Art History

Minor Sculpture - Major Impact by Geoff Harrison

“She looks like a monkey, an aborted foetus.  If she were smaller one would be tempted to pickle her in a jar with alcohol.”  This is a sample of the vitriol that was hurled at Edgar Degas’ sculpture called “The Little Dancer, Aged 14” that was included in the French Impressionist Exhibition of 1881.

By this time, Degas’ reputation as a fine painter was well established.  His depictions of ballet dancers were revolutionary in style and composition.  After studying the works of the old masters Degas declared he wanted to be the portrayer of modern life.  That is exactly what he had in mind with “The Little Dancer”.

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When one considers his background – wealthy, rather buttoned up, even lonely, it’s remarkable that he should produce a sculpture such as this.

So why the hostility?  Sculpture at that time was meant to be an uplifting art form, with figures cast in marble or bronze.  And yet here we have a figure cast in wax, about 2/3 life size with real hair and wearing a real tutu, and displayed in a glass cabinet which made her look like a scientific specimen.  Then there was that pouting expression on her face, it seemed to challenge every assumption the audience made about art; ie, she was not seeking to be admired.

Her facial features were thought to be based on “studies” being carried out by anthropologists into where humans stood on the evolutionary scale.  People with low, sloping foreheads and jutting jaws were regarded as being more primitive, like monkeys.  The model for The Little Dancer came from a poor family and Degas was known to be a misogynist.  He never married and had no children.

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More importantly, this sculpture reminded Parisians of something they didn’t want to know - the goings on behind the scenes at the Paris Opera which contained the ballet school.  Certain rooms were set aside at the rear of the school that were frequented by wealthy male patrons and the young ballet students for extra-curricular activities.  Some of Degas’ ballet paintings are haunted by men in top hats – the wealthy season ticket holders.  Art and prostitution side by side.

It’s curious that The Little Dancer has been immortalised by dance students around the world when one considers what happened to Marie Van Goethem, the model for Degas’ sculpture.  The Van Goethems were among the poorest families in Paris, the mother took in laundry and the father was a tailor.  She was the middle of 3 daughters, all of whom attended the ballet school. 

Her older sister Antoinette fell into prostitution (aided by her mother) and was arrested and jailed for robbery, and about a year after Degas completed The Little Dancer, Marie’s life also began to unravel.  Rumours that she was seen in a bar frequented by artists, dancers and prostitutes were circulating and she began to miss her classes.  In 1882 she was sacked. 

What became of her after then, no one knows but it’s thought she ended up on the streets.

The younger sister Charlotte was a success story and was involved in the Paris Opera for 50 years, becoming a teacher.

Richard Estes & Canaletto - Birds Of A Feather? by Geoff Harrison

"Unfortunately it has been too easy for anybody to take a photograph, trace it, and make a lousy painting. Photorealism, in that sense, has been bastardized. I can sympathize with a lot of people who just reject it outright, because, like anything else, there is so much bad stuff around. I always thought of myself as a Realist painter."  RICHARD ESTES

That may be the case, but it's what Estes does with reality that fascinates me, and puts me in mind of the famous Venician artist of the Eighteenth Century, Canaletto.

On The Staten Island Ferry  (1989)               Richard Estes                         Oil On Canvas

On The Staten Island Ferry  (1989)               Richard Estes                         Oil On Canvas

Estes, along with other photorealist artists, decided to turn their backs on the gestural style of the abstract expressionist movement which was so prominent in late 60's America, and aim for a kind of hyper realism which was more descriptive of a high tech post war age.

Piazza San Marco With The Basilica    (1730)    Canaletto                  Oil On Canvas

Piazza San Marco With The Basilica    (1730)    Canaletto                  Oil On Canvas

Early on in his career, Canaletto abandoned the dark and brooding tonality of his work and produced paintings of a much higher pitch, mainly because he found a new market for his work in Venice - the English tourist.  Canaletto was famous for his use of the camera obscura which he used to produce multiple images of a scene from different vantage points.  Then he jumbled them up to come up with a scene that, in reality, didn't exist.  It was the eighteenth century's prelude to the photo montage and thus he created scenes that were far more idyllic than in reality.

Madison Square  (1994)                     Richard Estes                    Oil On Canvas

Madison Square  (1994)                     Richard Estes                    Oil On Canvas

When viewers have tried to match Estes' paintings with actual scenes around New York and elsewhere, they have found inconsistencies.  He works from multiple photos of a scene, even bisecting them, shifting elements around,  to come up with a composition that plays with perspective which can be a little disorienting.  "By creating his photorealistic montages that seem convincingly whole, Estes produces works in which there are multiple focal points. He confounds the concept of the mathematical or one-point perspective, the Renaissance invention that provided drawn and painted images with the illusion of depth. Instead, viewing a typical Estes painting feels like one is constantly changing vantage points".  THE ART STORY

London, Whitehall & the Privy Garden   (1747)             Canaletto           Oil On Canvas

London, Whitehall & the Privy Garden   (1747)             Canaletto           Oil On Canvas

When the English tourist market dried up, Canaletto decided to travel to England and produced some remarkable scenes such as the one above which was painted from Richmond House (no longer extant).

Estes paintings reinvigorated the importance of craft in painting and even though his work is hyper-realistic, they are still in some way "painterly".  His work goes beyond photography.

Getting The Message Across by Geoff Harrison

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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A True Poet Of Nature by Geoff Harrison

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"

To The Tortured Artist.....Get Over It by Geoff Harrison

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.

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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.

From Abstraction To Figuration - The Unusual Journey Of Fred Cress by Geoff Harrison

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
 

Landscapes and Mindscapes by Geoff Harrison

I have been a great admirer of many 19th Century landscape artists such at the German born Hermann Herzog (1832-1932) who moved to the US in the late 1860's.  This is his "The Old Water Mill", oil on canvas, 140 x 104 cm.

The Old Water Mill - Herzog.jpg

As a painter of moods, Herzog would appear to be amongst the best.  But I'm wondering if he is achieving little more than recording what's there.  Sure, it's likely this work was completed in the studio where he could impose his own deliberations, but there is a question as to how much the artist is revelling of himself in this work.

The Sky's Beginning To Bruise                             Oil On Canvas                                 109 cm x 129 cm

The Sky's Beginning To Bruise                             Oil On Canvas                                 109 cm x 129 cm

I completed the above painting in 2014, and it's based very loosely on a photo I saw in an encyclopaedia in the 1980's.  The instant I saw that image, it registered with me and I thought "I know this place", or the emotion it evoked.  It was is if I'd been there, even though it's a scene of the Norwegian tundra - a country I've never visited.

Luckily I still had access to that encyclopaedia when I decided to explore the possibilities of that scene a few years ago.  Yes, it's almost appallingly lonely, yet not entirely melancholy as it's a place where you can lose yourself in the enormity of the world we live in.  A place to absorb nature in its purist form - a place to chill out (both literally and metaphorically). 

Alnwick Castle by Geoff Harrison

Alnwick Castle, Northumberland              Watercolour           JMW Turner

Alnwick Castle, Northumberland              Watercolour           JMW Turner

I've tended to shy away from watercolour painting as I believe watercolours lack the illusionistic qualities of oils.  But this work by Turner which I saw some years ago at the Art Gallery of South Australia has me reconsidering.  It is my favourite Turner watercolour, far more convincing to me than his Venice watercolours, due to its dark, mysterious, ethereal qualities.

Painted around 1829, it was part of a large series of watercolours produced by Turner for Charles Heath's "Picturesque Views In England & Wales" which comprised 96 engravings after the artist's work.  The engravings were poorly received by the public, resulting in Heath's bankruptcy.