Everything was changing in late 19th century Paris. A series of disastrous wars and failed uprisings had precipitated the forming of a public works commission to rebuild the city. But this rebuilding was nothing on its own. It was meant to be the emblem and agent of a wider economic transformation – the emergence of modern day capitalism and consumerism. Suddenly gone was the old Paris of narrow streets and quartiers. The new Paris of cosmopolitan boulevards cut up into little pieces the city’s pre-existing world of fragile appearances – its traffic of class segregation and urban life. And this awareness of change was to be crucial for the emergence of an artist such as Edouard Manet. The elusiveness of the social world, the precarian nature of being in it, and being of it, are central subjects of the paintings he produced at this time. […]
In 1855, three of Gustave Courbet’s paintings were rejected by the Exposition Universelle, something which Courbet took as a personal affront. It was, after all, the single largest exhibition in the history of the salon with a projected attendance numbering in the hundreds of thousands. In retaliation Courbet erected and promoted an exhibition all of his own, situated just across the road from the Exposition itself. It was called the Pavillion of The Real and inside the public were treated to over forty paintings by Courbet. Among them was a painting was called ‘L Atelier’ or ‘The Painter’s Studio: A real allegory summing up seven years of my artistic and moral life’ (1855).
The artist’s studio is today considered a genre in its own right. It is a genre which lends itself well to allegory in that it offers a means of representation of the practice of art and offers up the artist as a personification of that practice. Variations of this genre can be informative illustrations of arts changing social history, the artist’s professional character and his production in relation to a market economy. Common features include introspective self-portraits such as Gericault’s ‘Portrait of an Artist in his Studio’, or the gallery of a dealer/connoisseur such as we find in ‘The Artist’s Studio’ by Amelie Legrand de Saint-Aubin. Images of poverty, power, fame, success and failure occur alongside images of the artist’s technical and iconographical resources. Sometimes we see the artist as he wishes to be seen; other times he sees us seeing him. In the paintings of Vermeer and Velasquez the studio is a site of encounter, between the artist and his model as well as other value systems. In the work of Braque, Matisse and Picasso, the studio is a metaphor for the psyche, a private world of individual creative passions. […]
In reading the comics of Chris Ware again, long after the dazzle of his formal novelty had dimmered, a word came to mind: ‘reaction’. Now, let’s excise all narrow political connotations and deal with the essence of the term: that any swing too much in one direction necessarily begets a counterforce, less because it has value than simply that it must exist, as uniqueness is a perennial human want, though little understood. And, as much contemporary media is infantile, democratic in the basest sense, and abusive of well-rooted psychological patterns, alternatives are almost destined to crawl out of the margins of the mainstream. In the most lucrative, and most besieged mediums, that of comics, video games, and animation, reaction creates a mirror-world of seriousness, clutches at ‘the grown-ups table’, an aesthetic to counteract the frivolities, the ‘sell-outs’, that is consciously unfun, unentertaining, uninteresting, and bloated with consciousness itself. None of this determines that the products be mediocre, as Art sometimes has a way of slipping past intentions. Yet what it means is these works are subject to the same dice-rolls that plagues all pabulum. This is because reaction is also a pattern; a nobler pattern, but a pattern all the same. […]
Even for the gods, backlash is an inevitability. At one time considered the cutting edge, Paul Cézanne is often now conflated with artistic conservatism and the ‘rappel à l’ordre’. Bring up his name among any of the various plutocrats and brainless artists-in-residence striving to keep up the pretence of modernistic radicalism and you’ll see what I mean. It’s like brandishing a crucifix in a vampire’s face. Surely, nothing could be more unfashionable or un-hip as to talk about Cézanne in the year 2022.
At the opposite end of the spectrum, various ‘litterateurs’ who claim to admire Cézanne’s work can often be doubly guilty of superficiality; adopting a pose of soi disant aestheticism whilst simultaneously accepting all the ludicrous things produced by broadsheet art critics and authors writing history books on holiday. Sentiment, clerisy and derogation-as-vice continue to exasperate Cézanne’s reputational stability. Appropriated and excommunicated in equal turn, he is again and again subjected to the same rotary of clichés and tabloid mythology. A primitive, a prig, a homely gentleman. All middling attempts to make sense of Cézanne’s work in a self-reflecting art world where consensus has vanished and ignorance reigns supreme. […]
What inspires works about certain artists over others? From films to books to plays, why are some artists more culturally fetishized and others not? Well, the short answer is supply and demand—that as long as a subject is in demand, more of it will be supplied. A good example would be the numerous bios and books about Sylvia Plath. It seems there are three to four released a year, at minimum. Are they necessary? What insights are overturned? Van Gogh is another. He even made it into a Dr. Who episode. So why is this? Again, the short answer is that there is a demand. Also, it is no coincidence that both Plath and Van Gogh lived the short, romantic, ‘tragic life’ of the artist, which gives audiences a reason to wonder what brought about such suffering in the first place.
Van Gogh has had a number of films about him—from Vincente Minnelli’s Lust For Life (1956, based on the Irving Stone novel with the same title), Robert Altman’s Vincent & Theo (1990), Loving Vincent (2017), At Eternity’s Gate (2018), and also Martin Scorsese’s depiction of Van Gogh himself in Akira Kurosawa’s Dreams (1990). Of these films, I would argue that Vincente Minnelli’s Lust For Life delivers the best rendering, if for nothing else than the vibrant colors within, which much resemble Van Gogh’s painting. (One of the many stamps of Minnelli’s films is his often-energetic use of color.) Also, in terms of storytelling, the fact that the film is based on Irving Stone’s novel indicates that the subject will be rendered well, given Stone’s skill as a novelist.
In Lust For Life, Kirk Douglas plays a vulnerable Vincent, and it is a role one would not expect from the otherwise headstrong actor. Firstly, he is already too old for the part (albeit not as old as the sixty-something Willem Dafoe in At Eternity’s Gate. Odd choice, given Van Gogh only lived to 37). In addition, Douglas is not known for his vulnerable roles. It is rare we see him whine. But despite this, he carries the performance well, and we get a sense of Vincent as the empathic individual who longs to help the poor, but who then stumbles into painting as an aside. He is misunderstood and rejected and attracted to outsiders like himself. Living on the fringe of culture, just barely does he manage via the help of his patient brother, Theo. […]
‘Have you ever heard of Hilma af Klint?’ I asked my painter friend. ‘Yes,’ he said. ‘I have mentioned her many times. A great artist. A Revolutionary.’
Regrettably, at the time I did not recall his mentioning her. I then went on to explain that witnessing a documentary on a subject is an entirely different experience from hearing one’s name. In fact, I even mistyped her name as Klimt, rather than Klint, and I shamefully wondered if she was related to Gustav. Oy!
I begin this essay admitting that I am not a painter and nor am I experienced enough with Abstract Expressionism to be able to render some sort of judgment on it, outside my limited purview. But that doesn’t mean I won’t have opinions.
I stumbled upon Halina Dyrschka’s 2019 documentary Beyond the Visible while surfing the Criterion Channel. Although I felt some initial trepidation due to the film’s labeling af Klint an Abstract Expressionist, (curious she might be another Rothko wannabe) how wrong I was. So, I went ahead with this both enjoyable and illuminating experience. Apparently, my not hearing of Hilma af Klint is nothing extraordinary. Nor have many, according to the documentary. Born in 1862 in Sweden, af Klint lived a quiet life, where she painted in private and withheld much of her work from public eye. […]