Visions of Paris: Helena Roy reviews Daumier at the Royal Academy

Today we have become so used to the unadulterated mocking of politicians, that direct insults and impersonations are unabashed and abundant. What we find less and less is fantastical caricature and unreal analogy. Daumier’s notorious political satire – currently on display at the Royal Academy – offers a soaring vision of the origins of satirical portraiture, through his uncompromising caricatures of the political elite and bourgeoisie.

Daumier chronicled every day life in nineteenth century Paris with shameless precision – pushing every grimy detail into the spectator’s view. The stars of his portraits come from the margins of society: laundresses, street entertainers, farm workers. He reduced Paris from its dreamy, stony architectural grandeur to its viscous, sordid streets. Working from memory, his figures are harrowingly blurred and distorted – with warm pastels overrun with ribbon-like outlines.

‘The Third-Class Railway Carriage’ (1862-64) was (according to a contemporary commentator) ‘a profoundly expressed observation of working class patience and fortitude.’
'The Laundress' (1861-63)

An unexpected idiosyncrasy is Daumier’s brilliant skill in portraying contemplation, and isolation. Amidst the bustle of city scenes there are voids – blank windows, shadows or walls – which bring out the paradoxical solitariness of city life. Lone figures are common: at the end of the exhibition, there is a peaceful portrayal of artistic beginnings, with light streaming through a window onto a canvas to suggest creative potential (‘The Artist Facing his Work’, 1860-63).

'A Man Reading in a Garden' (1866-68)

The political elite, by contrast, were satirised in a fantastical, grotesque world; mimicking their own misunderstanding of the reality they presided over. Daumier’s process began with cartoonish sculptures in seedy tertiary colours, from which is modelled his distorted figurines. He aimed for high-profile targets; his lithographs moving with all the violence and changeable nature of politics at the time. Monarchy is detailed as a corpse in a coffin, with the sarcastic caption ‘Meanwhile, they keep insisting she has never been better.’ (1872). By the 1870s his satire was intense, powerful and prescient: censorship laws had by now relaxed with the fall of authoritarian rule.

'Rue Transnonain, 15 April 1834' portrays a father crushing the corpse of his little child in a cold, poor attic - all silence and death. Daumier thus condensed the events of riots 13-14 April 1834, where protesters were massacred by government troops.

Faces are gaunt – with pale pink flesh cut under black bone structures. Appalling realities such as cholera epidemics are analogized to fairytale figures. Raw violence is shown in gaunt form. ‘Madame is moving, transferring from the cemeteries. Hurray! The dead are going fast!’ (1867) is an instance of the recurring theme of mortality towards the end of Daumier’s life. Rejected by the censor three times, it is Tim-Burton-esque, correlating the death (the Grim Reaper) with industry (a steam engine) and military armament.

Les Divorceuses (1848)

Daumier separates these two sides of Paris – the laughable and the horribly real – but meshes the mediums and styles in ‘Ecce Homo’ (1849-1852). Daumier was opposed to religion, and though this scene is biblical, it is more a general depiction of protest than an outright illustration of the moment Jesus is condemned to crucifixion. It offers a traditional way of demonstrating the easy manipulation of crowds. Though unfinished, its size is exceptional, its movement animated but skeletal.

‘Ecce Homo’ (1849-1852)

The editor Pierre Véron commented ‘I could never understand how Daumier, so assertive, so revolutionary when holding a pencil could be so shy in everyday life.’ Perhaps he made up for a reclusive personality with an inimitable intensity in his art and its message. He refused to pursue more lucrative mediums such as portraiture, landscape and book illustration, but the truth and skill in his work inspired artists from Picasso to Francis Bacon and Quentin Blake. Daumier thrived on his political indignation. His visions of Paris are – whether fantastical or deleteriously real – as truthful and moving a portrait of an era as can be found.

‘Daumier: Visions of Paris, 1808-1879’ is on at the Royal Academy until 26th January 2014. For more details, visit http://www.royalacademy.org.uk/exhibitions/daumier/.

“With an apple I will astonish Paris.” AHA alum Helena Roy looks at the legacy of Paul Cézanne in the year of his 175th birthday…

On 19 January, it would have been Paul Cézanne’s 175th birthday. The Post-Impressionist painter bridged the gap between 19th century Impressionism and 20th century Cubism, and his inimitably idiosyncratic style is still a source of inspiration today. The portraits, landscapes and still-lifes that dominate his repertoire are iconic – prized by famous museums the world over. In celebration of a matchless artist, here is a concentrated retrospective of his life and work…

Cézanne’s life forever had a backdrop of culture and wealth: he absorbed the influences of Courbet and Manet in his early years; was friends with Emile Zola from childhood (breaking promptly when Zola based an unflattering character on him in the 1880s); and had a strong bond (eventually a collaborative relationship) with Camille Pissarro. His father was a successful banker, affording him a financial security most artists of his time did not receive. (His father’s imposing portrait was one of his earliest works, painted in 1865.)

The Painter's Father, Louis-Auguste Cézanne, 1865 – a work which now hangs in the National Gallery

His early years in Paris (1861-1870) were characterised by murky colours and domineering black – garnering the epithet the ‘dark period’. Cézanne’s work was violently expressive – depicting murder and rape – and he experimented with the use of a palette knife to paint (he later disparaged this technique, telling Renoir it took him twenty years to realise painting was not sculpture). Cézanne started with an edge of Caravaggio’s gloomy shading, as seen in Portrait of Uncle Dominique, (1865–1867).

The Murder, (1867-1868), painted during Cézanne’s ‘dark period’ – which refers to both his style, subject matter and, it is said, his personality at the time
Portrait of Uncle Dominique, 1865–1867, a work of Cézanne’s ‘dark period’, which is now displayed at the Metropolitan Museum of Art

An Impressionist stage followed (1870-1878), during which he flitted between Provence and Paris. Under Pissarro’s influence he abandoned darker hues, shifting to light and airy landscapes. A mature period in Provence (1878-1890), comfortably continued this, encompassing his renowned paintings of Montagne Sainte-Victoire, a mountain in southern France overlooking Aix-en-Provence.

Jas de Bouffan, 1876, painted during Cézanne’s Impressionist period, where lighter shades became predominant
Mont Sainte-Victoire (c.1887), displayed at the Courtauld Institute of Art. Cézanne painted many pictures of this subject during his mature years
Rideau, Cruchon et Compotier, (1893-1894), painted during Cézanne’s twilight years, is the most expensive still life ever to sell at an auction. This painting was sold at Sotheby's, New York on 10 May 1999 for $60,502,500.

Cézanne created some of his most iconic works in his twilight years (1890-1905), including The Card Players (1892) and Les Grandes Baigneuses (1898-1905). Deceptively simple paintings conceal a myriad of subtle shading – but his shapes and colours aren’t realistically detailed. Cézanne used heavy hues, creases and shades to emphasise the contours he found so appealing – giving his ‘impression’ of an object, not the veritable image. He once said ‘painting from nature is not copying the object; it is realising one’s sensations.’ He simplified natural forms to their geometric fundamentals, giving an architectural structure to the nature he portrayed. What you see is not the exact picture, but Cézanne’s feelings – he painted a weighty, thick surface over reality, giving us his ethereal sensation instead.

The Card Players, Fifth Version, (1894-1895) – a work in Cézanne’s iconic series, seen by many as a prelude to the genius work of his final years
Les Grandes Baigneuses (1898-1905), a painting from Cézanne’s renowned series, which hangs in the National Gallery.
Les Demoiselles d'Avignon, (1907), by Pablo Picasso. Painted a few years after Cézanne’s 'Les Grandes Baigneuses', they show the heavy influence the French artist had on Picasso’s work.

As his life became onset with troubles, recognition of mortality crept into his work. A devout Roman Catholic, his faith drew forward in his work as his age slowly got the better of him. He had commented previously : ‘When I judge art, I take my painting and put it next to a God-made object like a tree or flower. If it clashes, it is not art.’

Pyramid of Skulls, (1901) – painted during Cézanne’s ‘final period’ in Provence, when he began to focus more on death and mortality. He painted several still lifes of skulls during his final years.
An Old Woman with a Rosary, (1895-1896) - evidence of Cézanne’s growing dependence on Catholicism during his final years. The painting is displayed at the National Gallery.

Cézanne once said ‘We live in a rainbow of chaos’. He incomparably captured that confusion and beauty, so present in nature, and inspired the colourful works of Henri Matisse and Pablo Picasso, to name but a couple. In a way, his artistic trajectory is cyclical, mirroring life as he experienced it – confused angst and darkness moving into light, and returning to shades of mortality in his final years. His innovation in art is now timeless. Cézanne paved the way for ground-breaking art – allowing future artists to be fearless in bucking trends. His unique visual contribution to history of art just outmatches the attitudes he shaped towards it, which allowed so many after him to try to be different.

With thanks to Wikipedia, the Courtauld Institute and the National Gallery for photos.

 

Why Study Art History? Economics student Helena Roy discusses…

In July 2012, I went to northern Italy with AHA to study Art History for two weeks (I had never studied it before). After a gap year, I have now started university… studying Economics. Some may dismiss my trip as contrary, perhaps unnecessary; but there is an intrinsic value to studying Art History even if your speciality lies in another subject.

Art History gives you a sense of perspective you can’t gain anywhere else. Aristotle argued that ‘the aim of art is to represent not the outward appearance of things, but their inward significance’. Art uncovers that significance in the myriad of political, social and religious thoughts it conveys. Where literature offers fictional allegory, art offers visual symbolism – Orwell analyses the class system through animal fables, whereas Lowry does through paint.

The social state of the working class in Britain’s Industrial Revolution, as shown by LS Lowry in 'Oldfield Road Dwellings, Salford', (1927)

An obvious benefit (the clue is in the name) is that art reveals a plethora of historical sources. Dry statistics can only teach you so much: art can communicate emotional details about events. Who has not been moved – even if disgusted – by Picasso’s Guernica and the chaotic destruction it depicts? That the bombing of Guernica caused 41 fatalities per ton of bombs is informative, but in a wholly different way.

Picasso’s 'Guernica', (1937) – conveying the terror and intensity of war

My enthusiasm for the subject stems from the two weeks in Italy. Art History is the most fantastic travel companion. Appreciating and seeking it out facilitates deeper understanding of a place’s culture – how better to see consumerism in 20th century America than in Andy Warhol’s work, or understand the power of Catholicism in Italy in Baroque altarpieces?

Andy Warhol’s 'Campbell’s Soup Cans' (1962), the epitome of post-WWII American consumerism, on display the Museum of Modern Art in New York
Nothing beats viewing art in its contextual setting… 'The Inspiration of St Matthew' (1602) by Caravaggio – part of a cycle of paintings situated in the Contarelli Chapel of San Luigi dei Francesi in Rome

In a time of dire employment prospects, students are turning to lucrative and traditional professions, allowing these to consume all facets of their interest as a means to realising that place on that bank’s graduate programme. But becoming a one-trick pony saps the energy and novel viewpoint someone can bring to the workplace. Work can only be balanced by hobbies you enjoy: study Art History, and you can benefit from it infinitely. (Picasso once said that ‘the purpose of art is washing the dust of daily life off our souls.’) Besides, it is relevant to countless professions in itself – journalism, consultancy, law, marketing and branding to name a few – and vital to Britain’s economic health (the sector accounted for 1% of GDP in 2011, and pays on average 5% more than the UK median salary).

Ultimately, studying Art History engenders a broader attitude to life. Art is something everyone can relate to. It is the impetus for conversation and debate, and introduces you to a new sphere of people. To understand Art you need to understand its political and social history. Art is painted against a backdrop of archaeology, anthropology, literature, design, science, geography – and innumerable other subjects. This interdisciplinary approach gives you a mammoth diversity of perspective.

In an era that relies so heavily on visual literacy, Art History offers invaluable lessons in the study of civilization. We are surrounded by things that demand our vision – film, advertising, architecture. Kafka said that ‘anyone who keeps the ability to see beauty never grows old.’ Art History offers the broadest education possible in analysing what you see, and discovering beauty in unexpected places.

I went to study Art History after a friend did an AHA trip and spoke of nothing else for the summer – she is now studying Chemistry at university. Art History need not be esoteric – it is there for everyone to enjoy. It’s easy, but mistaken, to doubt Art History’s significance without trying – so find your nearest gallery, visit churches or museums while abroad, or just start here!

With thanks to Wikipedia for photos.

Picasso’s Catalonia: AHA alum Helena Roy looks at the artist’s work in France and Spain…

On a recent trip to Barcelona, the recommendation constantly being thrown at me was to visit the Museu Picasso, in the city’s rambling Gothic district.
Clichéd that may be, but wrong it was not. The museum plunges you deep into Picasso’s style, life and artistic development – taking you on a journey through both Barcelona’s history and the inspiration it provided him with. This year it celebrates its fiftieth anniversary – half a century of displaying a mammoth but memorable collection of the famed artist’s work.
But first, a disclaimer: I am a novice when it comes to Picasso and much of the period he worked in. But while this may not be an accurate review, it is an enthusiastic account of seeing Picasso through new eyes.
Perhaps the museum’s greatest success is showing so clearly the artist’s development. Earlier rooms show soft charcoal academic studies of classical sculpture with a subtlety of form absent in later works. A portrait of Picasso’s father is tender, all tradition and tertiary colours; while seascapes are unadventurous and calm. Picasso soaked up his surroundings. There are richly expressive oil paintings, depicting Catalonia’s mountainous terracotta landscapes, and Monet-like renditions of Barceloneta. Sensitive religious works capture ceremonies such as ‘First Communion’ (1896) in a beautifully innocent way – the peaceful antithesis of a historic painting such as Delaroche’s ‘The Execution of Lady Jane Grey’.
'The artist's father' (1896)
'First Communion' (1896)
But Picasso quickly moved on from safe, traditional material. ‘Science and Charity’ (1897) was painted at the height of social realism, juxtaposing the themes of religion and medicine. It boosted Picasso’s artistic presence: signalling his power to show uncomfortable social tensions harmoniously. More morbid social realism was to follow: a stillborn; a sick woman’s bedside; a fantastical kiss of death; and the bedside of a dead man.
'Science and Charity' (1897)
The iconic Picasso comes through from 1900 – his first trip to Paris gave birth to a harsher, intense style. ‘Still Life’ (1901) is vibrant and in-your-face; a mash of colours artfully splashed to form a table saturated with taste. His female subjects become sensual but unrealistic; ‘Waiting Margot’ (1901) complete with rouged lips and a bohemian turban against a green and yelow splattered background; ‘Old woman, seated’ (1903) is embryonic and scientific, while another female nude is encased in a deep cobalt womb-like oval.
There is a sense of violence pushing through Picasso’s work at this point: first with colour or distorted form – only later do the two combine. ‘Gored horse’ (1917) seems an isolated predecessor to ‘Guernica’ (1937) – the contorted pain represented in dead grey, as life withdraws to the earthy background. In fact, from this year he seems to have become ostentatiously more cubist – losing all realism from his younger works. This comes to the fore in his multiple studies of Diego Veláquez‘s ‘Las Meninas’ (1957). They have all the robust, grotesque confidence of ‘Guernica’, but are more innocent and composed in their subject. Picasso is stubbornly angular in his reshaping of the information he was confronted with – mixing flat black with blank primaries to emphasise this.
'Gored horse' (1917)
'Las Meninas' (1957)
It is brilliant to see Picasso’s work in the Catalan setting that so inspired him. There are recurring images of the balconies and windows that cascade onto the streets of Barcelona; nighttime in the city is portrayed with modernistic blue rooftops. A favourite of mine was the unfinished ‘Woman with mantila’ (1917): Picasso’s later vibrancy is scaled down to detailed dots here, to form a stunning female embodiment of Barcelona – all old and new, beauty and exuberance. Nor is he the only artist to be inspired by Catalonia: Salvador Dalí’s house is in the coastel Cadaqués, and the Dalí museum is located in nearby Figueres. Picasso also painted one or two works in Céret, just across the French border. Most obviously, that Barcelona inspired Gaudí is evidenced all over the city: from Parc Güell to the Sagrada Família.
'Woman with mantila' (1917)
Museum Picasso is, above all, personal. A tenderly distorted ‘Portrait of Jaume Sarbatés with ruff and hat’ (1939) introduces the man who donated many of the works which make up the museum, and was Picasso’s great friend. The artist himself gave many works – thus ensuring a fantastic legacy for himself. You come across famous styles, and more unique pieces; ‘Minotauromachy’ (1935) reveals less-seen mystical forms with heavy shading compromised of tiny lines – none of the colour and shading Picasso is so synonymous with.
'Minotauromachy' (1935)
The temporary exhibition I visited was a series of self-portraits by the artist. Heavy line drawings of his youthful self are seen next to his scrawling, expressive, alternative signature – hints of the explosion of creative force to come. We see Picasso through all his confused styles – his development both physically and creatively. Heightened distortion correlates to the ageing process (as in ‘Self-portrait’, 1972). Wild experimentation is present with a photomaton photograph with added gouache – showing Picasso in reality with his ultra-modern non-reality creeping in. The star piece is ‘Self-portrait’ (1907): it is rough and earthy, angular and staring – the eyes of the artist seeing you in a way no one else could. Museu Picasso reveals the multitude of tension both in the artist’s work, and himself. His subjects are varied – but so is he. Though clearly a museum for one artist, the visitor comes away having seen a myriad of facets of artistic interpretation. Technique, style, subject and message is constantly conflicted.
'Self-portrait' (1907)
It was once said of Joseph Heller‘s Catch-22 that it gave ‘the impression of having been shouted onto the paper’. But Heller by no means lacked classical training – this was the intended effect. Picasso strikes me as much the same. His most idiosyncratic works are a carefully composed shout – drawing on a plenthora of traditions, but inimitable in their modernism and innovation. Picasso once said ‘Painting isn’t a question of sensitivity; we need to take the place of nature instead of depending on the information she offers us.’ Picasso warped the information imparted on him by his surroundings; but though his work was not sensitive to reality, it was to meaning and message. To some, this museum may seem to bombarde the visitor with works to prove try and prove that thesis; but for a novice, it is the most intense way to nurture an understanding of one of the most studied artists.
For more information, visit http://www.museupicasso.bcn.cat/en/. With thanks to Museu Picasso and Wikipedia for photos.

‘Bad Artists Copy, Good Artists Steal’

The National Gallery is about to house its first major exhibition of photography, entitled ‘Seduced by Art: Photography Past and Present.’ It is a collection of photographs that have used old masters, most of which are from the Gallery’s collection, to inspire their work. Undoubtably, it is an exhibition to get excited about. Not only will it be a delightful game to draw connections and make patterns, but it should also help us relate to old paintings that are now somewhat removed from society.

The Small Bather 1828, Jean-Auguste-Dominique Ingres
Richard Learoyd Portrait, 2011

 

 

For example, Richard Learoyd, the London based photographer, makes a beautiful reference to ‘The Small Bather’ by Ingres. Learoyd chooses a heavily tattooed man as his subject but keeps the iconic pose of Ingres’ nude. The viewer immediately spots the similarities of light and form, but also the differences as our detective eye considers the harem of women surrounding Ingres’ nude but not Learoyd’s.

 

The opening of the exhibition has encouraged me to share my project called “Bad Artists Copy, Good Artists Steal’ which I did for my final piece at Art School. I used this quote, thought to be said by Picasso, to show how throughout time artists have always stolen ideas from each other. Sometimes they steal an exact composition but paint it in their own style. For example, Picasso spent four months on a series based entirely on Velazquez’s ‘Las Meninas.’

'Las Meninas,' 1656 Diego Velázquez

 

'Las Meninas, After Velazquez' 1957, Picasso

I began researching my favourite portraits and thought of aspects of the piece I could steal in order to make my own image. I found out all I could about the sitter in the portraits and then I would get into character by dressing up like them and trying to act like them. I realised as a viewer we only ever consider the sitter in that exact pose. What about a few seconds before of after the image? Surely they would be fidgeting or maybe talking to the artist, perhaps complaining of a sore back, or asking when the next break would be?

 

I wanted to take famous images, steal the key composition but change the subject to myself. One day I would be Frida Kahlo with flowers in my hair, the next I would be Van Gogh with a cigarette and bandaged ear. My flat in Edinburgh was converted into a kind of theatre. One that saw a different famous artist each day. I would sit in front of my tripod for hours, firstly trying to capture the image that had exactly the same composition, secondly trying to capture supporting images that went with the theme and mood of the image.

 

The first portrait I stole from was one by Chuck Close. I have always loved the boldness of this piece and wanted to steal his lazy, colourless gaze. I drew facial hair on my face with eyeliner and covered my hair in gel to emulate his scruffy look.

Big Self Portrait' 1967-68 Chuck Close

With Thanks to Chuck Close, 2011

Days later, when I was satisfied with this image, I began to act around this pose. I imagined what other positions Chuck Close may have tried before he decided on this one.

With Thanks to Chuck Close, 2011
With Thanks to Chuck Close, 2011

In this way we are reminded that the sitter was once a living, moving person, not just the 2D representation from one fixed angle that we are now familiar with.

Watch out for further blogposts by Caroline St Quinton along this theme…

The Romantic Myth of the Art Thief, by AHA alum Charlie Whelton

 

Last week, the Kunsthal museum in Rotterdam fell victim to a significant heist, when seven paintings were stolen, including Pablo Picasso’s Harlequin Head and Claude Monet’s Waterloo Bridge, London and Charing Cross Bridge, London.

The art thief holds a peculiar place in the popular consciousness. People who are outraged and appalled by the vandalism of works of art and morally opposed to stealing somehow are still drawn to what is essentially the synthesis. The image, fuelled by films, books and television programmes, is of a suave gentleman thief in a black turtleneck, who uses his intellect, his cunning and an array of gadgets to bypass intricate security systems and carry out his meticulously planned heists. His motivations are none so base as mere money; rather he steals for the thrill of the chase, the intellectual exercise, and for the love of the paintings. Unfortunately, the image rarely lives up to the reality.

When a lone thief stole five paintings worth €100 million from the Musee d’Art Moderne in Paris, there was no hallway of lasers to negotiate or any need to rappel down through a skylight, in fact the alarm system had not been working for weeks. All the thief needed to do was break a padlock and a window and not wake up the guards (they were rumoured to have been sleeping at the time of the break-in). And this was regarded a heist of ‘extreme sophistication’. Other, less ‘sophisticated’ heists are even further from the fantasy, with the need for skilled planning reduced by the presence of guns. This is not the game of wits films like The Thomas Crown Affair showed us. This is incompetent security and threats of violence.

In fact, in reality, stealing the paintings is the easy part of the whole affair. Once that is done, the thief will often find they do not know what to do with them. It is nearly impossible to sell a well known stolen painting on the open market, and the idea of the amoral wealthy private collector who hires thieves to steal famous artworks appears as much of a myth as the romantic thief himself. As the president of the Tokyo Palace Museum in France said, ‘no collector in the world is stupid enough to put his money in a painting he can neither show to other collectors nor resell without going to prison’.

Where Matisse's La Liseuse en Blanc et Jaune once was. From the Herald Sun.

So what does happen to the paintings? A common pattern is that stolen artworks are used in collateral for drug deals or illegal arms sales, moving these paintings from the hands of opportunistic thieves to serious criminals, and further from the fantasy. They may also be used as a bargaining chip; a sort of ‘get out of jail free card’, the idea being that the artwork is hidden until the criminal is arrested for a separate offence when he can swap the knowledge of its location for a reduced sentence. A third possibility is that the thief may simply try to claim the often substantial reward money from the museum for the missing pieces. The Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum in Boston offered $5,000,000 for information leading to the return of the 13 paintings stolen in 1990, although none have been recovered. The sad fact is that a large number of stolen artworks are never recovered; lost or destroyed as in the case of Caravaggio’s Nativity with St. Francis and St. Lawrence, stolen in 1969, or around sixty of infamous art thief Stephane Breitwieser’s collection, which his mother destroyed after his arrest.

Despite all the above, the image of the romantic art thief remains undiminished. The attraction of the cultured outlaw is strong enough to overpower the disappointing reality. However, when you consider the very real possibility that Picasso’s Harlequin Head, taken in the Kunsthal heist, could face a future as a makeweight in drug deals, be stored in secret away from appreciative eyes, and possibly never be recovered, the myth of the art thief loses its romance.