).  Other elements of woodblock prints and Japanese style would continue to influence artists well into the 20th century, but it is perhaps the Impressionists who most rapidly take to the concepts and styles of Japonism.

Tuesday, March 18, 2014

Impressionism (pt. 6)

This is a work by Claude Monet depicting a train station in Paris.  Although the sun appears to be shining brightly in this painting, our lines of clarity are once again distorted by the atmospheric effect of the scenic environment.  Here it is steam and exhaust from the locomotive engines rolling in and out of the station.  Monet paints everything here with a hasty and capricious brush, literally dotting color spots here and there to give a picture of the energetic movement and sights at such a busy place.  You will recall Édouard Manet's painting The Railway, which focused on the brief moment of time in which a woman looked up from her book while seated by a fence, assumedly awaiting the train.  Manet's painting looked flatly drawn and hurriedly completed because the subject was such a transitory one.  Here, Claude Monet has dotted and speckled his canvas with paint in an even faster pace, speedily constructing the scene with little attention to detail because the image will soon change, and then the artist would have to start over.  The scene is always changing; and while the artist could make his quick sketch and add the detail in later to better finish the painting, Impressionists like Monet chose to leave their works looking unfinished to more accurately depict their subject's constant kinesis and brevity.  A train station is an especially bustling center for activity and energy.  To capture this in his work, the artist had to paint with equal rapidity and liveliness.
And Monet frequently liked to include people in his landscapes and scenes (lest you think he was all haystacks and cathedrals).  This beautiful painting of a Poppy Field Near Argenteuil features women and children out for a stroll in an open field.  The red flowers stand out brilliantly in the scene, and yet for them the artist only used quick dabs of paint.  But that's all they need.  This is another good example of the artist's illusion of visual focus.  When looked at from a distance, the otherwise blurry flower patch becomes clearer.  You can even test this out for yourself right now.  Click on the image of the painting above, and the link should enlarge the image.  Once it's full-screen, walk about six steps back (or to the back of the room) and turn around to face your computer screen again.  Once you're standing at such a distance away from the screen, look at the flower patch in the painting and see if it looks different than up close.  (Obviously this works better with the actual, original painting that Monet created himself, but this must suffice for now, until we can all afford a trip to Paris to see it in person at the Musée d'Orsay).

Monday, March 17, 2014

Impressionism (pt. 5)

Similarly, the artist painted and repainted the same scene of a view of the Parliament building from across the Thames River in London.  At different times of day and in different weather conditions, it of course appeared very different and provided his paintings with variety.  Even more interestingly than his Rouen series, however, is the total spatial ambiguity that these paintings render.  Naturally, this can be attributable to both the distance at which Monet is from the subject and also the typically foggy weather that characterizes London; but even considering those two factors, the Houses of Parliament still don't look like the Houses of Parliament here, do they?  It's been said that the Victoria Tower is painted here to look more like a tombstone rising from a foggy graveyard than an active center for political legislation.
There is this concept that through art variant images can be made of things we thought we knew—honest images, but perhaps shown from a perspective we might not have thought of before, causing us to question the world around us.  When seen as a painting, objects, places, or even people that we know take a different shape, a different form.  Through art we can rediscover the world, see things we may not have seen before but also (more importantly) see things in a new light.  This painting of the Houses of Parliament gives us a feeling not just for the atmospheric environment (the soft light of sunrise, as Monet was intending to convey); it also gives us an emotional reaction to the place itself, does it not?  We are given an impression of Parliament from seeing it like this.  In that sense, I wouldn't say Impressionist paintings are solely about sunlight and atmosphere, though those are probably the style's most definitive elements; the way the subject gets painted is also key, and that in turn results in an impression made on the viewer.  As this doesn't come into the artwork of Claude Monet much but rather in the later works of other Impressionists, I'll delve further into this as we go on.
A useful trick for many of Monet's paintings is that they were meant to be viewed from a distance.  Up close, this painting would be indiscernible, but from several steps back we see the full picture—the tower, the sun, the reflection on the water—and can grasp a realization of what we are looking at.  Paintings like these would appear to be simple splotches of color from too close, since that is, essentially, what they are.  No lines give objects clarity except wispy alterations in hue.  Again, Monet does this because he is painting something that cannot be painted with lines; he is painting the intangible light as seen through the morning atmosphere, and he is painting the visible air of fog all around the scene.  How does one paint fog?  The answer is: you really can't.  You can only give the impression (aha!) of fog through painting blurred shapes and blending colors.  Here the whole painting is centered around the fog and the light as the impression of the environment around London on this particular morning.  Monet captures not just the subject but the experience of the subject.  Perhaps you can almost feel the cold of the atmosphere just by looking at this painting.  Or perhaps you can see the fog in the artist's airy brushstrokes.  This is the impression the artist creates.

Friday, March 14, 2014

Impressionism (pt. 4)

One might say Monet's series on the Rouen Cathedral was a collection of paintings of sunlight.  By focusing on the changing effects of sunlight on subject matter, his paintings became about capturing sunlight (if that makes sense).  He painted the west façade of the Rouen Cathedral in northern France much like his haystacks, at different times of day and in different lights.  Because he could not walk around the giant church as easily as the small haystacks in the empty field, he painted from almost the exact position each day; so the view of the church never changes.  In that sense, Monet recreated the same painting over and over again, never changing either subject matter or perspective.  But the paintings all differ, of course, because the changing sunlight and atmosphere of the air greatly affect the look of the building.  Sometimes clear, other times enshrouded in fog; sometimes bright in noon-time light, other times fading into the darkness of dusk—the series shows nearly every imaginable lighting of the church, and yet Monet was revealing that an object can never be exhaustively painted; that it will always be different, always changing.  He painted over thirty canvases just of this subject alone, and yet if we went to the Rouen Cathedral today it might still look distinct from any one of these paintings.  The sunlight's effect might be totally new each and every day inasmuch as no two days are identical to each other.  The subject matter will be the same, the church will not have changed, but it will appear different; and, what is more, our experience of it will be unique to the moment.  And if these paintings really are of sunlight, the intangible daylight that characterizes our routine lives, then Monet is showing us that it is never the same, never as constant as we think it is, and therefore perhaps never fully understandable.
We have seen great works of art depicting vast landscapes and grandiose historical, mythological, and biblical scenes of heroes, warriors, saints, and kings.  The ideas conveyed in these works have all contained a mighty profundity of their own, ranging from themes of good and evil, life and death, joy and grief, love and hatred.  And we've seen portraits showing many memorable faces, thinking those, too, were poignant to look at.  But this, now, is a game changer.  Impressionism, more than any other artistic movement we have looked at thus far, deconstructs the nature of artistic subject matter in paintings and calls for a completely reverted approach to art theory—almost like going back to the beginning, but really going back further.  All those great subjects in the paintings we saw—and yet now artists like Claude Monet paint a mere building thirty times, trying to capture the way the sun looks, and claim that even that isn't enough.  By painting such a basic subject so many times, the artist seems to express the revelation that we can't even fully grasp a single photon of light, let alone the majestic works of saints and martyrs.  Within the minutiae, the apparently small and inconsequential universe, there is inexpressible complexity.  That an entire movement of artists should choose to focus on the elementary theme of sunlight—something we see around us every day of our lives, something as commonplace as air itself—just goes to show the extent of the Modernist perspective, that we, in a way, had to reintroduce ourselves with the world.  After the Industrial Revolution, artists reverted back to studying these types of things and saw that the world itself is always changing and always blending in and out of new lights.

Wednesday, March 12, 2014

Impressionism (pt. 3)

Among the artist's favorite subjects to paint, these haystacks attracted an entire year of Monet's almost full attention, and in that time he produced over twenty paintings…just of haystacks.  He painted them in different seasons, in different lights, and from different angles, and even though the subject matter never changed (haystacks), the artist was able to produce a broad variety of paintings based on the differences of sunlight, time of day, season of the year, etc., in which he painted them.  This was a series, vaguely like Thomas Cole's Course of the Empire, but here nature is not pictured as constant or eternally immutable.  Nature changes—and by no interfering influence from people.  It changes organically.  Nature is naturally fluid, fluctuating, changeable, and unpredictable (remember that new views of the natural world were developing out of the published works of Charles Darwin).  Monet's haystacks series, in a sense, showed the evolution of nature's constantly shifting atmosphere; that sometimes the haystacks are hit with sun, shadowed by clouds, rained on, or covered by snow.  In this particular image from the series, the haystacks are vibrantly colorful because they are subject to the sun's bright afternoon light, but they lose their color at dusk and in fog.  They never simply look the same, is I guess the point to be taken from this exhaustive series.
This provides Monet with a chance to perfect his craft.  Like working on a still life, the artist used these haystacks as subjects for stylistic experimentation.  Art for him no longer became about depicting a subject but the technique through which one depicts it (otherwise I think he'd have gotten bored with haystacks).  The Impressionists in that sense made a science of art, formulating the most accurate method in which to paint, making it all about the craft, the act of creation and experimentation, not necessarily about the product.  Put it another way, painting no longer needs to look pretty or impressive or even finished; it needs to accomplish the artist's end.  For the Impressionists, this was capturing an impression of real-world environments through the effects of atmosphere and sunlight on subject matter.  The image isn't enough.  Plein air painting brought artists into the experience of nature, as I said; and Impressionism became focused on conveying that experience, not just the visual appearance of surroundings and items within an area.  When we look at Monet's haystacks, the subject doesn't change, and we are never looking at anything different; the experience is what changes, and our feelings and reactions to the paintings change as we see day turned to night, summer turned to winter, and so on.  This is why so many otherwise commonplace subjects appear in the artwork of Impressionists at this time.  The subject matter almost didn't matter so much anymore as the communication of immaterial elements.

Monday, March 10, 2014

Impressionism (pt. 2)

I've a whole bunch of Monet paintings we can look at (but doesn't everybody).  From early on in his career he focused on light as the quality of utmost importance in his works.  Only through light, after all, is vision possible, and art is about vision.  This early work of the artist, of the Mouth of the Seine at Honfleur, was painted before Impression: Sunrise, yet it still reveals Monet's attention to light.
It is better to see the actual painting (it's in Pasadena, California), since here the pixilation has distorted the colors and brightness of the paint.  The original work more brilliantly displays the delicate effect that the sunlight had on the marine landscape on this cloudy day.  And look at that little boat on the right which is being hit directly by a ray of sunshine.  It stands out, almost luminously, as the point to which our eye is led (with the help of the line of seagulls above).  Not the overcast sky, nor the shadowed, seaside town, nor the unsanitary-looking water itself, but this tiny boat in the distance is our focal point in this work of art, not because it is in the center of the painting but because it is what gets the most light.
Similarly, this painting, produced the following year, envisions the effects of light at night.  Here the artist has grappled between the artificial beam of a distant lighthouse and the rays of moonlight poking in through the dark clouds overhead.  The effect is a painting constituted of almost entirely shadows, broken only by a few gleaming streaks of moonlit radiance.  Once again, this painting does look rather splotchy and unkempt, but Monet paints it that way because it is how he actually saw it.

Friday, March 7, 2014

Impressionism (pt. 1)

Impressionism is the direct result of Modernism; one cannot claim to understand the former without the latter.  The late Victorian ideas of "the painter of Modern life," such as were described by Charles Baudelaire and Édouard Manet, found their manifest culmination in this new style of art which ultimately grew to become viewed as the chief hinging point in the progression toward Modern Art (people today largely regard it in this way).  The movement took inspiration from Manet's paintings, but since Manet himself never fully committed to a single art style, his work remains detached from the label of Impressionism.  Although he directly influenced this new period of art, Impressionism, strictly defined, begins with Claude Monet.
Monet was another French artist who had been classically trained according to the traditional style of realist art, but his training included a technique called "plein air" painting, which is painting done outdoors.  (His subjects were mostly, then, landscapes).  In this technique, the artist brings his canvas, easel, and palette to the actual spot and paints from the immediate perspective of visual reading.  However, Monet discovered something.  Nothing brings one closer to nature than plein air painting, since it offers the artist the experience of physical presence within its environment, but with the added proximity comes problems.  For starters, the sunlight changes too rapidly to paint a landscape in the careful, detailed manner in which artists were trained to do in the 1800s.  The weather also changes; wind can distort the clarity of tree branches, wispy clouds, and other natural elements; and there are active participants in the scene who frequently interrupt the serenity of the landscape, such as animals or people.  One does not so much paint nature as experience it when painting en plein air.  Therefore, Monet's painting style needed to change; it needed to be a technique which could keep up with nature's active movement and changeability.  And the new method was: paint faster!
Haha, not exactly; but kind of.  Monet used quick, short brushstrokes and small dabs or spots of color, blended together, to try to capture the immediate image of a natural landscape before it changed.  Specifically to capture the visual picture of what the eye sees at a given moment out in nature, he shifted his focus more to atmosphere and less on detail.  In that way his paintings became mostly about capturing the effects of light and shadow on objects, since these were the most rapidly transitory.  Bad weather could be avoided, and birds and other creatures were not too much a nuisance, but the sun always seemed to set too fast.  If he began a painting in daylight and remained at the scene until nightfall, he would have to start an entirely new painting, since the scene before him had totally changed.  His quick paintings, then, were an effort to capture an impression of the brief, passing moment of what the eye sees in nature, like a snapshot.
Thus in 1873 Monet produced this work, which he titled Impression: Sunrise.  Upon the artist's submitting this work at the Paris exhibition, critics saw it and were outraged.  They complained it was rough and unfinished, and they mocked the title by calling it only an "impression" of art, not to be considered real art.  Instead of feeling inferior at this insult, the artist adopted this negative label as a badge of honor and called himself thereafter an Impressionist.  Claude Monet is famously reported to have said, in response to the news that his artwork was being scorned and mocked by the salon art critics, "What do the critics know?"
You can see that in this painting realistic detail plays almost no role at all in presenting subject matter.  The landscape is shown through the visual effects of elements within the natural environment.  The rising sun appears red through the smog of a harbor and causes the entire sky in the scene to appear fiery and dirty.  We cannot even see the harbor, it is so covered by smog in the distance.  There is no horizon line, and the reflection on the water's surface causes the distinction between land and sea to blur and almost disappear.  Since the sun is brightest, it and its watery reflection are given the clearest brushstrokes.  The boats in the foreground also appear clearly silhouetted against the scene, but the smokestacks, harbor docks, and all other cityscape views are distorted by a combination of smoggy air quality and dim morning sunlight.  This was how Monet actually saw the landscape.  The objects in the distance appeared hazy and blue; the water looked a sickly green color, not deep blue.  The people on the boats were indistinguishable, and the sun was the whole scene's only clear object.  Obviously Monet knew that there were smokestacks and a harbor and a town there; it wasn't like he was oblivious to the subject matter he was painting.  But he painted exactly what his eye saw, not what he knew to be there.  He knew quite well what a boat looked like up close; but if this was how it looked from a distance, then he had to paint it this way.  Paul Cézanne once said of the artist, "Monet is only an eye, but what an eye!"

Tuesday, March 4, 2014

Modernism (pt. 9)

Henry Ossawa Tanner's work also anticipated the Harlem Renaissance.  The artist himself was black, raised by a mother who was born a slave but who had escaped North through the help of the Underground Railroad.  Tanner is regarded today as the first African American artist to earn international acclaim during his lifetime.  His paintings would add inspiration to the cultural expression of the Harlem Renaissance in New York and Paris during the 1920s, and one of the artist's most famous images of this theme of black appreciation is his 1893 painting entitled The Banjo Lesson.
It shows black people living casually in their spare time, an outlook totally new for its time.  We see a small boy sitting on the lap of an older man (maybe his grandfather) who is teaching him to play the banjo.  It's a quiet, humble scene of no manifest significance (and yet bearing all the significance of its historical context), and it is such to generate an understanding sympathy in the heart of the viewer toward the figures in the work.  Like the Realist artists who painted peasants and lower-class farmers, Tanner chose to paint the minority as a statement of truth—that this is an expression of the real world and actual black people living around the world.  As an artist, this was his chosen subject; but as a man, this was his born condition.  In that regard, his famous painting The Banjo Lesson is in many ways a self-expressive work of who Tanner identified himself with and where he came from as a child born from an ex-slave.  The painting also contains its own stylistic elements of light and line, but those features borrow more from the Impressionist art style, which we haven't looked at yet—but we're about to.