2019-20: The Age of Becoming Modern
The images included with the text below are just a few of those discussed during the season. To appreciate any one of them, you should click on it to obtain an enlargement. If you start with the first, it's possible to progress through all of them in sequence.
The period 1850 to 1914 was one of social, economic and political changes that led to innovative artists feeling free to defy established conventions. The Eiffel Tower by Delaunay (1911, right) illustrates the choosing of new kinds of subject-matter from an artist's own time. Also, its modern style informed by Cubism illustrates the use of new ways of painting, refusing to be constrained by traditional perspective and spurred by the developing art of photography to do what a camera could not. Artists set out to represent their sensations in front of a subject rather than just appearances. Brush marks, instead of being smoothed out, were made visible and turned to account. Non-natural colour and distortions of forms were used to represent ideas rather than reality.
Our period began with fresh emphases on realism. The Stonebreakers by Courbet (1849, left) enlists our sympathy for two road workers engaged in mindless hard labour, challenging past practice by the large size of the painting for such humble subject-matter. This French Realism, using colours that stay earthbound, can be contrasted with the Pre-Raphaelite aim of ‘truth to nature’. In Millais’ Ophelia (1852, right), the landscape background, painted in the open air in obsessive detail, is in as sharp a focus as the main figure. The bright, intense colours help to elevate the subject of a young woman’s suicide to a higher realm.
The Awakening Conscience by Holman Hunt (1853, left) addresses a standard Victorian narrative, that of a so-called ‘fallen woman’, the mistress of a young gentleman. Symbols in the painting tell us the story – she’s having a sudden spiritual revelation, regretting her lost innocence. Déjeuner sur l’Herbe by Manet (1863, right) depicts a woman who has taken off her clothes in the company of two fully dressed men and who stares back at us as we look at the picture. The flouting of the conventions by this modern twist to a classical subject encouraged other French artists to be adventurous in their own ways.
Bathers at La Grenouillière by Monet (1869, left) was painted directly on the spot in the open air. Its bold brushstrokes of pure colour capture the visual effect of specific and momentary conditions of light and atmosphere. The animation of the paint-work suggests the animation of the scene. Impression, Sunrise (1872, right) was Monet’s personal and spontaneous response, embodied in fluid paint, to the view from a window overlooking the harbour at Le Havre. The label ‘Impressionist’ became attached to Monet and other artists whose works were rejected by official exhibitions and who formed a group organising their own.
Degas was a group member who did most of his painting in the studio and whose style was very different to Monet’s. The Dance Class (1875, left) is one of his many paintings of ballet dancers in rehearsal. The composition has the feeling of a snapshot, influenced by Japanese prints as well as by photography. Dance at the Moulin de la Galette by Renoir (1876, right) is a joy-filled representation of a Sunday afternoon occasion in the open air, featuring young people from a local neighbourhood. Bright sunlight filtered through trees bathes the scene in dappled light that helps to capture the vibrancy of the occasion.
The lively brushwork in Bar at the Folies Bergère by Manet (1881, left) suggests the sparkling night-time atmosphere of Paris, city of pleasure. The contradictions between the figure of the barmaid seen directly and that seen in the mirror are intriguing. Sunday Afternoon on the Island of La Grande Jatte by Seurat (1886, right) represents a new style of painting, the image created by painstakingly placed dots of pure colour. These blend in the viewer’s eye, producing luminous, shimmering colour effects through optical mixing. Rather than the fleeting moment typical of Impressionism, the effect is to suggest timelessness.
These next two paintings exemplify contrasting styles of Post-Impressionism. The simplified style of Gauguin’s Vision After the Sermon (1888, left) represents the primitivism he sensed in the life of rural Brittany. Some village women are imagining a Bible story enacted in front of their eyes. A change of scale and non-natural colour separate the imagined from the real. The stunning brushwork of Van Gogh’s Starry Night (1989, right) splices together a view of galactic swirls set over Provençal hills and an imaginary village from his native Holland. It’s like a hallucinatory dream that speaks of the universe and man's place in it.
Probably the most influential of the Post-Impressionists was Cezanne. Mont Saint Victoire with Large Pine (1885, left) is one of his paintings of a favourite subject. Brushstrokes are linked to the structure of the landscape and the distant mountain seems brought forward to have the same visual weight as the foreground. The artist’s still-lives, such as The Kitchen Table (1890, right) play games with perspective and the representation of space. Different points of view coexist, giving the viewer an experience of a slightly altered, dislocated reality. The tablecloth brings the elements together into a harmonious overall balance.
The Dream by Gauguin (1897, left) is from the years the artist spent in Tahiti in search of an innocence he felt the West had lost. Finding the island Europeanised and its native culture corrupted, he invented a paradise largely from his own imagination and from motifs such as the Maori carving and the kangaroo here. Monet, also in search of a paradise, created one for himself in the shape of his garden at Giverny, providing him with subject-matter for paintings like The Water-lily Pond (1899, right). The bridge is a reminder of the influence on European art of Japanese culture, with its tradition of a deep engagement with nature.
The wildly sensual forms and bright, clear colours of Bonheur de Vivre by Matisse (1906, left) are intended to evoke feelings of pure pleasure. Jarring shifts in scale, varying perspectives and distorted anatomies correspond to imagining ourselves moving around inside its deep, warm bath of pictorial space. Expressionist artists in Germany, taking their lead from Van Gogh and Munch, also tried to depict the artist's feelings rather than record a scene. Colours were used for emotional effect and a deliberately "primitive" style was often adopted. Funeral by Grosz (1917-18, right) gives a nightmarish vision of a world gone mad.
The Large Bathers by Cezanne (1906, left) is a personal interpretation of the long-established tradition of depicting female nudes in a landscape. The figures are beautifully harmonized with their setting, as if trees, sky and human bodies were all composed of the same substance in a synthesis of nature and art. Contrast Picasso’s Les Demoiselles d’Avignon (1907, right), a confrontational depiction of five nude prostitutes in a brothel. Faces are based on Iberian sculptures and African masks. Space is compressed and claustrophobic and forms are radically distorted and fractured, characteristics that further developed would lead to Cubism.
The Red Studio by Matisse (1911, left) depicts a selection of the artist’s own works in a view of his workspace seemingly looking down from above. The strong colour, characteristic of the group known as The Fauves, flattens any perspectives, eliminating distinctions between object and space and between foreground and background. The Street enters the House by Boccioni (1911, right), an example of Italian Futurism, expresses the sensations experienced by a woman on her balcony in a busy city. The sounds and activities of the modern world are portrayed as a riot of shapes and colours with multiple viewpoints.
Sculpture was slower than painting to respond to the changing world. The Burghers of Calais by Rodin (1889, left) emphasises the emotional suffering of men expecting to go to their deaths to save their city. A conventional monument would have shown them noble and heroic after their reprieve. One of the works that redefined sculpture for the modern age is The Kiss by Brancusi (1908, right), a non-literal representation directly carved by the artist. The simplified geometric forms of two lovers merge into a compact block that recalls the shape of the stone slab from which it was made. Truth to the material meant leaving the surface rough.