PART ONE / PROJECTS 3 & 4: EXPLORING THE FIELD
Textural & Practical
Research into Modernism
The period that fostered what we call Modernism was an era characterised by industrialisation, social change, advances in science and social science. There was a rejection of styles of the past and greater experimentation and innovation with forms, materials and techniques in the arts in order to create works that better reflected modern society.
In my own experiments I wanted to explore a greater freedom in the use of colour. In working from observation in the past, colour in my work has often been somewhat dull and uninteresting. This relates, to a degree, with technical issues of handling the paint media. So as I skimmed through some of the art movements and looked at the work of some artists I first paused when looking at the Fauvist movement.
Fauvism – a French art movement – gained popularity around the turn of the twentieth century. Matisse, Derain, and Duffy were influenced by Post Impressionists such as Van Gogh and Gauguin in their symbolic and descriptive use of colour and experimented more with exaggerated colours and bold brushstrokes in contrast with the representational or realistic values retained by Impressionism. The works show a more spontaneous and subjective response to their subjects, initially perceived to be very crude and wild, hence the name for the group. Matisse said he didn’t choose colours based on scientific theory but on feeling and observation and the nature of each experience.
The above images are details of paintings by Matisse (1), Vlaminck (2) and Derain (3) I saw at the Tel Aviv Museum recently. I was looking for characteristics of style and colour that I might apply to my own experiments. What is typical in these works is a simplification in the drawing, the juxtaposition of primary and complementary colour together and the looseness in the mark making.
The Fauvist Movement was fairly short lived and many in the group moved on to explore cubism and other styles. It brought the issue of colour to the forefront and was an influence on the Expressionists and the Abstract Expressionists to follow but, generally speaking, I don’t think the paintings of this period were more interesting than the Post Impressionist artists and of artists such as Gauguin.
Matisse, like Picasso, had the ability to reinvent himself again and again. His last body of work, his cutouts, are some of the more iconic images of the twentieth century. I wanted to highlight a few works from different phases of Matisse’s career that were inspirational for me.
Woman with a Hat (4) — Typical of the flamboyant use of colour and casual brushmarks of daubs and dashes of Fauvism. Some of the colour looks as if it has been applied directly from the tube. The face, is conveyed in a very convincing way despite the unnatural use of colour defining the features. This painting outraged a number of critics and the public when first exhibited but still remains today as a very engaging image.
Red Atelier (5) — This shouldn’t really work, with it’s illusion of 3-D space. The red ground is pretty much one tone and the back, side walls and foreground is defined by the careful placing, size and the angles of the objects which inhabit the space. Matisse separates line and colour, he doesn’t create an object with line that he fills in with colour.
Blue nude and dancer cut-outs (7) — These images seem to be a complete antithesis of Matisse’s earlier painting but he emphasised the continuity between his cut-outs and the rest of his work. He is quoted as saying “From the Bonheur de Vivre (Joy of Life) painting, 1905/6 … to these cut-outs, … I have remained the same … because all this time I have been searching for the same things, which I have perhaps realised by different means.” I think these works and other large abstract works have more relevance when placed in a wider public context than the gallery, where the works can enhance and/or transform public spaces that many more can appreciate.
Responding to what I have been viewing and the aim of working more boldly with colour I decided to work on a few portrait studies also a still life study.
The portraits were painted in oils from short poses so had to work quickly. One painted on gesso’d card and two on canvas. The geometry is off the wall here but the emphasis was on responding subjectively to the subject using a fairly limited colour palette. This led to working on a still life sketch working predominantly with just two complimentary colours on a red acrylic ground. I tried painting with lines and strokes to define forms which was an unfamiliar way of working for me. It took me out of my comfort zone. While this is unfinished I am fairly pleased with this loose lyrical composition. and don›t want to over work it.
TEL AVIV MUSEUM
I went to see a small exhibition of Modernist works at the Tel Aviv Museum after seeing the image above by Milton Avery advertising the show in the press. I thought at first this was a work by Matisse so it caught my attention. These three paintings stood out for me as they resonate with my visual interests right now.
I had heard of Avery before but wasn’t familiar with his work. This painting, Summer Reader, 1950 I like, because even with such economy of a few simplified shapes and colours and tonal relationships he creates an interesting illusion of space and the image feeds the imagination. The brightest element, the book, is unpainted canvas. The girl, painted in light turquoise, stands out from the muted background of a few spots of colour. The paint is applied with little texture and the image evokes a feeling of rest or calm. She could be in a landscape or an interior. Avery said of paintings in this phase of his life – “I like to seize the one sharp instant in nature, to imprison it by means of ordered shapes and space relationships. To this end I eliminate and simplify, leaving nothing but colour and pattern. I am not seeking pure abstraction; rather the purity and essence of the idea”. Avery was obviously influenced by Matisse, in his use of everyday scenes and use of colour.
I also found the two portraits/figures by Chaim Soutaine and David Park interesting, although the style and handling of the paint are very different. Soutaine was inspired by classic painting in the European tradition. He developed an individual style more concerned with shape, colour and texture over representation but maintained a connection to recognizable subject matter. Park came through Abstract Expressionism to a loose form of figuration and was a pioneer of the Bay Area Figurative School, San Fransisco in the 1950’s. While the artists came from different cultural backgrounds both worked in styles shaped by the world war. Soutaine was physically displaced from his home country and probably both were mentally displaced by the post war mood of anxiety and trauma.
Not sure if Park’s woman was painted from a model or imagined. The face is almost mask like. While the motif of the figure is there, the background and foreground almost given equal attention by the quality of the marks and gestures, the thickness of paint and brilliant colour that make up the composition. In Soutaine’s Young Man, the figure is quite stylised, the brush marks very gestural. The painting is about the young man, and I could meditate on this for quite a while. Who is he, what makes up his life?
EXPERIMENTS WORKING FROM A PAINTING BY DEGAS
Again, in relation to what I have been researching I decided to work from one image to experiment with abstraction and different methods of working.
The original painting is an early work of Degas, ‘A Cotton Office in New Orleans’ 1873. It’s not a painting I particularly like but interesting enough to work from as a starting point. I first did a quick line drawing in charcoal, describing the rhythm of the composition and continued with a rough oil sketch working only with lines and strokes.
I had seen some of the late work by abstract artist Joan Mitchell who worked in a similar vein. Surprisingly there is an interesting sense of space achieved by this method of working. I wanted to simplify the image using shape and colour so took a print of the original into Photoshop and had some fun playing around till I came up with some images that had the potential for further development.
Some of these images are evocative of Expressionist works and while this method of working in the computer can become somewhat clichéd it can also help one think more laterally and stir the imagination.
The image, (right), in oils was developed from the digital images and observation from the original painting.
The image above, based again, from a digital print was completely overworked and looking dull so I wiped the surface with a turps filled rag to open up the image and with a few lines carved into the canvas it has the potential to go somewhere else but I have left it for now.
This sketch takes the middle ground, is looking more at the original again, the loosely painted ground and use of line trying to define the space with the abstract figures. The crop on the right is probably a more interesting composition.
This final image is worked up more but not a finished painting. There is a suggestion of the original narrative but the figures are painted much more abstractly, the space is more shallow and colour more expressive.
SAMPLE PAGES FROM SKETCH BOOK – COLLAGE
I was thinking about ways of simplifying compositions. If working from a landscape, for example, there can be a thousand pieces of information you are looking at and the aim would be to find that which seems essential in the experience of the view or moment. Milton Avery’s quote above comes to mind. So I began playing around with collage working from a still life arrangement as one way of exploring this. I unfortunately forgot to photo the original still life before it disappeared but the work and notes in the sketch book should be self explanatory.
Although some of the above images are quite interesting, most still seem too busy. So I became more ruthless with my cropping and simplifying and ended up with the images below. I think some of these images have the potential for further development but there is a danger of them becoming just decorative. I would like to work on a small series of paintings based on these experiments but bring in more motifs from the original or another still life and maybe other ‘found’ elements.
There has been more of a flow between the two aspects of textural research and practical work than in the projects on pre- modern art. In keeping with the aim of experimenting more with colour and working in ways I am less familiar with, I think the practical work has been relatively successful. I have other scraps, images and sketches that I haven’t had time to process that could possibly feed into other projects. I often use Photoshop ,which I am familiar with, and it’s useful for exploiting images in different ways but it can also result in work which is too predictable. I don’t think I’m going to end up as a wild colourist but this period of experimentation with colour, technique and style is helping me move on from more familiar and clichéd ways of working.
Researching particular artists has led to discovering other artists whose work I find an affinity with. If I hadn’t been looking at Matisse’s late work I may not have noted what Avery was doing. From my visit to the Tel Aviv exhibition I became familiar with David Park, and looking up Park on YouTube led to discovering the work of Jacob Lawrence and Stuart Davis – jazz and cubist influenced – urban, pre pop art. All these painter’s are interesting colourists and they all pay homage to the influence that Matisse had on them during certain phases of their career.
There is an interesting series on YouTube called American Visions narrated by Robert Hughes He talks about, and interviews various artists about the social context and influences that shaped their work. I haven’t had time yet to view most of these videos but from what I’ve seen so far, quite thought-provoking in thinking about my own work.
Notes and Research
Berggruen O, Hollein M (20060), Henri Matisse, Munich, Prestel Publishing Ltd.
Introduction to Modernism – Understanding Contemporary Art, narrated by John David Ebert
Fauvism Overview Goodbye art Academy
Stuart Davis “In Full Swing” at THE WHITNEY MUSEUM
Off The Wall: The Mellow Pad by Stuart Davis
John Seed on The Legacy of Bay Area Figuration
LIST OF ILLUSTRATIONS
Image 1. Henri Matisse, 1869-1954, Two Women on a Balcony, 1921, (detail), oil on canvas, Simon and Marie Jaglom Collection, on loan Tel Aviv Museum.
Image 2. Maurice de Vlaminck, 1876-1958, View of Bougival, 1909, (detail), oil on canvas, Bequest of Harry and Leah Mecklembourg, on loan Tel Aviv Museum.
Image 3. Andre Derain, 1880-1954, Portrait of the Father of the Art, 1901, oil on canvas, Simon and Marie Jaglom Collection, on loan Tel Aviv Museum.
Image 4. Henri Matisse, Woman with hat, 1905.
Image 5. Henri Matisse, L’Atelier Rouge, 1911.
Image 6. Henri Matisse, Bonheur de Vivre, 1905/6.
Image 7. Henri Matisse, The Cutouts, 1952.
Image 8. Milton Avery, Summer Reader, 1950.
Image 9. Chaime Soutine, Portrait of Young Man Wearing a Black Tie, 1927/8.
Image 10. David Park, Nude with a Towel, 1959.
Gift of Susan and Anton Roland-Rosenberg, Los Angeles, 1996.
On loan to the Tel Aviv Museum.