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Sunday, February 13, 2011

On "Modernist Painting"

One of the "discoveries" of  "modernism"and perhaps fundamental to its practice is an understanding of how the human brain recognizes objects or "things" in a painting. Before modernism if painters wished to exploit/explore bold colour combinations they had to pick their subject. For example Turner's use of sunrise/sunsets or Delacroix's trip to North Africa where the intense light produced more intense colour.
It was only when colour began to be intensified as a device to heighten the expressive impact of painting, as in the works of painters like Van gogh and Gauguin that some of the principles underlying "modernist" painting began to be thought out and explored.
Two of the implications of intensifying colour were that paintings tended to become flatter and shapes simpler. Fewer tonal variations produced flattened surfaces and simplified shapes.( This flatness and simplification finally became a fetish)
It was soon realized that while shapes became simpler and flatter there was no real loss of recognition of what was being represented.The most important aspect of anything to our recognition (re-cognition) of it is its shape.This literally overpowers any other consideration in our recognition of any given thing we are looking at.
This is quite easily demonstrated by some simple drawings of silhouettes
Whoever can draw a simple silhouette can communicate through line to another what they wish their viewer to "see". Consider how much is left out of the drawing colour,texture any sense of roundness but still we recognize an apple ,a pear, a lemon. Even a "fish" can be rendered and recognized as a very simple shape.
A simple "still life" of two pears and two apples scribbled in with a more or less accepted local colour of green apples and olive green pears and brown table-top and we have a "scene" we can accept quite readily.
Similarly an unexpected local colour doesn't overpower our recognition of apples and pears but does set up a tension between the shape we recognize and the colour we don't
    This "discovery" allowed painters to use the inherent colour of oil paint without the constraints imposed by the subject as exemplified by painters like Derain, and others in what was called the Fauvist Movement.This understanding that shape could be rendered very simply without loss of recognition also allowed simple distortion to be used expressively as the German Expressionists began to do.
As paintings became flatter and shapes simpler borrowing from Eastern and African art intensified.The simplified planes of African masks or the use of pattern to differentiate between one flat surface and another as Asian painters did began to appear.
Another result was European "primitive" painters began to be appreciated. "Primitive" work perhaps proceeds from the technical (and perhaps emotional/intellectual) limitations of its' producers but this was no longer felt to be a barrier to the production of art.
Finally it is perhaps due to early modernist ideas that our world is now filled with signs that use a flattened and simplified image to communicate messages to the public

Thursday, February 10, 2011

An Analysis of Degas influence on Gauguin

Gauguin was an admirer of Degas work and borrowed some of his stylistic devices in a modified form to suit his own expressive needs. Degas as a practitioner of the "modernist" currents of his own day, in opposition to the literary conceptions from Greek mythology of the Salon, wished to present the life of his own times and in a way that expressed their immediacy. Typical of this approach " A Ballet Scene from an Opera Box ".
Degas presents the scene as a "snapshot" of a moment. In the foreground is a woman with a fan, behind her the prima ballerina, behind her the other dancers. Executed in pastel (a medium that reinforces the sense of immediacy) and not a large work at 62 mm x 50 mm. Given that we are meant to view this as a performance happening now ( in reality a moment of seconds) we can be sure that unless Degas worked from a photograph (just possible) the scene would be the result of sketches drawn on the spot over some time (perhaps with models in the studio as further reference) then worked up in the studio. That is, it is a carefully composed work to express a moment in time. This sense of "snapshot" is achieved by Degas method of overlapping and cropping. The woman viewer is overlapped and cropped by the edge of the work, similarly she overlaps and crops the prima ballerina, who in turn overlaps and crops two of the dancers behind her. The two other dancers are overlapped and cropped by the top edge of the work. Not one figure is seen in their entirety a device used again and again by Degas in many of his ballet works, his paintings of jockeys and horses and women bathing, combing their hair.
When Degas began his series of individual women at their toilet this cropping device was used consistently.The women bend over or step into the bath or use a towel that partially covers their body.
In this series Degas also adds the device of  excluding the viewer. They turn their back or bend over wholly concerned with the acts they are performing. In fact Degas is quoted as saying to the writer George Moore "Until now the nude has always been represented in poses that presuppose an audience but these women of mine are honest, simple folk, involved solely and entirely in what they are doing."
Gauguin had a different idea to express, that of the enigma of Hawaiian islanders, their "otherness" in relation to "civilized" society but in many of his works the devices used by Degas are presented in a modified form. Gauguin's figures are often overlapped and cropped by each other and and even when facing outward make no psychological contact with the viewer or with each other.When Degas' figures are in groups they are psychologically bound together by common purpose. In Gauguin's paintings, groups, while overlapped and cropped in a similar manner to Degas are self contained individuals. Where Degas figures are active, dancing, washing.combing hair, Gauguin's figures do nothing.

Wednesday, February 2, 2011

An Analysis of Chardin's "The White Tablecloth"

Unpretentious in size (96.8 cm x 123.5 cm) and simple in presentation but rich in thinking about visuality. Colour is here reduced to variations of brown and grey to emphasize shape and texture. The core of this work is in Chardin's understanding of composing very simple objects in deeply considered ways. It has been said (ad nauseum) that "less is more" and here perhaps that really is true.
With three larger objects, the tablecloth,table and drink cooler Chardin sets up the major shapes within the painting. His viewpoint renders what are circles into ovals. The dominant shape in the composition is an oval and Chardin manipulates the smaller objects to produce as many ovals as possible. The cut bread, one wine upright the other glass on its side, the sausage cut and placed in three ways, the lifted lid on the ceramic jug, the plate (here metal not ceramic to give variations of grey).
The smaller objects also "echo" the relationships throughout the composition. For example the ceramic jug in the drink cooler echos the relationship of tablecloth to the table. Similarly the cut bread exposing the white under the brown crust.
The placement and arrangement of objects coupled with the direction of light (as if through an open door) produces an ascending and descending rhythm within the composition. The smaller drink cooler against the larger table. The bottom edge of the tablecloth runs upward, the bread placed over the edge of the plate and also slightly higher than the far edge of the table. Against these ascending/descending rhythms Chardin places the knife and  bottom of the wine glass on its side pushing into the space for balance. These minor variations also occur in objects placed in the drink cooler with the neck of the far bottle appearing over the rim of the cooler with the open lid of the ceramic jug as a kind stop that echos the the knife and wine glass.
The overall effect is as if two people had just left the room after a basic meal of bread,wine and sausage but through his understanding of painting Chardin invests the scene with intelligence and feeling far beyond its apparent simplicity.

Tuesday, February 1, 2011

GAUGUIN-An Analysis-Gauguins Tahitian Figures-the Stylistic Devices

Many of the human figures in the works Gauguin produced in Tahiti have a similar distant "unconcerned" air about them. Gauguin achieves this by using and re-using certain stylistic devices. Psychologically the figures never engage the viewer with eye contact. This is evident in in works such as "Two Tahitian Women on the Beach" or "The Siesta" or the very famous "Two Tahitian Women" who all appear to be psychologically engaged with  their individual concerns or something out of the picture frame.
To take as our first example "The Siesta", the women appear not only unconcerned with the viewer but also with each other. Although they constitute a group each seems to be occupied with their separate thoughts Three of the women have their back to the viewer the other lying parallel to the picture frame seems to have her attention focused on something outside the picture frame. The fifth woman focuses on her task of ironing clothes.
A similar device is used in "Two Tahitian Women on the Beach". One woman turned away from the viewer the other apparently engaged by something  outside the picture frame. Between them there is also no psychological connection.

This same device is apparent in "Two Tahitian Women" although they both face the viewer neither is  engaged with the viewer and both appear to be psychologically engaged with different things outside the picture frame.
Gauguin also uses other devices to emphasise the the sense of self containment we feel the figures possess. Often they are tightly "overlapped" or quite intimately close but rarely communicate with each other. Their bodies are often without "spaces" within them. Arms and legs are pulled in close to the body, or they are drawn from an angle that reduces the spaces the viewer can see.For example the women on the beach; one sits cross-legged with a dress obscuring her legs and draws her arms close to her body, the other is half turned in a way that hides the space between the arm that she leans on and her body. Neither do we often see a "whole" body. In "The Siesta" for example bodies are turned or overlapped in such a way that we see only one hand or foot or only a torso and this creates for us a sense of their intimacy as a group while contrasting their self containment as individuals. This may be a device Gauguin borrowed from Degas (who he admired). In many of Degas "ballerina" works he used the same device but rather to give a sense of immediacy to the scene.