Thursday, October 22, 2015

Vallotton's Landscapes

It's taken me a while to warm to the work of the Swiss artist, Felix Vallotton, and I still have reservations about much of his work. 

There's certainly something odd about his paintings that takes a bit of getting used to. The eccentric colours are often unpleasantly dissonant, and the compositions can be, for me, somehow dissatisfying. The strange light effects he captures can produce a sense of unease, and there is a restlessness in his scenes. He loved to paint the sudden violence of the wind, for example. But, in common with the Nabis, there is often an interesting mythological narrative element to his landscapes (see 'Pentheus' below), and always a unique vision.

The Dordogne at Carennac, 1912

Vallotton's landscapes are painted more from within - perhaps even from the world of dreams - than from the world outside. They are mostly paysages composés, landscapes patched together from elements that probably derive from plein air sketches. As a result there is a paper cut-out feel, which is not always well integrated compositionally. This is one potential disadvantage of that method of painting landscapes, though many artists have mastered it. 

In his late landscapes (after 1920) he returned to a more harmonious and refined style. I particularly love those in which he celebrates a certain green - the vivid green of new grass after rain. 

Vallotton painted in various genres besides landscape. He moved to France, and became associated with the Nabis. Despite being an established figure in the Parisian art scene of his day, Vallotton is not as well known today as similarly talented artists of his generation, mainly because most of his work is held in private collections, and rarely seen in public galleries.

Le Chateau de Barneville, 1910

Pentheus, 1904

Monday, January 20, 2014

Carl Moll - square paintings

The Austrians seem to have a thing for squares. Gustav Klimt used the square format almost exclusively, and the Czech/Austrian modernist architect Adolf Loos popularised the use of square windows in his facades.
These square paintings are by Carl Moll, another Austrian. 

Moll successfully incorporated into his work Impressionist techniques of colour and brushwork, and the compositional daring of Modernism, while still preserving 19th century accuracy.

Despite its quality, Moll's work has been pushed to the side somewhat (I only discovered it fairly recently). A founding member of the Vienna Secession, he exhibited with Klimt, and was considered his equal. Both artists broke away from the Secession in 1905.

Perhaps the main reason for art history's side-lining of Moll was his enthusiasm for the Nazi Party. It was very disappointing to read about this in his biographical data. There were some Jewish connections in his family, and it's possible that he wanted to be seen as a Nazi supporter as a means of camouflaging himself and his family. Moll's attitudes were conflicted, he was on very cordial terms with his Jewish son-in-law Gustav Mahler, but like most Austrians of his time and class he was anti-semitic. The fact that he committed suicide as the Russians marched on Vienna in 1945, unfortunately suggests that he was loyal to the Third Reich to the bitter end.

Monday, July 22, 2013

Turner: Glazing over Impasto

Recently I made the 3-4 hour car trip from Sydney to Canberra to see the Turner from the Tate exhibition at the National Gallery of Australia.
I had seen many of the works years ago at the Tate Gallery in London (which has the best collection of his much dispersed work), but an opportunity to see them in the flesh again was too good to pass up.

J. M. W. Turner (1775–1851) was one of Britain’s most original and inventive artists, a key figure of Romanticism, who influenced the Impressionists and even the Abstract Expressionists.

The exhibition includes several immense landscapes full of his ethereal brushstrokes and fascinating detail. These seem to glow as with an inner light, and are magnificently framed in monumental gilded mouldings. There are also many gem-like little watercolours to see.

A highlight of his later career is Venice, the Bridge of Sighs, 1840 (top and detail) in which he uses the oil technique of glazing over impasto. This technique gives the illusion of fine detail, without the need for laborious brushwork. 
The toxicity of real Lead White paint meant that it has been replaced by other pigments such as Titanium White. It's not easy to obtain these days, but some manufacturers of professional grade oil paints still make it - for a hefty price. Lead White it is particularly suited to the creation of fine impasto effects due to its ropey consistency, which can be manipulated into delicate peaks and cake-decoration-like swirls. 
Lead paint is fairly safe as long as the pigment is bound in the oil medium and not in a powder form, where it can be inhaled. You would not want to lick your brushes, as some artists I know have a habit of doing. I wouldn't recommend getting it on your skin either.
After the impasto has dried, a thin glaze of a contrasting grey or ochre is washed over it. The glaze collects in the depressions of the impasto, giving the impression of detail from a distance.
In Bridge of Sighs, Turner uses impasto only to pick out foci of interest, such as architectural details on the Doge's Palace. It looks as though he's used both an ochre yellow and a purplish grey glaze. Purple and yellow are complementary colours, so the effect, especially from a distance, is a kind of vibrating iridescence, later used by Monet to great effect to recreate sunlit walls.

Here are some photos the exhibition staff let me take (no flash allowed, so a little blurry, but better than I expected in the dimly lit gallery):

The last three images are details from the larger works.

More information about the exhibition here.

Friday, April 12, 2013

Golden Skies

Constant Troyon, A Clump of Trees, c.1860
George Inness, The Brook.

These works by Constant Troyon (top) and George Inness, make use of the golden light of dusk to suffuse the scenes with a sense of mystery. Warm golden hues - yellows sometimes with a touch of orange and red - are the perfect foil for dark grey-green foliage, creating a mood of soothing harmony.

The American landscape painter George Inness was so influential that he is often called "the father of American landscape painting". 
In his mature period, Inness discovered the spiritual writings of the Swedish mystic, Emanuel Swedenborg. The late paintings are poetic and mystical, with landscape views that are more intimate and personal, and a handling of shapes that is more abstract and nebulous than the earlier, more descriptive paintings.

In a published interview, Inness maintained that "The true use of art is, first, to cultivate the artist's own spiritual nature." His abiding interest in spiritual and emotional considerations did not preclude Inness from undertaking a scientific study of color, nor a mathematical, structural approach to composition: "The poetic quality is not obtained by eschewing any truths of fact or of Nature...Poetry is the vision of reality."

The glowing golden skies in these works would probably have been created by applying transparent glazes of a warm yellow over a white underpainting.

Geroge inness, The Monk, 1873.
Maple Screen, Hasegawa Tohaku.
It's possible that Inness was influenced by seeing the gold leaf backgrounds of Japanese folding screens (Byōbu), or it may have just been the symbolic association gold has with the Eternal.

Thursday, January 17, 2013

John Nash

John Nash:
1. A Path Through Trees, ca. 1915.
2. Gloucester Landscape.
3. The Cornfield, 1918.

The English painter John Nash is perhaps best known for his work as a war artist. His depictions of the horrors of WW1 had a great impact.
These landscapes show a deep love and understanding of nature, and even though he was largely untrained, and the works have a naive quality, they are also often executed with a fine sense of craftsmanship. He was also a print-maker.
He was a lover of Dora Carrington (bottom painting), and a major influence on her work.

Dora Carrington, Farm at Watendlath, 1921

Here's a link to a post about this period of British landscape painting, on the blog Art and Architecture mainly: two exhibitions of British landscapes

Sunday, December 9, 2012

Edward Steichen

Best known for his iconic photographs, Edward Steichen also experimented with landscape painting. He destroyed many of his canvases, and these tonalist nocturnes are are some of the surviving works.
Steichen used delicate washes of thinned oil colour, one over another, to create an opalescent effect and a mood of poetic reverie reminiscent of Whistler and George Innes.
This effect does not come across well in reproductions.
Steichen was born in Luxembourg and immigrated to the US as an infant in 1881. He died in 1973 at the ripe old age of 93.

Friday, November 30, 2012


Corot, Le Ruisseau au Cheval Blanc, 46.9 x 72.3 cm.
Henri Biva, By the River.
Jorge Cerda Girones.