Part 3, research point 2 – portraits conveying mood or atmosphere + Fauvism & German Expressionism

This task points up some of the artists who have illustrated mood above likeness. Picasso’s blue paintings for instance; van Gogh’s early paintings of peasants, and the way Rembrandt used tonal contrast in a restricted palette to pull out a person’s mood and personality. After looking at these, the task then asks us to compare them with Fauvist painters and with German Expressionism.

This requires some serious internet searching, but the artist who comes immediately to mind is Bisa Butler who, arguably, is as much about mood – in this case pride and the assertion of the right to be proud – as likeness although the detail in her work suggests that in the the form and structure she demonstrates, there is likely to be a strong element of recognisability in the figures. In a piece from The Maddox Gallery in 2019, Butler

… draws from an array of vibrant patterned fabrics to create portraits of everyday people. She eschews representational colors, favoring layered jewel-toned hues to form the skin of her Black subjects, and often groups figures together into strong silhouettes.

https://www.thisiscolossal.com/2019/02/colorful-quilts-by-bisa-butler/ accessed 11/04/2020

Her use of startlingly vibrant colours in the quilt portraits she makes tell stories of dignity that are often missing from Black history as told by white people.

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Google search using search term Bisa Butler.

My Modern Met (2019) includes this:

Each of Butler’s contemporary quilts features expressive portraits of everyday people. Using materials that range from vintage lace and satin to hand-painted mud cloth, Butler pieces together exquisite studies that honor black children, adults, and families that have been overlooked by history. “My portraits,” she explains, “tell stories that may have been forgotten over time.”

Honouring feels very much like ‘mood’ to me and the palette, which somehow manages to be both quiet in its dignity and loud in its assertion of presence, also speaks of mood over realism.

In complete contrast is this one by Vermeer; gentle, muted, and with a soft smiling expression that seems to say trust. This young woman looks as though she trusts Vermeer, something that could/can not be said of all young female models alone with an older male artist.

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Which probably brings us to Picasso who appears to have been somewhat incontinent in his sexual proclivities. Nevertheless, separating the man from his work, these images, the result of a quick internet search (11/04/2020) show a sensitivity to form and mood, both by the colour (this was his Blue Period) and by the angular, often crouched figures that hold their heads at angles familiar to anyone who has seen the much criticised ‘head clutcher’ image of a person experiencing depression. These are tortured people, even perhaps, Picasso himself whose self portrait appears here too top left.

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Google search using search term, Picasso blue period.

Van Gogh was certainly a tortured individual but in these early paintings of peasants, he was being representative of real life for people living in poverty with very little to sustain them or to fall back on. To me, the muted colours speak of gloom and pessimism even though there is pride in many of these faces. Perhaps if everyone is the same and there is nothing to envy, then there is nothing to feel one is lacking.

 

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Google search using search term van Gogh peasants.

German Expressionism and Fauvism

I had heard of Fauvism (but only as a word and its connection with art) but I hadn’t heard of German Expressionism at all, so my first port of call was a Google search for images to get a feel for the two movements.

This is from my sketchbook – the top stream is a series of rather heavy German Expressionist paintings, the one below the much lighter Fauvist work.

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Two separate Google searches using search terms German Expressionism and Fauvism.

I noted at the time that the GE movement spanned two world wars in which Germany was a central player, and speculated on the influence that kind of social and economic turbulence must have had. Some of the artists surely had been on the front lines, and others subject to the horrendous acts of violence perpetrated by the Nazis. In fact (see below) I saw that the Nazis suppressed expressionist art, along with Fauvism, in 1933 for its ‘degeneracy’, by which they meant a failure to represent the human ideal and to be distorting, and flattening rather than heroically accurate. As a summary text, I found Farthing’s 2018 ‘Art, the whole story’ a useful guide, while Bryant Wilder’s ‘Art History for Dummies’ (2007) shows impressive brevity in its four-paragraph account.

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My first impressions of these two movements, or approaches, were that one is tight and controlled, heavy and lumbering even in its brightness when that occurs, while the other, Fauvism, which, possibly significantly in that it essentially overlaps the beginning of GE and doesn’t last long enough to be affected by the world wars, is loose, light and colourfully bright.

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This very short video focuses on Otto Dix and his graphic reflections on the First World War.

The German Expressionism exhibit at MoMA. Posted June 2011, accessed 14/04/2020.

This video is quite long – almost 1 1/4 hours – and it’s hard going due to the presenter reading rather than speaking her lecture. When she does speak, her voice is warm and the words fluent but reading in English (she is German) seems to be difficult to the detriment of the lecture. However, it is dense with information and sets clearly the political context for the GE movement through which they were classified as degenerate.

Cornelia Faye: Friday Morning Lecture & Tour Series | German Expressionist Art 1905-1937. Posted November 2012, accessed 14/04/2020.

There were two groups of artists practising in this way – one in Dresden, the other in Munich – but nevertheless operating under the same influences which included Gauguin, Durer, van Gogh, and Munch and guided somewhat by the philosophies of Nietzsche (see Farthing 2018, pp 378-379). The key players were Ernst Ludwig Kirchner, Eric Heckel (and I do wonder if this is where heckling comes from), Karl Schmidt-Rottluff, Fritz Bleyl, Emil Nolde, Max Pechstein, Wassily Kandinsky, Gabriele Munter, and Alexei von Jawlensky (list for reference taken from Farthing op cit). They had embraced a form of primitivism described by Faye as celebrating ‘the noble savage’ which seems to resonate with Gauguin’s own drive to find ‘primitive people’ to paint and feels very uncomfortable to my 21st century mind. But they also, in their Der Blau Reiter (Blue Rider) touring exhibition of 1911, mounted reproductions of works by leading modern artists alongside works by children and the mentally handicapped*. For what purpose, my text doesn’t say but as the status of people with intellectual disabilities was so low in this era as to make them objects of fun, fear, or worse this is unlikely to have been a positive commentary.

Essentially, the ways in which this group of artists chose to work, rejecting the more heroic battle scenes that glorified German victory or racial superiority, was what led to their label of degeneracy and suppression of their work. I had earlier seen a documentary about the Bauhaus and appreciated for the first time how that institution had been crushed in its drive and core values by Nazi influences and requirements. A process from which it never recovered.

Fauvism, by contrast, looks to me like the innocent child that grew up to be the disillusioned GE adult. Like childhood, its span was short and its expression appears to have been quite exuberant. Our equivalent might be the 2012 London Olympics, full of colour, music, and optimism followed by Brexit and COVID-19. They survived, celebration survived, we found African and Asian art, and there was David Hockney, Peter Blake’s Sgt Pepper, and pop art; we’ll survive this too.

For reference, Farthing lists a number of key artists who were briefly associated with Fauvism, which apparently originates as a term with critic Louis Vauxcelles who coined the term ‘Fauves’ which means ‘wild animals’ and refers disparagingly to their ‘aggressive brush work, lack of nuance and strident, non-naturalistic use of colour’ (Farthing, p 370). These are Matisse, Derain, de Vlamick, van Dongen, Braque, and Dufy who grew up in an era of societal change where cars and electricity, and radio were becoming more commonplace. It must have felt exciting, innervating, and above all, youthful.

Raoul Dufy’s flags (below) – all about pride and vibrancy; they’re solid but not heavy and they seem to celebrate just being there.

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Image from Farthing op cit. P 371.

This is a very short video by Dr Betty Brown in the Art History series. Just a neat introduction.

What is Fauvism? Posted May 2015, accessed 14/04/2020.

This slightly longer one from Sotheby’s talks about Fauvism as the ‘firework set off into the sky’ and ‘exploding modernism into the twentieth century’. It puts life into the text I was trying to make sense of earlier.

Les Fauves, property from an important American collection. Posted April 2016, accessed 14/04/2020.

The Maddox Gallery, this is colossal, 2019. Colourful quilts by Bisa Butler. [online] Available at https://www.thisiscolossal.com/2019/02/colorful-quilts-by-bisa-butler/ [Accessed 11 April 2020].

My Modern Met, 2019. Colorful Quilts Crafted from African Fabrics Tell Stories of Artist’s Ancestral Homeland. [online] Available at https://mymodernmet.com/bisa-butler-african-fabric-portrait-quilts/ [Accessed 11 April 2020].

Time to Change, undated. Get the picture. [online] Available from https://www.time-to-change.org.uk/media-centre/responsible-reporting/using-images/get-picture-campaign [Accessed 11 April 2020].

Farthing, S. Ed. 2018. Art History: the whole story. Thames and Hudson, Quarto Publishing Plc. Pp 370-371 (Fauvism), 378-381 (German Expressionism).

Bryant Wilder, J., 2007. Art History for Dummies. John Wiley & Sons Inc. New Jersey. P 29.

MoMA, 2011. German Expressionism at MoMA. [online] Available at https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=fsyqEX-DlaA [Accessed 14 April 2020].

Faye, C., 2011. Friday Morning Lecture & Tour Series; German Expressionist Art 1905-1937. [online] Available at https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=DIJELjmOnzU. Accessed 14 April 2020.

Brown, B., 2015. What is Fauvism? [online] Available at https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=jREcG1hnFGc. Accessed 14 April 2020.

Sotheby’s, 2016. Les Fauves, property from an important American collection. [online] Available at https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=oLDrgqFLyzY. Accessed 14 April 2020.

___

I just came across this; I won’t precis it, I’ll leave it to stand on its own: Fauvism – seven things you need to know, via Sotheby’s 2018. Here’s a taster quote from Matisse.

WHEN I PUT DOWN A GREEN, IT DOESN’T MEAN GRASS; AND WHEN I PUT DOWN A BLUE, IT DOESN’T MEAN THE SKY.

Sotheby’s, 2018. Fauvism – seven things you need to know. [online] Available at http://www.sothebys.com/content/sothebys/cn/news-video/blogs/all-blogs/impressions/2018/05/fauvism-7-things.html. Accessed 16 April 2020.

I feel I’m being stalked by Fauvism! This podcast popped up after a previous one on  restoration. Ernst Ludwig Kirchner’s reclining nude: twenty minutes of articulate and well-informed clarity. In reference to the popularity of the ‘degenerate exhibition’ in comparison with the Nazi’s own ‘Great German Art Exhibition’ which closed after garnering a fifth of the visitors, Avishai observes that:

art without a soul really doesn’t do much for the viewer

 

Tamar Avishai, 2016. Ernst Ludwig Kirchner’s reclining nude. The Lonely Palette, Episode 9. [online] Available at http://www.thelonelypalette.com/episodes/2016/9/28/episode-9-ernst-ludwig-kirchners-reclining-nude-1910

*This term, which would not have been current at the time, refers to people living on the margins of intellectual capacity. Often institutionalised for life, frequently neglected and abused, referred to as ‘feeble minded’, ‘morons’, and idiots (all medical terms at the time), co-location of their work with that of those leading modern artists can not have been meant to compliment either.

 

Time taken: 13 1/2 hours.

 

 

 

Learning outcome 3. More than many, I feel this post shows the beginnings of more independent research and a ‘knowingness’ about how to connect the standard issue references to the here-and-now.

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