Research point: Figures in interiors

Updated on 12 March 2017 (Harvard referencing)..

7 September 2016. A choice of two or three examples for paintings of persons in interiors is not a lot to gain a comprehensive overview over the subject. On the other hand, a careful selection may allow to see changes in perception of the relationship between rooms and their occupants over the centuries.

First an example for Northern European genre painting, i.e. that period of time starting in  16th century Flanders, when the middle class first came into wealth, which allowed them to become interested in the interiors of their homes and surround themselves with paintings. The everyday situations depicted preferably – i.e. persons in their interiors – exerted a special appeal and became immensely popular at that time (Meagher, 2008).
Having to pick a painting I found that I was eerily uncomfortable with most scenes, no matter how brilliant the painting. For some unknown reason they felt both familiar and totally dark and foreign, so I went for a more lighthearted watercolour by Adriaen van Ostade (1610 – 1685, Dutch Republic) (Fig. 1):

ostade_reading_the_news
Figure 1. Adriaen van Ostade: “Reading the News at the Weavers’ Cottage Department”, 1673, ink and watercolour. Source: Adriaen van Ostade (1610-1685) [Public domain] via The Metropolitan Museum of Art
The scene looks tidy, pleasant and at ease (maybe this is the special appeal to me, overwhelmed by our own situation as I am), the people look well-fed and comparatively well dressed. The weaver’s family is seated in a makeshift arrangement near the open door, presumably in order to allow the reader of the newspaper to see the print. As stated by Meagher (2008) the Dutch Republic was a poineer nation to publish newspapers on a regular basis at a time when being able to read the news and interpret the contents was by no means natural. I guess that one of the purposes of the depicted scene is the presentation of the family as well-educated and involved in the public affairs of the country. By producing a stable triangle consisting of the three grown-ups the primary focal point lies at the centre of the lower half of the open door, which at the same time is one of the brighter areas of the interior. While there is nothing in particular to see in that spot this setup might carry a message, although I might be totally wrong here: By opening the door light, and thus enlightenment, can enter the inside of the house. Both lie at the foundations of a prosperous family and this is what the commissioner of the painting may have had in mind.

When flicking through “Vitamin P2” (Schwabsky, 2011) in order to gain an overview over the trends of the present decade, I got the impression that there might be an increasing interest in fusing interiors of buildings with the interior, so to speak, of their occupants, and even the paintings themselves with the interiors of the buildings they are presented in. It is as if artists were investigating the limits of dissolving boundaries between all insides and outsides. After Vitamin P2 the concept of figures in interiors appeared somewhat outdated.

So I had to go elsewhere for more information. Looking for contemporary examples I came across the following in the Saatchi online gallery, by Sherre Wilson-Liljegren, called “Gallery Visit” (Wilson-Liljegren, n.d.). The style is described as magical realism. There is nothing like a gallery visit to be seen in this painting, two cuddling baboons are seated on a stylish sofa in a living room, which is bare except for an electric fan on the floor and a painting above a tall radiator. I like the setup, the extraordinary idea, the colours and the wonderful light in that painting. There is not a lot I could speculate about on the artist’s intentions for choosing such an arrangement, but it is a nice and at the same time worrying concept that other primates might take over seamlessly from what a failed human species left behind. Here the interior does not fit the occupants at all and this is what creates an impulse to have a closer look at a subjectwise inconspicuous painting.

A more typical example for what a present-day painted representation of figures in an interior might look like I found on Saatchi, too, by Pavel Kryz, “The Television” (Kryz, n.d.). The piece radiates that weird uninvolvedness, which I mentioned before in a number of research posts and which seems to have infected 21th century artists at a pandemic rate. Both the room and the person seem totally exchangeable, there is nothing there to help guess whether the man belongs in that space or was left there by the owner of the room. He seems unable to change anything about his position or the situation and his hovering near the wall radiates discomfort. Personally I find this style unspiring, because I feel that whatever there is to see in such a painting will make no difference to me or the world whatsoever. I rather wish for 21st century artists to take responsibility and get involved with all their strength. At least this is where I want to see myself with my own work.

References:

Kryz, P. (n.d.) The Television [acrylic on canvas] [online]. [n.k.]. Available at: https://www.saatchiart.com/art/Painting-The-television/295200/187012/view [Accessed 7 September 2016]

Meagher, J. (2008) Genre Painting in Northern Europe [online]. The Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York. Available at: http://www.metmuseum.org/toah/hd/gnrn/hd_gnrn.htm [Accessed 7 September 2016]

Schwabsky, B. (2011) Vitamin P2. Phaidon Press, London.

van Ostade, A. (1673) Reading the News at the Weaver’s Cottage [watercolour and ink on paper] [online]. The Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York. Available at: http://www.metmuseum.org/toah/works-of-art/1997.117.10/ [Accessed 7 September 2016]

Wilson-Liljegren, S. (n.d.) Gallery Visit [oil on wood] [online]. [n.k.]. Available at: https://www.saatchiart.com/art/Painting-Gallery-Visit/326795/2225738/view [Accessed 7 September 2016]

 

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