Background & Context
I am moving towards Assignment 2 but I need to work through a lot of thinking before I can finalise my subject matter and materials.
Recently I have returned from a week in Madrid where I was overwhelmed by the work in the 3 main galleries which we visited; The Prado, Reina Sofia and Thyssen-Bornemisza. There is so much to think about but initially I thought that I would concentrate on those painters and paintings which I feel at this time have most relevance to the next assignment.
To back track slightly I was (see Assignment 1) very affected by the paintings of Cotan and drawings by Redon whom I continue to be mesmerised by. The format of the drawing which I submitted for Assignment 1 was based on my thinking in relation to these artists as well as the format of early medieval imagery.
Before leaving I started to read Goya by Robert Hughes (2006) which hugely enhanced by understanding when I saw the selections of Goya’s paintings, etching/aquatints and murals (transferred to canvas).
Of course I also spent time with Velasquez: Les Meninas (1656) but not enough to really take in all its genius.
Finally Picasso’s – Guernica (1937) had an enormous impact on my understanding of composition. More later.
The only way I believe I can rationalise – or maybe not- my interests, understanding, emotional response is to summarise my responses to the particular artists mentioned.
Juan Sanchez Cotan
I had done my research before the visit and was looking forward to seeing the 1 Cotan in The Prado – but it was not on show – great disappointment.
Still life with lemons – 1602
What fascinates me about the still lives of this period is the way that the everyday objects are given a reverence by putting them in a setting which could be a kind of altar. In a time when people were still attached to the source of their food as well as their connection with the religious thinking and growing philosophical theories about life and death.
(The theme of life and death or more specifically the story of life and death seems to run through my interest in all the artists mentioned.)
As I have charted previously for Assignment 1 the still life tradition became more and more elaborate and more and more opulent as the decades progressed and then regressed via the Impressionists and Cubists to everyday themes and content.
The super-reality and the dark darkness also pertains to available daylight and the possible use of camera lucida. Containment is an issue within these compositions which was something that I found useful when working towards finding deep tones and shadows.
I must admit that my notes to myself after seeing all the epic art in Madrid were:-
MARKS- DIRECTION (light) – DEEP DARKS – GESTURE
Francisco de Goya
Robert Hughes’s Goya (2006) was an exceptional accompaniment to my visit to Madrid. From an artist I knew absolutely nothing about to becoming fascinated by the different phases, materials, content and context of his lifeworks.
For the purposes of the relevance to my choices and interests in putting together my Assignment 2 composition I would like to highlight the following pieces or phases of his work.
The “Black Paintings” – frescos/murals which he painted onto the walls of his home
Pilgrimage of San Isidoro
These murals/paintings which Goya undertook between 1817-1823 on the walls of his house following his first and then subsequent severe illnesses are the artist’s personal depictions painted in what Hughes cites as “very strange times, both for Goya and for Spain” (p376). That they were painted directly onto the walls of his home without the requisite preparation of the surface (which Goya had the skills to render as he did in other settings). That they are very emotional, dark, even horrific renderings of different themes places them completely outside of his former works:- playful bright cartoons for royal tapestries, formal court portraits and different series of prints marks them out as a distinct personal series of works not destined for public eyes. They were eventually taken from the walls and transferred to canvases is the only reason they were preserved.
“He had no audience in mind. He was talking to himself. He never imagined that the Black Paintings would be seen anywhere except where he was.” (Hughes p 379)
Furthermore Hughes calls them a “freakish, vivid precursors of modernity”, (p 379 and that is how they struck me. They emanate a very visceral, deep, dark world. Figures are often grotesque, contorted, screaming and reminded me of some of Francis Bacon’s work. In a working life where nearly all of his work was subject to wealthy patronage these stand out as something very out of the ordinary.
The subject matter includes ordinary people often in dire circumstances battling against themselves, the elements, life and the fates are what Hughes calls “populacho, or pig-ignorant mob”. (p382) Also the physicality of how they were rendered adds to the aggressive, brutal depiction of Goya’s personal state and the state of Spain at this time.
Without going into details I wanted to note that Hughes also makes the connection with Picasso’s Guernica 1937 (on which I will comment further) (p383) as well as Salvador Dali’s Soft Construction with Boiled Beans (Premonition of Civil War) 1936 both artistic responses to the Spanish Civil war.
For me these pieces show an artist working beyond his own era in ways that did not become common practice until some 200 years later. They convey an honest outpouring of Goya’s personal experience rendered with a bravura that I find truly astonishing.
These paintings for me show an artist laying out his deepest fears and responses to a world in turmoil, his own inner world and that of his country. I want to use the word “heroic” but in some ways this relates, historically to a different tradition and these paintings are not in anyone’s tradition but his own. The human condition being grappled with via epic themes and painted in emotionally bold gestures.
“What Rembrandt did for line etching, Goya and his colleagues did for aquatint, and they did it with one astonishing burst of creativity: a series of eight prints that Goya entitled Los Caprichos.” (Hughes p 179)
Again these were not created with patronage but at his own cost and in large numbers, 300 sets. They are fantastically rendered satirical comments on the society in which Goya lived covering the church, society, the inquisition, moral themes, scatological content, witches and witchcraft, marriage, wealth etc. The use of the aquatint and newly discovered addition to the printers art allowed him to create depth and tone in a much more subtle and successful way than in the past.
It is believed he had seen in the collection of his friend when he was recovered from his first illness prints by some of the English and French satirical artists including Rowlandson and Hogarth. Spain was due to its historical position in Europe and the work of the Inquisition cut off from the wider artistic developments. There was hardly any access to works from beyond its borders and Goya was little travelled (only once to Italy at this point).
There are so many of these prints I respond to not only because of the diversity of his subject matter, his “black” humour and the outpouring of creativity they are a testament to.
Desastres – Later war related etchings/aquatints (1810 –
The war with Napoleon saw Goya’s response in a large number of aquatints as strong, emotional and acerbic comment on the experience of Spain at the hands of France.
“At the end, the Desastres de la Guerra open outward, beyond mere human stupidity and detestable cruelty into a pessimism so vast and desolating that it can fairly be called Shakespearean”. (Hughes p 302) Goya did not print this series. They were not published in his lifetime and did not appear until 1863.
Odilon Redon – The Noir
I am only bringing the work of Odilon Redon (Assignment 1) back into this context in order to point out my growing awareness, having seen the Goya’s, of the tradition out of which Redon’s work is drawn.
Noir, the Romance of Black in 19th Century French Drawings & Prints , Lee Hendrix (2016) is the next book which I am going to read in order to further understand these connections.
Picasso – Guernica
As epic as it is seeing the real painting of Guernica what really caught my attention were the photographs taken by Dora Maar as the work progressed. I don’t know whether it had occurred to me before but this series of images show how the composition of the painting shifted and changed over time as Picasso created the work. Alongside these are other works which reference the figures, crying woman, bulls, fallen hero etc.
When I was struggling with putting my own composition together I am trying to be less anxious about how this happens and the time it takes.
What’s the Story? – Content & Context
Even a week on from finishing the Assignment 2 drawing I am not clear yet how all this is referenced by what I have seen in Madrid and my recent reading and thinking.
There are themes however that I am starting to recognise:-
- There is a story behind the drawing or painting. Though I am as yet not clear what mine may be I am now aware the more I understand the stories of other painters the more possible it is for me to articulate one of my own
- I am drawn to the darker more introspective aspects of pieces of artwork
- I also go for humour and a did at the status quo
- I like the idea of metaphors but do not yet feel confident about using them myself
- I appreciate both the detailed and larger gestural aspects of the artists
- I still struggle with what a composition might be