Wednesday, April 25, 2012

Gustave Caillebotte and Modernization

           Gustave Caillebotte was a French painter and supporter of Impressionist artists during the Impressionist period.  He is known for the ‘Caillebotte Bequest’, which left his collection of Impressionist and modern paintings with the French state upon his death in 1894.  As an artist, his paintings show the modernity of France: the bourgeoisie (upper level middle class) at leisure, the Haussmanization of Paris, modern technology, and an sense of isolation and loneliness that reflected his own personal life, but it can also be said to reflect some of the affects of the new modernization and urbanization of France.  Some of his paintings are an interesting mix of both a celebration and a critique of modernization.

            A painting that reflects these concepts of celebration and critique of modernization in France during the 1870’s is the Pont l’Europe, done in 1876 (Challenge of the A-G p. 138), oil on canvas.  The subject matter shows the pedestrians walking across a bridge.  At first the painting seems to celebrate modernization.  The viewer can see the rebuilt street and buildings, which were damaged during the destruction of the Franco-Prussian war and the Commune uprising.  The widened streets show the Haussmanization of France, which was a modernization of Paris streets prior to the war.  The bridge supports look as if they are made of steel beams, which was a fairly new technology that started to be mass produced in the mid 19th century.  Electric street lamps can be seen in the background and adds to the sense of mondernization.

            Pont de l’Europe has a mood of isolation, which is reinforced by the spacing and the perspective, the color palette, and the characteristics of the figures.  Caillebotte’s unique perspective angles the ground up and divides the space.  By angling the sidewalk, Caillebotte divides the scene between the people on the sidewalk, which now takes up most of the picture plane, and the street and the background, which get pushed to the side of the canvas.  He’s created this open space between the figures that seems to isolate them from one another.  The cool and somber color palette adds to the feeling of isolation of the figures and the harsh light creates deep shadows which lend itself to the more somber mood.  The figures themselves seem to be caught up in their own thoughts (such as the figure on the right).  There is very little interaction between the figures in the foreground or those in the background.  The man and woman on the left side of the canvas seem to have a casual interaction taking place, but the man’s placement in front of the woman and a couple of steps away from her, creates an awkward distance between them, and there are no feelings of intimacy in their interaction.

            The sense of isolation, which can be found in many of Caillebotte’s paintings, can be seen as a critique of modernization.  With the advent of the Industrial Revolution it brought a huge migration of people from the rural areas into industrialized urban areas.  The influx of people seeking jobs in the factories, mines, and mechanical manufacturing often got paid very little and had to work long hours in order to support their families (Stokstad p.962).  This caused isolation with some of the population who worked long hours, different shifts, and people who had little leisure time, unlike the flanners, who were rich upper class that pursued a life of leisure.

            Other critiques of modernization that Caillebotte is conveying in his painting are the advent of disease and prostitution.  The dog, which I associate positive feeling towards and who seemed the happiest of all the figures, is a symbol of the bourgeoisie’s fear of the rabies disease.  Because the dog seems to be wandering the streets without a human companion and seems to be a mutt, the bourgeoisie, or the upper class, would have seen the dog as a threat for disease, and would have been terrorized by the sight of the dog.  The man in the top hat talking to the woman over his shoulder may in fact be propositioning her.  Her fine clothes and because she is unescorted walking in public, her reputation is questionable and it’s possible she could be a courtesan, or prostitute.  Modernization while causing an influx in labor, also brought wealth to some of the bourgeoisie and more time for leisure activities, including prostitution.

            While Caillebotte’s work did show the modernization of France with the technology, the improvements of the streets and buildings, his work also shows the critiques of modernization.  He successfully conveys the mood of isolation of people, through his use of perspective and space, somber colors, and deep shadows.  He also shows the other realities of modern day life with the fear of disease, which can be spread more rapidly as people bring diseased pets from other areas, and the seedier results of wealth, such as prostitution, on some of the middle class.

Wednesday, April 18, 2012

Political Impressionism: Contrasting Paintings of Monet and Manet

          The political upheavals and wars from the 1850’s to 1878 in France caused much unrest and destruction.  The Franco-Prussian War in 1870 and the Paris Commune in 1871, a civil war and urban uprising that lasted 72 days, both had devastating affects on the newly remodeled “Haussmannization” of Paris and the people.  There was much bloodshed and loss of life that was caused by the wars along with the destruction of architecture and roads.  After the wars, many of the French people wanted to forget about the destruction and the horrible events that had taken place.  They were interested in the present and looking to a brighter future.  Much of this attitude of forgetting about the past can be seen in the Impressionist art that was created after the Paris Commune.

            With artist focusing on events of the present day France, and hiding aspects of the past in their paintings, Impressionism became known as the “Forgetful Art”.  Some artist showed this new future and joie de vivre in the their bright and colorful paintings.  Not all artists, though, wanted to forget the events of the past, and instead of trying to escape in their paintings the events that occurred, some drew attention to the past with reminders the price of war.  By comparing two works of art through their use of subject matter and radical techniques, we can better understand the “Forgetful Arts” and some of the political radicalism still present during this time.   Two painting, created about the same celebration of the 30th of June, 1878, in France, are the works of Claude Monet and “The Rue Montorgueil, Festival of 30th June, 1878” and Édouard Manet’s “The Rue Mosnier with Flags”.

The subject matter at first seems to be the same for both the paintings.  Both artists captured the waving flags of the celebration, the warm sunny day, and a scene with people on the streets.  The compositions are somewhat similar, they both show a scene of the street from above, but Manet’s is much closer to the ground and shows only a hint of blue sky and a few flags fluttering near the edges of the painting.  Monet’s painting of “The Rue Motorgueil, Festival of 30th June, 1878” is vibrant and energetic.  His view point from above captures a scene full of bustling energetic people and gives a sense of life to the street.  There is a sense of “joie de vivre” with the bright colors, the sunshine, the bright warm light, and the light palette.  The repeated use of the red, white, and blue cause almost a constant undulating pattern of waving flags that emphasizes the energy of the celebration.  The bright colors draw a similarity between “its own coloristic brightness and another kind of brightness it claims for the future (Wood p.124).”  We can also see another color reference of the future with the lightening of color as the scene progresses to the background and the bright sunny sky that can be seen between the buildings and waving flags. 

Manet’s painting of “The Rue Mosnier with Flags” seems almost stark in contrast.  He uses a much cooler palette of colors.  The buildings and the streets almost look washed out with bright light.  The street is far emptier than Monet’s street, whose street was packed full of moving people.  Instead Manet shows very few people, and those people seem to be more intent on their own personal business.  No one is shown waving flags and there are workers in the background who are repairing the street.  A man on crutches, a veteran of the war, is in the foreground, and his stark contrast with the street changes the mood of the painting.  Not only do we not see the same bustling energy and joie de vivre of Monet’s painting, instead, we see reminders of the past and the price that was paid.

Both artists were radical in their technique.  Both paintings show the radical techniques associated with Impressionism of loose brushstrokes, painting directly on the canvas (“à la prima”), the use of oil paint in tubes, painting “en pleine aire”, or outside, and the building up of thick layers of paint.  While both artists seem to embrace the technical radicalism of the times, Manet’s painting, with reminders of the past and not just showing a brighter future, shows the ongoing tension of the division of radical art and radical politics in Avant-Garde.

Wednesday, April 4, 2012

Offending the Bourgeoisie: Gustave Courbet's "The Stonebreakers"

            Amid technological and scientific discoveries during the 19th century the middle class experienced a rise in wealth and power, while the lower class were experiencing extreme poverty, and many were exploited in the factories.  In France during this time there was a social division between the classes; the bourgeoisie who were composed of the wealthy middle class and the proletariat who were the working class (lower class).  This division of class, and the exploitation and the oppression of the lower class by the bourgeoisie, brought about political turmoil and unrest.  Multiple uprisings of the working class in Europe were attempts by the lower class to gain equality and improvements in living conditions.

Realistic painters, painters of the Realism movement, were interested in painting the world around them, modern life that can be visible and tangible to the artist.  They were interested in painting the “here and now”, things from the real world.  Unlike historical paintings, they did not paint anything of ethereal or mythological subject matter.  Gustave Courbet, a realist painter, was only interested in painting what was in front of him.  His painting, “The Stonebreakers”, shows the gritty reality of the working class.  His style and subject matter fit in with the new Avant-Garde of political and artistic radicalism and found offense with the French bourgeoisie.

Courbet’s painting “The Stonebreakers” is an example of the socialistic Simonian philosophy of the Avant-Garde during the 19th century.  Saint-Simonian believed that artists should use art to better society and bring about change.  They should understand what’s happening in the world around them.  By using art, artists can motivate change and their art can have a lasting affect on viewers and on other artists.  Through the realistic depiction of the working class, Courbet is drawing the viewer’s attention to the hardship and the poverty of the two figures in the painting.  The bourgeoisie would have found the subject matter offensive, because of the uprisings and social revolutions, the working class could be viewed to mean political unrest and upheaval.  These men with their hammers and tattered clothing would have been seen as threatening and slightly menacing to the bourgeoisie.

Through his artistic style, which helps to emphasize and make affective his political message, Courbet also demonstrates artistic (technical) radicalism by not fitting in with the academic style, which helped to further garner negative critique by the bourgeoisie.   His figures of the poor workingmen fill the foreground and a large portion of the painting.  It makes the figures and subject matter very prominent and “in your face” and seen as confrontational.  The viewer cannot view the painting without viewing what the painting is about.  He further elevates the subject matter by painting on a large scale, 5’ by 8’, which is normally reserved for historical paintings.  Historical paintings were seen by the academies as the highest art form and usually involved “noble” subject matter of historical events or subjects of classical reference.  Courbet’s painting doesn’t incorporate either one and would have found offense by the bourgeoisie for Courbet’s implication that these two workingmen in his painting deserved the same elevated status as a historical painting.

Other characteristics that break away from the normal academic style include the turned away faces.  The faces of both men are turned away from the viewer and they cannot be recognized.   This lends a sense of ambiguity and could be seen as even more threatening to the bourgeoisie because these men seem to represent the threat that can come from any working class man.  There is some hint of illusion of depth with hills that are faintly painted in the background, but then the flat color of paint in the background on the left side of the canvas seems to make the scene more flat.  There is also rough application of paint which takes away some of the details of the foreground and the background, which further flattens the painting.  Courbet’s rough brushstrokes, which show the texture to the paint, further separate him from the academic style of smooth brushstrokes.

Courbet’s elevation of the working class through his radical techniques of realistic prominent subject matter of poor workers, rough brushstrokes, large canvas size, disinterest in perspective, and turned faces, breaks away from the set rules of the academic style of the time, and fits with the political and social radicalism of the Avant-Garde.  By glorifying the working class and expressing empathy for the oppressed, he is drawing attention to the realities of the current events and people and seeking to bring change and reform, one of the many challenges of the Avant-Garde.