Tag Archives: 19th Century Art

#Selfie – Van Gogh, Self-Portrait with Bandaged Ear, 1889

Vincent Van Gogh Self-Portrait with Bandaged Ear

In this new series I’m going to be taking a short sharp look at some of art history’s most famous selfies.  In the age of social media and the proliferation of digital cameras, it is easy for people to be scathing about the purpose and intent behind so-called ‘selfies’.  The shortening of ‘self-portrait’ is supposed to hint at a lightening of content.  Those who take selfies are deemed narcissistic, self-interested, and fake.  But are these images really being used that differently to how their art historical precedents were?  As I’ve explored before on this blog, there are numerous reasons why artists might choose themselves as subjects.  But undoubtedly one reason is the projection of self; they wanted to say something about themselves, regardless of whether or not it was true, to their audience.  This is not so different to our contemporary love of the front-facing camera (although there is clearly a disparity of skill).  So here I’ll be exploring what artists might have been trying to say, both in some very famous examples, and in some lesser-known ones.  To kick-off the series, let’s look at one of the most famous self-portraits, Van Gogh’s 1889 painting, Self-Portrait with Bandaged Ear’.

While there has been some speculation as to the authenticity of this work, it is generally accepted to have been painted by Van Gogh shortly after his return from hospital, which he was taken to having severed an artery in his neck, and chopped off part of his ear (and here I am glad of a modern divergence from precedent).  We could talk for hours, and produce hundreds of thousands of words of speculation as to Van Gogh’s particular illness, and motivations for these actions.  He was clearly not a healthy man, but it is interesting to look beyond just this one aspect of the portrait.  He painted himself many times, and this is not the only portrait to feature the bandage.  Might one see this painting as a return to ‘business as usual’?

There are certainly many other aspects of the painting which seek to tell us something about Van Gogh as an artist, as well as a man.  This event occurred during a particularly fractious period in his life, when he was in Arles trying to establish an artistic community with that ever-controversial figure, Paul Gauguin.  It is easy to paint Gauguin as something of a villain (not just on this occasion, but throughout his life), and it is perhaps not always deserved, but it is safe to say that he and Van Gogh were of rather different and not necessarily compatible temperaments.  So, this was clearly a time when Van Gogh was more than usually concerned about this artistic identity.  His identity as a human, and his identity as an artist, here, as so often in his work, becomes intertwined.

In some ways the painting is quite a traditional one.  His pose is typical of portraits, the bust, three-quarter view passed down through centuries of portraiture.  It is also utterly traditional for artists’ self-portraits to feature an easel, or some other symbol of their profession.  Most usually they are shown in the process of painting.  This allows them to further demonstrate their skills, by painting some sort of miniature artwork within the artwork.  Van Gogh however has his back turned to the easel.  We don’t really get much from his canvas on the easel.  It is almost just a freshly prepared canvas, ready to be used to create a new piece.  What we do see prominently, perhaps in place of a work of his own, is the Japanese print.  Though his style is so different to these works, Van Gogh, like the Impressionists before him, was highly influenced by Japanese perspectives, compositions, and even subject matter, and his paintings owe much to these works.  The one we see here is a slightly altered copy of a print by Sato Torakiyo, which Van Gogh had pinned to his studio wall.

The brushwork is very much Van Gogh’s own.  At the time no-one else was working quite like this.  It demonstrates how different he was to Gauguin.  Though they share an interest in the use of non-naturalistic colours, where Van Gogh uses large, directional brushstrokes to depict what he was seeing, Gauguin uses large, smooth swathes of colour.  Their brushwork is not the only way they differ.  It was perhaps inevitable that the two would fail in their artistic friendship, as their aims were so different.  Van Gogh is close to the Impressionists in his interest in depicting nature, even if he goes about it in a more extreme fashion.  Gauguin, by contrast, is more akin to the Symbolists, who were interested in allegory, Symbolism, and meaning, and less concerned with nature and representation.  They sought a different purpose, and so it is predictable that their results would differ.

But for all the pain he suffered as a result of their project, Van Gogh presents himself here as confidently and clearly accepting of his style and influences.  He is not cowed into agreeing with Gauguin’s opinions.  So, while it is tempting to view his work entirely in relation to his emotional state, and instability, and there are of course obvious clues to this (the bandage, the overcoat, the hat), it would be a shame if the undeniably intriguing details of his personal life caused us to overlook the elements of his portrait which are more purely about his artistic endeavours.  We owe it to him to not be bogged-down in speculation, but to pay as much attention to his artistic as we do to his emotional state.

I hope you enjoyed reading the first in this series.  If you’d like me to look at a particular artist’s ‘selfie’ in a future post, let me know in the comments below, or head over to my Patreon!

 

If you like what I’m doing here on Personal Interpretations and would like to help me do more of it, you can drop me a tip over at my Patreon.

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

20180617_123031

 

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.

20180617_115934

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.

20180617_115927

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.

 

Highlights of the National Gallery – Part One

It’s always immensely difficult to choose ‘favourite’ paintings (and one is often asked to do so when people discover you’re an art historian!), but it can’t be denied that there are some works that keep drawing you back.  One of my favourite galleries, not least because of the sheer variety of the collections, is the National Gallery, London.  So I’ve decided to do the unthinkable and attempt to select some of my ‘favourite’ works of art from its hallowed halls.  It can be quite overwhelming being faced by such a large and spectacular collection of art, so it’s sometimes nice to pick just one or two works, and devote your full attention to them.  In this spirit, read on for some of my personal recommendations for those most worthy of your attention.

Vincent van Gogh, Two Crabs, 1889

One of Van Goh’s most famous works, Sunflowers hangs in the National Gallery, but it also houses a number of less well-known, but nonetheless fascinating works by the Dutch artist.  Two Crabs one of these.  The work was painted shortly after van Gogh’s release from hospital in Arles, in January  1889.  It is probably one of the still lifes he told his brother Theo he was planning to paint to ‘get used to painting again’.  The thick brushwork creates a sense of realism we are perhaps unused to in his work, with carefully modelling really putting across the shape and texture of, for instance, the crab’s claws.  The use of tick, short brushstrokes on the legs again emphasises a sense of texture, and brings an almost animated feel to the image.  This is enhanced by the liveliness of the background, with the flatter, wider strokes lending turbulence, and recalling the rocky shallows of the crab’s marine home.  The current title is slightly confusing, as this is probably in fact a single crab, viewed from different angles.  Van Gogh keys into a long artistic tradition of artists practicing by drawing a single object from multiple viewpoints, to examine how surfaces and shapes respond to light, and how to represent this.  His choice of subject was likely inspired by a Hokusai woodcut, ‘Crabs’, which was reproduced in a magazine, ‘Le Japon Artistique’ which Theo had sent Van Gogh while he was in hospital.  It is quite a touching image in a way, as Van Gogh takes a traditionally quite clinical form and brings to it his usual sense of humanity and empathy, all in an attempt to reconnect with his own artistic skill and expression.

As this image is on loan to the National Gallery from a private collection, I have been unable to reproduce an image, but you can see one on the National Gallery’s website here.

Titian, Bacchus and Ariadne, 1520-23

N-0035-00-000141-wpu

Titian, active about 1506; died 1576 Bacchus and Ariadne 1520-3 Oil on canvas, 176.5 x 191 cm Bought, 1826 NG35 https://www.nationalgallery.org.uk/paintings/NG35

And now for something completely different…Titian brings an exuberance to this image of Greek mythology.  Ariadne, abandoned on an island by her ex-lover Theseus, is discovered by the god of wine, Bacchus, who immediately falls in love with her.  Bacchus has a somewhat jovial and jolly image in the pop-culture of the present day, but in Greek and Roman mythology he and his followers (the maenads and the satyrs) were associated with at times violent frenzies.  It is this aspect that Titian has chosen to emphasise, bringing a sense of drama to the image.  The followers are depicted as wild, with one holding a disembodied (and crucially un-butchered) calf’s leg, while the calf’s leg is dragged along at their feet.  It is thus understandable that Ariadne is turning tail to flee.  Theseus’ ship is visible on the horizon to her left, showing how hopeless her situation is.  Titian hides most of her fame from us, creating an image of a terrified young woman in fear for her life.  The painting really appeals to the senses, with the maenad’s clashing cymbals, and the stampede of frenzied figures, treading on the carefully realistic flowers.  This madness and business is contrasted compositionally with the stillness and grace of its opposing corner of the image, with its calm blue skies.  Bacchus acts as a link between these two elements, and the hyperactivity of his followers is juxtaposed by his single-minded gaze, which meets Ariadne’s.  His pose offers a dance-like retort to that of Ariadne, creating a harmonious visual link between them as he leaps energetically from his chariot.  Though it is hard to imagine quite what wind would result in the tight and intricate folds of his garments, it cannot be denied that they give an impression of the speed and suddenness of his movement.  The coy little satyr looks out at the viewer, pulling the calf’s head behind him on a rope, the flowers in his hair and his otherwise cherubic face perfectly putting across the intimidating unpredictability of a bacchant in full swing.  The snarling dog, looking up at him and backing away, perhaps reflects the viewer’s response to this unsettling display.  However, for all the darkness of his depiction, Titian gives us a hint at the story’s happy ending: Bacchus raised Ariadne to the heavens, making her into a constellation.  An alternative version (and perhaps one in which she gets a slightly better deal) is that on marrying her, Bacchus turns her wedding crown into the constellation.  The scale of the painting further emphasises the emotional weight of the image, and the viewer’s reaction to it.

Georges Seurat, Bathers at Asnieres, 1884

N-3908-00-000103-wpu

Georges Seurat, 1859 – 1891 Bathers at Asnières 1884 Oil on canvas, 201 x 300 cm Bought, Courtauld Fund, 1924 NG3908 https://www.nationalgallery.org.uk/paintings/NG3908

This painting was one of the first that I ‘officially’ studied, as part of my A-level in Art History, and it seems that I have been studying it ever since but I still find so much of interest in it, and can’t say I’ve ever got bored of it.  I intend to write a longer post about this, so watch this space, but I couldn’t not mention it as one of my favourite works in the National Gallery.  Begun before he has developed his famous Pointillist technique, it does represent his engagement with what he called ‘chromoluminarism’ (also called Divisionism), the use of contrasting colours in an attempt to create optical mixing, the mixing of colours in the eye.  He hoped to mimic Nature, and to bring a brightness and vivacity to his works.  Thought it is debatable how effective this is, and how much he truly engaged with scientific theory, it represents a radical move and a desire to improve upon the Impressionist’s depiction of light.  But the painting is not merely interesting on a technical level, it also gives us an insight into Seurat’s political, specifically Socialist, leanings.  Asnieres was an industrial district, and Seurat depicts the factories in the distance, and their workers in the foreground.  It was a time of labour reforms that enabled factory workers to have time to engage in leisure in a new way, and have a greater degree of freedom.  The boating, bathing, and relaxing that was once the preserve of the middle classes (and was still undertaken by them in more fashionable areas along the River Seine), but was now opening up to the Parisian majority.  While some met these changes with distrust, Seurat and his friends welcomed them, and saw it as an important step towards a more egalitarian future.  He celebrates this by raising the workers to a level, and a physical scale more commonly associated with the grand subjects of history paintings, the highest genre in the official scale endorsed by the academy.  He thus combines his scientific experimentation with his interest in the politics of his time, and presents his own political optimism and hopes for the future.

Also of interest in the National Gallery are the preparatory drawings he produced for the painting, hung alongside it, which give a real sense of how it developed, and how he experimented with both the composition, and how to represent the light in the scene.

N-6555-00-000012-wpu

Georges Seurat, 1859 – 1891 The Rainbow: Study for ‘Bathers at Asnières’ 1883 Oil on wood, 15.5 x 24.5 cm Presented by Heinz Berggruen, 1995 NG6555 https://www.nationalgallery.org.uk/paintings/NG6555

Three is clearly far too few to choose from such an extensive collection, so this will be part one of a series.  I would be fascinated to hear if you have any favourites in the National Gallery (or anywhere else for that matter!) which you just can’t stop yourself from going back to.