Portraits de Cézanne, Musée d’Orsay, June 13 – Sept 24 2017
The exhibition spans portraits from the whole of Cézanne’s career. It shows how his style and method have evolved over time and gives an insight in how he worked by showing several versions of the same portrait side by side. The exhibition also includes a few sketchbook pages and drawings which I found very interesting.
Following my tutor’s advice to study artists’ techniques I decided to draw one of the drawings rather than try to take in the whole of the exhibition.
my attempt, pencil on brown paper, A4
Paul Cézanne: Portrait du Docteur Gachet, 1873
What I learned:
I need to be much much bolder with my darks. Although I saw the tones before me my own ones are very narrow. I deepened the shadows several times but as is obvious now I should have pushed them further still (although I did use a pencil not charcoal and the sketch has since been smudged considerably).
Different tones and different kinds of marks (smudges, hatching, strong single marks…) work out the shape of the coat in a lively manner. Here, too, I need to broaden my repertoire considerably. I see a similarity in the marks of this drawing and the colour fields with which Cézanne builds up his paintings.
Some shadows/hatching in the background close to the figure place it in a space without defining that space.
The lighting in the room was not very good for what I was doing – it was hard to see my own marks and in the beginning I was distracted by the other visitors. Nonetheless I liked this exercise. It brought me much closer to this drawing than just looking would have done. It showed me the difference between knowing to do something (e.g. making dark darks) and actually do it. It allows me to get a direct feedback on what I do and to experience the effect of a mark I would probably not have made on my own.
To get more out of this I would have needed to stay longer and do it again, maybe concentrating on only a part of the drawing. I will have to do this at home where I can visit exhibitions more often and at my leisure.
Anders Zorn (1860-1920) is one of the most famous Swedish painters. He started his career as a portrait painter and watercolourist but is today best known for his nudes in nature, both watercolours and oils. He had long been fascinated with the light on water which he from 1880 onwards combined with a female nude by or in the water. These are very sensual realistic paintings.
He also made sculpures and etchings.
This exhibition shows watercolours, oils, etchings, sculptures and photographs that are rarely shown to the public. The works come from the Zorn Museum in Mora and from private collections.
Light on Water – Watercolours
I was instantly fascinated by one of the first watercolours in the exhibition:
I am spell bound by the light in this. It is almost as if the light emanated from the picture. How did he do this?! I know it has to do with contrast, but how?
A closer look reveals the colours he used to build up the water. It looks a blue grey with white highlights, but there is actually surprisingly little real blue and white in it. Most of the marks contain a fair amount of brown.
The dark marks are a dark grey, the lighter colours in the shadow a grey with hints of brown in some areas, sometimes verging on green. The really surprising thing here however are the whites. In the part that looks brightest Zorn broke the white with cool colours, further out to the sides they get warmer.
These coloured whites in contrast to the dark marks give the impression of light playing and glittering on the water.
Etchings – the use of lines
In the etchings displayed at the exhibition the most striking thing was Zorn’s use of lines. He uses very prominent roughly parallel lines to build up tone which then forms the image.
In the coat of King Oscar Zorn drew the marks straight from the shoulders down, across lapel and all. Only in the forearm the direction is altered. I am surprised to see that this works! Combined with the coarse shadows it gives the impression of a dark coat in strong sunlight. In the face and the hat the marks are finer and their direction follows the planes of the face/hat. They are still very rough but also precise in that they leave patches of light that model the face. There are more tones here, from very dark around the eyes, lips and below the hat over a variety of dark and light tones to white. E.g. there is a light shift to a lighter tone just over the brow or a slight difference in tone between the mustaches on the lit and the shadow side. The contrast in detail between face and coat is striking and I think important in order to make the face the focal point. This is stressed further by the background which mostly is a simple line drawing. The roughness of the drawing surely says something about the subject. Not knowing anything about King Oscar II I had him down as an old salt.
There is an other etching I studied more closely as it is very different from this one. It is of Queen Sophia:
This portrait has an altogether different character. Sophias dress is of a light colour and Zorn drew lines only in shadowed areas. Cross hatching is used very sparingly and then in a much calmer way than in the coat of King Oscar. Here the lines are mostly parallel or fanning out following the drapes of the dress. In the face, too, the lines are calmer, and are kept roughly vertical. This makes her features fine and smooth.
As the figure here is light, the background is kept dark, but the contrasts in dress and face tell about a strong light falling on her, maybe through a window.
It was very interesting to study these etchings. I am surprised at the level of detail Zorn is able to express using mainly parallel lines. Especially in the portrait of King Oscar. They look hastily drawn and sketchy but it is obvious that he knew exactly where shadows and lights are and what tones he could produce. I often don’t and so find it easier to search for the shape by filling areas with graphite. This hatching technique, I imagine, is only effective if I know from the start where I want darks or lights.
I am not entirely sure whether I like the striped effect of the lines. I am impressed with the craftsmanship of the drawings, but the strong parallel and directional lines disturb me. I am more comfortable with a looser approach, crisscrossing maybe or a less overpowering application of hatching. Still, I plan to try it out for myself.
Homepage, Anders Zorn museum, Mora, Sweden: http://www.zorn.se/en/us/anders-zorn/
Homepage Sven-Harrys Konstmuseum, Stockholm, Sweden. Exhibition description: http://www.sven-harrys.se/en/utforska/konsthallen/anders-zorn/en-annan-zorn/
Lithographic Prints 2007 – 2017 and Newer Paintings. Exhibition at Edsvik Konsthall, Sollentuna, Sweden, June 2017
Karl Mårtens paints birds in watercolour and for lithographic prints, although never the same image. His prints are originals made in editions, he says. For his watercolours he uses large papers, Chinese and Japanese brushes and lots of water. This gives the work a life of its own with surprising effects and “mistakes”. He paints large and quickly, beginning with sweeping moves and concluding with the fine detail around the face of the bird. He says, the bird tells him when it’s finished.
Intuition and an “empty state of mind” are central to his working process which includes zen meditation prior to painting. Being separated from the intellect, and thus from doubt, fear or expectations, brings him in contact with intuition, he explains. There is always the element of chance and the need to incorporate mistakes, adapting the image as it was imagined to how it turns out. Life long experience from drawing and painting birds and mastery of his medium makes this possible, I imagine. A short documentary about Karl Mårtens and his way of painting can be found here.
I am impressed by the movement in his paintings and his unerring sense for balance – in the shape of the bird, the composition as a whole and in the use of colour. Placing a bird on the paper he turns its shape into a work of art. Colour, texture and empty space are working together to form a whole.
This magpie – reduced to black and white in order to make the lithographic plate – shows how much of the images expression lies in the composition:
He uses different levels of detail in his paintings. This gives them an overall looseness and freedom while still giving the impression of minute detail. It also enhances the tension and interest in the pictures.
Karl Mårtens, detail of the face of an eagle
Karl Mårtens, detail of the tail of an eagle
The birds’ faces are always very detailed while the brushstrokes in the body, wings and tails are loser. The roughness of the paper, interactions between colours and additions of salt give interesting textures and effects that cannot be wholly controlled.
In the following painting he uses a bright orange in one of the wings. The same colour occurs in the bird’s eyes and in a very faint tone also in the lower wing. This very beautifully reflects the overall composition and balance.
My favorite in the exhibition was a gull. Among all these fantastic birds this one got under my skin more than the others. It was as if I felt the wind under my wings which I don’t have, I almost felt what it means to fly. She is the queen of the storm.
I suspect it is the size of the painting, approx. A 1, and the volume in the bird’s left wing that initiated these feelings. There also is the detail of a few drops of paint behind the bird. To me they convey the speed with which the bird is sailing on the wind. A fantastic painting!
Without aspiring to paint like this there are a few things I would like to take with me into my own work:
Emptiness – I do not meditate to empty my mind but I know that when I reach a state of immersed concentration when drawing/painting the images become much better. My thinking often gets in the way, wanting to control too much, not daring to rely on my creativity, expecting too defined an outcome. Maybe I should learn to meditate.
Balance – The composition of an image plays a huge role in its expression and interest. Pay more attention to this and try out different ones before committing. Unusual angles or distributions can underline aspects of the subject.
Detail – Work out a focal point in detail but keep areas of looseness and empty space. This gives the image freedom and space to breath.
Size – Dare to paint large! I know it feels wonderful.
Mårtens, Karl: Letting Intuition Rule – Lithographic Prints 2007-2017, Edition Vulfovitch, Stockholms Lito Grafiska AB, Stockholm 2017
Thoughts on Forest, Field and Sky, a BBC art documentary
This documentary touches on the very essence of what art is to me. The artists presented all work directly with nature. Some use only materials they find on the spot, creating an artwork by rearranging what there is.
To me this feels like something deeply human. It is about making a mark, about creating something that would otherwise not exist, and something that does not serve any practical purpose. It is about seeing what there is and what could be. It is intuitive and immediate.
I am especially taken by the works of Andy Goldsworthy. I like the fact that they are ephemeral and very beautiful. And it seems he makes them just somewhere in the country, where he happens to be. No gallery, no money, no advertising involved. Although it is a bit of a shame that as a viewer I cannot visit his works, this is part of what makes them attractive to me. They are there for their own sake, for the sake of creating and for the sake of beauty.
Some of the works, like Julie Brook’s firestacks (cairns built at low tide with a fire on top which would eventually be quenched by the tide) or Andy Goldsworthy’s dry stone wall art, involve hard labour and dedication. They tell about the struggle against the forces of nature, and still they have something playful about them. I like that.
I think for me the point here lies not with the fact that these works are made from what nature offers. More importantly, they are made from materials that are already there and they are made for a specific spot and, sometimes, born from the moment. It is this that is important to me. The idea connects to working with used materials or found objects. Rearranging, changing an object’s purpose, putting things where they don’t “belong” naturally and so change the way we see our surroundings.
The documentary inspired me to try some of my own. It was the day after Walpurgis Night. I had planned to get some pieces of coal and burned twigs from a fire site and make something from them. It turned out the remains of the fire had already been thoroughly removed. I had to abandon the idea of a black piece.
I had come here with a very vague idea of what I wanted to do and that did not even work. But it was fascinating to experience how it developed by what I found, the few black sticks, the hole in the tree, the sticks of different colours. I rearranged them several times following ideas, first with what I had collected before I knew what I wanted to do, then with specific colours I went looking for. It was absorbing work even though it is so simple. Very rewarding to see it develop. I also enjoyed the freedom, no demands at all, only my ideas. It doesn’t even have to last very long, it is for here and for now. But I like the idea of people coming by, saying: Oh, look! Maybe wondering who made it and why. And maybe they then notice the colours in the winter-brown landscape.
Fox, James: Forest, Field and Sky – Art out of Nature. BBC Documentary 2016
an exhibition on the theme of still life, pottery and the investigation of boundaries at the art museum Artipelag, Stockholm
Private study visit with a fellow OCA student. Find Gwenyth’s account of the exhibition here.
The venue – inside and outside
Artipelag is a museum for contemporary art built 2009 – 2012 in the archipelago east of Stockholm. From the beginning in the planning office the surroundings in which it is built have been an integrated part of it. (Source: Artipelag Hompepage) Large windows open the spaces inside onto the pines, rocks and water outside. In the café-area and the video room the rounded bedrock beneath comes through the floor. The boundaries between outside and inside, between art and nature, between planned and accidental are opened up.
The exhibition – painting and sculpture
Edmund de Waal’s installations occupy the main exhibition room. Here only one small painting by Giorgio Morandi hangs on the wall. The room feels large with a lot of space between the showcases. In the middle black yoga mats lie on the floor inviting the viewers to lie down and look at the showcases suspended above. The idea here is partly to offer an unusual viewpoint, but also to slow down, to allow for contemplation and stillness.
Further back one enters a flight of three smaller rooms. The first is arranged as a library with books and pads of paper. Again an invitation to slow down and contemplate. Sketches, etchings and watercolours by Morandi hang on the walls. In the next room one finds earlier oil paintings (mainly still lives with a few landscapes) by Morandi and in the last room, which again opens to the archipelago, there are later works by Morandi and two sculptures by de Waal. All four spaces are connected by one long line of small handwriting on the wall on about eye-level. It is a text by de Waal about Morandi, still lifes and his own works for this exhibition.
Edmund de Waal (*1964) – visual art and music
de Waal has built this exhibition with great care to its surroundings. The woods outside and the light falling in through the windows are part of his installations. He says that they change character with the changing light of day. (Source: Audioguide)
At first glance the installations seem very simple: groups of white porcelain vessels and alabaster squares on shelves or in showcases, some behind clear glass, some behind milky glass. And similar ones in black. On closer inspection, however, they become very complex and fascinating to explore. Especially in the white ones a lot is happening: There is a tension between the slender, round, opaque pottery and the heavy but translucent square blocks of alabaster. Light and shadow are playing. Some groups stand on reflecting glass, some on glass that makes them look as if they float. Behind some of the white objects de Waal has placed small gilt plates. It is quite difficult to see them, but they change the cast shadow of the objects into a warm glow. Some of the groups seem like symphonies on white, where white becomes very relative.
The black ones were more difficult to take in, I found. It seemed to me at first there is much less going on. They seemed like simpler more distilled versions of the white ones, emphasising certain of the aspects present in the white ones. But then I saw that they showed a stronger and stranger interaction with the wood outside the window. It was reflected more clearly but in strange colours. There was purple and sea green we were unsure where it came from.
I also found in one of the black sculptures standing on a black plinth that when I moved the vessels and the frames of the showcases engaged in a dance.
Some of the groups were placed behind milky glass with different levels of opacity. I found these annoying as they would not let me see clearly. However, seen against the window the shapes became much clearer and I saw a direct connection to the tree trunks outside (observe the one empty and open rectangle in the third column from the left).
Other objects behind milky glass became sharper as one looked from a distance – which feels counter-intuitive. We usually go closer to see something better.
In an interview (Source: Video) de Waal says that music plays an important role in his work. He says that when he works he has “serious music going on” as a kind of landscape to be in. He also says that he hears sounds in shapes, so by grouping the vessels and blocks he builds melodies and rhythms. I cannot hear that, but I can see rhythm in the grouping of objects and the grouping of groups and I can feel the quality of a base in the heavy squares and the quality of a melody in the slender vessels.
Literature and especially poetry are themes that go in a similar direction I feel, rhythm, groups and spaces play an important role there as in these works.
Another recurring theme in de Waal’s work is memory and time. How they change. The installations behind milky glass maybe express the feeling of almost grasping a memory, but loosing its sharpness when trying to look at it closely. In the black sculptures I see how the light of the now changes the “memory”. The boxes of shards are like memories, too, pieces of what was, moments of gold, de Waal says, briefly shining and then lost. (Source: Audioguide)
Giorgio Morandi (1890-1964) – object and background
Giorgio Morandi was a painter of still lifes and landscapes and a professor for etching at the Academia degli Belli Arti in Bologna. He lived a quiet life and kept to his routines as far as possible. He won several prizes for his still lifes, and his work inspired artists and was shown in many exhibitions during his lifetime and afterwards. (Exhibition leaflet)
I found Morandi’s paintings less easily accessible than de Waals installations. They are kept in rather drab colours and seem quite uneventful at first glance. I first reacted to the unorthodox positioning of the objects. I have learned that in still lifes I should avoid lines, such as the horizon and the tops of objects, meeting in the same spot or coinciding with each other. In these still lifes, however, it seems Morandi went out of his way to make them meet and coincide.
In the library room we found sketches which offered me a possible insight in what it was Morandi was investigating: shapes, lines and where they belong, boundaries between objects and background:
Here he has added or omitted lines, I cannot say which. The bottomline between bottle and boxes (?) suggests another box, as does the invisible horizon line just above and the shadow on the bottle. However, there is no top edge to this object. Is it object or is it background?
In this sketch I feel the dark object in the middle flickers back and forth between being object and negative space.
With this in mind I can see why he wanted to align his objects as he did. The aim does not seem to have been a realistic depiction but rather studies of lines and shapes and boundaries.
The small painting in the main hall had me confused and I did not understand the colours or the brush strokes. Why does he choose the same colour for bottle and background. Why does he change the direction of the brush strokes in the background to follow the curve of the bottle?
After having seen and discussed the sketches above and looking at the painting from a distance I noticed that the bottle disolves into the background. It is only the little shadow in the (to me irritating) brush stroke near the horizon and to the left of the bottle that suggests that side of the bottle. That shadow, however, on closer inspection, belongs not to the bottle but to the background. The top line of the white box meets the horizon line to the right and another line suggesting a lable or some such meets the horizon line to the left. Both these lines I feel give volume to the bottle – also the one that belongs to the white box.
In this painting it is the pitcher’s handle that plays with our perception. When does it stop to be the handle and becomes the shadow between the first two beakers?
So I think these still lifes are not about objects. They are abstractions that play with lines and shapes and colour.
I was surprised by the luminosity of these pictures, despite the cautious colouring. They have a special glow to them as if the light comes from them, not into them. The photos do not really reflect this. In the following painting it is really remarkable:
I am glad I visited this exhibition in connection with unit 4 of my course. I had been studying pale upright shapes and their shadows and thus my senses were hightened to that sort of interplay. I saw negative shapes changing as I moved past, I saw the shapes of shadows and how they move. Morandi’s sketches also struck a chord. Not so much at the exhibition, but afterwards. I want to try and set up a still life playing with the lines and flat quality of the drawing. It seems like a natural thing to do after unit 4 and this exhibition.
I very much enjoyed interacting with de Waal’s installations, to go and look for the hidden gold, to lie down and let Atmosphere affect me. I feel that the exhibition has a very playful side to it. It is about looking, finding out and finding. de Waal has one installation at the back of the big hall that is a bit hidden and not lighted as the others. He says this is a piece for the visitor to discover by his/her own, not at all in line with the convention to label everything in an exhibition. (Source: Audioguide) In the boxes he has hidden gilded plates – more to discover.
Having seen the exhibition it feels quite natural to combine works by Morandi and de Waal. But I found it hard to put the feeling into words that there is another common denominator that goes deeper than the obvious pottery and still life connection. But I think the play with boundaries that I find in both their works and in the venue itself is important. It is something I would like to take with me into my own work. I have tried to do still lifes with Morandi in mind here, and made a version of my drawing for Exercise 4.1 where I blurred boundaries between objects and background.
I have very much enjoyed visiting and discussing the exhibition with a fellow student. For me, looking and discussing is so much more rewarding than just looking and thinking by myself. The other person’s thoughts trigger new ones of my own so that together we can go deeper. It has been a lovely day out and a wonderful experience! Thank you!
Exhibition Leaflet (2017): ArtipelagMorandi/Edmund de Waal. Göteborgstryckeriet
Reflections on the definition of drawing based on the Introduction to “Vitamin D”¹
“To draw is to be human.”
With this statement Emma Dexter begins the text leading the reader’s thoughts to cave paintings (notice the term “paintings” here) as the earliest form of human image making and expression. Humans draw and have always drawn, be it historically or in the life of an individual. Children have a natural interest for it and in them we might glimpse something of the early humans’ relationship to drawing. It has, no doubt, something magical about it. And looking at those images in the caves gives us a strong feeling of connection with the people who made them and saw them. Dexter cites Picasso describing art as a “form of magic, designed as a mediator between this strange, hostile world and us, a way of seizing the power by giving form to our terrors as well as our desires…”(Dexter (2005) p.6) . Rowan Williams, in A History of the World in a 100 Objects, also speaks about art as having deeper meaning to the early humans, deeper than, as he puts it, “managing animals or granting success in hunting”. He says art for these early humans is about “entering fully into the flow of life”, about “being at home in the world at a deeper level” and about “how to be here and now”(McGregor (2010). 9:36-10:33). I like these views very much and think that on some level they are still true today. Art can have an immediacy of expression that connects us – artists or viewers – to our surrounding world and to each other. There is a very nice scene in the animated film How to Train your Dragon, where the boy Hiccup and the dragon Toothless make their first connection over a drawing. The dragon reveals himself not as a mindless monster but as a sentient being.
So yes, art is part of our very being as humans. But I would say “art”, not “drawing”.
How drawing is not like painting
The introduction then takes up different aspects of drawing trying to carve out what drawing is and how it is separated from other art forms. Dexter starts with the “primal, elemental character” of drawing, the “simplicity and purity of the blank sheet of paper”and the “honesty and transparency” of the act of drawing. She puts these in contrast to (oil?)painting, where, as a rule, the ground is covered completely and the process of building up the painting is obscured – where as a drawing uses the relationship of line and supporting background and “wears its mistakes and errors on its sleeve”. Drawing, as the quickest medium, can protect the intensity of the thought, Dexter cites art critic Jean Fisher. In this view drawing is seen as having an immediacy, informality and an intimacy that painting is lacking. Following on from there the implications become quite philosophical when she cites Michael Newman: “each stroke is a sign of withdrawal”, “drawing (…) re-enacts desire and loss”, or when she states that drawing is characterised by an “eternal incompletion”.
Although I can see that drawing can be immediate, informal and intimate I cannot help feeling that this is not all there is to it. And I don’t see why painting as such (and indeed any other art form) should not be immediate, informal or intimate. The further this line of thought is driven the less I understand it and the more I think it confines drawing and robs it of its freedom. Painting, too.
This is strange because whilst drawing is presented as an immediate and direct, quick form of art – which I find limiting – the term is also stretched to encompass almost any medium, from sculpture to landscape art, video, photography… If I understand correctly the connecting element is the line (although I am not sure if the line is a defining element of drawing, there are other ways of mark making in drawing). Where the element of mark making can be seen as a line – be it trodden grass on a meadow (like in Richard Long’s Line Made by Walking), or Monika Grzymala’s spacial drawings made with duct tape or branches in a room the art work could be called a drawing. This, too, is not a new thought considering ancient landscape art such as the White Horse at Uffington. But I feel I have misgivings to stretch the term drawing to photography and video. I wonder what the point is. Why is it important to define drawing to the point of limiting it, or to stretch it and call something a drawing just because it has certain properties normally associated with drawing? I see that by doing this and asking the question What is drawing?, or more to the point What can drawing be?, an artist can open up to new ways of expression and is invited to think outside the box. However, I do not think that we win very much by actually drawing a demarcation line between drawing and say painting . Quite the contrary. It will always imply generalisations that either make the term too wide so it won’t mean anything very much, or too tight excluding too much. I prefer a zone where different art forms meet each other, converge and overlap freely, where elements of art making can be used without having to comply to any predetermined set that can be combined into a “drawing” as opposed to a “painting”. As I believe it is actually done by artists. But in literature it seems art is separated into boxes.
My own understanding of what drawing is is very fuzzy. It has to do with dry materials, such as charcoal or graphite; with line; with immediacy, yes, and spontaneity like in sketching; also, strangely, with lack of colour; with representation. But as soon as I think one of the above I invariably find examples that contradict it. Obviously drawing can be done with wet materials and paint; the line is only one of many ways of making marks; drawings can be very thought-through and built up in layers as much as any painting; there is nothing strange with colour drawings or with abstract drawings. As soon as I try to pin it down, it slips through my fingers.
Dexter says drawings are “eternally incomplete”, she speaks of paintings having, as opposed to drawings, a filled in background and covering up their “coming into being”. But in the book, there are drawings by e.g. Graham Little in coloured pencil with nothing incomplete about them, nothing immediate and sketchy. There are very few lines, too. Following Dexter’s indicators they should be paintings, if it were not for the medium which makes them drawings, intuitively, as indeed Dexter says they are.
But then again: what about the soft pastel portraits by Rosalba Carriera (1673-1757)? Does the medium make these drawings? In this case, I would say not, they feel more like paintings, although the way she handles the background has characteristics of a drawing. She made these portraits of visitors to Venice who had not the time to wait for an oil painting (Stockstad 2008). So one could argue that to all intents and purposes, they were paintings.
On the other hand, there is Joan Miró who’s oil paintings have quite a few of the characteristics usually attributed to drawings.
So where does that leave me with the definition of drawing? As mentioned above, I would like to refrain from a clear definition and instead try and find characteristics a drawing can have. This leaves more room for drawing to be given complete expression. I am thinking of Wittgenstein’s concept of Family Resemblance. He states that some words get their meaning from a set of common features that are present in various meanings of the word, and not in others, “but the general overlapping mesh of these features is where the word gets its meaning” (Philosophy-index). He takes “game” as an example: some games have rules, some don’t, some are played in teams, some not, some need, say, a ball, some don’t. No single thing is common to all uses of the word, and yet, the word “game” has a meaning. I think, “drawing” or “painting” are words like this and do therefore not need to be confined by a rigid definition.
Dexter, E. (2005) Vitamin D: New Perspectives in Drawing. London: Phaidon Press
McGregor, Neil (2010) A History of the World in a 100 Objects. Episode 4: Swimming Reindeer. BBC Radio 4.
How to Train your Dragon, DreamWorks, 2010
Stockstad, M. Cothren M.W.: Art History. Pearson Education Inc, USA 2008 (5th Edition)
Since 1921 Liljevalchs Art Museum in Stockholm hosts a spring salon where works of contemporary artists are shown and sold. Applicants submit their work anonymously and a jury chooses a selection of works to display. Application is open to everybody above the age of 18 and for works in any technique. Admitted works should be no more than three years old and preferably not been exhibited before. The jury will choose works that combine well to a “generous and exciting” exhibition. Thus, although they look for quality, the works chosen are not necessarily the “best” ones.
This year the exhibition shows 295 works from 127 artists. Of these 112 are paintings and 37 are drawings. There are a couple of sculptures, photographs and some textile works as well.
Liljevalchs’ director says this year’s works feel like a counteraction against the uneasiness in the world. Many are about interiors and houses. He would have expected some kind of punch in the gut, but there is none. Art is not taking a stand – rather it seems it looks for alternatives (Dagens Nyheter, 10th Jan. 2017)
I don’t know how representative this selection of artworks is for what goes on in contemporary art in Sweden. And yes, there was no punch. But I felt that a lot of works held a more or less subtle social critique that in some instances stood in stark contrast to the beautiful way the picture was painted. Here are some of the pictures that struck a chord with me:
Henry Svahn had four fantastic watercolours showing a barn in lush green vegetation, romantically dilapidated. He named them “Non-place”. He says that “a place” is somewhere with meaning, intention, made for people to be and often pimped up. A “non-place” would then be the opposite, which he finds more interesting. He says he sees these barns in the north of Sweden as non-places. For me, they bring to mind the state of abandonment of many houses in rural communities and all that that implies.
Henry Svahn Icke-plats Västerbotten
Tobias Adamsson, Villa Aspelund
There was an other artist with, for me, a similar kind of message. Tobias Adamsson draws plans of old houses in a state of disrepair and adorns them with stories about the people who might have lived in them. The twist of these lies in the fact that the plan drawings show the broken beams and fallen walls rather than the house as it would have been drawn before building. He says he wants to raise awareness for the cultural heritage we lose for ever when we let houses like these – and the craftsmanship that built them – disappear. It is a critique of the replace-if-worn society we live in.
Other works were of a more fantastical nature, playful and light:
Lars Palm, Badplats (bathing place)
Lars Palm, Rubicon
Ida Rödén, Nordlig Småvessla (Northerns small weasel)
Lars Palm uses copperplate print for its visual qualities, but also, he says, in controversy to our fast lifestyles. Copperplate printing is a slow process. I like the strange reality in his pictures and the almost childlike style – a bit quirky but very sure. The fantastical animals Ida Rödén presents in the fashion of early scientific studies are based on descriptions by a Swedish early scientist – who may or may not have lived. She plays around the themes of reality and sanity, she says. I like the playfulness and I find the combination of picture and text appealing.
An other playful one is this:
I like the way the artist treats perspective and fits together views, exteriors and interiors into a surprising and interesting whole. I find it playful. Whether that is the artist’s intention I cannot say.
This one by Sten-Yngve Johansson is technically very convincing and I love the light in it:
I think he has first made an underpainting in warm rusty colours that shine through in the final painting. In the water the reflections are red, like the underpainting, rather than the white of the ship. I like the effect of that. I also like the gestural brushmarks.
The exhibition contains many very different works and if one has to set a common denominator then maybe it has to be a lack of overtly political statements. I liked that as it allows the viewer to make his/her own connection
How important is technical skill in a work of art? To me it is very important, however, I know there are many who would disagree. I have to think about this more.
Although there were a number of abstract non-representative pictures the bulk of the works of art on display was representative. Quite a number of them very realistic, moving away from the flat picture plane and gestural marks to a carefully built up three-dimensionality. This is a development I have come across in other maybe more representative contexts.
An exhibition of academic paintings from around 1900 by Swedish artists. Art museum Prince Eugen’s Waldemarsudde, Stockholm
The term salon paintings refers to works of art conforming to the reigning academic principles for paintings at the end of the 19th and beginning 20th century. As such they were admitted to the Salon held by the Académie des Beaux Arts in Paris, unlike e.g. impressionist or modernist paintings. The Académie des Beaux Arts and other academies of this kind held highly specific demands on motifs as well as technical execution. The subject matter was taken from classical, literary, mythological and biblical themes as well as scenes inspired by the near east (orientalism). The paintings should reflect ideals rather than reality and were designed to be edifying. On the other hand allegorical subjects allowed painters to introduce erotic and sexual content into their paintings. In their execution they showed brilliant craftsmanship and mastery of illusion in the tradition of the old masters from the Renaissance and Baroque eras. A painting of this kind involved painstaking preparatory work such as life studies, sketches and drawings in the studio (in cases where architecture was involved the artist could make models and sculptures to make sure that his painting worked in the surroundings it was intended for as e.g. Julius Kronberg, Sweden’s leading artist of this genre, for his ceiling paintings for the Royal Palace or the Dramatic Theatre in Stockholm). This had been good practice for artists in earlier centuries, but by the late 1800s impressionist painters had started to complete their works not in the studio but en plein air. It allowed them to capture the light and atmosphere of the moment and thus achieve a new immediacy in their paintings. Salon paintings were valued by the critiques and bought by aristocracy and wealthy merchants and industrial magnates. These latter ones were a new class of patrons, interested not so much in high ideals as rather in ideals brought down to earth (Stockstad 2014). They opened up for experimentation within academic art, e.g. with regard to the representation of human form and emotion. Using traditional motives and techniques made for stiff competition. To be noticed, a painting had to make use of tradition in new and spectacular ways which resulted in ever larger paintings, intricate compositions and striking colours (Stockstad 2014).
Modernist critique of Salon paintings was scathing. It was seen as hopelessly traditional, slavish and tastelessly kitsch. I can well imagine that the ideals represented in salon paintings felt more and more hollow in view of the political, industrial and scientific developments of the time, especially after the great war. New ways of seeing and painting, experimentation and expression were better able to channel the spirit of the age. In the leaflet to the exhibition it says: Only recently has there been any acceptance of the salon painters’ free uninhibited attitude to mixtures of various styles, visual contexts and narrative painting (Waldemarsudde 2016).
My own Thoughts
I was impressed by the painters’ mastery of technique. However, overall I felt most of the paintings to be a bit too much. Heavily symbolic and idealistic. Maybe I felt the hollowness of the ideals? Also I was disturbed by the blatant sexism on show. Still, there were some I liked, such as this one:
I am captured by the subject matter here, the idea of putti wispering dreams in our ear when we sleep. It is a very peaceful painting, playful, too.
The strong elements of Art Nouveau in the following painting shows that modern developments in the arts did not go totally unnoticed by academic painters.
I like the rendering of the sunlight and shadows and also the subject somehow, in a fantasy sort of way. This one does remind me of fantasy art and maybe that makes it easier for me to digest.
There were some monumental works such as this triptych:
With this and many others I very strongly felt the anachronism between the figures and situations in the paintings and the time it was painted in. It feels very odd – especially the tiger hide in the autumn painting (a prop that turns up in other paintings as well. The artist must have had one in the extensive prop store he kept in his studio. A concession to orientalism?)
Visiting this exhibition has been educational. Although I had read about academic painting, mainly in opposition to Impressionism, I never really understood what it meant other than “traditional”. Looking at the paintings now I understood what a corset the Academy’s demands must have been for more freethinking artists. I saw a disconnectedness of these paintings with their time and discrepancies of the technique (however brilliant) with new ways of seeing and painting that were emerging. It seems to me, that this is the steppingstone from which modern art went off in new directions. I think it will help me understand what happened in Art during the 20th century.
I wonder in which way “there has been any acceptance” of salon paintings in recent years as it says in the exhibition leaflet, and why.
I found a contemporary Italian artist, Roberto Ferri, who paints in the technique of the Baroque masters. His subject matter also is inspired from that time as well as from Romanticism, Symbolism and academic paintings of the late 19th century. His paintings are very physical and extremely explicit in their symbolism, disturbingly so even. I find a strong tie to historic catholic pictures in his paintings. They feel anachronistic and yet very contemporary in their explicitness. In his curriculum on Liquid Art System’s homepage it says: [He] depicts a world in which the eye of the artist records and reproduces the order of things in a world where everything works, but there is also the space for evil. Ferri introduces dreams into reality, and the harmonic composition dominates though his subjects often strike twisted poses, with their figures both exactingly human yet triumphant and heroic.
Dillon, Brian (2009) The End of the Line: Attitudes in Drawing. London: Hayward Gallery Publishing
The End of the Line is a booklet made to accompany an exhibition by the same name. It contains drawings by eleven international contemporary artists, although “drawing” is understood in a very broad sense. The exhibition meant to show where the revival of drawing as an artform in itself has lead so far and comprises more traditional works in pencil/ink on paper as well as films and works I would call installations rather than drawings.
Historically, drawing was perceived as the foundation of all art but at the same time less an artform in itself than a means to an end – a way to exercise and study in order to produce a work of art like a painting or a sculpture. In the 1970s with the “conceptual overthrow of old orthodoxies” (Dillon 2009) drawing was seen as an outdated practice and was no longer a self-evident discipline to be taught at art schools. Today however, drawing has reentered the stage as an autonomous form of art, drawings being understood as works of art in their own right.
In the foreword Dillon raises questions about how drawing today is different from what it has been through the centuries. His main argument crystallises around the thought that the right attitude to drawing is an “absence of attitude” (Dillon 2009), an innocence and a sense of discovery. However, he questions the availability of such an attitude today, in an era of self-consciousness, as he puts it. I have difficulties understanding what he means and why an open, discovering attitude should not be possible today. They involve – and have always involved I think – the forgetting of what we know of our object and why we do a certain thing when drawing. John Ruskin in The Elements of Drawing describes it as looking with an “innocent eye”, to see as if for the first time (Dillon 2009). Barthes calls it a gaucherie – a clumsiness, i.e. not being in total control. This latter concept refers to looking as well as to mark making, depicting or expressing. The innocence in our attitude is a conscious act, a letting go of preconceptions – so why should we not be able to do that today? Dillon states that it now is impossible to separate art (of any kind) from its conceptual, linguistic, historical or personal content and context. I am not sure if this is special for our time. I think the involvement in a context, in contemporary questions, events and views, is important in the making of art, in that this gives a work of art its depth and meaning. And so it has always been. However, I do not think that it must be conscious. Making art as an active, thinking human being of my time I cannot make art out of my context unless I am actively avoiding it and imitate styles from other eras. This is what innocence means I think: making without knowing why and to what purpose, letting go and find out where my hand leads. Dillon calls it to “gesture meaningfully but at the same time (…) without a sense that one is making sense”.
I rather think drawing – and indeed painting or sculpture or any artform – today is different from art in past centuries in that artists today actively seek to broaden horizons, to overcome limitations, to break new ground. The examples of contemporary drawings in The End of the Line show that this can be and is done in a number of ways – by the choice of subject matter, by the use and combination of certain techniques or media, or by leaving the boundaries of paper or canvass altogether and move into three dimensional space.
Naoyuki Tsuji for example makes animated films by photographing his drawings, erase parts and redraw them to take a new photo and so on. He uses charcoal which leaves a trace when erased, thus the earlier “movements” will be visible throughout the film. His drawings are accompanied by music by Makiko Takanashi. Here is an example.
Monika Grzymala leaves the paper and “draws” instead in the space of e.g. an exhibition hall. For the lines she uses duct tape, gauze or wood which she stretches over walls and across doorways, windows, pillars… Her lines in space look very much like drawings, and are really powerful. As she makes her pieces for specific rooms they are ephemeral, being destroyed when the exhibition ends. This gives them a kind of performative character. I am surprised to actually see them as drawings as it does stretch the term. It makes me ask myself what drawing is, and where it merges into other art forms. I think pushing the boundaries of what is normally called drawing opens doors to very interesting ways of expression.
I had difficulties with this book. The foreword was hard reading for me as I could not really follow Dillon’s argumentation. I feel he sets up ideas and thoughts as facts and I cannot understand how he arrives at them. For example he writes: “The drawing is characterised by its lightness, even where the finished work seems heavy, insistent or crude.” I don’t agree, but maybe I could, if he explained his train of thought? Why is drawing light, as opposed to say painting?? This feeling of not understanding and not agreeing followed me throughout the text.
As for the images, I had difficulties with them, too. Some showed very interesting approaches and some opened my eyes as to where drawing can go. But I regret the absence of something I really liked, something that goes under my skin, something beautiful (whatever that means).