Early Modern DeficiencyOk here we go. Please sit back and relax, maybe have some wine, play Beethoven’s 9th symphony on repeat, and enjoy my rendition of “the midterm.”
Question Number One
This is not a midterm, this is a fascinating adventure! An adventure that I have very wisely put off till the last minute because I know that late caffeine driven nights produce passionate thoughts. I feel like a newborn, and there’s so much in the world to behold. Right now, I am beholding Synthetism. It’s an approach to art concocted by Paul Gauguin and some other guys that stresses the flatness of the shapes and forms, while synthesizing these flattened forms with the artist’s own feelings about whatever they’re painting. Holy shit, that’s not really like impressionism. By working from his memory, Gauguin wanted to free his painting and process of superfluous details in order to strengthen the essence of his feelings about the painting, or the subject or whatever. Which suddenly makes me wonder if the subject is less about what he observes in the external world, and more about what he feels inside of himself. Or maybe the act of looking into the appearance of the physical world (you know, light) is really like looking deeper and deeper into one’s own feeling about it. And so there is no objective, external world, and all we know is the terrifying solitude of our subjective minds! Ah! For instance, Van Gogh may not have really “seen” all the swirling textures of light radiating from stars and street lamps, but we can say with a great degree of certainty that he felt them, and he probably wrestled with a passionate internal turmoil about the overwhelming beauty and the madness and the stars and the swirling and the suffering! Ah! It seems that trying to see the world more vividly can drive people crazy.
In the example of Van Gogh’s work provided, which I don’t know anything about, Van Gogh uses strong, dark lines and flattened forms in his depiction of human figures. While one can still get a sense of depth in the receding landscape and horizon, nothing in the painting is truly modulated. At the same time, the expansive landscape, which radiates in yellow brush strokes from a white sun, one can gauge how Van Gogh may have felt about his subject. The sun’s form itself seems to boil in the heat of the deepening yellow, and it floods through and above the jaggedly bent-over backs of the people, who look like scavenging peasants. It evokes both a sense of empathy for these people, whose faces have been reduced to nearly nothing, as well as a sense of awe for the distance itself. And you can follow the workers back into that distance and watch them disappear into even smaller strokes, and they become the most minuscule and vulnerable little shadows, slowly losing the richness of blues and reds that dot the foreground, and yet the strength of that yellow, and of the sun, does not cease, the trees like a foreboding wall that stops the fields and sky from spilling into one another.
Now let’s look at Gauguin’s attempt at painting. I mean, I guess this is art. (I joke) He’s certainly all about flattening the forms of the light, though there are almost brief moments of modulation in the figures, but they seem less like attempts at realism and more like attempts at capturing how he felt about the solidness of their flesh, hence Gauguin was a pervert who though it would be cool to sit down and paint a bunch of naked little girls. Look at the brush strokes that comprise the thigh of the central sex-object/figure. He probably passed out in his own drool while rendering the darkening crevice of her legs, he probably had a heart attack as he painted the towel disappear into mystery of her closed legs. I wonder what it means that the body of water before her becomes completely flat, as does the pink, warm colored ground she rests on. Perhaps nothing, but it certainly creates an atmosphere. He’s outlined the girls, utilized flattened forms, and made it very clear how he was “feeling” about the subject: the weather is nice and the girls are pretty and my name is Gauguin and I can’t control my animalistic urges.
If I were to truly grasp these works, I’d have to firstly visit them in person, wherever that may be, and analyze the critiques on these paintings by other reliable, educated sources. I’d want to map out the narrative and context of their creation. I’d be so daring as to visit the library. I would want to know the most deeply personal and embarrassing facts about these artists in order to truly understand these paintings. I’d probably also explore the kinds of mental or physiological illnesses/disorders that guided them without their complete awareness. What did they consume? What did they expose themselves to? Oil paint? Toxic chemicals? Syphilis? Alcohol? Probably all of these. Did Van Gogh get laid nearly as often as the perverted Gauguin? How did these kinds of desires shape how they saw and felt beauty in the world?
And at this thought, we can begin to look at the differences in these two artists. Van Gogh was more caught up in the intensity in light and color, and he sought to capture those moments as they overwhelmed him. Gauguin, however, departs from this impressionistic spirit, and cares about what he remembers, because what he can remember clearly, to him logically must be the most valuable essence. No wonder then, that the shapes of things he can’t have sex with are considerably less rendered (although it looks like he spent some time detailing the trees in the back ground, so maybe this gives us a disturbing insight into some of his otherwise unknown fetishes). In addition, the colors in Gauguin’s shapes do not bleed into each other as they so often do for Van Gogh. Essentially, Gauguin seems to be taking some kind of ownership of the subject: he knows what he wants, it’s pleasant to him, and so he paints it just how he remembers and feels it (let me specify, that I don’t think he does it in a totally modern way—he’s not Matisse), as opposed to Van Gogh, who is manically trying to capture an onslaught of color and emotion.
Question Number Two
I actually don’t know anything about this. I looked up this Vampire painting, and found several sources describing that this title was given by a misinformed art critic, where as Munch’s actual title was “Love and Pain.” And I have to say, when I look at this, I don’t really get “vampire” from it. The tone in the woman’s skin is far too warm. The strong reds of her hair feel less like direct references to vampires and blood (which honestly seems kind of trite to me) and more like another element of a passionate atmosphere. The man doesn’t appear to be struggling, rather, he is voluntarily thrusting himself into her embrace. It’s clear from the pervasive, nightmarish texture of the painting that these people are suffering, but they are suffering together. It’s an act of mutual consolation and damnation. You know, like love and pain. I’m not too clear on the actual characteristics of symbolism in art, but if I had to make them up, and I do, I’d say that it utilizes some commonly understood tropes in order to depict something ambiguous in an obvious way. Or maybe it depicts something obvious in an ambiguous way. One of those. Everyone knows what darkness means, everyone knows what red means, and everyone knows what it means when people are trying to bury themselves in each other, even if we can’t quite put our thumb on it, you can look at those qualities in the image and basically understand without a lot of effort, but the deeper and more definitive one gets in their analysis of this kind of work, the more likely it will be that they are simply making shit up, or projecting. I suppose symbols allow for that kind of thing, however. (Flowing long hair probably means something too, like she is untamable, and how his face isn’t as visible as hers, and how she is above him, perhaps suggesting that she is somehow more stoic and in control of the situation, albeit not without her own share of misery.)
M r. Munch, based solely from this painting, probably had a rough time with women. Maybe he was bad at sex. Maybe his parents had an unstable relationship and it scarred him. Maybe he had a relationship that completely drained him of happiness, and yet was his only cause for joy. Check out that subtle diction. I think the painting is a statement on the paradox of human desire and suffering, and less about an attitude towards the women themselves.
But now I’m looking at this next painting, Ashes. This painting looks kind of silly to me. I can tell by the way that the female figure’s hands are on her head, that this symbolizes she is having a bad hair day. Look at her! She’s a mess. Look at the man in the corner, his hands are on his head as well, as if to cover it in shame. He must also be having a bad hair day. If I’m following the narrative of this image correctly, they are lost in the forest and are thus unable to access their combs and beauty products. They look like the emotionally reduced forms of people. You can look at the girl’s face, and see that she isn’t really looking at anything, so much as she is dreading something. It’s got to be her hair. I don’t see any other alternative. Same with the man, but he’s just less open about how he suffers. She explodes from the blankness of her gown in an explosion of unkempt red-locks, while he retreats inward, into the bitter darkness of whatever kind of suit he is wearing. Whatever it is, he’s backed into a corner—literally and figuraitvelyhahahasymbolism! And his hand is slopped over his head in desperation like a limp corpse. I feel dead inside just looking at this painting, it’s like a hormonal teenage girl painted it. Munch probably wanted me to look at this and think “why can’t that melodramatic bride just put her arms down and button her dress. Why can’t she find a comb and get a hold of herself?” And look again at that pitiful look in her eyes, god, she’s so self absorbed and pitiful, no wonder her boy friend can’t stand the sight of her. Both characters are presented with a choice: be miserable with each other, or wander off into the uncertain abyss of surrounding forest.
Just as a side note, this all makes me want to live a celibate life. You know, Tesla didn’t deal with any of this kind of crap. He had his vision and fascination with the world, and some pigeons, and that was enough. Newton never got laid either, and he did lots of cool things.
Okay, now I have to google “Gustav Klimt.” Oh, yes yes yes, this is also very interesting. Based on this painting, Sea Serpents, I think Gustav likes women. The first thing I notice is how beautified the hair is, a stark contrast from Munch’s hairpocolypse. In the universe of Gustav Klimt, people have combs and use conditioner. The forms amplify a sense of grace and beauty that extends past reality. This figure is floating in a flat dimension of pure pattern and bliss. I think there are actually two of them. Yeah, there are two of them. Two girls? Yes, this is much different than Munch. This is like a one sided glorification of something unattainable Hoooold on a second. I think they might be mermaids. I think there’s a little whale animal creature in the corner–see his crazy little eye? He’s watching those mermaids float in the serenity of reefs and golden-glowy-shit, and he has no idea what the hell is going on. He’s like “what the fuck is that kind of fish?”
Alright, so Gustav thinks girls are pretty and elusive like serpents or the stuff of legend. I swear, all of these painters just wanted to get laid. Makes me think that “art” is really all just misplaced urges.
(as I proceed deeper into the night, I can feel my mental processes slowing. But the adventure continues. The passion never dies…)
But then here comes this other painting, Judith II, and I must revise myself. This is a painting about an individual. The figure’s is deeply imbedded within a frame, and her discomfort is palpable. It looks like she’s been in that painting for two long, and it’s deformed the arch of her back. Maybe she was a prostitute, maybe she grew up in a brothel. Whatever it was, she’s gotten too big and old for it, and even the playfulness of the patterns in her small rectangular world do not offer any relief from the bags in her eyes or the stale, deadness of her skin. She looks like a god damn zombie. Gustav either feels a great deal of sympathy for this Judith, or he’s been revolted. Look at how her hands are like vicious animal claws, and the jewelry on her wrists: what in the former painting would have been serene decoration has here become tacky and reviling. Her hand rakes the hair of what I can only assume is some guy’s severed head, probably her source of food.
What happened to you, Gustav. Just two years ago, in good old 1907, you were swimming the wondrous depths of the sea with a bunch of horny mermaids, and now you’re trapped in some dystopian-brothel-catacomb. Gustav’s dreams of female beauty were probably put into perspective by some real-life encounters with sad sad people. Now he’s dead inside and so am I. How can you expect me to complete a midterm assignment in these conditions? Don’t you see that all of this art you are exposing me to is negatively impacting my mental health? Are you trying to kill me? This isn’t just some assignment for me, I’m not pretending to be moved and have opinions about these things just for some passing grade, I’m being eaten alive!
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I’m not going to lie. I don’t really know Henri Matisse. He died long before I was born, but I think I get what he was about. While he sort of went back and forth in the evolution of his style, he ultimately believed in painting what he felt, and he did so in a way that went beyond the synesthetism of Gauguin and others. He takes ownership of the image he is creating in the sense that the entirety of the composition and all of its elements must adhere to whatever he is expressing. While he believes in getting rid of the superfluities, he does not depend on his memories of a moment or image to decide what is essential. Matisse becomes the arbiter of the forms in order to express something, and thus the painting becomes itself, not an illusion of the world, but a composition of his mind. And perhaps there’s no method of actually creating or expressing beyond this, and hence here Matisse is the real deal. Mission accomplished. Modernism!
While Matisse is hyperconscious of the world of appearance, in his painting he still pursues an intuitive essence beyond the “deceptive” immediacy of appearance and impression.
Matisse does not submit to nature, nature submits to Matisse, because there is no external nature to submit to. Consider Le Bonheur de vivre—do you think Matisse was going for a stroll when he stumbled upon a piercing yellow meadow of naked nymphs? This image, and all of its elements and colors exist because Matisse first conceived of them, and in the process of their manifestation, every color’s relationship with the rest of the composition had to be considered and felt as a whole.
It’s hard to imagine knowing when you “feel” that something is right, or when an essence has been realized. It’s like chasing a ghost. Suddenly I no longer know what it means to feel. Oh nooooooo. Here lies the confusion. Matisse states the following: “For me all is in the conception—I must have a clear vision of the whole composition from the very beginning…” And he later states “I put down my colors without a preconceived plan…” Either Matisse looks at color and composition as distinct elements, or he has contradicted himself. I feel that if he distinguishes between color and composition, then he is in a way admitting that color and form are not one in the same. And somehow, if color and form are not actually part of the same phenomenon, then Matisse’s process and approach doesn’t make much sense. What would Matisse accomplish if he painted in black and white? What if he were born completely color blind? And when I look again to “Le Bonheur de vivre” I suddenly ask myself: what does the color yellow feel like? All is in the conception and yet colors (and the color relationships) are improvised? What the hell does that even mean? Where does composition end and color begin? I thought everything was going to make sense. I thought Matisse could set me free. His process is based “on feeling, on the very nature of each experience”—and what he’s revealing about that nature is how little sense it actually makes. Why, Dr. Knotts, why? Why are you torturing my young, fragile soul with knowledge?
I’m so tired, but we have to go deeper.
Let’s consider the Portrait of Madame with The Green Stripe. Matisse wants the feeling an essence of his works to be understood by the viewer before they even realize that they get it. But if he wants to communicate a single essence or truth, even if it’s a sort of abstract and intuitive version of truth, how can he actually account for the differences in how people see the world? For instance, when I look at the Green Stripe portrait, I think his wife looks like a samurai. If this painting would have been presented to me under that false context, I would have nodded my head like a jackass and gone “oh yes I see, this is a samurai, I can tell because of the goofy hair cut and the very stern, Japanese looking eyes. That looks like some kind of warrior tunic, this is definitely a samurai…” Matisse is potentially just talking to himself. And maybe the truer essence that he’s expressing lies in the color relationships, but now those relationships revolve around something completely misinformed and irrelevant. In the same way that you can tell everyone in a room to think of a dog and they refer to a multitude of versions, you can present someone with an image, and they will contextualize it within a multitude of unforeseen and unpredictable narratives and ideas from their lives.
“What I dream of is an art of balance, of purity and serenity devoid of troubling or depressing subject matter, an art which might be…like a good armchair in which to rest from physical fatigue…”
This is not a very “good armchair.”
Perhaps “The Red Studio” will reach me. I don’t know what it means that this studio is red, but I certainly feel something, and maybe that’s all the elaboration that’s required, and maybe any further analysis departs from the way Matisse would want someone to take in one of his paintings. Is this the serenity Matisse speaks of? Should I just stop talking and thinking, and yeah this is kind of nice. But I know another method of escaping troubles and depressing subjects and physical fatigue. I think my midterm adventure has come at last to an end, and now I will sleep.