Research point: The Abstract Expressionists and Action Painting (Tachism)

Updated on 25 March 2017 (Harvard referencing and some content).

8 January 2017. One should never try and guess at the meaning of a word from what you think you know. “Tachism” (French: tachisme) to me appeared obvious, derived from the Greek word for speed, tachos. But not so, the word comes from the French for stain, tache. It is similar to action painting and considered to be more or less synonymous with the Informel, a more intuitive, gesture-centred counter movement to the geometrical analysis of colour and shape as celebrated by e.g. Josef Albers (1888-1976, Germany/USA) and is the 1940/1950s European equivalent to Abstract Expressionism developed in the USA. In contrast to the latter its proponents were somewhat less aggressive and spontaneous in the use of paint (Tate, n.d.(a), Collins, n.d.(a)).
The term “Tachisme” was originally coined much earlier by art critics to describe a number of different approaches to using paint in a “blotchy” way, including Impressionism, while the movement itself developed into one of the largest in Post World War II Europe and comprises works or art “without predefined form or structure”. Mark-making includes everything from any sort of coincidental splotch to calligraphic elements, often directly from the tube (Collins, n.d.(a)). Many contributing artists were either French and/or based in France. Among the most influential artists of the 20th century was Jean Dubuffet (1901-1985, France), co-founder of the Art Brut movement. He is quoted to have said:”Personally, I believe very much in values of savagery; I mean: instinct, passion, mood, violence, madness.” (Collins, n.d.(b)), which to me appears to be at the centre of tachism, i.e. to capture the essence of being in the moment. Most well known Dubuffet became for his rough, provocative graffiti-like paintings of the 1940s and 1950s, e.g. “Grand Maitre of the Outsider” painted in 1947 (Wikiart, n.d.). Gestural painter Hans Hartung (1904-1989, Germany/France, (Tate, n.d. (b))) appears to have interpreted Tachism with a more subtle, delicate and sketchlike brushstroke (Artnet, n.d.; Setareh Gallery, n.d.), and a video showing his gestural approach (Ophanin, 2014). Georges Mathieu (1921-2012, France, (Collins, n.d.(c))) is known for his “spiky, calligraphic style”, which in some way appears related to that of Hartung’s, but its effects (and those of image cultivation, see a video (Warin and Batton, 1965)) greatly increased to quasi Baroque dimensions, in a style described as Lyrical Abstraction. Patrick Heron (1920-1999, UK), on the other hand, was influenced by colour field painting in the style of Mark Rothko and is outstanding in his ingenious use of vivid colour and sensitive compositions including abstract shapes derived from nature (Collins, n.d.(d)).
Franz Kline (1910-1962, USA) and Jackson Pollock (1912-1956, USA, (The Art Story, n.d.(b))) were two preeminent representatives of American Abstract Expressionism. The former trained as a graphical artist and illustrator and his abstract graphical black and white images are considered to be action painting in its purest sense ((The Art Story, n.d.(a))). His technique can be watched in a video here (The Museum of Modern Art, 2010): Kline preferred to use cheap brands of house paint, because their non-art qualities, including the low viscosity, bore a great attraction for him. Action painting as a record of the artist’s movements in time and space is of course present also in the work of Jackson Pollock. The sheer complexity makes the history of mark-making however hardly traceable in any one of his giant size drip and splatter paintings (The Art Story, n.d.(b).
Abstract expressionist has been at the centre of interest ever since its first appearance and the list of artists now working in an abstract expressionist or offshoot way is endless (Pinterest, n.d.). A great number of painters working now have developed the original idea further and combined it with or replaced it by the new techniques offered by the modern media.

References:

Artnet (n.d.) Hans Hartung [image collection] [online]. Artnet, Berlin. Available at: http://www.artnet.com/artists/hans-hartung/ [Accessed 8 January 2017]

Collins, N. (n.d.(a)) Tachisme [online]. Visual Arts Encyclopedia, Cork. Available at: http://www.visual-arts-cork.com/history-of-art/tachisme.htm [Accessed 8 January 2017]

Collins, N. (n.d.(b)) Jean Dubuffet [online]. Visual Arts Encyclopedia, Cork. Available at: http://www.visual-arts-cork.com/famous-artists/jean-dubuffet.htm [Accessed 8 January 2017]

Collins, N. (n.d.(c)) Georges Mathieu [online]. Visual Arts Encyclopedia, Cork. Available at:  http://www.visual-arts-cork.com/famous-artists/georges-mathieu.htm [Accessed 8 January 2017]

Collins, N. (n.d.(d)) Patrick Heron [online]. Visual Arts Encyclopedia, Cork. Available at:http://www.visual-arts-cork.com/famous-artists/patrick-heron.htm [Accessed 8 January 2017]

Ophanin, M. (2014) Radio Palettes – Hans Hartung [online]. Mathieu Ophanin. Available at: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=p625URZ4QWA [Accessed 8 January 2017]

Pinterest (n.d.) Abstrakter Expressionismus [image collection] [online]. Pinterest. Available at: https://www.pinterest.com/explore/abstrakter-expressionismus-926912313435/ [Accessed 8 January 2017]

Setareh Gallery (n.d.) Hans Hartung. Painting – Gesture – Liberation [image collection] [online]. Setareh Gallery, Düsseldorf. Available at: http://www.setareh-gallery.com/werke—hans-hartung-.-malerei—geste—befreiung.html [Accessed 8 January 2017]

Tate (n.d.(a)) Tachisme [online]. Tate, London. Available at: http://www.tate.org.uk/learn/online-resources/glossary/t/tachisme [Accessed 8 January 2017]

Tate (n.d.(b)) Hans Hartung [online]. Tate, London. Available at: http://www.tate.org.uk/art/artists/hans-hartung-1251 [Accessed 8 January 2017]

The Art Story (n.d.(a)) Franz Kline [online]. The Art Story, New York. Available at: http://www.theartstory.org/artist-kline-franz.htm [Accessed 8 January 2017]

The Art Story (n.d.(b)) Jackson Pollock [online]. The Art Story, New York. Available at: http://www.theartstory.org/artist-pollock-jackson.htm [Accessed 8 January 2017]

The Museum of Modern Art (2010) The Painting Techniques of Franz Kline [online]. The Museum of Modern Art, New York, Available at: https://www.khanacademy.org/partner-content/moma/moma-abstract-expressionism/v/moma-painting-technique-kline [Accessed 8 January 2017]

Warin, F. and Batton, J. (1965) Le “Cas” Mathieu [online]. British Pathé. Available at: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=XCEUUONPWwM [Accessed 8 January 2017]

Wikiart (n.d.) Jean Dubuffet: Grand Maitre of the Outsider [online]. Wikiart. Available at: https://www.wikiart.org/en/jean-dubuffet/grand-maitre-of-the-outsider-1947 [Accessed 8 January 2017]

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Research point: Application of paint

Updated on 25 March 2017 (Harvard referencing and some content).

20 December 2016. Apart from random effects achieved e.g. by allowing a pigmented substance to run freely and practically uncontrolled (as e.g. in Hermann Nitsch, *1938, controversial Austrian experimental artist, (Marc Straus Gallery, 2015)), the application of paint is usually a closely observed, tested and corrected process. In classical representational painting textural effects of paint are rarely used. It is applied in a way so as to reproduce as faithfully as possible what is seen and the characteristics of the paint become invisible behind the subject of the painting.
With the advent of the Impressionists, and later the Expressionist, there was a radical change. Not least due to accumulating knowledge in the natural sciences artists became increasingly interested in the physical and chemical properties of the paints they used and in gaining access to means of exploiting them for artistic expression.

Claude Monet (1840-1926, France) was name-giving to the Impressionist movement. He introduced a looser, bolder handling of paint in response of the directly observed environment. In his later years he started building fields of colour with small strokes, looking to introduce surface effects in a dialogue with the colours used (The Art Story, n.d.(a)). In his extensive series of paintings of London’s Waterloo Bridge, created between 1899 and 1904 in oil on canvas, he captured different atmospheric qualities in this way. As e.g. the fog increases and outlines of the buildings become indistinct (top to bottom) Monet adapts his method of applying paint from bold to soft, always with a main focus on the light (Fig. 1-3):

claude_monet_-_waterloo_bridge_-_google_art_project
Figure 1. Claude Monet: “Waterloo Bridge, Sunlight Effect”, 1903a, oil on canvas. Source: Claude Monet (1840-1926) [Public domain] via Wikimedia Commons
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Figure 2. Claude Monet: “Waterloo Bridge”, 1900, oil on canvas. Source: Claude Monet (1840-1926) [Public domain] via Wikimedia Commons
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Figure 3. Claude Monet: “Waterloo Bridge”, 1903b, oil on canvas. Source: Claude Monet (1840-1926) [Public domain] via Wikimedia Commons
Camille Pissarro (1830-1903, Denmark/France) worked with similar ideas but in a less abstract way than Monet. His dashed brushstrokes he used to weave a fabric in which is subjects are embedded (The Art Story, n.d.(b)) (Fig. 4):

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Figure 4. Camille Pissarro: “Apple Harvest”, 1888, oil on canvas. Source: Camille Pissarro (1830-1903) [Public domain] via Wikimedia Commons
Paul Cézanne (1839-1906, France) worked together with Pissarro over a lifetime  and is seen as the main pioneering artist paving the way to all new approaches to addressing the substance qualities of paint. He applied paint in discrete brushstrokes in order to construct and sculpt rather than paint his works of art (The Art Story, n.d.(c)) (Fig. 5):

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Figure 5. Paul Cézanne: “Self-portrait With Pink Background”, oil on canvas, c.1875. Source: Paul Cézanne (1839-1906) [Public domain] via Wikimedia Commons

Vincent Van Gogh (1853-1890, Netherlands) used similarly energetic bushstrokes. While less sculptural in a traditional “Cézanne sense”, their impulsive structural quality helps capture and translate the artist’s emotional state into something literally graspable (The Art Story, n.d.(d)). I went to have a look for examples other than his post-impressionist work “Starry Night”, but returned to it, because I believe there is no better painting to illustrate the above (Fig. 6):

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Figure 6. Vincent Van Gogh: “The Starry Night”, oil on canvas, 1889. Source: Vincent Van Gogh (1853-1890) [Public domain] via Wikimedia Commons
In one analysis of this work (Artble, n.d.) I found an attempt to attribute both his choice of colours and dramatic brushwork to his mental illness, although in his letter describing the development of this painting to his brother Theo he appears extremely focused and thoughtful (Blumer, 2002). It makes me wonder, why a gift of being able to see the world with other than purely rational eyes has to be turned into something insane. Could it be that, apart from the consequences of his long-term alcohol and drug abuse, part of Van Gogh was driven mad by his uncomprehending environment? Certainly with the advent of the Expressionist movement society slowly but gradually became acquainted with the new developments in art and learned to see with different eyes. I suspect that Van Gogh would have made a brilliant Expressionist or 21st century painter with nobody dreaming of branding him as his contemporaries used to do.

While during the period of Impressionism and beyond oil on canvas continued to be favoured by most painters, Expressionists started looking further afield (Boddy-Evans, 2016). With the advent of photography painting was “released from the need to copy nature”, as Henry Matisse (1869-1954, France) put it and artists thus became free in their choice of colour and way of applying paint. Colour, overall, started to be removed from reality, brushwork and paint application became liberal and generous (Tate, n.d.(a)). Oskar Kokoschka (1886-1980, Austria, (Tate, n.d.(b))), for example, was one of its highly influential representatives working far into the second half of the 20th century. Abstract Expressionism (The Smithsonian Studio Arts Blog, 2010) at the other extreme end of the spectrum uses paint in a spontaneous way to recreate emotional states without a connection to reality. Any contributing element, including found objects, can be used and paint may be applied with any conceivable means (The Museum of Modern Art, 2016). Jackson Pollock (1912-1956, USA) (The Art Story, n.d.(e)) was one of its pre-eminent early representatives and famous for his very large size splatter and drip works. He explained – although furiously rejected by some critics analysing his work – that his application of paint was not purely random, but rather a focused dialogue with the developing work of art (The Museum of Modern Art, 2016).

Among the many versatile painting materials available today pastels appear to take a special position. They lend themselves with less ease to the copious and highly gestural use of paint typical of many contemporary art movements. Also, in my opinion, their properties produce neither paintings nor drawings, but a curious and pleasing mix of both (Fig. 7):

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Figure 7. Ants Laikmaa: “Taebla Landscape”, pastel on paper, 1936. Source: Ants Laikmaa (1866-1942) [Public domain] via Wikimedia Commons
I did not find many 20th century pastel painters as instructed by the study guide. They were most popular in the 18th and late 19th centuries, but not since then, which may be owing to the above fact of a relatively restricted field of application and uniform needs in application (mostly sand or velvet papers). It is more their brilliant colours than their structural proterties, which attract artists, so I am not sure whether the subject is truly one for this post. However, they allow the – careful – placement of a number of layers on top of each other, which gives the finished paintings unrivalled depth. The incredible ease of application is attractive for artists working spontaneously, too. A search on the Saatchi online gallery gives a good overview over the range of contemporary pastel painting (Saatchi, n.d.).

Overall, I guess that there may not be a single substance or item that has not yet been used in painting with more or less success. Whatever method is used it becomes clear very quickly that each requires practice, thorough planning and a keen sense for the appropriate. Otherwise there is a real danger of skilled spontaneity changing place with arbitrariness, which is something the human eye is programmed to detect.

References:

Artble (n.d.) Starry Night Analysis [online]. Available at: http://www.artble.com/artists/vincent_van_gogh/paintings/starry_night/more_information/analysis [Accessed 20 December 2016]

Blumer, D. (2002) The Illness of Vincent van Gogh [online]. The American Journal of Psychiatry. Volume 159, Issue 4, 1 April 2002, pp. 519-526. Available at: http://ajp.psychiatryonline.org/doi/full/10.1176/appi.ajp.159.4.519 [Accessed 20 December 2016]

Boddy-Evans, M. (2016) Techniques of the Masters: How to Paint Like an Expressionist. How the Expressionists used color in their paintings [online]. ThoughtCo, 7 November. Available at:  https://www.thoughtco.com/expressionist-masters-painting-techniques-2578608 [Accessed 20 December 2016]

Cézanne, P. (c.1875) Self Portrait With Pink Background [oil on canvas] [online]. Private Collection. Available at: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/List_of_paintings_by_Paul_C%C3%A9zanne#/media/File:Paul_C%C3%A9zanne_160.jpg [Accessed 20 December 2016]

Laikmaa, A. (1936) Tablea Landscape [pastel on paper] [online]. Enn Kunila’s art collection. Available at: https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:ANTS_LAIKMAA_1936_Taebla_maastik.jpg [Accessed 20 December 2016]

Marc Straus Gallery (2015) Hermann Nitsch [online]. Marc Straus Gallery, New York. Available at: http://www.marcstraus.com/exhibitions/hermann-nitsch/ [Accessed 20 December 2016]

Monet, C. (1900) Waterloo Bridge [oil on canvas] [online]. Santa Barbara Museum of Art . Available at: https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Claude_Monet_-_Waterloo_Bridge_(W_1555).jpg [Accessed 20 December 2016]

Monet, C. (1903a) Waterloo Bridge, Sunlight Effect [oil on canvas] [online]. Denver Art Museum. Available at: https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Claude_Monet_-_Waterloo_Bridge_-_Google_Art_Project.jpg [Accessed 20 December 2016]

Monet, C. (1903b) Waterloo Bridge  [oil on canvas] [online]. Hermitage Museum, Saint Petersburg. Available at: https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Claude_Monet_-_Waterloo-Br%C3%BCcke_-_1903.jpeg [Accessed 20 December 2016]

Pissarro, C. (1888) Apple Harvest [oil on canvas] [online]. Dallas Museum of Art. Available at: https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Apple_Harvest_by_Camille_Pissarro.jpg [Accessed 20 December 2016]

Saatchi (n.d.) Results for: pastel [image collection] [online]. Saatchi Art, Santa Monica. Available at: http://www.saatchiart.com/all?query=pastel [Accessed 20 December 2016]

Tate (n.d.(a) Expressionism [online]. Tate, London. Available at: http://www.tate.org.uk/learn/online-resources/glossary/e/expressionism [Accessed 20 December 2016]

Tate (n.d.(b) Oskar Kokoschka [online]. Tate, London. Available at: http://www.tate.org.uk/art/artists/oskar-kokoschka-1430 [Accessed 20 December 2016]

The Art Story (n.d.(a)) Claude Monet [online]. The Art Story, New York. Available at: http://www.theartstory.org/artist-monet-claude.htm [Accessed 20 December 2016]

The Art Story (n.d.(b)) Camille Pissarro [online]. The Art Story, New York. Available at: http://www.theartstory.org/artist-pissarro-camille.htm [Accessed 20 December 2016]

The Art Story (n.d.(c)) Paul Cézanne [online]. The Art Story, New York. Available at: http://www.theartstory.org/artist-cezanne-paul.htm [Accessed 20 December 2016]

The Art Story (n.d.(d)) Vincent van Gogh [online]. The Art Story, New York. Available at: http://www.theartstory.org/artist-van-gogh-vincent.htm [Accessed 20 December 2016]

The Art Story (n.d.(e)) Jackson Pollock [online]. The Art Story, New York. Available at: http://www.theartstory.org/artist-pollock-jackson.htm [Accessed 20 December 2016]

The Museum of Modern Art (2016) Abstract Expressionism: The Processes and Materials of Abstract Expressionist Painting [online]. The Museum of Modern Art, New York. Available at: https://www.moma.org/learn/moma_learning/themes/abstract-expressionism/the-processes-and-materials-of-abstract-expressionist-painting [Accessed 20 December 2016]

The Smithsonian Studio Arts Blog (2010) Tips and Techniques: Abstract Expressionist Painting
[blog] [online]. Smithsonian Studio Arts, Washington DC. Available at: http://startstudioarts.si.edu/2010/04/tips-and-techniques-abstract-expressionist-painting.html [Accessed 20 December 2016]

Van Gogh, V. (1889) The Starry Night  [oil on canvas] [online]. Museum of Modern Art, New York. Available at: https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Van_Gogh_-_Starry_Night_-_Google_Art_Project.jpg [Accessed 20 December 2016]