Saturday, December 27, 2014

Outlaws with Paint

Vlaminck     The Orchard     1905

What do you make of using all this intense color to create a landscape?  The reds, blues and yellows are like those found in a basic box of crayons.  They are chosen for reasons other than depicting trees and brush.  Emotion is expressed here; that of the artist and of the viewer, as well.  Blue and green constrain the energy of red and yellow.  That’s a start.  The frenetic, oil laden brush strokes stir up an overall agitation.  The trunk of the tree gives our eyes a resting spot.  It’s 1905 and this is the work of Maurice de Vlaminck – one of the early practitioners of Fauvism.  The expressive brushwork reminds us of van Gogh but the charged colors point elsewhere for its source.  We’ll be looking for someone unconcerned with dimension.  His choice of colors might seem arbitrary.

van Gogh     Self Portrait     1889

van Gogh     Wheat Field     1889

Let’s first look to van Gogh.  He shows little concern for modeling form.  Such an approach would distract from the mood he intends to convey.  The mountains flow as a river, separating the sharp glint of sky from the warm turbulence of wheat ready for harvest.  Amidst it all a man swings his scythe.  Can he be representing us?  We are strangers on this Earth.  Our life a pilgrim’s progress – a passage from Earth’s womb to the uncertain realm that is God’s.   Of course it could just be the scene of a man reaping the late summer harvest.

Gauguin     Tahitian Landscape     1897

Gauguin     Self-Portrait with Halo     1889

Gauguin freed color from representing nature.  Where van Gogh might choose deep blue to depict a mountain shadow Gauguin would ignore what he saw and instead provide a flat field of red if it suited his purpose.  His self-portrait of 1899 foretells the work of Henri Matisse by about fifteen years.  Decorative design substitutes for the illusion of form.  The painting insists on remaining flat.  Color is as much the topic as is Gauguin’s sardonic portrayal of himself.   

Matisse     Lady on a Terrace     1907

Why would one of the great Twentieth Century artists deliberately give his painting the look of a crude postcard?  Imagine the impact of the colors if the scene had been skillfully rendered.  Carefully considered design and color would be swept aside by our admiration for storyline and the masterful modeling of form and depth.  We might mistake landscape for the subject when Matisse is actually exploring the matter of yellows and reds. 

Matisse     Self-Portrait in a Striped T-Shirt     1906

Someone gave the name of ‘Wild Beasts’, or Fauves, to the followers of Matisse.  They were the Beastie Boys of Parisian art salons.  How could anyone find art in these garish pictures?  This is the work of anarchists who knowingly perpetrate fraud on those foolish enough to purchase these insults to Western civilization.    

Picasso     Self-Portrait     1907

Picasso     Nude Women     1906

Henri Matisse was undisputed leader of the Fauves while his greatest artistic rival defied categories and would be known simply as Picasso.  He mastered classical oil painting while still a youth living with his parents.  He could have made a splendid living for himself painting portraits of the wealthy.  Ha!  Look at this self-portrait.  Picasso is an arrogant son-of-a-bitch.  The only person good enough to judge his work is himself.  The best of his work dares you to say otherwise.  The Fauves may have coaxed him away from a rose palette but he would always be a movement of one – except for his brief collaboration with Georges Braque and the development of Cubism. 

Dufy     Self-Portrait     1899

Raoul Dufy would become one of the Beastie Boys of color.  A few years prior to his transformation he painted himself as a disdainful, callow youth with a pugnacious tilt of the hat.  Compare the image with that of Picasso.  They are of similar age.  One wishes to sell you on his self-assurance.  The other doesn't care what you think. 

Dufy     Boats at Martigues     1908

Dufy     Martigues

Now look at Dufy under the influence.  He’s absorbed the intensity of Vlaminck and the audacity of Matisse.  Such is the fire that burns within youth.  Dufy’s running with the bulls would be spectacular but short-lived.  He returned to the portrayal of substance.  Forms once again exhibited weight.  His return to the subjects of classical masters was refreshed with the influence of Cézanne.

Macke     Self-Portrait     1906

Macke     Woman with a Yellow Jacket     1913

August Macke is all of nineteen in this portrait he painted of himself.  Possibly he’s struggling at growing a beard.  It’s 1906 and the Fauves are the talk of the avant-garde.  Within a year he will be swept up by the excitement of the Paris art scene.  Macke is enraptured with color.  He composes luminous fields of reds, yellows and blues.  The people populating his paintings are barely implied.  His love affair with Fauvism lasts but a couple of years.  He’s intrigued by Robert Delaunay’s work at coloring Cubist structure.  Form once again matters.  See the woman before the window.  Look at all the unexpected facets that required his expertise in color.  What painter of illusion could resist this play of light and dark? 

Macke     Woman in front of a Large Window

Malevich     Self-Portrait     1910

Here’s the portrait of the Russian painter, Kazimir Malevich.  He’s giving us the look of serious intent.  The back of his mind, though, is filled with thoughts of sex.  How can you not savor the sensual backdrop he provides us?  Now view his study of the crucified Christ – it’s nearly drenched with runny yellow.  Everyone, including the pious old saints, is stripped to their unadorned flesh.  Kazimir will likely undress you with his eyes.  So what direction does this man of sensual desire take himself?  He arrives at the doorstep of Piet Mondrian – the artist celebrated for painting pure abstraction:  a few black lines, intersecting perpendicular to one another; a white background; a box or rectangle here and there, filled with basic blue or red or yellow.  For Malevich these compositions are music.  It views like Stravinsky sounds – a romance unadorned.  Malevich exiles all things organic.  Make abstract geometric.  Make it simple, simpler, simplest.  Finally, Malevich falls off the deep end with White Box on White.  The box is curiously set ajar.  Actually it’s not really a box because it doesn’t quite fit in the canvas.  It’s five-sided.  It only gives you the illusion of being square.  Brilliant!  Malevich gives us the simplest geometry, void of primary colors.  He nearly renounces the pictorial narrative.  Still, we have to ask ourselves, “Why is the box askew?”  Actually, it’s not a box.  It’s a square.  Wait!  It can’t be a square if there are five sides.  But there really are only four sides because part of the square is out of the picture.  Who says – the artist?  Hmm.  Guess who created a storyline out of radically minimal abstraction?

Malevich     Sketch for Fresco     1907

Malevich  White Box on White     1917

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