Art Thoughts, Week 13 -- Hugo & Charm


Huy (Valley of the Meuse), Jean Hugo (French, 1894—1984), 1941, oil on canvas, BF 2091.

A word which immediately jumps to mind while looking at a painting by Jean Hugo is “charming.” His style, much like a children’s book illustrator’s, weaves itself into your sentiments, and reminds you vaguely of a place you remember liking, but which is foggy in memory. And foggy is appropriate for this painting, Huy (Valley of the Meuse): this is a very foggy place.

But, besides memory’s numinous fog, and the stylistic affinities with illustration, what is it that imparts charm in this painting? Charm is inherently mysterious to the one who is being charmed, and hard to explain. But I believe much of it has to do with our memories. When many find something charming, like a village square, for example, it is probably connected to a commonly-held memory or trope which has been societally imparted. Rather, if it is more individually charming, then perhaps it is a more specific memory or desire that is particular to one’s own psyche, development and history. Another interesting way to think of it is by its relationship to song, or singing. Etymologists trace charm back to the Latin carmen, which means “song,” or back farther still, canere, “to sing.” If something sings or calls alluringly to us – sings our tune, so to speak – then we are being “charmed.”

And there is much to be said about the style of this painting that is definitely charming: the lovely pink brick pattern in the foreground house; the cursory serpentine lines for roof tiles; the lovingly stereotypical treatment to the orchard trees on the knoll; the consistent black dabs for windows in the village, and for the buildings far in the background, on the hills overlooking the river. But here’s an important distinction to make: once our eyes begin moving towards the river basin and foothills to which the roof ridges point, and away from the village, the sky grows cloudier; the bends of the river become shrouded in mysterious fog and steam, and the color is more monochromatic. In other words, it is becoming more “believable” as it grows more artistically “abstract”. We are, in a way, moving away from charm. Just as importantly, this inherently involves the human hand. Notice how, in the foreground, what imparts charm is the snug, tidy village feel, seen in the tended wall and houses; the trim and lovingly-cultivated orchard; the neat, clean village…in fact, the friendly passerby states this outright: this is a human-dependent state of being. And so as we move through the painting, towards the river Meuse, the landscape becomes more organic; more natured rather than nurtured; increasingly unstable to humans: less charming.

Something this painting might tell us about our sense of charm then, is that it is humanly based: when we find a landscape charming, it is most often redolent of human involvement – a French village; a bucolic Pennsylvania cow pasture. However, when we find a landscape not charming but strong, virile or sweeping, it is most often devoid of human involvement: think Grand Tetons, or the grand prairies and steppes of the Americas and Russia. Even those artists who wanted to evoke that unspoilt sweep of grand landscape, such as Alfred Bierstadt or the Hudson Valley painters were often tripped up by their own stagnant European sensibilities and cultural stereotypes. It was the filter through which they saw, and therefore painted. And Hugo has his own particular filter through which he saw and painted, as do we. It does help to be aware of this, though, and ask ourselves, why do I like this painting? Why do I find it charming (or not) and what does that say about me as a human?

Punky Bruise-ster  – (Monday, 21 April, 2008)  

You think you could pick us up one of those Hugos? Thanks.

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