Painting

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"

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
 

The Irritatingly Versatile Jacob Van Ruisdael by Geoff Harrison

I've always been an admirer of the gloomily beautiful works of Jacob Van Ruisdael (Dutch 17th century).  The sun rarely shines in Van Ruisdael's scenes, yet there is light, airiness and stillness.

The Watermill (ca. 1660)                        Oil On Canvas                                        NGV Melbourne

The Watermill (ca. 1660)                        Oil On Canvas                                        NGV Melbourne

He was also a highly talented draftsman, as the drawing below testifies.

The Watermill, Sun

The Watermill, Sun

He also tried his hand at etching very early in his career (around 1646) and some of his prints contain almost dazzling intricacy.  

The Little Bridge(ca 1652)

The Little Bridge(ca 1652)

Would Van Ruisdael have been such a fine landscape painter without possessing excellent drawing skills?  I doubt it.

Adolph Von Menzel by Geoff Harrison

Was there ever a greater painter of crowds than Adolph Menzel (1815 - 1905)?  This is his "Iron Rolling Mill" of 1875.

The painting is thought to be a triptych, with a girl supplying bread to the workers on the right, the middle section shows the men toiling with the molten metal while on the left we see the them washing up at the end of their shift.  I love the strong diagonal in the composition created by the fire, the huge flywheel and the far recesses of the factory.

But is Menzel the dispassionate observer or critical commentator of the back-breaking nature of modern industrial work?  For some reason, this painting comes to mind whenever I visit a large department store such as Target or Kmart and see electrical goods and clothing sold at ridiculously low prices - the products of present day sweat-shop labour.

From Railway Clerk To Painter Of Twilight by Geoff Harrison

Like many people, I have this misconception that there were no British painters of any significance between Turner and Francis Bacon.  There was to name but one, John Atkinson Grimshaw (1836-1893) who was featured in an exhibition in London in 2011.  An article in The Guardian accompanying the show paints a picture of an artist dogged by the pressure to produce work rapidly in order to pay the bills, keep the family together and in lieu of rent for his various residences.

Liverpool Quay By Moonlight  1887

Liverpool Quay By Moonlight  1887

His parents actively discouraged his artistic urges by refusing heating in his studio and throwing away his paints.  Proficient in both oils and watercolours, Grimshaw painted thinly (to save money) and used quick drying varnishes.

Heath Street, Hampstead

Heath Street, Hampstead

Grimshaw emerged from the shadows after a 1979 exhibition of his work at Leeds and he is now one of the most sought after artists of the period  "Another trademark subject, rain-washed streets in views of northern cities and central London, had the bonus of needing a smaller palette. It was shrewd move because a wet road reflects the sky so the same basic colouring can be used."

Boar Lane, Leeds  1881

Boar Lane, Leeds  1881

Grimshaw had 16 children, 10 of whom died prematurely while 4 became painters (see below). Greatly admired by Whistler, Grimshaw died of tuberculosis and left no journals, papers or letters thus leaving art historians little material to work with.

Grainger Street, Newcastle  1902                                                                            Louis Grimshaw

Grainger Street, Newcastle  1902                                                                            Louis Grimshaw

Edward Burra by Geoff Harrison

In an age where artists are constantly being reminded that they must come out from behind the canvas, the plinth, the camera or whatever and put themselves forward if they want to succeed, it's worth reflecting on the career of Edward Burra (English 1905-1976).

Striptease (1934)

Striptease (1934)

Stricken with painful arthritis from childhood, Burra mostly painted in watercolours as he felt this would put less strain on his hands.  He was fascinated by the seedy side of life in London and Paris - as an observer, not a participant.  After each trip abroad, he would return to his parents house to recuperate. 

Snack Bar (circa 1930)

Snack Bar (circa 1930)

Despite his debilitating illness, he did have 3 things going for him; his parents were wealthy (he never had to work), he was a fine draughtsman, and he had a patron.  His attitude to publicity can be summed up very simply; "I never tell anyone anything".  He hated being interviewed.

This was Burra's response to the Spanish Civil War which he witnessed first hand in 1936.

This was Burra's response to the Spanish Civil War which he witnessed first hand in 1936.

The Lost Forests Of Gippsland by Geoff Harrison

Apparently much of Gippsland once looked like this scene, painted by Isaac Whitehead circa 1870.  The title of this oil is "A Sassafras Gully, Gippsland", and in Whitehead's time large areas of Gippsland were heavily timbered including massive mountain ash rivalling the redwoods of California.  But lumbering was well underway, hence the bullock train hauling split timber depicted in the lower left.  Photographer Nicholas Caire became popular in the late 19th century with his Gippsland views.  He warned that Gippsland's big trees were in danger of becoming things of the past if harvesting continued unabated.

I have an issue with the scale of this work.  To me the ferns seem far too large in relationship to the mountain ash and the bullock train.

Travel And Thought by Geoff Harrison

One of my favourite authors writing about one of my favourite artists, I couldn't resist this.  "Journeys are the midwifes of thought", argues Alain De Botton.  Introspections which are liable to stall are helped along by the flow of the landscape.   

Edward Hopper, "Compartment C, Car 293".

Edward Hopper, "Compartment C, Car 293".

Thinking improves when parts of the mind are given other tasks such as listening to music or following a line of trees.  The changing landscape distracts for a time that nervous, censorious, practical part of the mind which is inclined to shut down when it notices something difficult emerging in consciousness and which runs scared of memories, longings etc. and focuses on the impersonal and administrative.

You only have to think of what happens when you've forgotten the pin number at an ATM.  You take yourself off on a walk, viewing shop fronts or whatever it takes to distract the practical mind.  And sure enough, the pin number is remembered.

According to De Botton, Edward Hopper enjoyed train travel, the dreaminess fostered by the noise and the view from the window, a dreaminess in which we seem to stand outside our normal selves and have access to thoughts and memories that may not arise in more settled circumstances.