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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Reading Images (Access. October 2006)

Reading Images, Realism.

For this essay, I have chosen to look at Hans Holbein’s portrait of Anne of Cleves, and Jenny Saville’s Passage.

Anne of Cleves by Hans Holbein

In 1539, Holbein was artist to the court of Henry VIII of England, and had been despatched to Duren, in the Duchy of Cleves, by his royal master in order to capture the likeness of Anne, Henry’s prospective bride. While Henry found his bride-to-be acceptable from Holbein’s rendering, this was no love match: the king’s chancellor, Thomas Cromwell, had arranged the union. Anne was sister to William, the Duke of Cleves, who was leader of the Protestants of western Germany, and Protestant England needed allies against a predicted invasion by the combined forces of Catholic France and the Holy Roman Empire.

Jenny Saville’s picture was painted in 2004. Neil Manson writing on artnet.com says: “One suspects that Saatchi perceives himself as a kind of magus, someone whose primary motive is control. It seems quite possible that his pleasure comes from the manipulation of taste, the general public and art community.” While one could say Saville made the picture for herself, one could also say she is painting for an audience influenced by Charles Saatchi, who famously paid her to produce work for him between August 1992 and January 1994, and featured her in the controversial Sensation exhibition. Saville has always been interested in the body and the ways it can be manipulated. Passage has a precedent in her 1999 work, Matrix, which showed a transsexual in transition from female-to-male. Particularly important in the context of this painting is the fact that surgical and medical techniques have advanced to the point that human beings can consciously change their gender status at the physical level.

Holbein’s picture (65 x 48 cm) shows a young woman of the period, dressed in her finery, with her hands clasped in front of her. She is shown from about the waist up. Her expression is curiously bland, giving no indication of her character. The eye on the right side of the face seems to be slightly larger than the other, but her face is otherwise symmetrical. Her skin is almost the same colour as the pale material at her wrists and on her chest. Her red dress and jewellery –her rings, her necklaces, the pearls embroidered on to her sleeves and headgear- are minutely detailed, in contrast to her face; in fact, the face seems somehow less realistic than the rest of the portrait, particularly the folds of cloth on the left side of the picture, and the dimpled hands. The background is a uniform dark colour, against which the reds and gold of Anne’s dress and her pale skin stand out; the left hand side of the painting is in deeper shadow than the rest. There are no obvious brush strokes.

Passage (336 x 290 cm) depicts a reclining transsexual, male-to-female, with a generally feminine appearance, but male genitalia. She is sat, leaning back, with her legs open and abdomen inclined over to her right; her penis hangs down on to her right thigh. Her right breast points away from the body. Neither hands nor feet are visible; the former hidden behind the body, the latter outside the frame. Her face is rather boyish with a unisex hairstyle and frank dark eyes. Most of the picture has been painted in cold colours, the figure appearing pale against a simple background of blues. There are stark white highlights on her right breast and stomach. Points of warmth, where reds, browns and pinks have been used, are the genitalia, the nipples, and the throat. The lips are full and purplish. The brushwork in this painting is obvious, although the overall effect is realistic; dribbles of paint are visible on the thighs, and raised textured areas where the paint is thicker.

Passage by Jenny Saville

The portrait of Anne of Cleves was made the way it was for several reasons, the first being that there was no way of knowing what a person truly looked like during the 1500s except by actually seeing them, or viewing a accurate portrait: one of Holbein’s duties as court artist was to provide likenesses of prospective brides for the king. As the portrait was primarily an accurate image, rather than a work of art, visible brush strokes would detract from this. This is also why there is no background detail, and why the pose is so simple and formal. The pose was also simple, because Holbein would not have worked exclusively with Anne sitting for him, probably doing most of the work from preliminary drawings. He might also have been able to paint Anne’s clothes and jewels when she was not wearing them, which could explain why they are so detailed in comparison to her face. As Henry was much pleased by the portrait but found Anne herself to be “a fat Flanders mare”, we know that the portrait is not an accurate likeness. Holbein was in an impossible position: he could not insult his hosts nor incur Henry’s wrath by jeopardising the alliance. This leads one to speculate that the great detail and realism in the rest of the painting might have been something of a diversionary tactic, given the simplicity of the face.

Passage is very much meant to be a painting, a work of art. That said, an actual model was used, although as Jenny Saville says “thirty or forty years ago this body couldn’t have existed”. As a piece of realistic art, this picture could only exist from a certain point in history; before then it would always have been fantastical. The scale on which Saville works (considerably larger than life) almost turns the subject into a landscape, which may explain the green ‘hillsides’ of the subject’s left shoulder, breast and thigh. While there are two natural focal points in the painting (the genitals and the face), the brush strokes make pathways through the landscape of the body, so that the viewer cannot avoid coming back to the individual features that make the whole; the painting is confrontational and seems to be constructed so that it will confront those trying to avoid the areas they find uncomfortable. Another reason for the highly visible brushstrokes is that, working on such a large scale, the artist must make large and unsubtle movements to achieve the subtle.