Posts Tagged 'UWA-P3-annotation'

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

This exercise asks for an annotation of a Cubist still life. I have chosen Glass of absinthe by Georges Braque. It was painted by one of the leaders of Cubism at a critical time in the movement’s evolution – and it is in “my” gallery, the Art Gallery of New South Wales (AGNSW).

Georges Braque Glass of absinth

Georges Braque
Glass of absinthe
1911 Oil on canvas


This is a small work, 37.0 x 28.7 cm. My photograph above is very muddy in colour – see for a much better image. The original is light, fresh and sparkling. The palette is black, white and an ochre yellow, mixed to create grays and green, and with the buff of the canvas visible in large areas. There are no shadows, no single light source, no single point perspective, no foreground and background, no easily recognisable and carefully modeled objects, and the objects that can be detected are distributed across the picture.

braque_02My previous approach to a cubist work has often been to treat it like a “Where’s Wally” puzzle, taking hints from the title and trying to identify objects. Here I found a stemmed glass in the top right quadrant (outlined in mid-blue in the little sketch), the absinth spoon resting on the lip (outlined in pink). Sections of the glass seem to be repeated – in the centre another bowl, then shown in paler blue running from left up to the right perhaps the base and stem. I’ve also highlighted a line which could be seen as a larger version of the bowl, based on the angle and the colouring to its right. Below the glass is a bunch of grapes.

braque_03Unlike most still life paintings there is no sign of a table or other support. There appear to be some steps (shown in yellow), but there is no sense of depth. Instead there is a scaffolding of lines (highlighted green) – verticals, (nearly) horizontals and diagonals. It looks as if the planes formed could slide and shear like rock strata, especially those repeated slopes in the lower part of the image, but they are braced and supported by the verticals.braque_04 Curves (highlighted in red in the thumbnail) create some contrast and life.

braque_05The colour mixing and brushwork is delicate and meticulous. In this detail of the area just left and up of centre shows short square brushstrokes of relatively thick paint in streaky mixes of white, gray and black. This is the lightest area of the picture and it glows and fizzes. The volume of the glass is suggested, but no depth. You can see here that this “liquid” area flows outside the main glass to the longer diagonal, which is why I suggested above a larger repeat of the bowl.

braque_06Colours are more blended in the grapes. In the actual painting there is a subdued green, perhaps a mix of the black and ochre. There is a variety of brushwork, following the shape and suggesting the volume of the grapes, progressing to more scrubby, suggestive marks towards the bottom of the canvas.

Braque said “In the still-life you have a tactile, I might almost say a manual space … This answered to the hankering I have always had to touch things and not merely see them. It was this space that particularly attracted me, for this was the first concern of Cubism, this investigation of space… In tactile space you measure the distance separating you from the object, whereas in visual space you measure the distance separating things from each other” (Braque, [n.d.] a). The objects in the picture – glass, spoon, grapes… – are not the subject. It is the space between the objects, and between them and the painter, which was of interest. It was space without distance, dealing with painting on a two-dimensional surface. Another way of viewing this is given by Terence Maloon: “Space in these works is not a pre-existing, neutral container, indifferent to its contents, but is generated by the work’s formal components, arising from the relationship of parts, created by their rapports” (Maloon, 2010, p. 218).

Many of the familiar signifiers of Cubism derive from this focus on space, including the fragmentation and the palette.

The multiple viewpoints and shattering of the objects allowed Braque to get close to them: “Fragmentation helped me to establish space and movement in space” (Braque, [n.d.] b). Leymarie (1988, p. 11) explains that the decomposition of solid forms did not destroy but rather exposed the internal forms, rearranged into complex overlapping planes in the picture. It may seem to the viewer unnatural, but that is an almost inevitable result of Braque’s and Picasso’s exploration. As Schulz-Hoffman explains, “their point of departure was the recognition of the essential difference between art and nature and the resultant thesis that each constituted a different form of reality” (Schulz-Hoffman, 1988, p. 20).

Colour is not the colour of the original objects, nor is it used describe light as the Impressionists did. It is used to describe the simplified geometrical forms and is almost monochromatic. Braque “felt colour would ‘trouble’ the new spatial sensations” (Golding, 1990, p. 11). This was a dramatic change to his earlier work as a Fauve (see 8-Dec-2013).

Although the canvas of my focus picture is rectangular the composition within it is oval. Another still life by Braque with largely the same objects is actually oval – The Glass of Absinthe, c. 1910-1911, in the collection of the National Gallery of Canada – see Slightly smaller and it seems slightly earlier than the AGNSW picture, it appears to be darker and more densely painted. Based on the small web image it appears to be a simpler composition, with less complex and less clearly defined planes, possibly reflecting slightly different stages of development in a period of intense work. It would be interesting to see the two works side by side.

A sizable portion of Cubist works appears to be oval in composition or actual canvas. Leymarie suggests “the oval formats … counteract the dispersion by the angles of rectangular supports and to create a more compact surface …” (Leymarie, 1988, p. 12). Schulz-Hoffman offers a number of alternative explanations, including “the rectangle and square delimit a pictorial field that is firmly structured in all directions, while the oval leaves the edge comparatively fluid and indefinite; the pictorial field does not correspond to the habitul way of seeing nor to the notion of a picture as a view through a window” (Schulz-Hoffman, 1988, p. 22).

Landscape with houses Georges Braque Winter 1908-1909 oil on canvas 65.5 x 54.0 cm

Georges Braque
Landscape with houses
Winter 1908-1909 oil on canvas 65.5 x 54.0 cm

Still life offered an ideal way of examining space. It is enclosed, easier to define and encompass than in say a landscape. Multiple viewpoints are readily obtained and proximity effectively removes perspective. At AGNSW another painting by Braque provides an interesting contrast.

I previously showed this image 31-Oct-2013 when I considered its relationship to Landscape with stag by Gustave Courbet, focusing on its angularity and repetition of triangular forms, sense of being closed in, and palette. Virtually the same points link to Braque’s still life. The absence of a skyline, closing in the landscape, assists that flattening effect – space without depth. The trees and buildings are simplified to geometric forms, and although not yet fragmented they have begun to shift in space to create a unified pictorial field in the compressed space.

Both works by Braque shown here show the influence of Cézanne (see 30-Jan-2014). There is the even brushstroke unifying elements (much more apparent in the landscape than the still life). There are multiple points of view, distortion of space, the importance of the relationships between objects and the process of discovery, an incremental development while painting. Braque said “The [Renaissance] painters confused composition with staging. It was opera and stage directing. But with Cézanne composition is really painting, it is thought out” (Braque, [n.d.] c)


Glass of absinthe was painted during a critical period of artistic exploration by Braque and Picasso. In this early stage of Cubism, Analytic Cubism, objects were used to explore space. Later, in what is now known as Synthetic Cubism, space was discovered or created using techniques such as strips of paper, which then suggested objects that could be inserted. Cubist works built on the legacy of Cézanne in questioning the hard-won skills of naturalistic representation and in finding new ways of approaching the two dimensional surface of a painting. Such concerns have continued to attract artists, for example I find it interesting to look back at my notes on Jackson Pollock’s Blue Poles (see 26-Dec-2013) regarding the focus on the surface of the painting among abstract expressionists and the introduction of forms, a hierarchy, in the Poles.

Both Braque and Picasso drew back from pure abstraction. Cubism broke barriers as a conceptual approach, but did not become a viable long-term style. However the discoveries and advances made in this period were critical in later developments of 20th century art.

A sidenote: While researching for this annotation I came across Picasso’s 1914 The Absinthe Glass – see for example This sculpture is significant in a number of ways, including the inclusion of an actual absinthe spoon making it one of the earliest art works to include an actual object, and in six casts being made – each individually painted by Picasso and so both a multiple and unique.


Braque ([n.d.] a) Cited Mullins, E. (1968) The Art of Georges Braque New York: Harry N. Abrams Inc, p. 41

Braque ([n.d.] b) Cited Mullins, E. (1968) The Art of Georges Braque New York: Harry N. Abrams Inc, p. 55

Braque ([n.d.] c) Cited in Lieberman, A. (1960) The artist in his studio London: Thames & Hudson, p.136

Golding, J. (1990) “Braque and the space of still life” In South Bank Centre (1990) Braque: Still lifes and interiors. London: South Bank Centre Publications, pp. 9 – 26.

Leymarie, J. (1988) Georges Braque New York: Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum.

Maloon, T. (2010) Paths to abstraction 1867 – 1917 Sydney: Art Gallery of New South Wales

Schulz-Hoffman, C. (1988) “The Cubist Phase” In Leymarie, J. (1988) Georges Braque New York: Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum, pp. 19-24.

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

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

Paul Cezanne Still life with plaster cupid

Paul Cézanne
Still life with plaster cupid (1895)
Image source: (public domain)

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).


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.


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’.


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 (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 (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–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-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, but the best online image with excellent colour, detail and focus is on the google art project at
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.

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


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 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.


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 (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 (Accessed 11-Jan-2014)

Hoogsteder Consultancy Service, ([n.d.] a) Light in a Dark Niche [on line] Available from (Accessed 11-Jan-2014)

Hoogsteder Consultancy Service, ([n.d.] b) [on line] Dark niche – after restoration Available from (Accessed 11-Jan-2014)

Lawrence Steigrad Fine Arts, ([n.d.]) LAURENS CRAEN [on line] Available from (Accessed 11-Jan-2014)

RKD Artist Database [n.d.] [online] Available from (Accessed 12-Jan-2014)

RKDImages [n.d.] [online] Available from[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-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-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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