Lecture SEVEN Summary
Ensor’s challenging portrayals of grotesque humanity made him an acknowledged precursor of 20th-century expressionism and surrealism. Ensor was born in Ostend on the Belgian coast, and — except for three years spent at the Brussels Academy, from 1877 to 1880 — he lived in Ostend all his life, with the family curio shop as his base. His father, an Englishman, was an alcoholic recluse. Ensor’s brilliant “Self-Portrait” (1886, a pencil drawing) shows him materializing ectoplasmically from a background of antique mouldings, evidently reflecting the décor of the shop.
Ensor’s early works depicted traditional subjects: landscapes, still lifes, portraits, and interiors painted in deep, rich colors and enriched by a subdued but vibrant light. In the mid-1880s, influenced by the bright color of the Impressionists and the grotesque imagery of earlier Dutch-Flemish artists as Hieronymus Bosch and Pieter Bruegel the Elder, Ensor turned toward avant-garde themes and styles. He took much of his subject matter from Ostend's holiday crowds, which filled him with revulsion. But not all was negative, and arguably for him Ostend played the role that Bruges did for Khnopff.
Portraying individuals as clowns or skeletons or replacing their faces with carnival masks, he represented humanity as stupid, smirking, vain, and loathsome (cf. “Skeleton Looking at Chinoiserie,” 1885). In his later work, as he became engulfed with misanthropy, these traits became routine and tiresome.
From the mid-eighties Ensor began to concentrate on a series of images of Christ (e.g. “Dead Christ Watched Over By Angels”). It has been shown that his idea of Jesus was a social-consciousness one, de-emphasizing miracles, deriving from a then-popular biography of David Strauss. In this way he sought to unite religion (Belgium was a Catholic country) and efforts to social change.
“The Cathedral,” a lithograph of 1886, is a personal interpretation of a theme common in those years (cf Monet's views of Rouen Cathedral). Ensor depicts the building as indeed the great exemplar of society, but then in the foreground shows this society to be divided between the strictly regimented groups closest to the building and the more anarchic masses in the foreground.
One of his more ambitious works of this kind was an “Entry into Jerusalem.” This in turn led to his masterpiece, the panoramic canvas entitled Christ's Entry Into Brussels in 1889 (1888, now in the J. Paul Getty Center, Los Angeles, California). For the workers and common people of earlier works Ensor substituted the bourgeoisie, whom he ruthlessly satirized by making them wear masks. Catchphrases appear at various places. The banner, “Vive la Sociale,” probably referring to the idea of a socialist republic (a notion coined in France in 1848), is sarcastic. Recognizing its subversive character, Ensor did not publicly display the work in Belgium until 30 years after its creation.
Ensor was one of the first European artists to emphasize the theme of masks. In a larger perspective, he draws on the vein of the carnivalesque, as later explored by the Russian theorist Mikhail Bakhtin.
JAN TOOROP (1858-1928) was the major Dutch contributor to Symbolism. A kind of Gauguin in reverse, he was born in Poerworedjo in Java in 1858, dying in The Hague in 1928. When he was 14 years old his family took him to Holland. He studied at the Amsterdam Academy under the direction of Auguste Allebé, from 1880 to 1882, and then in the Brussels Academy, guided by Jean François Portaels.
The stay in Brussels was decisive for Jan Toorop’s development. He made the acquaintance of the writers Emile Verhaeren and Maurice Maeterlinck, gravitating to the avant-garde milieu of Les Vingt. He became a member in 1885 under the sponsorship of Octave Maus.
With his friend James Ensor he traveled to Paris, where he was impressed by the pointillism of Georges Seurat and Paul Signac. He went to London with Verhaeren in 1884 and 1886. There he was struck by the work of James McNeill Whistler.
In 1890 he resettled in the Netherlands, where he developed his "linear idealism," combining features of Symbolism, the Art Nouveau, and a religious orientation. In 1894 Jan Toorop made a celebrated lithograph for the Delftsche Slaolie firm. In the Netherlands this work became a kind of talisman for the art nouveau. In Dutch the Art Nouveau was sometimes termed the Slaolie Style.
In 1902-03 Toorop was occupied with decorating the new Stock Exchange in Amsterdam, the masterwork of the architect H.P. Berlage. Challenging the capitalist ideology, these works emphasized freedom for women and for workers.
By this time Toorop had removed to the coastal town of Domburg in the dunes, where he founded a kind of art colony that attracted Marinus Zwart and Piet Mondrian among others. The artists were not required to adhere to any single style.
He had a kind of wooden pavilion built in the dunes, which was inaugurated with a group exhibition in 1912, showing 82 works by fifteen artists.
The “Three Brides” (1893) is his signature work. Beneficent influences stem from one side and bad ones from the other, carried by the omnipresent strands of hair. The curiously emaciated figures seem to reflect the Javanese shadow play. A similar work is “Fatalism,” also of 1893.
The Domburg experience comes out in the dune painting “The Shell Gatherers" (1891), which is almost abstract. Such works left an imprint on Toorop’s disciple, Piet Mondrian (e.g. “Dunes,” 1910).
The Pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood (PRB) was founded in John Millais' parents' house on Gower Street, London in 1848. At the initial meeting John Everett Millais, Dante Gabriel Rossetti and William Holman Hunt were present. As an aspiring poet, Rossetti wished to develop the links between Romantic poetry and art. By autumn four more members had also joined to form a seven-strong Brotherhood. These were William Michael Rossetti (Dante Gabriel's brother), Thomas Woolner, James Collinson and Frederic George Stephens.
The endeavor of the PRB echoes, consciously or not, the Nazarene brotherhood, a group of German artists formed in Rome forty years before. The Nazarenes wished to revive the qualities of painting before the Cinquecento, which was taken as the beginning of decline. The Germans also anticipated the narrative emphasis and meticulous realism of the PRB (cf. Peter Cornelius, “Recognition of Joseph by His Brothers” with can be compared with Holman Hunt’s “Finding of the Savior in the Temple,” of 1859-60).
The considerable theorizing of the PRB can be reduced to the following. Attentive study of nature must be practiced in order to express genuine ideas. As an aside, one may note that in many cases the naturalism produced a numbing emphasis on detail
They were particularly fascinated by Medieval culture, believing it to possess a spiritual and creative integrity lost in later eras. This emphasis on medieval culture was to clash with the realism promoted by the stress on independent observation of nature. In its early stages the Pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood believed that the two interests were consistent with one another, but in later years the movement divided in two directions. Hunt and Millais led the realist side, while the medievalist side enjoyed the favor of Rossetti and his followers, Edward Burne-Jones and William Morris. This split was never absolute, since both factions believed that art was essentially spiritual in character, opposing their idealism to the materialist realism associated with Courbet and Impressionism.
The Brotherhood enjoyed the support of the critic John Ruskin, who praised their devotion to nature and rejection of conventional methods of composition.
With their emphasis on detailed rendering of nature, J. E. Millais and Holman Hunt fall outside our purview. They could also be dreadfully sentimental and didactic.
Dante Gabriel ROSSETTI (1828-1882) , a maverick, is more interesting. After 1856 Rossetti became an inspiration for the medievalizing strand of the movement. His work influenced his friend William Morris, in whose firm Morris, Marshall, Faulkner & Co. he became a partner, and with whose wife Jane he may have had an affair. Ford Madox Brown and Edward Burne-Jones also became partners in the firm.
The bourgeois realism of Rossetti’s “Annunciation” (1849-50) is shocking. It reflects a thorough rethinking of the traditional iconography, anticipating the white symphonies of Whistler.
Many of his later works are tinged with erotic overtones. This is true not only of “Venus Verticordia” (1964-68), but also of “Beata Beatrix (1864-70), ostensibly a Christian sacred work.
Sir Edward Coley BURNE-JONES (1833-1898).
Not a formal member of the PRB, arguably he represents its culmination.
At Oxford he befriended William Morris as a consequence of a mutual interest in poetry, and was influenced by John Ruskin. At this time he discovered Thomas Malory's Le Morte d'Arthur which was to be so influential in his life. As an artist he studied under Rossetti, but developed his own style influenced by his travels in Italy with Ruskin and others. He had intended to become a minister in the Church of England, but under Morris's influence decided to become an artist and designer instead. After Oxford, from which he did not take a degree, he became closely involved in the rejuvenation of the tradition of stained glass art in England.
For much of the 1870s Burne-Jones did not exhibit, following a spate of bitterly hostile attacks in the press. In 1877 he was persuaded to show eight oil paintings at the Grosvenor Gallery (a new rival to the Royal Academy). These included The Beguiling of Merlin. The timing was right, and he was taken up as a herald and star of the new Aesthetic Movement. Exemplifying a kind of “blowback” effect, his often literary work inspired poetry by Swinburne. Swinburne's 1886 Poems & Ballads is dedicated to Burne-Jones
Aparr from painting, he also worked in a variety of crafts; including designing ceramic tiles, jewelery, tapestries, book illustration (the Kelmscott Press Chaucer in 1896), and stage costumes.
“King Cophetua and the Beggar Maid” (1884) relies on an obscure story of the infatuation of an African king for a homeless girl, as told by Richard Johnson and Alfred Tennyson. “She is more beautiful than Day” (Tennyson). In a startling role reversal, the king has placed the girl on his own throne. There are a number of Italian sources, including Carlo Crivelli. The artist had obsessed on the theme for a decade, choosing the high and narrow format early on. Khnopff who saw the work in its triumphant appearance at the Paris World’s Fair of 1889 spent hours before the painting, enraptured. In his account he summed up its message as “all hope is vain for the thing that are no more, for the things that can never be.”
With the wisdom of hindsight, we can see that the situation reflects Victorian social realities, not just the immense problem of poverty, but the appalling “maiden tribute,” whereby young women were sold into prostitution. Presumably, the beggar maid has avoided this fate, but others were not so lucky.
“The Golden Stairs” (1872-80) may be compared with Blake’s similar conception of “Jacob’s Ladder.” However, Burne-Jones work has no narrative content. It is simply a human chain of 18 young women. In a sense they are all one person, as the folds of the drapery echo one another endlessly. Somewhat bizarrely, it has been suggested that a reproduction of this work may have influenced Marcel Duchamp in his “Nude Descending the Staircase.”
George Frederick WATTS (1817-1904) belonged to no school, but was immensely popular in Victorian England. He produced about 300 portraits of distinguished contemporaries, as well as moral allegories, such as “Love and Death” (1877, 1896), a poignantly beautiful allegory of human mortality. Another lovely work, “Hope” (1885-86) offers a presentation that almost belies its title. Another allegory is “Time, Death, and Judgment,” which Watts reworked over many years (1865-86).
The artist’s concluding masterpiece is “The Sower of the Systems” of 1902. Since this work has darkened over the years, it may seem completely abstract. Yet it is not, for the Creator advances “scattering stars, suns, and planets.” The painting reflects the honest struggle of a Victorian against the forces of doubt which became increasingly insistent.
Aubrey BEARDSLEY (1872-1898),
Beardsley enjoyed a great deal of succès de scandale, both during his short life and afterwards. He was aligned with the Yellow Book coterie of artists and writers. He was art editor for the first four editions and produced many illustrations for the magazine.
Most of his images are done in ink, and feature large dark areas contrasted with large blank ones, and areas of fine detail contrasted with areas with none at all.
Together with Félicien Rops, Beardsley was the most controversial artist of the era, renowned for his dark and perverse images and the grotesque erotica, which themes he explored in his later work. He began by illustrating the Arthurian legends, and eventually progressed to what might be termed soft-core pornography, including his illustrations for Lysistrata (Aristophanes) and Salomé (Wilde). Major elements of the Art Nouveau have been detected in his works
Beardsley also wrote Under the Hill, an unfinished erotic tale based loosely on the legend of Tannhäuser.
Anticipating today’s media stars, Beardsley was a public character as well as a private eccentric. He said, "I have one aim — the grotesque. If I am not grotesque I am nothing." (cf. the photograph of the artist as a gargoyle). Wilde said he had "a face like a silver hatchet, and grass green hair."
His “The Artist in Bed” belies the incessant energy that characterized his short life.
Much of his earlier work, like “La Belle Isoud at Joyous Gard” illustrates Arthurian legends. Later, prompted by publishers and promoters, he turned to erotic work. The image of Salome kissing the head of Jaokanaan is one of the most shocking examples.
Beardsley died in Menton, France at the age of 25 on March 16, 1898. It is generally accepted that Beardsley died of tuberculosis, although suicide has also been rumored.
CHARLES RENNIE MACKINTOSH (1868-1928).
Mainly known nowadays as an architect, the Scot Mackintosh was a designer of posters, fabrics, and furniture in the William Morris manner. His poster for the “Scottish Musical Review” (1896) is in a squared-off version of the Art Nouveau he perfected. “Full Moon in September (1893) has a uniquely eerie quality.
G E R M A N Y AND CENTRAL EUROPE
CASPAR DAVID FRIEDRICH (1774-1840).
Born a Swedish citizen on the Baltic, Friedrich studied at the Royal Academy in Copenhagen. In addition to being a German, he belongs to the Scandinavian world of Kierkegaard, Strindberg, and Bergman. After the development of sepia drawings and watercolors (mainly naturalistic and topographical), Friedrich took up oil painting after the age of thirty. His paintings are based on his sketches and studies of scenic spots, like the cliffs on Rügen, the surroundings of Dresden and the River Elbe and in the Saxon Alps.. His first major painting is the controversial "Tetschen Altar" (1807) in which the crucified Christ is seen in profile in the top of a mountain, alone, surrounded by nature. His works often feature lonely crosses in a landscape. Friedrich also sketched monuments (a memorial) and sculptures for mausoleums, reflecting his obsession with death and afterlife.
The painter was influenced by Friedrich Schleiermacher’s romantic views about religion. The theologian held that it is a mistake to think of religion in terms of rules and formal rituals. Instead, religion is about feeling. When we experience a primal sense of awe in the presence of the infinite—then we are religious. Friedrich seems also to have been touched by the controversy that raged in his youth over pantheism, the idea that God is everywhere, but dwells in no specific place. In his landscapes we detect a muted, diffused quality that can almost be termed holy. That “almost” is very important.
Friedrich lived in the time of the upsurge of German romantic thinkers and poets, including the Schlegel brothers, G.W.F. Hegel, Novalis, Wackenroder, and Hölderlin. These figures evolved a number of key concepts, which may be summed up in one precept: striving for the infinite. Friedrich’s approach to nature recalls that of Coleridge and Wordsworth in England, poets whose works he did not know.
Caspar David Friedrich is sometimes simply labeled a Romantic painter; in fact the recent comprehensive exhibition in Essen calls him the “Inventor of Romanticism.” However, his works do not show the impassioned swirls of color of, say, a Delacroix. Nor was he interested in Orientalism. Friedrich was a stay-at-home: the farthest he ever strayed from East Germany was Copenhagen (for his schooling) and the Bohemian mountains. Partly for economic reasons—he grew up during the wars that stemmed from the French Revolution—he seems never to have visited France or Italy.
His “Wanderer Standing Over the Sea of Fog” (ca. 1818) has sometimes been seen as Hamletic—the man is trying to make up his mind. Perhaps, but this does not seem to be the main thing. The wisps of fog both conceal and disclose; they permit an intuition (Ahnung) of the scene. The wanderer is absorbing the scene, and because he has his back to us he is our surrogate. The painting illustrates Friedrich’s precept that the artist must combine the outer (an accurate rendering of the motif) with the inner (the mind’s processes).
His poignant "Mönch am Meer" (Monk by the Sea; 1810) has become a kind of icon of modern alienation. It remains the most “minimalist” of all Friedrich’s works.
Note the medievalism of the “Abbey in the Oak Forest” (1810), a pendant to the Monk. Although Friedrich was a Protestant he was sensitive to the loss of unity that the Reformation had signaled. The “Cromlech in the Snow” (1807) scenes evoke the mysterious world of prehistory.
Despite their marvelous fluency, Friedrich’s works generally rely on a carefully plotted underlying geometry. Unusually, “Woman at the Window” (1822) makes this structure explicit. The mullions of the upper window form a cross, and the shutters are a kind of triptych. Some have seen the room as a kind of prison. This could only be true in an extended sense, in that in life we are all prisoners of our situation.
As the moon-viewing works show, attempts to pin his iconography down to specific messages are generally vain or incomplete.
A late work, “The Stages of Human Life” (1835), seems to violate this principle. Here, however, we find that what is stated explicitly is balanced by what is only suggested.
In summary Friedrich seemed to have succeeded almost perfectly in anticipating the principles of Symbolism, which was recognized only 46 years after his death. How can this be? Perhaps the answer lies in a common reliance on the philosophy of German Idealism, which Friedrich knew first hand.
"The painter should paint not only what he has in front of him, but also what he sees inside himself. If he sees nothing within, then he should stop painting what is in front of him." Caspar David Friedrich