Archive for January, 2012

Art in Paris

I took a trip to Paris in 2008 with the sole purpose of looking at paintings and sculptures. I made notes of my tours of the Louvre and Musée d’Orsay and these posts are based on those notes. I’m uneducated in matters of art, so the result is a sort of reconstructed memory of my efforts to educate myself. Here’s a list of posts:

(1) Some Large Paintings in the Louvre
(2) Sabine Women
(3) Two Poussins with Special Effects
(4) Caravaggio
(5) Louis’s Other House
(6) Chiaroscuro and La Tour
(7) Overnite Renaissance
(8) Not So Fresh
(9) The Greatest Leonardo
(10) What the Hell is Mannerist Art Anyway?
(11) Getting Serious About Pottery
(12) Angels With Human Faces
(13) Some Female Figures in Marble
(14) Head
(15) Impressionist Blurriness
(16) Realist Rudeness
(17) Painting Monet’s Eyes
(18) Degas and the Puberty of Modern Painting
(19) Vincent Van Gogh
(20) Gray, Bland, and Dull
(21) Some Dudes in Bronze
(22) Oncle Corot
(23) Pretty Ladies
(24) Camille Claudel
(25) Looking for Simberg at Musée d’Orsay

The posts were transferred here from my previous blog and unfortunately I cannot include the comments. Similar posts will appear on this blog from London and, a bit later, Amsterdam. The tone of the posts is very informal and be warned that there is a bit of profanity as well, but they do include pretty pictures and links to more information.

Looking for Simberg at Musée d’Orsay

Symbolism might just be the emo kid of late nineteenth-century painting. It was a reaction against Realism, I’m told, but I’m not sure how that works — let’s say she’s her little sister. It’s probably a thematic thing, not wanting to paint peasants toiling away in the fields under an unjust bourgeoisie or aristocracy. Realist painting is an odd animal in its manifestation as social criticism, because it’s not too difficult to see how it was just a bunch of rich folk pretending to care about social injustice by commissioning costly paintings from leading artists and thus making themselves feel better by speaking out against the very system that sustains them and enables them to voice their criticism in this manner. In an odd way Realism is anything but getting real. Symbolism simply says: “Screw real!”

It is also linked to Romanticism, and here the links are even more puzzling. To draw on the emo analogy, Symbolism borrows Romanticism’s eyeliner in order to look cool. In Finland, Symbolism and Romanticism are firmly attached to Finnish nationalism and, now, the Civil War. This went on yesterday at a Civil War event in Tampere: a poor girl was paraded around town as a tableau vivant version of Hugo Simberg‘s Symbolist masterpiece The Wounded Angel.

Source: Wikipedia

I’m not sure what the painting is about, but it’s fairly clear that things aren’t that rosy when mortals have to start taking care of angels and gods. There’s sorrow, death, pain, and all the things you’d find in the notebook of an angst-ridden teenager. Still, it manages to move people and it’s virtually a sacred piece of Finnish culture.

French people have Symbolists, too, but it is difficult for the uninitiated to see why something is classified Symbolism in a given case and not something else. All these Isms can be quite daunting and to realize that they must overlap can breed more confusion. They don’t have to be concepts like that, though. They can be descriptive terms, more focused on the style of the individual painting and not necessarily point to the entire school, the philosophy behind it, or the long story of Western art. For instance, Henri Martin has been called an Impressionist, Neo-Impressionist, Pointillist, and probably other things as well. He’s also quite the Symbolist.

Source: Wikipedia

His Sérénité is a large work that seems to depict a Romantic subject, the Elysian Fields, and use Impressionist techniques. It sort of reminds me of Simberg’s painting, although the subject matter is not as dark. However, there seems to be a similar melancholy in Martin’s painting despite its happy subject. The figures don’t seem too happy with their happy lot.

I suppose it’s natural that Simberg’s painting evoked in the context of the Civil War would also bring to mind Fernand Cormon‘s terrifying Cain.

Source: Wikipedia

That’s Cain in front, doomed to wander for eternity for killing his brother. It’s also pretty big and commentators always note the fact that religious symbols are notably absent from the scene. It’s supposed to be a naturalistic depiction of this sad procession and religious symbols hadn’t been invented yet.

Simberg never explained his Symbolism in The Fallen Angel, so this little sketch isn’t really based on any information from him or anyone else in the know. Some of the Impressionist techniques like those of Martin seem to be present in Angel, the stretcher-idea can be seen in Cormon’s picture; put them together and you have something like what Simberg says. The French paintings are probably not sources, but we can use them to pour some explanations into Simberg’s painting which itself is full of empty meaning.

Camille Claudel

Source: Wikipedia

Camille Claudel was beautiful and a genius sculptor. Well-connected and recognized for her skills, her career would have been a great one had she not also been insane. It’s not clear how crazy she was, but she spent thirty of her final years in an asylum.

She and Rodin were lovers and he made many portraits of her, including this one:

Source: Wikipedia

Unfortunately (a word that pops up over and over again in her story), his loyalty to his long-time partner was stronger and he dumped her, leaving her devastated. Top that with the loss of a child and a life lived unjustly held up in a nut house and you have one of the tearjerkingest tissue-consumingest stories ever told. Of course, there’s a movie about it, starring Isabelle Adjani and Gérard Depardieu.

It’s good to know this stuff, because her break-up with Rodin was the subject of her famous L’Âge Mûr, prominently displayed at Musée d’Orsay.

Source: Wikipedia

It’s supposedly symbolic, depicting maturity or maturation, but it’s also an autobiographical piece. That’s her on her knees, naked and imploring, and Rodin walking away with his other woman. The allegorical interpretation would posit the girl on her knees as youth and the man who’s tearing himself away from her with the older woman would be maturity.

Source: Wikipedia

There’s no mistaking the bad guy here: it’s that witch stealing her man, her folds engulfing him and turning him into a part of herself. Claudel was obsessed enough to work on this for years and who knows if it was therapy or a catalyst for her madness. Despite the exciting movement and technical mastery and innovation, it’s still painful to look at.

I don’t like melodrama that’s only been devised to make you cry. Stuff that surprises you to tears is more to my taste. For instance, I thought (and still do) Bambi was the most heinous fucking thing I’d ever seen when I first saw it at age six. I puzzled over it, asking: “Why in God’s name would they want to make little children cry?” I hate those stories, especially when they are based on true ones.

Pretty Ladies

Portraits can be arresting because the artist has captured some quality of the subject in a way that complements the style of the first and the personality of the latter. They can also be of interest because they are pictures of very influential or otherwise interesting people. It rarely happens that figures who are not very important on the pages of history or the great scheme of things give pause. These are paintings that don’t really have great big stories to tell or warrant speculation over technical matters. They’re just nice pictures of beautiful people and interesting as such. At least that’s what it seems like when one is ignorant of both art and history.

Walking through Musée d’Orsay I bumped into at least three of these portraits. They stopped me in my tracks before I knew who the subject or the painter was. These are not very famous paintings, so it’s unlikely I’d seen them before and was simply struck by their familiarity.

Source: Wikipedia

This first one is by Winterhalter and depicts a Countess Barbara Dmitrievna Rimsky-Korsakova. I don’t know much about her, but she was a member of the Russian nobility and famous for her beauty and ability to shock the French court. Winterhalter was a great and popular portrait artist, although his paintings do seem a bit old-fashioned. Anyway, she’s stunning.

The second is a pastel by Manet and it’s a picture of a Irma Brunner and its charm is quite different from the Romanticist gloss in Winterhalter’s painting.

Source: Wikipedia

I’m told she was a friend of Manet. She is dressed very elegantly in the dress of the late 1800s, a time when people still knew how to dress up for things. It’s a dramatic silhouette that ends in those strikingly red lips.

The third is by Henri Fantin-Latour and presents a stark contrast to the glamorous pastel-lady with her make-up and candy wrapper outfit as well as the flamboyant Countess.

Source: Wikipedia

It’s one of his sisters reading a book, and it’s a different kind of portrait because she’s not posing like the other two. It’s calm, serene, and it looks very Protestant and pious. This is something that came from the Dutch and the northern schools, I suppose, both the piousness and the model engaged in an everyday activity. Maybe that’s the reason she’s my favorite of the three.

Oncle Corot

It’s impossible to escape Camille Corot in the Louvre. There’s tons of his stuff there, but it’s mostly landscape painting and therefore sort of blends into the surroundings. Landscapes are a weird theme in art if they are not paired with some sort of larger theme like a heroic legend. It’s like painting the battlefield on the wrong day. Nothing’s going on, what’s the point?

Wikipedia tells me that Corot was involved in something called the Barbizon School which reverted to Realistic scenes and “drew inspiration directly from nature.” I don’t know what this “drawing” refers to, really, or why their work has to be described like that, but it seems like they wanted the backdrop of the old stories to act as independent works of art. Wikipedia also tells me that unlike the scores of obnoxious and mentally unstable people who seem to flock to the painter’s trade Corot was actually just about as nice a guy you could ever meet.

Because of my hectic schedule at the Louvre, it was impossible to sit down and rest for longer periods of time. However, I had to do that a couple times and one of the paintings that grabbed my eye during a rest was Corot’s Le Chevrier italien.

Source: Wikipedia

It’s a sunset, and it’s horribly boring, I think. But it’s a pleasant boredom that is eerily calming. Corot’s earlier work is quite unobtrusive and the eye rests in the accurate detail and soft light. It’s boring and fantastic at the same time. There’s some sort of tunnel effect that sucks the viewer into the painting, giving a view of the setting sun surrounded and cushioned by the dark woods and cliffs. It feels safe.

Corot is one of the few artists whose stuff is at home in the Louvre as well as Musée d’Orsay. His technique always remained dedicated to precision, but he was not afraid to bring new elements into his art. Take, for instance, this 1872 piece:

Source: Wikipedia

There’s clearly some sort of Impressionist influence here, but still the details are executed with precision. It’s like a photo where the lens has been smudged with something, grease maybe, and the pollen flying around the forest has stuck to it. You can be fairly sure that this is nothing like what Corot had in mind, but there is something in the air. And again there’s a lonely figure, doing nothing.

When it came to these new innovations in painting, Corot seemed to be like a cool uncle who is delighted to break from his old habits when new and exciting ideas are presented. He does not fake it, he takes the idea for a spin and tries to make something of it without becoming something he’s not or parroting it blindly.

Source: Wikipedia

The younger Corot shines through the new ideas, like in the 1874 landscape depicting a mill above. There’s again a Impressionistic or even Pointillist effect, but it’s not about the shock of the technique that makes the scene. Like with the earlier pictures, it seems like Corot knows exactly what he’s doing and what he wants. He’s not running around trying to pass for one of the youngsters. He comes out as a person who is dignified and fun at the same time, a difficult combination.

Some Dudes in Bronze

Auguste Rodin is sometimes called a Symbolist sculptor. He didn’t look the emo part, though. Rather, he had a Lord of the Rings dwarf air about him due to his fantastic beard. His most famous work is, of course, The Thinker and it was originally intended as a portrait of Dante contemplating his great poem or his trip to Hell.

Source: Wikipedia

There’s no need to talk about this piece. It’s everywhere and everybody knows it. It’s been on the Simpsons at least once and that makes it the statue among statues that symbolizes sculpture. Not many people know that it’s supposed to be a poet, though. It’s usually used to represent philosophy and people who like to make a clear separation between philosophy and poetry might find that interesting.

But there was a lot more to Rodin who was even in his own time the leading sculptor in the world. He looked to Italy for inspiration, but at the same time gave Renaissance art a new twist. Take, for instance, this figure called The Age of Bronze inspired by Michaelangelo’s Dying Slave:

Source: Wikipedia

Michaelangelo wins this round, but there’s clearly something else than an idealized youth in a dramatic situation going on here. It’s more realistic, reserved, clearly a person and not a thing that inhabits the realm between gods and men. In fact, Rodin was accused of simply casting an actual person, it’s so life-like. That’s a pretty flattering accusation, but he was also forced to make up stories about what the statue Symbolized or depicted. It could not remain just the likeness of some dude. In fact, he didn’t think it was about anything.

His St. John the Baptist Preaching showed that he had learned his lesson. The statue is too big to be a cast of an actual person and it has a biblical story attached to it.

Source: Wikipedia

It even has that John the Baptisty gesture, the finger pointing upward to God and salvation. But, again, it is clearly just some guy, not a hero or demigod.

If you’ve ever seen those real-life renderings of cartoon characters online you might sort of get the idea behind these works. They are as-if versions of those old masterpieces and the stories behind them, real-life renderings of some of the greatest themes in Western art. Had our stories and legends been made into the actual likeness of man they might have looked something like this.

As Rodin’s fame grew he was able to worry less about impressing wealthy patrons and being assessed through the work of others. As a result, he often made incomplete figures. Something like this Walking Man thing:

Source: Wikipedia

That’s not to say he just finished early because he was lazy. This is a bit better informed use of technique than that. It looks ancient and battered by time. The Realist tendency gives it away, though. It does not have the elegant simplicity of Greek statuary or the over articulated musculature of the Romans. It’s too subdued to be a Renaissance piece as well. If Impressionism can be found in sculpture it’s probably here.

Gray, Bland, and Dull

It’s a rainy day today, but it is welcomed as a sign of spring. Sunlight has been a rare commodity around here for the past few months and therefore the gray weather is more a reminder of absent sunshine than lack of light. George Hendrik Breitner‘s Wikipedia page says:

Breitner has the honours of being one of the few Dutch painters who is being referred to in a Dutch saying in Amsterdam: when the streets of Amsterdam are grey and rainy, people of Amsterdam whisper grimly “Echt Breitnerweer” (Typical Breitnerweather).

It’s Breitnerweather.

When you walk around in Musée d’Orsay and begin with the Impressionists, Breitner’s Clair de lune has a similar effect. Desipite the horrible reproduction here, I assure you it is an amazing, rich painting.

Source: Wikipedia

Time for a confession. When I was younger I used to draw and paint a lot. I did it as therapy and when I felt my mind was going, making pictures helped. Technique-wise, I eventually ended up with paper and black ink, brushes and dip pens. This made me appreciate black, white, and gray. The color explosions of the Impressionists, Pointillists, and Expressionists are great, but gray — black and white included — is home. That is, I like to think I know what I’m talking about when I say Breitner’s painting is one of those that makes the visit to the museum worth the effort. I probably don’t, so you might want to go check it out for yourself.

James McNeill Whistler isn’t best remembered today for his abrasive personality and run-ins with the giant of art criticism that is John Ruskin, or his whites, or his relationship with Oscar Wilde and the aesthetes. He is known for one painting: Arrangement in Grey and Black: The Artist’s Mother or Whistler’s Mother. And that painting is known because it appeared in that horrible Mr. Bean movie.

Source: Wikipedia

This time, the picture here does not convey the grayness and blandness of the painting. It’s very, very gray indeed and when I saw it at d’Orsay I was very much surprised. First, because I saw that awful Bean movie I thought it was in the National Gallery in London or somewhere a bit more English than France. Second, it is an actual masterpiece despite its cheap movie role.

Don’t get me wrong. I love Rowan Atkinson and Mr. Bean. Blackadder’s humor and his live show have made me the man I am today. I no longer have to paint and am in all things a healthier, kinder, and, dare I say, more intelligent person because of him. His work truly is a blessing to us all. But the movie was bad, very bad. The second one was pretty bad, too, but at least that had the advantage of being a road movie that takes place in France. Who wouldn’t love that. The movies try to make Bean less gray, a colorful character. This has been a huge mistake, because his charm lies in his overarticulated ordinariness, that common quality without quality that we all have and treat as bizarre. His blankness sustains him and it is the quality we who are not geniuses find the thing we can identify with in the art of those who are.