Shock of the View
Contemporary or modern art is a phrase that is often met with a rolling of the eyes and an audible groan from the casual art critic. Typically, the vast majority of men and women tend to appreciate, or at least “understand” more dated artistic styles like Neo-Classicism or Renaissance works. The most often argued reason for this understanding is that the observer can clearly make out images in a well-defined manner; the figures are made realistically in every aspect of their creation. These same people, when faced with vibrant colors of the Impressionists, the anguished energy of the Expressionists, or the seemingly bizarre arrangements of rock or sand in the art of the Land or Earthworks artists, are simply confounded or confused by the images present. All too often, the casual art critic or lover will dismiss these works without truly realizing the underlying meaning or messages behind these pieces, or the level of actual skill involved in the creation of said pieces.
The age of modern arts begins sometime late in the span of the Romantic age of arts, sometime in the late 19th century. The term “modern arts” is a catch-all type of phrase…one that involves multiple artistic disciplines and genres well into the 20th century. Three of the more well-know genres of modern art are Impressionism, Expressionism, and earthworks. In an attempt to unravel the seeming complexities of these three artistic styles, a brief definition of them all will be presented. Further, a brief introduction to the theories, techniques, and histories of Impressionism, Expressionism, and Earthworks will be provided as well as a presentation of one example of each style. Through an analysis of these artists and their works, a better understanding of what Impressionism, Expressionism, and Earthworks will be acquired, leading to a better understanding and appreciation of these artistic forms.
Impressionism is defined in the text The Western Humanities as an artistic style “marked by an attempt to catch spontaneous impressions, often involving the play of sunlight on ordinary events and scenes observed outdoors” (Matthews ****). This definition is at best a broad overview of Impressionism and at worst a monumental understatement. Impressionism, by and large, was a product of its very age. The latter half of the 19th century was marked by continual breakthroughs in technology and an ever-quickening pace to society and day to day living. At this time, the invention of the camera was of immense importance to the visual arts. Although universally hailed as a technological wonder, the camera was viewed as a threat to the painter of this era. “Because the camera could capture a sitter, an event, or a scene more quickly and more realistically than the painter could, no artist was needed to transcribe reality” (Russell 350). This forced many artists to seek no avenues or outlets for their artistic expressions. No painter could seek to capture the immediacy or the detail of a photograph. As a result, there undoubtedly was a marked decline in portrait paintings and other ‘realistic’ renderings of the artist’s brush. Edouard Manet first broached this dilemma. A French painter, Manet began to combine a number of styles sometimes referred to as “Protoimpressionism” (Russell 350). Manet’s works were provocative, often choosing exotic subjects and rendering them with broad or flat areas of color and seeking a way to capture the brilliance of the suns natural brilliance in brilliant, shocking colors (Russell 350). Manet broke away from tradition in a variety of ways and suffered the barbs and taunts of art critics everywhere for his aggressive innovations. In essence, Manet broke the rules and helped to lay the foundations for what Impressionism would become.
Stylistically, Impressionism owes a debt to Realism and Romanticism. Yet, at the same time, Impressionism marked the first true departure from the Realistic tradition that had dominated art since the 14th century (Matthews ****). Further, it serves to bridge the “gulf” between the traditional and modern worlds (White ****). Impressionists saw the challenges the camera presented and responded in kind, creating a form of artistic expression that was designed to capture the fleeting moment as a camera might. Impressionists by definition sought to capture the immediacy of the moment. The application of paints reflects this ideology, often appearing to be applied in a haphazard or slapdash fashion. In effect, the Impressionist painter hoped to paint an image in the same amount of time it took to see it (Hughes 113). This was a challenge to the artists on many fronts. First and foremost, it was a challenge to the age-old concept of painting indoors in the studio. Even landscapes were rarely, if ever, painted outside the studio proper. Thus, the Impressionist needed to find a way to escape the constraints of the studio and, in effect, the constraints of generations-old rules of artistic style and creativity handed down since the Romanesque age.
In order to escape the limitations of the [L1] studio, the Impressionists embraced technology. The discovery of new chemical dyes and oils allowed for paint to now be kept in tubes (Matthews ****). With the addition of lighter or collapsible materials, the Impressionist painter left their allegorical cave, and like the man in Plato’s story, ventured forth into a world of unrestrained color. The effect was instantaneous. The artists realized that the world was wonderfully colored -- that not all grass was green and not all the skies were blue as had been represented faithfully in the visual arts for eons. Indeed, each “motif in nature is multicolored as a part of a screen of hues that change perceptibly with the shifting sun” (White ****). The colors the Impressionist used then were designed to capture the subtle shades the sun creates at various points in the day. In the effort to capture that “moment” artists vigorously painted without stopping to refine their strokes (White ****). The image then has that seem feeling of a sketch, the same spontaneity that defines that form. Further, due to their desire to understand and appreciate the colors in the world, any object might find its way to being the subject of a painting depending on how the light hits it at a particular time of day. Their eyes became attuned to capturing various atmospheric conditions as well as an eye for the subtleties of movement (Russell ****). Their colors were enriched by the fact that painters worked directly on primed canvases, not bothering with the typical umber hued base coating that was typical practice at the time (Russell ****).
What the Impressionists created then was their own vision of a transient moment imbued upon a canvas in broken colors, flat shapes, emphasized visual sensations, and unusual perspectives (Russell ****). To look at an Impressionist piece is to be transported to that transient moment; a moment where the artist has broken up seemingly solid surfaces, has concentrated on the play of light over objects and people, and has stressed the vivid contrasts between colors bathed in sunlight or immersed in shades (Matthews ****). Their works tend to focus on the fleeting or fragmentary, creating a vibrant and optimistic image of society with a sense of shimmering immediacy (Sporre ****). In the canvas of an Impressionist colors can stand for thoughts or moods with short and choppy strokes of the brush. At close range the objects seem unintelligible; a mish mash of colors thrown together. In the words of one critic, it seems that “Impressionists fired their paint at the canvas with pistols” (Tansey 923). Ah, but the canvas is not simply a perception of an object or group. It is a looking glass directly into the lives, world, and minds of the painters themselves; a world that is in a perpetual state of flux with no discernible focal point. It is a world “emptiness is given the same weight as fullness” (White ** **). These ideals are evident in the works of Claude Monet.
Claude Monet (1840-1926) was a French Impressionist painter who made his mark rendering very non-traditional images like rivers, cathedrals, waterponds, and haystacks. Monet’s childhood was a happy one, gaining an early reputation with his caricature sketches until a chance meeting with Eugene Boudin in 1858 served to turn his passions to landscape and open-air paintings (Gaunt 279). His career was marked by critical and financial successes, allowing him to travel extensively and to engage in the lifelong passion of gardening (Gaunt 279). His last great work was painting a series of water-lily prints, using his very own gardens as the subject and inspiration for the work.
Monet’s water-lily prints began around 1904 and the dates of execution for many of them are unknown. The Waterlilies print contained in Robert Hughes’ text The Shock of the New (plate 78) will be examined. This particular figure is impressive in its size and scale for an oil painting on canvas. Measuring a considerable 79 by 168 inches, Waterlilies creates a feel for the spectator of being “enclosed by Monet’s vision of a nature which absorbs all sounds, all sights, all color, and all light into itself” (Hamilton 108). This work intersperses a hodge-podge of colors including visible yellows, blues, reds, and greens into a massive open form figure. There is no classical balance point and there is no discernible horizon. The viewer’s eye sweeps across the surface of the pond, skimming across the interspersed lilies. Water fills the entire frame of the work with flashes of light reflected upon the surface. The colors of the image are in accordance to perhaps a morning sun, the colors a vivid, yet not completely realized, locked into neutral dark shades. The heavy use of brush stroke is easily recognized here. We can almost imagine Monet standing before this pond, desperately racing to capture the play of sunlight across this image before it changes. Monet presents for us what the pond and lilies simply are, a flat image with an array of images evident across the surface: “the clouds and lilypads and cat’s-paws of wind, the dark patches of reflected foliage, the abysses of dark blue and the opaline shimmer of light from the sky…all compressed together in a shallow space, a skin like the space of painting” (Hughes 124). Monet’s creates for us a field of dynamic nuances comprised strictly from his energy and artistic vision (Hughes 124). The painting conceived here seems endless and rhythmic, bristling with life in the artists attempt to capture the fleeting moment. Everything about this image speaks confidently in the Impressionists tongue. An outdoor scene created with a thick and hurried application of paint, a rejection of the timed realism that the old masters would have been bound to, and presentation of simple beauty as worthy and representational of the underlying optimism of the age. Monet’s work stands as a giant in the Impressionist canon.
Expressionism, by contrast, was a very different art style. It does, indeed, owe its birth to the Impressionists and their attitudes towards color and light. The Impressionists had opened the door for the idea of color representing moods more than they had in the past. This fit perfectly well for the Expressionists, who sought to use emotionally fueled color to create a stark and sometimes frightening painted image of life.
Expressionism is defined as an “artistic movement characterized by the expression of personal feeling rather than objective reality” (Matthews ****). Simply, where Impressionists sought to create an impression of the moment, the Expressionist sought to express emotions. The Expressionists owe their art style to the vision of Vincent Van Gogh and Edvard Munch -- two men who sought to transcribe their own inner struggles and paranoia onto the face of the canvas. These men used the canvas as the vehicle for their “autobiographical outpouring”, showing their vulnerabilities and their insecurities to the eye of the viewer (White ****). And while Munch and Van Gogh are often grouped as Impressionist painters, their desire to vent their frustrations onto the canvas is eerily recognizable and much more dramatic than the lighthearted subject matter of the nominal Impressionist. And while the Impressionist uses color to capture the mood of the atmosphere or the room or the subject, the Expressionist uses color to aggressively display the mood of the artist in an attempt to depict the stress filled realities of modern life (Tansey ****).
It might be argued that the works of the Expressionist is therapeutic. Indeed, Richard Tansey states in his text Art Through the Ages that Expressionist art is produced by an “inner necessity” (Tansey 968). Impressionism was an attempt to capture the beauty and versatility of colors on the earth, a way of showing exuberance, optimism, and trying to convey the image of the now onto the canvas. For the Expressionist, the task was much different. They were “troubled by the dehumanized and materialistic world they saw” (Russel ****). They were much more concerned with the Self by the time Expressionism hit its heyday in the early part of the 20th century. The utopian ideals that had once seemed so promising in the previous ages now seemed distant and unattainable. The continuing progress of technology and society continually threatened to leave humanity behind. This insecurity on the hearts and minds of the Expressionist became so strong that the artist had not choice but to “recoil upon himself”; the Self being the only secure place in a hostile world (Hughes ****). As a result, the Self was in constant turmoil, a “battleground on which the forces of desire battle with social restraint” (White ****).
Stylistically, the Expressionists focused on a joint artist/respondent reaction to their composition of elements (Sporre ****). For them, any element, whether line or color or form, could be emphasized to elicit a specific response (Sporre ****). The subject itself mattered very little; it was the message the image and the colors conveyed that was crucial. It was also crucial that the image somehow evoked the same emotional response in the viewer that it had in the artist (Sporre ****). Thus, Expressionism refused to paint ‘safe’ objects, opting for more poignant figures that were designed to respond to the uncertainty of the world with despair, anxiety, and helplessness (Matthews ****).
Edvard Munch (1863-1944) is an innovative trendsetter in Expressionistic art. Munch was a Norwegian painter who was afflicted with a crippling sense of “human isolation” who “expressed alienation, anxiety, and despair” in many of his works (Russel 362). While his legacy has been largely relegated to his homeland where the vast majority of his works are kept, he is important nonetheless because “he was the first modern painter to make a continuous study of the idea that personality is created by conflict” (Hughes 276). And if inner conflict is one of the necessary ingredients for Expressionism, then Munch might have been overqualified. His family consisted of a “ranting religious bigot” for a father, a mother who was a “submissive wreck”, and a sister who perished young by the ravages of tuberculosis (Hughes 277). By his own volition, Munch’s life was populated by “disease and insanity . . .the black angels on guard art my cradle” (qtd. in Hughes 277). As a result, much of Munch’s early years were spent in the sickroom, watching his sister waste away or his mother succumb to nervous anxieties. This undoubtedly led to creating an image of family quite retrograde to what most of us hope for in our own lives. The seeds were planted early for Munch’s aggressive Expressionistic images deathbeds, sickly women, and screaming souls.
The Scream, hailed as Munch’s most poignant work, was executed in 1893. It is an oil painting on canvas and measures a modest 36 by 29 inches. The Scream is dominated by a sexless, hairless figure in the foreground. The figure is very gaunt. Its hands, rendered with little detail, try desperately to cover its ears in an attempt to drown out the sound of the world. Its mouth gapes open in an oval shape, silently screaming at us from the void of its world. The screamer wears a simple, dark colored shirt or robe that undulates and swings with his body. The screamer stands on what appears to be a boardwalk with the railing of the fence rocketing past him on his left side. The urgency of the image is made even more prominent by the couple who stands beyond the screamer, apparently unaffected by what ails the poor soul. To the right, the water of either lake or ocean sweeps past with thick brush strokes, meeting the dominant tan shaded beach as well as the disturbing reds and oranges of the sunset sky that cuts a swath across the horizontal axis, separating sea and land from the air. The screamer’s face shows little detail other than the rudimentary inclusion of eyes and nostrils. The image stands as visual metaphor for modern alienation (Matthews 496). The railing racing past the figure can be construed as representing the passage of time; the ever quickening pace of society leaving segments of humanity behind, raging at a world that passes them by unnoticed as in the couple in the background. The railing, being the primary man-made construct in the work, reinforces the notion of technology and society. The swirling of the colors creates the feel of an unnatural world. The heavy orange and red of the sky could signify the emotions of anger while the deep recesses of the blue sea could represent a semblance of despair or melancholy. Further, as many Expressionists felt the apocalyptic despair of their modern age, the sunset could stand as a metaphor for the end of humanity. The screamer stands still in its twilight as the rail fence, again a token of progress and industrialism, races ever onward. Munch’s own screamer is study of bleak, neutral colors; a figure who stands off as a pall on the thick colored currents of the world.
The image of the screamer him or herself is based on a real figure of an Incan mummy, not Munch himself, which has been often surmised. The Incan mummy was displayed at the Parisian Great Exposition of 1889 (Hughes 285). It had been buried in the fetal position, one that was an emblem of fright, despair, and the heady need for a semblance of security (Hughes 285). The Incan mummy was quite the rage among European painter at this time. Paul Gauguin reportedly used its image in a number of his painted works as an image of death (Hughes 285).
While the figure looks nothing like Munch, we cannot be hasty to dismiss it as the mirror of his very soul. Munch had scribbled the words “Can only have been painted by a madman” in upper part of the picture, a bleak badge of Munch’ self-assessed self-worth. His emotional isolationism can be witnessed by the physical isolation of his screamer. Truly, “one senses the separation between normal and neurotic experiences in the two ordinary figures, walking on, for whom the sunset holds no such terrors; they cannot hear the Scream” (Hughes 285). Truly Munch’s The Scream stands identifiable as an Expressionist work. The colors are baleful and represent more emotion than images of the Impressionists. Further, Munch’s image conveys the human figures own fears as the driving force of the image creating a pessimistic world, one vastly different than Monet’s world of tranquil water-lilies and fleeting optimism.