Tag Archives: Painting

Interview: Jane Hope

Fields, Cumbria. Pastel. Jane  Hope.JPG

Fields, Cumbria, Jane Hope

Jane Hope is an Oxford based artist who took up art as a child, and has painted ever since.  Growing up in Wiltshire, she was encouraged by her mother, who shared her love of art.  After studying Theology and Philosophy at university, she worked as a neighbourhood Community Worker in Coventry, a Development Worker for Oxfordshire Mind, and brought up tow sons, one of whom is now also a painter.  She now has a studio at the bottom of her garden, and is able to devote more of her time to painting.  She is a member of the Oxford Art Society, and you can read more about her life, and see more of her work, on her website here.
What piece of art by another artist (from past or present) has been most significant to you in your own life and work?

It is difficult to single out one piece of art, because there are many, and I don’t think we are always aware that we are being influenced. Much of it is subtle, subconscious and gradual. However I remember two significant pieces from school, one in the corridor, one in a classroom. I looked at them often and they got under my skin. One was Wood on the Downs by Paul Nash, and the other was Harvest Landscape by Van Gogh. I love trees, especially in the winter, and have used the patterns they make in many of my pictures. In Van Gogh’s painting it is the light and the sense of great distance that has stayed with me.

Who would you recommend as an underrated artist?

Underrated might not be the right word, because he is highly rated by those who know him. I think the Welsh Artist Kyffin Williams is brilliant. I love the boldness and simplicity of his work. He seems to know exactly what he wants to say and says it. He works with a palette knife too, which I like to do. Two other artists working at the moment are Andrew Gifford and Susan Isaac, both of whom produce strong impasto pieces.

Do you have any recommendations for art history books or authors?

I am not very good at this! I studied Art History for A level in 1963 and have not done much since. There are of course some interesting Art History programmes on TV and some of the best are by Andrew Graham Dixon. He has written a biography of Caravaggio called ‘A Life Sacred and Profane’ and gave a very interesting talk on this in Oxford a couple of years ago.

A slightly different aspect of Art History comes in Victoria Finlay’s books on colour and the history of pigments. ‘Colour. A Natural History’ and ‘The Brilliant History of Colour in Art’.

Is there a movement or period you have been most interested in or fascinated by?

When I was studying at school the chiaroscuro work by Rembrandt, Caravaggio, and George de la Tour, fascinated me, but it is the Impressionist movement that is probably the most exciting. The way they capture the moment with such a free use of paint is very inspiring.  I was also always excited by Cezanne’s brush strokes and his use of colour.

Impressionism continues today in the many artists who work en plein air, painting on the streets in all weathers. For instance there is Ken Howard, Peter Brown, Fred Cumming, and others (including my son Benjamin Hope!).

Incidentally a major exhibition is coming up soon:

CAPTURING THE MOMENT

27 Plein air artists.

Menier Gallery

October 16th -20th.

Britishpleinairpainters.co.uk


You studied theology and philosophy at University, do you feel that this has had an impact on your work?

The short answer is no!  I studied these subjects because I found them interesting, but my art work is in no way conceptual or intellectual. It is never based on ideas but always springs from what I see. The only thing I would say is that Philosophy taught me clarity of thought, which may help in the problem solving that painting demands.

There is a strong sense of place in all of your works; is this something you specifically strive for, or is it something that naturally finds its way into your creations?

I always work very instinctively, so I don’t strive for a sense of place. I mainly strive to put down what has formed as a picture in my head. Most days of my life I see things that make a picture. Sometimes I paint en plein air, but my usual way of working is to make sketches of what has made an impact in my mind, and to work from these in the studio.

I have a bedroom in the loft of my house that looks towards Boars Hill. In June 2016 I decided to paint this view at least once a week for a whole year. I took paints, boards, brushes, and easel up to the bedroom and produced 75 paintings of the view in different weather, at different times, and from different angles. It was a very exciting project and quite a change from my usual way of working.

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March 6th and 8th Morning, Jane Hope

 

You exhibit with the Oxford Art Society; what role do you think such groups play in supporting artists?

Oxford Art Society is primarily an exhibiting society, so the first role it plays is to give us the opportunity to exhibit in a gallery with good artists, and to sell. It is also a very friendly community of artists, and members have the choice of how much or how little they get involved. Helping with the two annual exhibitions is a great way to get to know other artists and to discover the wide range of styles and working methods there are. It is challenging and stimulating to look at the work of other artists and to learn and grow. I value the OAS hugely and enjoy being a member.

You work in a variety of media, and each has its own special qualities. How do you feel that each choice of tool or material responds to the subject you choose to depict with it?

When I see something I have to paint, I usually see it in one of the mediums I use, (oil or chalk pastel).  Once I have done one version, say in oil, others grow from it and I might develop it in pastel, and then back again to oil.  I often see strong shapes in landscapes which translate into the bold sweeps of impasto laid down with a palette knife. At other times I might want to create more intricate patterns through winter trees, which works well with pastels. I enjoy changing from one medium to another and it is good to follow the way the medium takes me. It is great fun to scribble with pastel after having used brushes on a canvas – and vice versa.
One of your frequent subjects is the Still Life. This genre has been a constant source of debate, and explored by artists for many reasons across the centuries, from the great Dutch artists to Cezanne, and beyond. What draws you to it?

I am drawn to Still Life in the way I am drawn to every subject. I see it and love it and have to paint it! I have an allotment, and a big apple tree in the garden. I walk past the onions I have harvested, or pick up the windfall apples, and see how beautiful they are. I have to paint them.

The other thing about painting Still Life is that it is a really good discipline. It is an excellent way to practice eye to hand techniques, and to think about composition. I have to look very carefully and constantly at the objects I am painting. The subject draws me in and many colours become apparent. I have to decide then how much detail to reproduce, and how much to leave out. It is completely absorbing.

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Apples Galore, Jane Hope

September 2018

LINKS:

https://www.benjaminhope.net/

https://www.peterbrownneac.com

www.kenhoward.co.uk/

https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Kyffin_Williams

 

 

 

 

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.

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.

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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.

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

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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.

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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.

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

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

 

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

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

You can see a picture of this work here… http://www.christies.com/lotfinder/prints-multiples/zhang-xiaogang-big-family-no-1-from-5050380-details.aspx , complete with the record of it selling for what would now seem a ridiculously small price for such a work.

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

 

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

 

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