Art Thoughts, Week 11 -- Sisley & Atmosphere

(N.B. - I pushed this essay out so hard, it almost hurt, so I may be editing/adding to it over the weekend...but my thoughts, though raw, are authentic). Actual painting above!

Saint Mammes – Loing Canal, Alfred Sisley (French, English, 1839—1899), 1884, oil on canvas, BF 224.

Impressionism as a name has always rubbed me the wrong way – given me the wrong “impression” so to speak. Not only has it become cliché, and is now thrown about to speak of post-impressionists and other related groups, it also doesn’t really give a clear idea of what these painters were really after. It has become the worst of titles: one which no longer clearly portrays even the abstracted idea it originally stood for.

I would rather the impressionists be called “atmospherists”, for that is what they were so doggedly after; not just an “impression” of a place, thing or emotion, but a representation (in the general sense) of the depth in front of them. To make a painting of a space – what impressionism and plein-air are so much about – it was necessary to neatly wrestle down and compress that space on to a canvas, sprung so tightly it looked ready to jettison at any moment: the transitional tension of the three-dimensional morphing into the two-dimensional. What a pent-up state! Yet these paintings are so often, from misunderstanding and overexposure, thought of as benign; saccharin; even obtuse. Think of this tension as the difference between the surface of a pastel, and the surface of a lithograph. Upon very close inspection, much of the actual pastel medium is suspended above the paper, perched as it were on the paper fibers, creating a sense of atmosphere; spaces between the stuff. On a lithograph, the ink has bonded with the paper, the compression of spatial sense (as far as material is concerned) being endemic to that medium.

Enter Alfred Sisley. One of his paintings owned by the Barnes Foundation, Saint Mammes – Loing Canal, I hadn’t even noticed until a few weeks ago. It is a small, but sweeping sky-scape, lodged in a corner of the thirteenth gallery. But it feels epic when you look at it closely. Sisley is admired for his evocative, emotional and atmospherically accurate skies. The brushwork brings to mind Pissaro, or the more oblique haystacks of his friend Monet, when the cataracts were getting the better of him (or, making him better). This particular sky looks like that tightly wound spring mentioned previously: each layer is like a coil, compressed into the three-quarter space Sisley has given it; arcing from southwest to northeast, following roughly the sweep of the sun and the compositional direction towards the focal point. In fact, the whole painting seems swiftly tilting rightwards. Yet it also has a calm, luxurious economy; a group of ducks in the canal foreground is made simply of a dash here and there of lead white and black; the roofs of a small lock-house, two pips of vermilion. This painting, though sweeping and taut, is anchored like an enormous kite on a sturdy line. The sky may buck and reel according to its own will, but Sisley’s sense of grounded-ness doesn’t let him get too carried away with too roiling of an atmosphere. This spring has a firm footing.


Spring and the studio

Alright, time for another interlude of recent photos of studio work, etcetera.

Below you'll see what I've been working on this past weekend, and last evening. Along with cleaning out the entire backyard, pruning the grapes and apple trees, thinning the raspberries and strawberries, and installing a new rain-barrel, I began building some raised beds. Vicki and I have missed container gardening since we left the apartment, but also like having the extra space at the house, so we came to a compromise, and I've begun putting in these beds for my vegetables and herbs. Raised bed gardening, especially for "kitchen gardens", has a rich and long history, back to medieval Europe, and was particularly popular with Pennsylvania German farmwives, who favored the "four-square" layout (four square beds in a grid). Here, I am digging the post holes for the second bed, and below that you'll see the first bed, sans seat (which I began last night...I love these later-lit evenings).

Since Vicki took these pictures, I've decided to take a board off the top, making them a bit shorter. It would have taken too much soil to fill them, and about thirteen inches is plenty high. I'm hoping to pick up some free compost from Fairmount Park to fill much of the beds.

And of course seasons come and go, but I keep plugging away at the studio. I've already shown this painting on the blog, but that was before I added the little bit of colored strips curling off at the top. The working title is Cede. (The shot is a bit dark).

I also showed some shots of prescription slips I'd been painting different colors on both sides, but here is the finished piece, with the folded origamis-of-a-door papers affixed to a nice piece of Arches paper. As you can see it needs some flattening, but I'll be framing this for the house soon, I hope. Still working on a title for this one.

And, lastly, I have long had a fascination with flattened Chinese takeout boxes, and have approached them from many angles. Lately though I've had trouble getting into a drawing mindset, which is what I previously did with them, so I decided to just start painting on some I had sitting around. The drawing idea came after that. This particular one is in latex paint, marker and yellow enamel, and is based on the Forsythia which is just coming around again now.

Have a great Spring; next Art Thoughts coming right up.


Art Thoughts, Week 10 -- Picasso and Self-Awareness

(above: an image of the actual painting discussed! Wow!)
Figures with a Goat, Pablo Picasso (French, 1881—1973), 1906, oil on canvas, BF 250.

Very, very often the thing which annoys me most about art writing is when an otherwise erudite author gives in to flights of speculation, whether on meaning, intent, content, context or otherwise. The examples of this tendency I find especially egregious are the psychological and psychosexual, ala Freud. I tend to want hard, formalistic proof.

All that being said, please throw a grain of salt my way, as I am going to delve into that very place with a Picasso painting at the Barnes Foundation, Figures with a Goat. Picasso’s potency (in sundry ways) is well known, even documented. When he did this picture, he was twenty-five, and probably as virile as he would ever be, and thus to imbue his production with that light shouldn’t be unreasonable – its content was undoubtedly linked to his sexual urges, as any well-balanced artist’s might be. And he painted this picture while on an enjoyable trip with a female companion – wouldn’t it be unlikely that he not be influenced by hormones, as well as the light, space, texture and form around him?

The paintings from this period, of which this is one, have been called Rose – as well as Flesh – Period paintings. Fresh, young humanity is displayed here, replete in a rainbow of pinks, scarlets and madders. There are three characters in this scene: a pre-pubescent, statuesque girl; a younger and less demure boy with a water pot on his head, and a ram of dubious intent. Behind them is a simple, draped backdrop, looking almost like the shallow set for a modernist play. This type of uniform pink could suggest several things: youth, freshness, innocence. (It also could be coquettish, but it is too early for that here.) The value of the paint in this picture is fairly consistent and almost monochromatically pink. It varies in a few distinct spots, however: the head, hair and upper arms of the girl; the head and water pot of the boy, and less so, in the ram’s head and horns. What this deepening of the pink into madder rose suggests is a warming or ripening of sorts; an area of maturation or growth, or emerging consciousness and self-awareness. Taking the proposition of latent sexuality, the girl’s darkening head signifies her being on the brink of mentally realizing her blossoming sexual allure; for the boy, the darkened water pot signifies his developing realization of his sexual capability and desire, and his body as both its vessel and eventually, tool. Both of them, by bodily evidence, are still underdeveloped sexually, however they are moving into a limnal sort of sexual realization.

But what of the goat? He is a more mysterious character. Goats, possibly because of their long sessions of heat called ruts, have long been used to symbolize carnality, virility and temptation. Here the goat seems to be of the ilk of those animals with a particularly omniscient bent, which are sometimes seen in human scenes in art and literature, and have more insight into the human condition than even those involved. The goat provides our aside in this play; through his gaze we are told what the girl and boy cannot see; that they are maturing sexually, and will soon pry open a Pandora’s Box of complexity along with it. Thus, their Rose period will end, and a harder and more flawed, but richer, and more aware life will emerge for them.


Art Thoughts, Week 9 -- Renoir & Revolution

(above, Pierre-Auguste Renoir, Chestnut Tree Blooming...and, the usual disclaimer: it is not the painting I speak of below, but something complement your reading.)

Chestnut Trees, Pont-Aven, Pierre-Auguste Renoir, French, 1841—1919, c. 1892, oil on canvas, BF 242.

Two admissions off the bat: firstly, Renoir, though definitely being the artist with the greatest number of works at the Barnes Foundation, is by no means my favorite; secondly, of all his works, his pieces most usually adored by the public (e.g. The Artist’s Family; Mother and Child, etc.) I find at best pedantic, and at worst overlookable. That leaves me to say that my favorite (read: personal preference; therefore incontrovertible, thank you very much) are his landscapes. Renoir’s landscapes: those often chaotic and conflicted paintings, seemingly the result of a naturalistic and aesthetic struggle, and normally devoid of people.

An example: Chestnut Trees, Pont-Aven. Here is an example of where enlightened, unbiased scholars say Renoir was truly revolutionary and avant-garde: the tumultuous, swirling activity of his painterly craft in the mid-life landscapes; the contortion and compression of space; the glossolalia of brushwork techniques; the drastic, almost monochromatic color schemes of siennas and emeralds; lemons and mints.

Dwell on this as a mindset for a bit, while gazing at one of Renoir’s landscapes (i.e. a painting where the figure is nominal) and you will begin to be reminded of his truly revolutionary place among the arc of Western painters and painting (the Australian painter Peter Doig perhaps being one of his aesthetic progeny, with the additional element of a core mysticism).

And truly, there is conflict here, in Chestnut Trees, Pont-Aven: its surface reminds me of an exercise my mother did with me when I was enthusiastic about embroidery in my early teens. It was a wood duck, stitched on a linen-like material, each part of its elaborate anatomy stitched in an intricate and different needling technique – adding up to an ordering of disorders; a gathering of idiosyncrasies; a convention of unconventionalities. In the painting, there’s hatching, dry-brush, outline; there is pentimenti, sgrafitto, impasto; Matissean coloring-book like fillings-in; piles and stacks of color, and strata of space, land, tree and sky. Renoir was seemingly doing everything in his power to keep up with the tableau constantly shifting in front of him; none of his arsenal was left untouched. To get a sense of the difficulty of this for a painter, think of a breezy day in sunny June. What more complex interplay of light and shadow; layering and movement can one imagine?

Lest we get lost in this maelstrom, one lone, skinny tree reminds us that we are in the land of Cezanne – a hot, dusty, rocky and bright terrain. Perhaps the heat was getting to Renoir while he painted this gem, much like the sun to Meursault in Camus’s The Stranger, and that is what made all the glowing difference. Verity was more often found for Renoir while outside, rather than inside, and in this way he showed himself to be, at least in the glossy-leaved fullness of his middle life, at his heart an impressionist...and therefore, a revolutionary.


Art Thoughts, Week 8 -- Rouault & Symbols

(Please note: as usual, the above image - this time by Rouault - is not the actual piece I'm discussing...but it does - as might be expected - exhibit similar qualities to the one I'm talking about. Of course, visiting the Barnes Foundation would be best...)

Acrobat with Two Dogs (Clown), Georges Rouault, French, 1871—1958, 1922, oil on canvas, BF 883.

Interesting, isn’t it, how one artist – even one work by that artist – can evoke two absolutely different, even opposing, sensations? Many paintings by Rouault do this to me. The particular characteristic of his paintings looking like stained glass is often repeated, but valid. (This is usually attributed to his having been apprenticed to a stained glass workshop). To me, though, there is much more depth in his paintings than stained glass could ever achieve; it’s more like looking at a grizzled stone wall through stained glass. And that’s the other sensation I get when I look at Rouault’s work, that of stone: of time immemorial; of hewed roughness; of generation upon generation of lichens growing upon each other.

Interestingly enough, yet another feature which popped into my head while looking at Acrobat with Two Dogs (Clown), is related to the two aforementioned, and that is its iconic quality. And this shouldn’t really be a surprise after one knows that Rouault was a life-long devotee to traditional – and not so traditional – spiritual paths. The acrobat in question in this Foundation painting has what might be a rather aquiline nose. Outlined in black as it is, it relates well to many facial features of traditional icons, which tend to be elongated, contemplative and solemn. Of course, something else which accentuates the iconic look of the figure is the paint layering mentioned before. Icons tend to have the cachet of age and wear; here the paint is obviously “piled up” – red on top of blue, on top of green, on top of brown, etcetera; each peeking through enough so that the combined effect is very stone-like. Of course, most stones are not flat, and neither is the surface of this painting: within the dark outlines of the acrobat’s features and limbs, this “piling up” of paint builds up quite an impasto, lending even more to the feel of stone masonry. In this way, Rouault’s painting reminds me somewhat of work by Tobi Kahn; a Jewish-American artist who paints mostly land- and sky-inspired abstractions. One distinct feature of his painting style though, is how the borders between his colors and shapes are very concretely preserved, and between them the paint is gathered together, so to speak, lending an almost lunar, undulating permanency to the painting’s surface. The borders become valleys; the colors and shapes are gently-swelling hills. And in their own way, Kahn’s works are also iconic and spiritual, but by way of a different route: he names his paintings with faux-Hebrew words – that are, incidentally, utterly convincing to non-Hebraic eyes. Rouault on the other hand, using humanity as his subject as he did, portrays this spirituality as a fleshly struggle within life. This acrobat becomes a symbol of the human animal’s obstinacy and sometimes silly resoluteness.

And, we might well ask, why an acrobat? Well, what is an acrobat except someone who routinely defies conventionality, even the serious “conventions” of gravity and safety? Here is a person who stands, arms akimbo, in the face of the drudgery and, at times, yawning vacuity of life; an entertaining warrior fighting for us all. And the discipline of acrobatics themselves are a symbol of that same flinty resolve to make life the best that we might…by pushing the envelope of the existence that is handed to us when we each arrive; by giving us the excuse to cross boundaries, laugh at ourselves and each other while doing it, and discover a strange grace in the whole mix.

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