Tag Archives: Centrepoint

Claude Monet’s reflective paintings

What is so great about Monet’s water-lily paintings? He painted dozens of them; he didn’t paint anything else in his later years, he kept painting water lilies when his eyes betrayed him; he made the Water Lilies panoramic set a gift to the state when he died.

When you are in front of any of his lilies (and I assume many of you have had the experience), do you ask yourself, “gosh, what is really great about’em?” Not a singe visitor to The Musée de l’Orangerie which houses the most giant of the series can be seen wishing the 10 euros paid for the ticket could be spent in a wiser fashion.

I don’t say one needs to know the answer to the greatness question to enjoy the paintings. Some years ago, I was coming to the National Gallery in London each time I was in town just to see the Lily Pond. Were I asked then what was so great about the painting, I might try to give an answer, but it would be tall tales spin-yarned into a baloney pullover of meaningless adjectives.

Now that I have my thoughts a little bit more organised, I can outline a hypothesis about the workings of Monet’s lily paintings.

We need to step back though, to Velazquez, an artist who had a great influence on Manet, who – in his turn – influenced Monet, although in a different way.

800px-RokebyVenus

Velazquez painted this Venus with a Mirror sometime around 1650. The viewer can’t really see the face of Venus. It is blurred on purpose: the beauty of a goddess, the Ideal or Ultimate Beauty, can’t be painted because no one has seen it, and even today Venus is not known to post selfies on Instagram. The Ideal Beauty is in the mind of the beholder. This blurred image activates those neural networks in the brain that house individual associations with beauty, memories, created by myths, books, movies and Playboy mass media.

Were it a particular face, the mind would react to it similarly to a meaningless portrait of an unknown celebrity of bygone times. It still would be attractive, primarily catering to people whose idea of beauty was congruent to the shape of the buttocks that are so close to the viewer one might be tempted to slap them.

Likewise, some 250+ years later, Monet was painting a refection of nature, but in a way that it couldn’t be attributed to any particular tree, sky, or flower.

His lilies – any and all of them – represent the Ideal Beauty of Nature, and for many they’ve grown to become a representation of the Ideal Beauty of Life itself. Not because they show some mind-boggling beauty of tender lily flowers blossoming against the green surface of a water reservoir – but precisely because they don’t show it.

I will use the painting that a friend of mine took in Vienna – and sent to me a few days ago.

image1

It is known these paintings stay in memory. Somehow. Many people are known not to like them, but they remember them, though they can’t say what were the colours, the shapes, or the lines in them.

Wassily Kandinsky wrote of them,

“Until then I knew only naturalist and, to tell the truth, almost exclusively Russian naturalist art…I believed that no one had the right to paint so imprecisely. I vaguely felt that the object (the subject) was missing in this work. But with astonishment and confusion, I observed that not only did it surprise, but it imprinted itself indelibly in the memory and that before your eyes it recomposed itself in the smallest details. All this remained muddled in me, and I could not yet foresee the natural consequences of this discovery. But what clearly came out of it is the incredible power, a power I had never known, of a palette that outstripped my wildest dreams. To me the painter seemed gifted with a fabulous power. The object used as an indispensable element in my work unconsciously lost some of its importance to me. In short, there was already a little bit of my enchanting Moscow on this canvas.”

I don’t like this style of art writing: too many adjectives. “Fabulous”, “incredible”, “gifted”, etc. Adjectives that don’t explain anything. Why was the power of Monet “incredible” or “fabulous”? Yet, Kandinsky registered the important facts:

  • the paintings stay in memory (even despite the vague sensation there’s nothing in them, at least nothing of real importance)
  • the painting fire up [neural networks storing] personal associations (like Moscow for Kandinsky)
  • the combination of colours creates a conflict that makes even those who dislike the paintings to get involved into watching them.

Indeed, his greens and violets can be found on the opposite sides of the colour wheel, and thus they create a colour conflict – we do not normally see these colours in their pure form at the same time. It makes the brain go “wow” without us registering it. There is nothing subconscious in this though, the brain starts scanning the painting to understand what the heck is going on – and the viewer does not necessarily register it either.

But there is even a bigger conflict that goes on in the mind of the viewer.

We are used to this:

A real 3D scene ==>
is represented in a 2D picture by the artist ==>
gets reconstructed into a 3D scene in the viewer’s mind.

Monet’s Lilies work differently:

A real 2D scene (the mirror of the pond) ==>
is represented in a 2D picture by the artist (which bizarrely seems 3D, because of the difference in brushstrokes) ==>
gets reconstructed into a 3D scene… BUT WE KNOW IT WAS A 2D SCENE TO START WITH!

And this is when the mind goes off thinking, remembering and associating in its own, very individual ways, some of which the mind’s owner does not register consciously.

Contemporary art is often differentiated from all the other types of art because it transfers the conflict from a painting or a sculpture into the mind of the viewer.

Instead of appreciating the drama that Michelangelo wanted people to live through their exposure to David, a contemporary artist wants to stimulate the viewer into creating his or her own drama, their own conflict, and live through their individual hell.

Monet used traditional colour conflict and innovative 2D-3D play with the mind of the viewer to CREATE A DRAMA OUTSIDE OF THE PAINTING, BUT INSIDE THE VIEWER’S MIND.

In this, he had become a true contemporary artist in his later years. He started the collective impressionistic revolution in visual arts that everyone noticed, but he then overturned visual arts single-handedly, in ways more radical than Cezanne could even imagine, and long before Picasso.

if there’s any painting that is more about individual reflection, I’d love to know about it.

IT IS A PAINTING OF A REFLECTION THAT MAKES A VIEWER REFLECT UPON THINGS IMPORTANT TO EACH VIEWER.

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Complicated simplicity

We often know what we love, but we find it difficult to rationalise why we love it. We usually defend our feeling by saying that LOVE doesn’t take off because of a reason, but rather in defiance of it. And this is where I come in and ruin the magic (I actually don’t).

In my previous post, I asked readers to say which of the five autumn landscapes painted by Russia’s best artists resonated with them most. We have two clear “winners”: Levitan and Brodsky. I promised to take you on a journey through these paintings, and this is the first installment, in which we will cover Levitan’s Golden Autumn.

It is clickable, and it is a good idea to click on it and save the large image for your reference.

It is clickable, and it is a good idea to click on it and save the large image for your reference.

This landscape is the most popular icon of autumn in Russia. It is reproduced as often as Van Gogh’s Sunflowers, 11 to 13 year olds write essays at school about it, poets reference it in their poems, writers are never ashamed (although they should be) to use the stock phrase “Levitan’s golden autumn” in their texts.

But why is it a great painting? Because some Soviet art critic anointed it as a sacred visual stimulus for school essays? Or is it really a great landscape?

FIRST, WE LOOK INSIDE, AND CLOSELY

As I said many times before, the first step is looking closely and registering what we see.

What colours do you see?
Do the colours change from one part of the painting to another?
How do they change?
Did the artist separate the view into back/fore/middle ground? Is the any size or colour difference between those “grounds”?

If you want to work out your own skills of art appreciation, try to answer these questions and find logic in Levitan’s choices before clicking the “Continue Reading…” tab, for there will be surprising answers.

I will give you two tips, use them to arrive to your own artistic discovery. Have fun building your hypothesis!

First tip: Golden Ratio

The size of the painting has the Golden Ratio built-in. If we cut a square as shown in the picture below from the painting, we will get a smaller rectangle which sides are in the same relationship to each other as in its bigger prototype. Draw a line to split the painting in two parts, as in this example:

Rechteck_GoldenerSchnitt

Think of the difference between the two parts of Levitan’s landscape. While pondering it, use Tip No.2.

Second tip: the great playwriter Anton Chekhov was Levitan’s best mate, so it is very likely that Levitan was not a stranger to the principles of story telling and drama. Theatrical dramatism must have rubbed off, and so it should be found in Levitan’s paintings.

Continue reading

Can you help out an artist?

Visual arts are struggling through a crisis of ideas. The crisis is not the first one, obviously, but this time there’s a bit less hope that painting will survive, as there seem to be no crazy geniuses to push anything or anyone forward. No matisses, no picassos, no bacons, rothkos or pollocks. It seems everything has been invented, tried and tested, and artworks we see today are more or less a repetition or a combination of past tricks and treats.  

Of course, I have not seen everything. If there’s a sleeping innovative genius you’re aware of, drop me a link, please.

Most bad artist satisfy themselves with mimicking some great artist of the past. Most mediocre artists go for mixing a few great artists of the past into their own “unique” manner.  Today, I want to share paintings of a talented Russian artist (a little bit poisoned by ideology) who COULD DO SO MUCH BETTER.

I would love to hear your suggestions on what he could do better. The artist does not know about this blog, and I will pass your ideas on to him via a gallerist who is keen to invest into the guy’s promotion.

Let’s call the artist Boris, just like the London’s mayor.

What happens when you mix, stir and shake Malevich, Malyavin and a patchwork quilt?

These are the ingredients:

(a) Kazimir Malevich, who believed in the supremacy of colour

Malevich, Women in the Field

(b) Filipp Malyavin, who made a Russian peasant woman the icon of life:

Filipp Malyavin, The Whirlwind, 1906

Actually, it is a huge work that can’t be appreciated in a small format. So, let’s get a closeup on one of the whirlwinding ladies:

Malyavin, The Whirlwind, a fragment

(c) patchwork quilt

Now, if you mix (a), (b), and (c), you get a painting by Boris:

The Girl with a Sheaf

Why is Boris good?

  • Bold pure colours
  • Unusual, striking colour combinations
  • Nicely timed rhythm

The three “ingredients” energize viewers and are simply pleasant to watch.

In some paintings the artist juxtaposes forms to create a conflict from the paradoxical combination:

The Birch in a Rye Field

A gallerist may say Boris’ manner is recognisable, which is good for sales. Branding in the art world is just as important as in TV adverts.

What is not so good about Boris?

Boris’ ideology is dubious. Russia is not a fairytale bird with an olive branch orthodox cross in its beak:

The Soul of Russia

The soul of Russia is much more controvercial, and more interesting as well. It has a dark side too. Without showing the dark side, it is not possible to show the bright side convincingly. Boris’ paintings do not show the true Russia but are propaganda posters for a Russian patriot.

Boris also has a problem in the story-variety department. Once you’ve seen a few works, you get the impression you can’t discover anything new.

Good can come out of bad? 

Boris welds together the Orthodox Christianity and Slavic paganism with artistic avant garde (well, dated back to the early 20th c.). This is an unusual mix, at least in today’s Russia.

Now, there’s a gallery of Boris’ work to walk through.

Once you’ve gone through it, please, tell me which innovation or direction you can suggest for Boris to explore, follow, develop? 

If this is your first time here, you can sample stuff in this blog by clicking on ABOUT at the top of the page. You’ll find links to some of my best or typical posts there. There’s an Art & Fun shelf if you feel like in need of a laugh. You can also sign up for my posts to be delivered right into your hands using the form on the right.

Beautiful. Young. Sandstone.

Generally, I hate sculptures of beautiful young women.

In most cases they are made with the sole purpose of selling them to male customers from developing countries who often happen to have wads of freshly laundered cash, which sculptors would like see changing hands.

These “customers” can afford to buy cocacola-bodied beauties in the flesh, but gradually they realise the looks they are getting from old-money people at Ritz and Ascot are not caused by envy, but are rather zoological in nature. The old money are glancing the nouveau rich up and down as dangerous animals, which can control their basic instincts if fed on time. But, who has not heard of circus lions tearing their tamers to tatters? Money alone can buy faked respect of a doorman for the fleeting moment of swinging the door open. But it ends there. What can be done?

Art is the answer.

Art dealers rush to the rescue, for art is viewed as a latch on the gates to the elite status. Billionaires are sold “big names” (made into “names” by the same curators the super-rich hire to help them look educated connoisseurs), millionaires fall for sculptures of beautiful young women. Those sad micro-oligarchs who can’t afford their personal curator see them as the key to the gates of hell higher society, because they believe everyone loves beautiful young women in the flesh.

Note to artists: if you produce beautiful young women, price them below $5K. You sell to millionaires, not to Roman Abramovich!

The result is usually something sexy, bronze, in an artfully sculpted wet t-shirt, taking on a sexy pose. There are life-sized plastic alternatives, of course. In short, it is pure pornography of the soul.

There is no drama, no conflict in a sculpture of a beautiful young woman, even if she’s sculpted as someone who is in desperate need of sexual intercourse right here and now, because that’s something she’ll be getting in a moment. She’s so sexy she can raise the dead, so finding a suitable male is not a problem for her.

But there is one special case that I like, and this is a case of outdoors, sea, and cactuses.

Eze is a village in the South of France. I think it is pronounced as “Ez”. It sits on a mountain and boasts a premium hotel, a Michelin restaurant and a garden of cactuses sprawling over the slope that faces the sea.

Now that you’ve seen the garden, it is time to see the girls that are scattered strategically positioned there. The pics are worth clicking on, trust me.

Why do these girls – very ordinary sculptures were they put into gallery space – become interesting art in this natural setting?

Because they produce a very real conflict between what you do there (you trudge the garden’s steep steps, sweating in the body and planning dinner, next stop, and the road ahead in the mind) and what you want to do (you want to relax watching the sea, turning your face to the sun, thinking deep and novel thoughts about the fate of man, the role of art, and NOT coming back to what you call day-time job). The conflict is not in the sculptures themselves, it is in the viewer’s mind only. Which is not a bad thing at all, as long as you don’t buy the sandstone girls (you’d have to buy the cactus garden for the girls to stay art, and what will you do with the garden then?)

ART TO WATCH VS. ART TO SEE

There’s art to see and art to watch.
Art to watch is the kind of art that draws viewers in and doesn’t let them go.

This blog, generally, is about art that draws people in. Not everyone, obviously, but me, a few of my friends, and a few million others to whom I have not yet been properly introduced. This is why today’s Daily Prompt is not a prompt for me but a reason to show one more artist who has been an underevaluated genius of the art-to-watch domain for the last 150 years.

His name was Nikolai Ge and he could revolutionise religious art, were Christian viewers not so locked into canon, habit, and distrust of alternative points of view on Biblical events.

Alas, Ge’s views were supported by a tiny minority of intellectuals during his lifetime, and then the Soviets did all they could to position the artist as an early critic of capitalism. Who might be interested in someone labeled “a Russian critic of capitalism”? No one. This is why this artist is still relatively unknown outside Russia.

At the beginning, Ge’s career looked promising. He was catapulted to fame in 1863, when he exhibited his take on the Last Supper.

Тайная вечеря_1

The traditional concept was to show the moment when Christ announced that one of his apostles was a traitor.

The resulting shock and psychological tension were a well of emotions to draw from – and Leonardo did a disservice to all the future generations of artists, because he said it all. Everything that could be taken from that moment can be found today in the refectory of the Convent of Santa Maria della Grazie, Milan, even though you are given something like 15 minutes to find it.

Ge shows a different moment, when Judas is leaving. This break-up of teacher and pupil which many teachers see as betrayal is clouded by emotion different from what is found in “traditional” scenes. Judas puts on his shroud, ready to go. His face, his figure are in the shadow. There’s plenty of shock, guilt, fear, blame, condemnation and confusion in the room – normally to be found in any last supper painting except for the gala works by French Classicist painters of the 19th century.

What is different in Ge’s Supper is the emotion of Christ. He is not serene/triumphant/melancholic or determined, as he usually would be depicted. He is devastated. He can’t raise his eyes to watch his pupil go. His relaxes pose and averted gaze are meant to hide the turmoil of emotions he must be suffering.

I’ve been to situations when I lost pupils or people I invested a lot of energy into. That’s why I am drawn into this painting on a very personal level, not just from the art history point of view.

To give you more of Ge, this is his Christ in the garden of Gethsemane. He prays to His Father; this is the moment when he has to accept his destiny, when he has to embrace His sacrifice.

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Many artists painted him raising his arms to the skies, his features convulsed, his eyes ecstatic.

But come to think of it, really, how would a man feel knowing he is about to die?

He would go through the famous five DABDA stages: denial, anger, bargaining, depression, and acceptance. Ge thought that neither of the stages (even though DABDA has not been formulated at his time) were worth showing except the end result. The Acceptance.

No one can be joyful about death (except for those who expect 72 virgins in the afterlife). I think I mean Vikings here, to stay politically correct. So, having accepted your destiny, how would you feel? Yes, accepting, but devastated nonetheless.

And the moon light is there to highlight it. This is a painting almost impossible to photograph. It is very dark, and the paint is glossy – when you are in front of it, it emanates moon-lit night. I am not exaggerating. This black and white conflict – in the face, on the hand, in the surrounding olive trees makes the viewer feel a Russian roulette player, whose opponent just clicked on an empty round and hands the gun over.

For creating contrast in this post, I want to show you another Christ praying His Father “to let this cup pass away from me” – done by an artist of great skill. This one doesn’t draw you in. It is as false as the nimbus. An empty illustration.

Wilhelm Kotarbiński, Christ in the garden, painted approximately the same time as Ge's

Wilhelm Kotarbiński, Christ in the garden, painted approximately the same time as Ge’s

Tell me if you want to know more about Ge – and please share paintings or sculptures that draw you in. I’d love to see them!

Rublev’s Trinity: why is it a great painting?

A man walks down a sidewalk, then stumbles and falls, gasping for air and clutching the left side of his breast in what seems to be a heart-attack. A priest who happened to be near crouches by the man and asks him, “Do you believe in God the Father, God the Son, and God the Saint Spirit?”

The man strains to open his eyes, moaning, “I am about to kick the bucket, and you are asking me riddles?!”

The Trinity has been one of the most difficult concepts in Christianity. Having three hypostases of God in a monotheistic religion is no small philosophical feat. I can’t really understand it either, even though I’ve read a lot about it. The Trinity is especially popular in the Orthodox branch of Christianity, with its iconic image to be found in almost every church.

Ideas people don’t understand but have to accept are transformed into superstitions. In Russia, one of the core superstitions is revolving around the number THREE.

“God loves the Trinity” is one of the most frequently used proverbs, applied to a variety of situations, from the need to try three times before admitting a failure to the unavoidability of Putin’s galloping through his third presidential term. 

If you lost your wallet, your wife, and your freedom you can relax and feel safe, because nothing bad is going to happen to you now. God loves the Trinity, man.

But there were times in Russia, when the concept of the Trinity played a different, and a rather revolutionary  role.

In the late 14th century, Russia was a conglomerate of warring principalities, reporting to the headquarters of the Mongol Empire in the East. Russian princes were fighting each other to win favours from the Mongol CEO (called a Khan). I am sure if you’ve done time with any of the multinational corporations from Forbes 100, you know what it is like firsthand. Nothing’s really changed in the department of favouritism, nepotism, corruption, and incompetence covering up its collective ass by idiotic and cruel decisions.

Russia at the time was drained by both Mongols and its own princes, and was very likely to cease existing as anything resembling a place where Russkies lived together as a nation.

The concept of the Trinity came handy. Due to its complexity, it could be interpreted almost any way you wanted. At the time, the Trinity came to mean Unity, Sacrifice, and Peace. Russia was seen as a country worthy of Peace through Unity in Sacrifice. In a longer, but simpler form it would be like this: Russians were supposed to sacrifice self-interest and their life in Unity against Mongols because only this would bring peace to the land. Or something like that, for it is impossible for a modern man to understand the brain workings of someone who lived 600 years ago with cow’s bladder instead of glass in their windows.

If you ask an artist today to come up with a single piece about Life, Peace, Harmony, Love, Sacrifice, and Unity, you are likely to end up (at best)  with an abstract painting you’d have to hire a dozen art critics to explain. And don’t be too hopeful: afterwards, it would mean those five things for you only.

But a monk of the early 15th century could pull the trick of making a painting that was powerfully communicating all these ideas and more.

The monk’s name was Andrey Rublev.

He produced an icon that not only was a skyscraper of storied symbolism, but primarily an instantly inspiring call to action.

I don’t want to push you, face down, in the theological maze of ideas that were reflected in the icon’s incredibly rich symbolism. I am more interested in understanding, What makes the icon resonate with today’s viewers most of whom know only a very basic story behind Trinity?

Click Page 2 below to find out!

Modigliani’s Secrets

Modigliani. Art critics say he was a great painter of female nudes. But why? Read on to understand why. I will take you on a tour around just one of his nudes. Critics say they are all sensual and expressive. But why are they so expressive? What was the method, the tricks?

This lady was painted around 1916, and exhibited in Paris a year later. The exhibition lasted a few hours, and was shut down by the police from a station across the street; the reason was indecency. It was pornographic to show pubic hair at the time.

Female Nude, Modigliani – c.1916 –  The Courtault Gallery – London

In fact, you don’t see this painting the way it is presented on the Gallery’s web-site. You don’t see the dabs. It looks much smoother:

Colours: It is good to remember that Modigliani was fascinated by Renaissance art. The background greenish blue and red can be seen in many Italian paintings showing Madonna. Especially in the ones that were not “cleaned” in the late 19th century, when Amedeo was a teenager roaming the churches and galleries of Liguria and Tuscany.

Shapes: The pose of the model resembles that of some mannerist paintings by Parmigiano. There’s the most famous, Madonna of the Long Neck in Florence that might have inspired Modigliani to arrange the model in this way (not to mention that his manner of showing elongated forms has a lot to do not only with the fashion for African art, but first of all with his passion for Renaissance).

Madonna of the long neck by Parmigiano, 1535
You can read more about it in the friendly blog of History of Art

The artist’s provocation: Modigliani undresses the madonna, taking off her garments and presents us with her young and tender body. It is, in fact, not the pubic hair that’s indecent in this painting. It is the blasphemy of the artist who links the Virgin to an alive body capable of provoking not just spiritual adoration but sexual arousal. 

The model is not trying to cover her breasts, but she doesn’t look wanton. Somehow. She does not look even accessible!

The conflict. As I often say, no conflict – no drama – no interest. Where is the conflict in this painting?

Look at the way the face is painted. Same colours as the background, and very different from the body. The face stays “dressed” in the Virgin’s blues and reds, it is just the body that is revealed. Obviously, the red on her cheek turned to us can’t come as a reflection from the red behind her back. The pun was intended, not “copied” from nature.

That’s the main conflict in this painting. The modesty of the face and the eroticism of the body.

The details.

Modigliani looks “flat” to many people. Well, he is far from being flat. He spent a hell of a lot of time doing this painting. You can see it from the X-ray image the gallery did of this painting:

All those brushstrokes, layer upon layer. What did he try to achieve?

You may notice that the size of brushstrokes that make up the face is different from those that shape the body. This is another sign where the conflict was intended.

Modigliani wanted to be a sculptor and tried to become one when he had a chance. His brushstrokes sculpt the body as if he were working with a chisel.

His – as often an art critic would say – “bold” lines show the boundaries of the sculpted form. Inside the line you find a sculpture, outside is a simple painting:

Look at the way he sculpts the legs. A very subtle change of colour bends her legs in a way that the body stays smooth and the skin not wrinkled at all – showcasing the beauty of a young body.

And also look at the white spot on which she sits. It is made with very loose, impasto brushstrokes that leave no doubt about what it is: a part of the painting area.

When you get to London, go to the Courtauld Gallery and enjoy this painting for yourself. And, to leave you some space for your own exploration, think about why Modigliani used white accents in his painting. Find them and try to figure out his logic!

PS Apologies for using pics done with a mobile phone: the colours are often wrong.

PPS. And one more thing. If this article made you look at Modigliani in a new way, if, having read it, you really felt his genius – drop me a comment, let me know whether it worked or not!