Pornography, simile and surrealism in The Atrocity Exhibition and Crash

WARNING: This review contains quotations and images of an extremely brutal and/or sexually explicit nature.

The Atrocity Exhibition (1970) is packed with deviant sexual activity, described with a cold clinical detachment, and Crash (1973) is notorious for being one of the most pornographic ‘serious’ novels of the post-war period, not just pornographic but deliberately and studiedly perverse, in that the story is about how the lead characters – both men and women – become fixated on the erotic potential of car crashes.

All this can easily appear gratuitous, designed purely to shock, or to generate publicity and sales.

But apart from all the external arguments we can invoke to defend Ballard, there are arguments in the works themselves which go some way to explaining their extremity.

In particular, one of the recurring characters in The Atrocity Exhibition, the psychiatrist Dr Nathan, is given several speeches where he explains the reason behind the lead character’s obsession with sex – and with extreme, fetishistic sex of the kind Ballard describes in these two books. These two or three speeches explain Ballard’s motivation, contain interesting insights about modern society, and unwittingly shed light on Ballard’s broader approach and technique.

1. Perverse sex resists the trivialisation & commercialisation of sexuality

During the 1960s sex came out of the closet and into all forms of art and media, advertising, music and movies, the mini-skirt, the pill. Ballard’s shock novels both became possible because of this swift liberalisation of social attitudes, but they are also in some measure a reaction against the modern ubiquity of sex:

‘Now that sex is becoming more and more a conceptual act, an intellectualization divorced from affect and physiology alike, one has to bear in mind the positive merits of the sexual perversions. Talbert’s library of cheap photo-pornography is in fact a vital literature, a kindling of the few taste buds left in the jaded palates of our so-called sexuality.’

The argument is that, as the imagery of sex becomes more ubiquitous in advertising and popular culture, our personal enactments of it unavoidably repeat images, positions, postures, maybe even words and phrases, which we have all seen in the tide of increasingly ‘liberated’ movies and TV dramas. So how can we escape from the sense of simply going through motions done much better on the silver screen by glamorous movie stars, or detailed in a thousand ‘How To Have Better Sex’ books and magazine articles, or in the highly sexualised fiction that we can now read? How can we escape from the nagging feeling that our sex lives have been colonised and occupied by the mass media?

By doing things ‘normal people’ would never dream of.

Thus, at a basic level – level 1 – the characters’ obsession with perverse sex is to some extent justifiable as a rejection of the safe, tame, commercially packaged and sanitised sex lives which are increasingly pushed on us from all directions.

(The irony of David Cronenberg making a glossy movie out of Crash was that he was incorporating into film a glaring example of a work which was trying to rebel against being incorporated into film. Hollywood eats everything. Turns everything into two-hour glamorisation and trivialisation, converts the weird and uncanny into a tried and trusted set of gestural and facial clichés. Which is why I loathe film as a medium.)

2. Car crashes are sexually liberating

But not only is extreme fetishistic sex a way of escaping the stifling ‘norms’ of how-to guides in magazines and on daytime TV – Dr Nathan goes on to assert that there is something specifically exciting and arousing about car crashes.

‘Talbot’s belief – and this is confirmed by the logic of the scenario – is that automobile crashes play very different roles from the ones we assign them. Apart from its ontological function, redefining the elements of space and time in terms of our most potent consumer durable, the car crash may be perceived unconsciously as a fertilizing rather than a destructive event – a liberation of sexual energy – mediating the sexuality of those who have died with an intensity impossible in any other form: James Dean and Miss Mansfield, Camus and the late President.’

Think how vital car crashes are to Hollywood movies, both comedies and catastrophes. Think of the orgasmic pleasure it gave hundreds of millions of cinema-goers to watch the whole world blow up in an orgy of crashing cars, airplanes and tube trains in the blockbuster Armageddon movie 2012, and all the many others like it.

Disaster movies are just a shallow, celluloid re-enactment of something much darker and fiercer in human nature: that we revel in destruction. Ballard is just taking this meme – embedded in countless examples of the most popular popular culture – and pushing it to one absolute limit.

The notion that witnessing car crashes allows the release of sexual energy among onlookers lies behind the semi-satirical ‘survey’s which make up the last sections of The Atrocity Exhibition. These assure us, in the po-faced language of questionnaires and social science, that witnesses of car crashes experience a sharp increase in their libido and report marked increases of sexual activity with their partners in the weeks that follow. Car crashes are hot!

3. Car crash sex is one way into a new form of sexuality

If you combine the two ideas above – 1. that fetishistic sex is a way of avoiding the commercialisation of our own sex lives, and 2. that car crashes are exciting – then you move towards a conclusion, a third idea: that car crash sexual fetishisation may be the gateway into a brand new form of human sexuality.

The deformed body of the crippled young woman, like the deformed bodies of the crashed automobiles, revealed the possibilities of an entirely new sexuality.

This view is repeated again and again in Atrocity Exhibition and Crash, that humans are evolving new relationships with their brutal built environment and with each other, and that the combination of the two – of concrete motorways and shopping precincts and multi-story car parks – is creating a new, dissociated, alienated psychology which is giving rise to a new, hard-edge psychology of sex.

4. Car crashes are telling us something

But then there is a fourth level of meaning: beneath the (normally forbidden and repressed) sexual elements which are liberated (in Ballard’s view) by car crashes, there is another, much deeper level of significance. For while we consciously deplore the loss of life etc, we are nonetheless attracted, compulsively attracted, to the scene of car crashes and to re-enact them over and over again. Why?

For Ballard, the assassination of President Kennedy forms a kind of religious apotheosis of the theme: and God knows American culture, from Oliver Stone to Don DeLillo, has been compelled to replay that moment in Dealey Plaza over and over again, picking at the scar, endlessly hoping the psychological devastation of that one fateful moment can be forced to reveal its true secret, to unfold the real conspiracy which led to the president’s death.

The fruitless investigations and countless personal obsessions with the Kennedy assassination are all trying to do the same thing – to get to the bottom, to find the truth about the world. For it all to make sense.

This is a fourth way of interpreting the meaning of car crashes: they are a weird and perverse emblem of humanity’s obsessive need to make sense of the world.

Dr Nathan, in The Atrocity Exhibition, describes one of the other characters as attempting to restage the Kennedy assassination but this time ‘so it makes sense’, and in the annotations he later wrote for the book, Ballard is (as usual) totally candid about the importance of the JFK assassination to the entire book.

Kennedy’s assassination presides over The Atrocity Exhibition, and in many ways the book is directly inspired by his death, and represents a desperate attempt to make sense of the tragedy, with its huge hidden agenda. The mass media created the Kennedy we know, and his death represented a tectonic shift in the communications landscape, sending fissures deep into the popular psyche that have not yet closed.

For all the characters in Crash, the crashes they’ve been involved and the systems of scars and scar tissue left woven into their bodies are telling them something, are codes whose code books have been lost, ciphers of some meaning trembling just beyond reach.

If you think this sounds eccentric or exaggerated, just cast your mind back to the public reaction to Princess Diana’s death in a car crash: it was epic, it was awesome, the entire nation came to a halt, vast crowds gathered outside Kensington Palace and queued for days to sign the book of condolence. And then her funeral. Every commentator at the time highlighted the sense of excess, that the nation seemed to be traumatised far more than the facts of the matter seemed to justify. My own interpretation was that it was us we were grieving for, for all our lost illusions, dreams and hopes which this fairytale princess had come to symbolise.

And then consider the conspiracy theories about the role of the driver, and the pursuing cars, and the role of MI6 or the Royal Family in ‘assassinating’ her, or was it the Russians or… or… Anything, no matter how far-fetched, in order to give meaning, purpose, shape and coherence to what was, in fact, just a stupid pointless car crash, like so many hundreds of thousands of others.

Well, it is the same forlorn, doomed quest for the elusive meaning at the heart of the violent confrontation between man and machine, for the sense of any meaning at the heart of our lives, which the characters of Crash are condemned to pursue, right up to the book’s logical and senseless climax.

5. Car crashes are examples of Ballard’s obsession with junctures and juxtapositions

But these four interpretations of car crash sex – the sexual and the psychological and the ontological  – themselves overlay an even deeper level of meaning: for in The Atrocity Exhibition in particular we come to realise that the protagonist’s obsession with sex is in fact a sub-set of a much deeper obsession – an obsession with the way things are put together – with the modern world of junctions and conjunctions.

Seen from this perspective, sex is just the most garish and compelling avatar of a far deeper and more abstract structure which exists throughout the world as we know it, which is the joining together of disparate parts.

The Primary Act. As they entered the cinema, Dr Nathan confided to Captain Webster, ‘Talbert has accepted in absolute terms the logic of the sexual union. For him all junctions, whether of our own soft biologies or the hard geometries of these walls and ceilings, are equivalent to one another. What Talbert is searching for is the primary act of intercourse, the first apposition of the dimensions of time and space. In the multiplied body of the film actress – one of the few valid landscapes of our age – he finds what seems to be a neutral ground. For the most part the phenomenology of the world is a nightmarish excrescence. Our bodies, for example, are for him monstrous extensions of puffy tissue he can barely tolerate. The inventory of the young woman is in reality a death kit.’ Webster watched the images of the young woman on the screen, sections of her body intercut with pieces of modern architecture. All these buildings. What did Talbert want to do – sodomize the Festival Hall?

This passage explains in a flash the bizarre linkage of sex and architecture which runs throughout The Atrocity Exhibition and recurs in Crash, in its fetishisation of concrete motorways and multi-story car parks.

Modern brutalist architecture reveals the junctions of floors and ceilings, uprights and flats, struts and pillars, with crushing candour – and it is not altogether irrational to see the brutal slotting of concrete floors into concrete stanchions, stark geometric arrangements of prefabricated parts slotted together to create complicated cantilevered structures – with even the most basic sexual positions; even the missionary position, seen from outside, is quite an unwieldy network of limbs arranged in funny and strikingly geometric angles, four arms, four legs, bearing weights or bent at strange angles – all to arrange for the slotting of a vertical member into an oval orifice.

Seen – just seen – actually observed with no moral or sentimental framework whatsoever – sex is a complicated assemblage of moving parts for dubious ends.

Above all, the interest in angles, angles of entry or penetration, the rectilinear arrangements and poses of the human body, can be quite easily made to seem half-abstract.

The identification of splayed human bodies with the splayed metal plates of cars which have been in catastrophic crashes is not, in the end, that far-fetched.


Modern art and angles

This fetishistic approach seems less exceptional when taken out of the context of novels and literature altogether, and placed in the tradition of modern art.

Remember Ballard was very interested indeed in modern art, confessed in interviews to wanting to have been an artist, and litters his stories with art references. In these respects – exploring sexual perversion, and the geometric aspect of the human body – art was waaaaay ahead of written literature, having discovered the geometry beneath the skin of human beings fifty years before Ballard was writing his rude books.

Nude Descending a Staircase by Marcel Duchamp (1912)

Indeed, Duchamp’s famous painting Nude Descending a Staircase is directly referenced in The Atrocity Exhibition, in The Great American Nude chapter:

Koester parked the car outside the empty production offices. They walked through into the stage. An enormous geometric construction filled the hangar-like building, a maze of white plastic convolutions. Two painters were spraying pink lacquer over the bulbous curves. ‘What is this?’ Koester asked with irritation. ‘A model of A/ 3 1 ?’ Dr Nathan hummed to himself. ‘Almost,’ he replied coolly. ‘In fact, you’re looking at a famous face and body, an extension of Miss Taylor into a private dimension. The most tender act of love will take place in this bridal suite, the celebration of a unique nuptial occasion. And why not? Duchamp’s nude shivered her way downstairs, far more desirable to us than the Rokeby Venus, and for good reason.’

‘Far more desirable to us than the Rokeby Venus’? Discuss.

Bellmer and fetish dolls

Ballard was particularly attracted by the Surrealists, and The Atrocity Exhibition references a dozen or so Surrealist paintings and artists, and the idea of bodies regarded as weird fragments, taken to pieces and reassembled to make bizarre new biologies, was one of Surrealism’s basic strategies.

This is most crudely obvious in the obscene and disturbing mannequins made by the German Surrealist artist and photographer Hans Bellmer (1902-1975). Bellmer made his first recombined ‘dolls’ in 1933, was forced to flee to the Nazis, was welcomed to France by the Surrealists, and after the war continued to produce a stream of erotic drawings, etchings, sexually explicit photographs, paintings and prints, often – the transgressive little tinker – of pubescent girls.

Plate from La Poupée (1936) by Hans Bellmer

This is not just like Ballard, it virtually is the Ballard of The Atrocity Exhibition and Crash, in which men fetishise parts of the female body, pose women in awkward and anti-romantic positions, imagine women’s bodies as multiple fragments or as specific zones blown up to the size of billboard hoardings.

Bellmer explained his thinking thus:

What is at stake here is a totally new unity of form, meaning and feeling: language-images that cannot simply be thought up or written up … They constitute new, multifaceted objects, resembling polyplanes made of mirrors … As if the illogical was relaxation, as if laughter was permitted while thinking, as if error was a way and chance, a proof of eternity.

This could be Ballard talking.

Or take the surprise final work by Marcel Duchamp, the notorious (for the tiny number of people who have heard of it) Étant donnés, which Duchamp laboured over (allegedly) from 1946 to 1966 in his Greenwich Village studio, and which was only discovered after his death.

It consists of a common-or-garden wooden door which contains a peephole through which you see a brutal photo of a nude woman lying on her back with her face hidden, legs spread, and one hand holding a gas lamp against a landscape backdrop.

Étant donnés: 1° la chute d’eau / 2° le gaz d’éclairage (Given: 1. The Waterfall, 2. The Illuminating Gas) by Marcel Duchamp (1946-1966)

Shocked? You’re meant to be. Puzzled? Ditto.

Ballard and the French tradition of épatant la bourgeoisie

In fact, the more you think about it, the more ‘traditional’ Ballard’s two extreme books seem – just not in the well-mannered English tradition.

The Atrocity Exhibition and Crash have nothing in common with the polite and subtle novels about upper-middle-class life of an Anthony Powell from this period, or the works of the so-called Angry Young Men (Osborne, Amis), or the kitchen-sink dramas which came in in the early 60s (Saturday Night and Sunday morning et al).

But they are entirely in the tradition, the very long tradition, of French literary attempts to ‘épater la bourgeoisie’ or shock the middle classes.

This French tradition goes back at least as far as the self-consciously decadent poets and writers of the 1890s, or further back to Arthur Rimbaud writing in the 1870s or further back to Baudelaire’s poems about hashish and prostitutes, Les Fleurs du Mal in 1857, or maybe all the way back to the Marquis de Sade and works like The Hundred Days of Sodom (1785) which set out to scientifically catalogue every kind of sexual position and perversion conceivable to the mind of man.

By 1924 when André Breton published his Surrealist Manifesto France had had seventy years or so of ‘radical’ artists determined to use sex and obscenity to disrupt what they saw as the placid banality of bourgeois life.

Courbet scandalised the bourgeoisie with his Realism, Flaubert with the ‘immorality’ of Madame Bovary. Monet scandalised the bourgeoisie with his naked women at a picnic, the Impressionists with their shapeless ‘daubs’. Zola scandalised the bourgeoisie with his blunt Naturalism and frank depictions of Paris prostitutes (in Nana). The Decadents scandalised the bourgeoisie with their over-ripe dreams of drugs and unmentionable perversions. The Cubists scandalised the bourgeoisie with their collages and geometric shapes. The Surrealists shocked the bourgeoisie with their revelation of the sexual perversions lurking just beneath the surface of human consciousness. And so on…

In other words, in France, there is a very well-established and totally assimilated tradition of artists, novelists and playwrights doing their best to shock the bourgeoisie. Seen from this perspective Ballard is hardly a pioneer, more of a late-comer which, I think, sometimes explains the rather bloodless and placid feel of even his most ‘scandalous’ novels. Even when I first read them in the 1970s I had the sense that I’d somehow already read them and now, 40 years later, I think that’s because he was in fact channelling well-established tropes and notions (albeit from the Continental tradition) and simply updating them for the age of helicopters, napalm and multi-story car parks.

Surrealism, the art of juxtaposition and Ballard

At the core of Surrealist practice was the idea of the jarring juxtaposition of completely disparate elements.

It was while reading Les Chants de Maldoror, published in 1869 by Isidore-Lucien Ducasse under the pseudonym the Comte de Lautréamont, that the godfather of the French surrealists, André Breton, discovered the phrase that became foundational to the surrealist doctrine of objective chance:

as beautiful as the chance encounter of a sewing machine and an umbrella on an operating table.

Striking juxtapositions are a core element of the Surrealist aesthetic.

Thus when Ballard makes systematic, obsessive and repeated comparisons between the splayed bodies of naked women and a) the hard angles of brutalist concrete architecture, and b) the splayed metal and shattered windscreens of car crashes, he is following the Surrealist aesthetic to a T.

Although our imaginations are bombarded with adverts, films and novels encouraging us to think of sex as a smooth and sensual affair, not very different from eating a Cadburys Flake, anybody who’s actually had sex knows that it can also be quite energetic and brutal, that it contains elements of aggression and domination, compliance and submission which are hovering on the brink of possibility, waiting to be isolated and encouraged.

Since Fifty Shades of Grey became the fastest-selling novel of all time, we as a culture have become much more open about aspects of bondage or BDSM as it is now known and marketed in High Street sex shops, leading to a great deal more sexual experimentation of the kind Ballard describes in his books.

The identification of sex with car crashes was deeply shocking in the repressed 1960s, and upsets the simple-minded to this day, but both visually and conceptually, I am persuaded by Ballard that it is born of a deep, latent similarity between the two events.

Similes and Surreal juxtapositions

This gesture, the idea of the unexpected linking together of disparate elements, echoes some of the points I made in my essay about the importance of similes in Ballard’s writing.

Ballard uses similes a lot. So do other writers, but from his earliest novels Ballard as a writer is notable for the striking and outré comparisons he makes: a woman’s eyes are like dragonflies, wrecked cars look like Saurian lizards, high rise buildings tower overhead like glass coffins.

Ballard’s mind is always making comparisons and correlations, moving from the real concrete thing being described to often wild and unlikely analogies so that when you read a Ballard text you are not only reading about things themselves but are continually projected or flung into the full flood of his uncanny imaginarium.

This is another way to understand the obsession with geometry, planes and angles in The Atrocity Exhibition. It is like the technique of simile but converted into the language of geometry. You can think of all the references to angles and geometry as like being structural containers for similes, but without the actual content. Lines from the draft of a painting waiting to be filled in.

Looked at from this point of view, the linkage of porno sex to car crashes, and the various angles and shapes made by women’s bodies to the architectural shapes of concrete flyovers or modernist hotels, is in a sense only taking the metaphor-making tendency intrinsic in all Ballard’s fiction to extremes.

Ballard himself acknowledges the weirdness and extremity of some of his analogies at various points in the text:

This can be carried to remarkable lengths – for example, the jutting balconies of the Hilton Hotel have become identified with the lost gill-slits of the dying film actress, Elizabeth Taylor.

Extremes of disgust, in some critics’ minds; but extremes of delirious insight and extraordinary beauty, in my opinion. I am particularly haunted by his obsessive use of the idea that human faces contain implicit lines and planes which project outwards, forming complex three-dimensional geometries.

His eyes stared at Travis, their focus sustained only by a continuous effort. For some reason the planes of his face failed to intersect, as if their true resolution took place in some as yet invisible dimension

The planes of their lives interlocked at oblique angles, fragments of personal myths fusing with the commercial cosmologies.

The planes of his cheekbones and temples intersected with the slabs of rainwashed cement, together forming a strange sexual modulus.

For English readers in 1970 this was weird and revolutionary stuff and it still has the power to stun and disorient today. But deep down, is it anything more than a putting into words of the visual effects created by about ten thousand cubist portraits from fifty years earlier?

Young Man in a Gray Sweater (1914) by Diego Rivera

Ballard’s fundamental strategy in these two shattering books is to contrast the soft and (for most people) precious and sentimental idea of the human body, especially its most sensitive, erogenous and private zones – breast and pubis, penis and vulva – and juxtapose them with the most public, hard-edged, angular and manufactured objects of the modern world – cars, roads, brutalist buildings.

Although the books contain hundreds of individually brilliant similes and metaphors, I couldn’t help thinking that underlying most of them and the deeper structures of the books’ themes and ideas, were the profoundly disruptive and innovative strategies of early 20th century Modernist art.


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Exhibitions

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Into the Night: Cabarets and Clubs in Modern Art @ Barbican

This is a fabulous exhibition, packed with wonderful paintings, photos, films, drawings, posters and all kinds of memorabilia connected with a dozen or so avant-garde and trend-setting nightclubs around the world from the 1880s to the 1960s, And as well as all the lovely works and ideas and stories, it raises a number of questions, which I’ll address at the end of this review…

First the clubs and their stories. The Barbican exhibition space is laid out not as ‘rooms’ but as successive alcoves or spaces running off the first floor gallery, from which you look down onto the ground floor which can be divided up into various areas, or opened up to make one through-space (as they did for the Lee Krasner exhibition).

There are eight of these room-sized alcoves upstairs, and in this exhibition each one tells the story of one or two famous nightclubs which became a focus for artists, or was designed and decorated by artists, in various countries from the 1880s onwards…

Paris

The Chat Noir nightclub was the most famous of the new generation of nightclubs which opened in the Montmartre region of Paris in the 1880s. The darkened interior combined Gothic, Neo-Classical and Japanese features, in fact it contained so many artworks some people nicknamed it the Louvre of Montmartre.

Reopening of the Chat Noir Cabaret by Théophile-Alexandre Steinlen (1896) © Victoria and Albert Museum, London

In 1885 a shadow theatre was installed on the Chat Noir’s third floor in a room hung with drawings by Edgar Degas, Monet and Toulouse-Lautrec. Here artist Henri Riviere and collaborators staged what ended up being a series of 40 increasingly elaborate shadow plays. The exhibition features photos and drawings of the Chat Noir, along with some fabulous posters, and a big display case of some of the elaborately designed zinc silhouettes used in the plays, explaining how they were made, what characters they represent, along with some of the books, kind of novelisations of the plays they staged, including music and illustrations

The shadow theatre’s owner Rodolphe Salis took it on an international tour in the 1890s, inspiring a generation if avant-garde artists.

Meanwhile, the strange and dramatic dances of Loïe Fuller staged at the Folies Bergère in the 1890s were trail-blazing experiments in costume, light and movement. Fuller held long sticks attached to swathes of fabric to enormously increase the swirling effects of her dances. She was a real innovator who set up a laboratory to experiment with spectacular effects.

Henri de Toulouse-Lautrec captured her performances in a series of delicately hand-coloured lithographs, she inspired early film-makers like Edison and Lumiere brothers, and the alcove devoted to her also has a set of huge and very evocative posters by the great poster-maker of the era, Jules Chéret.

Folies Bergers by Jules Chéret

Vienna

The Cabaret Fledermaus was opened in Vienna in 1907 by the Wiener Werkstätte. It is a total art work in which every element – chairs, tables, light hanging, stairs and the brightly coloured tiled walls – each tile featuring a unique fantastical motif – were designed to create an overwhelming effect. Joseph Hoffmann designed the overall concept and commissioned the Wiener Keramik workshop to produce the tiles.  The club hosted satirical plays, poetry readings, avant-garde dance and a variety of musical events, including a performance of The Speckled Egg by the 21-year-old Oskar Kokoschka, a puppet show based on an Indian folk tale – the exhibition includes the fragile, original hand-made puppets.

Postcard showing the Interior view of the bar at the Cabaret Fledermaus (1907) Collection of Leonard A. Lauder

London

Not to be left behind, some London artists banded together to set up The Cave of the Golden Calf in 1912, an underground haunt in Soho set up by Frida Uhl Strindberg. It was located in ‘a dingy basement below a cloth merchant’s warehouse just off Regent Street, where her artist friends Spencer Gore, Jacob Epstein, Wyndham Lewis, and Eric Gill contributed to the futurist and Russian ballet-inspired art that covered the club’s interiors. It was also, apparently, possibly the first ‘gay bar’ in the modern sense and was certainly conceived by its creator, as an avant-garde and artistic venture.

This section included designs for the interior by British artists Spencer Gore and Eric Gill, as well as Wyndham Lewis’s highly stylised programmes for the eclectic performance evenings. I came across Wyndham Lewis at school and have never stopped loving his savage angular art, either satirising English society or brutally conveying the reality of the Great War, which he saw from the front as a bombardier. For me his programme designs were the best thing in this section.

Study for a mural decoration for the Cave of the Golden Calf by Spencer Gore (1912) © Tate, London 2019

Zurich

Zurich during the war is famous as the birthplace of the Cabaret Voltaire (1916), which in its short existence (February to July 1916) hosted far-out Dada events and happenings in a deliberately absurdist environment. The exhibition includes samples of absurdist sound poetry and fantastical masks that deconstruct body and language, as used in the anarchic performances of original Dadaists Hugo Ball, Emmy Hennings and Marcel Janco. Later Jean Arp recalled ‘pandemonium in an overcrowded, flamboyant room’ with works by Picasso or Arp hanging on the wall while Hennings sang anti-war songs there were puppet shows, improvised dances, African drums, and booming ‘poetry without words’ was yelled through a megaphone by people wearing silly costumes. This is a 1960s reconstruction:

Rome

The curators select two clubs from the post-war period in Rome which demonstrated the hold of the dynamic new art movement of Futurism in Italy in the 1920s.

In 1921 Futurist artist Giacomo Balla was commissioned by Ugo Paladini to create a Futurist nightclub and the result was Bal Tic Tac, which used Futurist angular design to create a wonderfully colour-saturated designs for the club’s interior. The exterior of the building was sensible neo-classical, the interior deliberately undermined this with brightly coloured interlacing shapes meant to capture the movement of dancers. It was one of the first places in Rome to promote the new American jazz music. A sign on the door read, ‘If you don’t drink champagne – go away!’

Also in the same room is a display devoted to drawings and furnishings for Fortunato Depero’s spectacular inferno-inspired Cabaret del Diavolo (1922) which occupied three floors representing heaven, purgatory and hell. Depero’s flamboyant tapestry writhes with dancing demons, expressing the club’s motto ‘Tutti all’inferno!!! (Everyone to hell!!!)’.

Black and White Little Devils: Dance of the Devils by Fortunato Depero (1922) © DACS 2019. Archivo Depero, Rovereto. Courtesy Mart – Archivio Fotografico e Mediateca

Weimar Germany

After Paris in the Belle Epoque, probably the most famous era of nightclubs was in Weimar Germany between the wars, the exhibition doesn’t disappoint, with a selection of paintings and drawings of decadent German nightclubs by the likes of George Grosz, Otto Dix and Max Beckmann, Grosz – as usual – for me at any rate, emerging as the star among the men.

But, living in the era when we do, the exhibition goes out of its way to promote the work of ‘often overlooked female artists’, such as Jeanne Mammen and Elfriede Lohse-Wächtler.

Jeanne Mammen is really good. Her drawings and paintings are recognisably from the same time and place as the guys, but feel a little softer, more rounded, her figures are a little more like humans and less like the porcine animals of Grosz or Dix. Also her use of colour, particularly watercolour, the colours washing or dribbling or spilling over to create colour and life and action and depth. She depicted almost only women, many set in overtly lesbian nightclubs, in fact some of the wonderful pictures here were illustrations to a 1931 book titled A Guide To Depraved Berlin.

She Represents by Jenna Mammen (1928) published in Simplicissimus magazine Volume 32, Number 47

One of the most purely beautiful paintings in the exhibition is Karl Hofer’s iconic portrait of a couple of Tiller Girls, the Tiller Girls being dancers who did high-precision, high-kicking routines.

Tiller Girls by Karl Hofer (before 1927) Kunsthalle Emden – Stiftung Henri und Eske Nannen © Elke Walford, Fotowerkstatt Hamburg

Interestingly, a social theorist write in the same year this was painted, 1927, that the uncanny precision and interchangeability of the girls mirrored the large-scale mechanical methods of manufacturing which were then coming in and capturing people’s imaginations: ‘the hands of the factory correspond to the legs of the Tiller Girls’.

Strasbourg

Meanwhile in Strasbourg, Theo van Doesburg, Hans Arp and Sophie Taeuber-Arp worked together to create the L’Aubette (1926–28), conceived as the ultimate ‘deconstruction of architecture’, a highly modernist, strict, functional design, with bold geometric abstraction as its guiding principle. The vast building housed a cinema-ballroom, bar, tearoom, billiards room, restaurant and more, each designed as immersive environments.

The Ciné-bal at Café L’Aubette, Strasbourg, designed by Theo van Doesburg (1926-28) Image: Collection Het Nieuwe Instituut

Harlem

During World War One a Great Migration began of African-Americans from the Deep South to escape segregation, poverty and violent racism. They came north, to northern cities like Chicago and New York, and brought with them new music and sounds, specifically jazz. In New York many settled in the uptown Harlem district which underwent a great artistic flowering of music, poetry, dance, art and more, which eventually became known as the Harlem Renaissance.

The exhibition includes a fascinating street map of Harlem (by E. Simms Campbell) which shows all the different nightclubs and the types of jazz to be found there. The most evocative thing here is the movie made around Duke Ellington’s jazz suite, Symphony In Black, which was intended to convey a panorama of African-American life.

All the static artefacts struggle to compete with the evocativeness of a) the music and b) some of the scenes from the movie. But what comes close is the fabulous silhouette art of Aaron Douglas who is represented by paintings and prints and illustrations to a book of blues lyrics by Langston Hughes. Vivid, beautifully crisp and rhythmic, it’s no wonder the curators chose one of his images as the exhibition poster.

Dance by Aaron Douglas (1930) © Heirs of Aaron Douglas/VAGA at ARS, NY and DACS, London 2019

I’d like to know a lot more about Douglas, every one of the half dozen or so images on show here are excellent. They also made me realise the black and white silhouette art of Kara Walker, the contemporary Afro-American artists, is not as original as I thought it was.

So far all these settings and stories and artists have been European and American, part of a familiar narrative of Euro-American modernism which most of us are pretty familiar with. But this huge exhibition has a few surprises in store. First, the non-Western subjects.

Mexico City

Two and a half thousand miles south of New York City is Mexico City. Here, in the aftermath of the prolonged Mexican Revolution, in the early 1920s, a radical new art movement emerged named Estridentismo which sought to overthrow established bourgeois modes and create a new poetry which combined the folk fiction of the peasants with the reality of urban life in the big cities. How to unite rural peasants and urban workers – it was Lenin’s problem, Mao’s problem, Guevara’s problem, and the founders of the movement – Ramón Alva de la Canal, Manuel Maples Arce and Germán Cueto – discussed this and much more at the Café de Nadie (Nobody’s Café) in Mexico City.

One of them came up with the characteristically inane motto: ‘Chopin to the electric chair!’ (characteristic for the post-war era of anti-bourgeois rhetoric)

Well, the twentieth century was to send many poets, painters, composers and musicians to the gulag, to the death camp and the execution cell, so in a roundabout way they got their wish.

El Café de Nadie by Ramón Alva de la Canal (c. 1970) © DACS, 2019. Courtesy Private Collection

Later in the 1920s, some of the group plus new members set up the ¡30-30! group (named after a popular rifle cartridge) with a socialist agenda of bringing art to the masses, and they organised lots of exhibitions and events in 1928 to 30. In January 1929 they staged an ambitious interactive exhibition-cum-event in a large carpa or low-cost tent used for travelling circuses. The Carpa Amaro event featured many woodprints, a deliberately cheap, affordable form.

The exhibition includes photos of these young firebrands, alongside a case of handmade masks made by German Cueto, and then a wall of thirty or so of the woodcuts which featured in the carpa exhibition by artists such as Gabriel Fernandez Ledesma and Fermin Revueltas Sanchez, ranging in subject matter from revolutionary leaders to suckling pigs via many portraits of working people.

Viva el 30-30 by Fernando Leal (1928)

Nigeria

Then to my surprise there is a whole section about Nigeria, specifically about the highly influential Mbari Artists and Writers Club, founded in the early 1960s in Nigeria.

The exhibition focuses on two of the club’s key locations, in Ibadan and Osogbo, describing how they were founded as laboratories for postcolonial artistic experimentation, providing a platform for a dazzling range of activities – including open-air dance and theatre performances, featuring ground breaking Yoruba operas by Duro Ladipo and Fela Kuti’s Afro-jazz; poetry and literature readings; experimental art workshops; and pioneering exhibitions by African and international artists such as Colette Omogbai, Twins Seven-Seven, Ibrahim El-Salahi and Uche Okeke.

There were some striking paintings here, I appreciated the swirling designs of Twins Seven-Seven but was drawn to the three works by Ibrahim (later discovering these are talismanic pieces of post-colonial African art).

Self-Portrait of Suffering by Ibrahim El-Salahi (1961) Iwalewa-Haus, University of Bayreuth, Germany © Ibrahim El-Salahi

There was a very interesting film playing, Art In A Changing Society made back in 1964 by Francis Speed and Ulli Beier, which was a TV documentary-style introduction to the art and architecture, design and dance and music of post-colonial Nigeria but which I cannot, alas, find on the internet.

Tehran

Lastly, and most unexpected of all, we come to Tehran in 1966 where the club Rasht 29 emerged as a creative space for avant-garde painters, poets, musicians and filmmakers to meet and discuss. There were spontaneous performances and works by artists like Parviz Tanavoli and Faramarz Pilaram hung in the lounge while a soundtrack including Led Zeppelin and the Beatles played constantly.

Best of the works here were the three or four works by Parviz Tanalovi, who incorporated industrial leftovers and detritus into picture sculptures i.e picture sized and shaped objects, which hang on a wall, but which come out of the picture frame into three dimensions. Apparently many of his works incorporate a grille which looks to me like the symbol of a prison but apparently refers to the traditional design of a saqqakhaneh, the ‘sacred commemorative water fountains’ which gave their name to the artistic movement they all belonged to Saqqakhaneh.

Heech and Hands by Parviz Tanavoli (1964) Collection Parviz Tanavoli © Parviz Tanavoli


1. Including the non-Western clubs

As you can see, it’s a lot to take in. I find it hard to keep in mind all of the aspects of Modernism across Europe and the States – bringing in new non-Western countries is a brave and admirable move – it is good to  learn about Ibrahim El-Salahi and Parviz Tanalovi, in particular.

But it begs quite a few questions:

1. Why do we get to see so very little non-Western art in all our major art galleries. Mexico, Nigeria, Iran – these are all major countries with huge populations and long cultural heritages. Yet you only rarely hear anything about them.

2. Do they really fit into this exhibition? Not only was the Western stuff unified by coming from a common European artistic heritage, but it was unified in date as well, showing the flow of thought from the late-nineteenth century through the Great War and into the inter-war period: it covers the period roughly described as Modernism. Whereas the Nigeria and Tehran stuff suddenly leaps into the 1960s, a completely different period with a completely different vibe.

So not only do I know next to nothing about Nigerian or Persian traditional art, but I am not told anything about Nigerian or Iranian art of the 1900s, 20s, 30s, 40s or 50s to help put the sudden focus in the clubs of the 1960s in focus.

2. Recreating the nightclub vibe

There is one massive aspect of the show I haven’t mentioned yet – which is that, having processed through the historical exhibition and display up on the balcony, the visitor then goes back down to the ground floor and discovers that, in the central gallery space, the curators have recreated some of the art clubs which we’ve been reading about. Specifically, there is:

  • Chat Noir a white room with 7 or 8 of the big metal stencils fromt he Chat Noir hanging from the ceiling and slowly rotating in the mild breeze and throwing shadows on the wall, all to the contemporaneous music of Debussy and Satie – a very calm, peaceful, meditative room
  • Cabaret Fledermaus a striking reconstruction of the Viennese nightclub in which the walls and bar are studded with brightly coloured tiles

Recreation of the Cabaret Fledermaus, Vienna, 1907

  • L’Aubette a reconstruction of L’Aubette, the semi-industrial, architectural complex in Strasbourg, complete with cinema projection running a series of contemporary films, including Modern Times by Charlie Chaplin and Metropolis

Recreation of the cinema-ballroom L’Aubette by Theo van Doesburg, Hans Arp and Sophie Taeuber-Arp

  • Mbari Clubs and a nice space set off from the corridor by a barrier or wall made out of sculpted patterns in a Nigerian style, inside which was playing a video of Nigerian youths dancing

You can see that a great deal or time, trouble and expense has gone into recreating each of these ‘zones’. But.. The most obvious thing about most nightclubs is, or was, that they were traditionally subterranean, smoky, often very noisy and very cramped and packed environments, in which people are drinking too much and laughing and joking and often having to shout over the very loud music, and laughing and going off to the bogs or stopping for a snog on the stars or chatting up the barmaid or barman, and asking someone for a light. They are/were places of intense hectic human interaction.

It was an ambitious, maybe quixotic notion, to try and recreate all that human bustle, noise, sweat and booziness in… the uniquely silent, white, perfectly scrubbed and essentially sterile environment of the modern art gallery. Nothing could really have been more dead than the Mbari Clubs little zone, completely empty when I walked in, admired the Yoruba wall paintings, and walked out again. Or the loving recreation of the Cabaret Fledermaus, beautiful coloured tiles and all, and utterly empty and utterly silent when I walked through it.

Conclusions

This is a fascinating insight into an enduringly interesting subject, a subject which has inspired all manner of artists across numerous countries and periods.

In fact, maybe you could think of The Nightclub as being an entire genre, a very twentieth century genre, as The Nude or The Landscape were for previous centuries.

And I admire the way the curators have made it so multinational, showing the same impulse at work across multiple cultures and continents.

Like previous Barbican shows it is so packed as to be overwhelming, bringing together over 350 works rarely seen in the UK, including paintings, drawings, prints, photographs, films and archival material.

And yet I was really perplexed by the recreations. The young woman who took my ticket explained that they have been having music evenings, with live bands playing. Maybe that helps, maybe that lifts it a bit. But it was eerie walking through perfect recreations of places which were meant to be temples to human interaction in all its smelly, sweaty, boozy, smoke-ridden, music-drowned glory but were now empty and silent – turned, quite literally, into museum pieces.


Related links

Reviews of other exhibitions at the Barbican

And concerts

Pushing paper contemporary drawing from 1970 to now @ the British Museum

‘Learn to draw, learn to see.’
(Established artist Eugène Boudin to the up-and-coming young Monet)

A travelling show

The British Museum houses the national collection of Western prints and drawings, in the same way as the National Gallery and Tate hold the national collection of paintings. It is one of the top three collections of its kind in the world, and houses approximately 50,000 drawings and over two million prints dating from the beginning of the fifteenth century up to the present day.

Of these 50,000 drawings, some 1,500 are by contemporary or modern artists. From this 1,500, the museum has worked with curators from other galleries around the country to make a selection of 56 drawings for this exhibition, which:

  1. highlight the range and diversity of contemporary drawings
  2. are designed to show how the entire concept of ‘drawing’ has been subjected to radical experiments and redefinitions during this key period, 1970 to the present

The idea is that after a couple of months on display in London, the exhibition will travel to the partner museums around the country, which will add works from their own collections to the display, thus creating a unique combination at each venue.

You can see how this will a) make the works accessible to audiences round the country and b) create a network of curators who are interested and informed about drawings, which could lead to who knows what consequences in the future.

What is a drawing?

Here’s one of the first works you encounter, Untitled by Grayson Perry, featuring an early outing by his transvestite alter-ego, Clare (note what seems to be a dog’s tail coming out the back of her skirt). So far, so gender-bending.

What’s really going on here, though, is the extreme stress Perry is applying to the concept of the ‘drawing’. It clearly contains elements of collage, with stereotypical photos from magazines tacked onto it, plus the diagonal colour washes and diagonal bands of glitter. Is it a drawing at all?

Untitled (1984) by Grayson Perry © The Trustees of the British Museum

That is the question which echoes through the rest of the show. Some works are old-style figurative depictions of some real object in the world, for example this attractive portrait by Jan Vanriet (although I was a little puzzled whether this was a drawing or a watercolour. Is it a drawing which has been watercoloured? Is that still a drawing?)

Ruchla by Jan Vanriet (2011) © The Trustees of the British Museum

It turns out to be one of a series developed from portrait photos of the Jews deported from one particular location in Belgium to concentration camps where they were all murdered. Kind of changes your attitude to the image, doesn’t it?

Drawing also contains the genre of satire or caricature or political cartoon, here represented by Philip Guston‘s unforgiving image of American president Richard Nixon, whose face seems to have turned into a penis and scrotum. To his left what I initially thought was his body is in fact a caricature of Vice President Spiro Agnew, who was addicted to playing golf, hence the clutter of golf clubs and balls. And the crab-like glasses on the right reference Nixon’s adviser Henry Kissinger.

Untitled by Philip Guston (1971) © The Trustees of the British Museum

(This caricature is a reminder to younger viewers that there’s nothing new about Donald Trump: America has a long, long, long track record of scumbag, murdering, lying presidents. Why, then, do the arbiters of culture give America so much weight and respect?)

And then there are what you could call artistic ‘deformations’ of real objects, specifically the human body, subjected to stylisation, morphing into abstract patterns, as in this drawing by Gwen Hardie, the tiggerish striping of the torso counterpointed by the stylisation of what are presumably female sex organs, the leaning-back posture a cross between a cave painting and a Henry Moore sculpture. Gwen is a woman artist ‘who has a longstanding preoccupation with the body and its perception’.

Untitled (1962) by Gwen Hardie © The Trustees of the British Museum

A striking ‘deformation of the actual’ is this work by Hew Locke, a British artist of Guyanese descent. According to the wall label, Locke takes the view that the Queen has been party to countless secrets during her record-breaking reign, and that this nightmarish image captures the corroding and corrupting effect all these secrets and lies have had on her, by the look of it, transforming her face into a mask of eyes against a backdrop of scores of little wiggly lime-green skulls. The image ‘asks us to question the Queen as a symbol of nationhood , as well as the power and history which she embodies.’

Sovereign 3 by Hew Locke (2005) © The Trustees of the British Museum

For those of us who were around during the punk Summer of Hate of 1977 – 42 years ago – this is nothing new. Taking the piss out of the Queen is an extremely old activity, in fact it made me feel quite nostalgic.

Sex Pistols album cover (1977)

According to the curators, the period from 1970 to the present saw a resurgence of interest in drawing. Previously it had mostly been seen as a format in which you practiced life studies, or prepared for work in a more demanding medium such as painting. The 1960s opened the box on this (as on so many other genres and practices) and freed up artists to be as playful and experimental as they could imagine. Thus:

Drawings in the exhibition encroach on territories traditionally associated with mediums including sculpture, land art and even performance.

‘Drawing’ spills out all over the place.

Five themes

The exhibition groups the works into five themes, ‘examining’:

  • Identity
  • Place and Space
  • Time and Memory
  • Power and Protest
  • Systems and Process

Personally, I felt these ‘themes’ rather limited and directed and forced your responses to works which often had nothing at all in common, and could each have stood by themselves. Except for the last one, that is: because a lot of the works genuinely are interested in systems and processes.

For example, there’s a yellow square by Sol LeWitt which is just one of countless of works the American artist generated from algorithms, from sets of rules about geometry, shapes and colours, which he created and then followed through to produce thousands of variations.

There’s a drawing of the tiles on a floor by Rachel Whiteread which comes with quite an extensive label explaining that a) she has always been interested in floors which are the most overlooked parts of a room or building and b) that it’s a heavily painted drawing, done in thick gouache onto graph paper, which points forward, or hints at, the vast casts of rooms and entire buildings which she was soon to create.

There’s a work by Fiona Robinson which juxtaposes two sets of vibrating lines which she created while listening to the music of John Cage, and then of Johann Sebastian Bach.

Related to these, insofar as it’s black and white and made of abstract patterns, is this charming drawing by Richard Deacon.

Some Interference 14.01.06 (2006) by Richard Deacon © The Trustees of the British Museum

I found a lot of these ‘abstract’ works a lot more appealing than many of the rather obvious ‘messages’ in the ‘Power and Protest’ section. But maybe you’d prefer the latter. Different strokes. The whole point is, the exhibition has been designed to showcase the immense variety of images, formats and materials which can go into the making of ‘a drawing’.

The artists

What is a drawing? Well, this exhibition presents an impressive roll call of major contemporary artists all giving answers to that question, including:

  • Edward Allington
  • Phyllida Barlow
  • Louise Bourgeois
  • Stuart Brisley
  • Pablo Bronstein
  • Glenn Brown
  • Jonathan Callan
  • Judy Chicago
  • Adel Daoud
  • Richard Deacon
  • Tacita Dean
  • Michael Ditchburn
  • Peter Doig
  • Tracey Emin
  • Ellen Gallagher
  • Philip Guston
  • Maggi Hambling
  • Richard Hamilton
  • Gwen Hardie
  • Claude Heath
  • David Hockney
  • Andrzej Jackowski
  • Anish Kapoor
  • Anselm Kiefer
  • Minjung Kim
  • Marcia Kure
  • Micah Lexier
  • Liliane Lijn
  • Hew Locke
  • Nja Mahdaoui
  • Bahman Mohassess
  • David Nash
  • Cornelia Parker
  • Seb Patane
  • A R Penck
  • Grayson Perry
  • Frank Pudney
  • Imran Qureshi
  • Gerhard Richter
  • Fiona Robinson
  • Hamid Sulaiman
  • Jan Vanriet
  • Hajra Waheed
  • Rachel Whiteread
  • Stephen Willats

Apart from anything else, it’s a fascinating cross-section of the artistic practices and concerns of some of the most important artists of the last 50 years.

Mountain by Minjung Kim (2009) © The Trustees of the British Museum

Pushing Paper is in room 90, which is right at the back of the British Museum and up several flights of stairs, in the Drawings and Print Department. It is varied and interesting and thought-provoking, and it is FREE.


Related links

  • Pushing Paper continues at the British Museum until 12 January 2020

Reviews of other British Museum exhibitions

Frank Bowling @ Tate Britain

‘Just throw the paint, Spencer!’
(Frank Bowling to his assistant, Spencer Richards, as told by Richards on the exhibition’s visitor audioguide)

This is a really good exhibition. Bowling isn’t a genius – this show doesn’t compare with the van Gogh exhibition downstairs at Tate Britain – but he is a consistently interesting and experimental artist, who has produced a steady stream of big, colourful and absorbing paintings. I found it hard to finally leave, and kept going back through the rooms to look again at the best paintings in the show.

Frank Bowling

Frank Bowling is a black British artist. He is still going strong, painting every day at the impressive age of 85.

Frank Bowling. Photo by Alastair Levy

Bowling was born in Guyana in 1934 and moved to England with his parents in 1950, when he was 15. After experimenting with poetry, and doing his National Service, Bowling decided to pursue a career in art and studied at the Royal College of Art. His contemporaries were David Hockney, Derek Boshier, Allen Jones, R. B. Kitaj and Peter Phillips. In fact, at graduation in 1962, Hockney was awarded the gold medal while Bowling was given the silver.

Back in those early years he was caught up in the expectation that he would be a ‘black’ artist and concern himself with colonial and post-colonial subjects – an expectation, he admits in modern interviews, that he at first played along with, doing a painting of African politician Patrice Lumumba and in 1965 at the First World Festival of Negro Arts, held in Senegal, winning the Grand Prize for Contemporary Arts.

It was only when he moved to New York in the mid-1960s that Bowling discovered the light and space and artistic freedom of contemporary American art. Encouraged by American critics, he changed his style, adopting the prevailing mode of abstract art, alongside the likes of Mark Rothko, Jackson Pollock and Barnett Newman.

As Bowling’s assistant, Spencer Richards, tells us on the visitor’s audioguide: ‘he didn’t want to be hemmed in by race and origins and that kind of stuff.’

This is the first major retrospective ever held of Bowling’s work in Britain. The gallery says it is ‘long overdue’ and seeing that he was elected a member of the Royal Academy of Arts in 2005 and awarded an OBE as long ago as 2008, it does seem extraordinary that this is the first major retrospective devoted to his work.

Nine rooms

The exhibition is in straightforward chronological order. It is divided into nine rooms each of which addresses a particular phase or style. But as I’ll explain later, in fact the show can be divided into two halves – flat surfaces, and gunky, gooey, three-D surfaces.

Room 1 Early work

This selection of early paintings includes works heavily influenced by Francis Bacon, the number one British artist in the early 1960s. Blurred figures trapped in cages look as if they’ve just been blasted by radiation.

Other early works use geometric patterns, referencing the Op Art (i.e. the playful use of geometric shapes) of Bridget Riley.

This room features some examples from a series he did using the motif of a swan, its neck and head realistic, but its body exploding, as it were, into abstraction, set against neat geometrical figures – note the orange and green concentric circles which have kind of melted, to the right of the swan’s body. If you look closely you can see that Bowling has mashed real bird feathers into the bloody, messy splurge of pain on the right. Unsettling.

Swan 1 (1964) by Frank Bowling © Frank Bowling

Room 2 Photographs into paintings

It was the Swinging Sixties. The room contains the original Observer magazine front cover of a Japanese model in a Mary Quant dress typical of the period.

Cover Girl (1966) by Frank Bowling © Frank Bowling. All rights reserved DACS 2019

Very reminiscent of David Hockney’s kind of ‘wrecked Pop Art’ of the period i.e. taking images from fashion and pop culture and kind of smearing and subverting them. More obvious is the ghostly outline of the house at the top. What is that? It is based on a photo of the big house which contained the Bowling family business (Bowling’s Variety Store) back in his home town of New Amsterdam, Guyana.

A friend sent Bowling the photo (the original is on display in one of the several display cases devoted to notes and letters and magazines and other ephemera which shed light on his career) and he used it obsessively in a whole series of paintings which contain the house motif superimposed on maps and abstract shapes. We can guess that this obsessive repetitiveness derives from a psychological need on the part of the artist to revisit the house, and by extension, the land of his parents. On the other hand – maybe it is just a powerful image or motif which he was interested in placing in different paintings, juxtaposing with other images to create the dynamism and energy of any collage.

Room 3 The map paintings

These are enormous. Suddenly we are in a huge white room on the walls of which are hung some truly enormously huge paintings. They are made of acrylic paint on flat canvas. In the second half of the 1960s Bowling was in New York and liberated by the scale and ambition of American painting, especially the abstract expressionists like Mark Rothko, Barnett Newman and Clyfford Still.

Just like them, the works are enormous and almost abstract, covered in great washes of paint, to create dynamic forcefields of colour.

Installation View of Frank Bowling at Tate Britain. Photo by Matt Greenwood

The gallery guide points out that almost all of them contain maps and that they mark ‘Bowling’s rejection of the western-centric cartography of many world maps’. I think this is wrong, and a typical attempt to shoehorn politically correct sentiment into the art. It stands to reason that many of the paintings feature a map of South America. Bowling is from Guyana which is in South America. And some of the others feature the ghostly stencilled outline of Africa. Ultimately he is of African heritage.

But quite a few of the others – like Dog Daze (1971, on the left in the photo above) feature a map of the entire world, laid out according to standard convention, exactly as you see it in any atlas or poster – with the Americas at the left, then the Atlantic, then Eurasia with Africa dangling down. Not subverting or rejecting anything in particular. I bought the audioguide to the exhibition and this contains quite a few quotes from the man himself, and Bowling makes it perfectly clear time and again, that his art is not about a ‘subject’.

Art is to do with painting colour and structure

If there are maps in the huge map paintings it is not to make the kind of politically correct, left-wing, political point which the curators want him to make. It is because they offer a motif around which the art can constellate and come into being. It enables the art. Its force is not political, it is imaginative.

For sure maps can be given meanings. I can paint an outline of Africa and declare it is ‘about’ slavery. Or empire and colonialism. Or oppression. Or poverty. Or the fight for independence. or about war. Or about dance and music. Or about anything I want it to ‘mean’. Then again, maps may just be shapes and patterns which are interesting and stimulating, as shapes, as a well-remembered shapes from schooldays, but which carry precisely as much freight and meaning as the viewer wishes to give them.

Some of these works are stunning, comparable to the Rothko room at Tate Modern, big enough for the visitor to fall into, to meditate on, to create a mood of profound calm and wonder.

At one end of the room is a stunning work titled Polish Rebecca, dating from 1971. You can make out the stencilled shape of South America at the centre and the wall label tells us that the Rebecca in question was a Polish Jewish friend of Bowling’s, and that the work is a meditation on the shared history of the African and Jewish diaspora – revealing ‘Bowling’s interest in the way identities are shaped by geo-politics and displacement’.

To me this is reading the liberal political concerns of 2019 back into a painting from 48 years ago. Maybe it is so. Maybe not. What’s not in doubt is that it is a stunning composition, dominated all the tints and shades of purple, the strange beguiling white feathering effect spreading up the west coast of South America, and the random swishes of green, blue and orange paint. In the flesh this enormous painting is utterly entrancing.

Polish Rebecca (1971) by Frank Bowling. Courtest of the Dallas Museum of Art © Frank Bowling

Room 4 The poured paintings

As if to prove that Bowling is more interested in art than in bien-pensant, liberal, progressive political theory, the next room is devoted to paintings with absolutely no figurative content. He set up a tilting platform that allowed him to pour paint from heights of up to two metres. As the paint hit the canvas it cascaded down in streams of mingling colour.

Ziff (1974) by Frank Bowling. Private collection, London, courtesy of Jessica McCormack © Frank Bowling. All Rights Reserved, DACS 2019

Structured accident, not unlike the spatter paintings of Jackson Pollock and then the hundreds of random spurting spattering throwing flicking shooting artists of the experimental 1960s and 70s. The titles also became less meaningful, more accidental, referencing people who were in his thoughts or events during the day, totally random.

Room 5 – Cosmic Space

Each new room has been marked by technical experimentation. In this once are works from the later 1970s where he began a set of further experiments. He began using ammonia and pearlessence, and applied splotches of paint by hand, producing marbling effects. He embraced accidents, which sometimes hardened into mannerisms. For example it was at this time that he took to leaving buckets of pain on the surface of the wet canvas, creating a circular ridge.

In Ah Susan Whoosh Bowling added water, turpentine and ammonia to the acrylic paint to create complicated chemical reactions. He poured the paint directly onto the canvas and then manipulated it with a squeegee. The technique forced him to work quickly, making strategic decisions to exploit the random combination of elements. It’s testimony to his skill that so many of these works, created under demanding conditions, with little or no planning, come out looking so haunting and powerful.

Ah Susan Whoosh (1981) by Frank Bowling. Private Collection, London

No reproduction can convey the shiny metallic tint of many of the colours, the sparkle on the surface of the paintings, which changes as you walk around them.

Three D

This brings me to the big divide in Bowling’s career which I mentioned at the start. The first four or five rooms are full of works where the paint lies more of less flat on the canvas. But in latter part of his career, from about 1980, and certainly in the last four rooms, Bowling’s canvases become thick and clotted three-dimensional artefacts.

He started using acrylic gel to create waves and ridges of colour and goo. And he started embedding objects in the paint. At first he used acrylic foam, cut into long strips, creating zoomorphic swirls and spirals.

In fact the ribbed nature of this foam reminded me a bit of fish skeletons, and the way some of these skeletal ruins emerge from a thick goo of paint, reminded me sometimes of the movie Alien. According to the wall labels:

Bowling also started to use a range of other materials and objects in his work. He applied metallic pigments, fluorescent chalk, beeswax and glitter to his densely textured surfaces. In several works, found objects such as plastic toys, packing material, the cap of a film canister and oyster shells are embedded within the paint. These items are rarely fully visible but add to the complexity and mysterious quality of the work.

Spreadout Ron Kitaj (1984–6) by Frank Bowling. Tate © Frank Bowling. All Rights Reserved, DACS 2019

Spreadout Ron Kitaj is so named because the artist Ron Kitaj saw an exhibition of Bowling’s works in 1986 and got in touch. Bowling describes the strips of acrylic foam he embeds in the surface of works like that as ‘the ribs of the geometry from which I work.’ The painting also includes shredded plastic packing material, plastic jewellery, toys and oyster shells. It’s not one of the best works here – its effect is too dark and dingy for me – but it’s very typical of his modus operandi.

Room 7 – Water and Light

In 1989 Bowling went back to his childhood home in Guyana, accompanied by one of his sons. He immediately noticed the quality of the light in South America.

‘When I looked at the landscape in Guyana, I understood the light in my pictures is a very different light. I saw a crystalline haze, maybe an East wind and water rising up into the sky. It occurred to me for the first time, in my fifties, that the light is about Guyana. It is a constant in my efforts’ (1992).

As you might expect, the trip resulted in works which try to capture the effect, using Bowling’s (by now) trademark effects of acrylic gel swept into ridges, themselves arranged in very loose box or square shapes.

Sacha Jason Guyana Dreams 1989 Tate © Frank Bowling. All Rights Reserved, DACS 2019

From the later 1960s Bowling had studios in London and New York. His London studio is in East London and here he has made a series of paintings titled Great Thames which do just that – reference the mighty river Thames, invoking the long line of landscape painters who Bowling is well aware of – Gainsborough, Turner and John Constable.

In the way they adapt his by now trademark use of gel to create boxes and ridges, scattered with metallic pigments, scored and indented with all manner of objects found around the studio and pressed into the surface – nonetheless, the Great Thames paintings on display here prompt comparisons with Monet – not so much in technique or even in aim, but in the shimmering evocativeness of the finished product.

Great Thames IV (1989-9) by Frank Bowling. Arts Council Collection, South Bank Centre © Frank Bowling. All rights reserved DACS 2019

Room 8 – Layering and stitching

In the 1990s, Bowling continued to work with acrylic paint and gel and continued to experiment with incorporating different materials and objects into his paintings. He experimented with stitching canvases together and attaching the main canvas to brightly-coloured strips of secondary canvas, to create a distinct border to the work.

 

He took this further by cutting up earlier canvases, and stapling sections together, juxtaposing different paint applications and colours. Like the many found objects embedded in the gloop, this stitching is very evident and all tends towards emphasising the materiality of the work of art. And, in some sense, its contingency. It is like this. But it needn’t have been like this. Meditate not only on the work. But on the arbitrariness and contingency which leads to the work.

Girls in the City (2017) by Frank Bowling © Frank Bowling

Girls in the City was made by stitching together seven individually stretched canvases. You can still see the vaguely square, ‘brick’-like shapes he creates using raised ridges of acrylic gel. But to that element of boxness, is added a more literal boxiness created by the piece’s assemblage from smaller parts. He is quotes as saying the works from this period were ‘organised in the way people structure themselves, in the way we are’ – presumably, assembled from lots of disparate elements.

Room 9 Explosive experimentation

This last room is devoted to works made over the past ten years. My first reaction was I didn’t like them so much. Nowadays confined to a sitting position, Bowling has used assistants to help him, and has continued his experimentation. He uses washes of thin paint, poured paint, blotched paint, stencilled applications, the use of acrylic gels, the insertion of found objects, and stitching together of different sections of canvas.

This results in what, for me, are rather a departure from the work of the previous three or so rooms. In a work like Iona Miriam’s Christmas Visit To and From Brighton the stitching is very much on display, in the sense that the canvas with the great pink crescent on it has been roughly chopped in half and stitched onto another canvas underneath, which appears to consist of a regular pattern of coloured stripes which provide a striking ‘interval’ between the top and bottom halves, and also, when you come to look at it, a frame around the ‘main’ canvas. And that’s before you get round to processing the complicated imagery, the vibrant colours and the scoring and striking into the surface, which characterise the ‘main’ image.

Iona Miriam’s Christmas Visit To and From Brighton (2017) by Frank Bowling. Courtesy Frank Bowling and Hales Gallery, Alexander Gray Associates and Marc Selwyn Fine Art © Frank Bowling. All rights reserved DACS 2018

I think that I was still too in thrall to the box or square gel ridge shapes of the earlier works, still processing the effect of them, to really appreciate these more recent works. Maybe you need to visit the exhibition several times to really absorb Bowling’s variety and inventiveness. These last works seem to be going somewhere completely new. I hope he lives long enough to show us where.

Summary

The works in the first part of the show are interesting and good, but often feel very much of their time like the Swinging Sixties cover girl and other works which feel like mash-ups of Hockney, Bacon, Kitaj with patches of Op Art thrown in.

The enormous map paintings – some of them over seven yards long – riffing off the abstract expressionists, are very powerful and absorbing in their own right.

The poured paintings reminded me a bit of school art projects. An interesting idea but the results weren’t that great.

It is only when Bowling starts working with acrylic gel and metallic tints, and embedding foam and then all kinds of objects into the surfaces of his paintings, that something weird and marvellous happens to his works.

Words cannot convey the rich and strange results of these experiments. The dense gloop, the metallic tints, and the strange clotted surfaces, alive with all sorts of half-buried objects, create enticing effects. I walked back and forth through the show half a dozen times or more and each time one particular painting stood out more and more strongly – spoke to me.

Philoctetes’ Bow (1987) by Frank Bowling. Courtesy the Artist and Hales Gallery © Frank Bowling

This reproduction in no way conveys the richness of the colour of this huge painting (it is 1.8 metres tall by 3.6 metres wide; it would cover most of the wall of an average sitting room).

And also doesn’t convey the way the long curve along the bottom which dominates it, actually sits proud of the surface. It is a characteristic slice of acrylic foam which also looks like a long, thin strip of corrugated cardboard. It not only creates the composition, but it projects it forward off the wall, and into your imagination. I kept being drawn back to look at it again and again, to sit in the bench placed in front of it precisely so the visitor can let it permeate every cell of your imagination.

Wow! What an amazing body of work.

Demographics

When I arrived at 10.30 the exhibition was almost empty. When I walked slowly through it at 12.30, there were 38 visitors, including me – 12 men and 26 women. There were no black or Asian people at all. The only people of colour were two of the Tate ‘visitor assistants’. There were half a dozen or so teenagers who seemed to be on a school trip, and one or two 20-somethings. The rest of us were white, middle-aged, grey-haired old types. Which reinforces the impression I’ve gained from reviewing some 150 art exhibitions: the gallery-going public in London is overwhelmingly white, middle-class, old or retired, and predominantly female.

Curators

Frank Bowling is curated by Elena Crippa, Curator, Modern and Contemporary British Art and Laura Castagnini, Assistant Curator.

The promotional video


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Harald Sohlberg: Painting Norway @ Dulwich Picture Gallery

Harald Sohlberg

Harald Sohlberg (1869 to 1935) was one of Norway’s greatest painters. He is best known for works which evoke the wildness of the Nordic landscape, which show brooding scenery illuminated by midwinter light, and realistic depictions of the wood buildings of old Norwegian towns.

This is the first major UK exhibition of Sohlberg’s works, celebrating 150 years since the artist’s birth, and it reveals that there’s much more variety – in subject matter, treatment and quality – than a first glance would suggest.

Self Portrait (1896) by Harald Sohlberg. Private collection

Self Portrait (1896) by Harald Sohlberg. Private collection

Biography

The exhibition proceeds in straightforward chronological order. Born in 1869 the eighth of 12 children, Sohlberg early wanted to be a painter but his father insisted he learn a craft and apprenticed him to a master scene painter and decorator, Wilhelm Krogh. When he went on the National College of Art and Design, where he developed his printmaking skills, it was also to discover the great art trends of the day, namely symbolism and nationalism.

Nordic mystery

For me, these are founding facts for understanding Sohlberg’s style, because all of the 100 or so works in the six rooms of the exhibition display a tension between two poles or ends of a spectrum. At one end is a series of works which explore light and colour and capture the peculiar twilight mood of Scandinavia, a half light in which moon and stars appear in still glimmering skies, and are seen through spectral pine forests.

Fisherman's Cottage (1906) by Harald Sohlberg. Art Institute of Chicago

Fisherman’s Cottage (1906) by Harald Sohlberg. Art Institute of Chicago

Many of this type of painting stylise shapes and outlines in order to reveal strange gloopy patterns in the natural world, reminiscent of the style of his close contemporary Edvard Munch (b.1863).

Sun Gleam (1894) by Harald Sohlberg. Gard forsikring, Arendal

Sun Gleam (1894) by Harald Sohlberg. Gard forsikring, Arendal

The mermaid pictures

Most immediately Munch-like are the heavily stylised depictions of mermaids which Sohlberg made obsessively throughout his career. The wall labels tell us that he made scores of drawings, sketches, prints and paintings all reworking the same basic image of a ‘mermaid’ emerging from water, sometimes by the light of the moon, sometimes by the light of a blood red sun.

It is striking how blurry, shapeless and ill-defined these mermaids often are. The subject and treatment seemed to me to be Sohlberg’s closest approach to capturing the ominousness of Symbolism, with its terror-stricken image of the femme fatale who comes to us in dreams and visions, a devouring harpy, the herald of the new age – a portentous figure.

The Mermaid (1896) by Harald Sohlberg. Private collection

The Mermaid (1896) by Harald Sohlberg. Private collection

Life drawing and portraits

On the basis of the three variations on the mermaid subject in the first room I had drawn the conclusion that Sohlberg was poor at drawing people, which maybe helped to explain the predominance of people-less landscapes in his oeuvre.

But how wrong I was. The very next room is devoted to a profusion of drawings, sketches, drafts and prints which, among other things, show you that he was a portraitist and life artist of great skill and sensitivity.

Four portraits by Harald Sohlberg. Photo by the author

Four portraits by Harald Sohlberg. Photo by the author

These four portraits (apologies for my terrible photo) are works of tremendous draughtsmanship. The character and quirks of each of the four faces (one is a self portrait, at top right) are captured with a thoroughness and sweet lifelikeness which reminded me of Holbein.

Next to them is a series of drawings from life including one of a classical sculpture, a stunningly sensuous charcoal drawing of a female nude, and a set of sketches of a woman wearing a button-up coat, which are staggering in their skill and accuracy.

Homo absconditus

All of which makes it the more mysterious, or pointed, that so many of the finished oil paintings rigorously exclude human figures of any type, close up or even in the distance.

So much so that a chapter in the catalogue is titled ‘Homo absconditus’ i.e. absent humanity. Similarly the audioguide is at pains to emphasise the issue of absence in so many of his classic paintings.

Look at this rough-hewn road bumping towards the mountains in the distance behind which emanates a mysterious crepuscular glow. It is a man-made object, as are the telegraph poles lining it and yet… where have all the people gone?

Detailed draughtsmanship

Mention of the man-made brings me to the other pole of Sohlberg’s oeuvre: at the opposite end of the spectrum from Sohlberg’s people-less images of looming Nordic landscapes are his astonishingly detailed, draughtsmanlike depiction of buildings.

In fact this architectural approach is there, buried, in many of the landscapes. Even in these Sohlberg apparently didn’t begin painting until he had completely mapped out the motif in precise detail using graphite, pen and ink, in sketchbooks and drawings. (Many of these sketches are on show in the exhibition’s several display cases, alongside letters, maps and some contemporary photos of the locations he painted.)

Architectural accuracy

But the early and middle period of his work is threaded with astonishingly accurate paintings of buildings – of the kind of wood-framed houses which characterised the Norway of his time – which are done with fantastic graphic realism and attention to detail.

Thus, in the first room of the show there are several paintings of the view from a terrace or verandah of a wood-built building looking out over a fjord. The lake water and mountain on the other side are done with the rich colouring and sense of depth and mystery we are by now familiar with. What is striking is the highly detailed depiction of the wooden terrace, balustrading, walls and windows.

The exhibition includes an early example of this style which he never finished and so which allows us to see the immaculate grid of lines which Sohlberg had laid out across the canvas in order to create the image, and then the meticulous care with which he was painting in the fine detail, using the graph-paper-like grid to create a mathematically precise depiction of every element of the house – balcony, windows, eaves and all.

Winter on the Balcony by Harald Sohlberg

Winter on the Balcony by Harald Sohlberg

This love of the architectural detail came into its own when, in 1902, Sohlberg went to live in the 17th century copper-mining town of Røros up towards the Arctic Circle. Røros is today a UNESCO World Heritage site because of its heritage of evocative historic wooden buildings. A hundred years ago these were a subject perfect for Sohlberg in fine-draughtsman mode.

Street in Roros in Winter (1903) by Harald Sohlberg. The National Museum of Arts, Architecture and Design, Norway

Street in Røros in Winter (1903) by Harald Sohlberg. The National Museum of Arts, Architecture and Design, Norway

Later falling off

Not all of his works are good. A set of blue skyscapes and orange seascapes in the fourth and fifth rooms struck me as cheesy and badly executed. In fact I had the strong feeling that after about 1910 his paintings went off, meaning his best work comes from the 1890s and 1900s, a suspicion fuelled by the way the exhibition ends abruptly about 1914. Did he not paint during the First World War? Did he stop painting altogether? We are not told.

And my dislike of the later, bigger and more loosely executed works explains why I didn’t respond as I am supposed to, to Sohlberg’s single most famous work, the enormous painting titled Winter Night in the Mountains.

Winter Night in the Mountains (1914) by Harald Sohlberg. The National Museum of Art, Architecture and Design, Norway

Winter Night in the Mountains (1914) by Harald Sohlberg. The National Museum of Art, Architecture and Design, Norway

Apparently this has been voted Norway’s most favourite painting which is, I think, an interesting insight into how that country sees itself. The work dominates the sixth and final room and is hung next to three or four other alternative paintings of the same view, plus various preparatory pencil works and sketches. Sohlberg worked at it repeatedly and produced scores of versions of this view in various media.

But unlike motifs which other famous painters of the period worked on again and again (Monet and his lily pond, Cézanne and Mont St Victoire) the multiple versions do not, I think, take you any closer to the subject matter nor display new and exciting insights into the art of painting, itself.

I don’t like it because:

  1. The mountains have been childishly simplified, rounded and cartooned, like a so-so illustration from a children’s book.
  2. The star shining in the cleft of the mountains is not eerily symbolic, but as obvious and trite as the star on ten thousand cheap Christmas cards.
  3. I like trees, some of my favourite artworks are depictions of trees – but the trees in the foreground of this painting are badly drawn.

This final room really brings out the point I made earlier, that there are two strings to Sohlberg’s bow, two basic styles of painting he made – one the symbolic landscape and the other the minutely-detailed building.

This duality is made clear in the sixth and final room where, alongside the Night in the Mountains, there is a series of sketches, drawings and paintings he made of the huge church which dominated the town of Røros then as it does now.

He sketched and painted the church again and again, particularly  the view from the churchyard looking onto the church, and then across the town and down to the river. I much preferred the architectural precision and detail of these images to the silly rounded mountains of the mountain pictures.

Night, Røros Curch (1903) by Harald Solhberg

Night, Røros Church (1903) by Harald Solhberg

It’s hard to compare this and the night mountain paintings, and believe that they’re by the same artist, the same mind and eye and technique, but they very much are.

Conclusion

This is a fabulously enjoyable exhibition. Not all of it is great but what is good, is very very good. It introduces you to what you could call the Medici print world of Solhlberg, to his best known paintings of Nordic landscapes and snow-covered streets – but it also includes his little known sketches and drawings, to create a really well-rounded portrait of Norway’s favourite painter.

My personal favourite was the set of preparatory sketches and then the large finished drawing he made of ‘the girl from Schafterløkken’, wow, awesome draughtsmanship which took my breath away – but which I can’t show you because it doesn’t seem to exist anywhere on the internet.

The promotional video


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Courtauld Impressionists: From Manet to Cézanne @ the National Gallery

Samuel Courtauld (1876 – 1947) was rich. He was born into the Courtauld family, which, over several generations, had built up a successful fabric company based in Essex. After a good education and trips abroad to study the business, Courtauld took over as general manager in 1908, and then served as chairman from 1921 to 1946. Under his guidance the firm developed and marketed rayon, an artificial fibre and inexpensive silk substitute, growing into a major international company.

Courtauld became interested in art after seeing the Hugh Lane collection on exhibition at the Tate Gallery in 1917. However, his career as a collector only started in 1922 following an exhibition of French art at the Burlington Fine Arts Club. He was particularly taken with the Impressionist and Post-Impressionist paintings, which were still viewed with suspicion in Britain, even in the art establishment. On seeing a Cézanne, he said:

At that moment I felt the magic, and I have felt it in Cézanne’s work ever since.

He decided to become a full time collector and, during the 1920s Courtauld created two collections in parallel:

  1. in 1923 he created a fund, the Courtauld Fund, of £50,000 to acquire modern French paintings for the National Gallery, which worked through a board of trustees and a network of dealers
  2. at the same time, he also bought works for his own private collection which eventually grew to more than seventy works

This latter set, he displayed at the London house he rented for the purpose, Home House, 20 Portman Square.

Courtauld had always shared his passion with his wife, Elizabeth and when she died in 1931, his interest in collecting waned. However, the experience had shown him that there was a need for sophisticated modern art scholarship, and so he worked with other sponsors and partners to found the Courtauld Institute of Art in 1932.

The Courtauld, as it is generally referred to, went from strength to strength. It is now among the most prestigious institutions in the world for the study of the history of art and conservation, and well known for the disproportionate number of directors of major museums drawn from its small body of alumni.

The Institute houses the Courtauld Gallery which is like a miniature version of the National Gallery, showcasing masterpieces of Western art from medieval times until the turn of the 20th century. Ever since its inception the Gallery has been renowned for the collection of Impressionist and Post-Impressionist paintings which Samuel Courtauld gave to it 85 years ago.

In autumn 2018 the Courtauld Gallery closed for a major refurbishment. What to do with its priceless art works? It occurred to someone to reunite the French paintings Courtauld gave to his Institute, with the works by the same masters which his trust acquired for the National Gallery back in the 1920s.

Hence this exhibition. Courtauld Impressionists: From Manet to Cézanne brings together the 26 French masterpieces from the Courtauld Gallery and reunites them with the paintings acquired for the National Trust by the Courtauld Trust back in the 1920s.

The result is three large gallery rooms displaying forty three paintings by twelve master of the period in straightforward chronological order. The artists are:

  1. Daumier
  2. Manet
  3. Monet
  4. Renoir
  5. Pissarro
  6. Seurat
  7. Cézanne
  8. Bonnard
  9. Toulouse-Lautrec
  10. Gauguin
  11. Van Gogh

The exhibition tells two stories at the same time. On the surface this is yet another excuse (or opportunity) to trace the epoch-defining development of French painting from the 1860s to the 1900s, with lengthy wall labels about each of the twelve artists, and how they contributed to Impressionism and what became known, rather unsatisfactorily, as post-Impressionism – and then a wall label for each painting, telling us about the subject matter and treatment.

But each of the wall labels, and the audioguide, also give the stories behind Courtauld’s purchases of each of the paintings. These are sometimes convoluted, often expensive, and sometimes funny. It was intriguing to learn that Vollard, the famous art collector and dealer, who had had his portrait done by Renoir, Pissarro and others, actively wished a representation of himself to be displayed in Britain and so encouraged Courtauld to buy Renoir’s portrait of him. It cost Courtauld a whopping 800,000 francs.

Other anecdotes include the fact that the sketch of Manet’s famous Dejeuner sur l’herbe set him back £10,000, and that Courtauld bought van Gogh’s searing painting of a wheatfield for a mere £3,300, a lot of money at the time – but think what it would fetch now!

Money and philistinism

Although the curators prefer to think of this as a story about Cortauld’s ‘visionary and extraordinarily generous’ approach to art, it is also a story about money. The power of money, the necessity of money, the unavoidable imbrecation of art and money.

And peeping through the chinks in this mostly positive account of one man’s taste, drive and generosity – there is another story about the staggering philistinism of the British. It really is worth reflecting that, in the 1920s and into the 1930s, major British art institutes chose not to buy Impressionist and Post-Impressionist art because they didn’t think it was proper painting.

What barbarism! What philistinism! (That, in case you didn’t realise it, is why so much Modern French art ended up in America; rich Yanks snapped up works which the hoity-toity Brits turned their noses up at).

It is shaming to learn that the National Gallery refused, twice, to buy Degas’s masterpiece Young Spartans Exercising. Courtauld bought it and only 15 years later was it bequested to the National who had, at last, grasped its importance.

Similarly, it is appalling to learn that when the Cézanne self-portrait which Courtauld had acquired was first publicly displayed, in 1934, it had to be glazed to protect it from any attempts to deface and vandalise it!

Greatest hits

The exhibition includes some of the absolute all-time high points of Impressionism and Post-Impressionism, including La Loge by Renoir, Young Spartans Exercising by Degas, Seurat’s immense Bathers at Asnières, Cézanne’s Card PlayersTe Rerioa by Paul Gauguin

Personal favourites

From this treasury, I emerged liking four paintings in particular. This Degas painting of a woman at a window has always been tucked away in a corner when I’ve seen it at the Courtauld Gallery. This has added to its sense of mystery. But what I mainly like about it is the unfinished, dark obscurity of the image. In general, like strong defining black lines, disegno, outlines – and here you can feel Degas’s draughtsmanship performing an piece of magic – caught in the act of making a woman of flesh appear from a sequence of lines and dark colours. Next to it is a classic painting of two ballet dancers on stage, prettier, more finished. But for me, Woman at a window has always had atmosphere.

Woman at a Window (1871-72) by Hilaire-Germain-Edgar Degas © The Samuel Courtauld Trust, The Courtauld Gallery, London

Woman at a Window (1871-72) by Hilaire-Germain-Edgar Degas © The Samuel Courtauld Trust

Talking of pairs, take the corner of the room where the Manet section ends and the Monet section begins. The Monets include a wonderfully light luminescent view of the River Seine titled Autumn Effect at Argenteuil. (Like most Monets it looks far better seen from across the room; the further away the more luminous it becomes.)

Autumn Effect at Argenteuil (1873) by Claude Monet © The Samuel Courtauld Trust, The Courtauld Gallery, London

Autumn Effect at Argenteuil (1873) by Claude Monet © The Samuel Courtauld Trust

Famous though they are, I didn’t like the handful of other Manets on show here. They confirmed my feeling that I don’t like Manet that much, I really do find his paintings scrappy and unfinished, often with errors of draughtsmanship and perspective which annoy me.

Except for this view of the Seine which he painted around the time he got to know Monet and had gone to stay with him at his Seine-side house. Here you can see Manet copying Monet’s use of broken brushstrokes and light, airy palette. But what I like Manet’s river study, why I prefer it to Monet’s, is the intensity of the black – in the ribbon round the woman’s hat, in the shadow of the boats – and the deepness and richness of the blue tone he’s used for the river water, darker, fuller, richer than the light frolicsome Monet. For me, this makes the picture much more biting, punchy, virile.

Which one do you prefer?

Banks of the Seine at Argenteuil (1874) by Edouard Manet, on loan to The Courtauld Gallery from a private collection © The Samuel Courtauld Trust

Banks of the Seine at Argenteuil (1874) by Edouard Manet, on loan to The Courtauld Gallery from a private collection © The Samuel Courtauld Trust

Having established that I like strong blacks, it was no surprise to me that I kept returning to Renoir’s La Loge i.e. the box at the theatre.

In reviews of other Impressionist exhibitions, and books, I’ve already pointed out that it seems to me Renoir established a ‘look’, a style, a brand, early on and stuck to it for most of his career (until, admittedly, he drastically changed in the last decade of his life).

The commentary gives a sophisticated analysis of the picture. It explains that a Paris theatre box was a place to see and be seen. It explains that the woman is on show, knows she is on show, is looking straight at us, putting us right there, maybe in a box opposite, an effect subtly reinforced by the way a) her male companion is busy scanning the crowd with opera glasses, maybe looking for another beautiful woman to ogle at (as we, it is implied, as observing this one) and b) the way the details at the periphery (her hands, the edge of the box) are blurred as if we are looking at her through opera glasses, which blur the edge of vision.

All this is true, but I just like the pattern of her dress, the strong black and white lines – and above all, the porcelain beauty of the woman’s face, pale and perfect. It took me a while to realise that this is because her face is the only part of the composition which is painted smoothly and with great finish – everything else is blurred and unsettling to look at. Whichever detail you zero in on, you end up being pushed back to her perfect face as a point of rest. I find it hypnotic.

The Theatre Box (1874) by Pierre-Auguste Renoir © The Samuel Courtauld Trust

The Theatre Box (1874) by Pierre-Auguste Renoir © The Samuel Courtauld Trust

The three Gauguin paintings on display are important but don’t quite do it for me. I like Gauguin but, for all the talk of the exotic South Seas, the selection here was surprisingly drab, dominated by a worn out brown colour. (Poor Bonnard had a little section next to Gauguin and van Gogh; his two works were knocked completely into the shade by them).

No, the masterpiece of the final room is A Wheatfield, with Cypresses by Vincent van Gogh. Whereas reproductions tend to improve Monet’s Impressionist works (often a bit scrappy when seen close-up), no reproduction can convey the extraordinary turmoil and rhythm and energy of this van Gogh.

It is a revelation, a masterpiece which, for me, towers above all the other masterpieces on show. Being able to go right up to the surface and investigate the complex technique of whirls and splashes of thick oil van Gogh used to create the impression of tumult and dynamism is worth the price of admission by itself. It really is. The closer you get, the more you can see the gaps in the swirling brushstrokes and the raw canvas beneath, can see the way the red blodges at the bottom have been added to the already thick layers of paint to convey poppies. But the extravagance of the impasto, the thick layers of paint used, only adds to the tremendous emotionality of the picture. Viewed in a smoother-out reproduction (as below) it is great, but viewed in the flesh, close-up, it is like being struck by lightning.

A Wheatfield, with Cypresses (1889) by Vincent van Gogh by the Courtauld Fund, 1923 © The National Gallery, London

A Wheatfield, with Cypresses (1889) by Vincent van Gogh by the Courtauld Fund, 1923
© The National Gallery, London

A mystery

You exit the three big gallery rooms which contain these masterpieces into the shop (fridge magnets, books, tote bags etc) and then into room 41, another big National gallery room. This one follows on naturally from the subject matter of the previous exhibition with works by Monet and van Gogh among other turn of the century French artists and then….

You notice that no fewer than eight of the paintings in this room have a label next to them indicating that they, too, were collected by the Courtauld Trust and donated to the National Gallery. They should, in other words, be included in the exhibition. Why aren’t they?

Lack of space? But surely the existing 40 or so paintings could have been shuffled up a bit… or display panels could have been erected in the middle of the rooms, as I’ve seen done at countless exhibitions.

The paintings which are part of the Courtauld bequest but are not included in the Courtauld exhibition include a Monet waterlilies, a view of the St Lazare station in Paris, and van Gogh’s Sunflowers (bought by the Courtauld Fund, 1924) and van Gogh’s chair (bought by the Courtauld Fund, 1924).

If the exhibition aims to bring together all the Courtauld’s Impressionist and Post-Impressionist works in one place… these should without doubt have been included in the exhibition.

Maybe… maybe they’re too famous. Over six million people visit the National Gallery every year. These paintings are among the most popular attractions. Maybe the National Gallery is forbidden to make people pay to see them. Or maybe it was just discretion on the part of the curators, knowing that many people might make the pilgrimage down to London, or from abroad, many to see these treasures… and then be pretty disgruntled to discover they had to pay to see them.

Maybe displaying eight painting which Courtauld bought for the nation outside an exhibition about paintings which Courtauld bought for the nation, was the only solution.

Van Gogh's chair by Vincent van Gogh. Not in the Courtauld Impressionist exhibition, but free to see at the National gallery

Van Gogh’s chair by Vincent van Gogh. Not in the Courtauld Impressionist exhibition, but free to see anytime at the National Gallery

Video

Exhibition curator Anne Robbins talks us through two pivotal works bought by Courtauld, including Manet’s last great masterpiece, ‘A Bar at the Folies-Bergère’.


Related links

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The Credit Suisse Exhibition: Monet and Architecture @ the National Gallery

This is a staggeringly brilliant exhibition for a number of reasons.

1. It is about an aspect of Monet’s work – the importance of all kinds of buildings to his art throughout his career – which has never been explored before but turns out to shed fascinating light on his art.

2. It brings together 78 works loaned from an astonishing variety of galleries across America and Europe to create a unique opportunity to see so many, and so varied, Monets together in one place. Sometimes big exhibitions are based largely on a gallery’s own collection, but not here: I counted over forty galleries and collections that works have been borrowed from. And not only that; almost a quarter are loaned from private collections. This really is a once in a lifetime opportunity to see so many works – from all round the Western world – all in one place.

3. Monet really was a genius. The first three or so rooms are interesting and contain good things, but the last two rooms, full of the works of his maturity, are quite stunning – spaces in which you feel you should be on your knees praying to the more-than-human brilliance of this complete master of oil painting.

4. They’ve really gone to town on the extras for the exhibition, with not only a fascinating audioguide but in the cinema room off to one side, a long film explaining the importance of architecture in Monet. The free printed guide contains not only a detailed timeline of Monet’s life but maps of France, Italy, London and Venice showing the precise locations where many of the paintings were made.

And the gallery has co-operated with Google Arts to produce a dedicated website / online experience which allows you to see the paintings in digital clarity, alongside text explaining their creation, all playfully titled Monet Was Here.

Seven rooms

There are seven rooms. The first three look at different ways Monet used rural and village buildings, buildings set in landscapes, to point and focus the composition. The next two look at his depictions of Paris and the Paris suburbs, from the smoky railway station of the Gare St Lazare, to the new bridge being built at Argenteuil, to busy scenes at seaside resorts, to some wonderful street scenes in Paris.

Then the last two, the Temples of Monet – the penultimate room has a wall of paintings depicting the facade of Rouen cathedral in changing light with, opposite them, a wall of wonderfully atmospheric paintings of London, Waterloo bridge and the Houses of Parliament.

And the final room is devoted to ten shimmering, magical paintings of the queen of the Adriatic, Venice.

The village and the picturesque

At the start of his career Monet used strong designs, powerfully constructed. In this example, bright colours (green grass, aquamarine sea) boats and distant smoke, but all crystallised by the hut in the foreground.

A Hut at Sainte-Adresse (1867)

A Hut at Sainte-Adresse (1867)

In the 1870s Monet visited Holland where he played with the influence of the great 17th century Dutch painters of landscapes and interiors. This is a rare example of a Monet where the viewer is entirely enclosed by buildings.

Footbridge at Zaandam, 1871 by Claude Monet. Musées de Mâcon © photo Pierre Plattier, Musées de Mâcon

Footbridge at Zaandam, 1871 by Claude Monet. Musées de Mâcon © photo Pierre Plattier, Musées de Mâcon

Thus the first few rooms explore numerous aspects and experiments with buildings, in townscapes, by the sea, amid fields, from close up, seen on a shimmering horizon, playing with the impact and focus they bring to a composition.

By the sea

All through his life Monet painted sequences showing the same view, or different views of the same subject, like a chemist repeating the same experiment, trying to get at the core of a reaction.

Monet spent a lot of 1882 on the Normandy coast and painted a number of works which feature a modest custom officer’s cottage on the cliffs. Sometimes centre stage, sometimes tucked away or almost hidden, the exhibition includes three of these works to show how Monet took a building as the central focus around which he could experiment. In two of them it dominates the composition but – can you see it in this picture?

The Cliff at Varengeville (1882) by Claude Monet. Private Collection, USA, Courtesy of Richard Green Gallery, London © Photo courtesy of the owner

The Cliff at Varengeville (1882) by Claude Monet. Private Collection, USA, Courtesy of Richard Green Gallery, London © Photo courtesy of the owner

In 1888 Monet travelled to the south of France, staying at Antibes which he painted from the spit or ‘cap’ across the bay. This vantage point allowed endless experimentation with the effect of the shimmering sunlight on the blue Mediterranean.

Antibes from la Salis (1888) by Claude Monet. Private collection © Photograph courtesy of Sotheby’s

Antibes from la Salis (1888) by Claude Monet. Private collection © Photograph courtesy of Sotheby’s

These Antibes paintings include recognisable landmarks – the tower of the cathedral and the medieval castle of the Grimaldi family – but the commentary points out how, in many of his paintings, Monet very deliberately chose not to include more modern elements. For example, there’s a cluster of paintings he made of the picturesque Italian town of Bodighera, which he visited and painted in 1884, and from which he quietly excised newly built holiday homes or the new railway line.

Mist and snow

But Monet isn’t all Mediterranean sunlight. One very vivid painting is a depiction of his home village of Giverny, a few miles west of Paris, in the snow.

Monet is always conscious of the effet, the effects of changing light and weather and even of the clarity or mistiness of the air. In this snowscape it is the dimly visible buildings of Giverny, the architectural elements, which give the painting a sense of depth and volume, and the composition a focus for the eye, while the paint does the work of creating a mood.

Snow Effect at Giverny (1893) by Claude Monet © New Orleans Museum of Art

Snow Effect at Giverny (1893) by Claude Monet © New Orleans Museum of Art

Impressions not precision

At about this point I should mention that Monet isn’t a particularly accurate painter of architecture. His buildings are not mathematically precise renditions of the squares and angles which modern buildings and bridges must necessarily consist of.

I recently visited the Dulwich Picture Gallery’s excellent exhibition of Edward Bawden and I very much enjoyed the way that, whether he’s doing a watercolour of his back garden or a linocut print of Covent Garden market, Bawden’s lines are all clearly defined and mathematically precise.

Albert Bridge (1966) by Edward Bawden. Trustees of the Cecil Higgins Art Gallery © Estate of Edward Bawden

Albert Bridge (1966) by Edward Bawden. Trustees of the Cecil Higgins Art Gallery © Estate of Edward Bawden

Monet’s buildings are never this precise, even when he is painting bridges or railways stations or other highly engineered structures.

Monet’s buildings, like his trees and other elements, are created by shimmering and often vague daubs of paint, overlaid and juxtaposed to create an atmosphere, a mood, an impression, rather than efforts at precise delineation.

Because I, personally, tend to like clear defined lines, I felt ambivalent about the series of big paintings Monet did of the new Gare St Lazare in Paris in 1877, a cluster of which hang here.

The commentary makes the clever point that they are a subtle subversion of the landscape genre, with a metal and glass roof replacing the sky and the shimmers of steam replacing the foliage of trees.

Maybe so. But after looking for some time I realised that I actively dislike the inaccurate draughtsmanship of the engineered roof, lamps and above all of the beautiful and ornate steam engines. All this is a kind of lost opportunity to show gleaming metal, precisely engineered structures, rivets, pistons and coupling rods. They seem to me a kind of acknowledgement of modernity which somehow misses the point of modernity.

The Saint-Lazare Railway Station (1877) by Claude Monet © The National Gallery, London

The Saint-Lazare Railway Station (1877) by Claude Monet © The National Gallery, London

Monet’s use of urban motifs

Monet’s use of contemporary urban subjects in a manner more appropriate to his style is demonstrated in The Boulevard des Capucines, Paris painted in 1873.

The commentary makes the interesting point that the painting captures the view from the first floor of the building where the first ever Impressionist Exhibition was to be held the following year, and where this very painting would be exhibited. Always interesting to learn snippets of art trivia.

And I couldn’t help thinking that there’s a large amount of L.S. Lowry in the way Monet paints his people, or at least his crowds of tottering nine-pin-like figures.

But the real visual interest is obviously in the shadow which casts a great diagonal line across the composition. It is the contrast between light and shade which really pulls Monet’s daisy, the drama it gives to the composition, the way your eye is pulled in by the great diagonal and then wants to explore the different effets of shade and direct sunlight.

So much so that if you look closely at the big buildings on the opposite side of the boulevard, you notice that they are leaning backwards – they are not accurately and strictly vertical. Architectural accuracy is not what he’s about.

The Boulevard des Capucines, Paris (1873) by Claude Monet © The State Pushkin Museum of Fine Arts, Moscow

The Boulevard des Capucines, Paris (1873) by Claude Monet © The State Pushkin Museum of Fine Arts, Moscow

This slight wonkiness is a feature of many of the paintings. It was apparent in one of the earlier seaside paintings where an enormous white cliff seemed to be bulging out and threatening to collapse onto the beach below. The walls of the rural buildings in a number of the early village scenes seemed to meet at odd angles as if about to topple over. There’s a striking early painting of rural houses with Dutch gables reflected in the river (Houses on the Banks of the Zaan, Zaandam) where the wall of the left is leaning outwards at a perilous angle. In all of them the lines are wonky and unvertical, hazy, not ‘true’ in the engineering sense.

The point is – who cares, when he paints like this?

On the Boardwalk at Trouville (1870) by Claude Monet © Photo courtesy of the owner

On the Boardwalk at Trouville (1870) by Claude Monet © Photo courtesy of the owner

In this, as in several other seaside paintings shown side by side, the point is not the mathematical precision of the booth on the left, or the hotels on the right, of the steps down to the beach or of the planking of the boardwalk – these are all elements which go to create the overall effet.

In both boardwalk paintings the important thing is not the precision but the tremendous dynamism given by the plunging perspective of the boardwalk itself, which draws you quickly right into the heart of the painting which is all about vibrant colour, space and life.

Rouen, London, Venice

The previous five rooms have contained 50 or so good and sometimes outstanding paintings – for me the Trouville paintings and Giverny in the snow stood out, and there’s a painting of the Japanese bridge over Monet’s world-famous lily pond for fans of his garden paintings – all accompanied by fascinating and insightful commentary.

But walking into the last two rooms is like walking into a different world. Here you are brought face to face with half a dozen examples each of his famous series of paintings of the facade of Rouen cathedral, opposite a selection of the series of paintings he made of the Thames in London, before you enter the final room devoted entirely to his late paintings of Venice – and it is as if you have died and gone to art heaven.

I have rarely felt so overwhelmed and awed by such an array of astonishingly beautiful artworks.

Rouen

By the 1890s Monet had perfected his technique of having multiple canvases of the same view on the go at once, and painting each of them at a specific time of the day, switching to the next one at the clock moved on, the sun rose, and the play of light and shadows changed.

Cities were easier to do this in since he needed the space to house quite a few wet canvases and all his equipment, somewhere he could leave it all overnight. The three cities represented here – Rouen, London, Venice, were all tourist resorts famous for their great architecture.

Monet painted some 30 canvases in Rouen, between February and April 1892 and the same months of 1893. He rented various rooms from shop owners opposite the cathedral which explains why there are two distinct points of view. The five massive paintings of the facade of Rouen cathedral show that slight difference in vantage point but above all Monet’s godlike ability to capture the changes in light and colour on this elaborate and detailed architectural facade, with quite stunning results.

Rouen Cathedral (1894) by Claude Monet. Private collection © Photo courtesy of the owner

Rouen Cathedral (1894) by Claude Monet. Private collection © Photo courtesy of the owner

London

Monet first stayed in London in 1870-71 to escape from the violence of the Franco-Prussian War and the civil war in Paris which followed (a historical moment documented by the recent Tate Britain exhibition Impressionists in London).

In September-October 1899 he returned and stayed on the 6th floor of the Savoy Hotel overlooking the Thames Embankment, returning for another visit in January to April 1902. In total Monet made an impressive 100 canvases of London.

He painted the view from the Savoy he painted the view west towards Waterloo Bridge. Later he got permission to paint the houses of Parliament from the newly built St Thomas’s Hospital on the opposite bank of the Thames. In both views what interested him was the play of light.

This was made much more interesting but sometimes frustrating, by the high level of pollution in London’s air not to mention the erraticness of the English weather which made capturing exactly the same light at the same hour on successive days a challenge.

This section about London included one of the many half-finished canvases Monet made, a strikingly vague sketch of the Embankment including Cleopatra’s Needle. The commentary points out that with his London paintings, as with those of Rouen cathedral and Venice, Monet developed the paintings up to a certain point, alongside extensive sketches and notes, and then finished the paintings back home at Giverny.

Two of the Parliament paintings really stood out for me, one where the sun is flaming red and the Thames is on fire. Right next to it the exact same view at night with the moon a divided into fragments by cloud and reflecting shivers of silver all over the river surface.

But the one I really couldn’t tear myself away from was this stunning painting of an orange sun struggling through the London smog to glimmer and fleck red-gold highlights on the Thames. The painting is all about light and colour, it is a masterpiece of what oil painting can do to fill the visual cortex with pleasure – and yet the vague architectural structure of London Bridge with its neat arches, just barely visible through the smog, is a vital part of the composition in the way it enables the light to exist, to function, to perform.

Waterloo Bridge, Sunlight in the Fog by Claude Monet

Waterloo Bridge, Sunlight in the Fog by Claude Monet

Venice

Monet visited Venice in 1908, staying for two months in apartments on the Grand Canal. The floating city under a Mediterranean sun was crying out to be depicted by the greatest impressionist of all. He produced 37 canvases, of which nine are on show here.

No people. No human activity is portrayed. Just the play of unearthly pink and eggshell blue in this watery paradise. (On a practical note, observe how the buildings on the right have the characteristic Monet lean; to my eye all of them look out of ‘true’, bulging out slightly over the water – but, as mentioned before, who cares.) they are quite staggeringly, luminescently transcendent works of art.

The Grand Canal (1908) by Claude Monet © Fine Arts Museums of San Francisco

The Grand Canal (1908) by Claude Monet © Fine Arts Museums of San Francisco

Scholarly conclusion

The rational, historical, art scholarly conclusion is that Monet used a very wide range of buildings, more than has previously been recognised, as motifs in his paintings:

  • as the basis of designs and patterns and compositions
  • as symbols of modernity and the bustling city
  • or to emphasise rural tranquility or isolation

In all cases using buildings to create, point and highlight his subtle emotional and psychological effects. Then, later in his career, he uses buildings as the subjects of some of his most dazzling, experimental and awe-inspiring works, the London, Rouen, Venice paintings.

Emotional conclusion

Often by the end of an exhibition I’m full to overflowing with facts and impressions and a little relieved to walk back out onto the street, but I found it genuinely difficult to leave this one, in particular to leave the room full of Monet’s London paintings.

I spent a good ten minutes looking from one to another and back again, walking out the room then finding myself drawn back in, to marvel all over again at Monet’s unprecedented handling of paint and the breathtaking creation of gorgeous, transcendent, shimmering works of art.

I’ve rarely encountered such a feeling of pure, unalloyed beauty and wonder in an art exhibition.

Exhibition videos

This is an introduction to the role of architecture in Monet’s life by Christopher Riopelle, The Neil Westreich Curator of Post 1800 Paintings at the National Gallery in London.

And here is Richard Thomson, exhibition curator and Watson Gordon Professor of Fine Art at the University of Edinburgh, introducing The Credit Suisse Exhibition: Monet & Architecture.


Related links

Reviews of other National Gallery exhibitions

Symbolism by Michael Gibson (1995)

The most striking characteristic of Symbolist artists is their withdrawal into the realm of the imagination. It is the solitude of the dreamer, of one who, marooned on a desert island, tells stories to himself. It is the solipsistic solitude of one who is sure of nothing outside himself. (p.35)

This is an enormous coffee-table book, some 31.5 cm tall and 25 cm wide. The hardback version I borrowed from the library would break your toes if you dropped it.

Its 227 pages of text contain a cornucopia of richly-coloured reproductions of symbolist paintings, famous and obscure, from right across the continent, with separate chapters focusing on France, Great Britain, Belgium, the Netherlands, Germany, Scandinavia, the Slavic countries, the Mediterranean countries and so on.

The main body of the text is followed by eight pages giving potted biographies of the key symbolist artists, and a handy table of illustrations – all of this textual paraphernalia as well as the end-covers and the incidental pages are lavishly decorated with the evocative line drawings of Aubrey Beardsley.

It is a beautiful book to have and hold and flip through and relish.

Symbolism was a literary movement

So what is Symbolism? A big question which has stymied many art historians. Gibson approaches the problem from a number of angles. For a start Symbolism was a literary movement before it was an artistic one. The Symbolist manifesto published in 1886 was written by a poet, Jean Moreas, and referred to poets of the day such as Verlaine or the young Mallarmé. Moreas suggested that these writers were aiming ‘to clothe the idea in perceptible form.’ In looking for ways to illustrate this point he mentioned the similar aim in several contemporary artists, most notably Gustave Moreau.

What idea? Well, there were eventually hundreds of symbolist painters and, arguably, every single one of them had a different ‘idea’.

Symbolism against the modern world

Gibson takes a different tack and offers a sociological explanation. What they almost all had in common was a rejection of the scientific rationalism and the industrial pragmatism of the age (the late nineteenth century). These latter movements were represented by a writer like Émile Zola, who embraced the modern age in its dirt and squalor and poverty and drunkenness, developing an approach he called ‘Naturalism’.

The influential philosopher Auguste Comte preached a social philosophy called ‘Positivism’, which thought we could use scientific and technological advances to create a new society – a technocratic and utopian ideal which finds its fullest flood in the English-speaking world in the scientific utopias of H.G. Wells.

Symbolists hated all this. They thought it was killing off all the mystery and imagination in life. They went in search of the strange, the obscure, the irrational, the mysterious, the barely articulatable.

Symbolism a legacy of lapsed Catholicism

Gibson makes the profound point that symbolism flourished in a) Catholic countries b) that were affected by industralisation. So the strongly Catholic countries of the Mediterranean (Spain or Italy) were unaffected because they hadn’t suffered the upheavals of widespread industrialisation. Symbolism flourished in the northern Catholic regions of heavily industrialised France, Germany and Belgium.

He explains how the Industrial Revolution, coming later to these countries than to pioneering Britain, seriously disrupted the age-old beliefs, traditions and customs of Roman Catholicism. In particular, huge numbers of the peasant population left the land and flocked to the cities, to become a new industrial proletariat (or fled Europe altogether, emigrating to the United States). In the second half of the nineteenth century Europe saw social disruption and upheaval on an unprecedented scale.

Urban intellectuals in Catholic countries felt that the age-old sense of community and tradition embodied by continent-wide Catholicism had been ruptured and broken. Many lost their faith in the face of such huge social changes, or as a result of the intellectual impact of Darwinism, or the visible triumph of science and technology. But they regretted what they’d lost.

  • The Great Upheaval by Henry de Groux (1893) Gibson reads this confusingly cluttered painting as representing the disruption of traditional values in a society undergoing rapid change – note the broken crucifix in the middle of the composition.

Symbolism, to some extent, represents the mood right across northern Europe, of artists and intellectuals for whom traditional Catholicism has died, but who still dreamed of transcendental values, of a realm of mysteries and hints from ‘the beyond’. As Gibson eloquently puts it, Symbolism is:

the negative imprint of a bygone age rich in symbols and the expression of yearning and grief at the loss of an increasingly idealised past. (p.24)

Hence the widespread movement among intellectuals to set up clubs, new religious ‘orders’, hermetic societies, cabbalistic cults, to turn to spiritualism, clairvoyance, and a wide range of fin-de-siecle voodoo.

Mention of voodoo prompts the thought that, up till now I’ve made it sound like harmless replacement for lost religious certainties. I haven’t brought out the widespread sense of anxiety and nightmarish fear which also dominates much of Symbolist art.

Symbolism and the femme fatale

There’s a lot of threat in Symbolist paintings. In Monet women innocently walk through fields with parasols, in Renoir women are laughing partners in sunlit gardens. But in Symbolist paintings women tend to be depicted as extremes, either as muses dreaming of another world or as sexually threatening and voracious demons.

  • Salome (1909) by Julius Klinger The Biblical story of Salome who persuades King Herod to have John the Baptist beheaded, haunts the fin-de-siecle era. Wilde wrote a play about it, Strauss an opera, and there are scores of paintings. In most of them Salome represents the femme fatale, the woman who uses her sexual attraction to lure men into dangerous or fatal situations. Dr Freud of Vienna would have said the real terror lying hidden in these paintings was the male castration complex. Surely the idea was never made more explicit than in this painting by Julius Klinger which shows Salome carrying – not the traditional head of John – but a severed set of testicles and penis drooling blood, along with the blood-red knife with which she has just cut off a man’s penis.

Why this anxiety? Why, above all, did it present in sexual form?

Maybe because Symbolist artists were almost all men (there were several successful women Impressionists but no female Symbolists that I can see), and that they were dedicated to exploring the irrational aspects of human nature – and not much is more irrational than people’s sex lives, fantasies, desires and anxieties.

And so these men, psyched up to explore the strange, the fantastical, the edgy the socially taboo – projected onto the blank canvas of ‘woman’ a florid range of their own longings and fears. The ‘irrational’ is not the friend of feminism.

  • Sin (1893) by Franz von Stuck The alluring half-naked woman with her pink nipples and her mild smile almost distracts you from the enormous snake draped round her and ready to bite off your… your what? (‘Paging Dr Freud’ as they used to say in Hollywood screwball comedies.) A very Catholic image since, after all, the basis of Catholicism is the snake tempting Eve who in turn tempted Adam into the Fall. In this image Snake and Woman once again tempt the (male) viewer.

Symbolism and death

If Symbolist art often portrays Woman (with a capital W) as femme fatale, it just as often betrays anxieties about Death (with a capital D). But death not as we most of us will experience it (hooked up to beeping machines in a soulless hospital ward), instead encountered like a seductive figure in a folk tale, often handsome and alluring, often female, even sexy.

Symbolism and decadence

Fin-de-siecle art is often identified with ‘Decadence’, the cult of etiolated aristocrats reclining on velvet divans in an atmosphere heavy with incense and debauchery, as epitomised in the classic novel, Against Nature by J.K. Huysmans.

Gibson sheds light on this, too, by saying the Decadence wasn’t fuelled so much by a sense of decline, as by a resolute opposition to the doctrine of Progress, a subtly different idea. This artistically aristocratic sensibility refused to kow-tow to the vulgar jingoism and gimcrack technical advances of the age (telegraphs, telephones, electric lights, early cinema – how ghastly), remaining nostalgic for the imagined superiority of its ancestors in an imaginary, pre-scientific age.

There are always servants in Decadent literature. From a sociological point of view that is one of their most important features. In fact servants feature in the most famous line from the the ‘decadent’ dram Axël by French writer Auguste Villiers de l’Isle-Adam, where a typically aloof aristocrat drawls:

As to living, our servants will do that for us.

The Salon de la Rose+Croix

In 1891 the Symbolist Salon de la Rose+Croix published a manifesto in which they declared that Symbolist artists were forbidden to practice history, patriotic and military painting, all representation of contemporary life, portrait painting, rural scenes, seascapes, orientalism, ‘all animals either domestic or connected with sport’, flowers or fruit. On the plus side, they welcomed mystic ecstasy and the Catholic ideal, any work based on legend, myth, allegory or dream (p.56).

It’s an accurate enough snapshot of the Symbolist mentality.

This sensibility locks itself away from the world, cloistered (a Catholic image) in an ivory tower, waking only at night (Symbolism is as fascinated by night, by shades of darkness, as Impressionism is by sunlight and daytime). Rejecting science, the exoteric (obvious), and everyday banality, it retreats into esoteric studies of the past, into alchemy, into the artificial recreation of medieval ‘orders’ (the more artificial, the more delicious), into mesmeric incantations about sin and death and damnation (overlooking the rather more mundane positive elements of Catholicism – charity, good works and so on).

The vast range of Symbolism

The great success of this book is in bringing together a really vast range of works from right across Europe to show how this mood, this urge, this wish for another, stranger, irrational world, took so many weird and wonderful forms, in the paintings of hundreds of European artists.

And it also investigates the shifting borders of Symbolism, where the impulse to ‘clothe the Idea’ shaded off into other schools or movements – of post-Impressionist abstraction, or Expressionist Angst, into Art Nouveau decorativeness, or just into something weird, unique and one-off.

The more I read on and the more examples I saw, the more I began to wonder in particular about the border between Symbolism and ‘the Fantastic’. Despite Gibson’s inclusivity, some of the paintings reproduced here look more like illustrations for fantasy novels than grand gestures towards a solemn mystery world. It’s a tricky business, trying to navigate through such a varied plethora of images.

Here, from the hundreds on offer, are the paintings which stood out for me:

Symbolists against nature

Numerous symbolist writers and artists argued that the world of art is radically separate from the so-called ‘real world’. They thought that the Impressionists (who they heartily disliked) were simply striving for a better type of naturalism. Symbolists, on the contrary, wanted next to nothing to do with the yukky real world. As Gibson puts it:

No longer was nature to be studied in the attempt to decipher its divine message. Instead, the artist sought subjects uncanny enough to emancipate imagination from the familiar world and give a voice to neurosis, a form to anxiety, a face, unsettling as it might be to the profoundest dreams. And not the dreams of an individual, but of the community as a whole, the dreams of a culture whose structure was riddled with subterranean fissures. (p.27)

Symbolists found the idea of the total autonomy of the work of art

No following of nature, then, but, in various manifestos, essays, poems and paintings, the Symbolists claimed the total autonomy of art, accountable to no-one but the artist and the imagination of their reader or viewer. Gibson argues that these claims for the complete autonomy of art lie at the root, provide the foundation of, all the later movements of Modernism.

Maybe.

Symbolism ended by the Great War

What is certain is that the strange otherworlds of Symbolism tended to come to a grinding halt with the Great War, which tore apart the community of Europe more violently than the Industrial Revolution. The movements which emerged just before and during it – the absurdist Dadaists, the violent Futurists, the avant-garde cubists – all tended to despise wishy-washy spiritualism, all guff about another world.

However the irrational mood, the imperative to reject the business-like bourgeois world, was revived by the Surrealists (founded in 1924) and it’s easy to identify a continuity of fantastical imagery from the later symbolists through to the Surrealists.

But the Surrealists’ great secret wasn’t other-worldly, it was other-mindly. Their worldview wasn’t underpinned by lapsed Catholic notions of the divine and the demonic. The Surrealists were students of Freud who thought that if they brought the creatures of the unconscious out into the open – via automatic writings and artfully bizarre imagery – they would somehow liberate the world, or at least themselves, from bourgeois constraints.

But in practice some of the art from the 1920s, and even 1930s, is not that distinguishable from the weirder visions of the 1880s and 1890s.

The conservatism of Symbolism

Reading steadily through the book made me have a thought which Gibson doesn’t articulate, which is that almost all of this art was oddly conservative in technique.

It is overwhelmingly realistic and figurative, in that it portrays human beings (or angels of death or satanic women or whatever), generally painted in a very traditional academic way. There are (as the Rose+Croix wanted) on the whole no landscapes, still lives or history scenes featuring crowds. Instead you get one or two people caught in moments of sombre meaningfulness.

And hardly any of it is experimental in form. Not much of it invokes the scattered brush work of a Monet or the unfinished sketchiness of a Degas or the interest in geometric forms of a Cézanne. Nothing in the book is as outrageous as the colour-slashed paintings by the Fauves, by Derain or Vlaminck.

This art of the strange and the other-worldly was peculiarly conservative. I guess that chimes with the way the belief almost all these artists shared in some kind of otherworld, some meaning or presence deeper than our everyday existence, was profoundly conservative, a nostalgic hearkening back to an imagined era of intellectual and spiritual completeness.

The twentieth century was to blow away both these things – both the belief in some vaporous, misty otherworld, and the traditional 19th century naturalist style which (on the whole) had been used to convey it.

Cars and planes, tanks and bombs, were to obliterate both fields of poppies and séances and spiritualism.


Related links

Related reviews

The Private Lives of the Impressionists by Sue Roe (2006)

‘What a fate! To be handed over to writers’ –
Edgar Degas on reading a biography of his friend Édouard Manet

Well, they’re not very private now – the ‘private lives of the Impressionists’, their friends, relatives, spouses and lovers, are nowadays the stuff of a multi-million dollar industry in books, biographies, catalogues and conferences.

Roe’s group biography of the Impressionists is an easy-going, highly enjoyable tour through the lives of the group of “artistic rebels who changed the face of western art” etc etc.

History Some of her historical background is a bit shaky (she says France beat Russia in 1854 whereas the Crimean War to which she’s presumably referring, ended only in 1856; she claims Napoleon Bonaparte ‘threw out the republicans and restored the empire’ in 1830, whereas Napoleon Bonaparte died in 1821; it was his nephew, Louis-Napoléon Bonaparte, who restored the Empire, and not until 1852; she scoots through the Franco-Prussian War and the Commune of 1870-71, strewing shaky generalisations along the way).

Gossip Disconcerting though these errors are, they needn’t worry us too much. The heart of the book is a really absorbing, gossipy account of how much in each others’ pockets Manet, Monet, Renoir, Degas and the rest lived and worked. The Salon system of the 1860s, the developing art market of the 1870s, the role of Durand-Ruel in sponsoring and buying up their works, the art schools they attended, the apartments they rented, their wives and children, the affairs and lovers – it’s all here in fascinating detail.

Roe gives a good account of the organisation and build-up to the first Impressionist exhibition of 1874. I had no idea that they set up a joint stock company, signed legally binding contracts, agreeing to share the profits and so on, naming themselves ‘the Anonymous Society of Painters, Sculptors, Engravers, etc’. At this first exhibition, thirty artists displayed 165 works at the photographer Nadar’s former studio, at 35 Boulevard des Capucines.

Roe gives an entertaining summary of the contemptuous reviews the show received, helping you to understand the objections of contemporaries who genuinely didn’t understand what these impudent daubers were trying to do. It was the scathing review by Louis Leroy in the satirical magazine Le Charivari that first mentioned the word ‘impressionist’, a term they themselves didn’t use in the early years.

Roe’s brisk journalistic approach to how and why the scandal was caused is, like the rest of the book, hugely enjoyable to read.

After retiring to lick their wounds after the generally harsh reviews, the group came back in March the next year (1875) with the idea of holding an auction at the Hôtel Drouot auction rooms, but this turned out even worse. Primed by the press to ridicule, the crowd mostly jeered and catcalled as the paintings were displayed, some deliberately upside down.

When the first of Berthe Morisot’s paintings was held up someone yelled out ‘Whore’, and Pissarro strode through the crowd and punched the man in the face. Worse was the ferocious review of the show written by the hottest art critic in town, the Albert Wolff (himself an odd figure, with the habit of wearing a corset and make-up and mincing through Paris’s fashionable hotels). Roe quotes it at magnificently malicious length:

The impression the impressionists create is that of a cat walking across the keys of a piano, or a monkey with a box of paints. (Critic Albert Wolff, writing in Figaro, quoted page 141)

Artists and issues

Monet tried to kill himself by jumping in the Seine in 1868. This was a rare moment of weakness in a man who was the most successful of the Impressionists partly because he was the most determined and money-minded. That said, I was genuinely shocked by the poverty Monet endured in the later 1870s, living in misery with his long-suffering wife Camille and a brood of demanding children, making repeated trips to Paris where nobody would buy his work and firing off hundreds of begging letters to friends, possible patrons or collectors. A big section late in the book is devoted to Monet’s extreme suffering which climaxed with the lingering illness and death of his poor wife, Camille (1879).

One of his most promising patrons was the millionaire department store magnate, Ernest Hoschedé, and a major strand in the book describes how Hoschedé managed to fritter away the vast fortune he inherited, eventually going bankrupt and moving, along with his wife and children, into Monet’s own troubled household in 1877. What a household it must have been!

And no one expected that, after Camille passed away, Hoschedé’s wife, Alice, would end up falling in love with Monet. It appears to have taken all parties several years to realise what was happening, and caused Hoschedé much heartbreak when his wife finally chose to leave Ernest and live with Monet. Ernest died in 1891, whereupon Alice finally married Monet (in 1892).

Manet was a natural aristocrat, charming everyone who met him, happy to socialise and support the gang but reluctant to exhibit with them because he never gave up his ambition of Salon success and official recognition. Roe brings out his obsession with the tall, ravishing Berthe Morisot who he painted numerous times, despite the objections of his wife, Suzanne; and of Berthe’s willingness to be painted, sometimes in seductive poses, even after she was married to Manet’s brother, Eugène. Older than the others and although he never exhibited in any of the eight Impressionist exhibitions, he was in an important sense, the central figure against which they all compared themselves with, who held together the complex and changing matrix of friendships, quarrels and debts. When he died after an agonising illness, in 1883, it signalled the beginning of the end of the group.

Berthe Morisot’s life is thoroughly covered, her relationships with her demanding mother and two happy sisters. In this account she is permanently depressed by her lack of success and failure to find a husband (until 1874).

Everyone was wary of surly unsociable Paul Cézanne (he of ‘the blunt manner and old, blue, paint-smattered smock’, p.144) and most of the gang didn’t want to include him in the first show. He was a problematic figure (‘a thorn in their side’)- something which certainly comes over from the big exhibition of Cézanne Portraits which I’ve just visited.

Degas I was continually surprised by the energy and commitment of Degas to the cause. He made most of the exhibitions happen, even when he violently disagreed with some of his colleagues about thier content or timing. It was news to me that he took a five-month-long trip to New Orleans in 1872, to visit wealthy members of the de Gas family who had emigrated and now ran very successful cotton and banking businesses over there. He was overwhelmed by the quality of the light, the brightness of all the colours, and especially the wonderful outlines and movements of the black people he saw.

Feminism In the light of reading Whitney Chadwick’s fiercely feminist book Women, Art and Society, I read Private Lives of the Impressionists alert to the exploitation of women a) in the paintings as passive subjects of the male gaze and b) as artists whose ambitions were blocked or stymied by an all-male establishment.

In relation to point a) it’s hard not to think that, although they were men very frequently painting women, it is not done with an exploitative eye: a lot of the women painted come over as strong and independent, and the Impressionist world, taken as a whole, is one of sensitive ‘feminine’ values, from Degas’ ballerinas to the working girls dancing in Renoir to Monet’s countless depictions of his female menageries in beautiful gardens. You only have to compare it with the sternly aristocratic or history or classical subjects of contemporary Salon art which tends to foreground heroic men, to see the huge difference.

Anyway, apart from a handful of nudes (mostly by Manet, a few by Renoir) the Impressionists aren’t really about naked people, male or female (all Degas’ women bathing and washing are really about composition, design and colour: there’s nothing remotely titillating about them). Roe spends a couple of pages detailing the series of portraits Manet did of Morisot, with whom he was obsessed, but they all show her as fully clothed, deploying a very imperious, commanding gaze of her own. She is nobody’s victim. (That said, these works tend to confirm my impression that Manet is quite a poor painter – of faces, anyway.)

Or:

As to point b), it’s a relief to read how generally pro-women artists the Impressionists were. Degas went out of his way to make sure that Berthe Morisot, and later on Mary Cassatt, were included in the group shows and gave them the opportunity to hang their own works. Indeed, Cassatt and Morisot (both independently well-off women) played an important role in funding the later group exhibitions. In other words, the key Impressionists actively encouraged the women painters among them, and leaped to their defence when they were criticised in person or in print.

Bosoms In a strikingly unfeminist way, Roe shows a persistent interest in bare bosoms and uncovered female flesh. She is good at spotting the frissons of titillation in Belle Époque France, for example the way crowds flocked to the seaside not only to try the new-fangled idea of taking a dip in the sea, but in the hope of seeing the bare ankles and calves (!) of the brave women wearing the risqué bathing suits (p.134). I noticed the boobs thing on pages 142-3.

Marguerite [Charpentier] was young, accomplished and clever; wealthy and popular she was the envy of many. She was physically striking with dark, heavy looks and a buxom figure…. (p.142)

[The socialist politician] Gambetta [was] now the idol of Parisian society, for whom every lady in the place lowered her décolleté… (p.142)

[Renoir] enjoyed the Charpentiers’ fine apartments, with their lavish interiors, elaborate refreshments and luxuriously dressed women… (p.142)

The eighteen-year-old actress Jeanne Samaray… was a vivacious redhead, very actressy, with huge dark eyes, a small, retroussé nose, pale, luminous skin, a wide mouth and perfect pearly teeth. She wore tailored outfits that showed off her tiny waist and ample bust… (p.143)

This focus on boobs is pleasant enough to a heterosexual man but I’m not sure what the sisterhood would say.

Fashion and clothes But then the whole book is like this, chattily interested in clothes and hats and crinolines and bathing costumes and flashing eyes and exposed flesh, giving a good sense of the visual and social world the artists lived in, along with plenty of gossip about who they fancied and why.

There’s lots of fascinating social history – the building of the new Paris designed around Baron Hausmann’s broad boulevards and imposing apartment blocks (which seemed to drag on for decades) sharply contrasted with the bohemian atmosphere around the hill of Montmartre, still semi-rural and inhabited by poor workers whose dances and entertainments Renoir loved to paint, especially the young women workers or grisettes, its slum shacks packed with vagrants, poor workers, circus performers and impecunious artists.

Poverty Throughout the text runs the persistent thread of the artists’ money troubles, troubles with their traditional parents, more money troubles, worries about professional success, and all the ways they tried to curry favour with the powers-that-were, repeated rejections by the Salon, ridicule from the critics.

Probably the grimmest account of poverty is the long-running struggle of poor Monet (mentioned above), although Pissarro’s woes are also chronicled. He managed to father seven children by his miserably long-suffering wife, Julie Vellay, a vineyard grower’s daughter and his mother’s maid, who he had married in 1871. Roe quotes from her pitiful letters complaining about struggling to feed all the mouths on the next to nothing Pissarro provided with his pitifully low sales.

And Sisley (who we don’t hear so much about) was in a similar plight. (Sisley seems to be the great loser of the gang, dying in abject poverty in 1899, yet reading these last books has made me come to appreciate his quiet persistence with the core Impressionist vision, especially his wonderful snowscapes – Snow Effect at Argenteuil, 1874.)

Through all these woes, it really helped that they were a gang, supporting and encouraging each other when they were down. Cézanne in particular needed lots of bucking up and there’s a fascinating little section recounting the advice the older man, Pissarro, gave him about painting the forms he sees, and creating them through colour alone, rather than trying to draw a realistic document of the world (p.124).

There are quite a few places where Roe briefly but effectively details the discussions about painting technique which the gang swapped and developed, and the book is littered with quick thumbnail portraits of their differing styles and visions.

In relationship terms, Cézanne was another who bucked society’s supposedly strict bourgeois norms, when he took the artist’s model, Marie-Hortense Fiquet, as his mistress in 1869. Because Cézanne’s father was a very well-off banker, Cézanne felt obliged to conceal his relationship with Hortense from his parents, for nearly 15 years, even after she had borne his son, Paul. The book chronicles the many (often ludicrous) subterfuges Cézanne resorted to, the lies and deceptions which blighted all their lives, until he finally married her in 1886 although, by that stage, he (with characteristic blunt honesty) announced that he no longer had feelings for her, and they lived the remainder of their married lives apart.

Patrons and collectors It’s fascinating to read in detail about the lives and personalities, the backgrounds, marriages and fortunes of the earliest collectors. Some of them were very rich indeed, and ‘got’ the new vision the gang were trying to create, embody and promote. Central was the gallery owner, exhibition organiser, funder and patron Paul Durand-Ruel, important enough to have an entire National Gallery exhibition devoted to him a few years ago – Inventing Impressionism.

But there were also Georges Charpentier, whose wife Renoir painted, Victor Chocquet, who also commissioned portraits from Renoir, and the ill-fated Ernest Hoschedé, mentioned above. Cézanne’s friend, Père Tanguy, supplied paints and canvasses on credit, accepting paintings in return.

It’s a surprise to learn that one of the most reliable providers of cash to the perpetually strapped Monet, Pissarro and Sisley was Gustave Caillebotte, himself a painter of admirably realistic works done with a distinctively narrow perspective, but who also had the money to make endless loans to his colleagues, and to fund and organise the exhibitions. At one stage he was paying Monet’s rent, paying for his trips up to Paris, subsidising Pissarro, and organising and funding the fifth Impressionist exhibition, alongside helping to set up the (short-lived) art magazine Le jour et la nuit. Wow.

Stories

So it’s a hugely enjoyable romp through the social history, the art history and the personal histories of these great painters, their families and patrons, studded with good anecdotes. Here are a few sample:

Renoir approved of Degas’ pastels of ballet dancers and himself loved going to the Paris Opera, but mainly to stare at the audience, drinking in all the human types and faces and clothes. He was extremely put out when the new fashion came in of dimming the houselights to force people to look at the stage (p.122).

When Wolff savaged the second Impressionist exhibition even more fiercely than the Hotel Drouot auction, he wrote some extra hard words about Morisot, with the result that her new husband, Eugène, challenged Wolff to a duel (p.155).

One afternoon Manet came to visit Monet in the house he rented for several years in Argenteuil, set up his easel and painted the family at ease, Monet pottering round with a watering can while his wife, Camille, lay on the lawn.

During the afternoon Renoir turned up – having walked along the river from his family’s house at nearby Louveciennes – set up his easel, and began painting the same scene.

Manet leaned over to Monet. ‘Who’s your friend?’ he joked; ‘Tell him to give it up, he’s got no talent.’ (p.132)

Maps I particularly liked the map of the territory just to the west of Paris where the River Seine performs some extreme loops, along which lie the villages where the Impressionists rented houses and painted their wives, each other, river life and boats and scenery. This book converted the names which crop up in the titles of so many paintings – Chatou, Bougival, Argenteuil, Louveciennes, Marly, Gennevilliers, Pointoise – into real locations, roads and houses and gardens and views, where Manet and Monet and Renoir and Sisley and Pissarro lived and worked. Finding them on the map whetted my appetite to go and visit them – except I imagine you wouldn’t be able to move for coachloads of tourists all having lunch at the Restaurant Renoir and staying the night at the Hotel Monet.

The same goes for addresses in Paris. Roe religiously records the addresses of all the artists’ many apartments and studios, as well as the exhibition rooms, auction houses, and grand homes of their sponsors, locating them not only geographically, but giving evocative descriptions of their layout, size and atmosphere, and their relationship with the ever-changing street map of Hausmann’s Paris.

I dug out an old map of Paris and began recording all the locations with little green decals my daughter has, but the area around Montmartre quickly became so infested it was impossible to make out individual locations. This book would be a handy resource if you ever wanted to go on a really thorough voyage of discovery of ‘the Paris of the Impressionists’.

Roe rounds off her account with the 1886 exhibition of Impressionists put on in New York by the ever-enterprising Durand-Ruel and his son, at which 300 or so paintings by almost the entire group (with the notable exception of Cézanne) drew a very different response from the jeers and catcalls of the Paris crowds and critics of 12 years earlier. They were greeted with respect and even excitement.

American collectors began buying them up and the show marks the start of the increasing involvement of American money in funding and buying up European art which was to dominate the 20th century (and arguably continues to this day). Durand-Ruel sold $18,000 of pictures. In 1888 he set up a permanent gallery and salesroom in New York.

It marks the commercial success of the group but also the point where, with Manet dead and the eighth and final group exhibition held, the unity of the gang dissolved and the survivors began going their very different ways, Monet continuing to become a god among painters of light and colour, Renoir never recapturing the dappled happiness of the Montmartre years, Degas perfecting his technique of pastel drawing, Cézanne and Gauguin going on to develop entirely new, post-impressionistic styles.

Roe gives a thorough description of the New York exhibition, naming half a dozen paintings by each of the main painters. Looking these up on Google images provides a really useful overview of the diversity, range and achievement of this astonishing group of artists. And includes one of my favourite Impressionist works, Pissarro’s early, wonderful depiction of Hoar frost.

Hoarfrost (1873) by Camille Pissarro

Hoarfrost (1873) by Camille Pissarro

Conclusion

In many ways, books are the best kind of tourism. This book is a great piece of travel writing, taking you not only to the streets and suburbs of 19th century Paris, but back in time to a simpler, far more relaxed and easy-going age, and surely that is the key to the Impressionists’ success. They thought of themselves (and many of their critics agreed) as painting the (often pretty rough and lowlife) reality of contemporary France.

But to everyone who came afterwards, their images – contrary to the sometimes harrowing personal circumstances they were created in – amount to a glorious evocation of a bright, light, lost age of innocence.


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A Closer Look: Colour by David Bomford and Ashok Roy (2009)

This is another superbly informative, crisply written and lavishly illustrated little book in The National Gallery’s A Closer Look series. To quote the blurb:

A Closer Look: Colour explores how painters apply colour, describes different types of pigments, and outlines optical theories and artists’ treatises. The authors explain the effect on colour of the artist’s chosen medium, such as oil, water or egg tempera, and the dramatic impact of new pigments.’

It ranges far and wide across the National Gallery’s vast collection of 2,300 art works, selecting 80 paintings which illustrate key aspects of colour, medium and design. The quality of the colour reproductions is really stunning – it’s worth having the book almost for these alone and for the brief but penetrating insights into a colour-related aspect of each one.

They include works by Seurat, Holbein the Younger, Corot, Duccio, David, Chardin, Ghirlandaio, Monet and Van Dyck in the first ten pages alone!

Aspects of colour

Colour quite obviously has been used by painters to depict the coloured world we see around us. But it has other functions, too. Maybe the two most obvious but easily overlooked are: to represent depth and create the optical illusion of three dimensions on a two dimensional surface; and to reinforce this by indicating sources of light.

Depth A common indication of depth is recreating the common observation that objects at a distance fade into a blue-ish haze. This is often seen in Renaissance paintings depicting increasingly hazy backdrops behind the various virgins and main figures. This is known as aerial perspective.

Light Sources of light need to be carefully calculated in a realistic painting. The book shows how the effect of light sources is achieved by showing glimmers of white paint on metallic objects or even on duller surfaces like wood. There is a particularly wondrous example in Lady Elizabeth Thimbelby and her Sister by Anthony Van Dyck. The authors give a close-up to show how the colour of the yellow dress worn by the main subject is reflected on the bare skin of of the little angel, and even in the catchlight in his right eye, an indication of the depth of thought which goes into his compositions.

Shadows turn out to be an entire subject in themselves. For centuries painters improved their depiction of shadows, at first using grey colours for the shadows of buildings, but quickly realising that the most shadowed things around us are fabrics. Dresses, cloaks all the paraphernalia of costume from the Middle Ages to the turn of the 20th century, involved reams of material which folded in infinite ways, all of them a challenge to the painters’ skill. At the very least, painting a fabric requires not one but three colours: the core colour of the fabric itself, the fabric in shadow, the fabric in highlight, reflecting the light source.

The human eye is not a mechanical reproducer of the world around us. It has physiological quirks and limitations. The book evidences the way that, dazzled by orange sunsets, the human eye might well see evening shadows as violet. Quirks and oddities like this were known to various painters of the past but it was the Impressionists who, as a group, set out to try and capture not what the rational mind knew to be the colour, but the colours as actually perceived by the imperfect eye and misleadable mind.

Emotion In the later 19th century artists across Europe made the discovery that intensity of colour can be used to reflect intensity of emotion. Probably the most popular painter to do this was van Gogh whose intense colours were intended to convey his own personal anguish. This approach went on to become the central technique of the German Expressionist painters (although they aren’t represented in the book, along with all 20th century art, because the National Gallery’s cut-off point is 1900).

Symbolism In earlier centuries, more than its realistic function, colour had an important role in a painting’s symbolism i.e. certain colours are understood to have certain meanings or to be associated with certain people or qualities. The most obvious period is the Renaissance, when the Virgin Mary’s cloak was blue, Mary Magdalene’s cloak was red, St Peter’s cloak was yellow and blue, and so on. From early on this allowed or encouraged Renaissance painters to create compositions designed not only to show a (religious) subject, but to create harmonious visual ‘rhythms’ and ‘assonances’ based on these traditionally understood colour associations.

Pigments and Media

This is dealt with quite thoroughly in another book in the series, Techniques of Painting. There we learn that paint has two components, the binding medium and the pigment. Over the centuries different pigments have been used, mixed into different binding mediums, including egg, egg yolks, oil, painting directly into wet plaster (fresco) and so on.

Painting is done onto supports – onto walls, plaster, or onto boards, metal, canvas or other fabrics. All of these need preparing by stretching (canvas) or smoothing (wood), then applying a ground – or background layer of paint – to soak into the support. Painters of the 14th and 15th centuries used a white ground. In the 16th, 17th and 18th centuries, artists experimented with varying the tone of the ground, which significantly alters the colour of the works painted onto them.

Hardening Binding mediums dry out in two ways: watercolours and synthetic resin paints by simple evaporation. Drying oils such as linseed, walnut or poppy oil harden by chemical reaction with the oxygen in the air. Egg tempera, used extensively in the 14th and 15th century, dries by a combination of both.

This may sound fairly academic but it profoundly affects the whole style and look of a painting. Because tempera dries so quickly (especially in hot, dry Italy) shapes and textures are best built up by short hatched strokes.

This is a detail from the Wilton Diptych (1397) where you can see the way the skin of the Virgin and child and angels has been created by multiple short paint strokes of egg tempera.

Whereas, because oils are slow drying, they allow the artist to merge them into smooth, flowing, continuous transitions of colour. Oil paints = more flowing.

In this detail from Belshazzar’s Feast by Rembrandt, you can see how the gold chain has been rendered with a really thick layer of gold paint. Laying on very thick layers of oil paint is called impasto.

In general, oil paint looks darker and richer than paint made using water-based media such as egg tempera, glue or fresco, which appear lighter and brighter.

Age and decay Painting was, then, a highly technical undertaking, requiring the painter to have an excellent knowledge of a wide range of materials and chemical substances. Different media dry and set in different ways. Different pigments hold their colour – or fade – over time. And this fading can reveal the ground painted underneath.

One of the most interesting aspects of the book is the specific examples it gives of how some pigments have faded or disappeared – sometimes quite drastically – in Old Master paintings.

In Duccio’s The Virgin and Child with Saints Dominic and Aurea, the face and hands of the figures show clearly how the lighter pigments painted in tempera have faded or flaked off allowing the green underpaint to come through. The Virgin was not meant to look green!

Bladders to tubes Pigments had to be ground by hand and mixed in with binders in studios for the medieval and Renaissance period. There are numerous prints showing a Renaissance artist’s studio for what it was, the small-scale manufactory of a craftsman employing a number of assistants and making money by taking on a number of students.

In the 18th century ready-mixed pigments could be transported inside pigs’ bladders. The early 19th century developed the use of glass or metal syringes. But it was in 1841 that an American, John Rand, developed the collapsible metal tube. This marked a breakthrough in the portability of oil paints, allowing artists to paint out of doors for the first time. A generation later a new school arose – the Impressionists – who did just this. Jean Renoir quotes his father, the painter Pierre-Auguste, as saying:

Without paints in tubes there would have been no Cézanne, no Monet, no Sisley or Pissarro, nothing of what the journalists were later to call Impressionism.

Biographies of colours

Primo Levi wrote a classic collection of short stories based on The Periodic Table of chemical elements. It crossed my mind, reading this book, that something similar could be attempted with the numerous pigments which artists have used down the ages.

This book gives a potted history of the half a dozen key colours. It explains how they were originally produced, how different sources became available over the centuries, and how the 19th century saw an explosion in the chemical industry which led to the development of modern, industrially-manufactured colours.

Blue

  • Prime source of blue was the ultramarine colour extracted from the mineral lapis lazuli, which was mined in one location in Afghanistan and traded to the Mediterranean.
  • A cheaper alternative was azurite, which was mined in Europe but had to be ground coarsely to keep its colour, and is also prone to fade into green, e.g. the sky in Christ taking Leave of his Mother by Albrecht Altdorfer (1520). Many artists painted a basic wash of azurite and then used the much more expensive ultramarine to create more intense highlights.
  • Indigo is a dye extracted from plants. At high intensity it is an inky black-blue, but at a lesser intensity also risks fading.
  • A cheaper alternative was smalt, manufactured by adding cobalt oxide to molten glass, cooling and grinding it to powder. It holds its colour badly and fades to grey.
  • In the early 1700s German manufacturers stumbled across the intense synthetic pigment which became known as Prussian blue (the book gives examples by Gainsborough and Canaletto).
  • Around 1803 cobalt blue was invented.
  • In 1828 an artificial version of ultramarine was created in France

Thus the painters of the 19th century had a much wider range of ‘blues’ to choose from than all their predecessors.

The book does the same for the other major colours, naming and explaining the origin of their main types or sources:

Green

  • Terre verte was used as an underpaint for flesh tones in early Italian paintings
  • malachite
  • verdigris, a copper-based pigment was prone to fade to brown and explains why so many Italian landscapes have the same orangey-brown appearance
  • emerald green (a pigment developed in the 19th century containing copper and arsenic)
  • viridian (a chromium oxide)

Red

  • Vermilion, obtained by pulverising cinnabar, liable to fade to brown as has happened with the coat of Gainsborough’s Dr Ralph Schomberg (1770), which should be bright red.

Yellow

  • Lead-tin yellow in the Renaissance
  • from the 17th century lead-based yellow containing antimony known as Naples yellow
  • from the 1820s new tints of yellow became available based on compounds of chromium of which chrome yellow is the most famous
  • cadmium yellow

White

  • Lead white was used from the earliest times. It forms as a crust on metallic lead exposed to acetic acid from sour wine – highly poisonous
  • only in the twentieth century was it replaced by non-toxic whites based on zinc and later, titanium. Unlike all the pigments named so far, lead white keeps its colour extremely well, hence the bright white ruffs and dresses in paintings even when a lot of the brighter colour has gone.

Black 

  • A large range of black pigments was always available, most based on carbon as found in charcoal, soot and so on. Carbon is very stable and so blacks have tended to remain black.

Summary of colours

  1. Over the past 500 years there has been a large amount of evolution and change in the source of the pigments artists use.
  2. Colour in art is a surprisingly technical subject, which quite quickly requires a serious knowledge of inorganic chemistry and, from the 19th century, is linked to the development of industrial processes.
  3. Sic transit gloria mundi or, more precisely, Sic transit gloria artis. The net effect of seeing so many beautiful paintings in which the original colour has faded – sometimes completely – can’t help but make you sad. We live among the wrecks or decay of thousands of once-gloriously coloured artworks. Given the super-duper state of digital technology I wonder if anywhere there exists a project to restore all these faded glories to how they should look!

Disegno versus colore

Vasari, author of The Lives of the Great Artists (155) posed the question, ‘Which was more important, design or colour?’ As a devotee of Michelangelo, the godfather of design, he was on the side of disegno and relates a conversation with Michelangelo about some paintings by Titian (1488-1576) they had seen where Michelangelo praises Titian’s use of colour but laments his poor composition.

The art history stereotype has it that Renaissance Florence was the home of design, while Venice (where Titian lived and worked) put the emphasis on gorgeous colours. This was because Venice was a European centre for the production of dyes and pigments for a wide range of manufacturing purposes, not least glass and textiles.

In late-17th-century France the argument was fought out in the French Academy between Rubénistes (for colour) and Poussinistes (for drawing). Personally, I am more moved by drawing than colour, and a little more so after reading this book and realising just how catastrophically colour can fade and disappear – but, still, there’s no reason not to love both.

Optical theories

Isaac Newton published his Optics in 1704, announcing the discovery that when white light is projected through a prism it breaks down into primary colours, which can then be turned back into white light. Among its far-ranging investigations, the book contained the first schematic arrangement of colours and their ‘opposites’. It wasn’t until well into the 19th century, however, that colour charts began to proliferate (partly because they were required by expanding industrial manufacture, and the evermore competitive design and coloration of products).

And these colour charts bore out Newton’s insight that complementary colours – colours opposite each other on the circle – accentuate and bring each other out.

Colour Circle by Michel Eugène Chevreul (1839)

Colour Circle by Michel Eugène Chevreul (1839)

Colour circles like this systematised knowledge which had been scattered among various artists and critics over the ages. It can be shown that Eugène Delacroix (1798-1863) made systematic use of contrast effects, pairing colour opposites like orange-blue, red-green or yellow-violet, to create stronger visual effects.

On a simplistic level it was the availability of a) new, intense colours, in portable tin tubes, along with b) exciting new theories of colour, which explains the Impressionist movement.

The Impressionists were most interested in trying to capture the changing quality of light, but the corollary of this was a fascination with shadow. Apparently, impressionist painters so regularly (and controversially) paired bright yellow sunlight with the peculiar tinge of violet which is opposite it on the colour charts, that they were accused by contemporary critics of violettomani.

Some examples

The book lists the pigments used to create Titian’s Bacchus and Ariadne. The intense blue sky is made from ultramarine lapis lazuli, as is Ariadne’s drapery and the flowers at the lower right. The blue-green sea is painted with the cheaper azurite. Vermilion gives Ariadne’s sash its red colour. The Bacchante’s orange drapery was painted with a rare arsenic-containing mineral known as realgar.

Titian was aware of the power of colour contrasts long before the 19th century colour wheels, something he demonstrates by placing Ariadne’s red and blue drapery above the primrose yellow cloth by the knocked-over urn at her feet (painted using lead-tin yellow). The green of the tree leaves and the grassy background are created from malachite over-painted with green resinous glazes. An intense red ‘lake’ is used to give Bacchus’s red cloak its depth.

These coloured ‘lakes’ were an important element in Renaissance painting but I had to supplement the book’s information with other sources.

From this I take it that ‘lakes’ were translucent i.e. you could see the colour beneath, and so were used as glazes, meaning you would lay down a wash of one colour and then paint over potentially numerous ‘lakes’ to add highlights, depths or whatever. This build-up of ‘lake’ glazes allowed the layering of multiple variations of colour and so the intensely sensual depiction of the folds on fabrics, the light and shade of curtains and clothes which is so characteristic of Old Master painting.

The book then applies this detailed analysis of colour pigments to a sequence of other Old Masterpieces by Rubens, Velázquez, Rembrandt, Tiepollo, Canaletto, Monet and Seurat.

Conclusion

A Closer Look: Colour makes you appreciate the immense amount of knowledge, science, craft and technique which went into painting each and every one of the National Gallery’s 2,300 artworks (and the depth of scholarship which modern art historians require to analyse and unravel the technical background to each and every painting).

It’s a revelation to read, but also pure joy to be prompted to look, and look again, in closer and closer detail, at so many wonderful paintings.


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