Tag Archives: Understanding Modern Art

The Pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood

The Pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood was initially a secret society, formed in 1848 in London and designed as a rejection of the art academy process. Rejecting the academic painting approach and what it stood for, these group of men ( William Michael Rossetti, James Collinson, Frederic George Stephens and Thomas Woolner) instead chose to approach art in the styles of late medieval and early Renaissance Europe. A time that was Pre-Raphael.

What that meant is their art, at first, had a  ”minute description of detail, a luminous palette of bright colors that recalls the tempera paint used by medieval artists, and subject matter of a noble, religious, or moralizing nature”. Their intent was to make art approachable to the common man, through themes and stories that recognizable to anyone, and not through subtext that was unapproachable by most.

They rejected hackery, any idea that showed  ”anything lax or scamped in the process of painting … and hence … any thing or person of a commonplace or conventional kind.” They initially focused on the familial stories of the bible, but soon turned to landscapes, heading out into the world with canvas and paints. This seems obvious now, but before them, an artist would sketch a landscape, take it back to the studio, and then recreate the colors from memory.  What the Pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood did was to capture the colors as they saw them at the time that they saw them. The result? Paintings had more detail than ever before.

John William Waterhouse, The Lady of Shallot

More than anything else, the PRB moved the art world, begrudgingly at first, out of its traditions of the time. While the diversity of the Brotherhood’s work makes it difficult to tie it to one or two basic themes, what the PRB accomplished more than any other movement was to make the artist the driver of the work, not the ideals era in which they were born. What the Pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood fostered for more than any thing else was that artist had the right and the duty to develop their own identity and styles.  This belief would soon change the art world forever.

Video – The Pre-Raphaelites

A nice intro to the Pre-Raphaelites from the BBC.  The Pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood was a group of English painters, poets, and critics, founded in 1848 byWilliam Holman Hunt, John Everett Millais and Dante Gabriel Rossetti. I’ll discuss in further detail soon. Video’s are below the jump.
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John Ruskin and Modern Painters

John Ruskin goes hand-in-hand with the work of J.M.W Turner, because as critics ravaged Turner’s new, non-traditional approach to art, it was Ruskin who defended him and other artists like him, with the release of the book Modern Painters.

The well-reasoned critique within Modern Painters helped set the stage, or at least, provided enough rationale to new and different approaches to art, that it is a variable that needs to be accounted for in the transition from Romanticism to Impressionism.  There is much in the book that should be devoured with glee, but I want to point out a specific quote: There is a moral as well as material truth – a truth of impression as well as of form – of thought as well as of matter.

In other words, there is truth in perception as there is in reality.  A mountain exists in the landscape whether I see it or not. It is true by its nature. But when I do finally see that mountain, my impression of it is equally true, regardless of how it measures up to its nature.

What Ruskin states in Modern Painters is that an artist is obliged to be truthful to the thought of the mountain as to the mountain itself.  And if the techniques of paintings used to convey the truth of the thoughts run counter to the techniques employed by the Italian and Dutch masters of the seventeenth century, than so be it.   For an artist, it is truth one is after, not a specific technique or approach to the truth.

So when J.M.W. Turner showed this piece…

…yes, it was different, new, and non-traditional in its approach.  But from Ruskin’s point of view, Turner was being truthful to the impression of what he saw,  and was effective enough in his technique to convey it. This is, in part, what makes Turner great.

There’s far more to Modern Painters than that simple idea. His take down of the painters who we deem “The Masters” is, in of itself, masterful. From an art history perspective, however, just know that this book exists and that it challenged the notion of what “art” was at the time of its release in 1843.

 

A Few Paintings by Joseph Mallord William Turner

Moonlight, A Study at Millbank – J. M. W. Turner – 1797

Take a few moments to look at these paintings by Joseph Mallord William Turner (aka J.M.W. Turner aka William Turner). While the subjects are important, what I wish to point out is the techniques used, and how Turner’s approach to light evolved. When looking at these paintings, focus on the approach the artist took to convey his ideas, and how that translated into technique.

 

Mount Vesuvius in Eruption – J. M. W. Turner – 1817

 

The Decline of the Carthaginian Empire – J. M. W. Turner – 1817

The Devil’s Bridge at St. Gothard – J. M. W. Turner- 1841

Rain, Steam, and  Speed, The Great Western Railway – J. M. W. Turner – 1844

Looking into his catalog of work, the evolution is just as clear.  By the time he reached near the end of his light, Turner was experimenting, not just with light, but with how the light was conveyed on the canvas, and how the approach used could alter the scene or event being painted.  What makes Rain, Steam, and Speed, The Great Western Railway so intriguing to me, is not just the technique, but how it relates to the artist and his previous works.  Early on, he followed tradition. By the end, he was painting almost nondescript scenes, with areas left clouded or ambiguous, and only a few items on the canvas that could be recognizable. He was pushing and exceeded traditional boundaries that had been taught in the art academies.

What Was The Art World Like in 1850?

Venice, from the Porch of Madonna della Salute – Joseph Mallord William Turner

 

We, or should I say, I have a very specific idea on how non-famous artists get their pieces viewed today. Either they place them on the walls of any business that will have them – say, your local coffee shop or book store – or, the pieces are submitted for review to local galleries. There,  the artist will either have individual pieces that will become part of a collection that’s trying to convey a specific theme, or the artist themselves will be highlighted, with several to dozens of pieces are shown.

I have no idea how true this is today, and I admit that it’s a fiction created in my head based off of nothing more than minimal inputs from actual artists. I do know that the world today is more capitalistic, and that this drives the art scene, somewhat.

My point here is what it’s not. It’s not patronage (although this probably still occurs today), and it’s not a student getting a showing at the local art college (which definitely still occurs today, having been to a few of these myself). It’s this latter example I want to expand upon, because in the early 1800′s, the Art Academies of Europe were where an artist learned their craft, cultivated their talent, found patronage, and had their work shown at annual exhibits. It was the academy system that was the primary means of promoting art in Western Europe, and if one wished to succeed in the art world, inevitably an artist had to demonstrate whatever skills and talents that the leaders of each Art Academy felt was indicative of such.  In other words,  an artist had to meet someone else’s definition of what was acceptable, rather than meet their own. This is a broad interpretation of what likely happened, but it needs to be said for reasons I will cover later.

That’s not to say that those who held sway with the academies were less than liberal in their approaches.  Pieces that pushed the boundaries were featured a fair bit. For example, The Grand Canal, Venice by Joseph Mallord William Turner, pictured above, was exhibited at the Royal Academy in 1835 is an exercise of imprecision*, a sacrifice of “reality” and technique in order to create a more balanced painting.

My point here is that the Academies weren’t necessarily stodgy, but there was a well worn path that one needed to follow. This is a topic for a different post. Right now, all we need to know is that the Academy system existed, and it was the primary means for an artist to succeed in the early to mid 1800′s.

(*The painting is based off of separate sketches that were drawn at different locations in Venice, combined into a single painting that creates a scene that doesn’t truly exist in our reality. This imperfect approach was seen as a detriment to Turner’s work by some, not an asset. The same could be say of his approach to color, as well as technique. While his subjects were classic romanticism subjects – at one point he believed that landscapes could “convey a full range of artistic, historical, and emotional meanings” – it was his techniques that separated him from other artists of the times. Looking at his piece from 1844 entitled Rain, Steam and Speed,  - The Great Western Railway, you can see he was doing things differently.  You can also see a better detailed reprint of his The Grand Canal, Venice here)

What is Romanticism?

Man and Woman Contemplating the Moon - Caspar David Friedrich

Before we get into how things changed in the art world after 1850, we have to discuss what was in place at the time, and the philosophical bent of the premier artists of that era.  This brings us directly into the idea of Romanticism.

Before we get too far into this, let me point out something that’s probably obvious, but needs to be said. Intellectual movements such as romanticism extend beyond one medium, sometimes including areas including that of philosophy and academics. These movements sometimes evolve organically as a response to other social items and its participants unaware that they are part of something bigger. Other time these movements come into being with intent, with artists and philosophers not only cognizant of the new ideas they are espousing, but sometimes even intentionally looking at the world in a new way as a “rebellious response” to the status quo. This latter idea plays a big part in the evolution into modern art, but for now I simply want to state that movements exist, and exist beyond particular mediums.

For now, I wish to talk about romanticism broadly. When this word is used in the artistic sense, it’s not referring to love. When you hear that  Victor Hugo was a romantic, it didn’t mean he bought roses for his lovers, and made sure they had a poem every day.  Romanticism doesn’t refer to love directly.

Instead, it means, as  German poet Friedrich Schlegel wrote ”(the depiction of) emotional matter in an imaginative form.” It is an idealization of a notion, expressed through art.  Sometimes the notion can be as specific as a natural scene painted to evoke man’s place in nature. Sometimes the notion can be as abstract as the idea of “liberty” and “nationalism” and what it means to both individuals and societies as a whole.  To put it in another context, it is the idealization of nature, whether it dealt with the inherent beauty of earth, or the natural rights of humanity or societies.

Two points – one, my definitions above should only be seen as a starting point. Art historians smarter than myself have written extensively on the subject, and I’d be a fool if I thought I could give due coverage of the movement in a single post.

Secondly, I could go into great detail as to why romanticism came into being, but for the purposes of what I’m trying to accomplish (figuring  out Modern art), it’s of little importance.  The key thing to remember is that by 1850, Romanticism was on the way out, but as to the hows and whys that are happening, belong in a different post.

From my own perspective on romanticism, I am a great admirer of the era, and of the artwork that came out of it. In my house there’s a reprint of Caspar David Friedrich’s Wanderer above The Mist, which is often used as a primary example of the romantic period.  There’s a good reason for that, for it evokes the precision of the artist, but also communicates the contemplative aspect of mankind when confronted with nature. Much of Friedrich’s work contain men and/or women with their back to the viewer of the piece, with them looking at, what would be in other pieces, the background of artwork. This technique evoked two distinct ideas. One, what was in the background is far more important than what is in the foreground. Two, the viewer of the artwork could then easily put themselves in place of the faceless individuals in the piece, and relate to that moment when one contemplated the background scenery.  This idea being evoked, that individuals are part of something grander, is a near perfect example of what romanticism is trying to convey.

However,two constants in the art world are that movements become stale, and the world itself evolves.  My next post will deal with what happened to the Romantic movement.

1850 CE – My Modern Art Line In The Sand

 

The Golden Wall - Hans Hofmann

If I’m going to look at modern art, there has to be a point in front of the Modernist movement from which I have to start. If I were so motivated, I could go back to the beginning of art history, and we could trace the routes that led to the above picture. But I am not so motivated.  I’m going to presume some measure of understanding of art history, and only refer specific artists or works if it’s relevant to the point I’m trying to make.  The time between Rembrandt and Hans Hofmann is close to 100 generations. I’m looking for a history that’s more immediate to the result.

To that end, I’m picking a date almost at random to begin this journey – 1850.  I could have just as easily chosen 1848 or 1862, or several other dates that are far more relevant for specific moments that occurred in those years, but have chosen 1850 because it lacks such a specific event.  I can instead focus on the era in a far more broad context, and then focus on the moments when the world changed with far more precision (when it’s appropriate to do so).

My first order of business? I need to understand what the Western art world looked like in 1850, and figure out why that world was so ready for a change.