Monday, 18 April 2011

Figure Painting Research

Exploring Concepts

Assignment 2

The Figure and the Self Portrait

Figure Research

Inevitably the earlier artists are more representational than the later artists, but why?  What is it that artists are seeking to depict in their work?

The human figure has, and always will be, an eternal subject.  The human form can be described in many ways, lyrical, strong, athletic, fluid, full of movement, pathetic, frail and so on.  All of these descriptive terms can and have been depicted by artists throughout the ages, and it is only in the twentieth Century that we see a change.  Artists seek to explore the essence of being, through abstraction, semi abstraction, expressionism or by means of poetic realization that fits into none of these.
The work of Edgar Degas (1834-1917) remains high on my list of admired artists, indeed it was seeing some of his work that urged me to take my own art more seriously.  His pastel life drawings are as fresh and interesting today as ever.  He once said: “Drawing is not what one sees but what one can make others see”.  His work certainly does that.  His remarkable compositional skills go a long way towards that, he understands the relevance of counter-change, the importance of line (in his case particularly vertical) in building a design, and he uses enclosing right angles and repetition a lot in his work.  He understands tonal mass linking them and contrasting them masterfully. Significantly, through use of the camera, he very quickly learns to use cropping techniques.  However it is his drawing skills which constantly amaze, his use of lost and found lines, the delicacy of touch and superb handling of colour with pastels that delivers masterpieces of such beauty.  His early work in 1860s/70s is traditional or classical in style, but during the period 1870-1885, his unique style becomes established and later he starts to use “contouring” a lot more, possibly because of his eyesight of which he complained almost throughout his life.

In the Bellini Family Degas uses repetition here in the two strong white aprons, his use of verticals creates a square on the left with a rebatement on the right using the lines of the golden section. The blue and yellow are contrasting colours

The Racecourse 1876-78 gives an example of the cropping technique I mentioned earlier, the subtle repetitions in the wheels, the back of the hood and the black armed rider. Enclosing right-angles show up in the horses leg and the wheels.  Mass blocking on the left in the plain grass countered by the busy right hand side.

                                               The Blue Dancers, 1899                                           
                                                    © Bridgeman Education Library                                         

I had to include The Blue Dancers as it reminds me of the time I saw the painting at the Pushkin Gallery in St Petersburg, it took my breath away, quite literally.

In The Tub 1886 and Woman Combing her hair, 1887-1890 you can see how Degas moves more towards an abstract composition, but the elements mentioned in the introduction are still there.

                                                    The Tub, ©Bridgeman Education Library

Paul Cézanne (1839-1906), like Degas, did not have a strong relationship with women, indeed by all accounts he was, in his early life a bit of a misanthrope, being both attracted and repelled by women, not forming a relationship until he was 30.  One can sense in his painting “Medea”, painted1880, and his painting Bacchanal of 1890.  As many of the Impressionists, Cézanne uses contouring around his figures, but they are relatively indistinct.  In Large Bathers1900-05, one senses a move towards abstraction.  Cezanne had been exploring the use of the cylinder, cone and sphere as templates for painting objects.Large Bathers starts to abstract in a similar style to the later Maurice Denis (1870 – 1943).  Whilst I prefer these figures to those of Three Bathing Women of 1879-82, I still feel he does not get to the essence of his models, they become pictorial motifs in a landscape, without becoming part of it. However, in one of his last paintings Bathers, 1902-06, I feel he has finally got there. His portraiture whilst deliberately not exploring psychology and feeling, is nonetheless more evocative in the use of colour and form. His pursuit of the elemental, for me works with Portraiture and Landscape but not with figures. His often sombre palette has subtle colour combinations and his Temptation of St Anthony (1869-70) almost pre-cursors Matthew Smith.

                                               Bathers, 1902 – 06 ©Bridgeman Education Library     

Pablo Picasso (1881-1973).  There are several possibilities for his Blue Period (1901-1905), he himself said it was the death of a friend who shot himself, but there was also the death of his father, who kept and indeed painted pigeons, (hence the symbolism of one of his most well known icons) and there followed his general depressed state, it is not until 1905 that we hear of his first long term love – Fernande Olivier, so who is to know what was going on in his mind prior to that.  Whatever the reason his pictures of that time are mournful subjects.  Picasso says later that whenever he paints he thinks of his father, and as far as I know we are not aware of his relationship with his mother. There have been many derogatory remarks attributed to him but we can only look at his art as decide for ourselves if there might be any element of truth in them.

The melancholy is expressed in The Madman, Woman and Child and Portrait of the Poet, which is why many people are able to relate to the Blue Period.  Likewise the Rose Period produces representational work that the average man in the street can understand.  One interesting speculation on my part, because I don’t know the facts is the later painting, also in blue, entitled Sleeping Woman 5th April 1936.  This was the year Marie Therese and Picasso part, a year after Maya was born.  Why the specific date, I don’t know, but it is likely a portrait of Marie-Therese, and there is a foetal shape for the eyes, as well as blinkers (echoed by the “blinds”) in the background.  Picasso had fallen in love with Dora Marr.  It has to be remembered that much of his work is influenced by the women in his life and as each lover arrives on the scene there is usually a change of style.

Sleeping Women with shutters 25th April 1936, © Bridgeman Education Library

His Cubist style developed as much by Braque as Picasso, enables him to explore new ways of presenting women.  I personally believe despite his affairs that he was a misogynist, why else would he paint Dora Marr so grotesquely and deny his wife Olga an inheritence, and I think this comes out in his paintings. He was also interested in African art at the time, which is clear from“Nude with raised arms” and of course his famous painting of prostitutes, “Les Demoiselles d’Avignon

 Nude with raised arms, 1908© Bridgeman Education Library

What can you say about Picasso, he was nothing if not innovative, an egotist and eccentric who lived to paint and was not afraid to explore, scribing, incising, colouring, blocking, destroying - his energy is there for all to see, and he owed a great deal to the dealer, Kahnweiler, who signed him up with a publicity campaign after seeing “Les Demoiselles d’Avignon”. Sadly, for me personally, he does very little, I just don’t sense it, and it reminds me again of Degas’ quote: “Drawing is not what one sees but what one can make others see”.   Nonetheless, Picasso’s influence in shaping new ways of looking at things cannot be denied.

I referred to the similarity of one of Cezanne’s paintings The Temptation of St Anthony as the colouring style of Matthew Smith, and I think his Reclining Nudes show this.

It is also interesting to note Matthew Smith’s (1879-1959) strong use of complementary colours in his work, shown with these two portraits, as well as the enclosing right angles in both works, repetition of the apples is used in the Thomas Good Portrait


Thomas Good Portrait © Bridgeman Education Library

William Roberts (1895-1980)  and Stanley Spencer (1891-1959) are obvious comparisons and in some cases it would be difficult to differentiate their styles.  William Roberts builds on the cubist style, though his work , The Teabreak also reminds me of the Stalinist poster art, probably because of the work ethic depicted.  He has a very controlled use of colour which is not strident and he too uses complementary contrasts, particularly in The Teabreak with yellow and blue and the related orange. I particularly like the rhythmic quality of this work and the use of geometrics, culminating in the triangle with the teapot as the central motif.

                                           William Roberts, The Teabreak, © Bridgeman Education Library

Again, Roberts has a great use of rhythm his painting Palms Foretell, and it is similar to Stanley Spencer’s figures. It makes me realize the importance of rhythmic structures in a painting, he also uses quite subtle colours, which in the Palms Foretell is suited to the older people depicted.

                                Stanley Spencer, Choosing a Petticoat, 1936. © Bridgeman Education Library

Spencer’s sense of humour comes through in Choosing the Petticoat, 1936.  We see the repetition in the legs and the use of perspective lines forming a triangle,  as well as counterchange, and a high horizon as Klimt uses.  In his nudes we see similarities with Lucien Freud, in their brutal reality.

                                             Stanley Spencer, Seated Nude,  © Bridgeman Education Library

Leucian Freyd, Portrait of Auerbach
© Bridgeman Library

Colquhoun’s (1914-1962) work is heavily influenced by Picasso with use of cubist principles, with possibly Matisse-like colours, a fascinating combination occurs in Lovers. I also find amusing his painting Tomato Plants, which dance like humans, which makes one realize the huge possibilities available to the artist, in terms of use of colouor, composition and  semi abstraction

                                         Frank Sleeping, Frank Auberach.  © Bridgeman Library

Auerbach (b 1931) produces some amazing heavy impasto paintings which hardly reveal the nudes hidden within them, they become a decorative tour de force. I find these very interesting, but would find it difficult to replicate as the amount of oil required would be prohibitive unless on a small scale.


Walter Sickert (1860-1942) has developed a style following on from the Nabis and Vuillard, very similar to Ken Howard using a traditional style of painting, see: Mornington Crescent Nude, and The Newspaper.

Sickert uses colour in a very subtle way and like Degas, he uses vertical lines to strengthen his compositions, and I particularly like his subdued use of colour in the painting below.

                                                             Walter Sickert, Angel Basement
                                                                                    © Bridgeman Education Library

Chuck Close, I like the way he uses pixels but in a greatly modified way in his portraits, I haven’t seen any life paintings, but his photoreal work in the painting of Linda suggests they might be interesting.

Francis Bacon, probably the most difficult of all to admire, but once you get over the shock of the grotesque shapes, there is something to be admired.  His study for the portrait of Mechel Leiris, has some interesting colouring and hatching.

 Francis Bacon, Mechel Leiris,                          
© Bridgeman Education Library                        

The design of the Lying figure has some bizarre optical effects going on and the womb-like repose in an escutcheon shape suggests the key to life, past present and future. I wouldn’t want to distort faces as much as he does, but the fluidity with which he handles a composition is interesting.

My review of the artists I have looked at have enabled me to see the potential for expanding away from the purely representational form.  I think it might be worthwhile my looking at a cubist approach because it lends itself so well to the figure.  Composing a picture as a decorative scheme, and I don’t use the word decorative in a pejorative sense, has great possibilities, and I am thinking particularly of Auerbach, Colquhoun and Bacon. Having the  ability to do this is another thing as I find myself almost inextricably drawn towards representation.

Tuesday, 12 April 2011

Looking forward: Looking Back (A Contradiction)

Exploring Concepts

Looking forward: Looking back
(A Contradiction)

Art Made Modern: Roger Fry’s Visions of Art
Edited by Christopher Green
Merrell Holberton Publishers in association with the Courtauld Gallery, Courtauld Institute of Art

Looking Back (to see forward)

My personal artistic journey has perpetuated the idea that in order to make progress I must prove (to myself) that I am capable of producing a realistic painting of an object using form, line and colour.  In order to achieve this I have spent much time pursuing the ‘academic’ line refuted by the Impressionists in the last century and discouraged today as a means of learning and progress because of its stultifying affects on creativity, spontaneity and loose associations of ideas expressed by feelings. Knowing that I want to get to the point where my work is looser and expresses ideas in a more creative way, do I now need to think about dispensing with the academic approach?

I have explored the basic building blocks of understanding colour through the colour wheel and by knowing the properties of various colours, i.e. transparency, opacity etc., the fugitive nature of contrasting colours, the importance of cool colours and warm colours, etc.  I have read Joseph Albers book on understanding the effects of placement and how pigments can seem to alter in tone relative to the juxtaposition of colours.

I have looked at Japanese paintings Hokusai, Ultamaro, Hiroshige and various artists who use line in succinct and innovative ways including people  Gaudier-Bzreska, Degas, Watteau, Kupka.

The importance of texture has been looked at through the Expressionists, Kokoshka. Van Gogh, Freud, Schnabel, Auerbach.

Various schools that have been scrutinized: Futurism, Vorticism, Surrealism, Cubism,  Impressionism, Pluralism and so on.  Learning the distinctions between their styles and the variations between artists within the movements, seeing how they use paint and how they compose their paintings, modulate their tone and arrive at a finished work.

I have looked at illustrations of cave paintings and early mediaeval artists, through the Italian Rennaissance to the Twentieth Century.

This odyssey has not just been a quest in the pursuit of learning for the sake of improvement of style, but has been, and will continue to be, a pleasure in itself. There is always a new artist to discover and admire a new painting that sparks your enthusiasm and touches your imagination.

Roger Fry was a well known critic and art historian at the beginning of the 20th century, who was a formalist in the sense that he felt form was essential but more than that he felt there was “pure” art and “suggestive” art the pure art being the substance, and the suggestive was like jam which helped the “pure” to go down, but he later defined this as “pure form” with “associated ideas”, and that “pure form” needed to be disentangled from social, political and art history.  This grain of thought develops throughout his career and in 1910 he arranges the first British exhibition: Manet and the Post-Impressionists at the Grafton Gallery featuring Manet, Cezanne, Gauguin, Van Gogh and Matisse. Fry had been part of the Bloomsbury set and disliked the elitist label that attached to it.  He was also involved with the Slade, giving lectures, and by the time of the exhibition he deplored the low standard of artistic conscience, and talked of Britain being a “minor school”, despite his efforts through the Omega Workshop to develop untapped talent.  The Exhibition caused mayhem with much criticism from some at the Royal Academy who denounced it as “nightmare art”.  Nonetheless aspirant painters realised the opportunities that had been opened up enabling them to challenge orthodox thinking and ideas.

Fry did not initially recognize Cubism but in his second Post-Impressionist Exhibition at the Grafton he included work by Picasso, Matisse, Braque, and the English contingent included Grant, Etchells, Gill, Gore, Henry Lamb and Wyndham Lewis.

This exhibition upset the Slade artists, and Prof. Tonks discouraged his students from going. But eventually artist like Paul Nash, who contributed to the Omega Workshop until it was disbanded, saw the importance of the avant-garde.

At the time of the demise of the Omega Workshops, Frank Rutter, an avant-guard himself, mounted an exhibition which included Futurists, German Expressionists, Robert Delaunay and Nevinson along with about 20 English artists, a considerably higher number than represented in Fry’s Exhibition.

Nonetheless, the two Exhibitions produced by Fry provided an inspirational effect on young artists.  Henry Moore later talked favourably of Fry’s contribution to the art scene saying “once you’d read Roger Fry the whole thing was there.” However, Fry was right as far as British art was concerned, German Expressonists, American Abstract Expressionists and to a lesser extent the Italian Futurists become strong movements with very little being talked about on the National scene about British Art, except perhaps the Glasgow Boys.

Looking Forward  (to see back)

Roger Fry was open to re-evaluation and questioning of the canonical judgements. He became open to non-European art, to the “savage” or “primitive” in art.  This in itself had been criticised by a critic of The Times “Really primitive art is attractive because it is unconscious; but this (the work on view at the Grafton Galleries – Second Exhibition) is deliberate – it is a rejection of what civilization has done, the good with the bad..”  The terms “savage” “barbaric” “primitive” are understood today to be more or less interchangeable, but at that time these were seen as racist terms, as something “other” in the sense of being uncivilised.

In this sense the words ‘savage’ and ‘barbaric’ contain within them the fear of progressive evolution being destroyed by barbarians and hence ultimate degeneration. This quality of degeneration was seen with  Gauguin for example, who rejected the European culture by going to the South Seas, Van Gogh’s madness which is frequently referred to. One might also include Redon’s “noirs” as being redolent of a childhood trauma. A degeneracy regressing into childishness. Theodore Hyslop, Physician at Bedlam hospital, saw this as the art of the insane, displaying excessive emotion, and danger within the society, and those who revered such works were, in his view, imposters or degenerates too.

Roger Fry counters the arguments by saying why would any artist want to discard the science learned since the Rennaissance  by returning to barbaric art?  The answer he postulates is “neither wanton nor wilfull, but simply necessary, if art is to be rescued from the hopelessness of its own accumulations of science, if art is to regain its power to express emotional ideas”.  Fry thought it was justified in order to recuperate for the civilized that expressive capacity.
Hence Duncan Grant’s Dionysian dancers and The Blue Sheep, were for the drawing-rooms of the suitably civilized. Art still had not reached the masses.

For me then, it is important to look ahead to the development of “primitive” art, which reflects on non-European art, simple art from earlier civilisations, from the tombs in Egypt, childlike art in order to get back to a purer non-formalized painting, which demonstrates the hubris of spontaneity, the joy of expressive form, the essence of being.  This was indeed something that Picasso himself wanted to achieve, he said, and I am para-phrasing: I spent a lifetime learning to paint like a child. This then is where the creative spontaneity lies. 

 Child with Dove, Picasso
© Bridgeman Education Library

Roger Fry explored children’s paintings and supported Marion Richardson, a teacher at Dudley School of Art and Design, Birmingham, who understood the importance of encouragement rather than teaching a methodology to children.  He sees “significant form” in their work which has a direct emotional response which is produced by a fusion of the “realist” and “decorative” impulses. Nevertheless he does not recommend emulating their style but he sees the need to return to a starting point where modern art can begin to evolve again, and he seems to think that all the knowledge and learning from the past will again accumulate but with passionate “zest and enthusiasm”. The actual condition of the ‘primitive’ was not, as such, to be desired.  His place in historical terms, does not allow him to eradicate the conjunction between ‘primitive’ and ‘uncivilised’, and he shared the general ignorance of African art, seeing it as produced for magical purposes not artistic ones.  He found it easier to recognise Chinese art as “sensitive” so in his eyes “civilised” and therefore culturally acceptable. He saw the coming together of East and West into a single world-wide system as a hope for the future.

Roger Fry’s comments on Art and Artists

Talking of Duncan Grant’s Rug design now at the Courtauld Gallery, Roger Fry makes a significant remark concerning the “surface sensibility” over formulaic regularity:

“ He has taken a theme of almost daring geometrical simplicity, but, not relying only on the broken quality of the knotted surface of the rug, he has deliberately broken his rectilinears by small steps up and down; he has also made his shading sometimes perpendicular and sometimes diagonal.  The effect of this is to allow us to contemplate a design which, if it had been perfectly regular, we should probably sum up in the statement seven rectangles arranged in parallel.  But these perpetual slight changes prevent us from ever passing on, as it were, to the mere mathematical generalisation.  Here I suspect is one of the secrets of the importance in art of surface sensibility.”  He talks of Grant’s ability to make “any scribble expressive”, thereby highlighting the importance of what we today would call “mark-making”.

 Duncan Grant, Tapestrie Design 
 ©Bridgeman Education Library

Fry saw Impressionism as lacking in “design”, portraying everything but that they  “did not express profound feelings and to transmit these feelings to the spectator”  He saw the scientific principles being applied as the ultimate stage of the development of the science of representation, a stage at which the fundamental principles of painting had been lost. Thus understanding colour, for example blue or violet in shadows; transforming ugly objects into sources of pleasure through the use of modified local colour; atmospheric effects which changed perception of every single object, for him changed what is known into “appearances”. 

I have to say at this point I am not quite sure what Fry’s objection is.  I can see that he has difficulty with a scientific approach to art, but “changing what is known into appearances” in my view is what art is, art is an “artifice” it cannot represent a known object without presenting it as such, it can only reflect the appearance of a thing.  Endowing it with feeling is one expression of the “object”, expressing it as an object influenced by atmosphere is another, they are not mutually exclusive presentations of the same “thing”. 

He did not however have the same difficulty with Cezanne, Degas and Renoir, presumably because “form” was clearer in their work, than atmospheric affects, what he regarded as “classic” artists. Similarly Jean Marchand.  Roger Fry writing on his “Still Life with Earthenware Jug, Loaf and Strawberries” talks of how he builds up a unity of design of impressive quality from ordinary objects, and mentions that he heard someone refer to the jug as like a Buddha.

 Jean Marchand, Still Life with Earthenware Jug, Strawberries and Loaf.  ©Bridgeman Education Library

His view of Matisse was that he was almost too pure an artist lacking a very strong reaction to life, preferring to dwell on “rhythm” in “The Dance” and pure colour in other paintings. He sees him as a realist, in that his designs are the result of things seen, not from imagination.

 Still Life with “Dance”
© Bridgeman Education Library

Whereas, as far as Cezanne’s work was concerned he saw an ability to make the spectator recognise a three dimensional world in a diversely coloured surface, Fry saw him as a naturalist with the ability to express “plastic” form.  He accepted that Cezanne probably was a misanthrope who was out of touch with his own art, giving rise to Fry’s term – inadvertent artists. Of Cezanne’s art he says Cezanne “disentangles the simplest elements of design” seeing the geometric order, i.e. cylinders, cones and spheres, but this was too simple an explanation.  Of “Bay at l’Estaque” (Philadelphia Museum of Art) Fry writes it looks as if: “cut in some incredibly precious crystalline substance, each of its facets different, yet each dependent on the rest”.  Thus Fry’s “promotion” of Cezanne declared him the “father of modern art”.

 Bay at l’Estaque, Paul Cezanne
© Bridgeman EducationLibrary

Roger Fry’s take on Islamic art talks about what is now regarded as a modern phenomenon in painting. 

Art made Modern, Roger Fry’s Vision of Art, p.181
Cat 157 Persian Square bottle, 17th or 18th Century Earthenware with turquoise and blue glaze, Courtauld Gallery (0.1935. RF 136)

The Persian craftsman …”wants to impress his idea upon the matter but his idea is not quite complete; it is not like a pattern ready drawn and handed over to someone else to execute…The idea grows to completeness as he works the matter…it is this drawing that is like a beautiful dancing that is so exhilarating and stimulating to the eye…and all the roughnesses and irregularities of their pots are really pressed into the service of the idea, they are parts of its delightful vitality and freedom of movement…happy accidents” (the running together of glazes for example). “His design is so firm so solid and self-supporting that all these accidents only add the charm of atmosphere of a suggestiveness which stirs the spectator’s imagination.”

 Persian Decorative tile © Bridgeman Education Library
(This demonstrates the points made above but is not the item referred to)

In conclusion, I feel my search has to extend more fully into “primitive” art in order to sustain progress in understanding what makes a painting more direct, more free and I feel Roger Fry, has touched upon one or two things which are as relevant today as ever, it is a question of finding these nuggets amongst much philosophising and speculation about “pure” form and “significant art”, etc.