Thursday, June 14, 2007

Giuseppe de Nittis: "The Place de Carrousel and the Ruins of the Tuileries Palace in 1882

What draws me to this painting is the sense of desolation coupled with contradictory signs of life that continues despite everything. The vast open space, taking up to half of the canvas, may evoke feeling of alienation and even fear of the ruins that border it. The palace was utterly ruined from the inside by fire set on by Paris Commune in 1871, yet the outer shell remained; it was demolished completely at the year of the birth of this painting. Wikipedia notes that the palace was considered the symbol of aristocratic decadent way of life. De Nittis might have wanted to pass on that vision: the woman wearing an elegant black dress and a hat (probably a sign of a noble descent) seems to be leaving the scene, whereas the figures of the man and the woman who enter it seem distinctively working class. Notably, the man is pulling a cart - he is pulling, bringing forth his own baggage of social and political interests.

The treatment of light is also particularly interesting here: the palace is over abundantly lit, which gives it a somewhat fantastical appearance, which in turn provides a distancing effect from the moving people in the foreground. The physical distance is enhanced even more by the lighting - rendering the construction a remoteness of another kind, that of time. Indeed, it may seem somewhat Roman and ancient to the uninitiated. However, even without such a hypothesis, there seems to be an implication that the painting encompasses two historical periods, that of the monarchy and that of industrial progress and capitalism. There is no reconciliation, but clear, even violent separation - perhaps, violent political events demand appropriate artistic effects.

*after one more work by de Nittis, I hope to begin looking at "one painting a day"

Monday, June 11, 2007

Giuseppe de Nittis: "Return From The Ball"

Is there a more obvious way to draw attention to female breasts than to locate them at the exact center of a painting? Today we often complain about the ubiquity of sex and sexual innuendo everywhere we turn our heads: on the street, in advertising and in entertainment. We often forget that this is not a novel fashion. This painting serves as a potent example...

The theme that underlies this work is objectification: of the depicted characters as the imaginary objects of our desire; of women who attend balls and wear such fanciful dresses, which, I have no doubt were in the contemporary vogue. The faces of these girls are turned away from the viewer - they seem to be tiptoeing in order to remain unseen and unheard. But the message is clear - it is not their heads that matter, it is their bodies, - which look at us, more than eloquent in their seduction. These two were meant to be the center of attention at the ball, and now they are the center of attention on this canvas.

I fail to focus on any other aspect of this piece. The girls are probably excited and just had a lot of fun. As I have learned from War and Peace, balls were a grand entertainment and meant a lot to contemporary women, socially and economically. But neither the richness of their dresses nor the somewhat naive peeking (it is unclear whether they are looking inside or outside of a house) manage to distract from the central aforementioned theme. And this makes it a powerful work of art.

Friday, June 8, 2007

Gustave Caillebotte: "The Man on the Balcony"

These two works present similar subject matter, yet the one on the left does it in a strictly impressionistic style, while its counterpart involves Caillebotte's trademark cocktail of painting techniques. The former once again demonstrates that impressionism is not Caillebotte's forte. Though the perspective and the immediacy of city life are conveyed convincingly - as always, the background benefits - the leaning figure of the man is static, and the light effects are dubious: the smudging of the facial features and the balcony (more different colors!) does not appear artistically justified. The air was probably clear at that height, which should have rendered the eyes visible. It is as if the artist was led by a formula, instead of relying on inner instinct that would guide him to make correct decisions. It is obvious that Gustave Caillebbotte lacked that impressionistic instinct, or lacked it in its fullest and purest form. However, he does employ it with much more success in another similarly named piece.

In the painting on the right we see the back of the man: he is half turning towards the viewer, as if giving a last glance at the street, before turning towards the interior. The positioning (and the realistic depiction) of his arms and legs gives the satisfying illusion of movement. The far background lends to the feeling of intimacy by way of contrast; this man peeks from the inside to the outside - he does not participate as his neighbor does. Even though there might be something sentimental about this scene, it is more convincing, because it is consistent with the painter's style and shows maturity and control.

I have to add, however, that there's something tempting about the former work - perhaps it is the risk taken or maybe the detached and desolate sensation passed on by the open aerial angle (unlike in the framed balcony on the right) - perhaps Caillebbotte's conception still works, despite lacking clear definition.

Wednesday, June 6, 2007

Gustave Caillebotte: "Boating Party"

This work immediately caught my attention for an effect that would be best described (though anachronistically) as cinematic. In more appropriate terms, it is the perspective, and the incredible sense of movement that convey the general feeling of continuity. The rower's right hand is slightly higher than the left, the boat is also slightly tilted and the light appears to glide randomly on the water - all of which pass on the sensation of motion and change.

Here the two styles do not mix but rather transpose. The lower part of the painting - the foreground - is realistic, the boat being depicted with academic accuracy; towards the top - the background - the style turns more and more impressionistic. It seems that the gradual transposition lends credibility to the artist's conception, though not without cost: by avoiding the edges, this work emits less individual creative force. In a way, this piece compromises Caillebotte's unique style, as it does not display all the character evident in his more daring compositions.

This is a tamed Caillebotte, which relies more on technique than invention and depth. That said, the technique is indeed superb, and I, as the viewer, am positively absorbed by, or, perhaps, into, the center of events.

Tuesday, June 5, 2007

Gustave Caillebotte: "Interior"

This, I believe, is not a very good attempt. Subject matter is rather sentimental, but it is how it is treated that caught my attention. The artist's endeavor to mix styles results here in an insecure and somewhat scattered portrayal of a family scene.

The woman in front of us is a realistic portrait adorned with a few impressionistic brush strokes, the most vivid being the notable white that delineates her cheek. That same white (or off-white perhaps) unevenly covers her neck, chin and the left hand, holding the newspaper. I fail to see the logic in this distribution of color, whether it displays the reflection of the light inside the room, or serves as an artistic effect. It seems as though someone covered her features with chalk, and I doubt I can blame anyone but the painter for that strange act.

The man in the background, however, is shown in a purely impressionistic manner, and quite convincingly for that matter. However, because of the unclear perspective, he does not mingle well with the figure of the woman in the foreground. Interestingly, the realistic chair and wall accord harmoniously but, that is hardly enough to make the work compelling. All in all, this piece contains a few elements that may appeal to the viewer separately, but which do not accompany each other to produce a single unified piece of art, which consequently cannot evoke an effect that it does not possess.

Monday, June 4, 2007

Gustave Caillebotte: "On The Europe Bridge"

This is a very atmospheric piece, in both senses of the word. The cold palette duly depicts the foggy morning hours as the sun rises and spreads its light on the coats of the men standing on the bridge; shades of blue fill the air and render it as rather unwelcoming: an impression emphasized by the stolid backs of the by passers. Indeed, this painting evokes feelings of alienation and perhaps even imprisonment, as the bridge's metallic crisscrossing parts may imply. Even the sun's reflection is trapped. Caillebotte was fascinated with urbanization and this is a potent example of his special interest.

"On The Europe Bridge" incorporates both academic and impressionistic techniques, a trademark of the painters personal style. The profusely lit bridge and hats are nevertheless drawn with meticulous detail and, combined with careful application of color, provide sharp contrast to the slightly smeared background and the aerially dispersed sun's reflection - which echoes Monet's sun in the landmark "Sunrise: impression". Unlike in some other works by the artist, here the two styles amalgamate into a powerful and effective cohesion.

This could be the result of the rather limited palette: the painter must have felt somewhat constrained, which in turn led to economy in color and stylistic tricks - an admirable creative decision considering the crowded composition. I am of the opinion that Cailebottes mastery of impressionism had never gotten near that of the academic style of painting, and since the division here is roughly 70% of the latter and 30% of the former, the result is tasteful and reserved just so as to allow the subtleties to reveal themselves . This is my personal favorite painting of the artist.

Sunday, June 3, 2007

Gustave Flaubert Caught on Canvas?

The face of the man in Gustave Caillebotte's "Paris Street" immediately struck me as familiar. I recalled the photograph in my copy of Madam Bovary, found it on the web, and here it is, for you consideration. I find the resemblance overwhelming, although it might be just the domineering mustache that is so similar.

However, besides such random trivia, two things make this piece particularly notable. First, it is the engrossing perspective that almost literally sucks the viewer into the illusion, perhaps even a dramatic perspective. I think that in perhaps an anachronistic fashion, this view is very cinematic, something I have noticed in other Caillebotte's works as well.

And second, it is the blazing, blinding white light that is caught by the umbrellas and the sidewalk. The two main figures are executed with precision reminiscent of academic standards, yet their umbrellas, although drawn with similar accuracy, exude a purely impressionistic color. This combination is no less then shocking. From :

...Impresario who combined aspects of the academic and Impressionist styles in a unique synthesis...Caillebotte's originality lay in his attempt to combine the careful drawing and modeling and exact tonal values advocated by the academy with the vivid colours, bold perspectives, keen sense of natural light, and unpretentious subject matter of the Impressionists.

This synthesis is especially evident when comparing the foreground with the background: the former always tends towards the academic (possibly to make the close-up as sharp and focused as possible) while the latter towards the impressionistic. This tendency also shows in
Caillebotte's other works.

Sexual and Financial Power Play

Another compelling work by Giuseppe De Nittis, "Horse Races in the Bois de Boulogne". I would like to focus on the psychological aspects that it touches, because of the unusual intensity of the scene before us.

I believe that this painting is about power play. Sexual and financial dominance are the key themes in this piece but, by hiding from the viewer the actual horse race, the artist also performs a hidden meta power play with the observer: we have to trust the title, and the painter's inventive force. We do not see what he sees or the two figures see - we are powerless and restricted to he chooses to show us.

What strikes me first is that the lady is above her companion, high above him, standing upon a chair. Since the man appears undaunted by this disposition (and perhaps he assisted her in getting upon that chair), it seems plausible that this is the nature of things between the two . Her higher position is symbolical, and since it is late 19th century, I think that it can only symbolize a control of the sexual kind. Horses often represent sexual activity; standing that high she strains herself and tries harder to see what is going on, demonstrating strong interest - in what seems to be like her territory in the relationship between herself and her chaperon. But the man may compensate with extra leverage in the financial sphere.

I would rule out gambling addiction to the races because of his imperial and extremely self-confident posture. These traits oppose a gambler's nervousness and insecurity. Everything in his figure exudes "I own!" - the money, the horses - "anything I desire". He doesn't mind the woman, and, that she is above him; while she is busy watching the horses in their sexual symbolic representation, he is busy watching them as his investment, also a symbol, but of a straightforward monetary kind (if only we could see the symbols!). It seems that he is content with this division: she owns between the sheets and he outside of them. And from this point of view, this painting may display subtle chauvinistic motifs.

Giuseppe de Nittis: "Portrait of Sarah Bernhardt"

I would like to analyze this Giuseppe de Nittis portrait of Sarah Bernhardt, a famous French actress in the second half of the 19th century.

Pierrot is a sad figure, and sadness is what the face of the stander expresses. It is interesting to notice that this is the only visible body part: all else is covered by the luscious costume. This is the first detail that encourages the viewer to look at the face before anything else.

The second is the geometry of the apparel: its form, together with the hat point towards the facial expression; the third is the color - amidst the white and grey tones, the skin and hair of the actress stand out and draw immediate attention. The posture also proves a contribution, as when she lifts her shoulders up and sinks her head into the jabot, it is forced closer to the (golden) center of the painting. Indeed, the forcefulness of this bodily movement endows the piece with additional drama.

I think that the enormous buttons play the symbolical role of tears. As the stander looks to the right, the buttons - tears - flow to the left and accentuate Pierot's inner tension. The richness of the brightly lit costume opposed the the shaded countenance emphasize the turmoil even more. This is an intense and riveting portrait.

Art and Critique

This blog, just as the title says, is about art and critique of art. I will write here about various periods and styles and I plan to explore the "one painting a day" internet phenomenon.

My main interest is painting but, if tempted, I may write about sculpture and architecture as well -- because temptations there are plenty.

I hope people will enjoy reading this blog just as I do writing it.