Getting The Message Across

Images of poverty and exclusion are abundant in 19th Century revolutionary French art, one only has to think of Millet or Daumier but I'm not sure if the work of the French was as psychologically charged as that of late 19th Century Russian art.  Nicholai Yaroshencko's "Everywhere There Is Life" shows are family of political prisoners about to be freighted off to Siberia throwing crumbs to the birds outside the carriage.

 Yaroshenko              Everywhere There Is Life                     1888

Yaroshenko              Everywhere There Is Life                     1888

Yaroshenko became influenced by the Russian revolutionary democrats and their journals became his favourite reading material.  He fell in with the peredvizhniki (the itinerants - see previous post) and he began exhibiting with them from 1875.

 Yaroshenko                     The Prisoner                     1878

Yaroshenko                     The Prisoner                     1878

In "The Prisoner" Yaroshenko is expressing sympathy for the fighters for freedom and democracy, and by this time he'd been elected to the board of the Society Of The Peredvizhniki.  Lenin described Yaroshenko as a marvelous artist and wonderful psychologist of real life.

 Yaroshenko                        The Blind                        1879

Yaroshenko                        The Blind                        1879

Ilya Repin is probably best known for his painting "Barge Haulers Of The Volga" a stinging rebuke of the exploitation of labour, but I prefer the painting below called "They Did Not Expect Him".  A political exile has returned from the gulags to a surprised family.  Critics considered it the finest artistic achievement of a social point of view of the peredvizhniki. (George H Hamilton) 

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Source: https://geoff-harrison.squarespace.com/blo...

A True Poet Of Nature

The Russians referred to them as the Peredvizhniki, art historian Andrew Graham-Dixon calls them the Wanderers but mostly they are referred to as the Itinerants.  They were a group of young Russian artists from the late 19th century who rebelled against the strict academism that characterized art teaching at the time.  One of the most notable among them was Isaac Levitan (1860-1900).

 Levitan - Eternal Peace

Levitan - Eternal Peace

Like many of his peers, Levitan explored the lyrical beauty of the simple unpretentious Russian landscape.  One of Levitan's teachers Alexei Savrasov is credited with "seeking out in the most ordinary and commonplace phenomena the intimate, infinitely touching and often melancholy features which are so strongly felt in our native scenery and which invoke an overwhelming response in our soul." 

 Levitan - In The Vicinity Of Sawino-Storozhevsky

Levitan - In The Vicinity Of Sawino-Storozhevsky

In his own teachings, Levitan taught his pupils to "feel nature so deeply, to give it so much of their soul, faith and hopes, and so understand its moods as had never been the case before."  But Levitan also touched on social issues as well, such as the painting Vladimirka Road which was the road taken by dissidents "chains clanging" to Siberia.  The lowering sky and desolate landscape emphasising the sense of anguish and oppression.

 

 Levitan - Vladimirka Road

Levitan - Vladimirka Road

For me however, it's the light, the cool light and amazing depth of his imagery that impresses most.  Then there is the amount of feeling he evokes in the most simple of scenes, such as the one below.  Savrasov encouraged his pupils to draw inspiration from the French Barbizon school and Levitan was known to be impressed with the paintings of Corot.  Graham-Dixon referred to the almost hypnotic realism in Levitan's work and I can only agree.

 Levitan - A River

Levitan - A River

Ref: Alexei Fiodorov-Davydov "Levitan"

A City In Flux

The city of Paris during the reign of Napoleon III underwent massive changes due, in part, to the migration of hordes of rural workers into the city as a result of the industrial revolution.  Artists such a Eduard Manet witnessed these changes and depicted them in their art.  According to a recent Four Corners episode on the ABC, Victoria's population grew by one million in the 10 years to 2016.  I'm not sure if this transformation is the motivation behind the painting below, but it may have been.

 The Roar Of The Approaching Night           Oil On Canvas               75 cm x 150 cm

The Roar Of The Approaching Night           Oil On Canvas               75 cm x 150 cm

Nowhere is this transformation more evident than in the docklands area on the west side of Melbourne's Spencer Street where an entirely new central business district seems to be evolving housing, so it seems, a new class of the upwardly mobile.

 Melbourne's Docklands today

Melbourne's Docklands today

Presumably, recreation for these residents would involve visiting the various restaurants and other attractions of the inner city, or jetting off interstate or overseas, rather than hopping in the car for a picnic in the countryside which, lets face it, would take all day to get there, given the suburban sprawl.

 West of Spencer Street viewed from Transport House, 1985

West of Spencer Street viewed from Transport House, 1985

Another motivation for my painting could be my brief and disastrous return to the workforce in 2008, when I discovered the recent trends to toxic working environments to be a reality, not a myth.  Anyway, Melbourne is a city in flux that I have trouble recognising, and this painting is intended to represent my increasing alienation from it.  The title of the painting is a line from the song "Tender Is The Night" by Jackson Browne.

Art Of The Night

Night time has been described as the time when reality disappears and imaginings begin.  People somehow seem less sane at night.  Shakespeare described night as the witching time and the night seems to have been a particularly productive time for Vincent Van Gogh.

 Moonlight Near Roxby Downs                      Oil On Canvas                       101 cm x 142 cm

Moonlight Near Roxby Downs                      Oil On Canvas                       101 cm x 142 cm

I completed the above work in 2014.  It was inspired by a photo I saw of a lightning strike in the area and I was particularly interested in the sheen on the water created by the lightning fork.  So I decided to turn the scene into a moonlit night time image, partly because of the challenge it presented and partly to highlight the isolation of the scene.

And yet, the cold moonlight perhaps gives the scene a softness and harmony that may not be present during the daytime when you could image the appalling heat during the summer  months.  Interestingly, I found reproducing the sheen on the water the most difficult task - making it look authentic.  The vegetation in the foreground is largely an invention, through necessity as I couldn't make out the detail in the photograph.

Seeking Authenticity - Barry Lyndon

At the time of it's release in 1975, the Stanley Kubrick film "Barry Lyndon" certainly received a mixed reception.  Most of the complaints revolved around the very slow pace.  According to an article in The Guardian marking the film's 40th anniversary, Woody Allen described watching the film as akin to "going through the Prado without lunch".

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Yet the "slow burn" approach allows the emotion to build gradually and also allows an appreciation of the style of the film.  It was Kubrick's intention to emulate 18th Century landscape paintings in the outdoor scenes, with the camera panning backwards.  This technique dwarfs the characters in the carefully composed landscape, though not to the extent of a David Lean movie.

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According to The Guardian, actor Ryan O'Neal (who played the title role) decided to stay with the year-long shoot because he had a strong suspicion he was involved in something great.  Clearly money was no object to Kubrick; it took a week to set up an interior scene which he later scrapped.

Speaking of interior scenes, Kubrick strove for authenticity here too by making as much use of candle light as possible, and therefore as little use of artificial light.  Hence the haziness of the night time interior scenes.

 

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It's likely that Barry Lyndon has stood the test of time better than many may have expected, but it's Kubrick's striving for authenticity that has always appealed to me.  And it is so typical of Kubrick that he should produce an epic where the central character is an Irish rogue, and ultimately a loser.

To The Tortured Artist.....Get Over It

The recently departed author/actor Bob Ellis once claimed that artistic talent is not something you are born with, it's grafted onto you by a wound.  As much as I admired Ellis, in this instance I believe he was talking bollocks. 

And why?  Because many people who have suffered injustices (either perceived or actual) respond by inflicting harm on others rather than resorting to art.  The question as to why different people respond in different ways to a adverse circumstances is something I wouldn't even contemplate answering.  All I know is that if I'm feeling down about aspects of my past, the last thing I feel like doing is picking up the paint brush.  To me it's logically impossible.

Big magic.jpg

In her book "Big Magic", author Elizabeth Gilbert has some interesting thoughts on the topic of the tortured artist.  Gilbert argues that we must love our art and our art must love us.  "Nature provides the seed, man provides the garden, each is grateful for the other's help."

I have no doubt that some remarkable art has been the product of delving into the depths, but I doubt if the artist was wallowing in it at the time.  To me it's like looking back inside a tunnel from the outside, "yes, it was like that but it's not like that now".  To  me, the work of the tortured artist relies on past issues never being resolved, which begs a question.  What would happen to the art practice if he/she was suddenly at peace?

Gilbert quotes Francis Bacon "The feelings of desperation and unhappiness are more useful to an artist than feelings of contentment, because desperation and unhappiness stretch  your whole sensibility".   That may be the case but I bet Bacon wasn't feeling desperate whilst he painted.  Mark Rothko apparently wanted people to break down and cry in front of his paintings.  Then when he became ill and couldn't work any longer, he committed suicide. 

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The price some artists pay for their pain!  Gilbert believes that many young artists today are told that if they want to become creative, they must open up a vein and bleed.  "Trusting in nothing but suffering is a dangerous path.  Suffering has a reputation for killing off artists.  But even when it doesn't kill them, an addiction to pain can sometimes throw artists into such severe mental disorder that they stop working at all."

I particularly like this comment of hers; "I believe our creativity grows like sidewalk weeds out of the cracks between our pathologies - not from the pathologies themselves.  But many people believe it's the other way around."  So I come back to an earlier comment - love who you are and what you do.

Painting And Photography

I still encounter the occasional individual who insists that to be a true landscape painter, one must paint outdoors, en plein air, to use the popular vernacular.  Whilst I accept that painting outdoors can be a useful exercise in that it encourages rapid, spontaneous work due to the ever changing light, en plein air painting only became fashionable in the mid nineteenth century because for the first time it became possible to do so easily.  This was due to three inventions; the paint tube, the foldaway easel and the train.  Suddenly a painter could hop on a train with his/her portable painting kit.

But painting in the studio has certain practical advantages.  It give artists the opportunity to impose their own deliberations on a scene, that is, changes to the composition, decisions on light, the time of day, and how they feel in that scene.

I photographed the scene below at Melbourne's Botanical Gardens in May 2016 and I've had a few friends insist I should paint it.  But for me, there is nothing I could do to enhance this scene as for me it has everything.

 

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This scene has a balanced composition, tranquility, a certain wistfulness, even mystery.  There is nothing in this scene I would want to alter in any way.

The painting below was completed in late 2017.  In the photograph I used as a reference, the sky is completely white.  This gave me the opportunity to play with various lighting effects and to decide on the time and type of day and how I felt looking across the meadow to the trees and beyond.

Beyond The Meadow 1.jpg

Recently, a gallery director told me he has far fewer sales when holding a photography show compared to a painting show.  It appears the average patron thinks he or she can achieve the same results with their smart phone.  My response would be to say "OK. lets see you do it".  People just don't understand that taking a successful picture involves more than 'point and shoot'.  It's a matter of education and I really don't know where you would start.

From Abstraction To Figuration - The Unusual Journey Of Fred Cress

Recently I found myself rummaging through some old art videos and found one featuring artist Fred Cress (1938-2009) that was screened on Channel 9's "Sunday" program.  (Yes, it's THAT old).

 Cress with his 1988 Archibald winning portrait of John Beard

Cress with his 1988 Archibald winning portrait of John Beard

Cress was born to English parents in India in the dying days of the British Raj, but was educated in England before sailing to Australia as a '10 pound pom' in 1962.  Within a few years he went from being booted out of a teaching job and having trouble finding a gallery that would hang his work to being one of the most successful abstract painters of his generation.

 Mother And Child    1965

Mother And Child    1965

Some years later, and to the dismay of his high profile backers, Cress turned his back on all this and began producing figurative work.  He went through a personal crisis (which ultimately cost him his marriage) during the 1970's and into the 1980's, which was partly brought on by a trip to New York in 1974.  There he met the leading lights of the abstract expressionist  movement including Clement Greenberg, Jules Olitski and Helen Frankenthaler and left disappointed with the experience.  He was expecting to encounter confidence, clarity and strength from them about their work, but instead they seemed fragile and super sensitive to criticism.

The conclusion he came to was that the problem lay with drawing – "the fact that these artists did not draw worried me. For me, drawing was important because that was where touch lay, where intimacy lay, where your total individuality lay – that was the way you could tell who was an artist and who was not.” 

 A Gentle Stroll    1994

A Gentle Stroll    1994

In the early 1980's he formed the view that Western art had lost an important element when it could not tell stories and art students were taught that telling stories was not in the best interests of painting or the artists themselves.

It was in 1988 that Cress abandoned abstraction once and for all and artistically "I became totally myself".  Cress says people who see his recent work are surprised at how peaceful he seems when they meet him.  "I live my anger in my paintings."  In many of his works people appear leashed up, or fighting against the odds and he says that's how he sees life.  There is disquiet, sexual banter, the nudge, the wink and human frailty.

 Poolside    2006    This is Cress's response to a recent scandal on a P & O cruise ship.

Poolside    2006    This is Cress's response to a recent scandal on a P & O cruise ship.

Cress likes to observe society as an outsider, even a voyeur and there is always some sinister enjoyment for the viewer who is enticed to participate in the scene.  On the Sunday program, the interviewer (Max Cullen) asks Cress "Why would anybody want to buy them?"  "That's a very good question, I have no idea" was the response.  But Cress went on to say that he made a decision after his abstract years that he would never paint anything that bored him and if he was to earn money it would be by making things according to his own dictates.

He enjoyed considerable success as a figurative artist before dying of prostate cancer in 2009.

Sources:  "Sunday", Channel 9  1995

                "Fred Cress: Figured It Out", Art Collector   2006