Monday, 30 April 2012

~ Transgressive Obsessive ~

I love what you hate,
I hate what you love.
I closely watch the magpie & crow,
Rather than the pure white dove.
True concept, only makes sweet sense,
When you start to inhale & tense.
Moving to an irregular beat, a way- I shall play.
My mind dances beautifully, a pretty kick.
Never a fleeting chance,
That the ordinary shall ever stay.

"Artists on Twitter" - @Oilybloke - Portrait Artist.

@Oilybloke  PORTRAIT ARTIST - Oils.

There are two things I love about @Oilybloke, which are relevant to this blog post. He paints the old masters in a style which is not only complimentary to them, but also oozes originality in style. Secondly, he shares my passion for cake. He has painted since he was a child, but progressed to paint with oils just 4 years ago. He states that it was his father, also a fine artist, who influenced him to do the same.

The first painting I saw of @Oilybloke’s was his Vermeer 'Girl with the Pearl Earring' study. Being a lover of contemporary art myself, there was something seductive to the mind, about the old masters being painted today, fresh and yet, still knowing what the cult value of such a representation means to the world of art. Of course this brings into question Walter Benjamin’s argument of aura and authenticity.  @Oilybloke’s painting flips Benjamin’s argument around. In that yes we know for sure it wasn’t painted by Vermeer, but instead of gripping onto the idea of authenticity, we still hold on to the fact that the piece still ignites a sense of aura, because it is the appreciation and homage being paid to Vermeer, which makes us take on a completely new thought process, for when we visually digest and connect to the piece.

Being a portrait painter, @Oilybloke not only reignites iconic portrait imagery into the 21st century, he also paints contemporary figures which are recognisable to our contemporary times.  This is what I love. Having the knowledge to understand the cultural and social disconnection between let’s say Jodie Marsh and the Girl with the pearl earring, but then again, because of @Oilybloke’s attention to detail and hyper realistic technique, we can form a relationship subjectively between the two, even the similarity in composition between the two aids us in this. Time scale becomes irrelevant and it is the representation of two women painted in a beautifully pure style. It is the technique and talent that we celebrate. When talking about a hyper-realistic style, @Oilybloke relates to artists who achieve realism in their work, such as David Kassan and Jeremy Lipkin. Ultimately, I can look at one of @Oilybloke’s portraits, not even know the person, but still be given an understanding of them, of their mannerisms and nature somehow. This is a great achievement for any portrait artist, and for me is paramount to our connection with a piece of art.

Not only does @Oilybloke paint a variety of subjects but we can also see a variety of style and certainly experimentation with colour and composition among his selection of works. I think one of the main attributes which attracted me to @Oilybloke’s work is his excellent use of chiaroscuro. A pioneering technique utilised by the old masters and as a monochrome photographer myself, a technique which is very pleasing to the eye in any form of art. @Oilybloke’s use of chiaroscuro highlights his attention not only to detail, but it is this detail which creates such an array of textures, which bring the pieces to life. I can be as bold to say that we could describe him as a “human camera!” reviewing a high resolution photograph and relaying all of the visual information onto a canvas, but with just as much personality, soul and charm, permeating through and diffusing from them. @Oilybloke’s portraits are deeply humanistic. They are fun, original and his choice of image, scale and composition makes for a great set of animated, vibrant pieces.

@Oilybloke has recently run a twitter competition, offering tweeters the chance of having their portrait painted by him, you can follow the progress of the winners images by checking out and following his blog GO FOLLOW!   @Oilybloke 

BY @JileyArtRade 

Sunday, 29 April 2012

What do were-jaguars tell us about the Olmec religious beliefs?

Mesoamerican cultures produced some of the most cultural intriguing artefacts that we have ever uncovered and are most ever likely to see. Their recovered art and architecture acts as a time capsule enabling us to learn about their culture, including their religious beliefs and practices. The style of art most primitive to Mesoamerican culture, namely the Olmec (1200-600B.C)[1]. Known as the “mother culture”[2] it is characterized by architecture, engravings, basalt sculpture and smaller portable relics all found within various sites of Mexico.  One recurring motif that is apparent throughout all mediums of these arts and certain cites is that of the “were-jaguar”.  The aim of this essay is to establish what the iconography of the “were-jaguar” in Olmec art meant to the Olmec civilisation, in terms of their mythology, religion and religious practices.
There are varying theories as to how the were-jaguar iconography originated in Olmec culture and why the motif is used at all. To be able to consider these theories and apply them to the artworks we must first distinguish the prominent features of the were-jaguar and why it was important to the Olmec religion. The Olmec way of life and beliefs were centred on the concept of duality. This is where the notion of the jaguar becomes fundamental, the Olmec believed in cosmic dualities such as night and day as well as Earth and sky. The Jaguar is part of a dualism which represents an optimum spirit, which possesses the mind and spirit of a man and the strength and agility of a jaguar, representing the dualism of the aerial and terrestrial. This becomes evident later when we consider the importance of the Olmec practice of shamanism.  So how realistic was the Jaguar featured when exemplified in Olmec art? The main attributes that were used and can be used to identify a were-jaguar in the art are an amalgamation of man and Jaguar incorporating a cleft head, almond shaped eyes which are sometimes slanted and a downturned open mouth. They weren’t prime examples of jaguars but the animalistic features notify the viewer that they are not wholly human. There is no solid evidence of the origin of the jaguar motif and is heavily debated, but there have been many theories to suggest its origins based upon the knowledge we now have of the Olmec civilisation and beliefs. I shall now address some of these theories. A theory that has become well established is the “Stirling Hypothesis” created by Matthew Stirling in 1955[3]. This theory proposes that the were-jaguar was produced through the mating of a Jaguar and an Olmec female human. There are other archaeologists who supported Stirling in this hypothesis, for example, Michael Coe[4]. Another theory suggests that the motif is a representation of genetic disorder that affected the Olmec civilisation through deformity, but why would the jaguar, an animal be the product of human genetic disorder?  There is also the obvious notion that the Jaguar could have had slightly different meanings to the Olmec throughout the civilization at varying times. However the remaining monuments cannot be allocated a time frame as the works were usually mutilated and then buried. The most probable belief of the origin of the were-jaguars motif is that the Jaguar held an incredible amount of spiritual meaning for the humans and therefore became incorporated into the Olmec iconography as a deity which was amalgamated with human representation. However, now we have an overview of possibilities as to how the were-jaguar motif was formed, it will be useful to look at the Olmec art which incorporated the motif in order to gain a more detailed insight as to how the motif was used for purposes in Olmec religion.
We can gain a higher understanding of Olmec religion in certain were-jaguar iconography artworks, the first one I shall analyse is the seated figure holding a were-jaguar baby found at Las Limas. This work has been considered the “Rosetta stone”[5] of Olmec art and has been referred to as a “Madonna”[6]. This sculpture is made from greenstone and is cradling an infant or “were-jaguar”, we know this because if exemplifies jaguar-like features. This piece of sculpture not only holds importance for the representation of the jaguar alone, if we look at this piece carefully it tells us more about the Olmec artistry and ultimately their beliefs.  The shoulder and knees of the human are inscribed with profile heads, four in total which represent Pantheon Gods. They are as follows; the death god, crocodilian earth monster, fire god and the god of spring vegetation. These gods reveal more about the Olmec mythology, for instance, the most important god was a dragon whom is opposed by a bird monster. We can also see the maize god inscribed on the chin of the figure which opposes the rain god which is represented by the were-jaguar baby itself.  The remaining two gods, the death god and the god of spring vegetation are also in opposition; the death god represented by a fish god, vegetation god is represented as a banded-eye god which is a motif for the rebirth of life. What this tells us about Olmec religion is that there was never only one reigning God, but rather multiple ones (much like their leaders) that were for different elements of worship within their belief system. Moving onto different artefacts that the Olmec created, which also carry the were-jaguar motif as well as the gods mentioned earlier are pectorals and axes or Celts, obviously used for different purposes than that of the sculptures. These give us an even further insight to Olmec religion as well as materials used within the culture. In interest of this essay, it is interesting to consider the axes and pictorials that are anthropomorphic in keeping with the were-jaguar motif. Were-jaguar motifs on Axes made of Jade were especially considered important because Jade itself was considered to withhold life within the stone; this was believed to revive humans in the afterlife by placing a “small circular piece”[7] in their mouths. One axe that is of particular importance and interest of this essay is one found at “Mound A, Tomb E at the site of La venta”[8] by Matthew Stirling who I mentioned earlier. The axe was made into two segments which represent a head and a body below, it is of trapezoid shape and crafted from a block of green stone which was cool to the touch which suggested a representation of the element water locked inside the stone. The were-jaguar motifs can be seen, such as the downturned mouth, flattened nose, and the V-shaped cleft, but there is more iconography represented through the use of the flame eyebrow motif. Bright red cinnabar situated in the grooves of the features identifies the fire dragon as well as blood which were a sacred substance, all of which define Olmec art. This is an important axe because it contains a duality that the Mesoamerican believed existed between the celestial realm and humans on earth, the amalgamation of the two fire and water elements as well as the incorporation of the jaguar suggests that they were closely associated with their gods and that metaphors were used for these dualities through the use of natural materials.
The Olmec not only included the were-jaguar motif in their sculptural art but it was also incorporated in art as body ornaments or otherwise known as “pectorals which were placed on the chest”[9].  Different from the mainstream sculptures and altars, I feel an analysis of a pectoral will ensure a wide range of sources covered in order to enforce the notion of the were-jaguars presence throughout a large portion of Olmec art and sites.  At the smaller Olmec site of La Encrucijada (twenty-five miles)[10] from La Venta an elliptical shaped pectoral was discovered which bears the were-jaguar features, most prominently slanted and elongated eyes, a wide flattened nose, the cleft in the head and the gummed downturned mouth. It proves that the were-jaguar motif was a fundamental design in Olmec art as it was even worn by the humans in the form of ornaments; of course, these could have been worn during religious shamanic rituals which I will now explain in more detail, of how the jaguar is of significance during ritual transformations.
According to Scott, “The blend of human and animal suggests shamanic transformation and the spirits seen in the shaman’s visions”[11].  Of course this could only be achieved alongside the intake of hallucinogens that would help human shamans reach a trance like state which was said to take the human soul higher towards the Gods, and by morphing into and reaching a were jaguar amalgamation a human would take on the status of the prestigious jaguar and be in the support of the Gods, in the process of retrieving stolen souls. If we are to believe the Stirling hypothesis, the jaguar would be the Olmec ancestors living in the underworld and celestial realms acting almost as an avatar between the alive and dead .The Olmec would rely on these journeys in order to gain power, with the guidance of animals as their guide. Whereas toads, which were also used in this process, represented a cycle, as in a shedding of a skin, this provides the metaphor as to how the humans embodied a transformed body of human and jaguar to become an entirely new species when entering the celestial realms of the Gods. When a shaman was depicted as being in a trance state, the Olmec would represent the were-jaguar in a kneeling pose, which to us signifies that a religious and spiritual practice is taking place. It was also common to depict certain stages within the transformation, which is interesting because when an artist created one of these works from sacred materials the artist’s power was said to become consumed within the object, essentially heightening its power. The actual transformation of the material through crafting aimed to equate to the power of the shamans following ritualistic transformation. It seems then that to evolve fully to jaguar status was incredibly important to shamans and that only full power would be achieved through a fully completed sacred artefact.  So what does this tell us about Olmec religion? The issue of duality appears here once again, the human leaders were trying to establish a duality with the gods through transformation during worship and with the jaguar being considered as a spiritual companion for humans and also a deity within Olmec religion. It is for the were-jaguar to be the example of shamanist morphing when exploring realms between earth and the higher realms. Having established the idea of shamanism alongside this, the Olmec may have used the morphing figures themselves as sacred relics when trying to reach the were-jaguar state during shamanism, in other words the art was created to give the shaman or ruler power equating the Jaguar to the shamans alter-ego as it were.
The main conclusion we can draw from analysing the Olmec civilisation and their art that featured the were-jaguar motif, is essentially that the motif was fundamental in their religious practices. It is widely utilised in their art to represent its importance in their beliefs, from sculptures, axes to carvings. We learn a substantial amount from these works, most importantly what kinds gods and rulers the Olmec worshiped, so we don’t only learn about the Olmec mythology, but also we learn about their craftsmanship and how they chose to represent them through iconography. Another major element of Olmec religion which is represented through the were-jaguar motif is the practice of shamanism. This informs us in that if what the Olmec believed about the underworld and celestial realms and transformation towards a higher plane; essentially establishing a cosmic duality with the gods. The materials used when making the were-jaguars, such as precious Jade stone shows that the Olmec were making actual relics that were so sacred that they were willing to use the most prestigious materials to make a statement. The were-jaguar was essentially a metaphorical motif which the Olmec used vastly throughout their art, it represented strength and agility of the Olmec by creating an amalgamation of the humans and of the strong, ferocious land animal, it is therefore considered a deity within their religion.

Benson,E.P,  B. Fuente, Olmec art of ancient Mexico, National Gallery of Art, 1996.
Eliade,M,  the Encylopedia of religion, Volume 11, Macmillan, 1987. Pp.66.
Metropolitan Museum of Art, John.P.O’Neill editor in chief, Mexico Splendours of thirty centuries, Bulfinch press, 1990.
Scott,J.F,  Latin American Art, Ancient to Modern, The university press of Florida, 1999.

Web Sources:

[1] J.F.Scott, Latin American Art, Ancient to Modern, The university press of Florida, 1999. Pp.27
[2] J.F.Scott, Latin American Art, Ancient to Modern, The university press of Florida, 1999.pp.29
[3] M.Eliade, the Encylopedia of religion, Volume 11, Macmillan, 1987. Pp.66.
[5] E.P.Benson, B. Fuente, Olmec art of ancient Mexico, National Gallery of Art, 1996. Pp170.
[6] J.F.Scott, Latin American Art, Ancient to Modern, The university press of Florida, 1999 Pp 28.
[7] J.F.Scott, Latin American Art, Ancient to Modern, The university press of Florida, 1999.pp 29.
[8] Metropolitan Museum of Art, John.P.O’Neill editor in chief, Mexico Splendours of thirty centuries, Bulfinch press, 1990. Pp65.

[9] Metropolitan Museum of Art, John.P.O’Neill editor in chief, Mexico Splendours of thirty centuries, Bulfinch press, 1990. Pp.66.
[10] Metropolitan Museum of Art, John.P.O’Neill editor in chief, Mexico Splendours of thirty centuries, Bulfinch press, 1990. Pp67.
[11] J.F.Scott, Latin American Art, Ancient to Modern, The university press of Florida, 1999. Pp. 27.

Tuesday, 17 April 2012

“The Legend of Las Meninas”. To what extent can Velazquez’s painting be considered as a philosophy of art?

What do we think of when we hear the word legend? More importantly, can we apply it to a piece of 17th century art?  Velazquez’s Las Meninas, 1656, is a visually stimulating, carefully calculated yet complex piece, which has been established as a “philosophy of art”. Since its exposure in the Museo Del Prado which opened in 1819, it has become a subject of continuous debate amongst art historians, as to its interpretation of subject matter, critique of both portraiture and group portraiture, composition and its unfolding commutative techniques. It has been noted for its precise methodology. However more importantly, as the “Apex of Velazquez’s achievements”, eventually becoming famous for its influence on later pieces by modern artists such as Picasso and Salvador Dali.  By looking at these different elements of the paintings success, I will determine whether in painting the Las Meninas, Velazquez did achieve the notion of a “Philosophy of art” within a painting.
By looking firstly at the paintings visual techniques and pictorial mechanisms Velazquez used in the piece, it will become evident why such a complex piece of art has gained such high status in western art, over such a large time period. Velazquez himself used the painting to show his social status, after all he was the Court painter and Curator of King Phillip IV’s, given reasonable responsibility in his role. Velázquez soon became widely respected for his work within the field of painting and management of the Prado’s collection, which is said to still be influenced by Velazquez’s curatorship.[1] Of course, the painting very much respected throughout Spain, very much so in the 19th century, “(Las Meninas)...deserves to be regarded and protected as the most precious jewel of (Spanish) painting”, Narciso Sentenach[2]. This shows the extent of the master piece status people had placed on the piece. Now, by looking at Velazquez’s use of reality, illusion, composition, mystery and portraiture, we can begin to comprehend this notion of an amalgamation of artistic themes in a single piece of art. When we look at the piece, we see eleven faces looking back at us, some would say it is a complex group portrait, or it may also be perceived as many singular portraits all serving their unique purpose within the painting. In the centre we see Philip IV’s five year old daughter, the infanta Margarita[3], with two ladies in waiting at either side of her, with the one to her right, Maria Agustina Sarmiento de Sotomayor, attending to her with a drink on a tray. To the extreme right of the piece, stand two dwarfs, a female German named Maribarbola and to her left, an Italian named Nicolas Pertusato looking down at a rather elegantly painted Mastiff. In the middle ground to the right stands the princesses chaperone that is said to be in conversation with a bodyguard who is painted in shadow. In the far background we can see the Queen’s chamberlain looking into Velazquez’s studio; where the painting is set. To the middle left of the painting, stands Velazquez himself, working on a painting but of what we don’t know, could it be the Las Meninas? This leads us on to Velazquez’s use of mystery and illusion within the painting, which is a fundamental aspect of its relationship with the spectator and its legendary reputation.
The most famous critique of the piece is centred on the viewpoint of the spectator, and this is because of the portrait in the background which is rather ambiguous, in being that it could be a reflection of the King and Queen whom are being painted by Velazquez and the scene we look at is their family watching them being painted, or in fact it could be a framed portrait. This leads us to believe that we must be standing next to the King and Queen. If in fact the image is a reflection. This composition is a common debatable point amongst art historians, which ultimately makes us question art and its capabilities to rouse a debatable response from the spectator. The fact that Velazquez was able to do this in this way, by creating such mystery and illusion, it is therefore considered a theology of painting for other artists to be educated and create new works from. Las Meninas is surely considered one of the fundamental paintings in western art, much so, that in the 19th century it was proclaimed the “philosophy of art” by Sir Thomas Lawrence[4]. But what has made the painting such a legend? Here I will look at the factors contributing to the paintings high prestige and legacy. Firstly, if we look towards the later 20th century, in the early modernistic schools of art, we can see that Las Meninas had a direct influence among artists themes and techniques, namely Pablo Picasso and Salvador Dali.
Picasso first saw the Las Meninas in 1895, when he was just fourteen years old. But in years to come he was to create his series of variations amounting to forty-five paintings plus thirteen related works. Picasso indeed recognised Velazquez as an old master of realism, but as the creator of cubism; he saw to paint within his own traditional style, creating full sized interpretations as well as smaller singular portraits. The one work from Picassos’ series, which is most faithful to Velazquez’s composition, is in fact the first painting of the series Las Meninas, after Velazquez I, 17 August 1957. The first thing we notice is the large figure of Velazquez, larger than any other of the figures. It is interesting how he has used a strikingly similar composition, but has managed to manipulate shapes as well as the light and shade in order to create something in a sense, unique to his style. The subject of the painting most influential to Picasso was the infanta. In Picasso’s first piece, we can see a distinct liking of the two; even though the comparison is quite uncanny. We know this aspect had a substantial influence upon Picassos work for the rest of the series; the infanta appeared in fourteen other variations, but as a single portrait. Salvador Dali, a fellow Spaniard of Picassos, is the next artists to create variations on the Las Meninas. It is well documented that Dali saw the variations as a challenging competition between himself and Picasso. He began with painting Velazquez painting the infanta Margarita with the lights and shadows of his own glory, 1958.  This is an interesting choice of subject to paint, as it centres on the infanta; one of Picassos continuing subject throughout this series. As with Picasso, who created a substantial amount of work on the Las Meninas style and influence; America saw James McNeill Whistler creating paintings of a similar style. If we look at the artist in his studio 1865-1866, we can see that the focus is on the artist, who is painted in a mirror image reflection pose of Velazquez in the original Las Meninas; his gaze is also fixed upon us as he paints. This suggests that the Las Meninas was fundamentally influential to some prestigious 19th century through to 20th century art around the world.
When considering the Las Meninas as a legendary masterpiece in western art, it is important to consider the regional prestige. Furthermore, this will help to consider the extent of the pieces’ “philosophy of art” status in various countries, namely 19th century Britain and America. Also known as “The maids of honour”, in Britain it was only considered a master piece in which many other artists were influenced, plus only as a “master piece in waiting”. Things started to change in the British opinion of Las Meninas through influential events in the 19th and 20th century. It was a combination of post World War 1, the Tate moderns’ gallery exhibition of Picasso’s 1957 variations series; British museums played a major part in exhibiting most of the art from Spain[5]. As well as critical research and writings, British artists and more importantly the British public recognised its influential prestige, as a masterpiece which displays uniqueness of context as well as portrayal of artistic excellence. It is important to recognise the British artist’s attitude to the piece, as it was them of course who created Las Meninas influenced works thereafter. As for America, Velazquez was well known to the Americans in the latter half of the 19th century. Velazquez, as a painter in general had a major impact upon the Americans, whom in the late 19th century were experiencing social hardships as a result of nationalism and the growing industrial manufacturing system. Americans stated that his work was a factor in developing American culture through tough times; though claiming his artwork to be a milestone in the “grand tradition of European art history”[6].

When we think of the term legend, we think of a tale or moment in time that has a tie to a historical event or location, which is believable but is not necessarily believed. So it is our choice as to whether we can validate Las Meninas legendary status from evidence shown throughout this essay. From looking at different aspects of Las Meninas successes, it is evident that Velazquez did paint a legendary piece of complex art, worthy as an example in arts philosophy and of course its influence upon later artists. The piece is certainly appreciated for its accumulation of Velazquez’s painterly and compositional techniques, as well as the use of mystery, illusion and portraiture. With some 19th century critics noting it as “photographic”[7] in regards to naturalism, this is all Velazquez could have wanted in such a work, and I agree that it has captured a discussion in a painting. Conclusively, it would seem that Las Meninas has gained a high philosophy of art status, as it is still talked about, people go to see it, to experience the grandeur of it, study it, and it is generally praised for being a masterpiece.

S.L, Stratton-Pruitt, Masterpieces of western painting, Velazquez’s Las Meninas, Cambridge University Press 2003.
David Howarth, The invention of Spain: cultural relations between Britain and Spain, 1770-1870. Manchester University Press, 2007. Pg190

Velázquez and Las Meninas, Madlyn Millner Kahr, the Art Bulletin, Vol. 57, No. 2, 1975, pp. 225-246. 

Websites: (Dali Image) (Velazquez Image) (Picasso Image)

[2] S.L, Stratton-Pruitt, Masterpieces of western painting, Velazquez’s Las Meninas, Cambridge University Press 2003. Pg. 8.
[3] Velázquez and Las Meninas, Madlyn Millner Kahr, the Art Bulletin, Vol. 57, No. 2, 1975, pp. 225

[4] David Howarth, The invention of Spain: cultural relations between Britain and Spain, 1770-1870. Manchester University Press, 2007. Pg190
[5] S.L, Stratton-Pruitt, Masterpieces of western painting, Velazquez’s Las Meninas, Cambridge University Press 2003. Pg.57
[6] S.L, Stratton-Pruitt, Masterpieces of western painting, Velazquez’s Las Meninas, Cambridge University Press 2003. Pg.80
[7] S.L, Stratton-Pruitt, Masterpieces of western painting, Velazquez’s Las Meninas, Cambridge University Press 2003. pg.89.

Sunday, 15 April 2012

The myth of the artist’s persona in relation to Gauguin and Van Gogh

 What is it, how did it begin and how has it developed?

Today we all recognise a common stereotype of an artist’s persona; who creates different, non conformist works who are considered to be outlaws of society and whom must have conjured ideas from either mental illness, alcohol abuse or letting their strong emotions and personal circumstances cloud their ideas of traditional artistic methods.  We can go as far to say that this stereotype has become the “myth of madness” of the artist’s persona, which we can strongly attribute to the two biggest makers of myth from the post-impressionists movement, Paul Gauguin and Vincent Van Gogh.  We can describe the works of both artists to be an expressive intervention which was later to be recognised as works of a genius that was to be fundamental in the pioneering stages of expressionism.  In this essay I aim to consider selected works of both artists, in order to gain an in-depth explanation as to what the myth was in relation to both artists psyche, were they interlinked? What the initial causes of the myth were and most interestingly how the myth of persona was developed through both artists’ careers and also its influence throughout art, all the while celebrating the heights of their creations, which they are most considered as being today.
Van Gogh and Gauguin shared quite an ambiguous friendship, but within their friendship they shared a notion that was to become a common goal among the artists, this was the creation of the myth of the artist. In order to see how this myth was created, it is important to consider both the artists social situation within their environment in Paris, the kind of work that they were producing in relation to this, which caused them to pioneer such an expressive invention. “Modern painters, lonely and poor, are treated like madmen and as a result do become mad, at least as far as their social life...we must be absolutely ready to accept poverty and social isolation.”[1] These, Van Gogh’s words clearly suggest that what the two men were expressing was a struggle within their artistic environment; we can go as far to say that they were pronounced outcasts and suffered rejection from the art world. Van Gogh who had failed as a minister was at the time painting dark, solemn paintings that centred themselves on peasant life, the most famous and a prime example is the Potato eaters. He wanted to make a mark in the world and if not through ministry he would definitely prove himself through his art. His brother Theo was employed through the art industry through selling paintings at “Goupils Gallery”[2] in Paris. Van Gogh would send Theo his paintings to be sold, but only sold one painting in his lifetime. Consequently his brother came to be the constant source of income for Van Gogh who preferred to lead a more austere lifestyle; alone with his art. Van Gogh was a highly emotional and intense individual whom also suffered with mental illness, suggested as bipolar disorder, which can be considered as the catalyst for his innovative creations. It is evident that Van Gogh lived a life of misery and desolation having sold no paintings alongside an obscured view of mankind and nature. It is the concern for human suffering, the lifelong conquest of a both artistic and spiritual struggle that we see in his paintings, which would later become the myth of madness. Coincidently it was a similar struggle that Gauguin found himself reacting against. His paintings were not selling as well as he had much anticipated and with a burning ferocity embarked upon establishing a rebellious character-morphing based persona that would lead to his art being centred upon him. This was achieved through religious iconography, the idea of him being a savage along with ideas of primitivism. He wanted to be considered as anybody and anything but himself which was a failed artist, which also included him leaving his family and own environment. This establishes that the myth of the artist’s persona began and is most evident in self portraits, which were representations of a confessional struggle for existence.
So we have established the main origins of the myth of the artists persona, now it is essential to make a point of when it was first relevant in Van Gogh’s and Gauguin’s art, by considering some examples that show the pioneering stages , main themes and ultimately as well as its development through the course of self portraiture. Gauguin’s myth of persona was presented in a mixture of mediums such as paintings, drawings, wood carvings, sculptures, bronzes as well as ceramic pieces. The first of Gauguin’s manifestos of being an outcast from society again unites Van Gogh as a kind of companion of hardship by sending him his works and letters to project each other’s concerns and aims. The piece that Gauguin sent and dedicated to Van Gogh was a self portrait named “les misreables a l’ami Vincent” and with it a letter explaining “I have painted him in my own likeness, so you have a picture of myself at the same time a portrait of all of us, poor victims of society”[3]. Gauguin had represented himself as the convict Jean Valjean from Victor Hugo’s novel “les miserables”. This suggests that Gauguin thought of himself as a poor, victimised convict, which he also attributed to all the suffering European artists in the same situation, classifying them as “others”.  One major theme that Gauguin included in his myth of persona was religion. The paintings which signify this need for recognition of pain and suffering which equated to that of Christ are the “Christ on the Mount of Olives” and the “Yellow Christ” executed in a style named Synthecism.  The Identification with Christ and the notion of rebellion at the same time are clearly represented in his 1889 self portrait Halo and snake. Thomas Buser’s article on Gauguin’s religion points out the idea of Gauguin creating this dual persona, “On more than one occasion Gauguin himself brought attention to what he considered his dual nature of sinner (snake and apples) and saint (the halo)”[4].  In the portrait we can identify the symbolism Gauguin uses to serve this idea, through the use of the apples and snake which are direct references to the ideas of expulsion and rebellion. Alongside the halo upon Gauguin head, a signifier of angelic saints which corresponds to and adds to his idea of struggle and persistence in his attempt to “save art”. This leads us to another of his myth making developments, the idea of his travelling savage persona which is significant in his move to Tahiti by sea voyage in 1981[5]; place of nature, primitivism and simplicity, which enabled him to explore his inner self and non-European personal visions.  As a reference point to his later savage self portraits he sculpted a stone Tahitian Goddess figure known as Oviri whose name translates as “wild savage” which served as an “adjective applied to himself”[6] .He portrayed his “savageness” in a bronze head, an entirely new man is represented that seemed to have neglected all sense of aesthetics and favoured a more rough, grotesquely harsh and ultimately primitive technique, which of course is also represented in the Oviri. As well as producing these primitive works, along with depictions of local Tahitian women, Gauguin also incorporated into his persona as being a free-loving savage. Noa Noa a personal journal was written to illustrate his expressions of a primitive hardship, of himself- all with a public view that would accompany his paintings. Goldwater describes the Journals tones as being “one of self conscious revolt against a watching world”[7]. This suggests his Myth of the artist was not only pictorial but also literary developed.  On returning to Europe from Tahiti, Gauguin was to again be faced with the same reactions to his work, which he sought to abolish in the visit to Tahiti. Upon deciding to permanently reside in Tahiti were he wrote to William Melford in 1897 expressing his once again angry and deflated condition, “ever since my childhood I have been pursued by bad luck. Never a chance. No friends. Everything always turning against me...what is the good of virtue, work, courage, the highflying spirit of humanity?”[8] Struck down with illness and continuous low morale, we see a darkening of Gauguin’s portraits and more interestingly the return of the representation of Christ.  One of his last depictions of Christ, self portrait “pres du Golgotha”[9] seems to be a representation of Gauguin’s deterioration and the conclusion of a long vendetta towards the artist; overall an image of a worn out, mentally exhausted and a self professed failure of himself and humanity in general.
For van Gogh his personality in his paintings was expressed through his use of paint, this is evident when we compare his earlier portraits to his much later works. Although we see development of his personality and attitudes towards his condition in his letters to his brother Theo, outlining his artistic ambitions and own personal hardship. Van Gogh’s style when he is painting in Paris is similar to the peasant paintings he was painting alongside. Dark and murky tones are used with minimal expression of brushwork, compared to his later works which became distinctive of his harsh, thick painting technique. It seems as though at this stage Van Gogh was experimenting with tone, colour, brushstrokes and viewpoint in order to present his idea of struggle. After Vincent had moved to southern France where he was inspired by the sunlight bright colours within nature and also the hope of establishing a utopian art colony, where the break from isolation could be made through the colonisation of likeminded artist who were in the same position as himself and Gauguin, here we see a distinct change within his artistic style which fundamentally privileged exaggeration.  Gauguin joined Van Gogh in Arles to pursue their dedication to art and define themselves as great artists who were to create something in Van Gogh’s words “which lives longer than ourselves”[10], which was of course the notability of creating modern art and the breakaway from society as art rebels; through the myth of artistic persona. It was this stage in their careers at Arles which saw that these ideas were to become just that, for it is the famous incident in the house at Arles which saw the escalation of Van Gogh’s illness amalgamated with his artistic expression. In a similar way to Gauguin, we can see a type of characterization which represented his temperament at a specific moment in time and place which was represented by his “physiognomic projections” within his paintings[11]. Consequently this is evident following the incident in the house at Arles when Van Gogh advanced towards Gauguin with a blade, his mental health was severely suffering. The self portraits which were painted at Arles tell the story of his emotions which add to the myth of madness which was now rapidly developing. A strategy both Van Gogh and Gauguin tried was to paint themselves as smartly dressed, intellectual members of Parisian society, in hope of this selling more works to customers and in essence complying to arts expectations, which would only end up causing more resentment towards buyers and critics in Europe. Hence the Myth of the artist can be described as an escalation, if we look at Van Gogh’s self portrait which he dedicated to Gauguin before the incident at the house; we see a hub of emotion and struggle in his eyes and to be fair the whole tone and mood of the painting suggests deterioration.  The self portraits of him with a bandaged ear radiate a sense of quiet desperation as most of his canvas is composed of his figure, creating the idea of a need for intimacy and consolation. We can see a transformation in Van Gogh’s work whilst at a mental hospital that he admitted himself to after the incident; this is considered to be a major contribution of his artistic breakthrough, having painted the famous “starry night” which features his trademark swirling brush strokes that signify a sense of movement which is also used in one of his last self portraits before his death which epitomises the idea of physiognomy of his mental state. One of these portraits that were painted in the hospital unit in 1889 shows a flipped viewpoint of Van Gogh so that his mutilated ear cannot be seen; instead we see a pair of piercing blue eyes which gaze straight at the viewer, heightening intensity. Blue tones swamp the canvas which is also the main colour in much of his later portraits, and are prominent in the skin tone which contributes to the idea of his body and mind deteriorating into a deeper episode of depression; leaving only the complimentary colour orange to highlight his facial hair and detail on his clothing.  

In conclusion, considering both Van Gogh and Gauguin’s collaborative aims towards a myth of artistic identity, the one recurring theme that initiated and developed the myth was the artists fight against struggle against their seclusion from European society. The myth began with the refusal of their artworks in France, therefore self characterization seemed the only way to rebel against the domain and create something that would literally live forever and indeed it still remains one of the most recognised themes that run through art today. Van Gogh seemed to adopt the role of an austere, lonely monk like character who longed for comfort from other artists who were suffering the same plights.  Although a major factor that made this “myth of madness” that everybody identifies Van Gogh with today is his mental illness and the use of intoxications, namely alcohol. It is interesting though to consider that the mental illness that Van Gogh suffered seemed to pave the future of his creativity through to the introduction of vibrant use of colours, and then proceeding to create his own style of painting which from his autobiographical, physiognomic self portraits is evident, all of which narrate his decent into madness.  Whereas Gauguin still sympathised with this idea of struggle, he chose to deal with it through self characterisation, of a storyteller type traveller that by splitting and developing his persona through a dualism of saint and sinner. This idea is summed up by Gauguin in a letter to Mette in 1888, “I have two natures within myself, the Red Indian and the sensitive one, the sensitive one has disappeared and this allows the Red Indian to go ahead with determination”[12]. This aim of establishing a complex interchanging persona that included characters from literature, religion and the creation of the savage was to express and exemplify his rebellion but at the same time crave for acceptance within the European art world. The myth of the artist persona is developed to a point of tragedy, in both the cases of Van Gogh and Gauguin which is made evident in the escalation of self portraits which signify the raw emotion of the artist and the defeat of humanity with illness. All of which encompass the notion of struggle yet a quest of spiritual determination.  It seems the Gauguin and Van Gogh’s portraits agreeably needed to be painted to provide ‘a consolatory art for distressed hearts!’[13]

Bibliography :
Crispino,E, Van Gogh, the Oliver Press, 2008.
Edwards,C, Van Gogh and God: a creative spiritual quest, Loyola Press, 1989
Goldwater, R.J, Primitivism in Modern Art, Harvard University Press, 1986.
Mittelstadt,K, Gauguin’s self portraits, Bruno Cassirer Ltd Oxford, 1968.

Web Sources:

T.Busmer, Gauguin’s Religion, Vol. 27, No. 4 (summer, 1968), pp. 375-380 Published By: College Art Association, Accessed: 30/11/2010 09:37

P.M.Jones, Vol. 57, No. 1, the Reception of Christian Devotional Art (spring, 1998), pp. 84-86 Published By: College Art Association, Accessed: 30/11/2010 09:39

[1]  K.Mittelstadt, gauguins self portraits, 1968. Pp.5.
[2] C.Edwards, Van Gogh and God: a creative spiritual quest, Loyola Press, 1989. Pp.15.
[3] .Mittelstadt, Gauguin’s self portraits, Bruno Cassirer Ltd Oxford, 1968. Pp.5.
[4] T.Busmer Vol. 27, No. 4 (Summer, 1968) page 376.
[5] E.Crispino, Van Gogh, the Oliver Press, 2008. Pp18                                                                                    
[6] E.Crispino, Van Gogh, the Oliver Press, 2008. Pp18.
[7] R.J.Goldwater, Primitivism in Modern Art, Harvard University Press, 1986. Pp64.
[8] Mittelstadt, Gauguin’s self portraits, Bruno Cassirer Ltd Oxford, 1968. Pp31.
[9] Mittelstadt, Gauguin’s self portraits, Bruno Cassirer Ltd Oxford, 1968. Pp9.
[10] Mittelstadt, Gauguin’s self portraits, Bruno Cassirer Ltd Oxford, 1968. Pp.5.
[11] Vol. 57, No. 1, The Reception of Christian Devotional Art (Spring, 1998), pp. 85.

[12] Mittelstadt, Gauguin’s self portraits, Bruno Cassirer Ltd Oxford, 1968. Pp27.
[13] (Van Gogh’s Letters, To Paul Gauguin. Arles, 21st January 1889).

Saturday, 14 April 2012

Recent Obsession - Art Cinema: How was the French New Wave countering mainstream cinematic concerns?

We can consider the French New Wave cinema to be one of the most influential periods throughout the history of cinema. The director Quentin Tarantino is among many others to attribute this movement to having such a fundamental impact upon films made following the French new wave, right through to films made around the world today. As much as the French New Wave was an influential era of film, it is important to also consider the new waves influences, notably from the Italian neo-realists and what it was that evoked them to create such an intervention in the mainstream film making processes of the 1950s and 60s. Therefore throughout this essay I will be assessing what factors contributed to the countering of the mainstream cinema production methods. The main factors I shall address are the social and economical situation of the post world war 2 eras, which saw the countering of cinematic concerns. I will consider the want for a more realistic cinema that left the former dramatized productions behind and what filming as well as editing techniques were used to achieve a whole new innovation. Finally to enable a clear proposal as to how the French new wave were countering mainstream cinematic concerns I shall focus on several directors and their films, by giving examples as to how they achieved the break away from the drama and excitement of Hollywood.

In order to gain a more in depth insight as to what the French new wave directors were  countering in cinema and also why they were creating new methods of production  it is fundamental to consider the aspects of the social, economical and political issues of the era and what changes arose from this in the cinema. It is no surprise as to why the French cinema induced a rebellion against mainstream cinema, after all France was suffering from what could be called irreparable damages from the Second World War. Being one of the nations that suffered the most, economic reparations were not easy due to the low production rate and rising inflation, not yet to mention the later overseas Algerian crisis which over several years added to the countries pressures. We can be sure to say that the new, young directors of the era reflected the social and political upheaval into their films. They were eager to portray a new enriched culture that left the war behind along with its mainstream cinematic ethos.  These directors had no financial backing from studios which meant that the films were considerably low budget, but one can be sure to say that their talents did not suffer because of this; they had in fact created a new set of rules with their own original production value that didn’t require a highly funded production programme. The foundations of this new enlightened cinema were to be a new perspective that favoured realism within its films. No longer were films being created from reliance upon preconceived screenplays and novelists such as Orson Welles and John Ford. The new wave didn’t want this. In their eyes the classical cinema had become false, following formal narratives and staged drama, something new had to intervene tradition which centred upon the individual, self determining human existence, achieved by creating a new cinema of the literal and metaphorical meaning “here and now”[1].
“The Cinema of today is capable of expressing any kind of reality. What interests us is their creation of a new language...The film-maker author writes with his camera as a writer writes with his pen”[2].  This quote from Alexandre Astruc, a French film critic is describing the new age cinema as the age of the “camera-stylo” which is translated as camera pen. The new filming techniques were more individualistic, free flowing in actual film production as much as its personal subject matter. Here I shall address the countering methods of filming such as non-narrative, non actors, real location, real time, objectivity and general experimentation, which created this stylistic film innovation. Firstly by using non-actors the films gained a more expressive, realistic and genuine feel to them, one could almost suggest that a more casual look could be attributed to them. This also links back to the influential neo-realist style where the rawness of the individual was often a signification of nationalism and their current condition within their country and its politics. Another attribute we can attach to the new wave way of filming is the use of real locations and real time, in order to gain a sense of place and be aware of the “mise en scene” that was created.  This idea of real time is enforced with the aid of a new cinematography available to directors. The use of handheld cameras provided a sense of freedom for the director in order to take the film making process anywhere. We see in Agnes Vardas’ 1962 film Cleo, at the start of the film she is descending the staircase, the camera takes on the role of the viewer creating a sense of realism, providing a casual look that also makes the viewer aware of the presence of the camera. This is a fundamental and one could also say a defining theme art cinema. The audience is constantly reminded that they are watching a counter cinema film, which does not follow tradition mainstream, linear narrative cinema. Furthermore, later in the film when Cleo leaves the cafe she strolls along the pavement. The camera comes into contact with oncoming real people in the street, not added extras just normal people going about their daily business, in essence the removal of preconceived dramatization is present. Also evident in this scene is also the use of long or wide shots which establish the surroundings of the character and the real situations they are amongst. Alongside this, the film is then open to the opportunity of improvisation in front of the camera. The use of an “aesthetical shot” a way of filming can also be considered as artistic, for example in the film 400 blows, the boy is seated in front of two mirrors but his reflection is also presented to us in the wardrobe mirror, providing us with a variety of viewpoints through just one camera angle. An issue arising from this idea of expression and improvisation is one of the cinematographers’ contributions. Actually capturing the events is surely subject to a major role within the films artistic potential outcome. An example to emphasise this point is that through the use of handheld cameras cinematographers were given a certain amount of freedom when it came to capturing the look of the shot, no matter how much direction they were initially given.
It was evident that the cinematic language had changed through the use of such techniques. The use of non -narrative according to Christian Metz also considered the “breakdown of narrative”[3] which had a major part to play in this change of cinematic language. A narrative, which is conceived of as being a linear progression of events was all too familiar in the mainstream classical pre-war productions that drew their inspiration from scripted screenplays. The new wave directors sought to breakdown this narrative through the use of editing. One of the most evident innovations within the Nouvelle Vague is the editing processes used, in which the raw material is amalgamated to form the non confirmative look of the film. Through the use of examples from various films and directors which were seen to hold a certain “signature element” of his films, we shall now look at how the films were put together and resulted in a new artistic visual experience of the European art cinema. Starting with Jean- Luc Godard’s 1960 film, À bout de soufflé, which is famous for Godard’s use of innovative editing techniques such as the Jump Cut.  This is fundamental in reinforcing the idea of the new cinema being about expression and providing the viewer with an apperception; that they are aware of watching an art film. This varies from the mainstream by creating unexpected, jumpy scenes that are therefore considered as a quintessential element used within art Cinema. The scene which best represents this idea of a “cinema of the shot” is the car scene in breathless, where we see the back of Jean Seberg’s head and the passing by of the city around her as the convertible travels along the road. For the jump cut to be successful in showing a progression of narrative as well as an artistic method of editing, a “30 degree angle rule”[4] was made to ensure a change in diegesis was evident through disjointed continuity editing.  As a result, the series of shots are presented to us from a varied viewpoint from the one before, making the jumping affect which initiates the disjointed aesthetical sequence.  In the interest of the new wave editing and how the techniques were used to counter mainstream cinema, it is important to consider the use of moving images which is a typical tool used within art cinema.  This technique is shown in Cleo from 5 to 7, when we are made aware of a change in diegesis by a breakaway from a diegetic sequence to a sequence of non diegetic images. Parisian socialite Cleo is walking down the street, but elsewhere in a different setting we are shown clips of other characters within the film, which are in a stationary, contemplative position, alongside images of Cleo’s wig and a her dressing table. Agnes Varda, the film’s director invented the word “Cinecriture”, which she described in 1994 as being a style in cinema, just like writing has a style, “The cutting, the movement, points of view, rhythm of filming and editing have been felt and considered in the way a writer chooses the depth of meaning of sentences, the type of words, chapters, which advance the story or break its flow...”[5]. Furthermore the idea of a non-diegetic sound is also used in correspondence with actual sound going on in the film. The use of a voice over, usually the voice of the main character who the dialogue responds to was an innovative technique of the French new wave which added a new dimension and deliverance of narrative. One film which includes a voice over as well as all of the other distinct editing techniques that have been discussed appears in Jean-Luc Godard’s’ 1965 film Pierrot le fou. The two characters Marianne and Ferdinand are shown escaping from an apartment, with no diegetic sound but a soundtrack playing heightens the brutality of the shots, creating the idea of the action speaking louder than words. In the new wave style the sequence is composed of jump cuts; showing a progression in narrative showing clips that are yet to feature in the actual narrative but are the future intentions of the characters, in an effective, fast paced edgy style.
Consequently, by looking specifically at selected films alongside the innovative methods used by the nouvelle vague we can draw the conclusion that these techniques were a total aberration from Hollywood classical cinema. It was not only the total upturn of production methods used but also and in my opinion most importantly, the new artistic editing techniques that not only changed the look of their films but in a turning of the tables, went onto influence Hollywood cinema and create new possibilities throughout all cinema.  The most fundamental answer as to how the French New Wave countered mainstream cinematic concerns is that they wanted to create a cinema of realism, an idea influenced by the Italian neo-realism cinematic era. This was achieved mainly through a new cinematography and the idea of a pronounced objectivity was at the forefront of these maverick directors concerns. The main concept derived from the new artistic editing techniques was the notion of an introduction of breakdown in narrative; which was usually linear and coherently ordered in mainstream film. Artistic editorial methods such as jump cuts and moving images used within the nouvelle vague were amalgamated with the use of non diegetic sound such as voice over’s which added another dimension to the films together with creating a type suggestion of narrative progression. It is interesting that the French new wave director’s intervention of film was to have such a profound influence upon post-nouvelle vague directors in national cinemas, notably in Hollywood. One of the most significant films that referenced the nouvelle vague was the American gangster film Bonnie and Clyde which was directed by Arthur Penn. Another director that we can attribute a significant French new wave signature feels to his films, that went so far as to dedicate his 1992 debut film “reservoir dogs” to Jean-Luc Goddard, was Quentin Tarantino. Who himself has praised the French new wave as breaking the rules as well as being highly influential to his films. 

Austin,G, Contemporary French cinema: an introduction, Manchester University Press, 1996.

Bordwell,D, & Thompson,K, “Film art- An introduction”, McGraw-Hill, International Edition, 2001.

Hayward,S,  Cinema studies: the key concepts, Taylor & Francis, 2006.

Metz,C, “The modern cinema and narrativity”- Film Language, Oxford University Press, 1974.

Mitry,J. King,C, The aesthetics and psychology of the cinema, Indiana University Press, 1997.

Neupert,R.J, A history of the French new wave cinema, University of Wisconsin Press, 2007.

[1] J.Mitry, Christopher King, The aesthetics and psychology of the cinema, Indiana University Press, 1997, pp 53.
[2] R.J.Neupert, A history of the French new wave cinema, University of Wisconsin Press, 2007.pp 48.
[3] C.Metz,“The modern cinema and narrativity”- Film Language, oxford University Press, 1974. pp 54.
[4] S.Hayward, Cinema studies: the key concepts, Taylor & Francis, 2006, pp 416.
[5] G.Austin, Contemporary French cinema: an introduction, Manchester University Press, 1996, pp 85.