Research: Alex McFarlane

My tutor suggested I look at this artist, who is mainly a painter and sculptor.  She particularly wanted me to look at his Industrial series, where he combines the use of drips and accidental paint runs with accurate renditions of the object.

I must admit his art was a revelation to me – the large industrial landscapes, the combination of accuracy with free expressive use of paint, the drips and runs to depict the foreground trees or water coming out of the pipes and finally, the incorporation of actual pieces of metal pipes/plumbing attached to the painting, providing a transition between painting vs sculpture.  For me many of his painting had a sinister psychological feel and reminded me of scenes from the George Orwell novel ‘1984’, despite the colourful nature of many of the images.

Two of my favourite paintings, for their grimly atmospheric industrial feel, integration of the drips of paint into the water flowing from the pipes, colour palette and use of actual plumbing supplies are River View and Soot 2.

Looking at this artist inspired me to have a look at drips and runs more, and the use of bleach on inks and watercolour.  I also went out sketching to Dungeness to have a go at my own Alex McFarlane inspired image and then took this further into other drawings using drips and more accidental effects.  These appear in a separate post.

Link to artist website here.


Research: The Shock of the New

Chapter 4:  Trouble in Utopia

This chapter focusses on architecture and the search for Utopia.  Hughes expresses the view that the drive of modernist culture was the belief that social transformation could be achieved through architecture and design.  Throughout the chapter he examines many Utopian schemes, from architects such as Le Corbusier, many of which were never realised (e.g. Le Corbusier’s Voisin Plan for the redevelopment of part of Paris).

He examines the use of new building materials (steel, reinforced concrete and sheet glass) which enabled new and bold schemes to be developed, including the skyscraper.  Also the move to dispense with ornamentation and create buildings with functional clarity and no superfluous details (developing into the International Style).   He links this back to the Futurist movement.

He then looks at the success of the Bauhaus in Germany, particularly in relation to applied design and then at de Stijl, with the paintings of Piet Mondrian (who abstracted nature, with his grid forms rising out of orchard trees, sand dunes, and flat skies and seas).

Finally, Hughes looks at the failure of Brasilia, a new capital city build for the car but inhabited by people.

This was an interesting chapter.  Whilst not primarily concerned with the visual arts it did raise a number of interesting issues for me, including that conundrum on whether art can change lives.  The idea of an architectural Utopia also reminded me of Thamesmead Housing Estate (I once worked very close to this development) which was built in the sixties as an estate of the 21st century but with its bleakness, high level walkways  and blind corners (which became idea spots for anti-social and criminal activities) is slowly being demolished and replaced with more traditional housing.

Hughes, R. (1991) The Shock of the New. London: Thames & Hudson.

Research: The Shock of the New

Chapter 3:  The Landscape of Pleasure

This chapter opens with the view that one purpose of art is the ‘ecstatic contemplation of pleasure in nature’ and that images in paintings represent the class that owns it, therefore, in the 19th century this broadened the depiction of the art of pleasure from the pursuits of the aristocracy (the main owners of art prior to the 19th century) to the increasingly affluent middle classes.

Hughes look at the art of Georges Seurat and his paintings exploding colour interference (in particular Pointillism), then Monet with his series paintings including Haystacks and views of Rouen Cathedral where Monet explored the concept that his subject was ‘not the view but the art of seeing the view’.  This concept is then further explored with Cezanne and his depiction of Mont St-Victoire with Cezanne stating ‘Painting from Nature is not copying the object, it is realising one’s sensations’.  This move away from the visual appearance is further explored via Fauvism (in particular Matisse with his use of bright dissonant colour, distorted drawing, etc) and then Picasso with his images of Marie-Therese Walter where he re-composed the body of his lover into the shape of his desire.  Finally, Hughes looks again at the cut-outs of Matisse.

This ‘Landscape of Pleasure’ centred around artists working in the Mediterranean is then contrasted with the work of artists working in American who are more interested in racks of colour, impersonal, simplest patterns and wholly decorative (such as Morris Louis and Kenneth Noland).

This was an interesting (although somewhat confusing in terms of the jump to artists in America) chapter for me as it reinforced the need to move away from the purely visual representation to a position of my reaction to the subject matter.  This is something I am struggling to achieve.  It also brought to the fore quite how influential this period of art has been and continues to be.

Hughes, R. (1991) The Shock of the New. London: Thames & Hudson.


Exhibitions: Modigliani (Tate Modern) & Cezanne Portraits (National Portrait Gallery)

I visited both these exhibitions yesterday as preparation/inspiration for the assignment in Unit 4  and thought it might be useful to compare the two exhibitions in one post rather than complete separate posts.

Both exhibitions showed how the artist evolved whilst tackling portraits  – Modigliani in terms of his artistic style with a move from more rounded forms (as in The Cellist, 1909  here and The Beggar of Livorno, 1909) to a more modernist flatter form often with black voids for the eyes (influence of cubism).  Whereas, Cezanne seemed to me to evolve more in the way he applied the paint and his technique rather than his style of depicting the sitter – from using a palette knife with thickly applied paint (as in his Uncle Dominique series, such as Uncle Dominique in a Turban, 1866-7) to using a brush with dabs and a broken application of colour (as in Boy in a Red Waistcoat 1888-90).

Modigliani’s portraits tended to fill the frame with the majority having little or no background to put the sitter into a context (as in Max Jacob c1916-17), whereas Cezanne’s portraits often included a background, giving the viewer more information about the sitter or their environment (as in Gustave Geffroy, 1895-6, where the subject is a writer and is sitting at a desk with papers in a library).  Of course, this may be because Cezanne was more interested in developing his technique in the application of the paint and therefore enjoyed including the interior and other still-life objects in contrast to Modigliani who was trying to capture the essence of the sitter.

Modigliani seems to me to have settled on a certain style to this portraits with often voids for eyes, angular long necks suggesting elegance (especially but not exclusively for the females subjects) , flatter areas of colour, etc,  In contrast, Cezanne seems to be continually changing and adapting his technique.  I assume this was because Modigliani was producing the portraits for clients and Cezanne was just using the sitter as an object to explore the application of paint and colour relationships.

In the Modigliani exhibition a whole room is devoted to the female nude and this brought to the fore my reading of both Ways of Seeing by John Berger and The Nude by Gill Saunders (see previous posts).  Is it the case of an active educated male artist exploiting the lesser-educated passive female worker or should we accept that the female model made an informed decision to pose and earn money.  I think this is something I will struggle with everything I see a nude until I can come to some form of  resolution for myself (if that every happens!).

One thing which did give me an insight when walking round the Cezanne exhibition was even through he was a very accomplished artist, you could often see things wrong in his proportions (such as the size of the head in Portrait of a Man, 1898-1900), or in the positioning of limbs (such as the size and way the legs are attached to the body as in Victor Choquet, 1877).  In a way this teaches me that I need to stop obsessing about little details/imperfections in my own art and step back to look at the success of the overall image.

Exhibition: Paula Rego: The Boy Who Loved the Sea and Other Stories

I visited this exhibition yesterday on the last day at the Jerwood Gallery in Hastings.  As indicated in the exhibition title it has paintings, drawings and sculptures based on The Boy Who Loved the Sea and other stories.

Rego has a strong illustrative style to her drawings and paintings which is no surprise when they are based on stories.  However, I found that when the narrative was presented next to the image, as a viewer I had little place to go to find my own narrative or sub-narrative.  As an example, the very first image I viewed was Get Out of Here You and Your Filth, 2013 (link to catalogue containing image on page 25 here) which shows an old women dressed in black (fairly victorian in style) wearing a cross pointing towards a man holding a dress/nightdress against himself.  I read this as a comment on outdated attitudes towards LGTBQ issues, however, on reading the associated text it was actually depicting part of the story where the man is being told off for bringing back an inappropriate present.  This was a prime example of one of the issues raised in Ways of Seeing by John Berger concerning context which I wrote about in a previous post.  Once I had read the text next to this painting I found it very difficult not to read the text against all the paintings, somewhat limiting my enjoyment of the whole exhibition.

The images I found far more interesting in this exhibitions were the series of self-portraits Rego undertook in 2017 after suffering a fall – she shows the cut on her forehead and they have a Francis Bacon feel to them; and, her Depression series which have a real feeling of vulnerability.  For this series she used Lila Names as her model and Lila is quoted as saying she ‘never felt she was really painting me.  It is someone else she sees through me. Either herself or another person.’  These personal drawings were far more powerful for me than the paintings based on the stories.

Research: Insights – Self Portraits by Liz Rideal

Before I start the exercise on creating a self-portrait I thought it might be useful to do a bit of background reading.  I picked up this book many years ago at the National Portrait Gallery after visiting the BP Portrait Award exhibition.

The book presents self-portraits as a form of personal expression, self-reflection and self promotion.  They can be direct, as in a direct depiction of self or indirect, as a concealed or cryptic portrait only recognisable to friends or cognoscenti.  Mortality is also discussed in the book along with ‘memento more’ (‘remember you must die’); self-portraits are a way of achieving immortality.

For me the book highlighted a number of things for me to consider when drawing my own self-portrait:

  • it can be used to emphasise both my physical and cultural identity
  • a mirror creates an image that is smaller and reversed with infinity stretching outwards – using a mirror means we do not see what others see
  • the importance of considering the composition eg direct eye contact, staring back, etc.
  • what you wear communicates something about yourself
  • if you include other people it can record something about people and relationships important to you at a specific time.

This was a useful read and contains a wide range of images of self-portraits across all periods of art and in a wide range of mediums.

Rideal, L.  (2005) Self Portraits. London: National Portrait Gallery.

Research: The Nude – a new perspective by Gill Saunders.

This was one of the recommended books within this unit.  The book discusses the difference between the female and male nude in art.  It first gives a historical overview, contrasting the early beginning of the nude in art – the Greeks where it represented nobility and the potential of the human spirit (a theme which re-emerged in the Renaissance period) and the Christians were nakedness was a symbol of guilt and shame (outward sign of sins of the flesh, punished in Hell).  It goes onto to look at the male nude during the 18th and 19th centuries when it was often the subject of academic study, posed after an antique figure.  There were a number of reasons for this –  the male nude during this period representing perfection; females were considered inferior; studios and academies were male preserves; and, the puritanism of the Christian tradition.

The book goes on to look at the roles played by the, male (active) and female (passive), nude.  It sets out that attitudes to gender and sexuality are a result of a patriarchal societies in the west and therefore reflected in the depiction of the nude – males are seen as aggressive, independent and analytical whilst females are seen as emotional, nurturing and intuitive.  It then looks at Manet’s Olympia which it states was controversial as the female nude in this image did not play the passive role,  The female nude has a bold and challenging stare so that the spectator cannot project the Christian cultural guilt onto her and her gaze is not lowered rather is directed at the spectator (thereby taking the male role of the spectator herself).  The chapter then looks at other images depicting active and passive roles, presenting other non-conforming images where images of passive male nudes are based on the Christian images of Christ, embodying spiritual suffering  and thereby raising their virtue; in contrast, active female nudes are presenting as the personification of purely male qualities or as a predatory female – menacing and engulfing their male victims.

The next chapter looks at the Fetishised Nude, contrasting the way the male nude is eroticised and the female nude fetishised, mutilated, fragmented and rendered anonymous; it used the Venus de Milo as an example where it was held as the icon of female beauty but is mutilated and therefore powerless and passive.  It also uses the work of Bill Brandt which shows fragments of the female nude as an example of work which celebrates mutilation or disabling.  It also looks at the anonymity of the female nude being fragmented – reducing the female to an ‘it’ or an ‘object’.   There are exceptions to the rule, one of which is Robert Mapplethorpe who photographs both male and female fragmented nudes, both being treated as aesthetic objects.

The penultimate chapter presents the view that in every known society predominate view is that the female is closer to nature and the male closer to culture.  It looks at the female nude in the landscape where she is presented either as Venus, Diana or a nymph linked to fertility or acquiescent instinct.  It also looks at images of the artist and his model, where the artist is in a position of power and control whereas the model is vulnerable by their nakedness and in a passive role.

The last sections looks at how the nude is being presented in contemporary art to disrupt the tradition of the female nude discussed in the previous chapters.  It focuses on how female artists are attempting to reclaim the nude and present it in such a way as to give it a more personal and feminist meaning (e.g Mary Daly who presented her own image free of patriarchal and phallic associations).  Female artist use various methods to break with the tradition of the female nude – reworking of myths; deconstruction of visual codes; parody; role reversal and re-presentation of the female body experience/imagery.  Feminist argue that any representation of the female nude is open to misappropriation of the final image and therefore continues the tradition.

This was an interesting book raising a number of very valid issues for me in depicting the nude, particularly as I attend life drawing classes with predominately female models.  How do I overcome in my art that tradition of the female nude?  One criticism of the book for me is that the arguments were predominately in line with the author’s view and very little counter evidence was presented – perhaps of course because very little counter evidence exists? Also, the book ignores the LGBTQ issues.  With my limited knowledge of art at present it is difficult for me at this stage to evenly weigh up the evidence either to challenge or accept the argument.  However, I definitely felt that the book was presenting a political view point of the author and has to be read with that in mind.