The Laws of Nature

Saturday, December 5, 2009

Mile 5 ...

We had to add more wood to the fire and pull up a few more chairs. Now, things are really getting hot! Don ate the rest of the marshmallows, so we'll make popcorn tonight :-) Hey, Carolyn, what's in the cooler??


With bandaids on my blistered feet and Bengay on my legs, I'll continue this existential journey to find the roots of my art thought. As we leave the 18th Century, France's Academie Royale was dissolved by the revolutionary government in 1793, and then revived as the Academie des Beaux-Arts in 1795. Politics, Society and art theory had dramatically changed in France and the Western world. Modernism was born as we enter the 19th Century. And, Modernism gave rise to a whole host of "isms." I'll keep this as short as I can, so feel free to fill in all the holes with your comments!

Evidently, there's not much agreement among art scholars about what caused Modernism at the beginning of the 19th Century, so I'll just report what Williams wrote. Modernism in art is a response to the transformation of society that resulted from the upheavel of the (French) revolution and the advent of mass politics, and the shift in economy toward technology and exploitation of inexpensive labor. He thinks that the best way to understand what Modernism is, would be to think of it as a critical enterprise: overt social criticism and critical thought. Well, once you open the door to overt criticism it seems like you get a whole lot of other isms!

Realism: This term was first applied to Gustave Courbet's painting "Burial at Ornans" below.



Courbet was harshly criticized for this painting because it depicted ordinary life and homely people. It was a "genre" painting. Remember the importance of "ideal beauty"?? But, the guy had guts and determination. This painting was rejected from the pavilion of French art at the Universal Exhibition in Paris (1855) so he built his own "Pavilion of Realism" nearby!

How did Courbet explain himself? He wrote: By reaching the conclusion that the ideal and all that it entails should be denied, I can completely bring about the emancipation of the individual and finally achieve democracy. Realism is essentially democratic art. Now ... that's really radical! Realism was the renunciation of Romanticism and academic art. Things really had changed ... and, that change is a big part of my root system as an artist. I've identified another foundational stone.

Around this time, novelist Emile Zola rose to prominence and had a theory about the role of art that became a major influence. He wrote: If temperaments did not exist, all paintings would simply be photographs. (Egmont ... I think you can make a good case for photography as fine art!) Zola goes on to say that to be an artist you must abandon yourself bravely to your nature and try not to lie to yourself. Amen to that!! Zola's ideas gave legs to Impressionism.

On the one hand, Impressionism seems to derive from Realism by deflecting away from overt political and social messages, and also to extend the exploration of what is "real." On the other hand, Impressionism went in an entirely different direction - one that placed strong emphasis on individual perception and temperament. The confusion comes from the fact that Impressionism was created by a handful of strongly individualized artists with completely different personalities. To complicate things, few if any of these artists were interested in verbal theorizing, so there's no clear definition for this "ism."

Anyway, Impressionism coalesced as a movement in 1874 when a group of artists who were rejected from the Salon banded together to exhibit on their own. It seems to me that Courbet served as a good example of what to do in reaction to the "snooty" Salon! But, these artists didn't create their name. Rather, a critic who saw their exhibition dubbed them "Impressionists." This group exhibited together eight times, the last in 1886.

The importance of this "ism" can't be understated in my personal development as an artist. According to Williams, Impressionism treated nature as both an object of study and a point of departure; the line between seeing and feeling, between the outer and the inner world, has been obscured. I can definitely identify with this theory, and this might be the "tap root" of how I think as an artist.

I won't spend time elaborating on the Impressionist artists because most people know of them.

Of course, with any theoretical experiment in art there's a "next step." That would be Neo-Impressionism. Georges Seurat, the pointillist, is the poster child for this "ism." His interest in scientific color theory provided an extention to Impressionism that was new. Philosophically, he thought that it was the obligation of art to pursue a "harmony" which is independent of nature. To me, that means that an artist should create harmony within the picture plane itself through the abstract means of applying the elements of composition and color theory. Tragically, Seurat died in his early thirties, in 1891, so he never had much of a chance to further develop his ideas. BTW - Seurat didn't use the term "pointillism." He called it "divisionism."

By 1886, Symbolism was the latest thing. It began in Paris as a literary movement that extended to the other arts. This was in reaction to Realism and also Zola's Naturalism. Symbolism wasn't an actual single style. It was a bunch of principles that embraced a variety of styles - kind of a theoretical umbrella. For the most part, Symbolism was a movement away from representation and social reality toward an exploration of the subjective experience - the irrational. Nietzsche was a big influence. He wrote: It is only as an aesthetic phenomenon that existence and the world are eternally justified.... Art is the highest task and properly metaphysical activity of this life .... Our creative activity has value only because our need for illusion is the truth of our nature. This is deep stuff!

The Symbolists including artists like: Gustave Moreau, Odilon Rerdon, Paul Gaugin (who was both a Symbolist and Impressionist), and so on. Critic Albert Aurier thought that Gaugin was the leading figure in Symbolism because his art is concerned with the expression of the Idea ... which is diametrically opposed to Impression.

Just to break this up: here's a picture of me (fresh off the boat) at the Gaugin museum in Tahiti. I was appalled to find that his canvases were hung in outdoor pavilions - absolutely no climate control or screening from insects. Oh, dear!

Other Symbolists include Vincent Van Gogh and Edvard Munch, among others.
This journey through the 19th century is about to take a radical turn, so I think I'll rest by the fire for awhile and pick up the trail tomorrow. Is the popcorn ready yet??

23 comments:

Margaret Ryall said...

But you're getting ahead of me! I'm still at mile four and missing the conversation. Catching up later today. Why did I think I wanted a part time job when it interferes with blogging?

Kathy said...

Hi Margaret, We'll wait for you! We saved you a seat around the campfire, and I'll put some popcorn aside for you :)

Celeste Bergin said...

OMG.. my marshmallows are burnt...! I didn't know I was here! lol lol...this is a lovely series and it will be fun to read with a big cup of coffee (Hey! my roommate used to put EGGSHELLS in the coffee grounds when we camped--had something to do with improving the flavor??) Anyway, so interesting to learn that they are letting the bugs eat Gauguin paintings. sigh. I love your campfire series here--is this the makings for a book?

Casey Klahn said...

Glad to be at the fire. Reading Alberti so I'm behind, as well.
Glad to be on Modernism, too, since I have cut my teeth on this.

Kathy said...

Celeste - I knew about the eggshell in coffee thing, but don't know how it changes the taste. Ohhhh ... the book "thing." Everybody keeps brining that up to me, and I don't have any plans to write a book. I guess this blog is it :)

Kathy said...

Casey - Great!! You can help me explain Modernism ... I know so much less about it. However, I do like the way Williams presents it in his book. Do share what you know when you feel like it, and also tell us more about Alberti's ideas.

Mark Sheeky said...

A lot to digest here. A few points are coming across, first that each movement seems to be a rebellion against the others, but secondly the constant... that good art should connect.

I'd argue that the ideal that Courbet rebelled against was misunderstood by him because grand historical paintings were designed to connect by being used in such a way to make a contemporary point. They're not scenes from actual history (eep, I'm nearly bumping into pre-Raphaelites here) but allegories. All good art is allegory and metaphor. Courbet didn't have to paint the man next door to tell everyone in the street a message about him. Perhaps he was reacting against art used a propaganda during Napoleonic times.

I'd say impressionism was a rebellion by painters against photography. There was no philosophy of impressionism because the impressionists were not intellectuals, just a mixed bag of painters who were interested in oil painting techniques that weren't smooth and "photographic". To say that they were trying to represent "themselves" or their way of seeing is too lofty I think... at least if they succeeded then boy was Monet a boring person! Their most important contribution I think was the run towards abstraction and people like Kandinsky, thanks to Seurat. But that's enough of my ideas for one reply already!

Can't wait for the next bit :)

Carolina Moon Arts Studio said...

Hey Kathy, Wine...is in the cooler, of course. what else? especially when you are discussing the impressionists. This is interesting because i always thought they had moved away from the main stream of art so they could not only paint their impressions but also to insert their emotional response into what they were painting. I find much emotion in their work as well as impressions of how they were viewing their subject. interesting.

PAMO said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Margaret Ryall said...

" Realism is essentially democratic art." Ve-ry interesting! I never thought about realism in this way before but it does make sense.

I like Zola's ideas of abandoning yourself to your nature and trying not to lie to yourself. Several good friends have given me similar advice when I start obsessing about the kind of art I create. The have a firm conviction that what I create is so right for me and what I am interested in that they have slowly convinced me to believe in my own individuality and produce work accordingly.

Now it's time to put together my own blog post. Wow, I haven't done anything since Tuesday. Two more work days and then a break for awhile. I'm a "substitute" decorator at a Home Decorating Centre - fun to do every now and then, but not too often.

Dan Kent said...

I must confess that I commented on yesterday's post today, since I obviously fell asleep from too much wine and only woke up today, without even realizing I was at the chat, with a huge hangover and hot toes! Aw well..

I always thought of VanGogh as an Expressionist, because his emotions come through so clearly. It seems many of these -isms overlap. What I find interesting (and I hope I am not getting ahead of the discussion - I'll blame my aching head) is that today there are examples of all of the above (plus all the movements of the 20th century), with the result that there seems to be no direction in today's art. Is today's art between movements, so that today's artists merely repeat versions of what has come before? Is the change so gradual that we cannot see it? Or will it take a small group of artists committed to some new movement or idea to advance art in the 21st century?

Kathy said...

Mark, you've given me (us) so much to think about in your comments that I'm going to sleep on my response and then make it the subject of my blog tomorrow. Thanks again for such thought-provoking words!

hwfarber said...

I looked at my bookshelf today, skipped the heavy books, and decided to reread "I, Leonardo" written and illustrated by Ralph Steadman--a signed first Am. edition. (I get great gifts from a a brother who's a rare and used book dealer.) In the book Steadman channels da Vinci. I have just gotten through The Last Supper when he called on the mathematicians for help.

I'll catch up with you around the campfire in about 530 years. By then, I will be a marshmallow.

Kathy said...

Hi Carolyn, I'm glad it's wine :) I, too, have been attracted to the work of the Impressionists over the years and thought I knew something about them until I read Williams' book. Isn't it true that the more we learn the more we realize how little we know???

Kathy said...

Hallie - sounds like a great book! Feel free to share parts of it even if we're in a different time "zone."

Kathy said...

Hi PAMO - I'm a student, like you. Feel free to share whatever you've learned or read. It's an open forum. Yes... I've been looking for the chocolate!

Peggy Stermer-Cox said...

I was thinking earlier today that I like your idea of searching for artistic roots. I see that my ideas have lots of links to the past. It’s like connecting to a long line of artists; an ancient community!

A few comments about todays postings and comments:

Feelings, attitudes and philosophies about art evolve.

Zola gave me permission to be myself...gotta like this guy.

I can see a link to Impressionism, the line between seeing and feeling.

I learned from Gaugin, Munch and VanGogh...about painting expressively

I was mentally heading toward Dan Kent’s comment. My ideas seem to gather bits and pieces of all the movements. Maybe they all share some fundamental truths I can’t but my fingers on. Or, maybe it’s a mongrel of idea, this concept of art.

I’m good at popping corn the old fashioned way....love the chocolate!

-Don said...

I'm a little late chiming in here. First the belly ache from eating all the marshmellows...sorry about that...And then I had to step away from the fire to go enjoy Metallica in concert with my 15 year old son. So, the crickets I hear chirping right now are not the ones in the darkness surrounding our campfire...

As Mark pointed out, most of these isms can be simplified to rebellions of those isms that came before. But, we have to look at them culturally at the same time we look at them aesthetically to truly understand them. Realists (a term practically forced upon them) were not just reacting to the Romanticists but were also dedicated to justice for the working class. In fact, two of the greatest Realists, Daumier and Courbet, served prison time for participating in social movements. I feel that their republican values were a major influence on them choosing to paint everyday scenes using earthier tones.

I'm afraid I have to disagree with Mark regarding Courbet's understanding of the ideals against which he was rebelling. In fact Courbet was quoted as saying that Realism was a "human conclusion which awakened the very forces of man against paganism, Greco-Roman art, the Renaissance, Catholicism, and the gods and demigods, in short against the conventional ideal." He seemed to understand exactly what he was rejecting...

Yes, the Impressionists were rebelling against the camera and what it captures - and misses. But, they were also trying to show the effects of light on natural objects, surfaces, and atmospheric spaces in ways that had never been attempted before in paint. As Kathy pointed out they did not document their theories, but we can look at things told to others to get a sense of what they were about. Monet once told an American lady, "When you go out to paint, try to forget what objects you have before you, a tree, a house, a field or whatever. Merely think, here is a little square of blue, here an oblong of pink, here a streak of yellow, and paint it just as it looks to you, the exact color and shape, until it gives your own naive impression of the scene before you." This was revolutionary at the time. No one had ever painted like this before. Far from boring, if you ask me...

I should stop here now except to say that we are about to cross the threshold into my favorite times in art history and thought. I look forward to your post tomorrow (well, later this morning)...

-Don

Kathy said...

Peggy - thanks for giving us a peek into your "root system!" After following your blog and work for a while, it's interesting to know which influences you identify, and perhaps we all fit into the category of "mongrel." Good word ...

Kathy said...

Don ... thank you for illuminating what I had obscured in my sketchy description of the history of art theory. You filled in a lot of the holes I left, and responded to Mark's ideas as I should have! And, don't worry about the marshmallows ... we have more.
BTW ... Metallica! Wish I had been there :)

Mark Sheeky said...

Touché Don :) Well put. What I was saying about Courbet was essentially that those art forms that sought an ideal WERE still about and for ordinary people, even if they had become irrelevant to the Realists, perhaps due to developments in philosophy. I don't know though :)! The Realist way of thinking is dominant now, conceptual art is realist if nothing else, but I sense a shift to Classicism is coming.

Kathy said...

Mark - you wrote "I sense a shift to Classicism is coming." Yes!! You're way ahead of the game. I was going to make that point around Mile 10 (what will be, I hope, the final mile). The shift has been occurring for nearly five years now and I think it's gaining strength. I've been experimenting in that direction for about a year.

-Don said...

Mark, I now see where you were coming from with your comment on Courbet. Thanks for your clarification.

I'm excited by your (and Kathy's) perceived shift to Classicism coming in the art world. It will be interesting to see what moniker will be assigned to it this time around...

-Don