Art Thoughts, Week 31 -- Utrillo & Perspective

Sacre Coeur, Montmartre, Maurice Utrillo (1883—1955) unknown date, oil on paperboard, BF 815.

Perspective is everything, right? Any subject, person, landscape or belief might undergo a sea change if only seen from a different perspective. The word itself could be rephrased (roughly) as “particular view”. That is, one person’s view, as is the case with this painting. There are two main ways to change perspective: firstly, by altering our mindset (psychologically); and secondly, by changing our location (spatially). And art can deal with either of these; in fact, one of the most enduringly powerful qualities of important artwork is that it causes us to either see from another’s perspective, or to significantly change our own – and not unusually, these two are connected, and cause each other to occur. Additionally, this process is often unwitting and gradual.

Utrillo’s “particular view” can be picked up on just by looking at any of his sixteen works in the Barnes Foundation collection. He had a certain way that he’d set up his easel (he was a street painter), facing this street at a certain askew angle; turned towards this church in a certain manner: he had tendencies towards certain setups, and repeated them. Mostly, buildings, plazas and streets are faced head-on, with a certain amount of semi-vacuous space in front of them (between the subject and us, the viewers). In this, at least as far as the Barnes Utrillos are concerned, he is unwavering. That is, except for this painting: Sacre Coeur, Montmartre. Montmartre is a section of Paris, popular and thus populated with artists, but Utrillo himself was born there; he most likely knew the area intimately. Many of his scenes are of Montmartre, and as mentioned before, they are generally focused squarely on a building or group of buildings. His figures are rare and cursory; his trees are ephemeral and calligraphic – it is the hard edifices he is most passionate about. In this way, he seems to be continuously reaffirming in his own mind, through his practice of depicting things which are inanimate and generally unmoving, that this place is uniquely his.

But back to the picture at hand: Sacre Coeur, Montmartre. While discussing this painting with a co-worker, it occurred to us that it was somewhat of an aberration in Utrillo’s otherwise rigid styling. Namely, it had a strong, frontal element: a wonderfully graphic and lyrical picket fence, dancing across the relatively shallow foreground, where normally a gaping or triangulated plaza languishes. Instead of allowing the background building alone to animate the space, the vernacular fence has taken over, its folksy mazurka drowning out the Sacre Coeur Basilica’s majestic madrigal. It seems Utrillo has, however briefly, shifted his focus to the more humble and diminutive of buildings in this corner of Montmartre. In fact, the church is all but obscured by trees. But why – was it boredom, or a flash of inspiration? Was it the lure of a particular scene or the urge for a fresh perspective? Whatever it was, his perspective indeed changed.

Not all is completely different, however: the domes of Sacre Coeur, though on the back burner visually have as much presence as they would if Utrillo had made them the focal point. So, Utrillo has shifted his perspective, but he has not remade it. More than likely, he thereafter resorted to his typical pictorial duo of strong background subject or strong, foreshortened frontal shape, and semi-vacuous piazza. Something this time, though, caught his attention, and caused him to focus on a reversal of his practice – almost. He didn’t completely abandon his interest in powerful, central subject matter...but for a time, he seems to have painted in its backyard, rather than its doorstep.

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