Wednesday, September 27, 2006

Lecture FOUR summary

Two footnotes on yellow, one trivial, the other not at all. 1) The Yellow Kid was a scruffy urchin featured in New York tabloids of the 1890s. He wore yellow nightgown or smock.

2) In 1902 Marcel Proust saw Vermeer’s “View of Delft" for the first time. Twenty years later he was able to view it again in a special exhibition of works sent by the Dutch government. He then pronounced Vermeer’s masterpiece “the finest painting in the world.” (As an art expert Proust was no slouch, witness his translation of Ruskin and his visits to Venice and other art meccas.) He then incorporated the painting into one of the last segments of his gigantic novel. In this episode Bergotte, his ideal imaginary novelist, consumes a plate of potatoes and then visits the Dutch exhibition. There he goes into eyelock with the "View of Delft," focusing in particular on the little patch of yellow on the right. “My last two novels were a little flat: if only I could have done as Vermeer had done,” he thinks. Feeling unwell, he settles on a settee and dies. Bergotte’s last thought was that little patch of yellow.

Last time we examined the associative values of four leading colors—-black, white, blue, yellow—-in their late 19th-century context. We also looked at some precedents (El Greco, Goya) and some successor phenomena (Malevich, Le Corbusier).

The approach used was atomistic, taking each color as an independent variable. As is well known, 19th century color theory involved also the interaction of colors (e.g. Root and Chevreul). However, such theories generally confine themselves to the optical effects of colors. What is interesting to us in the light of Symbolism is the connotative dimension. What does the choice of colors say-—or, more importantly, seem to say?

A first approach to ideas about the combinatory use of (imputed) color meanings requires a brief excursion into the realm of the occult. As documented in a separate essay in the Archive, several branches of this hearty, but subterranean tradition flourished in the second half of the 19th century. (These trends would now be termed New Age.) As it turned out, the variant most important for art turned out to Theosophy, founded by Helena Petrovna Blavatsky and Colonel Olcott in New York City in 1875. Blavatsky continues to be a figure of controversy. However, the influence of Theosophy on artists, notably Kandinsky and Mondrian, is beyond dispute.

The vehicle for this influence was a little book Thought-Forms, authored by Annie Besant (Blavatsky’s heir as head of the Theosophical Society) and C. W. Leadbeater. As seen in the image ostensibly produced by the “Soldiers’ Chorus” from Gounod’s "Faust," the authors subscribed to the principle of synaesthesia.

More directly linked to color theory is the chart at the beginning of the book, assigning color values to no less than 25 emotional states. Then there are diagrams showing the form that these take when inspected in the guise of personal auras (which Besant and Leadbeater claimed they could actually see).

Vassily Kandinsky owned a copy of the German edition of Thought-Forms, which he annotated. The painting “Woman in Moscow” was analyzed as a direct reflection of the Besant-Leadbeater ideas, with the large black blob representing malice, with the pink mass suggested the comforts of affection. Evidently Kandinsky found this experiment unsatisfactory, and it is difficult to find other direct uses of the Thought-Forms system. It is likely, however, that he assimilated something of its spirit. At all events his own early system of color relationships is different.

More generally, one has to acknowledge that Thought-Forms is an important bridge between Symbolism, broadly interpreted, and abstraction. In fact Besant and Leadbeater have a claim to be regarded as the first abstract artists.

Returning to Kandinsky, der Blaue Reiter was perhaps influenced by the blue flower of the romantics, possibly reinforced by Maeterlinck’s "Oiseau bleu" (first produced by the Moscow Art Theater in 1909 under Stanislavsky). Despite the title, blue backgrounds feature repeatedly in Kandinsky’s experimental playlet, “The Yellow Sound” (text printed in the Blaue Reiter Almanac).

We turn now to a pair of artists, Moreau and Redon, acknowledged from the 1880s onwards as primi inter pares among the Symbolist painters.

MOREAU (1826-98)

The best source of information is the Metropolitan Museum catalogue of 1999. Also, when in Paris one should visit the Musée Gustave Moreau in Paris (1179 items!). Moreau left behind many unfinished and unsold works.

With his artistic inclinations fostered by his parents—the father was a city architect-—Moreau received excellent training. He attended the François Picot atelier (with its coldly academic precepts) together with William Bouguereau. The latter’s coyly meretricious work shows the trend not chosen. Bouguereau won the Prix de Rome; Moreau did not. Perhaps this was a fortunate failure for Moreau never succumbed to the full program of pompier art. Extremely popular in its own day, Pompiérisme was a kind of autumnal manifestation of the academicism of David and Ingres.. Recent years have seen an almost archaeological rescue of this once-dominant trend. (See the exhibitions at the Dahesh Museum in NY.)

Fortunately, Moreau tempered his Picot-inspired academicism with a large dose of Delacroix (and behind him Rubens).

Four categories of paintings were presented. The first are the relatively placid vertical paintings, sometimes pivoting around a pillar or pillar-like object. We examined Oedipus and the Sphinx in the Metropolitan Museum, an early work retaining something of the marmoreal figure presentation and smooth surface of his training. Of the grand academic machines, “Semele” is perhaps the most salient. Then there is a category of little gems, represented by the “Two Angels of Sodom." Intriguingly the final category consists of abstract works. Dating apparently from the late 1870s these have been claimed to be composition studies for major works. If so, the artist has very largely effaced the connection, making them functionally abstract. The question of such developmental “sports,” anticipations of what was to come later, has not been decisively addressed.

REDON (1840-1916)

Unlike Moreau, the Parisian born and bred, Redon was brought up in the grimly rural Médoc (though his parents did move to Bordeaux for his education). He received his artistic formation from the reclusive Bresdin. His reputation was initially secured not by Salon pieces, but through the circulation of his prints.

At first his work seems to divide into the first phase, consisting of the noirs (mainly charcoals and lithographs) and the brightly colored works (pastels and oil paintings. In fact, beginning in the mid-1870s the two categories overlap. By the mid-nineties, though he gave up the noirs. His last two decades are an almost orgasmic riot of color.

The noirs show the inception of certain obsessions: sinister spheres, severed heads, and fantastic creatures. The later work mitigates the somewhat depressive effect of these by the ecstatic color.

Redon was much influenced by literary sources, including Flaubert, Poe, and Shakespeare.

His approach to religion seems eclectic, with some overtones of the occult (though these are hard to pin down, and should not be exaggerated. His iconography shows much classical material (including the Orpheus theme), Buddha, and Christian motifs. The use of the Gothic arch and stained glass seems more generic than specifically religious (cf. Monet’s Rouen Cathedral series).

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