Archive for the 'Paris' Category



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.

Vincent Van Gogh

Source: Wikipedia

Vincent Van Gogh is one of the most famous artists in the world. So famous is he that even my spell checker recognizes his name. He is also the prototypical wandering insane artist. It seems like he had a loving, dedicated family, was often helped by his friends, and generally had lots of genuinely nice people around him to care for him. He was also an intelligent man, but the only place his intelligence shines today is his painting. His school record reeks of failure, but in his case that can’t be an accurate device for measuring his mental powers. Diseased, malnourished, poisoned by absinthe, alcohol, smoke, maybe lead and who knows what else, he seemed determined from the start to make his short life a miserable one.

Source: Wikipedia

Even with his madness plaguing him he was able to paint an incredible number of works and he was praised for his genius during his lifetime. Theories about his madness frequently cite absinthe or even the plants Dr. Gachet can be seen holding in this picture, but Van Gogh’s story is terribly sad because, whatever the cause, he could have been happy and celebrated had he only gotten his shit together. Of course, insane people like him are beyond shit-getting-together cures and we have to try to cope with them as best we can.

Source: Wikipedia

From the few descriptions I’ve read he sounds like the sort of person who gets unbelievably frustrated when the world does not conform to his preconceived notions of what it should be and loses it when his simplified abstract notions meet the messiness of our human existence. Adjusting these notions to meet experience like people who are not insane do is not an option. The world was all wrong for him and people were wrong, too. Even the nice ones. His paintings seem like places where he could rest, where things work out like they are supposed to. There’s that intensity that may have been partly created by his madness, but it’s toned down into a peaceful realization of the right way art should be. If he thought the world looked like this or should have looked like this I can’t say.

Source: Wikipedia

Like with Degas and some other Parisian looneys who were laying the foundations of what would become Expressionism, elements are detached and treated as subjects in themselves. However, there are always compositional concerns in any Van Gogh and they seem to creep up as more important than the elemental separation. These are paintings that can and should be viewed from a distance to see how it all was put together. There are strange colors and swirls and weird perspective and all that good stuff, but they are put together in a way that commands attention. Van Gogh has exploded the world as it presents itself and put it back together the way it should.

Source: Wikipedia

Some of these things have been coated with so much paint that the canvas gives out a 3D effect. The outlines pop out and make the pieces of the puzzles not only apparent but safely insulated from one another. You can look at the areas they have encircled and feel protected by the slabs of dried old paint, like padding for your wandering eyes. It’s a good thing this insulation is present, because they are very strange paintings that would quickly turn terrifying were it not there.

Source: Wikipedia

Degas and the Puberty of Modern Painting

Edgar Degas began his career as a Realist, but at some point his Realism took a left turn and transformed into some sort of Impressionism. I don’t really like Degas, but I suppose something has to be said about his paintings because there’s so much of his stuff on display at Musée d’Orsay. His twisted perspectives and colors make my stomach turn. That is not to say I object to his painting somehow; pineapple makes my stomach turn as well and I don’t have anything against pineapple, it’s a physical reaction. His Realist paintings don’t do that to me, only the stuff that goes weird. For instance, his famous absinthe portrait is easy to look at, although it’s a pretty sorry scene with two people who are obviously sick with something.

Source: Wikipedia

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As his compositions evolve his attitude towards composition itself seems to get abstracted to the point where the elements of the composition take precedence over the whole scene and become detached entities. That would explain the twisted scenery and distorted perspectives. Much of this movement toward an elemental conception of painting might have come from his experiments with different media, but that can’t explain all the weirdness away. Nor is it the case that he was just a crap painter and compensated this by making things strange. The focus on the figures on the ground’s expense is a clear and informed break from Realism in that Realist painting is very much about making the composition rest in a way that is not jarring to the eye; everything has its place and conforms to our everyday expectations, that’s how we know it’s real. Degas’s point is not, I think, to alert us to the fakeness of it all or to pull us to look at the medium. It seems like he wants us to look at parts of the paintings individually and forget our ideas of what composition should be. Now, why would he want us to do that?

Painting Monet’s Eyes

The term “Impressionism” comes from Claude Monet‘s famous Sunrise and was first used to mock the paintings on display at a show in 1874. The Impressionists liked the name probably because it conveyed the way they conceived of the images they made as translations directly from sense impressions without too much meddling from objectivity. This idea made it possible to have as a subject the senses themselves and what was projected on them by the outside world. It was painting straight from the source, the senses, and the object that was projecting its image on the retina did not have to be the center of attention in terms of subject.

That’s why Monet and others were able to paint series of paintings that portrayed the same scene on different occasions, or rather paint different occasions of the same scene hitting their senses. Monet was a prolific painter and his series of Water Lilies and paintings of the Rouen Cathedral would be a complete oeuvre for many other artists. The pictures of both series are scattered around the world, but Musée d’Orsay had a few of them on display, and the Rouen paintings were actually pretty nice.

Source: Wikipedia


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As always, these pictures of the paintings do not convey the effect they have in real life. To start from the obvious, they are small, the colors get twisted on the monitor, and there’s only the one view from straight ahead. But there’s more to it than that. Monet is the painter whose work suffers the most on camera partly because it’s impossible to see the enormous depth these scenes have in these renditions and partly because his philosophy of painting makes the differences between the original and the reproduction so blatantly obvious.

It sounds stupid to say that the pictures you see above are not the pictures on display at Musée d’Orsay and that they are just little pixel clusters that mimic Monet’s pieces: your sense impressions of these jpgs are not the same that would be had were you standing in front of the actual pieces. This is what comes across because were it a reproduction of a Realist painting we could all agree on the reality being conveyed. It would be objective, detailed, and reproducible because of our agreement that this is what and how reality looks like — and perhaps also because it really looks like that. In Monet’s work the subject is not objective reality but the subjective experience of objective reality. Therefore, I would have to do this with the actual paintings in order for you to see what I saw. And I’m a bit low on cash at the moment, so that’s not going to happen.

Realist Rudeness

People hate French people. In fact, even French people hate French people. However, they really aren’t too bad. People complain about the weather in London, too, but from a Finnish perspective it’s ridiculous. It just rains sometimes. Same thing with French people. Finns value brutal honesty over being nice, and very often we value the brutality part more than the truth. Hence, reality and Realism are much appreciated around these parts.

People who say that photography simply substituted the realist arts and especially painting have not really thought it through. Painting as a craft is a bunch of tricks designed to trick the eye and convey something more than a two dimensional screen should reasonably be expected to convey. Realist painting is a way of presenting truth using these tricks and it makes us think that what we see is objectively the case for everyone. It’s technical, exact, and easy to align with all sorts of agendas because it seems to be modally empty in itself.

What becomes pronounced when you dismiss the reality depicted in Realism is the harshness of the mode, its brutality. Very often it is offensive, and often it is meant to be offensive. Take, for instance, Manet‘s Olympia. The painting refers to a couple of earlier Venus pictures and you can see the harshness that Realism has brought to the subject when you compare them:

Source: Wikipedia

Giorgione’s Sleeping Venus

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Titian’s Venus of Urbino

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And, finally, the Manet.

It would be too much to say that this brutality appeals to people who love the idea that truth and objectivity warrant rudeness, but there has to be something to this idea. We all know people who love being jerks whenever the opportunity presents itself, people who relish the uncomfortableness of uncomfortable truths. Manet seemed to be a guy like this and got into trouble a few times for his bluntness with nudes.

However, he was outdone by a mile by Gustave Courbet, the man who supposedly coined the term Realism. Rather pompous in his rhetoric in his speech as well as his painting, he made this thing and called it L’Origine du monde:

Source: Wikipedia

It was owned by Jaqcues Lacan of all people before it ended up at Musée d’Orsay, and for some reason I find that really funny. Again, there are harsh colors and unbridled rudeness. It leads one to think that non-realist modes of representation and presentation, whatever they may be, truly are the pants of society. Once this nagging insistence on rudeness becomes clear, the reaction against Realism makes much more sense. Given enough Realism even the greatest subjects become interpretations by drama queens.

Impressionist Blurriness

Musée d’Orsay closes at quarter to ten on Thursdays and it seems a bit small after a day at the Louvre. That doesn’t mean the building itself isn’t impressive, but it requires a different kind of mindset. No flash photography, no phones, no food, no bags, no whatever. The security makes you go through a metal detector and the whole thing is way more uptight than security at the Louvre. The lady at the entrance wanted me to lift my shirt and show my belt buckle. She actually said: “I want to see your belt buckle.” They did let me keep my shoes, though.

This visit was sort of a bonus on my trip to Paris, because the period which is covered by Musée d’Orsay, 1848 to 1915, isn’t directly related to my work, but I was curious enough to go and have a quick peek at at least the Impressionist stuff they have. It’s always been one of the strangest things in art history, that weird turn from the sort of Romanticist perfection one can see in the statues of the period in the Louvre courtyards to the blurriness of Impressionistic painting. It might have something to do with the Great Binge which coincides with the period covered by Musée d’Orsay, from the 1860s to the First World War. There are other reasons for this turn, no doubt, but the Binge must have helped it get off the ground.

One of the reasons security is so tight at the museum is that these druggies painted pictures which have been sold for absolutely ridiculous amounts of money. Take, for instance, this Renoir:

Source: Wikipedia

It’s Le Bal au moulin de la galette and it might just be the prototypical Impressionist painting. It is certainly one of the best known, probably because it cost around 78 million dollars when it was last sold. It’s probably worth much more today, but let’s leave it at that — the most tedious thing about art is thinking about disgusting money bags trading masterpieces like they were baseball cards.

What is much more interesting is to try to figure out reasons why the Impressionist trend took hold of Europe at that particular time in history. I do like the drug theory quite a bit and believe that it should be investigated further, but there are other stories to be told as well. There’s much more to Renoir, for instance, than just a guy painting blurry scenes of everyday life, but this weird unfocusing is something that requires some attention since it seems to have exploded like an epidemic.

The Wikipedia entry for Renoir say that he “is the final representative of a tradition which runs directly from Rubens to Watteau”, but being uneducated in art I don’t know what that means. The day I visited Renoir’s paintings at Musée d’Orsay I had seen some of Watteau‘s work.

Source: Wikipedia

That’s Embarkation for Cythera and while it is quite blurry, and extends the blurry story from Rubens to Leonardo’s blurry backgrounds, it’s not pronounced enough to be striking. Also, it’s early 18th century, so it is not really that close in time to Renoir — if this matters is in itself another question.

What did strike me was Delacroix the Impressionist. Renoir traveled quite a bit and visited Algeria, a country Delacroix had also seen when he did his tours of North Africa. This is Liberty Leading the People Delacroix, Romantic Delacroix, the guy whose claim to fame was continuing the work of Géricault, and what does he produce after North Africa? Well, things like this Chevaux arabes se battant:

Source: Wikipedia

Perhaps it was the sand in the air, perhaps it was the hash, or perhaps it was just getting away from stuffy academia that flipped Delacroix onto an Impressionist mode. But something happened to him, surely, and his influence on French painting probably remained as strong as ever.

The Arab horses are pretty cool, but an earlier work from 1854 depicting a lion hunt, is just puzzling:

Source: Wikipedia

I only know it’s a lion hunt because it said so on the tag. It looks like a sketch, but it’s on display as one of a couple of paintings on the lion hunt theme. My little notebook shows that this thing was very confusing indeed, and I’ve written down that it might be accessed through the Arab Horses, but it doesn’t seem to be working. If the Lion Hunt should be considered as a finished work, the Horses seem like a return to a previous mode of expression, a sort of cleaned-up version of the initial shock of the mode deployed in the Hunt, an escape into the arms of a previous tradition.

 

PS. Rubens’s Lion Hunt casts some light on Delacroix’s version.

Head

Preclassical Greek art is located at the bottom floor of the Denon wing in the Louvre. It’s a place to have a little rest and to try to figure out ways of explaining why Modernist sculpture looks like ancient sculpture. One of the things I specifically wanted to see was this head I once saw on the cover of a book:

Source: Wikipedia

I never could figure out the reasons behind the link between modernity and the ancients, but I did manage to get quite depressed looking at this piece. What I usually do in these situations is turn depressive things into something slightly mysterious and/or noble, give them a veneer that speaks of emotional depth and try to make everybody feel good about themselves for realizing this valuable quality hidden behind the thing in question. But here I think I’ve met my match. It’s really no use trying.

It’s a head of a female idol from the Cycladic civilization and it’s dated 2700-2300 BC. It was probably attached to a body something like this one before it got decapitated:

Source: Wikipedia

The date would make it early Bronze Age, when life sucked really hard. It looks like there might have been some paint on it, but we can’t be sure. It’s actually quite thin. Looking at it from the front you might think it has much more depth, but it’s pretty flat. That takes most of the edge out of it, but from the front it remains intimidating.

Mitch Hedberg used to tell a joke where he said that no matter how good you are at tennis, you’ll never be better than a wall. That’s the exact same thing that’s going on here with this idol, except it’s a staring contest, not a tennis match. This thing has been at it for thousands of years and hasn’t lost once. For all intents and purposes, it is immortal.

Source: Wikipedia

Who knows how many thousands or hundreds of thousands or even millions of people it has stared down during its existence. I’m not going to be one of its little toys, however. I’m not going to play this game anymore.