Archive for December, 2013

UA1-WA:P3-p2-Ex Visit a public square

This exercise requires a visit to a public square and review of the sculpture there. I chose Martin Place which cuts across the centre of Sydney, from George Street and the GPO in the west up to Macquarie Street – a total of over 450 m, although broken up into five sections by cross streets. I originally intended to focus on the first section outside the GPO (General Post Office – now a hotel, restaurants, shops etc), but widened my search when I discovered that this major city space has very little sculpture.

Martin Place looking from the west end (George St)

Martin Place looking from the west end (George St)

Martin Place from the east end (Macquarie St)

Martin Place from the east end (Macquarie St)

I used to think of this extended space as the centre of Sydney – literally as distances are measured from the GPO at one end, but also used as a gathering place and connecting business, shopping and government areas. The city is more complicated now, and when I visited this week it seemed rather lost and forlorn – many offices are closed or scaled down for the holiday season, the big end of year sales are a block or two to the south, and most temporary structures have been removed ready for the New Years Eve crush.

As you may be able to see in the overview photos there is a lot of street furniture in Martin Place – seating, kiosks with flowers, newspapers or drinks, various banners and signs, trees, also an amphitheatre area. However I was surprised at how little sculpture I could find.

martin_place_01The Cenotaph, built as a memorial to soliders in the First World War and now a memorial to so many more, stands prominently in the space outside the GPO, arguably at the heart of Sydney. The bravery, mateship, determination, skill and intelligence of the Australian troops in action in WWI, and particularly at Gallipoli (ultimately a costly failure), has come to have iconic significance in Australian cultural identity – the “ANZAC legend” (Australian and New Zealand Army Corps). A Dawn Service is held each year in Martin Place on April 25th (ANZAC day), the anniversary of the landing of the first wave of Australians at Gallipoli in 1915.

martin_place_02The Cenotaph’s base is Moruya granite. The two bronze sentinel figures, a soldier and a sailor, are by Sir Bertram MacKennal. This sculpture is a clear statement of national identity and civic pride. War by its nature is an expression of power, but this memorial’s focus remains personal. The figures are based on individuals, the Dawn Service is not about dignitaries, and I have seen many personal bunches of flowers among the wreaths.

Behind the Cenotaph can be seen part of the GPO, including some of the extensive carving and many statues. Constructed between 1864 and 1891 the building was intended to symbolise Sydney, rather like the Houses of Parliament in London. The marble sculptures, designed by Tomaso Sani and carved in Italy by Giovanni Fontana, caused an outcry when unveiled, with both naturalistic style and representations of real people seen as unsuitable. Questions were asked in Parliament and removal of the figures considered. The uproar over the sculptures seen as crass and low-brow shows the aspirations of the establishment of the time. The intended political and economic message may have been temporarily lost, but after only a short time few passing this large and imposing building would be aware of the lack.

martin_place_03At the other end of this first section of Martin Place there is currently a Christmas tree, which could be seen as a sculpture and an indication of influence of a sub-section of the community. This area is often used for temporary displays and sculptures – not so long ago gigantic snails in neon coloured recycled plastic. My impression is that the works are often ones that appeal to the young or young at heart – a little lightness and fun in the centre of the city.

martin_place_06Crossing Pitt Street to the next section of Martin Place one comes to a curved wall of water, the Lloyd Rees fountain (1972, rebuilt and moved slightly in the mid 1990s). Lloyd Rees (1895-1988) was a prominent landscape painter and is quoted on the fountain’s plaque “what else is a city – if it’s not a gallery of beautiful buildings”. The fountain also had a difficult initial history. Planned as part of a series of works pedestrianizing the block the City Council dropped the proposed fountain due to budgetary concerns. Rees responding by leading a public subscription to raise the necessary funds.

martin_place_07The fountain now serves a number of needs. Structurally the wall of the fountain serves as the back of the amphitheatre behind, taking advantage of the slope of the land. It brings sparkling light and the sound of running water to the area, and it is clearly a popular spot to sit. I didn’t actually know the name of the fountain until preparing for this Exercise, and I suspect the fountain is not particularly effective as a memorial to Rees.

martin_place_04There is not much else of note in this section of Martin Place. There are a couple of building sites – one with the hoarding used by a local art school to advertise their end of year show.

martin_place_09This photograph is taken from the third section, looking back (you can see the clock tower of the GPO at the very right of the photo). In the foreground is another aspect of the site’s functional purpose – one of the entrances to Martin Place railway station. Also of note is the break formed by the MLC centre and the mushroom of the Commercial Travellers’ Association premises in the wall of buildings stretching along Martin Place. At this point of my exploration I found the mix of textures and shapes in the cityscape of more interest than any sculpture visible. The narrow fourth section of the Place is even more featureless.

martin_place_10The final section of Martin Place has a number of items of interest. The thumbnail shows the Commando Memorial dedicated in 1982 in memory of members of Australian independent companies commando squadrons and special forces in WWII. I like the brisk and practical presentation of the memorial as seating, as well as the splash of colour and texture in the area.

martin_place_11Passage by Anne Graham was created in 2001 as part of the Sydney Sculpture Walk. With its deep bronze bowls the sculpture references to the location’s past, including the domestic use of water (the lower part of Martin Place was built over the Tank Stream, a significant water source in the early colony). There is also a mist function which creates ghostly outlines of demolished houses, but I can’t recall ever seeing that in action. This work in a gentle and understated way celebrates the social and domestic history of inner Sydney. The separate elements are sensitive to the needs of pedestrians, while allowing the sculpture as a whole a larger footprint and presence. I’ve read that the mist of water can cause difficulties to passersby and this may be behind its relatively infrequent use. On a sunny day it seemed a missed opportunity.

martin_place_14The final sculpture I identified here is actually on the forecourt of the Reserve Bank of Australia (RBA) Building – Free standing sculpture by Margel Hinder (1964). Its abstract but rather gothic form contrasts and responds to the clean International Style architecture of the building.

martin_place_15Although named “Free standing” the sculpture closely wraps the external pilaster, almost like ivy up a wall.
martin_place_16The sculpture reaches virtually the full height of the portico and for what is actually quite a large item (2 tons of copper with a solid steel core) it seems almost self-effacing. I think this is due to the relative shadow under the building and the height difference from the level of a pedestrian in Martin Place up to the sculpture itself. In an RBA publication there is a rather nice reproduction of a cartoon by Paul Rigby, where Hindel’s sculpture has become an overbearing bank manager leaning intimidatingly over the desk towards the overdrawn (ho ho) Rigby – see, page 17. The sculpture is an effective expression of the importance and economic might of the RBA, and of its confident, modern and progressive stance at the time built.

martin_place_13I think this upper section of Martin Place is the most successful in the combination and placement of sculpture – the Commando memorial, Passage and Free standing sculpture. Each work has its own place and identity. The space overall has plenty of interest and variety, while the needs of people moving through are treated considerately. Even the shadows contributed to the overall effect, providing extra layers of visual texture.

The lower part of Martin Place also meets ceremonial, practical and to an extent aesthetic needs. However the middle three sections from above the Lloyd Rees fountain are a wasteland with utility apparently the major goal. It’s true that often the amphitheatre is in use and the area just above filled with temporary stands and activities, however this is the area I would focus on if commissioning a new sculpture.

Most of the current furnishings of Martin Place are low, with only banners and trees breaking above human height. Certainly nothing challenges or even directly relates to the tall buildings around. I would like to introduce something with height, which would also allow the footprint of the work to be relatively small, useful in a busy area with high pedestrian traffic. Many of the surrounding buildings are fairly old and built in sandstone, so a contrast in materials could be effective. Martin Place can also be quite dark and overshadowed by the buildings around, so a sculpture that reflects light around could brighten the area.

While this overall brief is quite general and could be interpreted by an artist in many ways, there is a work already available which would meet requirements. In fact it was designed for this exact location.

martin_place_19Pyramid Tower (1979) by Bert Flugelman won a 1978 design competition organised by the Sir William Dobell Art Foundation and the city council. I’m not sure of the precise location where it was installed in 1979 as things have been moved about a little, but close to the Lloyd Rees fountain. Even before installation it was controversial, seen as too large for the space (see Glascott, 1979). It was quickly nicknamed “the shish kebab”. One woman I knew, the art teacher mother of a friend, believed it was too derivative (I think she may have been referring to the work of David Smith – eg The sculpture was removed in 1996 – the area was being remodelled and the mayor of the time seemed particularly negative to the work. After a few years of uncertainty the sculpture was re-established a few blocks further down Pitt Street.

martin_place_20martin_place_18Pyramid Tower now sits on a small traffic island surrounded by buildings and rarely catching the sun. I think it sits well in the area, sharing reflections with the buildings around and giving a different perspective to passersby. It seems strange that a work that was considered to need more space than Martin Place should now be in such cramped quarters, but it seems flexible enough to give pleasure and interest in its new surroundings. There have been suggestions of reinstatement (see links below), but I can’t see it getting any traction.

That still leaves a large section of Martin Place in the wilderness in sculptural terms. The City of Sydney Council has an active arts and cultural program, but it seems to have bypassed the heart of Sydney.

More information

The Cenotaph –
GPO sculptures – and
Works by Lloyd Rees –
Lloyd Rees fountain –
Redevelopment including Lloyd Rees fountain –
Passage water sculpture –
Pyramid Tower – Glascott, J. (1979) “Controversy over site for sculpture” in The Sydney Morning Herald 11-April-1979 [online] Available from,3540518 (Accessed 30-Dec-2013).
Pyramid Tower relocation – and
City of Sydney Council arts and culture program –

UA1-WA:P3-p2-Ex Visit a public square
Understanding Art 1 – Western Art.
Part three: Modern art and still life
Project two: From 1945 to the present
Exercise: Visit a public square

UA1-WA:P3-p2-Ex Reflecting on abstract expressionism

This exercise asks for thoughts on some questions on abstract expressionism.

To what extent does a concern with elemental humanity represent a reaction to the cataclysmic events of 1939-45 and the displacement of so many Europeans, including a number of artists, in the wake of the Second World War?

The impact of war on twentieth century art was seen well before the Abstract Expressionists. Picasso’s Guernica of 1937 (see may be the best known example. Before that, the searing brutality of works by Otto Dix (for example, George Grosz and Max Beckmann and the grief of Käthe Kollwitz ( responded to WWI. Denvir (1975, p. 55) described Grosz as “using visual violence to excoriate the establishment and propagate his own democratic ideas”.

The words of some artists show the impact of the war. Newman recalled “in 1940 some of us woke up to find ourselves without hope – to find that painting did not really exist” (Newman, [n.d.]) In a radio broadcast in 1943 Rothko and Gottlieb claimed tragic content was the only response as “in times of violence, personal predilections for niceties of colour and form seem irrelevant” (Rothko and Gottlieb, 1943). Another quote from Rothko: “I’m interested only in expressing basic human emotions – tragedy, ecstasy, doom” (Rothko, [n.d.] a)

American artists in this period were turning against the previously accepted traditions of Old World painting and I think it is possible that this was influenced by a perception of failure of the traditional systems in politics as well as art. They may also have felt able to venture away from recent European-based movements such as Surrealism because of the sense that the cutting edge of culture and artistic development was now in America, and particularly New York. There was a feeling of “immanent self-importance” and “a common goal was perceived to be the mystery, violence and spontaneity associated with the modern experience on all its levels” (Anfam, 1990, p. 79).

Another indirect impact of WWII was felt when Cold War supporters in America promoted Abstract Expressionism, the movement becoming “enshrined as America’s aesthetic ambassador to the world and a symbol of its superior freedoms” (Anfam, 1990, p. 174).

Rothko said that, ‘The people who weep before my pictures are having the same religious experience I had when I painted them. And if you, as you say, are moved only by their color relationships, then you miss the point’. Does it matter if viewers of art works ‘miss the point’ provided that they take something from it?

This question connects back to earlier discussion on myths as a subject in art – see 2-Nov-2013 – and Rothko himself used symbolism from myth, “totem forms and hieroglyphic annotations [to] evoke such grand themes as conflict, sexuality and death” (McAuliffe, 2013, p. 28). In my November post I suggested that meaning could be shared without knowing the specifics of a myth, that some gestures are universal and speak to shared humanity.

To me that argument doesn’t seem to hold when considering abstract expressionism, but this is at odds with a conviction spreading in the late 1930s “that meaning could be conveyed through the physical primacy of the medium” (Anfam, 1990, p. 55).

Rothko also said “It is our function as artists to make the spectator see the world our way – not his way”, but I don’t think I can bridge the distance of time and culture. I spent time with two works by Rothko in Canberra – Multiform 1948 ( ) and 1957 # 20 ( maroon_treeI have no notion whether my emotions and thoughts overlapped in even the smallest way with Rothko’s as he painted. Perhaps there was some direct connection – who could ever say? I don’t believe it invalidates my experience one way or another. I spent time looking at the painted surface as a painted surface, and in a less focused reverie. On my walk to the gallery the next morning I saw this tree a bit differently. It seems trivial, but to me it is real and meaningful.

Sometimes it seems arrogant to me, the expectation placed on viewer by the artists combined with minimal support. On the other hand, perhaps it was a combination of a belief in the power of their medium and a meaning that they couldn’t express in words. Speaking about She Wolf (1943) Pollock remarked it “came into existence because I had to paint it. Any attempt on my part to say something about it, to attempt explanation of the inexplicable, could only destroy it” (Pollock, 1944). Speaking about the same painting, an audio commentary on the MoMA website comments on the “rather frantic notations as if there were some message being transcribed … this urgency of human communications and yet you don’t know exactly what that communication is” (MoMA, [n.d.]).

Thaw (1986, p.43) wrote “While the Abstract Expressionists as a group have overwhelmingly proved that abstract art can serve as a vehicle for the revelation of the unconscious, and therefore be a means to communicate artistic content of urgency to humanity, such meaning cannot be forced and must remain unspecific, untranslatable into words”. Perhaps I am showing my inexperience in Art and Art History by expecting to verbalise the communication of a painting.

Is it possible to make any sort of formal analysis of these artists’ works – or of Pop Art?

The ambiguity inherent in abstract expressionism creates a difficulty in analysis. De Kooning said “That’s what fascinates me – to make something that you will never be sure of, and no one else will either” (de Kooning, 1972).

Basic visual elements remain, or their absence can be noted: lines and their nature, use of colour and tone, texture, depth of space, ground, shapes. There may be patterning, rhythms, differing density, stresses, different marks.

Modern art may try to stress its autonomy, but there is always context – other work by the same artist, works by other artists, social and political conditions. Art may be responding to or commenting on consumerism, or exploring the artist’s own psyche, or experimenting with optical effects or the way materials interact.

Much of this is open to description, comparison and evaluation – analysis. However “meaning” is more difficult.

What do you make of Clement Greenberg’s assertion that ‘Realist, illusionist art had dissembled the medium, using art to conceal art. Modernism used art to call attention to art.’?

I mentioned Greenberg when writing about Blue Poles (26-Dec-2013). Greenberg championed Pollock when the work met his (Greenberg’s) theories about focus on surface and materials, then withdrew support (“shaky”) when Pollock stepped outside the theoretical boundaries. Honour and Fleming (2009, p. 844) conclude their discussion of Modernism and Formalism “[Greenberg’s] extreme version of Modernism can now be seen as belonging essentially to the Cold War years and in some respects limited by its reflection of that ideological and political climate”. Greenberg’s assertion quoted in the question is arguable true – “art” itself was the subject of some of the Abstract Expressionist art – but it isn’t complete. That was the concern of some artists of that time and quite possibly today, however other artists then and now have other concerns, and of course the same artist may have different concerns at different times. If art is an autonomous field of practice then any theoretical limits have to be provisional. That last bit came mostly from Glenn Adamson’s thinking through craft which I wrote about in a post 6-July-2012, so I won’t repeat here, however I will repeat a quote from John McDonald (2012) – when considering contemporary art “one can be a fashion victim rather than an art historian and no one will notice the difference”.


Adamson, G. (2007) thinking through craft, Oxford: Berg.

Anfam, D. (1990) Abstract Expressionism. London: Thames & Hudson

de Kooning, W. (1972), quoted in Anfam, D. (1990) Abstract Expressionism. London: Thames & Hudson, p. 179.

Denvir, B. (1975) Fauvism and Expressionism. London: Thames and Hudson.

Honour, H. and Fleming, J. (2009) A World History of Art (revised 7th edition). London: Laurence King.

McAuliffe, C. (2013) “America: Fascinating background to the works on show” in Look 12(13)/ 01(14) pp. 26-29. Sydney: Art Gallery Society of New South Wales.

McDonald, J. (2012) “In with the new” The Sydney Morning Herald 23-June-2012 [online] Available from (Accessed 6 July 2012)

MoMa (The Museum of Modern Art) ([n.d.]) Jackson Pollock The She Wolf 1943 multimedia. [online] Available from (Accessed 21-Dec-2013).

Newman, B. ([n.d.]), quoted in Anfam, D. (1990) Abstract Expressionism. London: Thames & Hudson, p.77.

Pollock, J. (1944), quoted in Anfam, D. (1990) Abstract Expressionism. London: Thames & Hudson, p. 87.

Rothko, M. ([n.d.] a), quoted in Anfam, D. (1990) Abstract Expressionism. London: Thames & Hudson, p. 184.

Rothko, M. ([n.d.] b), quoted in McAuliffe, C. (2013) “America: Fascinating background to the works on show” in Look 12(13)/ 01(14) pp. 26-29. Sydney: Art Gallery Society of New South Wales.

Rothko, M. and Gottlieb, A. (1943), quoted in Anfam, D. (1990) Abstract Expressionism. London: Thames & Hudson, p. 78.

Thaw, E. (1986) “The Abstract Expressionists.” in The Metropolitan Museum of Art Bulletin, 44 (3) (Winter, 1986–87). [online] Available from (Accessed 25-December-2013)

Other resources Website of the MoMA Abstract Expressionist New York exhibition October 2010 to April 2011.

UA1-WA:P3-p2-Ex Reflecting on abstract expressionism
Understanding Art 1 – Western Art.
Part three: Modern art and still life
Project two: From 1945 to the present
Exercise: Reflecting on abstract expressionism

UA1-WA:P3-p2-Ex Annotate an abstract work – Blue Poles

During this course I’ve felt a bit defensive at times, working hard to throw off the shackles of colonialism slash imperialism, the tyranny of distance, the cultural cringe. This is my moment – the photograph in the course notes illustrating this exercise shows Blue Poles by Jackson Pollock and it’s here in Australia. One could argue that we just swapped one colonial master for another and that Australian culture is still cringing, which has elements of truth – but not the whole truth and not relevant to the fact that a few weeks ago I was able to catch a bus to Canberra, just 3.5 hours down the road, and sit in front of Blue Poles at the National Gallery of Australia.

Blue poles [Number 11, 1952] by Jackson Pollock (1952). Enamel and aluminium paint with glass on canvas. 212.1 (h) x 488.9 (w) cm.

bluepoles_carparkI can’t include a proper photo (the one on the right is of a signpost to parking at the gallery). There is a wonderful video on the gallery website,, with full views that give an idea of scale and also lots of great closeups. The video is definitely worth the time – I recommend choosing “full screen”, then clicking the button top right to turn off scaling. In fact if you have limited time I say forget any flat photographs of the full work or anything I have to say below – just watch the video. The presentation by Christine Nixon, Senior Curator, International Painting and Sculpture, is interesting but sound doesn’t matter. The painting is the star.

Personal description

Jackson Pollock and Lee Krasner papers, circa 1914-1984. Archives of American Art, Smithsonian Institution.Exhibitions, Museum of Modern Art 1969, identification: Blue Poles

Jackson Pollock and Lee Krasner papers, circa 1914-1984. Archives of American Art, Smithsonian Institution.
Exhibitions, Museum of Modern Art 1969, undated
My identification, left to right: Blue Poles; ???; Number 27, 1951

Pollock said the viewer “should not look for but look passively and try to receive what the painting has to offer and not bring a subject matter or preconceived idea of what they are to be looking for” (Pollock, 1949, p.2), so that is what I attempted to do. From the notes I jotted at the time:
The scale and sheer physicality of the work impress. It has raw energy, shows physical effort. It is heroic in scale and heroic in execution – one imagines the sweat of effort in creation, the painter moving up, down, around, over the canvas on the floor or wall, his whole body involved in arcing gestures as he poured and dripped the paint. It is a captured action describing the process of painting.

There are many blues, also silver, white, yellow, red-orange… The blue or black is not just in poles, but laces across the canvas. There is a beige that seems to have been added quite late, but the complexity defies identification of a strict order of work although there must have been breaks to allow layers to dry. It seems that as well as the original gestural marks Pollock went back into the work, sometimes reconnecting areas that had been divided by a later colour.

The eye moves constantly across and around, smoothly flowing, not jerky. At times I was aware of the flat surface, then suddenly would be lost in the depth of the paint – the colour and layers, but also the literal paint, crusting or squidging up in shoeprints, thrusting up from the surface, creating lines of shadow that emphasise flow and movement.

The large scale of the work makes it easy to lose oneself inside the painting. The bench provided at the gallery is at a distance which makes one turn the head to see the sides; you can see some detail, but hop up to peer more closely at the intricate tangle of lines. Despite its size Blue Poles still seems human in scale, encompassed by the gestures of a man moving around it.

There are eight poles. They could be a tribal dance, dark silhouettes in front of the fire, or totems. Sometimes I thought of telegraph poles crossing a distance, or some strange kind of forest. The dance, movement, feels closest but it doesn’t seem to work to give them narrative meaning. They stabilise, give points of reference.

I was surprised that it didn’t feel raw to me, but polished. Was that the neat framing (a little glint of order) and gallery lighting? But the painting is almost self-framed, with less dense areas towards the edge. It stays in its frame – all that energy actually contained! – and my eye stayed in the frame.


Going West ca. 1934-1935 Jackson Pollock Smithsonian American Art Museum

Going West
ca. 1934-1935
Jackson Pollock
Smithsonian American Art Museum
38.3 x 52.7 cm

Jackson Pollock (1912 – 1956) was born in Wyoming USA and travelled to New York as a young man to train as a painter. He studied with Thomas Hart Benton who painted in a Regionalist manner. Benton’s influence can be seen in works such as Going West (ca 1934 – 1935).

Pollock, in common with other artists in New York around the 1940s, was looking for new ways meanings and new techniques in painting. Although influenced by recent European-based movements, in particular Surrealism, there was a sense that the cutting edge of culture and artistic development was now in America, and particularly New York. There was a feeling of “immanent self-importance” (Anfam, 1990, p. 79), and as described by Ann Temkin “the boldness of what these artists were trying to do … needed to be evident in how they made their paintings. Each of them invented essentially a new tactic for how to make a painting” (Temkin, 2010, 01:22).

Rather than comparison with the work of other abstract expressionists, it seems most helpful to view Blue Poles in the context of Pollock’s other work, developing from or reacting against his early studies with Benton.

Untitled (Composition with Figures & Banners) (1934-38) 27.0 x 29.8 cm ( has energy and force in a swirl of twisting shapes. Landau (1989, p. 36) identifies traces of Benton’s teaching in the “spiral dynamics”, while White notes the connection to “one of Benton’s ideas … that a horizontally oriented picture should be organised by means of a series of vertical poles placed at intervals on the canvas, around which rhythmic sequences could be arranged” (White, 2002, pp. 15-16). While elements of this compositional theory remain, there is little representational material with the focus on the dynamics of the painting.

In the 1930s Pollock was exposed to the work of Diego Rivera, José Clemente Orozco and David Alfaro Siquerios, Mexican mural painters with an experimental approach to the types of paint used, the method of application and the embedding of sand and other materials. Pollock once wrote that he “believe[d] the easel picture to be a dying form, and the tendency of modern feeling is towards the wall picture or mural” (Pollock, 1947). His first steps in this genre were with Mural (1943) 243.2 x 603.2 cm (, commissioned for Peggy Guggenheim’s townhouse, a huge canvas intended to act as a mural. Anfam (2002, p. 101) described Mural and other works by Pollock of the period: “a tremendous plasticity sweeps everything together so that blunt cursive gestures, filigree strokes, drips, splatters, numbers, broken scumbles and opaque overpainting run into one dancing optical medley”. From reproductions in books and on the internet, it appears that a series of dark almost-verticals across the canvas provides a rhythm and structure in the large space. Representations of animals almost break through, but the overall effect is abstract. I would love to view the work in person, but given that is impossible quote from the University of Iowa Museum of Art [n.d.](which owns the painting) website: “in Mural it is the bravura of the brushwork—objective, yet ambiguous—coupled with the vast size (it is the largest Pollock painting) that gives it its unique status. With Mural, Pollock liberated painting from the confines of scale.” Painted for a (relatively) domestic setting the painting is intended for close viewing, with its intricacy inviting the viewer in and its broad rhythms pushing back. The parallels to my experience with Blue Poles seem clear.

Exhibition, Kunstverein fur die Rheinlande und Westfalen 1961

Jackson Pollock and Lee Krasner papers, circa 1914-1984. Archives of American Art, Smithsonian Institution.
Exhibition, Kunstverein fur die Rheinlande und Westfalen 1961
My identification: Totem Lesson 2 on the left

While presenting these works chronologically, I want to avoid the sense of a strict linear progression. Careful selection of works can give the impression of clear steps of development and ongoing “improvement”. So I will take a moment to look at Totem Lesson 2 (1945) 182.8 x 152.4 cm ( In this areas of earlier work are changed and concealed by a flat grey paint, in the process revealing or creating new imagery. I found it a dark and even frightening work, nightmares struggling out of the dark and unconscious into the room (Pollock spent years in psychotherapy). It is both ugly and beautiful – that dog to the right of the central totem figure has fluid lines and a wonderful vitality. One struggles to pierce the concealing fog of paint. As with Blue Poles the viewer vibrates between the surface and the depths of the painting. It has calligraphic elements, with scribbled marks and lines, patterning across the canvas, and a shallow space with any hierarchy suggested by scale and placement. These combine with iconic elements – the central figure (a totem?), the dog (a spirit guide?), what could be knives, or masks, or … . Lloyd and Desmond (1992) wrote “Pollock intensified the sense of spontaneous improvisation as the painting progressed; the execution begins to rival the image as the main vehicle of expression”, and I think I can see that tension between the emotion and meaning of the forms and the that of the lines and paint itself.

Jackson Pollock and Lee Krasner papers, circa 1914-1984. Archives of American Art, Smithsonian Institution. Exhibitions, Museum of Modern Art 1969, undated identification:  Autumn Rhythm: Number 30, 1950 on the left" width="500" height="420" class="size-large wp-image-7418" /> Jackson Pollock and Lee Krasner papers, circa 1914-1984. Archives of American Art, Smithsonian Institution.Exhibitions, Museum of Modern Art 1969, undated identification:  Autumn Rhythm: Number 30, 1950 on the left

Jackson Pollock and Lee Krasner papers, circa 1914-1984. Archives of American Art, Smithsonian Institution. Exhibitions, Museum of Modern Art 1969, undated
My identification: Autumn Rhythm: Number 30, 1950 on the left

In Autumn Rhythm (Number 30) (1950) 266.7 x 525.8 cm figure and ground have gone. Once again reproductions are unsatisfying, but Anfam (2002, p. 130) claims “never had painting been so far from the compositional hierarchies, perspective and figure-ground relations… In these liberated fields only the differing densities of line, no longer reading as contour anyway, imply depth gradations. But they do so along an absolutely frontal axis as if both were suspended in an eternal present”.

Jackson Pollock and Lee Krasner papers, circa 1914-1984. Archives of American Art, Smithsonian Institution.

Jackson Pollock and Lee Krasner papers, circa 1914-1984. Archives of American Art, Smithsonian Institution.
Jackson Pollock in His Studio by Hans Namuth 1950

One of the reasons I selected this particular painting is that I believe it is the one Pollock was working on when photographed by Hans Namuth. There is also some slightly later film taken by Namuth – see These iconic images are always in mind when looking at a work by Pollock, but even without them one would be aware of the sweeping gestures and overall physicality of the method Pollock developed. At times the paint is dribbled or poured, at others it loops up into the air where it twists and turns, might lose surface tension and break into parts, then falls to the canvas which captures that moment, that movement of paint, that pull of gravity. While embracing improvisation and spontaneity Pollock maintained great control over his line as thinned, thickened or pooled – he denied chance or accident.

Michael Fried (1965) argued that using these techniques Pollock “managed to free line from its function of representing objects in the world, but also from its task of describing or bounding shapes or figures”. Pollock liberated himself from constraints in materials and how he used them, from detailed planning and his own preconceptions, from traditional composition, figure and ground. The word “liberated” is repeated in many of the texts I read. From the course textbook: “the marks on the canvas were liberated from any possible representational significance; they simply recorded his engaggement with the medium, forming a graph, as it were, of his emotions as he struggled with the viscosity of paint” (Honour and Fleming, 2009, p.835).

Pollock painted Blue Poles in 1952. It is slightly smaller than Autumn Rhythm, but still large in scale. It has the great sweeping gestures and the intricate detail, and includes dribbles of paint – at times during painting it was hung on a wall as well as laid on the floor. It has much more colour – in Autumn Rhythm there is black (which forms an initial linear framework), white, brown, a dull turquoise and the unprimed surface of the canvas; in Blue Poles the initial black is more a puddle with sprays out, turning greenish in places where mixed with yellow or orange, then aluminium, white, yellow, red-orange. Pollock said “the modern painter cannot express this age, the airplane, the atom bomb, the radio, in the old forms of the Renaissance or any other past culture” (Pollock, 1949, p. 1) and the palette used in this painting appear highly appropriate to this need.

The most obvious difference is the presence of the “poles”, ruled lines against the web of marks. Pollock seems to echo the banners of Untitled (Composition with Figures & Banners) (1934-38), present us with figure and ground, and suggest representation. In the photographs of Autumn Rhythm I think I can see a series of almost-verticals in the tracery across the canvas. In Blue Poles they are clear, straight, dancing across the canvas. They don’t simply lie on top of earlier, free lines – further work was done, there is some integration and overlap of the poles. However the contrast in texture and nature of the lines is extreme. However despite this I found when sitting with it for a while there is so much complexity and interest in all areas that I can’t see any area as ground – just different.


“Pollock’s finest work belongs to a relatively brief period, 1947 to 1951” state Honour and Fleming (2009, p.835). A line is drawn and clearly Blue Poles, painted in 1952, is the wrong side. Anfam (1990, p. 176) wrote of the “overwrought, hence belatedly restructured Blue Poles“. Clement Greenberg said (about Pollock’s work shown in 1952 but not specifically about Blue Poles) “[Pollock] had gone back to colour and some of the pictures were shaky. I feel that he felt that he’d run out of inspiration. Not because of the limitations of the technique – he’d run out of charge” (Greenberg, “Jackson Pollock” documentary, 36:40). On the other hand Landau (1989, p. 222) was positive – “This work has to be considered [Pollock’s] last masterpiece. By the addition of a brilliantly conceived and executed overstructure, Pollock managed to create one more electrifying composition. Dominating the less coherent underlayers of the painting and weaving what some have described as a totemic spell, the eight angled rods of Blue Poles triumphantly exert their author’s briefly revived authority”.

Any work of art can give rise to different reactions, but I suggest there are some particular forces in play here. In an era which valued innovation and progress very highly, been seen as returning to earlier work could be regarded as regressive or weak. Although there was no manifesto or common approach among the abstract expressionists, a move away from the surface of the painting, introducing a form, some kind of hierarchy could be seen as unacceptable. Most commenting on the painting would be aware of Pollock’s emotional difficulties and alcohol abuse at this period, which might influence opinion. Pollock’s early death in 1956 meant that if he was taking early steps in a new direction any potential further works or breakthroughs that may have given additional context never eventuated. Anthony White has noted that as well as “not fit[ting] easily into the trajectory of what is considered the artist’s major work”, Blue Poles‘s relative isolation in Australia meant “it was largely excluded from art historical debates during the period in which scholarship on Pollock advanced considerably” (White, 2002, p. 14) (an interesting reversal of my difficulties here in appreciating works held outside Australia). In addition, the publicity surrounding the Australian purchase of Blue Poles and various claims that it began as a collaboration of a small, drunken group could influence opinion.

Having spent some very rewarding hours with the painting, and unable to experience directly Pollock’s ‘classic’ large works for comparison, I can only acknowledge the power and excitement I felt in Blue Poles. I cannot accept the suggestion it is overwrought.

The poles and all the other elements of the painting act together. White points out that the poles also act as masks, obscuring earlier marks, possibly Pollock responding to what he was finding in the painting as he worked. In this reading the poles become “a deliberate layering to create an artistic dialogue” (White, 2002, p. 34). Thaw (1986, p. 21) wrote of the “constant interplay between elements of figuration and abstraction” in Pollock’s work Pasiphaë (1943). Perhaps Pollock’s work in total can be seen as an ongoing exploration of the tension between those elements. White (2002, p. 36) writes that “by adding the poles, with their ambiguous suggestion of figures, Pollock kept the crucial dialogue between figurative and abstract art open”.

Blue Poles in Australia

While working on this annotation I read that in 1957, in “an act of courage”, Robert Hale acquired Autumn Rhythm for The Metropolitan Museum of Art for US$30,000, “an almost unheard of price for an American painting” at the time (Thaw, 1986, p. 9). This neatly foreshadows the notoriety of Blue Poles in Australia when it was purchased by the government in 1973 for the then-record price of A$1.3 million. This purchase was “largely due to the courage and foresight of James Mollison” (Kennedy, 2002, p. 9) supported by the incoming very progressive government led by Gough Whitlam (which also abolished conscription, recognised China, set up Medicare and much more.) There was a huge outcry, some in support and many appalled by the cost and even more the type of work – was this really art? Were we making fools of ourselves, being conned?

Forty years later Blue Poles remains a household name, iconic. I think if you asked any random group of Australians to name a work of art it would be 50-50 Blue Poles and the Mona Lisa. A few weeks ago I spent four days at the National Gallery and some of that time watching the people looking at the painting. Blue Poles is the destination painting (it’s on the car park signs!), school groups surround it almost constantly (the next group lurking nearby), adults search for it – everyone wants to see it, everyone has an opinion, positive or negative, and everyone seems to feel so proud, so clever, that it’s ours. As I said at the beginning, this could be interpreted as just a different variant of cultural cringe and a change of imperial masters. I don’t agree. It gets people looking at and talking about art – not just Blue Poles, but more international art at the NGA and the Australian art (aboriginal and other). It shows us that we’re not so far away, but can mix it with the rest of the world.


Anfam, D. (1990) Abstract Expressionism. London: Thames & Hudson

Fried, M. (1965) “Jackson Pollock” in Art Forum 4 (1), September 1965 pp. 14-16. Reprinted in White, A. (ed.) (2002) Jackson Pollock’s Blue Poles. Canberra: National Gallery of Australia p.24.

Honour, H. and Fleming, J. (2009) A World History of Art (revised 7th edition). London: Laurence King.

“Jackson Pollock” [Documentary] Produced and Directed by Kim Evans. Edited and Presented by Melvyn Bragg. [online] Available from
(Accessed 23-December-2013)

Kennedy, B. (2002) “Director’s Foreword” in White, A. (ed.) (2002) Jackson Pollock’s Blue Poles. Canberra: National Gallery of Australia, pp. 9 – 11.

Landau, E. (1989) Jackson Pollock. London: Thames & Hudson

Pollock, J. (1947) application for a Guggenheim fellowship, quoted in O’Connor, F. (1967) Jackson Pollock. New York: The Museum of Modern Art. [Excerpt online] Available from (Accessed 24-Dec-2013)

Pollock, J. (1949) Transcript of interview with William Wright Jackson Pollock and Lee Krasner papers, circa 1914-1984. Archives of American Art, Smithsonian Institution. [online] Available from (Accessed 26-Dec-2013)

Temkin, A. (2010) speaking in From the Curator: Jackson Pollock [webcast, online] Filmed by Plowshares Media, The Museum of Modern Art (Accessed 23-December-2013)

Thaw, E. (1986) “The Abstract Expressionists.” in The Metropolitan Museum of Art Bulletin, 44 (3) (Winter, 1986–87). [online] Available from (Accessed 25-December-2013)

University of Iowa Museum of Art [n.d.] More about Mural [online] Available from (Accessed 23-Dec-2012)

White, A. (2002) “Jackson Pollock’s Blue Poles” in White, A. (ed.) (2002) Jackson Pollock’s Blue Poles. Canberra: National Gallery of Australia.

Other Resources

To many to list! but one I really want to mention – “MoMA’s Jackson Pollock Mystery” Discoveries made when conserving One: Number 31, 1950, including a video presentation by the conservators.

UA1-WA:P3-p2-Ex Annotate an abstract work
Understanding Art 1 – Western Art.
Part three: Modern art and still life
Project two: From 1945 to the present
Exercise: Annotate an abstract work – Blue Poles

UA1-WA:P3-p2-Ex: Abstract sculpture – Henry Moore

For this exercise I need to research an abstract sculptor working after 1950. Henry Moore’s working life extended from the 1920s to the 1980s. I have chosen to focus on Moore because I have been able to view a number of his works in recent months. There is also a large amount of information on Moore and his work available on-line. Moore set up a Foundation which encourages appreciation of visual arts in general and the preservation and appreciation of Moore’s works and legacy in particular, and the Foundations’s website is extensive. Most of this Research Point will be links to items I found of interest.

Overview of life and work

  • A detailed history can be found at
  • Influences

  • Primitive forms – African, Mexican and Pre-Columbian (British Museum)
  • Surrealism
  • Modernism
  • Constructivism
  • While reading I found many specific artists identified as influences including Giacometti, Jacob Epstein, Brancusi, Francis Bacon, Michelangelo, Pisano, Picasso, Arp… There is a nice little graphic of Influences On and Influenced By – artists, friends and movements – at
  • Roger Fry (Vision and Design)
  • Work
    Some themes and general notes

  • Expressive rather than naturalistic
  • biomorphic forms
  • Figures bulky – strong and powerful. In Melbourne at the National Gallery of Victoria I saw the stone Half figure (1933) (see In my eyes there was a kind of ponderous, monumental beauty mixed in with the rather awkward rigidity of the figure. I can’t show my photos here, but I was also somewhat amused by the echoing paired rondure of the breasts, buttocks and hairstyle.
  • Reclining figures – seen in early work (1929 at the Leeds Art Gallery – see and, and in late work (1980 at the Art Gallery of New South Wales (AGNSW)- see and Returning to one of his fundamental themes allowed Moore freedom to experiment with forms.

    The photos show various views of the AGNSW work linked above. It shows the drapery which Moore used to create more tension in a work. It also shows how far Moore moved from the initial human figure when working, even if overall it still retained close links. The placement of the head on those wide shoulders, the twist as it looks around, the apparently totally unrelated spine all combine in a rather unnerving way. I found a quote from Moore cited a number of times on the Foundation website ( “I want to be quite free of having to find a ‘reason’ for doing the Reclining Figures, and freer still of having to find a ‘meaning’ for them.” (Henry Moore quoted in John Russell, Henry Moore, Allan Lane, The Penguin Press, London 1968, p.28). This work seems to have no reason or meaning beyond Moore’s interest in working with volumes and forms.
  • Mother (or Madonna) and child
  • Vulnerability and protection. Moore’s sketches of Londoners sheltering and asleep in the underground during the Blitz have a poignant vulnerability – for example see In a sweeping generalisation, this suggests to me a different experience of that war between the British and Americans. In Britain there was a sense of community – a country digging deep, stubborn, surviving together. Americans were the heros riding in, the ones who dropped the bomb and changed the world – leading in part to the heroic, isolated figure of the abstract expressionist painter.
  • Helmet. AGNSW has Helmet head no. 2 (1955), unfortunately not on display at the moment – see, and another version at These look intriguing. When I first saw the AGNSW image there seemed to be quirky humour, but the text in the two links given suggest a wide variety of interpretations.
  • Totems
  • The space between. Very often Moore’s work is not a solid form. It can be pierced by open space, or even be composed of separate elements with the space between as integral a part of the whole as the solid forms.
  • Textile design. I learned of this by chance in another student’s blog a few days ago – see There is an audio slideshow presented by Amanda Geitner at and a review of an exhibition written by Fiona MacCarthy at You can also see lots of images on by navigating to the online collection search and selecting Textiles. The designs look really lively with some exciting colourways, although unfortunately many of the photos show flat swatches so you don’t get a sense of movement.
  • Lack of movement. From the work I’ve seen personally and on the web, it all seems rather heavy and motionless. These figures aren’t going anywhere – not just because they are often large and literally physically heavy, but because the figures themselves are still, sitting or reclining. An exception might be Hill arches which is discussed further below, but even that motion while vigorous is limited, not going anywhere.
  • Warmth, humanistic and optimistic? That has been my impression, however McAvera (2001) suggests a much more complex psychological interpretation in a wide-ranging article that I found fascinating.
    Hill arches Henry Moore 1973

    Hill arches
    Henry Moore
    1973 Bronze
    National Gallery of Australia

  • With preconceived notions of maternal figures and a general level of warmth and fuzziness, I was shocked by the blatant sexuality of Hill arches (1973) in Canberra. The photo to the right shows the view I had of the work when I first saw it. The allusion in the title of the work to landscape forms possibly suggests other interpretations, or at least parallels, but in my mind there is no doubt this is the largest artwork showing a copulating couple that I have ever seen. The combination of that subject with the gravitas of a monumental bronze, in a public garden, with the music of the carillon and birdsong, was quite disorienting.

    This work is also an example of the “space between” which I mentioned above. Unfortunately the video I took was too shaky and poor quality to be worth including, but you can see a slideshow by clicking any of the images below.

  • Generic, almost mass produced? Through my reading I got a sense that the volume and visibility of Moore’s work could be an issue. It appears to have been a safe option for a large gallery or civic centre to select a sculpture by Moore for a public space, and having short production runs meant the works aren’t site-specific. In some ways I wonder if that matters – how many paintings are site-specific? I also think the voids and spaces can act as frames and heighten one’s sense of place. A photo from the National Library of Australia illustrates this – see . (I don’t recall seeing this work and will have to search it out when next in Canberra.)
  • References
    McAvera, B. (2001) “The Enigma of Henry Moore” in Sculpture Magazine 20 (6) [on-line] Available from (Accessed 13-Dec-2013).

    UA1-WA:P3-p2-Ex Reflecting on abstract expressionism
    Understanding Art 1 – Western Art.
    Part three: Modern art and still life
    Project two: From 1945 to the present
    Research point: Abstract sculpture – Henry Moore

    UA1-WA:P3-p1-Ex Finding affinities

    This exercise asks for the floor plan of a building – real or imagined, public or private – designed between the wars (in the context of the course, clearly assuming World Wars I and II). We then develop a wish list of art works, the only proviso being their creation between 1900 and 1939.

    I have decided to imagine a home for myself, reflecting my own tastes and environment. As always I prefer to select works that I have seen in person, and for the past few weeks every gallery visit has had an element of a shopping expedition.

    This will be a modest home on the lower north shore of Sydney, looking out over bush and with harbour glimpses. The eaves should have a deep overhang to control summer sun and I would like an internal courtyard to bring light and any breeze into the centre of the house (also to cater for one of my chosen artworks).

    planThe floor plan is heavily based on the Salter House by Walter Burley Griffen in Toorak, Victoria (c. 1925). It met all my requirements with the bonus of being by an architect with strong links to Australia. It is on one level, which is standard for Australian homes (or was!). The layout is very forward-thinking, with the living area largely open. I would make the entire house slightly larger in all dimensions. I’ve also combined the study and second bedroom to create a large workroom/studio, and added an external door there. If building today I would take down the wall between kitchen and dining room.

    A plan and perspective view of the Salter House is at An internal view from the 1920s is at

    For the public areas of the house I chose works which combined structure and curves. There were two key pieces from which I started my selection. The long chair designed by Marcel Breuer and manufactured by Isokon Furniture Company, c.1936, bent and laminated plywood ( sits in the centre of the house beside the courtyard. The second key is in the courtyard itself – Constantin Brancusi’s L’Oiseau dans l’espace [Bird in space] c.1931-36, displayed just as I saw them at the National Gallery in Canberra – see There are two “birds”, one black marble, white marble ‘collar’, sandstone base, the other white marble, limestone ‘collar’, sandstone base. They are set in a shallow pool of water which appears still but is actually falling over a concealed edge to provide the lovely sound of trickling water. I have some concerns about exposing these works to the elements, so will have to get some clever solutions from the architect and conservator.

    Guests arriving would first see Kasimir Malevich’s Stroyuschiysya dom [House under construction] (see This Suprematist work may seem angular and boxy, but when actually standing before it the eye moves in smooth curves around the picture. I also find it welcoming and centering, there seem to be stopping guards that keep the eye in the frame, while the fine near-horizontal lines in the lower left somehow make it lively and light-hearted.

    Moving further into the reception room one comes to Red and orange streak by Georgia O’Keeffe (1919) which is currently in Sydney in the America exhibition. This is a strong work, not at all restful, but I think appropriate in the most formal and public area of the house. Providing some balancing softness and texture is a rug on the floor designed by Roy de Maistre in the early 1930s (see The lines of the rug also link back to the Breuer chair, easily visible from the front door.

    Moving into the less formal living room one’s attention would be taken first by The Bridge in-curve which was painted by Grace Cossington Smith in 1930 (see This celebrates the curved structure of the bridge, continuing the theme of the reception room in a softer and more varied palette. It grounds the room in its location and I can imagine glimpses of the harbour in the windows on either side. This wall – painting and view outside – provides the major colour in this room. On the righthand wall is a smaller work, the photograph Tea cup ballet by Olive Cotton circa 1935 ( The photograph combines structure, curves and movement in an unexpected way, an underlying domestic thread in a very sophisticated and sharp presentation. I imagine it as the focal point of an arrangement on the wall including bookshelves and family photographs. The work by Cotton is a gelatin silver photograph, so somewhat warm metallic monochrome.

    On the opposite wall is another work in a related palette, Guitar, 1924, painted metal by Pablo Picasso (the best photo I found is The curves and structure are obvious. Thoughtful hanging and lighting would provide shadows to link with Cotton’s photograph opposite. Standing in the centre of the living room one could face the single wall of colour, then turn to the Picasso, Brancusi’s monochrome birds and the natural colour of Breuer’s chair, Olive Cotton’s photograph then back to the bridge and Grace Cossington Smith. I think they would live happily together.

    Implement Blue Margaret Preston 1927 oil on canvas on hardboard

    Implement Blue
    Margaret Preston
    1927 oil on canvas on hardboard

    Moving through into the dining room one would first see Implement Blue by Margaret Preston. Depending on position one would be able to see this work and Cotton’s at the same time and it would provide an interesting comparison. I like the very controlled element of domesticity, the limited palette, curves and structure of course, and I feel a still life is very appropriate in a dining room. (Note there is an annoying reflection in the photograph I took, so it is particularly worth going to the Gallery’s website.).

    Still life: apples and jar Samuel John Peploe circa 1912-circa 1916 oil on canvas

    Still life: apples and jar
    Samuel John Peploe
    circa 1912-circa 1916 oil on canvas

    The second work in this room is another still life, Still life: apples and jar by Samuel John Peploe. It could be endlessly fascinating to compare and contrast the two works. While the dining room is a public space, I can also imagine sitting at the table eating breakfast, eyes going from one work to the other while I think about the day ahead in the studio.

    Moving to the private areas of the house and the bedroom, Henri Matisse’s large work L’Enlevement d’Europe [The abduction of Europa] (1929) would be wonderful. A work on this subject was the topic of my annotation of a sixteenth century Italian painting (28-July-2013), and it would seem entirely inappropriate in a bedroom. However Matisse’s work shows a moment later in the story and in fact I think is quite misnamed – “The seduction of Europa” would be more accurate. The scene is not the aftermath of an act of violence. The woman lies relaxed and satisfied, phallic symbols abound and the bull, triumphant tail aloft, appears to be winking at the viewer.

    Dancer looking at the sole of her right foot  Edgar Degas bronze, cire perdu (lost wax) 1900-1910 cast 1919-1921

    Dancer looking at the sole of her right foot
    Edgar Degas
    bronze, cire perdu (lost wax) 1900-1910 cast 1919-1921

    On a small table in the corner between two windows is Dancer looking at the sole of her right foot. This is a lovely and inviting work with lots of interesting shapes and angles as you move around it. With light of different direction and intensity coming through the two windows some complex shadows could be formed.

    The final work I have selected would be hung in the workroom / studio. Femme nue lisant (Nude woman reading) by Robert Delaunay (1920) is full of colour, full of curves (see It was one of three versions of this composition hung together in the Paths to abstraction exhibition a few years ago. I particularly like the stretch of her back in this version and the tilt of her foot. It seems energetic and purposeful and I think just right for my muse and companion in my workroom.

    UA1-WA:P3-p1-Ex Finding affinities
    Understanding Art 1 – Western Art.
    Part three: Modern art and still life
    Project one: Into the twentieth century
    Exercise: Finding affinities

    UA1-WA:P3-p1-Ex Exploring modern art

    For this exercise we are asked to select an art movement of the first half of the twentieth century for some further research. The specific approach is up to the student, with suggestions including trying to work in the style of the movement “adapt[ing] the techniques to your own artistic concerns…”. My major interest remains textiles and that drove my selection of Fauvism, which I think has colour and texture qualities that could be interpreted in stitch.

    Sailing boats at Chatou Maurice de Vlaminck 1906 oil on canvas

    Sailing boats at Chatou
    Maurice de Vlaminck
    1906 oil on canvas

    “Fauvism” is unlike many of the art movements of the first few decades of the twentieth century. There was no manifesto proclaiming their beliefs and no group-organised shows. From an art history perspective there is no clear beginning or end, and beyond the very core few artists no fixed list of agreed participants. They were more fellow travelers, sharing common concerns and explorations for a time then each continuing on their own path.

    The Fauvists were a loose group of friends and rivals with Henri Matisse as a central link. Derain and Vlaminck were significant figures, working together in Chatou outside Paris. Marquet, Manguin, Camoin, Puy and Roualt were fellow students with Matisse. Later into the group came a number of artists from Le Havre – Friesz, Dufy and Braque. Kees van Dongen is another artist regarded as part of the group.

    The group’s work was first seen publicly at the spring 1905 Salon des Indépendants in Paris. A shocked critic wrote of fauves – wild beasts – and the name stuck. Their last important exhibition was the Salon two years later. However Elderfield (1976) places the seeds of the movement years earlier, including Matisse’s meeting in 1897 with John Peter Russell (who I mentioned in my post of 2-Nov-2013) on Belle Ile, where Russell exposed him to Impressionist and Post-Impressionist work.

    Reacting against the Impressionists, the Fauvists didn’t want to paint the colours of a scene and the light. The painting was autonomous, with its own existence. Rather than attempt to imitate, the artists used colour to express how they felt about the scene and tried to trigger strong reactions in the audience.

    A checklist of characteristics:
    * direct, personal, individual; anti-theoretical
    * colour autonomous, used to express, not imitate. Dynamic juxtapositions, high-keyed; pure; arbitrary divisions; define form; often used straight from the tube
    * depth flattened, broad areas of colour
    * brushwork energetic, impasto, scrumbled, scrubbed, flickering

    It’s the colour that first attracts. At the time art critic Michel Puy wrote “their harmonies no longer sing, they have roared” (quoted in (Freeman, 1995, p. 11), while another critic, Etienne Charles, wrote in 1905 “M. de Vlaminck has surpassed all his predecessors by the organic debauchery that he made with colour” (quoted in Freeman (Freeman, 1995, p. 217). Just as important seems to be this idea (which I’m still getting used to) of the autonomous work. Rather than a clumsy rewording, a direct quote from the website of The Museum of Fine Arts, Houston, referring to a painting by Derain: “Their freedom from the constraints of expressing the objective world is celebrated in this image. It is a fantasy in color, a place where reality is overrun by the decorative impulse… a milestone in the brief, yet crucial art-historical movement of Fauvism, which explored the central tenet of Modernist painting: that the strength of a picture has more to do with colors and the kinds of marks made on the surface of the canvas than with serving as a window on the world.” (Museum of Fine Arts Houston, 2013). The painting discussed is Derain’s The Turning Road, L’Estaque – go to for an image.

    As mentioned above, Fauvism as an informal movement lasted only a few years, with the artists involved going on their separate ways. Much of the textbook reading on twentieth century art history was about groups forming and splitting. It was refreshing to see focus retained in this quote from Emil Nolde about the formation and breakup of the Berlin Secession: “Much sound and fury, both at the beginning and the end. But all these irrelevancies soon pass; the essential alone remains, the core – art itself” (quoted in (Denvir, 1975, p. 35).

    Interior with wardrobe mirror (detail) Grace Cossington Smith 1955 oil on canvas

    Interior with wardrobe mirror (detail)
    Grace Cossington Smith
    1955 oil on canvas

    The Fauvist artists moved on to other explorations, but there was a long-term legacy from their discoveries. On the right is a detail from a work by Grace Cossington-Smith in 1955. While the brushwork is much more ordered, the light, bright colours glow. I’m not the only one to see a connection – in his introduction to Judi Freeman’s book Fauves Edmund Capon, then director of Art Gallery NSW, made reference to Cossington-Smith “for whom colour remained ‘the very song of life'” (Capon, 1995).

    With that brief introduction it’s time to look at a painting by a Fauvist in more detail. I actually had a choice! While in Canberra a few weeks ago I saw André Derain’s Le Cavalier au cheval blanc [Knight on a white horse] (c. 1905) (see The photograph on the gallery website doesn’t do justice to the aggressive colours!

    Sailing boats at Chatou Maurice de Vlaminck 1906 oil on canvas

    Sailing boats at Chatou
    Maurice de Vlaminck
    1906 oil on canvas

    However I decided to base my annotation on Sailing boats at Chatou by Maurice de Vlaminck in 1905.

    I took lots of detail shots – click on any of the thumbnails above to go to a slideshow. You really need to look close to see the energetic brushstrokes, the layers of painting, the beautiful thick ridgelines of paint, and the enormous number of colours used, especially in the water. The movement created in the scudding clouds and tree tops whipping in the wind is wonderful.

    The painting shows boats on the Seine at Chatou, just outside Paris and where Vlaminck and Derain shared a studio. It was a scene Vlaminck painted a number of times, for examples see at The Hermitage Museum (c. 1906; very similar), The Philadelphia Museum of Art (1908; very dissimilar), the National Gallery of Art (1906; tug boats instead of sail), Foundation E. G. Bührle Collection (1906; near Le Pecq, but clearly related) and a couple at the Metropolitan Museum of Art – see here and here (both 1906).

    vlaminck_08The subject picture has a high horizon with a series of swoops progressing across it, shown in yellow. I also found sweeping curves covering the upper part of the picture from side to side. The overall effect is dynamic, full of movement. Even the steadying verticals of trees and masts are in motion, and I imagine I can see the clouds racing across the sky. vlaminck_06In contrast most of the lower half of the picture is, at least at first glance, still, the vertical bands of colour reflecting in the water relieved only by a gentle reflecting swoop in the hull of the boat. A closer look shows the sweeping strokes of the underlying layers of paint. This painting is unlike the others of the period linked above in that water occupies the entire lower part although the triangular reflection of the boat’s sails provides some differentiation. A triangle of land appears in the foreground of all the others, a much stronger element. Comparing them in the small images available to me, I see that Vlaminck used a high to very high horizon line in all. The other paintings have to a greater or lesser extent more stability in the upper part of the picture, with the triangular foreground and diagonal line of the river providing movement. In the subject picture this is reversed with the water moving steadily away from the viewer. Following this line of thought, the Metropolitan Museum of Art’s painting at seems to offer a middle point, with a moderate level of movement on each side in both foreground and sky creating a circular, enclosed composition.

    vlaminck_02In comparison to the other pictures linked the colour used in the subject painting is the most “natural”. Even so there are some strong and unlikely combinations such at the orange bank on the left of the river. There are other bright and pure touches in the green of the fields and trees and the red roof of the house – I think the most stable and solid point of the picture. This painting is colour-full, with layers and layers of colour shimmering and glowing. The “white” sails seem to be almost everything except white.

    vlaminck_09This photo of the left hand side is another example of layering and bold use of colour. I also love the calligraphic dark lines almost dancing on the canvas, the clearest defining the edge of a bush, with fainter but still vigorous repeats in the water and on the bank beside.

    Looking back at my checklist of Fauve-like characteristics all the 1906 paintings are clearly part of the movement. Considering the subject painting in particular it appears a very direct and personal view, showing a quite frenzied energy in the brushwork and handling of the paint. The colour is vibrant and exciting, rich and varied. Depth is reduced but not removed, the land on each side pointing to the receding river in the centre but a band of trees behind stopping any distant views. It would be wonderful to see all six works in a room together.

    My eye was on textile interpretation when selecting Fauvism as a focus. I’ve written before about Sonia Delaunay (see 1-Mar-2012), artist and textile designer. I’ve seen her mentioned more in relation to Orphism (for example Dempsey, 2010, p. 99), but also as coming from Fauvism (see Gage, 2006, p. 38) – so it was a shock not to find even a mention when reading for this Exercise (her husband Robert got a look-in as an “also ran” a few times).

    For this part of the exercise I selected an area of a 1904 painting by Henri Manguin, Before the window, rue Boursault. The only on-line version I’ve found is at, which has colour reproduction quite different to the books I used.

    fauve_stitch_01This shows progress to date. It is about 14 cm square, stitched on a fine cream cotton using a wide range of colours in 20/2 silk. I used two threads at a time in the needle to get additional colour mixing and tried to suggest brushwork by changing the direction of stitching. This section shows the bent left elbow of the woman, the curve of her breast and pregnant body.

    fauve_stitch_03As a learning exercise I found this enjoyable and useful. I really focused in on the colour changes and variety in the image. As a textile it has some issues. My intention was to use a modified version of bayeaux stitch, which I learnt in an ATASDA class with Carolyn Sullivan back in pre-blog days (2007). This is a form of couching used in the Bayeaux “Tapestry” with a ground of long floating stitches crossed by spaced floats which are secured by small stitches. This is normally very controlled and neat, as attempted in my unfinished class sample. Carolyn also showed us a modern take, with much more variety in length, density and direction of stitching.

    fauve_stitch_02I used a variant of the modern style and have completed the ground layer. I intended to add extra texture and flecks of colour with the crossing floats and securing stitches. I rather like it as it stands (rotated here and looking more like a seaside image), but the stitching is quite unstable and would easily catch and pull. Some friends have suggested ways of supporting and securing it, or on the other hand I could push the learning part of the exercise further and see what emerges with the extra layers. I’m going to let it sit for a few days before making a decision.


    Capon, E. (1995) “Introduction” in Freeman, J. (1995) Fauves. Sydney: Art Gallery of New South Wales
    Dempsey, A. (2010) Styles, schools and movements: The essential encyclopaedic guide to modern art. London: Thames & Hudson.
    Denvir, B. (1975) Fauvism and Expressionism. London: Thames and Hudson
    Elderfield, J. (1976) The “wild beasts” : Fauvism and its affinities. New York : Museum of Modern Art
    Freeman, J. (1995) Fauves. Sydney: Art Gallery of New South Wales
    Gage, J. (2006) Colour in Art. London: Thames & Hudson
    Museum of Fine Arts Houston (2013) ANDRÉ DERAIN [online] Available from (Accessed 6-Dec-2013).

    UA1-WA:P3-p1-Ex Exploring modern art
    Understanding Art 1 – Western Art.
    Part three: Modern art and still life
    Project one: Into the twentieth century
    Exercise: Exploring modern art


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