Tag Archives: Landscape

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.

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.

All images credit to the Courtauld Gallery.

Konrad Witz, La Peche Miracaleuse/The Miraculous Draught of Fishes, 1444

Konrad Witz, The Miraculous Draught of Fishes, 1444

This painting, in Geneva’s Museum of History and Art, is picked out in their guide booklets as one of the 10 masterpieces of the Museum’s collection.  It is truly a charming example of the Northern Renaissance interest in using the familiar to bring Biblical stories to life, as well as that attention to naturalistic detail which is striking in so many of the works of Northern European artists in this period.  Originally part of an altarpiece, the scene is painted in oils on panel.  The scene depicted is most likely the second of two miracles commonly referred to as the miraculous draught.  One evening after Jesus’ resurrection, seven of the Disciples go fishing, and catch nothing.  Next morning they try again, and once again have no luck.  Jesus, who they do not recognise, calls to them from the shore: ‘Friends, haven’t you any fish?’  Hearing that they haven’t, he instructs them to cast their next on the right side of the boat, and they will find some.  They do so, and the net is so full of fish that they can hardly lift it.  By this miraculous change of fortune John recognises Jesus, and Peter jumps into the water to meet him.  The exact number of fish caught is listed as 153, but Witz wisely does not seem to have troubled himself to paint every single one, the gist of the story being much the same whatever the number.  He has however carefully chosen to illustrate other identifying aspects of the story: the seven disciples, the net being cast on the right side of the boat, and the dramatic moment when Peter jumps in to meet Jesus, arms outstretched and face bearing an expression of awe.

20180620_115841

During this period it was becoming typical for artists to relocate Biblical narratives to local setting.  Here Lac Leman stands in for the Sea of Galilee, the mountains in the background recognisable to his viewers.  There is some debate as to why this became so popular, but it is easy to see that this gives the images a relatability and an immediacy which would be appealing to viewers.  Rather than being distant, geographically and historically, the figures are given contemporary clothing, and situated such that the viewer would almost feel it was a scene they had stumbled upon in their own neighbourhood.  In the fifteenth century there was a new focus on the individual’s personal role in securing their religious well-being.  Individual prayer become more important, and people were taught to truly engage with religious stories and ideas, rather than being passive receptors of preaching.  The rise of the Book of Hours is testament to this, as are the growth of spiritual groups of lay people.  This was reflected in the art that was popular in this period, such as the new trend for depicting the Madonna and Child in an average, Netherlandish home.  However, as we see here, it could also be seen in landscape settings.  The Mountains, the Swiss Flag (already in use, but not of course to represent exactly the same area), the familiar architecture, and the scenes of mercantile activity on the right, all help to position this as a contemporary scene, aiding the viewer’s understanding of and engagement with the Biblical story.

It is not only in what he has chosen to depict that Witz shows us an interest in realism.  His attention to accurately depicting smaller details suggest a desire to create a naturalistic image.  You get a real sense that he is painting based on observation of the real world.  For instance, there is a clear attempt to depict the odd way in which light distorts our view of Peter’s submerged legs.  There is also an impressive understanding of reflection, seen in the buildings on the right, but particularly in the reflections of the Disciples in the water alongside the boat.  20180620_115814We see ripples where the oar has left the water, and the small clusters of bubbles suggest where the water flows quickly amongst the rocks of the shore line.  One can’t deny that some aspects are more crude (the grass on the shore is quite simplified), and he is not against an artistic flourish, the rippling folds of the first Disciple are more a demonstration of his skill than serving any other function, or fitting how the wind seems to be behaving in the rest of the scene  But overall the effect is one of placing us in the scene, and confronting us with the essence of the story, not distracted by unfamiliar details which would pull us out of it.  He seems keen to avoid any elements that would break this effect: the halos for instance, are the slightest of touches, more manipulations of light (again with an almost scientific eye for effects) than anything tangible.  It is, all-in-all a highly impressive work, pleasing in its realism, but also capturing and embodying the religious preoccupations of its time.

20180620_115829

 

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.

 

Review: Gainsborough’s Landscapes: Themes and Variations, Holburne Museum of Art

Runs until 22nd January.  Curator: Sue Sloman

Only the second temporary exhibitions since the Holburne re-opened in May 2011, the museum could hardly have found a greater contrast to its previous exhibition ‘Peter Blake: A Museum for Myself’.  But once again the exhibition runs along the theme of the artist’s personal tastes.  Highlighted throughout the exhibition is Gainsborough’s preference for landscape painting over the banality of the society portraits which made him his fame and fortune.  While landscapes often made up the background for portraits, here we see Gainsborough exploring landscape as a genre in its own right.  The exhibition is based around six major oil paintings, accompanied by a large number of sketches and studies in a variety of media, which inform the viewer’s understanding of the paintings.  Each of the paintings acts as the centrepiece of a chapter of movement in the exhibition, leading the viewer through the development of Gainsborough’s style as we move through his life.  The exhibition has drawn together pieces from museums and galleries across the country, as well as some from private collections, making it a pleasingly comprehensive display.  We are able to see a side of Gainsborough little known, or little known to the public.  His sketches, in pencil, charcoal and inks among other media, reveal his deftness of execution, some verging on abstractions by how radically he has reduced forms to their essentials.  In one piece a cart named in the title is portrayed with so few strokes that it is almost impossible to make out, in another, sheep are simple to the point of possibly being shrubbery.  The paintings themselves develop from this deftness, creating charming pastoral scenes, and cleverly developed compositions, executed with precise calculation of the overall effect this will have on the viewer.

The exhibition offers rare insights and is substantial content well worth the £6.95p ticket.  However, at some points the exhibition disappoints.  Sloman, or the Museum, seem to have focused on some slightly tenuous links.  Gainsborough’s love of music (himself a skilled musician, playing the viola de gamba) and his many musical friends are used to justify a comparison between his process and the composition of a piece of music.  This idea of ‘themes and variations’ thus refers in the exhibition to the way he returned to compositional ideas and explored similar subjects within his landscapes (something that could be said of most artists, whatever their subject).  One cannot help but feel that this is an unnecessary cluttering of ideas.  This is justified by Gainsborough’s practice of using broccoli and coal to make models exploring possible landscape compositions, a practice which was common among artists exploring landscape at the time, and which is surely simple to understand without the allusion to a classical composer or conductor.  This desire to add an extra layer of interest (seeing Gainsborough as blurring the line between music and painting) detracts from the genuine interest of the artists exploring his own pleasures and interests, with no aim of material gain.  It is arguable whether such an angle was needed to guide the viewer through an exhibition which is already essentially chronological, and easy to follow.

A fact that cannot be denied is that of the six major oil paintings, only three specifically focus on landscape.   The others focus, ideologically and compositionally, on the human figures in the landscape.  One presents a farmyard scene of work-horses resting after a day’s work, the second, on peasants travelling and their home in the background, and the third taken up largely by a young girl, who sits watching three pigs drinking from a dish of milk.  All three of the purer landscape paintings include human stories, allying themselves with the landscapes dressed up as classical myths that became popular around this period.  Only in the latest painting ‘Mountainous landscape with shepherds and sheep (Romantic Landscape)’ c1783, does he seem to feel comfortable subordinating the human stories to the landscape itself.  So in a way the exhibition seems to have accidentally highlighted the reluctance to accept landscape as worthy of major works that was present at the time.  This is not to suggest a failing in Gainsborough himself, but while the exhibitions seeks to champion the landscape genre, and demonstrate it as flourishing earlier than general opinion suggests (which has the rise of landscape linked with the Romantic movement, Turner and Constable), it in fact seems to demonstrate the extent to which artists still struggled to have landscape accepted, and were themselves unable to pursue it as a means in its own right, even in the diluted form offered by Gainsborough’s landscapes, populated by peasants and shepherds.  He often gave landscape sketches to friends, as gifts.

However the exhibition as a whole remains an interesting and worthwhile undertaking; even if its conclusions are far from overwhelming or game-changing.  Curating does not seem to be of the highest standard, with labelling inconsistencies and in places an almost irrelevant choice of information.  Prime example is ‘Going to Market’ also known as ‘Landscape with Peasants returning from market’.  Yes, this is as glaringly obvious as it seems.  The frame proclaims the title ‘Going to Market’, while the label sides with returning.  This is at odds with what is depicted.  While the lighting is ambiguous, and could be interpreted either as a sunrise or sunset, the peasants travel away from home, their bags laden with vegetables, produce typically grown at home during this period.  No explanation of this discrepancy is made on the label, and it was only by reading the accompanying book (priced £14.95p) that I learnt Sloman’s justification: that people sitting outside the house suggests the evening after work.  Research I have done into this since visiting suggests that this is also at odds with the accepted interpretation of the piece, not simply the obvious interpretation I have undertaken.  Another tenuous link to blight the exhibition is the suggestion that the girl with pig’s pose is carried through to a later sketch of a maid on a doorstep, in a slightly strained attempt to follow through with the title ‘Themes and Variations’.  While I must not become bogged down in these trifles, such tenuous links and outright inconsistencies detract from the overall experience of the exhibition, and lead one to question whether a little more effort could not be put into informing the visitor, rather than simply presenting them with as many similar sketches as possible.

Having said all this, I feel I should clarify that I genuinely enjoyed the exhibition, and did so on multiple visits, the quality and interest of the paintings and sketches, and the many varying techniques displayed, easily making up for the at times confused and confusing ideas expressed by the curator.