Idealism and Expressionism in European Art (Access. April 2007)

Idealism and Expressionism in European Art.

For this essay, I will be looking at Paula Rego’s Baying and Edvard Munch’s The Scream. I chose to examine a Paula Rego picture simply because she is one of my favourite artists and Baying appeals to me, and The Scream because it appears to have a similar subject, so they complement one another.

Baying by Paula Rego

Paula Rego (born Portugal, 1935) lived through the dictatorship of Salazar and the revolution of the 1970s. She studied at Slade, where she spent much of her time slipping out of class to visit the cinema. She particularly enjoyed Disney cartoons, and also made a study of fairy tales. She married a fellow student, Vic Willing, an artist who did not seem to fulfil his great potential until shortly before his death following a long struggle with multiple sclerosis, nursed through it by Lila Nunes, who was also Paula’s model. During the earlier part of her life in Portugal, women held a very low position: unable to travel, hold a passport, or even possess a bank account without the permission of a husband or male relative. Paula Rego has produced many series of pictures, including fairy tales, etchings of nursery rhymes, and girls playing with dogs.

Edvard Munch was born into bourgeois Norwegian society in 1863, and his life was marked with much tragedy. His mother died of tuberculosis when he was only five, and his father retreated into distant gloom after this. His sister Sophie died (also of TB) nine years later, and his sister Laura suffered from mental illness. His brother Andreas died aged only thirty, of pneumonia, shortly after marrying. Munch feared that he too would succumb to madness and disease. In the 1880s, Norwegian artists returning from abroad brought the artistic ideas, habits of café life and Bohemian moral standards of the continental art scene to conservative Norway. This group included the writer Jaeger, the playwright Ibsen, and the painter Krohg, Munch’s mentor for a time.

Baying (100 x 176cm, pastel on canvas) shows a woman dressed in a simple skirt and t-shirt, knelt on an otherwise apparently empty beach beneath a grey sky. Modelled by Lila Nunes, the woman has her hands on the tops of her thighs and is howling like a dog, her eyes shut. There are no obvious clues as to the time of day. I suspect it is night and -as there are white highlights on the figure and pale smudges in the top right of the sky- that there is a moon just outside the frame.

Edvard Munch's The Scream. As if you didn't know.

The Scream (of which there are at least fifty versions, though I am using the 1893 oil, pastel and casein on cardboard specimen) depicts a figure on a bridge or pier, holding its hands up beside its head. The figure is apparently hairless, and could be either ghostly or skeletal, dressed in a long shirt or robe: we cannot see its lower half. Two other figures, possibly a man and a woman, are placed further back on the bridge or pier: it is not clear if they are stationary or in motion, nor whether they are facing towards the central figure or away from it. In the background, the landscape swirls and bulges around a body of water on which float two vessels. The water also reflects the colours of the sky, which appears to be on fire, swirling with red and orange, as well as pale grey and some blue, reminiscent of smoke.

Before she began work on the Dog Women series that includes Baying, Paula Rego produced a series of pictures showing a girls or girls playing with (or possibly tormenting) a dog. In the latter pictures of the series, it becomes clear that the dog is not only actually a man, but is also an invalid. These pictures were produced in the last years of Vic Willing’s life, and were directly inspired by his situation. I believe that Baying (along with the rest of the Dog Women pictures) is in some ways a continuation of this series, although with Vic dead, there is no separate dog in the picture; instead we have a composite man-woman, a dog woman, and the dog woman is both Paula Rego and model Lila Nunes, mourning. Baying is among the works Rego considers to have been made by her as a mature artist, as she created them on a standing easel, rather than on the floor, drawing on all fours, like a child, as she usually prefers.

The Scream was the result of a visionary experience Munch had while at a place called Ekeberg, near Oslo, when he heard ‘a huge extraordinary scream pass through Nature.’ It is not the figure that is screaming; rather it is covering its ears against the shriek that is causing the whole landscape to vibrate. Sue Prideaux (2005) tells us that Ekeberg was the site of Oslo’s main slaughterhouse and the madhouse where his sister, Laura, was held, and there is no other likely reason that Munch would be in this spot except as part of a visit to his sister: the combined screams of pre-mortem animals and the insane were reported to be terrible. The tuberculotic face of the figure might well represent Munch’s fear of illness, and the hands might be raised to block out the screams, the reality, of the madness he so feared.

While Rego was chosen as an example of an Idealist, and Munch as an Expressionist, it is obvious that both could fit the other definition, as both treat their subjects imaginatively and both are concerned with the expression of their personal feelings of the subject, rather than representing them realistically.

Bibliography.

Bischoff, Ulrich. Edvard Munch. Taschen, 1988.

McEwen, John. Paula Rego (2nd edition). Phaidon, 1997

Prideaux, Sue. Edvard Munch, Behind the Scream. Yale University Press, 2005.

Smith, John Boulton. Munch. Phaidon, 1992.

Tusa, John. Interview with Paula Rego, BBC Radio 3. http://www.bbc.co.uk/radio3/johntusainterview/rego_transcript.shtml

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