Friday, March 30, 2012

Thoughts on Avant-garde and Manet

            I think of avant-garde as a movement of people who are ahead of their time, the fore runners of a new movement.  When I think of avant-garde in art, I think of artists who are experimenting with new techniques, mediums, ideas, and social and philosophical theories of the time.  They were willing to break away from tradition of their time and express their ideas in new and different ways.  They were challengers of the norm.

            Some of the art that was considered avant-garde, and it was not always understood or liked by the public or the art critics of the time.  Sometimes their art has been considered too “out there”.  Manet’s painting “Luncheon on the Grass” challenges the viewer because it is made up of so many elements that don’t seem to make a cohesive whole.   Most viewers expect to look at a painting and get a sense of a story or event that is taking place.  I think there is a natural inclination to try make sense of what the eye is seeing by at first trying to relate a scene with something that is relatable to the viewer.  When we first look at the painting “Luncheon on the Grass” the viewer first notices that it is an outdoor scene with people sitting down for a picnic lunch.  But right away the eye notices the differences from the normal picturesque scene and tries to make sense of it.  The main figure is a woman who seems to be comfortably nude sitting with two well dressed men, who seem to be ignoring the woman and talking with each other.  The nude woman, who seems like a more naturalistic depiction compared to the nymph like figures of women being done at the time, such as “The Birth of Venus” by Cabanel.  Manet’s nude looks directly at the viewer, as if acknowledging their involvement.

            The odd figure of the woman in the water in the background also challenges the viewer.  The woman is in the water, which is behind the figures in the foreground, but her large size doesn’t fit with our idea of perspective.  In order to fit into the scene more naturally, she should be much smaller than the figures in the foreground, and yet Manet deliberately made her the same size as the other figures.  The food in the foreground is a strange mix of fruit and bread.  The fruit portrayed do not really fruit at the same time of year, thus it is not a realistic representation of food.  The background also appears somewhat flat and not as detailed compared to the figures in the foreground.

            Manet was considered avant-garde because of his use of use of loose brushstrokes and his depiction of the female nude.  In his painting style, he made sure that you could see the paint and he didn’t try to soften the brushstrokes, which were being done with academic paintings at the time.  His portrayal of the nude woman was different from other nudes at the time.  Instead of depicting a sinuous, lounging, woman who looks coyly or seductively at the viewer, he represents a woman who is looking right into the eyes of the viewer.  She is not trying to seduce the viewer, instead she looks boldly back.  Neither is she being portrayed as an ancient  figure of Venus, thus the viewer does not have the excuse that they are looking at the woman for classical reasons.  If avant-garde is to challenge the conventions and the ideas of the times, then Manet was successful with his “Luncheon on the Grass”.  He was also seen as a leader and a figurehead to the young artists of the time, and those to come, such as Picasso, who wanted to break away from the academic rules of art.

Wednesday, March 7, 2012

Favorite Artists from the Quarter

            This quarter we studied a variety of artists from the Early Renaissance in Northern Europe and Southern Europe through to the Eighteenth and Early Nineteenth Century in Europe and North America.  I tend to enjoy the artists that show an attention to detail in their painting style, such as the Northern European artists like Van Eyck and Durer.  In sculpture I was drawn to the details of the figures and landscapes in Ghiberti’s Gates of Paradise and the sense of action and drama in Bernini’s sculpture of David.  I also enjoyed the landscapes during the 16th Century art in Northern Europe during the time of the Protestant Reformation.  So much of the art focuses on male artists, so it was good to learn as well about the female artists who were just as involved in the different art periods and who established themselves as talented and respected artists.

            Some of my favorite artists come from Northern Europe. Jan Van Eyck, an artist from the Early Northern Renaissance is well known for his technique with oil paints, and helps to establish the medium.  The amount of detail and sense of life-like texture he is able to convey is also impressive.  The Altar at Ghent shows so much detail, from the naturalistic figures of Adam (Van Eyck shows the veins just under the skin and hair on his legs) who looks as if he is about to step out of the frame, to the glowing jewels in the mud around the fountain.  He is so into the details that he even puts the light source in the painting as if it is coming from the real window where the altar was installed.  He starts to blurs the boundary between the painted figures and the viewer.  Another artist who was interested into details was Albrecht Durer, a northern artist from the sixteenth century.  He was able to show details and really portray a sense of texture within his works of art.  His wood prints and engravings, such as his “Adam and Eve”, show minute details of texture between the smoothness of the skin in the naturalistic human figures, the roughness of the bark of the trees, and the soft fur of the different animals.  I enjoy his use of the animals as allegories for the different humors of the body.  His self portraits, especially his “Self Portrait” done in 1500 show amazing details in his rich clothing and help to give a sense of wealth and privilege.  Pieter Bruegel the Elder, who is known as a landscape artists who is also from the same time period as Durer, portrayed a sense of a vast landscape opening in front of the viewer.  His portrayal of everyday life and open landscapes, a theme that was popular after the Protestant Reformation in Northern Europe, gives a tranquil scene filled with details of life of everyday people.  His use of atmospheric perspective and his high view points help to draw the viewer into scenes of harvest in the “The Harvesters” and into the cold landscape that is full of activity in the “Return of the Hunters”

            Lorenzo Ghiberti, from the Early Italian Renaissance, combines naturalistic figures and architecture to create scenes that portray a sense of depth and perspective.  His scenes from the bronze door, Gates of Paradise, from the east side of the Baptistery of San Giovanni in Florence, show the successful use of one point perspective.  He uses the relief of his sculpted figures and classical influenced buildings and one point perspective to give a life-like sense of depth.  His buildings seem to naturally recede into the background and his figure get smaller, shallower, and move up on the picture plane to realistically show them further into the background.  Bernini’s sculpture of David, from the Italian Baroque period, shows the Baroque style of drama and emotion that can be really interesting and helps to involve the viewer.  His naturalistic figure seems to be caught in that pivotal moment of action that adds the sense of the theatrical and drama.  I love that he seems to be caught in the moment and that he also seems to be looking and aiming just behind the viewer.  His figure of David doesn’t seem static at all compared to many of the sculptures from earlier periods.

            I also enjoyed learning about the many female artists from the different time periods.  Before this class I wouldn’t have been able to name one female artist from these time periods.  Artemisia Gentileschi, one of the Caravaggesque painters during the Baroque period followed the Caravaggio style of mostly monochromatic backgrounds, tenebristic lighting, bold colors, and sense of drama.  Not only was she very talented but her subject matter seem to empower women.  A few other female artists that I liked were the still life paintings of flowers by Rachel Ruysh and the pastel portraits done by Rosalba Carriera, who helped establish the Rococo style.