Archive for January, 2014

Exhibition: Yoko Ono. War is Over! …

ono_bannerI visited this exhibition at the Museum of Contemporary Art in Sydney this week. Click here for the exhibition webpage.

The fine print below the title, not readable on the banner is if you want it.

I went to a talk about the exhibition last November, together with other OCA students Kath, Claire (her post on the exhibition here), and Jackie (exhibition posts here and here). The ticket I purchased then has been sitting in my wallet for over two months. I finally got there in the last weeks of the exhibition because I thought I “ought” to.

I resisted it. I expected to be irritated by it. I was right.

At least in part this was a self-fulfilling prophecy. I went in with reservations, negative expectations – and I found / interpreted material to confirm them. This is a Very Bad Thing for an art history student to do. I didn’t go down without a fight (nice word in this context!). I tried to challenge myself, tried to try to find things interesting, thought provoking, enlightening – but there it is. If I had to sum up this exhibition in three words they would be “pretentious, sanctimonious twaddle”.

My first concerns related to the celebrity / John Lennon thing and the age of much of the material. This is at least in part the result of decisions by the MCA curator. There was quite a bit of John Lennon to be seen in the exhibition and quite a lot of the works had their origins in the late 1960s. Condemning war, promoting peace and understanding are still good messages, but can’t we expect a little more nuance, a little more depth, some development after 40+ years? It just looks a bit dated and … stuck. There was a really intense period in Ono’s life and she can’t leave it behind. Of course with the celebrity thing, we won’t let her.

Yoko Ono Glass keys to open the skies 1967.  Four glass keys in perspex box with brass hinges

Yoko Ono
Glass keys to open the skies
1967. Four glass keys in perspex box with brass hinges

An example. A 1967 work with a title that means … what? Open the skies??

(Apologies as always about the rubbish photo. Shots of clear glass and perspex are not straightforward.)

This was one of a series of work displayed together, and on a nearby wall was a later series.

Yoko Ono Bronze Age: Keys to open the skies 1966/1988 Artwork painted bronze

Yoko Ono
Bronze Age: Keys to open the skies
1966/1988 Artwork painted bronze


The basic form and scale of the keys was the same. The associated signage included a little story, where in 1987 Ono had been distressed when someone suggested she work in bronze. Then she realized that the air had a “special shimmer” in the 60s. She was still holding on to that. She had to move into the 80s – bronze could become a “warm shimmer instead of the dead weight”. “Eighties is OK. It has to do.”

That sense of nostalgia, of holding on despite herself to past glory days, felt to me a dead weight in the exhibition.

Yoko Ono Helmets - Pieces of sky 2001 / 2013

Yoko Ono
Helmets – Pieces of sky (detail)
2001 / 2013

Another of my concerns was fuzzy logic and pious, portentous phrases with no actual content.

In this work we are presented with military helmets (apparently different origins in different installations) suspended from the ceiling. In each helmet are jigsaw pieces showing areas of sky.

ono_04There is a little note from Ono – “Take a piece of sky. Know that we are all part of each other”. Apparently the hope is that on some unspecified future day in some unspecified future way we will all get together and somehow make the pieces fit together “to build a beautiful new sky.”

I chose not to take a jigsaw piece.
ono_06
I had more time for this participatory work. As the game progresses, if you can’t tell who owns each piece how can you compete? I still find the commentary from Ono stilted: “Ideally this leads to a shared understanding of (our) mutual concerns and a new relationship based on empathy rather than opposition. Peace is then attained on a small scale.”

ono_07
Some of the other issues I can point to curator selection, language differences… This one I found squirmingly awful.

The message: We’re all the same. In the end we all amount to a bottle of water. Look at this shelf of bottles of water all the same.

Except the artist has chosen to name her bottles of water. Mary Shelley, Osama bin Laden, Virgin Mary, Nikolai Gogol, Isaac Newton, John Cage… There was a long row and given the number of names I recognized it seems reasonably likely that the rest are my ignorance rather than their obscurity. If the artist had named the bottles John and Mary or equivalents in every language and alphabet available the work might have resonated. Instead she chose to restrict her choices to a certain class of people – we’re all equal but some are more equal than others. (thank you Mr Orwell – I didn’t see his name but it could have been there somewhere).

It’s a long time since the 1960s. We can’t get things just by wanting them. I’m sorry I wasn’t proved wrong by this exhibition.

UA1-WA:P3-p4-Exercise: Notes about still life

The course notes ask for comments on anything I found particularly interesting or surprising about this genre.

Generalising (since of course there are always individual exceptions), I love the human scale and interest, the sense of the person. The artist has chosen this particular group of objects to observe carefully, to spend time with. There’s often a meditative feel, giving a moment to stop rushing about and to see what is around us all the time.

Given what I saw in Cézanne (see 30-Jan-2014), still life also gives a lot of scope to bring in theory, to experiment. In a sense it is the most obvious non-abstract form which reduces the importance of the subject of the painting – a key element in the movement towards abstraction. In that light still life was a bridge to many the developments of the twentieth century, but it remains an important area of work in its own right.

I want to show a few still life works I’ve seen in recent months and found particularly interesting.

Matthew Smith Jugs against vermillion background

Matthew Smith
Jugs against vermillion background
1936 – 30. Oil on canvas
www.artgallery.nsw.gov.au/collection/works/27.1992/

This painting is just pure excitement. That incredible strong colour! And to put that little strip of green top centre!! The table top is tilted and unsupported, there are red shadows but not for the blue jug. ‘Most’ still life pictures are their own little world, but the one I looked at by Cézanne showed a little of the studio around him, and here Smith shows just part of a nude woman. Smith plays with the seen and unseen, and with space – is that a mirror frame at the back, suggesting depth and a wall? In person the direction of brush strokes and the paint texture is very important. The most surprising thing in viewing this picture is the balance. There is so much information and action on the right, and on the left… I’m not sure how well it shows in the photograph, but that red on the right is so intense, so solid, while the red on the right hand side is just a bit darker, not quite so saturated – and it works.

Giorgio Morandi Still life

Giorgio Morandi
Still life
1957. Oil on canvas
www.artgallery.nsw.gov.au/collection/works/431.1997/

This work by Morandi is such a contrast, but once again colour is so important. I don’t know if it was the artist’s choice or later framing (I notice it’s not included in the photo on the gallery’s website), but that little surround of orange brings a glow and life to the painting and really emphasizes that patch of orange inside. This work feels deeply contemplative, austere and refined. That division line – the edge of the table? – is quite high, and doesn’t seem to quite line up from side to side, while in the centre lines on the largest jug/bottle almost continue it. There is careful, subtle shading, perhaps only one highlight. Colours are subdued, but still give me a sense of richness. It looks timeless.

John Brack The Breakfast Table

John Brack
The Breakfast Table
1958. Oil on canvas
www.artgallery.nsw.gov.au/collection/works/193.2013/

The colour and patterning of this work draws you across the room. The thin vertical format of the picture combines with the wobbly vertical trail of the knives and the long shadows of the glassware, and is held in place by just a couple of strong horizontals at the top. The table is so colourful – that amazing yellow, even more amazing with the spots of colour from the jam jars. I like the sly little glimpse of the black and white floor, linking to the black and white which I think is reflections in the window. The scene is domestic and lively and energetic – I can imagine the family who just shared a noisy breakfast and are now racing off to their busy days.

John Bokor Kitchen table

John Bokor
Kitchen table
2011. Pencil, gesso wash on thick textured white paper (oil paper)
www.artgallery.nsw.gov.au/collection/works/362.2012.3/

Another exciting table! This feels much more spontaneous, unlike the careful compositions of most still life. The layers of wash and drawing create movement and life and urgency. Bokor keeps building and constructing layer upon layer. This drawing and others in the series feel fresh and young and invigorating.

The multiple lines and layers made me think of pentimenti (traces of alteration) in older works where the artist may have changed his/her mind, then the multiple lines in Cézanne’s work where he kept seeing slightly different parts of an object, and the tail of the bull in Matisse’s L’Enlevement d’Europe (see http://artsearch.nga.gov.au/Detail.cfm?IRN=75935) that I wanted in my bedroom in the Finding Affinities exercise (see 9-Dec-2013). I haven’t got to the end of this train of thought, but it feels like something I want to explore further.

Emma White Still life with objects

Emma White
Still life with objects
2011. Archival inkjet print
www.artgallery.nsw.gov.au/collection/works/91.2012/

This is a truly dreadful photo, taken in low light with lots of reflections in the glass, so please, Please, PLEASE click on the link below the photo or the photo itself to go to the gallery website. This is another recent and exciting work exploring the world of still life today. The artist’s methods and materials are right up to date and I love the way this still life is right back on the edge of abstraction.

George Baldessin Pear - version number 2

George Baldessin
Pear – version number 2
1973. Sculpture, corten steel: 7 forms
artsearch.nga.gov.au/Detail.cfm?IRN=45188

I saw this work by George Baldessin when I visited Canberra late last year. Cézanne played with the artificiality of a three dimensional form on a two dimensional canvas. Here the fruit is once again three dimensional – but at huge scale, rigid and hard, so unlike a juicy, ripe, easily bruised pear. It’s wonderful to walk up to and around what seems like a classic still life composition.

20140120_posterI’m continuing my personal attempts with still life. I like this best of what I’ve done so far. I like some of the textures created by the posterizing of the image. I think perhaps it needs some other little thing with a hard reflection like the ginger beer bottle – maybe a little hard round reflective shape catching the light just in front of the deeply shadowed side of the bowl. You can see more of my struggles in my sketchbook (click here).

UA1-WA:P3-p4-Exercise: Notes about still life
Understanding Art 1 – Western Art.
Part three: Modern art and still life
Project four: Still life after 1900
Exercise: Notes about still life

UA1-WA:P3-p4-Exercise: Annotation of a still life painting by Cézanne

My selection of works to focus on in course exercises has often been driven by what is reasonably available for me to view in person – and there are no van Gogh or Cézanne still life paintings near by.

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

Samuel John Peploe
Still life: apples and jar
circa 1912-circa 1916
www.artgallery.nsw.gov.au/collection/works/8049/

I considered this painting by Samuel Peploe at the Art Gallery of New South Wales (AGNSW) – the gallery website describes Peploe as “typical of the many British artists who succumbed to the magnetism of Cezanne in the early part of the twentieth century”. However Cézanne’s work seems to be so pivotal, so pervasive in its influence on twentieth century artists, that I want to try to come to grips with him directly. There’s also a personal twist. When I finished school I followed many Aussies, going on a long working holiday around Europe. It included a couple of months working in Provence, nearest village Ventabren, nearest town Aix en Provence (birthplace and often home of Cézanne). That’s where I “discovered” Cézanne, and many of his landscapes take me back to late summer walks around that countryside, dizzy on the heady fumes of wilds herbs previously only known dried up in little bottles.

So I included a little of Cézanne when thinking about artists’ letters (20-Jan-2014), will look at a still life here, and in a later exercise will attempt to copy a Cézanne landscape which generally is available to see at AGNSW.

All of this means I have been forced onto books and the internet for an image from which to work. To select a specific work I did an image search for still life paintings by Cézanne and chose the one which seemed to me most extreme in its fracturing and deformation of space – Still life with Plaster Cupid, circa 1894, in the collection of The Courtauld Gallery, London (see http://www.artandarchitecture.org.uk/images/gallery/872882ac.html).

Paul Cezanne Still life with plaster cupid

Paul Cézanne
Still life with plaster cupid (1895)
Image source: www.wikipaintings.org/en/paul-cezanne/still-life-with-plaster-cupid-1895 (public domain)

Description
cezanne_plasterOn the right is my rough sketch of the painting, colour-coded to assist following my notes.

The dominating central figure is a plaster statue of cupid, standing on a table top. Cupid’s right hip is at the very middle of the picture, and a vertical centre line runs down the length of his body. It is overall the lightest in value area of the painting (together with a small plate on the table). The top part of his body is mainly left of centre, balanced by the bottom part of his body on the right. However this initial visual impression of balance is lost. Cupid’s body is in motion, twisting, and the painting seems to turn around him.

We seem to be looking just slightly down at cupid’s head, but looking from a much higher vantage point at his feet and base. The space around is similarly distorted and ambiguous. The area to the right seems to be the floor, but it rises up the painting as if a wall. Why isn’t that apple near the top rolling down? There is a series of canvases stacked (or hung), outlined in pinks and purples in my sketch, but the space in the picture seems too shallow for them to fit. And that rear/high apple again – it’s larger than those near the front. For the depth and perspective and relative size to make sense it should be a watermelon! There are some shadows, but they don’t quite work either. Light seems to hit cupid directly on his right side, the shadow from his right foot goes across the table and disappears. Fruit shadows are absent or go in other directions. The blue cloth under the plate on the table goes off to the left where it becomes part of one of the stacked canvas. Part of the onion on the left of the table (green in my sketch) seems to form part of the lower edge of that same canvas, while the top becomes a chair leg within it. There are straight lines going in all sorts of directions, none quite parallel. Curves are repeated everywhere – in yellow on my sketch the belly of cupid, the statue base of cupid and the base of another statue shown in one of the internal canvases; in orange all those apples, which as a whole form a large U curve. I feel as if I’m watching a juggler – everything in motion, circling and twisting and turning, everything is at risk… but somehow it is balanced, controlled, not quite falling.

There are circles in the colours too, revolving around the cupid and palely reflected in his opalescent form. Yellows go from the apples on canvas/chair at the left, swoop down across the table, up to the rear canvas then just little touches on the painting behind cupid to complete the circle. While there seem to touches of a jade-like green across the picture, a more yellow green is carried around by apples and onion tops. There aren’t large areas of dark in the picture. What there is mainly contained behind the rough curve across the painting, formed by the bases of the canvases and cupid’s left thigh.

I wish I could see the work in person, to examine brushstrokes and any variations in the thickness and coverage of paint. However in the photos I see multiple outlines of shapes creating volume and that ambiguity of point of view; I think I see areas of uncovered canvas, bringing light and texture, and reinforcing the artificial nature of the picture; and I can’t really tell if he used the technique he evolved – “a diagonal hatching stroke that – evenly applied throughout the picture, regardless of the texture or nature of the object – unified the various pictorial elements in a tightly interlocking structure” (Dean, 1991, p. 16).

Interpretation

One can examine the symbols and iconography in this painting as in other still life works. Shapiro notes in the combination of apples, Cupid, and the suffering, tortured man (in the painting top right – showing a statue of a flayed slave) a connection to the erotic. Apples and onions contrast in form and flavour, just as the sexes contrast. (Shapiro, 1968, p.11). Shapiro goes on to write a lot more about still life in general, and in Cézanne’s work in particular. Relevant to one of my original reasons for choosing this picture, Cézanne’s influence on later painters, is the conclusion: “the view of the mature Cézanne as an artist who saw in the objects he painted only a plastic problem, disregarding or even neutralizing their meaning or natural charm, is not borne out then altogether by his practice or his comment in letters and conversation” (Shapiro, 1968, p. 28).

An alternative interpretation focuses on philosophy and on the nature of a painting as thing itself. Spigler (2009) “argue[s] that ideas of formation and animation, both in terms of objects of art and human beings, affected [Cézanne’s] own representation of statuary and were tied to his understanding of the philosophies of sensitivity and sensibility—a discourse deeply entwined in his own self-presentation and self-understanding as an artist”.

Spigler notes the additive process of painting, shown in the darker area around the plaster cupid formed as paint is repeatedly applied to the background to more clearly define the statue. However the figure also comes from the sculptural taking away of material, as Michelangelo is said to have carved marble to show the figure within. In the painted cupid the structural support of the statue has been merged visually and the figure is apparently stepping out into full realisation. The canvas at the top of the picture repeats these ideas – the painting shown is of a statue then believed to be by Michelangelo, showing a flayed slave. The original sculpture used a subtractive process to expose the figure, and the figure itself had been flayed – skin removed – to expose the muscles and flesh within. Next the additive process of painting the original canvas created an image of the statue, and finally in the subject painting a further additive process seems to have returned skin and full form.

Further complicating these combinations and tensions of additive and subtractive process, Spiegler suggests the upper part of the cupid, torso and most of the head, fits within the canvas behind it. There is a “division of the vertical figure into two zones of becoming: the upper zone from genitals to crown figures animation as a result of some additive process like painting; the lower zone reflects on the liberation of life by subtracting the mute matter in which it is encased”.

All of these processes also throw into question the nature of two and three dimensional space. They combine to show the statue coming into being – stepping into three dimensions – and yet still locked in the two dimensional picture, that artificial space. The final step is made by ourselves as viewer, bringing the figure into being.

Really I’m not sure that the above is valid even as a partial representation of Spigler’s argument(s). I can’t pretend to understand all or most of the points made by him, so direct you to the link in the References section for full information. However I think he does attribute significant conscious philosophical and theoretical concerns to Cézanne in his painting. It could be that a hugely gifted painter could keep all these ideas front of mind and express them in his work, but it seems to me that a part may be a rationalisation after the event.

This work and others by Cézanne have an importance beyond themselves in the history of modern art. Writing of my focus work Dempsey (2010, p.45) explains “the cupid is presented both frontally and from above: the third dimension is not created by traditional means of perspective and foreshortening but by changes in colour, which both unify the surface and signal depth, a radical shift in pictorial technique”. I’ve noted about the overall unity of colour in the surface, but I find it difficult to identify the depth referred to by Dempsey. The head and torso of the cupid appear closest to me, but beyond that is confusion. The lightest colouring, which I would expect to be closest, is towards the top right – which my mind tells me should be furthest away.

Evaluation

While reading for this analysis I have found a number of passages that have helped my overall understanding of Cézanne’s work and importance.

“There is a truth which is the painting, not the subject, not the object, but the single identity of the painting which is complete as itself – or as complete as it exists undefiled at any stage in its growth” (Copplestone, 1998, p.54). The canvas and the paint were reality, not anything depicted.

“All of Cézanne’s still-lives describe ordinary objects, that are part of everyday life. Their very simplicity brings out by contrast the plastic quality of the forms and the play of light on the objects, which is the real theme of the picture. Cézanne abandons the traditional laws of perspective and constructs an ideal space which each object helps to determine” (my emphasis) (Adhémar, 1983, p. 24). Again, Cézanne carefully observes nature, but in constructing the painting he is not trying to represent the objects present in a narrow, literal way – as a group or individually.

“[Cézanne] realized that the eye takes in a scene both consecutively and simultaneously, and in his work the single perspective gives way to a shifting view, acknowledging that perspective changes as the eyes and head move, and that objects seen together participate in each other’s existence” (Dempsey, 2010, p.45).

That seems to suggest an intellectual concept and prior decision, which is a little different to another explanation which seems to focus more on a working method leading the result. “[Cézanne] worked on this picture over a long period of time, and he himself moved around it. He has pieced together his image by painting what he saw from these changing viewpoints. Little by little he has built up a composite image of the figure that shows more than could be seen from one fixed position.” (Cumming, [n.d.]) The same explanation can be used for the variable shadow. Areas of the picture were painted at different times under different lighting conditions. Each area shows what was observed at the time it was painted. The painting goes beyond three dimensions to show the passing of time.

How much of this was Cézanne’s intention and how much are ideas triggered in those examining his works? A rhetorical question – I don’t believe a definitive answer exists. As part of his discussion Spigler (2009) notes the difficulties of identifying the nineteenth-century understanding of sensibility and sensation – “Due to the great number of discourses using these terms, the ideas associated with them were susceptible to extreme slippage”. Dean suggests “even during Cézanne’s lifetime, fellow artists found ideas in his art that the painter himself did not intend” (Dean, 1991, p. 5). If ideas slipped and changed and merged at the time, how much more slippage must there be in over a century. Cézanne brings together his knowledge of art history (the cupid plaster cast and the flayed slave sculpture, thought at the time to be by Puget and Michelangelo respectively); colour theory (advancing and receding colours to create or negate space and volume); contemporary techniques (the tache and brushmarks); philosophy about the nature of art (the ‘real’ is the canvas and paint)… Dean explains “in a sense, his appeal to so many and various artists is precisely because of this eclectic approach: there is something here for everyone” (Dean, 1991, p.5).

It seems to me that while they sometimes seem to contradict each other each of these evaluations, and the differing interpretations suggested earlier, builds towards a more complete understanding of Cézanne’s work and its importance. While writing this annotation I’ve had the fanciful idea that it is to an extent analogous to the picture itself – copying little fragments that build up to show multiple views that somehow both distort the picture and show more of it, with the actual thing created being a student ‘paper’.

References

Adhémar, H. (1983) The Jeu de Paume Museum . Paris: Ministère de la Culture : Editions de la réunion des Musées Nationaux.

Copplestone, T. (1998) Paul Cézanne. Kent: Grange Books

Cumming, R. ([n.d.]) Cézanne: Still Life with Plaster Cast The Courtauld Institute of Art Art and Architecture Web Site [on-line] Available from http://www.artandarchitecture.org.uk/stories/cumming_cezanne/cumming_cezanne02.html (Accessed 27-Jan-2014)

Dempsey, A. (2010) Styles, schools and movements: The essential encyclopaedic guide to modern art. London: Thames & Hudson

Shapiro, M. (1968) “The apples of Cézanne: An essay on the meaning of still-life” In Modern Art 19th and 20th centuries: selected papers: Meyer Shapiro New York: George Braziller [online] Available from www.ithaca.edu/faculty/wells/201/schapiro2.pdf (Accessed 25-Jan-2014)

Spigler, J. (2009) “Making Matter Make Sense in Cézanne’s Still Lifes with Plaster Cupid” In Nineteenth-Century Art Worldwide: a journal of nineteenth-century visual culture. 8 (1) Spring 2009 [on-line] Available from www.19thc-artworldwide.org/spring09/55-spring09/spring09article/62–making-matter-make-sense-in-cezannes-still-lifes-with-plaster-cupid (Accessed 26-Jan-2014)

UA1-WA:P3-p4-Exercise: Annotation of a still life painting by Cézanne
Understanding Art 1 – Western Art.
Part three: Modern art and still life
Project four: Still life after 1900
Exercise: Annotate a still life painting by Cézanne or van Gogh

UA1-WA:P3-p4-Research Point: Artists’ letters

This Research Point asks about van Gogh’s letters – how his words contribute to or complement viewing his work.

Vincent van Gogh: The Letters is an amazing resource on the Van Gogh Museum website – http://www.vangoghletters.org/vg/. It holds 902 letters to or from van Gogh plus related material. You can see an image of the letter itself, the text and an English translation. There are editorial notes and links to images of particular works mentioned in the letters, plus a very good search engine and extensive cross-linking of material. It is extremely well designed and easy to use. You could get lost in there for days with every moment fascinating.

I used this resource while researching for my annotation of van Gogh’s Head of a peasant (see 25-Nov-2013). I was able to learn more about van Gogh’s intent in his choice of subject, use of colour, and composition in a later painting for which my focus work was a study. Other letters gave me insight into van Gogh’s ambitions in painting generally and about the conditions and concerns of his life such as money worries and plans for future saleable works. The facilities of the website also allowed me to identify related works.

During my own recent experiment with drawing a still life it was interesting to read van Gogh’s words about his work – “a large still life of potatoes — where I’ve tried to get body into it — I mean express the material. Such that they become lumps that have weight and are solid, which you’d feel if they were thrown at you, for instance.” (van Gogh, 1885).

As well as the advantages, there are limitations and dangers in relying too much on an artist’s own words.

For me the most interesting, the greatest art is more than the artist’s intentions. There is space for the viewer to be an active participant, to interpret and find their own meanings. Levels of ambiguity or mystery leave it open for us. As well as the meaning/theme/iconography of the work this could include the nature of the work itself. While researching for the next exercise I found “Even during Cézanne’s lifetime, fellow artists found ideas in his art that the painter himself did not intend” (Dean, p.5). If we are too conscious of the artist’s intentions it could make us miss or self-censor our own response the the art itself.

Doing annotations for this course I am learning to observe the work carefully, and also put it into context – political, artistic… While the artist’s own words should an important part of interpreting a work they must also be read in context – of the life and situation of the artist and of the wider use language and ideas which change over time.

An artist may miss-speak or a translation may be inaccurate. An artist may change their mind, for example in my research on Seurat I found Pissarro writing at one time as a staunch advocate, and a few years later disillusioned and disparaging (see 14-Nov-2013).

Modern artists artists are generally very conscious of self marketing and promotion. I don’t know the extent of such ideas in the past – van Gogh’s letters for example seem very genuine and un-self-conscious. Even so he wanted to gain support, to inspire confidence, to reassure… One can’t necessarily accept what is written at face value.

Finally while it can be fascinating and enlightening to learn more about an artist and their views, it can feed the modern cult of celebrity. Focus can shift to the man, his privations, his personal demons, his intentions, his theories… but in the end, the work’s the thing. True – but I’ve discovered that a book of the letters of Cezanne has recently been published. Irresistible.

References

Dean, C. (1991) Cézanne. London:Phaidon Press

van Gogh, V. (1885) Letter to Theo van Gogh. Nuenen, Sunday, 4 October 1885. [online] Available from http://vangoghletters.org/vg/letters/let533/letter.html (Accessed 19-Jan-2014).

UA1-WA:P3-p4-Research Point: Artists’ letters
Understanding Art 1 – Western Art.
Part three: Modern art and still life
Project four: Still life after 1900
Research Point: Artists’ letters

UA1-WA:P3-p3-Ex Attempting a still life

A throwaway line in the course notes suggests having a go at a still life image if we haven’t before. Scary, but nothing ventured nothing gained.

First a review of anything relevant I’ve done in the past. If there is any such thing it could only be as part of Textiles 1: A Creative Approach.

sketch_20120213In February 2012 I played around with a painting by Cézanne’s, Still-Life with Apples and Biscuits. That was while doing a section on design development and I somehow tried to combine elements with some sketches of shells and it all went rather strange. If you really want to you can see more here.
sketch_20120416Not long after that I was playing around trying to get ideas for a class piece. This is based on an old jug, permanently borrowed from my mum, which has a lovely complex shape and interesting little illustrations all over it. You can see the initial sketch here and then scroll down to see the various bits and bobs I did to develop it.

p5s4_03This_is the final work, documented as part of Assignment 2 Project 5 (see post 26-Apr-2012). The photo doesn’t show it but this was printed on a very fine, shiny silk with a beautiful drape (but rather delicate).p5s4_02 All the little elements are based on the decoration on the vase. I was (still am) pretty pleased with the result. I think it could qualify as a still life, or least as a potential component of one. It doesn’t work as a standalone composition at the moment – a bit of a lump in the middle of the “page” – but of course that weakness is one of the reasons I wanted to study Art History. My tutor’s comments included it “had some very subtle and delicate effects combined with collaged effect and then enhanced by over printed sections which added depth. But looking at it as a flat piece of design work, I didn’t find it quite as interesting [as an earlier sample]. However, once it was draped and folded it became quite beautiful and design really worked well on the silk fabric.”

sketch_20120427My next attempt had its genesis straight after in the sketchbook on 27-April-2012. First up was an unsatisfactory sketch of some fruit on a shiny piece of paper.
fruit2_edgeA photograph that I took and manipulated was much more interesting in both colour and texture.
sketch20120508We’re back to unsatisfactory with some dreary experiments meant to explore texture (by now in sketchbook 4).

sketch20120511cA couple more versions followed here.sketch20120511d With colour I found I couldn’t see shapes. In the black and white version I thought maybe I was getting somewhere.

sketch20120629I did a final sketch just before attempting an interpretation in applique for Assignment 3 Project 6. My post (30-Jun-2012) notes that I wanted to keep focus on curves. Looking back I think I was trying to follow my preference of finding echoes of shapes/lines/… across an image – see for example comments 13-Jan-2014 discussing Laurens Craen’s still life, although there I saw that the contrast of a few straight edges provided a welcome contrast and interest.

p6s3_18On 30-Jun-2012 I posted the final work – and it didn’t work (although it looks a little better in real life). There’s more discussion in that post, but one thing I remember particularly was trouble with determining the borders or framing. I think there’s a pattern that I start with some objects I think might be interesting, arrange them thinking of the negative space between them, but never come to grips with the composition as a whole. My tutor’s report at the time commented “Compositionally, I think that the strawberry shape needed a bit more emphasis perhaps in the treatment of the leaves and stalk, using more angular shapes in contrast to the curves. If you look back to the original, the composition is very effective, but it is the highlights created by quality and varied emphasis of the lines, that make a visual liveliness. With your textile version, the colour balances on the shapes are all very similar …”

My conclusion from all the above is that I want now to focus on the composition as a whole, and within that more variation.

Step two was to review some still life works I’ve seen in recent months. I’ve collected quite a few images, but will save the full set for a question in the next project. For now just a brief look back at my recent annotation and analysis of Laurens Craen’s work.

craen_02craen_03Much too complex in the detail of course – and the course notes particularly suggest caution for this first attempt. I looked back at the other Laurens Craen works I’d found (in my files but not here since they’re not my photos). Pretty much all of them are based on a triangular arrangement (although none of the lines straight) on a table top with one corner and part of the front edge exposed.

All of the above was written before I started working on the new drawing.

sketch_20140117I drew out a very much simplified form, then hunted around the house for items and started arranging. And rearranging. I was hoping with the preparation this would be easier, but it was painful. In the end I remembered this is a learning exercise. A start.

sketch_20140117bThis is probably the best I came up with. Potatoes. Not brilliant, and it was only when uploading the photo that I realised I hadn’t got my planned triangle.

In morning light the next day I noticed an angle which seemed more interesting, and got out graphite pencils and paper. Easing into this I wanted to concentrate on careful observation, shapes and relationships.

sketch_20140118bsketch_20140118There was a false start, and a slightly less false version number whatever I’ve got to now.

That’s as far as I’ve got. I don’t think it’s worth discussing in detail. I need to keep working at this – not the specific thing but sketchbook work in general. The goal isn’t good drawing or painting as such, but if I can’t create a satisfying composition, if I can only critique others, how can I ever make good textile art? I’d also like to sharpen my observational skills.

So this post is recording a start. I’m hoping to continue having goes at still life images although not necessarily write about it here. However for a number of reasons I like having a searchable, reviewable record so I’ll quietly add to a new sketchbook page at https://fibresofbeing.wordpress.com/understanding-art-1-western-art/uwa-sketchbook-1/.

UA1-WA:P3-p3-Ex Attempting a still life
Understanding Art 1 – Western Art.
Part three: Modern art and still life
Project three: Introducing still life
Exercise: Attempting a still life

UA1-WA:P3-p3-Ex Annotate and analyse a still life image

This exercise calls for a seventeenth- or eighteenth-century still life where the artist has made a deliberate attempt to show off his skill at representing different materials and textures. I have chosen Still life with imaginary view by Laurens Craen, oil on panel, circa 1645 – circa 1650 in the collection of the Art Gallery of New South Wales (AGNSW). I feel fortunate to have a painting which fits the brief in a local collection.

I took the photograph below on my mobile phone yesterday and the colour is much too golden. The AGNSW photograph is at http://www.artgallery.nsw.gov.au/collection/works/552/, but the best online image with excellent colour, detail and focus is on the google art project at http://www.google.com/culturalinstitute/asset-viewer/still-life-with-imaginary-view/SQHCWnnp_sqFfQ?projectId=art-project
craen_01
Description
The painting shows a profusion of foods – fruits, meat, shell-fish, wine – mounded on a table. A drapped window opens to a distant landscape view.
craen_02At first sight the composition appears as if it should be asymmetrical, with an irregular triangle of fruit, but it is actually very stable with the window upper left balanced by the leg of meat upper right. All the major elements are firmly within the picture frame, and on the right where the eye is drawn to the edge it is directed back into the picture with repeated curves of platter and melon.

craen_03Curves are repeated across the picture, echoing, balancing, providing movement, accentuating the voluptuous feast. Even the hard architectural lines of the window are softened into curves by drapery and a clinging vine. A sequence of curves runs down the centre of the painting – lemon peel and the handle of the pitcher – centering the image. The large meander of the river outside is echoed in a vine tendril in the middle right. The curve of the table leg is visible and the table largely covered, softening the edge. The mainly diagonal lines of the visible corner, wine glasses and interior of the melon highlight the curves of the rest.

Much of the image is in subdued tones and shades of red and green, disrupted by the sharp, clear yellow of the lemons on the left, the pink of the meat fat above and the pale orange melon on the right. The off-white of the napkin cuts across this, forming its own triangle below. In a curious effect the napkin goes under a platter, but the creamy tones are continued across in the oyster shells.

craen_04There is a clear direction in the lighting within the picture – a bright window above and behind us to the left, made clear in reflections in the pitcher and platters. This is handled consistently across the image, bringing highlights and liveliness. craen_05I am particularly drawn to reflected light (also noted in my comments on Rembrandt 13-Sept-2013
and del Vaga 21-Jul-2013), and the sliver of light under the platter plays with all the other reflections to produce a lot of complexity and interest.

craen_06Most of the texture and optical effects in the picture are produced using colour with the exception of the skins of the foreground lemons. The heavy application of paint combined with the relatively light and saturated colour makes the lemons highly intrusive in my eyes. Against the frosting of the grapes and the slick of the oyster the effect on the lemons seemed heavy handed. I wonder if grime has been trapped in the paint over time and increased the visual impact of these areas.

craen_07A great appearance of depth has been achieved in the painting. As well as the more obvious external view behind and projection of the falling lemon peel, one can look into the interior of the melon and even further into the dark recesses of the basket – an effect intensified by the tendril of vine catching the light in front.

Interpretation
This painting is an example of pronkstilleven or sumptuous painting (mentioned in my post 11-Jan-2014). There is no particular iconographic significance in the items depicted. This is a decorative work intended to show the skills of the artist and the taste of the owner.

Solid information on Laurens Craen is scarce. The most authoritative source I found is RKD (Rijksbureau voor Kunsthistorische Documentatie/Netherlands Institute for Art History), which shows he was born in Den Haag in 1620, was active in Antwerpen, Den Haag and Middelburg (Zeeland) 1638 to 1664 (based on membership of the Middelburg Guild) and died between 1663 and November 1670, perhaps in Middleburg (see RKD Artist Database, [n.d.]). RKD Images has nineteen pictures, but three of those are previous attributions which are no longer current (see RKDImages, [n.d.]). I found three more paintings in other searches – a total of nineteen works attributed to Craen. Curiously, I found two websites stating only twenty or so paintings by Craen are known (Lawrence Steigrad Fine Arts, [n.d.]) and (Hoogsteder Consultancy Service, [n.d.]). It’s possible both sites use RKD as their source, but otherwise it seems incredible that with a few internet searches I should be able to view the entire oeuvre of a little known artist.

My tentative explanation is that many of Craen’s works are not identified – possibly in various attics and basements, but more likely through misattribution. As mentioned above three works previously believed to be by Craen have been reconsidered. Moving in the other direction Light in a Dark Niche (Hoogsteder Consultancy Service, [n.d.] a) describes the discovery of a work by Craen which had substantial overpainting, including an apparent signature by Jan Davidsz. de Heem. Careful and brave restoration uncovered the truth, and I suggest based on the web images a much more attractive and dynamic painting. My subject painting at AGNSW has its own stories. The painting was the gift of Sir Arthur Downes in 1929 and a letter from him at the time explained “‘there is a tradition that the picture was won at cards by a gambling Mytton of former days’ (Mytton was a Downes ancestor)” (Art Gallery of New South Wales, [n.d.]). Further information provided at AGNSW states the picture “was formerly attributed to the great 17th-century still life painter Jan Davidsz. de Heem, but recent scholarship favours an attribution to Laurens Craen”.

Comparing all the images found, almost all of them use the same light from the left side and many show the still life sitting on the same or a very similar table. Only one doesn’t include a lemon, and the majority have that same cascading peel of lemon. The web images vary in quality, but it appears that the heavy and textured application of paint to represent the lemon skin is repeated. (Hoogsteder Consultancy Service, [n.d.] b) includes “The rendering of the texture of the fruit is highly suggestive and the wrinkly irregularities of the skin are literally palpable because Craen has, as it were, moulded the peel with thickly applied paint.”

Although I have suggested the AGNSW work is purely a display of skill and wealth, elements of vanitas have been identified in two of the other works. De Jonckheere Gallery ([n.d.]) finds a butterfly “offers a disturbing counterpoint to the grape leaves that have been gnawed through by worms: the latter signifying the vanitas of the pleasures of the senses set against the promise of the eternal life of the human soul as symbolized by the butterfly coming out of its cocoon, the contrast easily takes on a greater symbolism.” Writing of another work Lawrence Steigrad Fine Arts, ([n.d.]) includes “The pipe and the glowing embers of the brazier indicate that this is a vanitas. The half empty glasses and tobacco refer to the fleetingness of earthly pleasures. The smoke produced by the tapers, brazier and pipe allude to the transience of life. Oranges are the traditional symbol for redemption as the lemon is for salvation.” Despite these I see no need to amend my assessment of the AGNSW picture.

Only one other work I found included a draped window and distant landscape view and unfortunately I can’t give a stable link to it. However I have found a number of examples of similar treatments in works by Jan Davidsz de Heem, supporting the note in the RKD Artist Database roughly translated as “strong similarities between the works of Craen and Jan Dz. de Heem could indicate the presence of Craen in the studio of the Heem about 1645”. On a side note, while researching for this post I was delighted to come across a work by another artist influenced by or based on de Heem – Still Life after Jan Davidsz. de Heem’s “La Desserte” (1915) by Henri Matisse at the Museum of Modern Art (see http://www.moma.org/collection/browse_results.php?object_id=79872).

Evaluation

This is an attractive painting with great appeal to the public (based on my observations at the gallery). The items depicted are generally well known, well executed and instantly recognisable. The composition is balanced yet dynamic, although there are a few anomalies in the detail such as the wine glasses whose only apparent support would be the rim of a woven basket and the rather lumpen indeterminate shape supporting the lower platter which could just barely be bread. I also find the treatment of the drapery rather stilted and unconvincing.

While I found some of the colours and texture discordant, in particular the yellow of the lemons, the overall impression is light, fresh and lively, almost astringent. It is interesting to compare this to the Jan Davidsz. de Heem still life at the National Gallery of Victoria which I saw last year and showed in my previous post (11-Jan-2014, and see also http://www.ngv.vic.gov.au/col/work/4023). I remember that as a dark work with very rich and mellow tones. I wonder if different restoration treatments over time have made the contrast more extreme.

Still life with fruit (detail) Jan Davidsz. de Heem c. 1640-1650 National Gallery of Victoria

Still life with fruit (detail)
Jan Davidsz. de Heem
c. 1640-1650
National Gallery of Victoria

Despite more poor photography I think you can get an idea here of de Heem’s very lovely and skillful representation of pomegranate seeds, each beautiful, delicate, faceted form filled with colour and light. craen_08I don’t see such precision as de Heem’s brushwork in the work by Craen. Instead we see loose and lively passages such as in this section of the vine around the window casement.
craen_09Craen had a variety of techniques at his disposal in his paint handling, as can be seen in this detail of the wine glass. As well as the lemon peel which so distresses me (although it must have been highly regarded in its day since Craen used it repeatedly), the wine in the glass looks an energetic drop while the variation in the white highlights of the bowl of the glass – straight lines showing the triangular form then a smear giving roundness – is very effective.

While Craen may be seen as a student, follower or imitator of de Heem he clearly had a lot of ability in his own right. To my modern eyes the freer handling and overall freshness and vitality of the AGNSW work is particularly attractive.

References

Art Gallery of New South Wales, ([n.d.]) Still life with imaginary view, (circa 1645-circa 1650) by Laurens Craen :: The Collection :: Art Gallery NSW [on line] Available from http://www.artgallery.nsw.gov.au/collection/works/552/ (Accessed 12-Jan-2014)

De Jonckheere Gallery ([n.d.]) Laurens Craen Still life with fruit, glass of white wine and lobster [on line] Available from http://www.dejonckheere-gallery.com/en/Craen_Laurens-5.html?m=1&id=25 (Accessed 11-Jan-2014)

Hoogsteder Consultancy Service, ([n.d.] a) Light in a Dark Niche [on line] Available from http://www.hoogsteder.com/publications/journals/journal-10/dark-niche (Accessed 11-Jan-2014)

Hoogsteder Consultancy Service, ([n.d.] b) [on line] Dark niche – after restoration Available from http://www.hoogsteder.com/publications/journals/journal-10/dark-niche/craen-1 (Accessed 11-Jan-2014)

Lawrence Steigrad Fine Arts, ([n.d.]) LAURENS CRAEN [on line] Available from http://www.steigrad.com/LAURENS-CRAEN-Dutch-1646-between-1663-and-November-1670-Still-Life-Roemer-Surrounded-Vine-Tendrils-Pasglas-Pipe-Oranges-Pewter-Plate-Lemon-Tobacco-Brazier-and-Tapers-Draped-Table-DesktopDefault.aspx?tabid=6&tabindex=5&objectid=451645&categoryid=8956 (Accessed 11-Jan-2014)

RKD Artist Database [n.d.] [online] Available from http://explore.rkd.nl/nl/explore/artists/18936 (Accessed 12-Jan-2014)

RKDImages [n.d.] [online] Available from http://explore.rkd.nl/nl/explore/images#filters[kunstenaar]=Craen%2C+Laurens (Accessed 12-Jan-2014)

UA1-WA:P3-p3-Ex Annotate and analyse a still life image
Understanding Art 1 – Western Art.
Part three: Modern art and still life
Project three: Introducing still life
Exercise: Annotate and analyse a still life image

UA1-WA:P3-p3-Ex Iconography of still life paintings

Flanders St Jerome

Flanders
St Jerome
C. 1540
National Gallery of Victoria
http://www.ngv.vic.gov.au/col/work/3735

Although still life as an independent genre didn’t begin to flourish until the early 17th century in the Netherlands, elements of its iconography can be seen in earlier works. This unsigned and undated painting in the National Gallery of Victoria shows the saint in his study. He points at a skull on which sits a fly. The skull is a symbol of death, and a special attribute of a number of saints including Jerome. James Hall (2008) provides extensive information about symbols in art, including the use of a skull as an aid to “the contemplation of death as a spiritual exercise [as] recommended by the Jesuits” (Hall, 2008, p. 293). Unexpectedly Hall suggests the fly does not have symbolic meaning. Rather than perhaps a link to putrefaction, Hall suggests a fly serves as a “protective talisman” against insect damage (Hall, 2008, p. 130). On the window sill the hour glass suggests the passing of time, the apple Adam and Eve and the Fall of Man. The crucifixion image seen in the open book could suggest the Resurrection and conquest of death. The quill pen may simply refer to Jerome’s philosophical writing, or as in Pieter Claesz’s Still Life with a Skull and a Writing Quill (1628) “suggest that worldly efforts are ultimately in vain” (The Metropolitan Museum of Art, 2006).

Skull and bones vanitas still life

Skull and bones vanitas still life
circa 1600
Published by: Robert de Baudous After: Abraham Bloemaert Print made by: Jan Saenredam
© Trustees of the British Museum

One major sub-category of the still life genre was the vanitas, emphasising the brevity of human life and insignificance of human concerns. An extreme example is on the right from the British Museum. In addition to the skull there are straight trumpets (“blown by angels to announce the last judgement, and at the day of wrath” (Hall, 2008, p. 323), scythes (carried by Death to cut lives short), lit lamps and torches (the brevity of life) and spades (man must toil for his food following the Fall). The rope may refer to Christ’s betrayal, as he was bound by soldiers. The shields across the top are difficult to see, but there could be reference to the fleeting nature of music, the sword which is no protection from death (or wields power only briefly in life), and the bird if a swan could be uttering its last beautiful cry.

"Vanitas" Still Life

“Vanitas” Still Life
Adam Bernaert
circa 1665
The Walters art museum
http://art.thewalters.org/detail/369/vanitas-still-life/

This work by Bernaert is just as full symbolism, but much more decorative and suitable for the wall of the wealthy middle class in the Netherlands. The hour glass is there, also an overturned glass symbolising emptiness. Creative endeavours such as music and writing are transitory as is the beauty of pearls. The important looking papers and the map of the Dutch East Indies reflect possessions and power that will pass. The globes show that all is affected by time, even the heavens above and the earth below.

Still life with fruit

Still life with fruit
Jan Davidsz. de Heem
c. 1640-1650
National Gallery of Victoria
http://www.ngv.vic.gov.au/col/work/4023

Another sub-category of still life was the pronkstilleven or sumptuous painting. I mentioned this one by Jan Davidsz. de Heem in my post about visiting the NGV (see 21-July-2013) as I was impressed by the neighbouring cabinet displaying items similar to those in the painting. In paintings like this there is no Christian or moral message. Instead they show the wealth of their owners and the technical virtuosity of the artist. heemThe pomegranate could be a symbol of the Resurrection, or of “the unity of the many under one authority” (Hall, 2008, p. 257), but here it seems more likely to be seen as one part of an abundance of rare fruit. The reflections of light and of fruit in the glass are masterly.

Doing this Research Point I have not had time to consider more modern use of iconography in still life paintings. Audrey Flack uses traditional still life vanitas icons in Marilyn (1977), including an hour glass and a candle (which could have layered meaning given Elton John’s Candle in the Wind of 1973), updated with modern items such as cosmetics and photographs (see http://www.artmuseum.arizona.edu/events/event/audrey-flacks-marilyn-still-life-vanitas-trompe-loeil). In contrast Stoker (2008) suggests that more modern artists, no longer using traditional Christian iconography, have developed other methods to express transcendence. He describes Rothko’s chapel paintings, maintaining that in viewing them “we will be confronted with our mortality” (Stoker, 2008, p. 94) and proposes that “the arrangement [of the chapel paintings] invokes the tension between the mortal tragic existence of the human being and the transcendent” (Stoker, 2008, p. 98).

References
Hall, J. (2008) Dictionary of subjects and symbols in art. Boulder: Westview Press

The Metropolitan Museum of Art (2006) “Pieter Claesz: Still Life with a Skull and a Writing Quill” (49.107) In Heilbrunn Timeline of Art History . New York: The Metropolitan Museum of Art, 2000–. http://www.metmuseum.org/toah/works-of-art/49.107. (October 2006) (Accessed 11-Jan-2014)

Stoker, W (2008) “The Rothko Chapel Paintings and the ‘urgency of the transcendent experience’” In International Journal For Philosophy Of Religion, 64 (2), pp. 89-102, Academic Search Alumni Edition, EBSCOhost, viewed 10 January 2014.

UA1-WA:P3-p3-Ex Iconography of still life paintings
Understanding Art 1 – Western Art.
Part three: Modern art and still life
Project three: Introducing still life
Research point: Iconography of still life paintings


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