Updated on 22 March 2017 (Harvard referencing and some contents).
17 November 2016. The period of Fauvism (The Art Story, n.d.(a)) was a brief interlude in the history of painting, lasting a mere nine years between 1899 and 1908. Initially inspired by (post)-Impressionist painters Van Gogh, Seurat, Gauguin and Cézanne, pupils of symbolist painter Gustave Moreau established a group following common interests led by Henri Matisse. Their main interest was in using intense and pure colour in the transportation of emotion while ignoring aspects of perspective and thus proved groundbreaking for the emergence of Expressionism and means of abstraction. Colour was no longer used in a purely representational way, but was chosen to transport emotion in an overall strong, balanced composition. The most influential work of art belonging to this period is “Le Bonheur de Vivre” by Henri Matisse (1869-1954, France) (The Barnes Foundation, 2017). Other well-known examples are “The Mountains at Collioure”painted by André Derain during a holiday with Matisse in 1905 (National Gallery of Art, 2017) or “Le Viaduc de l’Estaque” by Cubist-to-be Georges Braque (1882-1963, France) (video discussion by Harris and Zucker, n.d.).
Fauvism was to provide the initial spark also for German Expressionism, a movement lasting from 1905 until about 1937 (Museum of Modern Art, n.d.(a)). Ernst Ludwig Kirchner and Wassily Kandinsky were some of the founding fathers of the movement, which emerged more or less simultaneously in Dresden and Munich (Encyclopaedia of Art History, n.d.). The members of the group shared a humanistic worldview and “ambivalent attitude towards modernity” (Museum of Modern Art (n.d.(a)), thus was not only an artistic endeavour like Fauvism: besides striving for a means of making visible the emotions felt by the artist while painting th emovement reflected an all-encompassing position borne by a number sub-movements (Encyclopaedia of Art History, n.d.) such as “Die Brücke”, “Der Blaue Reiter” and somewhat later “Die Neue Sachlichkeit” (Museum of Modern Art (n.d.(a)) within the 20th century. Over the many decades of its existence, a great number of artists were members of German Expressionism, who before that and/or after its end were representatives of other art movements as well. Ernst Ludwig Kirchner (1880-1938), for example, was a founding member of the “Die Brücke” group (1905-1913) (The Art Story, n.d.(b)), which was pioneering in leading the development of painting in Germany towards Expressionism. A good example of Kirchner’s style is “Snow Over Davos” (Fig. 1).
Among Kirchner’s “Die Brücke” colleagues were e.g. Erich Heckel (1883-1970), who contributed a large selection of prints (Museum of Modern Art, n.d.(b)) or Karl Schmidt-Rottluff (1884-1976), see e.g. “Village Square” painted in 1919 (The Athenaeum, n.d.). Wassily Kandinsky and Franz Marc were the pioneers of the loose “Blauer Reiter” group (The Art Story, n.d.(c)), which ended, when Marc and colleague August Macke died during World War I.
Fluctuation seems to have characterized the movement of German Expressionism overall, reflecting the troubled times in the first half of the 20th century. It was then only another cruel twist of fate that the movement as a whole should in the end fall victim to the Nazi regime, which in its notorious “degenerate art” campaign either destroyed or sold the works of art “in exchange for foreign currency”. The expulsion from the Prussian Academy of Käthe Kollwitz (1867-1945), one of the most influential formative forces of the humanistic momentum within German Expressionism (Awad, 2011), appears to mark the imminent end of “official” German Expressionism. Many artists either emigrated or decided to continue working in seclusion, thereby continuing to exert their influence on the development of painting either via non-public channels or else from outside Germany (Museum of Modern Art (n.d.(a)).
Updated on 20 February 2017 (Harvard referencing and reworking of contents).
14 April 2016. While in the everyday world we have everything but a still life it is an attractive idea to sit down and do some research on just that, objects around us taken and captured for what a human mind might call an eternity, by the means of paint.
On the Tate homepage I found a most to the point definition of still life: “One of the principal genres (subject types) of Western art – essentially, the subject matter of a still life painting or sculpture is anything that does not move or is dead” (Tate, n.d.). What seems commonplace from a 21st century viewpoint was revolutionary at the time the genre was developed. Until the 17th century only a few privileged private persons or institutions like the church or royalty could afford paintings at all. With the rise of the new merchant class in the Netherlands they came within reach of a wider public and so subjects changed away somewhat from the traditional demonstrating of ruling power. Still lifes thus became immensely popular with both artists as a field of experimentation and budding art lovers, who were without doubt introduced to a radically different concept of seeing the world around them.
17 April 2016. Having a closer look at the history of still life painting I react in the same way as I used to when I was still a child. I cannot keep my eyes off the breathtaking arrangements, the incredible translation of light into paint, and still … The French “nature morte” is for me exactly what I feel when looking at still life arrangements. There is, maybe only for me, something dead about the objects, whether tools of everyday use, fruit, vegetables or animals. There is a feeling of abandonment, not as if the owner of the objects had just left the room to go for a walk, but as if they had been interrupted in a feast by some invisible disaster. They remind me of the famous 1957 novel by Nevil Shute “On the Beach”, where after an unprecedented nuclear war the last people alive on Earth await their certain end by radiation sickness. Shute describes such abandoned places in his novel. Briefly I thought of including the novel in my planning for Assignment 2, but a short read made me aware that as things are I may not be strong enough mentally. Never mind, back to the 17th century.
I started my journey with one of the most renowned of the Dutch still life painters, Willem Kalf (1619-1693) (Fig. 1):
I cannot help but admire the wonderful use of the chiaroscuro technique in the chosen painting above. The objects are arranged, before a very dark background which makes no other contribution to the painting except being the background, in a pyramid shape, where from the base upwards the objects become increasingly delicate until there is nothing but a reflection on glass to form the tip of the pyramid. Although the bowl containing fruit is tilted to the left, there is an incredible balance in the arrangement. Neither the folded carpet in the foreground not its counterpart in balance, the illuminated corner of the table with some wonderfully delicate piece of jewellery (probably an earring or similar), would be believable without its counterpart. Interestingly, the earring itself has a further counterpart in balance in the bright reflection off the glass of white wine. If I cover it with a finger, the reflection on the glass of white wine is directly affected, the balance of the painting is thereby pushed towards the left. If on the other hand, the reflection is covered, the overall balance of the painting seems undisturbed, but one of the main points of interest is suddenly gone. What I learn from looking at this painting is that it takes outstanding sensitivity to create, control and paint an arrangement in such a way. The objects interact with one another in a multitude of ways, none of which can be omitted or replaced without unbalancing the composition and very likely its hidden meaning. The peeled lemon, and other fruit, are some of the many symbols used by painters of the time to point out the ephemeral nature of life (commonly known as “vanitas paintings”). Other symbols include skulls, musical instruments, all sorts of dead animals and plants, smoke or objects measuring time.
In contrast to the above is another still life painting, this time by Jan Weenix (ca. 1641?-1719) (Fig. 2):
Although in the above painting without doubt both arrangement and painting are delicate and breathtakingly realistic, and while the objects depicted are full of meaning and the background provides an idealized landscape, I do not feel the same awe as with Kalf’s much more reduced approach. Maybe again it is just me who as an ecologist prefers life to hunter-inflicted death, but there is also too much of everything packed on the canvas, just as if Weenix had wanted to impress his viewers by saying: “Look here, I can do this, and this as well, and this, and that …”
A representative flower painting from the 17th century was created by Jan Brueghel the Younger (1601-1678) (Fig. 3):
Again, and probably due to my modern biologist’s training, I would rather want to see the overwhelming number of different flowers in their respective habitats or a garden. The arrangement itself however is wonderful, light and colours carefully balanced, and the characteristics of each species faithfully reproduced, including even some visiting insects. At the time of painting the approach will have been nothing less but revolutionary, going hand in hand with the increased interest in the workings of nature, the beginnings of explorer travelling and the early approach to understanding nature. The latter was fuelled by the feeling of living on a vast planet with endless resources, most yet undiscovered and undescribed and by an urge to collect and bring back home and own much, much more of what was found than was would in the end be needed (own experience gained over a long period of time when working in our local natural science museum). Not surprisingly the whole was, as always, another expression of power. Coming to think of that, most still lifes of the time will have served exactly that purpose after all.
During the 18th century still life painting techniques were, from what I could find, not much changed if somewhat less sombre concerning their backgrounds, so that I omit examples from that period. A number of examples can be found on Wikimedia Commons (2016).
In the 19th century there was a side by side existence of traditional still life painting with a tendency to be more adventurous regarding both style and subject. For example, the “Mound of Butter” by Antoine Vollon (1833-1900) (Fig. 4) has all the traditional characteristics including a dark background, a staggered arrangement, both front to back and bottom to top and a carefully balanced position of the objects, but although Vollon was a realist painter, the brushstrokes appear impressionist. Both eggs and butter might of course be interpreted as vanitas symbols.
In contrast to the above Vincent van Gogh (1853-1890, Netherlands) in one of his “violent” still lifes below disregarded all conventions (Fig. 5): viewpoint from above, seemingly arbirary arrangement in more or less two dimensions, light background, fierce brushstrokes draw the view towards the centre and by means of what I would call “lines of energy” back out towards the edges. Some of the fruit and leaves appear not to lie on a firm surface, so I suspect that what looks like waves may well be shallow water.
One of the highly productive still life painters of the 19th century leading far into the 20th century was Henri Matisse (1869-1954, France). While his approach was somewhat more traditionalist, Matisse was highly interested in including background and further surroundings in the arrangement. He played with patterns of cloth and walls and was much less interested in the realistic reproduction of natural characteristics than in expressing a feeling coming with an arrangement. In the early painting below (Fig. 6) that particular morning light (I may be wrong) comes with a wisp of summer air hovering above the arrangement with a hint of freshly made coffee. But even in this case, strangely enough, I have a feeling that someone just left the breakfast table for good, never to return.
See in comparison one of his later still lifes “Large Red Interior” (Matisse, 1948), where the play with patterns is pushed very far. I get the impression that the whole room became a pattern itself in the process. This painting could not be further from the early Dutch approach.
The same could be said of Pablo Picasso (1881-1973, Spain) and Georges Braque (1882-1963, France) during their Cubist periods. In the painting below by Georges Braque (Fig. 7), the real boundaries of objects are dissolved and rearranged in a more abstracted manner, while a three-dimensional representation was not intended. Is is rather that it was attempted to include the information taken from several viewpoints in order to create an increased density of knowledge about an object to be transported to the viewer (The Art Story, n.d.):
Today, the drawing and painting of still lifes is still considered essential in mastering all the basic techniques required of a painter. The professionally created arrangements are, however, much more adventurous, mostly less aimed at faithfully reproducing nature or exploring the characteristics of paint and light, but there to provoke unusual thought and illusions, e.g. this collection of Postmodern Still Life (Pinterest, 2016):
Finally here comes a selection from Saatchi online gallery illustrating some more of today’s diverse still life landscape. I made the choice not with favourites in mind, but to show a small potpourri of possibilities: “Still Life” (van de Lande, n.d.), “Something Like a Still Life” (Edmunds, 2015), “Still Life with Check Tablecloth” (McEwan, n.d.), “Plastic Animal Still Life with Leopard Print Cloth” (Ridley, n.d.), “21st Century Still Life” (Hinojos, n.d.), “Blue Still Life (Puyandaev, n.d.) or “Box and Nail Box Still Life Square” McHarrie (n.d.).
Matisse, H. (1948) Large Red Interior [oil on canvas] [online] Georges Pompidou Center, Paris. Available at: https://www.wikiart.org/en/henri-matisse/large-red-interior-1948 [Accessed 20 February 2017]