Archive for category Subject: Art History

Misère || Linda Nochlin

This is, on the face of it, a seemingly unlikely subject for a book about art history. However, it fits with the Victorian style of narrative painting and fascination with – and often glamorisation of – the lower orders of society. Many nineteenth century artists depict working people in suspiciously well-kept clothes, but there were others, themselves living hand-to-mouth, who shared the world of the underclass and understood the conditions of their companions all too well.

Linda Nochlin concentrates for the most part on these latter: there are no Stanhope Forbes, William Powell Friths or Ford Maddox Browns here, although Landseer’s The Old Shepherd’s Chief Mourner (his dog) is reproduced and is a masterpiece of sentimentalisation. Her thesis, expressed in the cover blurb, is that the rapid changes in society brought about by the Industrial Revolution caused displacement and destitution for those whom it did not benefit. This is, I think, to stretch a point somewhat and potentially to fall into the trap that artists themselves sometimes did, distinguishing between the happy, free, rural poor and their downtrodden urban counterparts.

The book itself, however, does not bear this out and begins with a lengthy examination of what Linda calls The Irish Paradigm. This is the rural poverty brought about by the potato famine and which was documented in publications such as The Illustrated London News, many of whose images are reproduced. Linda also includes illustrations which show a less charitable viewpoint: that of drunkenness and simple depravity; not everyone idolised the “deserving poor”.

It is, I think, important to take note of the fact that the title of the book is Misère and not Misery, although that word does appear in the subtitle. The difference is subtle (Linda explains its genesis from a discovery in a Parisian bookshop) and represents a construct rather than a state of existence – the representation of poverty rather than its sociological fact. It is easy to fall into another trap: that of assuming that all the people here are unhappy. I’m not suggesting that Courbet’s agricultural labourers, Gericault’s street-dwellers or Degas’ prostitutes are happy noble savages, but the works illustrated are perhaps more documentary than comment. No-one likes being at the bottom of the heap, but there is sometimes, maybe often, a degree of acceptance. These are people and they survive, at least after a fashion.

This is an interesting work that explores a corner of nineteenth century art that is, while not forgotten, not frequently commented on. The narrative maybe stretches a point sometimes, but Linda is also careful not to wear a campaigner’s hat; she is an art historian, not a social one. Reading the book, I was reminded of the Kasmin’s Postcards series, which shines another light on our forebears’ fascination with poverty and disaster.

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Emile Nolde : Colour is Life

Colour is strength. Strength is life.
Only strong harmonies are important.

Emile Nolde wrote this in the final volume of his four-volume autobiography and it serves as a manifesto for his art – indeed it could stand for much of art in general.

Nolde was part of the German Expressionist movement, but lived in the northern part of the country near the border with Denmark, and was in fact a Danish citizen when he died. Much of his imagery reflects the landscapes and, above all, the people that surrounded him.

This survey of his life and work, which is much more than a catalogue of the exhibition currently at the National Gallery of Ireland, stresses that he was, for all that, not merely a regional artist. He was fully up to speed on trends and movements in contemporary art and also a master of both technique and colour. His use of the latter can, in the Expressionist manner, shock, but that’s designed to get attention and make the viewer think. It also provides a vibrancy and, in figurative works, a depth of character that is not always possible by other means.

As well as a generous format and some superb reproduction, there are also considered essays on a variety of aspects of Nolde’s work that make this, while more of a survey than an in-depth study, a thoroughly worthwhile assessment of the man and his work. It also stands well even when separated from the exhibition.

Note: the edition reviewed is that with the imprint of the National Gallery of Ireland. It is, however, also published by the National Gallery of Scotland and that is the edition linked to below.

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Victorian Watercolours from the Art Galley of New South Wales

Victorian watercolours are often dismissed as being sentimental works of no great artistic or societal value. While it is true that a great deal of idealisation goes on, this is not something unique to that particular period; brutal naturalism is something that has perhaps really only gained traction relatively recently.

There is not a great deal to be said about this book. The title leaves you in no doubt as to what it is and it’s something you’ll either pick up with enthusiasm or retreat quickly away from.

However, if you’re still listening, you’ll want to know that the selection is varied and representative and the works, if you’re UK-based, not easy to see in person. The quality of the reproduction is very high indeed and the generous sizing and concise analyses thoroughly welcome.

Quite simply, if Victorian watercolours are your thing, you’ll want and love this.

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Silent Witnesses: Trees in British Art 1760-1870 || Christiana Payne

One of the first things you notice from a cursory glance at this is that the painting of trees has gained a lot more life in recent years. Maybe it’s the speed of travel and the reduction in afforestation, but a modern painting will show the tree as much more heroic than many historical examples. Today, we travel at 70 miles an hour on open roads, with trees as part of a distant view or flashing by. This is a far cry from the days when the fastest thing around was a galloping horse and many thoroughfares were little more than tracks, with trees often towering over them. Then, trees obscured the light, harboured footpads and wild animals, as well as impeding the way. They were things to fear rather than love.

It’s quickly apparent that, in the period covered by this really rather magnificent book, tree drawings and paintings fall broadly into three camps: the detailed, almost botanical study, gloomy clearings, or incidental growths whose precise species is not always apparent. Trees were so commonplace that an artist would assume that all their viewers knew what they were looking at without being told in any detail.

This doesn’t mean that trees were unremarked – as the illustrations here make amply clear – or unrevered. Writing in 1792, William Gilpin observed that a tree was “the grandest, and most beautiful of all the productions of the earth” and John Ruskin asserted that “if you can paint one leaf, you can paint the world”. And, of course, trees have been seats of learning, points of devotion, meeting places and waymarkers since the dawn of time.

This book accompanies the exhibition A Walk In The Woods at the Higgins Bedford and the launch of the Woodland Trust’s Charter For Trees which celebrates the 800th anniversary of the Forest Charter (effectively, the commoners’ Magna Carta). Christiana Payne includes history, folklore and art as well as looking at the role of trees in the country-house culture of the time and issues relating the felling of trees to provide timber for navy ships. It all makes for a fascinating and complete study.

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Also available from the publisher: http://sansomandcompany.co.uk/shopping/silent-witnesses/

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Robert Storr: Interviews on Art

There is, quite simply, nothing else like this. Robert Storr is a curator, critic and painter. From 1990-2002 he worked at New York’s Museum of Modern Art as a curator (subsequently senior) in the Department of Painting and Sculpture. He has also interviewed a huge number of artists and these have appeared, since 1982, in a variety of publications. Substantial as it is at 928 pages, this volume is just a selection.

The secret to Storr’s interviews is their intimacy. His involvement, both as a curator and a practitioner allows him insights into his subjects that breed an easy familiarity and a sense, for the reader, of inclusion in a charmed circle. A sensitive interviewer, by making the subject feel at ease and not merely on the receiving end of a questionnaire, will always elicit more information and personal insights. The discussions here range from painting and drawing to sculpture as well as installation, photography, film and performance. Storr’s interest is in the artists themselves and their intellectual and creative processes rather than any pre-conceived notion of what art might (or might not) be. As well as being an insightful interviewer, he is also a sympathetic listener and honest reporter.

The cover presents a list of the subjects included – Louise Bourgeois, Buckminster Fuller, Jeff Koons and very many more. Which ones stand out for you will depend on your personal interests, but you won’t want to read the book for those alone. Very usefully, representative samples of each subject’s work are included as well as previously unpublished photographs of the artists themselves. Books that are predominantly text-based often do not handle illustrations well and it is a point in favour of this one that it does, greatly aided by the quality of reproduction, paper used and page size.

This is a fascinating book that reveals much about the processes involved in creating works of art in many formats and media.

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Renoir: an intimate biography || Barbara Ehrlich White

Barbara Ehrlich White began collecting Renoir’s letters in1961 and has amassed some 3000 of them. Some are by, some to and others about him, but the story they have to tell and the character they reveal underpin the “intimate” claim of the title of this really rather revelatory book.

Renoir evoked and still evokes strong feelings. You might think that the riot that accompanied the first Impressionists exhibition revealed passions of the past, but there was a mass demonstration outside an exhibition of Renoir’s work at the Boston Museum of Fine Arts in 2015. The protestors’ objection was to the artist’s “indefensible swathes of poorly rendered treacle”. Renoir himself admitted that his professors found his work execrable.

This is not, however, so much an analysis of Renoir’s artistic legacy as of his character and his relationship with his contemporaries: other artists, dealers, models and his son, the film director Jean Renoir. Starting in poverty, Renoir eventually achieved success, but then stopped exhibiting with his friends as the association would devalue his own works. With success, however, came physical afflictions and he suffered from rheumatoid arthritis that made painting difficult and painful. It is something of a miracle that he continued and is, perhaps, a tribute to the creative drive that marks out the great artist in any field.

Most artistic studies are made from the outside, looking in. This contribution to the literature of a much-observed figure provides a sense of looking outwards from the point of view of the man himself.

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Modern Art in Detail || Susie Hodge

Modern art can be a hard sell to the non-specialist and requires a considerable degree of explanation and, often, a whole new vocabulary. This can lead to a sense of exclusion and a suspicion that experts (oh, don’t we hate them?) are making it up as they go along. The fact that some of them almost certainly are has nothing to do with it.

Susie is an erudite and experienced writer about art, but she wears her learning lightly. You might be forgiven, in fact, for thinking that she is a casual observer rather than one of the aforesaid experts. If there is a thing to “get”, though, she gets it and part of it is that other casual observers need simple explanations and their concerns addressed. Her previous forays into this minefield include Why Your Five Year Old Could Not Have Done That and Why is Art Full of Naked People? (the latter written for children). She has also written a number of studies of individual artists that, wisely, concentrate on the image rather than schools and places in history – although these are not ignored where they matter.

All art was, of course, modern in its day and this easily-forgotten fact slaps you in the face on the first page when you’re confronted with Van Gogh’s Church in Auvers-sur-Oise. This is wisely chosen as it combines a familiar image with a recognisable subject along with the artist’s characteristic trademarks. It is not, however, one of the more problematic paintings from his later manic phase. As well as the exploded details that give the book its title, there is a very useful sidebar of a much earlier work by Van Gogh that shows him following a more traditional path before developing his own style.

The analytical sections of the book explain each artist’s working methods: pictorial elements, perspective, colour and structure. The book is illustration-led throughout and the words are barely more than extended captions so that there is nothing to get bogged down in. The whole idea is that you should be able to appreciate a wide variety of work (although the total number is 75, they have been carefully chosen to be representative of the whole gamut of styles and movements). In short, this is about art, not academia, and it’s all the better for that.

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