Monet’s strong beginning (Claude Monet, 1840-1926)
The show at the Legion of Honor in San Francisco, “Monet: the Early Years”, is full of surprises.
The first surprise isn’t how wonderful the wonderful stuff is, but how many middling pieces there are–things you wouldn’t pay much attention to if the artist’s fame hadn’t made you think you’d better admire anyway. Even geniuses, it seems, put their pants on one leg at a time.
But the wonderful stuff predominates, and really is wonderful. Most of the work in the show will be familiar to anyone who has looked at a history of the Impressionists, but as is usually the case with strong paintings, seeing the work in the flesh reveals subtleties that don’t come across in reproductions. For example, how bold his attack is, and how undisguised.
The Red Kerchief is on a gray ground, visible here and there. The strokes and dabs are thick, wet, and knowing. It was done in more than one session, but the overpainting never muddles the first layin, although there are second thoughts: he seems to have found that white shape at the bottom boring, so he added that little cluster of leaves with a smaller brush and slightly off green.
And so with other pieces. Check out the brights in the detail of Le déjeuner sur l’herbe below: the flashes of light on the plate by the hand, on the fruit, and how frankly and improbably but convincingly the gray plate to the left is defined by the white area that lies against it but doesn’t trespass. Monet wasn’t passively jotting down “impressions”, he was constructing. And that hand–so deftly minimal!
This frontal attack doesn’t always work as well as it might. Sometimes, as in the detail of The River-Bannecourt below, the effect is merely slapdash. Apparently, the foreground needed punching up, so he drybrushed on more foliage until he got the balance he wanted. It’s a strong compositional choice, and from a few feet away it works, but when you come in close enough to take in the details it’s coarse and messy rather than daring and strategic. The background shapes are reduced to left-over bits and pieces. His stronger stuff (as in The Red Kerchief or the déjeuner) works the nearer and farther shapes together, side by side.
But generally, he’s on top of it. Here a glorious foreground, full of strokes and dabs of fluid paint with later, drybrushed augmentation.
He was in his twenties when he did these things. I mean, my goodness! And they were only the beginning.
Before ending this post I must mention the good manners of Monet’s enthusiasts. There were lots of people at the show. This snap is a typical view, if leaning a trifle on the elder side. What’s remarkable about it is that people aren’t crowding the pictures, or stepping in front of each other, or blocking views. They maneuver carefully around each other, working in slowly, taking turns. In a hot show, how often do you have that experience?
Bliss and/or Ensor:
The current cover of The New Yorker features a witty Harry Bliss image of Manhattan’s Flatiron building, with laundry.
The credits don’t mention “The Cathedral” of 1886 by James Ensor, which certainly looks like the basis for the joke. If it is, they should have.
Jack Ziegler, a long-time New Yorker cartoonist, died recently. His work was funny, his drawing bright and economical. I like this piece especially, for obvious reasons.
I don’t normally put the work of Johannes Vermeer (1632 – 1675) and Chuck Close (1940 – ) in the same box, but there is a similarity to their process, however different their results. Both pursue the multitudinous variations of tone and shape in their subjects. Vermeer pulls adjacent tones together, as in the face below, then at a certain point leaps from light to dark, largely suppressing middle tones. So the face tones, both lit and shadowed, are very close; hair and eyes are suddenly, sharply dark.
Close, by contrast, follows a more even progression from light to dark.
But both impart a wonderful vivacity to their images by the little sparkly lights that set off the mid tones and darks without bogging down in the flatfooted rendering of each shape. Vermeer uses them subtly–in her hat, her eyes, nose, lips, earrings, lions’ heads–Impressionism two hundred years ahead of time–while Close uses them frontally, and all over, so that his shapes project bounce and discovery rather than Vermeer’s rich and intriguing calm.
Love Them Waterlilies
A baleful side effect of being required to read those thick, interminable classics in high school is that we absorb the notion that high culture can only be equated with what is most dreary and difficult, and that we must discount what is accessible and pleasurable. Claude Monet (1840-1926) suffers especially from this delusion. His work is so frankly decorative and accessible that while we flock to see his shows and delight in the many books and calendars featuring his work, we tend to overlook the originality, to say nothing of the resource and audacity–the unbridled painterlyness– of his paintings.
Here is one of his many versions of waterlilies. It is freely, boldly drawn. The subtle but lively strokes of the brush are everywhere. Water, sky, clouds–all united as a rich and vivacious surface. No doubt the cavemen noticed waterlilies, and people have been looking at them ever since, but nobody painted anything like this before Monet.
On a side note, this piece was painted during World War I. The front was perhaps sixty miles from Giverny, where he lived and worked. He could probably sometimes hear the guns.
Fitz Hugh Lane, early and late
Contemplate the tranquility of this late piece by Fitz Hugh Lane (1804 – 1865).
It’s painted in glazes (thin, transparent layers). Oil paint grows increasingly transparent as it ages, which sometimes reveals details about how a work was executed. Here, for example, the background was painted first, then the foreground. After a century we can see the silhouette of the distant hills through the ship’s sails. Overlaying shapes in this way avoided having to fill in a lot of niggly little bits. (Of course, one painter’s niggle is another’s method; Seurat, for example, dissects all shapes, large and small, foreground and background, into dots of equal presence.)
Part of Lane’s genius lies in his ability to keep the eye engaged with his apparently minimal forms. Imagine if that distant boat to the right were not there. Or that sagging post and its reflection just offshore. Reflections in the water. That sweep of ripples from side to side. Or that sawback pattern of trees on Owl’s Head, or the buildings on the shore to the left. No detail is dramatic, but everywhere you look there is something going on.
Lane achieved his luminist masterpieces toward the end of his life. His earlier work (example below) is robust rather than visionary. It records details for their own sake rather than disciplining them into one deftly modulated hit. The clouds are freely painted, but the clipper is not: every halyard and stay is mercilessly rendered (he must have used a straightedge and the teensyist brushes). The ship doesn’t share the same light with the clouds or with the two ships on the left. The mechanical little whitecaps resemble those carpets that oppress one in hotel lobbies.
We see the same development from visual smorgasbord to lean decision in Lane’s fellow luminist, John Frederick Kensett (December 10). A vast improvement in both cases.
Harnett and Peto
Last week’s post included pieces by William Harnett (1848-1892) and John F. Peto (1854-1907). Here we take another look. For many years their unfashionable work was thought to be by the same person, but there are lively differences between them.
Detail decisions make a huge difference in results. Harnett aims for the trompe l’oeil (“fool the eye”) effect. His colors are naturalistic, his tonal distinctions subtle and minutely observed.
Peto is bolder and less literal. He doesn’t model as realistically as Harnett does. He doesn’t use highlights, so his principal tones don’t have to be held down to preserve contrast. His colors are brighter, his shapes flatter, his tonal gradations more abrupt. His shadows are harder and constitute positive shapes in themselves rather than merely evoking the decaying of light: compare the shadow cast by Harnett’s projecting piece of paper with Peto’s projecting books. Peto’s effect is not so much one of objects lovingly observed but a lively, almost abstract pattern of shapes and colors.
Newer and Older
I don’t know whether in the pairings below the more recent artists were influenced by the earlier ones, or whether it is simply that there are engaging subjects all around us that don’t change much from century to century. These aren’t the Great Themes (The Three Graces, the Last Judgment) in which the elements are dictated by tradition, but little spritzes of order and delight.
These first two are by John Frederick Peto (1854 – 1907) and Edwaert Collier (active 1663 – 1708). We don’t do letter racks anymore, but they remind me of refrigerator doors & magnets–personal accumulations of the moment.
Then William Harnett (1848 – 1892) and Jan Davidsz de Heem (1606 – 1684). (De Heem did his piece when he was twenty-two. He still had a thing or two to learn about the pleasures of color, but there’s plenty of variety and nicely observed detail.)
And then Joseph Cornell (1903 – 1978) and Cornelius Gijsbrechts ( c.1630 – 1675). The Cornell is an actual box with objects in it, while the Gijsbrechts is a painting of a box, but the sensibility is very similar.
Roy Lichtenstein (1923 – 1997) and Gijsbrechts again–both paintings of the backs of paintings. The joke still works after 298 years.
The San Francisco Museum of Modern Art currently has a exhibit of early Diane Arbus photos—from 1956 to 1962. According to the wall labels, this was an exploratory period for her. The variety of work shown make it clear how wide she spread her net at first, before zeroing in on her own singular vision.
A lot of this early work is unremarkable. “Jack Dracula” catches the eye because the subject is odd, not because Arbus adds insight. Other pieces depict one or another of life’s common oddities. For one reason or another, perhaps half the show falls into the category of views you’d hardly notice if there weren’t a Name attached.
But the other half demonstrates what makes a fine Arbus fine: the wonderful sense of community between her subject and her presence on the street. She wasn’t just snapping random views—she was after what Cartier-Bresson called “the decisive moment.”
Sometimes her point is intimacy, as in “Woman on the street with her eyes closed, 1956,”
or “Child teasing another, NYC, 1960.” Both are moments we’ve seen a thousand times on the street, but not with such focus.
Sometimes, as in “Man in hat, trunks, socks and shoes, Coney Island, N.Y. 1960,” the point is grotesquerie. Arbus had a real affinity for this sort of thing. But painful as the image is, it’s oddly sympathetic. Being grotesque isn’t the same as being ridiculous. The man is simply is as he is.
Often the point is the presence of the observer in the street, as in “Taxicab driver at the wheel with two passengers, NYC 1956.”
Without that eye contact with the driver and passenger it would be just a passing taxi. But with it we have a fascinating sense of completeness: taxi, driver, passengers, the street beyond, and the viewer– the noticer and appreciator of the complex, delicious whole (the rhyming hands!).
The long captions sound like inventory descriptions rather than titles, but their effect is to emphasize the particularity of the moment.
All photos copyright the Estate of Diane Arbus
A Wonderful Bosch
Searching Google Images for something else, I came across this wonderful Hieronymus Bosch, “Witches’ Sabbath.” The economy of the modeling is astonishing: the figures and fish look fully 3-D, but the shapes are almost flat, with deftly chosen descriptive bits like the eye of the fish, or the shadow shape of her dress.