Friday, May 2, 2014

Impressionism (pt. 24)

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

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