Tag Archives: French Artists

Last Chance to see (for two years) – The Courtauld Gallery

To my absolute horror I have recently discovered that the Courtauld Gallery will be closing on 3 September for two years.  This redevelopment programme will allow for widely expanded gallery, research, and conservation facilities, and should be welcomed.  However it is always galling to be deprived access to something one has become accustomed to.  With less than a month left to visit, I’ve compiled some of my favourite pieces, worth seeing while you still can.

Edouard Manet, A Bar at the Folies-Bergère, 1832-33

bar at the folies-bergere

It would be impossible not to include this on any list of works at the Courtauld.  It is one of the most enigmatic paintings of its time, and has provoked endless debate, which Manet seems to almost have cheekily invited with his inaccurate mirrors and intriguing figures.  I will doubtless at some point add to the reams of writing on this, but I would suggest that, before you read too much about it, you sit down with it for a while, and see what strikes you.

Pierre Auguste Renoir, La Loge, 1874

Renoir La Loge

Sticking in the same period, another highlight is Renoir’s La Loge.  I have actually written about this work twice already on the blog (here and here), so it is a firm favourite.  Whether you see it as cynical or sincere social commentary, the combination of modern brushwork and composition, with the careful capturing of character, makes it an easy work to get lost in.

Paul Gauguin, Portrait of Mette Gauguin, 1877

Gauguin Portait of Mette Gauguin

Gauguin is an artist I find it particularly difficult to write about.  His supposed interest in underage girls, the ‘noble savage’ ideas his works often seem to exploit, and his general self-aggrandisement make it easy to paint him as a villain, and lose something of the complexity of his character, and works.  I like this sculpture, which depicts his wife Mette, because it so radically subverts our expectations of him as both artist and character.  This is one of only two marble works we know by Gauguin (the other depicts his son), and it is so carefully and delicately executed that it is hard to believe that it is by the artist who would alter revel in the simplicity of his style.  Famed for abandoning his family and heading far away to French Polynesia, the work hints at the ambiguity behind this story, and adds a note of complexity.  All-in-all it is quite unexpected, and worth a stop on your way through the galleries.

Francisco de Goya, Portrait of Don Francisco de Saavedra, 1798

Goya Portrait of Don Francisco de Saavedra

Sticking with the theme of seeing familiar artists in a slightly different light, this portrait by Goya is the sort of work with which he earnt his living, but it hardly what he is remembered for today.  From his famous painting the Third of May 1808 (my blog post on which remains ones of my most frequently read pieces) to dramatic works like Saturn devouring his Children, it is difficult to imagine that Goya once devoted his time to such an apparently tranquil subject as this.  The style of the portrait reflects Goya’s in interest in the English portrait painters, such as Gainsborough, and Saavedra’s general interest in England and its fashions.  Hard though it is so believe at times now, England was a world-leader in fashion and taste in this period, influencing architecture, landscape design, and modes of dress.  Saavedra was Minister of Finance at the time of sitting for this, and Goya has captured something of his active mind, as he thumbs through his papers, perched on the edge of his chair, and turns a piercing gaze to offer some command or thought.  It is not without that slight sense of unease Goya brings to his works though.  This was one of the most respected men in Spain, but there is just a hint, perhaps in the dark background and the contrast of bright light and shadows, that suggests that all is not quite as it seems.  As ever, Goya makes us think, and presents a surprisingly enigmatic image of this charismatic man.

Lucas Cranach the Elder, Adam and Eve, 1526

Lucas Cranach the Elder Adam and Eve

It is easy to get lost in the moderns and relatively-moderns at the Courtauld, as so many of them are so great.  But one mustn’t forget that they have splendid collections of earlier art.  Adam and Eve is perhaps one of the more memorable of these.  The composition is inspired by Durer’s print, but otherwise Cranach has made it quite his own.  With that mixture of symbolism and naturalism so typical of Northern artists, he brings to life the damning moment when Eve offers Adam the fruit from the Tree of Knowledge.  Flanked by predator and prey depicted with scientific detail of observation, harmoniously co-existing in the Garden of Eden, Cranach’s Eve looks as if she knows what she’s doing, as she places the fruit in Adam’s hand.  He looks confused, scratching his head and looking at her face rather than the fateful foodstuff.  Cranach emphasises this moment, that of the Original Sin.  Often Adam and Eve are depicted as relatively tranquil figures, but, in line with religious practices of the time, Cranach emphasises the emotional significance of the moment.  However, it is not without optimism: the vine creeping its way up the Tree of Knowledge signifies the Redemption, Christ dying on the cross to redeem Eve’s sin, and thus also the Virgin Mary as Eve’s positive equivalent.  Sombre though the piece is, it is clear that the painting was created as much for visual delight as for religious instruction.  Cranach’s masterful capturing of naturalistic details is wonderful to behold, and doubtless would have been as much for its original owner as it is for us.

Paul Cézanne, Montagne Sainte-Victoire with Large Pine, 1887

Cezanne Montainge Sainte-Victoire with Large Pine

Finally, how could I not include this piece which serves as the banner to my whole page?  This has always been a favourite of mine.  It is one of numerous paintings he created of the same subject, the mountain near his home in Aix-en-Provence, where he grew-up, and then returned with his own family.  He seems to have been captivated by this view across the valley to the mountain, as he returned to it again and again. You can see why, as it offers such a great opportunity for him to explore different aspects of his technique.  Though he was interested in the work of the Impressionists, he looked to add a certain solidity, breaking elements down into geometric shapes.  We can see this in his brushwork.  Unlike the small, hurried (looking) brushstrokes of the Impressionists, he used thicker, flatter strokes to model objects.  In this painting, we can see him applying these principles to a variety of objects, natural and unnatural, and to the depiction of space and depth.  The finished result is a painting which captures both the appearance, and some of the experience, of the place, without resorting to laboured naturalism, or an over-excited interest in light as an end in itself.  Framed by the pine, the composition leads the eye from one point of interest to another, the painting has a sense of scale and mass which is undeniably appealing, whilst still evoking the landscape it reproduces.  It is interesting to compare this with his other works on the same subject, but if you can only see one, let it be this one; it perfectly encompasses Cezanne’s experimental but masterful style.

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All images credit to the Courtauld Gallery.

#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.

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

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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

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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.

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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.

Finding Your Way In: Tips for approaching an artwork you’ve never seen before

One of the things people assume about you when they learn that you’re an art historian (and one of the things that we jokingly say about ourselves!) is that we make brilliant dinner party conversation.  People will throw out their favourite artists (or simply the last one they heard of), and assume that we’re not only familiar with their entire output, but have an insightful and fully-formed opinion on them.  But one of the exciting things about art history, whether you choose to officially study it, or simply indulge a passion for it, is discovering new works of art, artists, and even entire movements you’ve never before encountered.  But this can be a slightly intimidating experience.  It can be difficult to figure your way into a work that feels unfamiliar.  There are however a few things that you can look out for to help you find your way into a new work of art which I’ll be exploring in this new series.  These suggestions are in no way proscriptive, it’s important that you embrace your own response to the work, but if you’re ever stuck when looking at a new work, these tips might be worth bearing in mind.

Material

The artist’s choice of medium can make a huge difference to the overall effect of the artwork.  Often museum labels will help you with this, but it satisfying to be able to identify the materials yourself.  Some are really easy to identify, with oil or watercolours perhaps, but this can sometimes be difficult; often the material of sculpture can be hard to pinpoint.  But with a little practice you start to gain a familiarity with the materials, and build up a knowledge of what they look like and how they’re used.

Once you have an idea of what the material is, it’s worth thinking about the qualities and constraints of that material.  The development of oil painting allowed artists in the Northern Renaissance to create amazingly realistic images, using are fully layered pigments and glazes to bring a vitality to their works unmatched by the frescoes of their Southern cousins.  It is thought that these new paints were created in part in response to the damp climate of the North, which made the plaster-based techniques of Italian artists implausible. Centuries later, the vivid colours of the Impressionists were made possible by the development of new, chemical pigments. The bright yellows and blues seen in so many of their works was made possible by these new pigments.  Their en plain air techniques were also made possible by the invention of tubes of paint, making the materials far more portable.

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Pierre-Auguste Renoir, Pont Neuf, 1872

Sculpture is perhaps even more dependent on its materials.  The physical qualities are of key importance, having a fundamental effect on what one would be able to sculpt.  The poor tensile strength of marble is the reason why so many sculptures are supported by ugly props, with bars of the material holding up their arms or legs.  This is why so many Greek gods are leaning against a conveniently positioned tree trunk.  The opposite quality enables the fantastical creations of the sixteenth century, such as Giambologna’s Mercury ( which positively flaunts the tensile strength of bronze with its outstretched limbs.

Giambologna Mercury

Giambologna, Mercury, 1580

The sculpture’s material isn’t just of interest form the point of view of its physical qualities.  Many materials also take on a symbolic quality, or accrue connotations that can impact on the meaning of the finished work.  In his seminal work The Limewood Sculptors of Renaissance Germany, Michael Baxandall explored the way in which cultural associations about limewood came to be attached to the sculptures that were carved from it.  The special, pseudo-magical qualities that folklore attached to the tree itself impacted on how the sculptures were understood by contemporary viewers.  This book also contains Baxandall’s examination of the different woods on a cellular level, and the implications of this for the forms it was sculpted into.  Far later, modern sculptors such as Henry Moore would lead the ‘truth to materials’ movement, which sought to exploit the inherent qualities of the material to create sculpted forms that somehow reflected the nature of the material itself.

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Henry Moore, Recumbent Figure, 1938, image credit

In painting too, materials could gain their own symbolic meanings.  The most famous example of this is the use of lapis lazuli in depictions of the Virgin Mary.  The high cost of the pigment, due to it being imported all the way from Afghanistan, where it still only occurred in relatively small quantities, meant that it came to be seen as appropriate for depicting this holy figure.

The Virgin and Child

Massacio, The Virgin and Child, 1426

The price of the material is thus also worth considering.  While it is obviously often the case that materials are chosen for their expense, they can also be deliberately inexpensive.  For instance, Russian Constructivist artists such as Alexander Rodchenko chose cheap, readily available materials such as plywood, in a deliberate attempt to make their art more accessible, and to strip it of the bourgeois connotations of more conventional materials.  In other cases, the material may be chosen specifically for such connotations.  Mark Quinn’s Alison Lapper Pregnant, created for the Fourth Plinth at Trafalgar Square, made use of Carrara marble (Michelangelo’s David was able made from Carrara marble), placing it in a tradition of nude sculptures dating back through the Renaissance to Roman art, which in turn imitated Greek art. By using this material Quinn makes a bold and positive claim for the beauty and importance of his subject, and forces his viewers to reconsider the negative effects of the bland uniformity of sculpture in the Classical tradition.  Quinn himself commented on his choice of material, ‘Marble is the material used to commemorate heroes, and these people seem to me to be a new kind of hero – people who instead of conquering the outside world have conquered their own inner world and gone on to live fulfilled lives. To me, they celebrate the diversity of humanity. Most monuments are commemorating past events; because Alison is pregnant it’s a sculpture about the future possibilities of humanity’.

Alison Lapper Pregnant

Mark Quinn, Alison Lapper Pregnant, 2005, image credit

So there are lots of aspects to the choice of material in artworks.  These certainly shouldn’t be treated as a tick-list of things to go through, but thinking about material in this way can offer a new perspective on a work of art, and can be an interesting approach to take when you find yourself in front of a brand new (to you, or the world) work of art.

 

 

Mark Quin quote excerpted from: http://marcquinn.com/artworks/alison-lapper.

Images unless otherwise stated are sourced from wikicommons.

A Feminist Re-Interpretation of Renoir’s ‘La Loge’

Renoir La Loge

I have recently begun tutoring a student in A-level art history, which has had the happy side-effect of bringing me back in touch with many paintings I have not examined for a long time.  The syllabus is almost identical to that which I studied all those years ago, and it has been fun to look back at some of them.  (Perhaps the subject of a later post on the subject of the formation and reformation of canons!)  Renoir’s La Loge is one such painting that has been brought back into my life. Part of the collection of the Courtauld Gallery, the painting was the subject of a blog post I wrote five years ago, before I had even begun my undergraduate degree (find it here).  I am surprised to say that I still largely agree with what I wrote about it.  I still feel this is a painting all about the interplay of gazes, about looking and being looked at.  However, there is one aspect of the painting that is largely missing from my discussion: the female gaze.  I am not alone in this, much writing on the painting focuses exclusively on the male gaze, on the role of the man in the painting, and the male viewer.  While it is undoubtedly important to consider the role of gender in the creation and appreciation of this work, throughout much art historical analysis (not just that of this painting), this has led to a sort of game of ‘spot the male gaze’.  While the historical and continued oppression of women has overwhelmingly led to the prioritising of the male gaze in the creation of artworks, and the effects of this in the work’s interpretation, it is important that we do not erase instances of the appeal to the female gaze where they do occur.

The ‘female gaze’ is often taken to be a simple inversion of the male gaze, thus a painting appealing to it might involve the objectification of male figures.  The heteronormativity of such ideas aside, it is also important to recognize other, perhaps more subtle ways that an artist might engage with the idea of the female gaze (whether they would have used that terminology or not).  So we come back to La Loge itself.  The male figure’s roving gaze is often noted – pointing straight up, and, judging by the curve of the box itself, back into the theatre – he is clearly not watching the stage.  The opera glasses he holds become symbolic of his supposed appetite for women, passing an admiring gaze over the female members of the audience.  This is sometimes interpreted as a snub to the woman in the painting: not satisfied by her, he literally looks elsewhere.  Interpretation of the woman often focuses on her meek interaction with or submissive acceptance of this cultural phenomenon.  She is described as ‘meek’, or ‘passive’.  Alternatively she might, according to another brand of misogyny, be accused of ‘asking for it’, or looking for male attention: she leans forward, looking up towards us, also not engaging with the opera itself, a flower placed in her bodice drawing the eye.  She happily submits to the inquisitive male gaze, it might be said, and, by association, that of the viewer.

However, there is one component of the painting that suggest that something more is going on in the painting.  She too holds opera glasses.  While these were of course a necessity amongst the fashionable elite, and she holds a smaller, more decorative pair than her male companion, in the context of the painting, the opera glass seems to have taken on a greater meaning than its mere practical function.  Highlighted in bright gold colours, her glasses suggest a more active engagement in the interplay of gazes that the painting depicts.  It is not only the male audience members who make visual enquiries across the room, the women too look for pleasure through viewing.  Women too might be in possession of a scopophilic gaze.  Renoir’s audience would predominantly have been male, and it is understandable that the painting has been interpreted both as a critique of the bourgeois male’s entitled attitude towards women, and as Renoir’s own possible participation in such attitudes.  However let us not forget that women too visited exhibitions, including the First Impressionist Exhibition, where this painting was exhibited in 1874.  Even if most of the critics were men, women did still see, appreciate, and engage with art (which seems a rather obvious thing to say).  In the period when characters such as Nana were being written by Zola, and Madeleine Forestier by Guy de Maupassant, it seems not unlikely that creators in the visual arts might also have wanted to represent a broadening range of female characterisations, and the wider possibilities that were opening up to women brave enough to pursue them in the face of a society ever-ready to shun.  Nana and Madeleine Forestier are both women who embrace their own sexual appetites and desires, and even the respectable Forestier is at ease with her appreciation of male beauty.  Renoir’s woman, scanning the crowd, might be a similar character.  Thus it seems quite plausible that this woman is not passively objectified, but actively engages in an exchange of gazes, thinking of her own pleasures and desires, not simply submitting to those of her viewers.

It would be just as bad however to assume that this painting is just about men and women.  The aforementioned heteronormativity of such an assumption is obvious, but this painting could as much be about female friendship, or kinship.  The gaze could be one of recognition, of one woman acknowledging another.  The women who visited the exhibition would likely have been familiar with the world depicted, and have experienced something similar themselves.  Past me only managed to acknowledge that the female interaction with this painting might be with a sense of jealously, an ‘eyeing up’ of potential competition (a notion I’m glad to say I can now see far beyond, and acknowledge the inherent misogyny of such an assumption), but I think this painting may as much be one of friendship, or at least acknowledgement of shared experience.  To the Parisian woman, this may have acted as an image of herself, and her friends.

There is so much more to this painting than men’s sexual interest in women, and I’m grateful that I’ve had the chance to look back at it, with fresh eyes, greater experience, and a fuller sense of its representation of human experience.

Jean-Francois Millet – The Gleaners, 1857

Jean Francois Millet The Gleaners 1857

In quite typical subject matter for Millet, this painting depicts one of the hardships of the impoverished which has, thankfully (although ones fears it has simply been replaced) disappeared from modern life.  Gleaning is the act of scouring the field for stalks of crop missed in the first harvesting.  One needed a licence to be allowed to do this, and only the poorest, most desperate would undertake to obtain one.  Thus the three main figures in the painting are immediately identifiable as of very low social status.  It is the idea of their place in society, or lack thereof, which Millet seems to be occupied with in this piece.  The piece was created while Millet was in Barbizon, and one of the leaders of the Barbizon School, which sought a return to Nature in art.  For most members of the group this meant landscape painting, but Millet focused on figures within landscapes, almost as if portraying what had become Nature, as humans had tilled the earth for thousands of years.  A champion of the rural working class in his paintings (he was not an overtly political figure in actions), he often depicts people working in the fields, such as in The Sower (1850) or The Angelus (1857-59), but these are usually people who have found a place in society, they are part of the workforce.  The Gleaners however depicts women who have no place, or have through poverty lost their place, in society.

As we look into the painting, we are presented with a visualisation of the rural social hierarchy.  The further back we recede into the picture depth, the higher the rank of the people depicted.  At first we see the gleaners themselves, then behind them is the communal workforce, cutting and reaping the harvest.  Further back still they are overseen by a figure on horseback, with the large domestic buildings highlighting the figure.  This was a time when owning a horse was still a major indicator of wealth: Benz did not create his automobile until the 1880s, and the gap between rich and poor had not reached a point at which it was viable for the majority of people to own horses.  The low skyline of the piece, little more than half way up the canvas, emphasises this sense of recession, and of the distance between the gleaners and the rest of the community, a distance symbolic as well as physical.  Millets demonstrates to use how these people’s poverty has lead them to being marginalised by society, and shut out from the support of the community.

Millet shows this through symbolic contrasts and parallels.  The small sheaves that the women have gathered are contrasted diagonally with the huge stacks that the group have gathered.  Nature’s bounty as visualised by the stacks, with more further in the background, and more sheaves waiting to be piled, is pitifully contrasted with the small number of sheaves gathered by the gleaners, and the stalks in their hands.  The women’s clothes are homespun, heavy materials, the stiffness of the red cloth tied with a piece of rope around the woman’s arm portrays a feeling of discomfort.  The unity of the group, working together, all bending and lifting as one, is again contrasted with the three women, one of whom is almost standing straight, creating a sense of disunity, jarring against the shared pose of the other two women.  The standing woman’s pose is almost torturous; she seems to have taken a pause, connoting the aching back brought on by this repetitive physical labour, but we do not see her at the point of relief, but as she returns to her work, recommencing the arduous, virtually thankless task.  In the sky above, a flock of birds passes over, with stragglers falling behind, mimicking the figures down below.  Thus Millet fills the painting with pathos, and as viewers it is hard not to empathise with the plight of these women.  Even Millet’s use of light suggests the women’s struggle, as the sun shines down on the house and the group, whilst they are nearly in shadow, on the edge of darkness.

The Gleaner’s was fist unveiled at the Salon of 1857.  While the painting may seem fairly innocuous to modern viewers, its focus on the lives of peasants and the working classes was seen as politically threatening by the middle and upper class audience who saw it at the Salon.  The latest of France’s revolutions was only in 1848, when in February the Orlean monarchy was overthrown only to be replaced by an increasingly conservative government in the Republic, which lead to a bloody revolt in June 1848, and the eventual election of Louis Napoleon as President (who would become Napoleon III, leader of the Second French Empire).  After this turbulent recent history one can understand a certain sensitivity amongst parts of society to subjects which seemed to glorify the peasant classes.  However Millet’s interests were not explicitly political, he was a religious man who looked to the working classes as examples of the continuation of Old Testament piety and spirituality, rather than as the future leaders of France.  His audience had more cause to be worried by Courbet’s works, which were heavily influenced by Millet, and more overtly political.  The Stonebreakers, of 1850, for example, actively confronts the viewer, with the cruel reality of abject poverty, with similar themes and motifs to The Gleaners, but carrying them to more upsetting extremes.  By comparison Millet’s pieces seem fairly tame.

While the scenes Millet depicts in The Gleaners have long since vanished from France, the ideas he presented are as eternal as he makes their actions seem.  The marginalisation of the poverty stricken is an issue which remains relevant, although we can only hope that the modern middle and upper classes would react to a modern Millet in a slightly more positive way than to see it as a call to revolution.

Self Portraits: Exploring artist’s use of the Self-Portrait

The self-portrait has an enduring appeal for giving us an insight into how the artist perceives him or herself, or how he wishes to be perceived by viewers.  Here I will consider a number of (largely modern) self-portraits, in a bid to explore the possible uses and aims of the form.  Those included are by no means comprehensive, with some notable absences (I don’t mention a single van Gogh), but have been chosen as I feel they can be interestingly linked, and provide an insight into the varying and developing role of the self-portrait painting.

Rembrandt: Self Portrait with Two Circles, 1665-69

How an artist depicts himself relates closely to the common perception of what an artist is, and what constitutes a great artist.  Older portraits, pre-19th century, tend to focus on the artist as a craftsman, and his technical skill.  For instance, Rembrandt’s self-portrait famously depict him in front of the perfect circle, the ultimate expression of an artist’s skill.  Later artists depicts themselves out of the studio setting, as the definition of ‘great artist’ came to be understood as one with a unique view and understanding of the world around him.  So these later portraits often have blank, non-specific backgrounds, and focus on the artist’s expression, not on pointing out his skill.

This general move away from depicting oneself in the studio setting can be traced alongside the desire by some artists to picture themselves as a continuation of the great tradition of painting, maintaining high standards rather than pursuing any new styles.  Ingres, an artist consumed by the desire to relate himself back to the great classical tradition, depicts himself in the typical setting, draped with a sort of cloak, stood before the easel.

Ingres: Self-Portrait at age 24, 1804

The German Expressionist painter Ernst Ludwig Kirchner first depicts himself in the studio, with brush and model, a typical subject.  He is depicting himself as a master of his craft, his authority over the viewer expressed through his wild, staring eyes, and his dominance over the picture space.  But here he seems to use this traditional setting to emphasise the radical differences in his style.  He uses this touch of the familiar to shock the viewer, it is a provocative piece.  But we maintain the emphasis on him as a painter, there is little sense of introversion, we are not being presented with an insight into his mind, rather a manifesto of his movement.  This piece is particularly interesting when compared to his later self-portrait ‘Self-portrait of the Artist as a Soldier’, painted after he was invalided out of the First World War.  Now we see all the introversion, his loss of confidence in himself and his artistic vision.  His hand was not really blown off, but it is the hand which would have held his brush, expressing his loss of artistic voice (although we see that his style is little changed, and no less technically skilled).  This is almost painting as therapy; through it Kirchner is able to express his inner turmoil and trauma.

Ernst Ludwig Kirchner: Self Portrait with a Model, 1910

Ernst Ludwig Kirchner: Self Portrait as a Soldier, 1915

This second self-portrait is more typical of the 20th and 21st century approach, when the artist’s world view has become at least as important as his technical skill, and the self-portrait becomes a means of self-exploration.  Munch followed his usual unsettling lines of thought in his self-portrait, his head white, floating in the blackness above the skeletal arm and hand.  We cannot help by search for meaning within the man himself.  He was a deeply troubled man, terrified of feminine control, his family mostly killed by TB, one of his two remaining sisters resident in an asylum.  This is not hard to guess from the portrait, but it remains mysterious and enigmatic, it’s meaning unspecified.  This sense of mystery is often apparent in modern portraits, which sometimes act almost to imbue the artist with a sense of gravitas and mystery, rather than simply being used as a display of wealth and skill as they had been previously.

Munch: Self Portait with a Skeleton Arm, 1895

Exploration of identity is another common theme in modern self-portraits.  Picasso’s self-portrait with ovoid eyes strengthens his Spanish identity at a time when he was one of only a few Spaniards in Paris (particularly among the art scene).  Frida Kahlo has perhaps explored this use of the self-portrait more than any other artist.  The vast majority of her painting are self-portraits, in which she explores her identity as a woman, threatened by her inability to bear children, as an artist, and as an individual.  Although not technically a member of the Surrealist movement (in the European or American form), her work is often called Surrealist due to her exploration of dreams and dreamlike scenarios.

Frida Kahlo: The Two Fridas, 1939

‘The Two Fridas’ explicitly explores her feelings regarding her Mexican identity, after the split between her and her husband Diego Rivera.  The daughter of a Mexican mother and a European father, the piece expresses her feelings of being torn between the two cultural identities.  ‘My Nurse and I’ of 1937, also explores her relationship with her mother, and her Mexican roots, the nurse’s face substituted for a proto-American mask, suggesting the way in which cultural heritage is passed down through the generations, and the strength that it has given her.

Frida Kahlo: My Nurse and I, 1937

Kahlo’s frequent self-portraits highlight another more pragmatic side which has made them popular with artists throughout history: they are cheap.  The model is free, and available whenever the artists wishes.  Kahlo began painting whilst bed-bound, recovering from the bus accident which nearly killed her and robbed her of her ability to mother children.  She was thus the obvious subject for her works.  Taking a short aside further into history, this ready availability seems to have made self-portraits popular amongst female artists.  Largely un-professional, women artists were often constrained by social requirements.  There could be no question of impropriety if the woman were not aiming to paint for material gain, and even better, did not hire models, of either gender.  For instance, Sofonisba Anguissola, active in the 16th and early 17thcenturies,

Sofonisba Anguissola: Self Portrait, 1554

was highly acclaimed during her time, but stuck to portraits, with self-portraits, and portraits of family and close friends making up the majority of her output.  From an aristocratic background, painting such close associates could not raise any suspicions, and she was in fact encouraged by her family to pursue her enthusiasm, albeit at an almost amateur scale.  She did however go on to paint portraits of the Spanish court, including Phillip II and his family.  Modern female artists have not been so restricted, but still return to the self-portrait.  Tracy Emin’s 1998 ‘My Bed’ reads as an auto-biographical piece; a portrait of herself and her feelings seen through the objects with which she surrounded herself.

Tracy Emin: My Bed, 1998

So we see that the self-portrait form is continuing to develop, even to include the abstract forms and installation art of the modern world.  I have considered only a few ideas, any comments or thoughts would be greatly appreciated, it is an area which really fascinates me, and I think will continue to fascinate audiences due to the insight it gives us into the mind and feelings of the artist depicted.