Category Archives: First Impressions

Thoughts on artworks on viewing them for the first time

First Impressions: Giovanni Giacometti (1868-1933), Autoportrait, 1899



In my latest ‘First Impressions’ post, I paid a visit to the Musée d’Art et d’Histoire, Geneva.  The First Impressions pieces are intended to be a faithful record of my thoughts on being confronted with an artwork.  They are written in situ in front of the piece, and without further research.  The longer you sit with an artwork the more you get out of them, and these pieces are in a sense exercises in ‘slow looking’, as well as close looking.  I would highly encourage you to pick a painting that appeals to you, and sit with it for an hour or so, and discover what you see.  Comment below if you do this too!

Situated in one of the smaller rooms on the second floor of the museum, this painting immediately caught my eye.  It has such an audacious composition.  He stares out at you in a way few paintings achieve, it is a truly piercing gaze.  He has chosen to situated himself within a bright winter landscape, the kind with fast moving clouds and a little warmth from the sun balancing the cold gusts of wing.  The composition is essentially that of a bust, almost superimposed over a landscape painting.  This gives the work a great sense of immediacy, and intimacy.  One can’t help but feel that the interaction which brought us so close to him, and with him bearing such an expression, would be a somewhat socially awkward one, but it gives the work an almost photographic sense of modernity.  This is a type more familiar to us from photojournalism than from paintings of late Nineteenth century Switzerland.

It’s hard not to compare self-portraits of red-heads with that other, most famous of ginger artists, and it is possible that Giacometti was familiar with the work of Van Gogh.  He certainly does seem to be familiar with new approaches to colour and brushwork that were being explored in Paris at the time.  Geneva was becoming more artistically significant during this period, with a burgeoning art scene, due in part to its close links with Paris.  For the majority of the painting, Giacometti’s choices of colour are fairly naturalistic.  It is in his brushwork that he is more daring, with dense networks of directional brushstrokes giving and undisciplined but effective impression of the craggy, jagged, and snow-covered mountains.  Whereas earlier artists would tend towards hiding their brushwork, smoothing brushstrokes away to focus on careful variations creating depth and volume (such as in the earlier works of leading Swiss artist Hodler), Giacometti chooses varied and visible brushstrokes, which are more evocative of being in 20180617_115942the landscape.  Nothing about the painting is idealised; this is a rough, challenging landscape which tests those who have to live within it. He uses a fairly typical post-Impressionist method in outlining the top of the mountain in long, continuous, and dark brushstrokes.  This adds to the feeling that one is being situated within the landscape; it mimics the silhouette effect achieved by the bright sun.  It is in its way a carefully studied landscape, with the scars of avalanches and snowdrifts creeping their way down through the pines.


While it is in some ways thus a highly ‘naturalistic’ work, creating an evocative impression of an experience of place, it would be unfortunate to miss the ways in which the artist has asserted himself within the landscape.  Obviously, he has done this quite blatantly in his choice of pose and composition, but we also see this in his choice of colours.  Various shades of green and pink dominate the lower half of the painting, seen in the trees and houses, for instance, and most prominently in the artist’s own face.  Here we see the modernity of his brushwork united with a modern approach to colour.  The use of contrasting green and pink, in very fine brushstrokes, works to bring a vividness to the face, befitting such a frank and confrontational pose.


I’m not generally one for trying to read too much into the expressions of painted individuals.  This is an area which is too much about reception, and where it is perhaps best to consider the death of artist and the birth of reader(/viewer).  However it is tempting to consider Giacometti’s look as one of almost revelation, it speaks of a sudden awareness of one’s place in the world, not in relation to any social standing, but rather a more Romantic awareness of place within the wider world.  Nothing in a painting is incidental, and from his face we are clearly drawn to the funeral procession behind him, moving inexorably towards the church nested down the valley amongst the trees.  Whether we read this as a reflection of his personal realisation is largely a matter of taste.  The inclusion can be seen to fit with the effect of the painting capturing the essence of life (and therefore death) in the landscape it depicts.  Despite compositionally being placed in front/on top of the landscape, he has positioned himself as part of it.  His dense felt hat comes low over his ears, keeping out Alpine gusts, and his thick woollen coat is buttoned all the way up.  Though he turns to face us, his shoulders are at an angle, and he steps out into the landscape.  The two black figures, stragglers from the funeral, create a sense of movement across the canvas; perhaps he will join them?  The painting fills one with a sense of bearing witness, and becoming part of a way of life, lived from start to finish, in tough conditions.  Thus, Giacometti has not just offered us an image of a place, or an idea of a place, but rather a complete, involved, and honest experience of what it is to exist in that place.  His questioning gaze invites us in, and we are led to contemplate this existence alongside him.  Thus a painting which could come across as egotistical, putting himself, the individual, front and centre in the most literal of senses, gains a degree of universality; rather than being a focus in its own right, the individual (artist/us) becomes part of a greater, human story.

You can read some of my thoughts on the genre of self-portraiture here.


First Impressions: Zhang Xioagang, Bloodlines: Big Family No. 1, 1996

As today is Chinese New Year, I thought I’d post a piece I’ve written about a piece of Chinese art.  I must confess that this is something of a cheat as a ‘First Impressions’ piece, as I haven’t actually seen this piece myself, but it was written in the same way as my usual pieces, and I think it’s a great piece, by an artist perhaps not so well known to UK audiences.  I’ve been lucky enough to take the course ‘Art in China since 1911’ as part of my undergraduate degree, which is fascinating, and covers so much art that was unfamiliar to me before, but am glad to have discovered.

You can see a picture of this work here… , complete with the record of it selling for what would now seem a ridiculously small price for such a work.

The work is dominated by three figures, that of a man, a woman, and a small baby boy.  The composition is cropped, we do not view all of the figures, we view the man and woman from chest height, with their shoulders cut off at either side, and the baby is viewed from about ankle height.  The baby seems to hover in the air in between and in front of the two other figures, who the title and convention might suggest are his parents.  The baby is differentiated from the other figures by the bright red hue given to his body, while his clothes maintain the monochromatic tones that are used for the other figures and the background.  This use of colour is suggestive of black and white photography, an association strengthened by the poses of the figures, facing the ‘camera’, or the viewer, looking directly out from the painting.  There is some blurring around the edges of the figures, particularly around the woman’s plaits, and in the background, which is just that in that it does not convey any particular sense of space, or a particular setting, acting instead as a generic background for the figures in front, perhaps suggesting the backdrop of a photographer’s studio, or a rendered or painted wall.  The cropping of the figures adds to this sense of them being in an indistinct space, as we do not see points where they would link with it (e.g. where their feet touch the ground).


The surface of the painting is interrupted by a series of red lines, which sit wire-like on the surface of the painting, joining over the baby and the figures behind it.  Thus a sense of flatness is created, the depth created by the over-layering of the figures is negated, and we again are given the sense of this being a photograph.  Their clothing is carefully detailed, with precise brushwork to denote crisp collars and neat lapels, while we are given some idea of the man’s profession or status by the pen tucked into his jacket pocket, suggesting that he is a ‘white collar’ worker, while glasses were accepted as a sign of the intellectual, or at least educated, individual.  The figures do not seem to acknowledge one another, except in the woman’s slight lean into the centre, and the slight turn of both figures’ outside eye in towards the centre.  Aside from the baby’s red hue, there are also patched of slightly brighter colour on the other figures, with patches of pinkish tones over their faces and neck, but again, the way in which the colours cut across them, covering the glasses, and her clothes, for instance, suggest that this is supposed to evoke the effect of a fading photograph.  However, its meaning could be multiple, and it could be present to suggest the humanity behind these monochromatic facades.  The eyes of all three figures are picked out in precise lines, contrasting with the blurring of their other features, and are painted in a darker, shinier shade of black, which gives them an unnervingly piercing quality, and which immediately draws the gaze of the viewer.  The baby’s slightly furrowed brows are the only hint of definite expression in the figures, the adults have expressions that are hard to read, deliberately open to interpretation.


The title, ‘Bloodlines’, could be a specific reference to the importance of one’s family connections during the Cultural Revolution, be they harmful or helpful, and can also link to the thin red lines across the canvas.  The Bloodlines series is usually large in scale, emphasising the striking and unnerving qualities of the figures.  The red chosen for the child could relate to a number of different ideas, the most obvious being the red of Communism, but red was also traditionally associated with good luck, which coupled with the child’s troubled expression, leads one to wonder the significance of the connection between these two associations.  The inclusion of a single child could bring to mind the one child policy in China, but I think it’s important to recognise the potential for a multiplicity of meaning.

First Impressions: Musee de L’Orangerie



I have recently returned from a solo trip to Paris, the main purpose of which was to see a great deal of art.  I succeeded in this, and I took quite a lot of notes as I was doing so.  Some of the museums I had never been to before, and so I’ve recorded them, as an extension of my usual ‘First Impressions’ pieces.  Here is the first of these entries, a ‘First Impression’ of the Musee de L’Orangerie, in the Jardin de Tuileries, in the centre of Paris.  Within this piece is of course a first impression of Monet’s paintings for which the museum is famous.

Entering the L’Orangerie feels like entering a temple.  The large, rectangular building (similarly proportioned to an Ionic Greek temple) is entered from the end, and you are drawn into a fairly wide, open space, as your ticket is checked.  From here one is drawn into spaces of decreasing size, until one is led into a curving passageway.  It all feels rather mysterious.  The walls are tall, thick, and white, and the curvature is such that you can’t see where you are going.  The passage then opens up into the wide, oval room which holds Monet’s Nympheas.  These are given priority in the museum, understandably (there are certainly the main tourist attraction within the museum).  Four doors separate the four paintings.  Alas few visitors paid attention to the request to ‘please visit in silence’m giving the room more the feeling of a medieval cathedral than a modern temple. Just as I wrote that the steward sat forward from her chair and shouted ‘shh!’, and then requested silence.  Alas, another request that went almost completely ignored.

Each of the four paintings is quite different.  Almost to the point where it is difficult to see them as a single work, as the curvature would suggest.  It does however, with the gentle curves leading you round the painting, have a similar feeling to a Chinese painted scroll – you feel that you are not supposed to view even one painting all at once, but rather to progress around it.  The paintings almost ask this of your, adding the movement of the viewer to the animation of the brushstrokes.

Bold though it may be to say this, it is almost harder to believe that this was all created by one man than it is the huge Renaissance fresco cycles, simply because it seems to beautifully woven together out of apparently disparate elements.  The brushstrokes are huge (probably made using the thick hogs hair brushes that were popular with the Impressionists).  Though as first glance you can see why it is popular to call Monet’s work of this period ‘almost abstract’, in fact I feel that the more you look the more order you see.  They are labelled Green Reflections, Morning, Clouds and Sunset, and it is clear which is which.  Despite the large brushstrokes and the sometimes unexpected colours, it is clear that he was still trying to capture the affects of light and weather, in the reflected surface of his garden pond.  It is thought that he built the pong at Giverny for this very purpose, and in the painting you can see his delight at the different effects he has been able to achieve.

On a side note, I can’t help but be dismayed at the short period of time most people stay in the room for.  In the time I have been wirting, three sets of people at least have come in, plonked themselves down on the bench, stared for a bit, and moved on.  While the museum, and France as a whiole, may treat Monet as a kind of cult figure, he is the figure for a cult which few people seem to feel great devotion to or interest in.  Those who do stay for longer seem to be delayed largely by the fact that they haven’t finished the track on their audio guides.

There is a strong sense of the tactility of the paint in these works.  Attention is drawn (whether this is deliberate or not is another matter) to the surface of the painting by the fact that the canvas is frequently visible, and that the brushstrokes are almost incomplete, you can feel the brush dragging the thick, sticky paint across the rough canvas.  While the paint is obviously applied in several layers, I think several layers must have been allowed to dry before the next one was applied – the surface has an almost chalk-like, plastered appearance in places.  In other places you can see little bits of paint that have flown off the brush as a different stroke was speedily applied.  The joins between the canvases that make up each painting are obvious: while some strokes carry over, some stop abruptly, suggesting that in the early stages they were separate, while in the latter they were not.  The brushstrokes really are massive, in places inched wides, and some have several colour within them.  They are a ticket of strokes which are confusing when viewed close, but from a distance (cliché coming up) coalesce into forms.  Not necessarily recognisable, solid forms, but rather forms evocative of certain conditions.  They remind us of things we’ve already seen as much as they suggest a sight in their own right.  It is truly astonishing that Monet was able to build such a dense array of strokes and colours into a ‘finished’ painting.  The vision he must have had must have been incredibly sure.  I suspect he also used very long brushed.

Jackson Pollock’s art is sometimes compared to Monet’s of this period (in fact, the Tate Modern has made a direct comparison in its hanging), but the key difference is really that Monet did not aim at abstraction.  They may both build up brushstrokes intricately, but there is no doubt that Monet aimed at recreating something he had seen in nature.  This is perhaps what makes this work so popular – it has a sense of modernity, vitality, and freshness, but it is still grounded in the recreation of natural forms, a universally popular theme in art, which gives it a comforting sense of familiarity.

What is almost more fascinating than how Monet handles light is the way he depicts areas of shade.  Clouds has dense areas of shadow at either side, particularly on the right, but neither is actually black – he follows the Impression (and ultimately Newtonian) principle of using coloured shadow, making this area a richly colour patch of dark purples and greens, resulting in a very realistic feel.

Walking along the painting, letting it unfold on one side of you, the variety and contrasts of colour in the brushstrokes gives a strong impression of light on water.  The movement of the viewer animates the brushstrokes, making it feel as if the water is responding to light and movement.  This is true of all four paintings.

I have looked forward to coming here for many years, and I can truly say that I was not disappointed: my admittedly high expectations were certainly met.

I now progress to the second room, the passage through to which is blocked stone, not plaster.  The Four Willows Room is larger, the paintings longer, but more uniform.  Again the impression is amazement that he was able to bring such uniformity to such vast canvases.  The trunks of the willows are interesting; like the shadows, they are not solid colours, but a building-up of purples, blues, oranges and greens.  If I were to pass judgements I might say that these paintings are prettier than Nympheas – there is a sense of calm given by the draping willows and the subtler variation of colours.  There is once again a sense of different times of day, progressing around the wall.  I should desperately like to be here on my own.  This room feels even more deserving of quiet than the last, and if anything even less receiving of it.  I am tempted to get up very early tomorrow and see if I can make it over before it gets busy [I did not, although I suspect such a museum as this is never quiet].  The paintings inspire an almost meditative state, in me at least.  It almost feels like there’s just too much of it for my brain to take in, so it’s lulled itself into a semi-conscious state as a coping mechanism.  Both rooms are lit from above by a great oval, screened skylight.  The steward in this room seems to have completely given up on asking for silence.  It is astonishing how thick the impasto is in some areas.  It looks like he’s laid a fern over the canvas and painted over it (technical terms here of course!), several times.

Visiting here has been an incredibly experience.  I have thoroughly enjoyed it, and have been greatly moved by the artworks.

The rest of the museum is well worth investigating, with a variety of works hanging in the basement of the museum.  Artists who particularly caught my eye included Chaim Soutine, Maurice Utrillo, and Derain.  The basement has a beautifully polished concrete wall.  There is a rather strange wall, a long wall with a light well above, with a single line of Impressionist paintings hung on the line, in intricate golden frames, opposite the modern polished concrete.  The juxtaposition made all the stranger by the fact that the paintings include the softer of the Impressionists, late Renoir paintings and such.  Interesting and unusual.  There is also a little room, Les Salle de Interieurs, which recreates a room from Paul Guillaume’s house.  He was an influential dealer and collector (he was Modigliani’s dealer, for instance), and on either side of the Salle there are little models of other rooms of his house, with the paintings he owned, all now incredibly familiar, set in their original places.  Quite an interesting little insight into the lives of the dealers of the avant gard art of the time.

On a final note, almost all museums and art galleries in Paris (including the Louvre) are free to EU residents under the age of 25, an offer I made great use of.  All that is required is that you show some ID to prove your nationality and age (as it is to hand, I use my passport).


I would highly recommend a trip to the Musee de L’Orangerie, it is one of the most interesting museums I have visited, and its modest size makes it a more relaxing experience than the Louvre, or even the Musee d’Orsay.  Well worth a visit for anyone, essential for the art historian.

First Impressions: Peter Blake: A Museum for Myself, 1982

Ostensibly blurring the line between Peter Blake’s art making and his obsessive collecting, the piece is a collage of artefacts of significance to the artist.  The composition is jigsaw like, the different elements have been placed together seemingly just because they fit neatly side by side one another.  There is little sense of an overall palette other than what one would expect of a collection of old photographs, posters, and other largely paper-based objects: black, white and off-cream recur throughout the piece.  A line of shards of pottery act as a frame along the top of the piece, but this could equally simply be the continuation of the desire to fill the space as completely as possible.  This space at the top is too small for most standard photograph shapes and sizes, and we should perhaps also consider that black and white photographs might be hard to see in this relatively dim space just below the frame.  The case itself is interesting: it looks quite worn, with various nicks and dents, wood painted black.  It is a case, not a frame, the glass cover and its depth highlights its unsuitability for a conventional painting.  It is interesting to wonder which came first: the case, or the objects.  If it were the case, the objects might lose some of their significance, simply chosen to fill a certain space.  Vice versa, their importance would be heightened, they were chosen for their significance to the artist, and their housing carefully chosen.  I can’t help but think the case may have come fist.  Largely arranged in horizontal bands, the objects seem to come from a wide variety of backgrounds, “Hallo” emblazoned on the box of a small water pistol, signed photographs of each of the Beatles, postcards of flowers, and an old five pound note only a small selection.  But the idea that each of these tells us something about the artist might be deceptive.  Certainly all of them did not naturally come into his collection, they are not necessarily artefacts from his own life.  Some (if not most) were bought in the condition in which they go into the piece.  Blake is an obsessive collector, visiting flea markets and second-hand shops seemingly wherever he goes.  So the idea that this tells the story of his life, or the people he has met, has to be seen in line with this knowledge.  It is an interesting exploration of how we see the artist’s involvement in the process of modern art-making.  Blake has chosen all these pieces, they must tell us something about his character, as he saw some merit and interest in them.  So it becomes a question of whether we see the art-making process as the act of an artist imbuing a creation with his thoughts, feelings, collected life experience and experiences, or from a point of view whereby the artist’s choices are based on a desire to stimulate the viewer’s interest, and to offer them a view of a world different to their own (whether or not it is that of the artist becoming irrelevant).  Blake could be said in this piece to offer the view many different worlds, periods and sub-cultures.  Perhaps it is telling that included among the objects is a Marcel Duchamp autograph, with Peter Blake’s name next to it (the only form of signature on the piece).  Perhaps Blake finds ready-mades which come to tell us something about his interests at that time in his life.  He creates a postcard to himself form his own past, using the postcards of others, from the past.  I will not claim he has created a piece I find aesthetically pleasing, but the explorations of the meanings in modern art does make for a thought provoking piece, with more to offer than it might first seem.  He (deliberately or not) brings us to question what we think an artist should offer the viewer in today’s society, and whether they should continue the Romantic tradition of artists as giving their audience a view of the world through their own eyes and wisdom, or if it is simply enough for them to present us a view of the world, and leave us to draw our own conclusions.  I for one can still not quite decide which Peter Blake would seem to fit himself into.

First Impressions: Gainsborough – William Wollaston

The first in a series of pieces I will be writing, of my first impressions in viewing a piece of art, be it painting, sculpture, or installation.  Thus these pieces will not necessarily be informed by any particular knowledge of the artist, but aim instead to give an interesting summary of the piece, with any particular element that catches my eye.  The first painting I am looking at is Thomas Gainsborough’s portrait of William Wollaston, c.1759.

The highly varnished finish makes it quite difficult to make out individual brushstrokes on the piece.  Where visible the delicacy of brushstroke seems to relate to the supposed importance of what it depicts.  So the trees are executed with thick, rougher brushstrokes, which through the application of varnish is brought to the same texture as the more intricate strokes used to depict the man himself.  This also helps to get across a sense of realism in relation to the trees, they are full and have a sense of depth, without needing to attempt the time consuming task of painting individual leaves.  The same could be said of the greenery in the bottom left corner.  When compared to those clumps of grass in earlier Dutch paintings (thinking specifically of Durer’s studies) it is easy to see that Gainsborough is not aiming for high realism, but simply to set the scene.  The pleasing silver hue of the tree in the background helps the viewer to understand the fall of light in the painting.  There is also perhaps a sense of symbolism in the setting, with the broken tree in the top right, and the slightly worn fence post perhaps chosen to highlight the age of the man’s wealth, and give him a sense of being well established, settled in.

The care taken over depicting Wollatson’s attire suggests that it is fashionable and the fact that he has chosen to wear it at all suggests that it tells us something about his character.  The tricorn hat, with visible eblem, implies a military authority, but the casual way in which he holds it suggests that he is at ease with his poistion, and emphasises the relaxation provided by his home setting.  His clothes are made from fine fabrics, their silky sheen is well executed, but they are essentially quite simple, giving him a charming ease and self-assured air.  The presence of his dog reinforces this casual authority, the dog’s tongue lolls happily, and he looks up adoringly at his master.  Wollaston’s mastership of the house behind him is suggested by the fact that it lie between his arm and his coat, as if it were under his protection.  A clever trick is used to depict the house itself.  We can see that it is quite a grand, probably modern house (showing that he keeps up with architectural trends, thus revealing his education), but by having it obscured by the foliage, Gainsborough has made it difficult to make out the full size of the house – it could recede far back behind the sitter, or it could be only a little larger.  So once again we are left to imagine Wollaston’s great wealth.  This wealth and high social standing are again hinted at by the river or lake we can see behind him, connoting the fertility of his land, at a time in history when agriculture was still an important means for the aristocracy to maintain their wealth.

The man himself is depicted with a slight stubble: he is thus not hugely concerned with his personal appearance, this gives him an appealing humanity.  His hand is in his pocket, and he leans on his fence with his feet crossed.  He does not look at the viewer, he instead twists his body and looks off the right of the painting.  This use of contrapposto suggests education, and a knowledge of the classical Greek and Roman arts which were so influential at the time.  The sky behind him is turbulent, which provides what seems a typical backdrop for his head (none of the portraits it is hung alongside (all of the same period) have their sitters against a clear blue sky), although patches of blue are visible to the left of the painting.  Perhaps this sky is indicative of a level of drama and grandeur in the sitter’s life.  The trees form a pyramidal composition into which Wollaston fits, accentuating both his height and authority.  The piece is over life size, so he is greater in this respect than the viewer.  We also view him from below his eye level, looking up at him, which creates a sense of reverence, we look up to him literally and metaphorically.  Finally Gainsborough’s use of light emphasises his nobility, as it hits him directly from the left, highlighting the thoughtful expression on his face, and giving a majestic quality.

Overall Gainsborough has created a charming portrait, resulting in a sense of intrigue in William Wollaston himself, and putting across a sense of power and wealth, coupled with a casual and natural authority.

Research into William Wollaston may follow- we shall see if he lives up to Gainsborough’s flattering portrayal.