Saturday, May 10, 2014

Impressionism (pt. 29)

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

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