Tuesday, 30 November 2010

ReQuietening – the interior landscape

In my most recent blog I discussed the concept of an idea that has the power to grip. I came across a thought in February, (which in hindsight I have realised is just this,) when preparing work on a theme for my final major project of art foundation. I discussed this in Sacred (of January 2010) and then homed in further in Quiet in February. I haven’t intended to consider the idea of quiet since, but clearly there is a lot more to this thought than a ten-week project would allow me to explore.

In the last week or so I’ve gained new familiarity with the work and ideals of early 20th century artist Gwen John. She quite famously said she desired ‘a more interior life,’ a statement that has gained her a reputation unfitting to that which she was – that she, an artist, had no great aim to be one or to be known as one, and longed to be indoors, hidden, beavering. In fact Gwen John was deeply spiritual, and hoped that her art would be an expression of her inner self, with the walls of a room becoming a metaphor for her mind and soul. For example the delightfully inviting, ‘A Corner of the Artist’s Room in Paris’ c. 1907-9, in which her interior is bathing in the light of a cloudless day, and an empty wicker chair, often the symbol of an artist, rests unfelt by a sitter. Yet, resting on top and to the side is a sun umbrella and jacket – she is far from removed from the scene, from absent-minded. Gwen was one of many artists to paint an empty room at this time, enough for an English art critic of 1902 to comment on ‘interior fever’ in the NEAC exhibition hall.

There is but more to this that I have discovered. I spoke of a type of art refocused on the construction of the beautiful, not the destruction caused by war in the afore mentioned articles, commenting that the anger the war had created fostered art that represented the intentionally ugly, and the machine-age as the monster rather than the prodigy of social progress. Later in Gwen’s life in Paris, at the time of the first world war, seen within the alternative art scene was the ‘rappel à l’ordre’ or ‘call to order.’ That is, to reorder from chaos to peace whether it be in subject matter, or in technique, with many new depictions of contemplative tranquillity, as well as a revival of the classical, and a return to traditional painting techniques and methodology. An interesting consequence of the terrors of war – that such negativity could cause a retreat from creativity and from exploring new territory. In areas, it paused modernity in favour of something more…familiar, and probably, pleasant. For what is nicer (horrible word itself) than the picturesque landscape of centuries gone by? As Michael Soloman, and ex-Slade student said to Gwen John, "There is nothing antique or archaistic about your work. THey are so intensely modern in all but their peacefulness."

And so I’ll return to some beautiful paintings I looked at before but now in a new light: ‘Interior’, 1908, by Vilbelm Hammershoi and ‘Queens House Green II’, 1978, by Ben Johnson, considering that this enjoying essence isn’t mere lighting, and sparse detail but the suggestion made of an interior, spiritual life that unknown to me was at this time capturing my creativity.

Most of these ideas were provoked by my reading of ‘British Artist: Gwen John’ by Alicia Foster.

Monday, 22 November 2010

Romanced into Contemporary Ideas of Independence

The birth of art criticism came with the modern world, and its two greatest products: ideas, and independence. From these we can attribute much of what we know and appreciate now in art, and they make sense of so much of our contemporary ways of thinking about art.

Romanticism is slowly, when considering measures like this, becoming my favourite period of art because of the newness of life it mothered. This movement put emphasis on the thing that grips me most in relation to art - ideas. I do not feel the urge to write about anything until a concept grips me. This is so clearly put forward in the film inception when the protagonist says, “What is the most resilient parasite?...An idea. Resilient…highly contagious. Once an idea has taken hold of the brain it’s almost impossible to eradicate.”

In the 1700s many questioned, using the tool of newly identified reason, the ruling bodies. Independent decision-making and opinion-forming was praised over following church bodies and other key instructional institutions - this could be in relation to the anti-monarchy as it was in France with the succession of revolutions, or through social criticism and plans for utopian, scientific and technological progress as it was seen outworking in England. As Philosopher Immanuel Kant, the vanguard of this period – the Enlightenment, said in What is Enlightenment? ‘Enlightenment is man's emergence from his self-imposed immaturity. Immaturity is the inability to use one's understanding without guidance from another… Nothing is required for this enlightenment, however, except freedom; and the freedom in question is the least harmful of all, namely, the freedom to use reason publicly in all matters.'

How did this play out? The revelation of the revolutions was freedom of ideas and thus independence. Theoretically being independent could lead to the achievement of personal ideals, which was both empowering and stimulating for the imagination. Out of urbanisation came the new city life that spilt a community into individuals through reserve, and detachment. Thus, practically being alone in a crowd was easier and consequently retreating into their own thoughts.

And so to be independent, to question and be critical in order to find improvement, was praised above all. This can bee seen in contemporary art: to find new methods of expression, to be unique, even if absurd, is exalted under the 19th century conviction of ‘Romantic Genius.’

In his Romantic art, Friedrich demonstrated the ways of Erlebniskunst, which in German translates to art experience. Or more importantly - the individual experience. For example while within the circles enshrining classicism, or even those prior - the Middle Ages, above all, clarity of communication was required so that the myths of the past were recognised and known didactically. Whereas, Friedrich’s painting of a thicket in winter From the Dresden Heath (Trees and Bushes in the Snow), 1828, could be understood spiritually through the entering into one’s own mind in order to associate it with the experience of life, so the image can be a means of translating the narrative of the art to oneself.

To emphasise this, while for the centuries of 15th-18th, most art looked back to the history painting of tales gone by, and to the style of antiquity as a model, Baudelaire said these were regurgitated, ‘they had a vested interest in ceaselessly depicting the past; it is an easier task, and one that could be turned to good account by the lazy.’ Suddenly this switch has occurred from what is prized as being more intelligent art – that which references work gone before as a sign of art education, to that which invents new ideas which we understand now to be the most innovative.

This latter focus led to, in manly places, a complete abandoning of the standard genres, of recognizable forms and materials. Now, we also pride art that allows the audience to not only have an experience, but that the art leaves enough iconographic space so that that viewer’s experience may too be utterly unique and individual. Thus the audience in so many cases, not the artist forms the ideas. Shifting the power from what could be described as the ruling class of this analogy, to the layman.

Baudelaire –‘On the Heroism of Modern Life’, from Salon of 1846

Tuesday, 9 November 2010

Women - Eve

I took some time at my a-levels looking at the apple of discord – that is the sin of the world, embodied in the skin of a fallen apple, in art. At that time, I was of course fascinated in the arts, but far from an art historian. This week, I’ve seen a painting that speaks of great clarity of a history of women. And it comes in the form of works I am constantly revelling in at the moment, the pre-Raphaelite, and surrounding schools, as seen in the stunning lady of John Collier’s painting that I spoke about in Women – Female Virtue, and is in Last Summer Things Were Greener, at Birmingham Museum and Art Gallery, by John Byam Liston Shaw.

Eve Overcome by Remorse was exhibited by the American artist Anna Lea Merritt at the Royal Academy in 1885. The painting echoes Rubens’ The Judgement of Paris (pictured.) From the sensual, soft painterly touch to skin of the three beautiful Greco-Romans that Paris must chose between; the palette selection, and the treatment of the natural world. According to this tale, the golden apple that Paris holds is an allegory for discord – the disruption to harmony caused by the competition and jealously introduced at Paris’ decision. Like the disruption to peaceful and perfect bliss in the Garden of Eden when the fall occurs.

If Eve is womankind than I believe it is of great testament that it is a female artist who grasps the emotional burden of Eve. It’s been a significant part of discussion in our seminars - the extent in which male and female are depicted differently according to the gender of the artist. The point of Eve in the story of creation is that she is blamed for giving into temptation, and then she follows the serpent’s suggestion and becomes the temptress to Adam. And so, depicted throughout art history, we can relate how men’s [comparative] strength is flaunted. Yet, we all know that Eve’s giving into the bittersweet treat was no more intentional than Adam’s latter feast. And this is what so many depictions of the scene lack.

Remorse, regret, self-assigned shame. Eve is a woman who is self-aware (the Biblical passage tells us this is the impact of fall) – she is not proud in the knowledge of what she has done. She shields her body and her face, curls up in a protective foetus; the apple in anger has been tossed aside, out of reach and sight - rejected.

This again is an image of virtue, for although it doesn’t appear so on outer appearances; Eve is a woman who knows what is wrong and right and will not stand emotionless when she is in the knowledge of her sin.

Pictured left: ‘Ever Overcome By Remorse’ 1885, Anna Lea Merritt

Right: ‘The Judgement of Paris’ 1632-5, by Peter Paul Rubens

The Pre-Raphaelite woman is in strong display at Birmingham Museum and Art Gallery.


Monday, 8 November 2010

Flâneur and Badaud

Behind the Impressionist concept of an artist, I believe lays the foremost way for all to engage with art.

The Impressionist artist was a unique type of person. He was very much more than an artist for he required specialist skills. In fact there was a group, a subsection within the movement, who barely spoke of themselves as artists alone. They were the flâneur: an exclusive selection of pseudo-gentry with enough dosh to not work, but to spend their days roaming, looking. Looking for nothing in particular, and thus always successfully finding things of interest.

They were the artist-observer and in this concept was founded a new art that was both more spontaneous and documentary. These were no longer composed portraits and scenes; and no longer people and places documented how those inhabiting it wished, but how the on-looker happened to find them.

In contrast to the flâneur, is the badaud (the clue is embedded in the suffix), also in Victor Fournel ’s Ce qu’on voit dans les rues de Paris, 1858, who was a literary concomitant of Degas and Manet, and all of whom were complying flâneurs. The badaud live in a world where things inessential or lacking in appropriacy to that very moment are lost, unnoticed.

At the birth of modernity, here is a thoroughly contemporary idea for us today. For we are surrounded by imagery constantly that every piece is desperate to capture our attention, and inversely becomes even less doted upon. The same applies with photography; the creative medium loses its significance when happy snappy shots are so regularly taken on phones and uploaded to social networking sites. Imagine the time when paintings in gallery in the major cities, or frescos and altarpieces on the walls of the churches were the only visual produce. How much more precious would these be?

I’d love to restore this interest in art. Yet, I believe it commences with the artist-observer: with a renewed intention in looking. Because once you look, you begin to make visual revelations…creative ideas. And this is the key to enjoying art – allowing yourself to be captured by what you see.