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.


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.

Research: Ways of Seeing by John Berger

This is an interesting little book.  At first I thought is it a bit dated, in for example, it’s view of the depiction of women in art and haven’t things moved on since the 1970s when it was written?  But the more I thought about the wave of news stories over the last year perhaps things have not changed as much as you initially think or hope.

The first chapter introduces the notion that our view of art is affected by what we know, what we believe, the text next to the art work and the context/environment in which we are viewing the art.  It also states that the introduction of perspective into Western Art enabled the viewer to be at the centre of the image/visual world.     However, this changed with the introduction of photography (in particular the moving image), as the  fixed central viewpoint became less relevant and this was reflected in painting e.g. the Cubists.  Berger goes on to state that reproduction of a work of art both multiples and fragments the meaning of the original,  by for example, isolating a section of the original; and, as the viewer becomes increasing familiar with reproduction it reaches a point where the original becomes the ‘original of the reproduction we have already seen’.

Berger goes onto look at the place arts plays in wider society.  Art was originally talked about in terms of its spiritual value and then later  it became impressive in terms of its market value.  This ‘bogus religiosity’ is a consequence of what was lost when reproduction began.  Berger goes on to look at the social and political consequences of this as he states that reproductions helped to boaster the view that nothing has changed and inequalities seem noble and hierarchies thrilling.  Indeed, National Heritage explores the authority of art to glorify the present social system and its priorities.  Of course, in the modern world it is advertising, TV, movies, etc that takes on this role – the language of images rather than art.  What really matters according to Berger is who uses that language and for what purpose.

This did make me think about my own art.  Whilst I am at the early stages in my degree pathway and am mainly making images to demonstrate my technique, already in my still-life unit I choose images in relation to the environment and climate change to demonstrate my ‘political’ viewpoint on the subject.  When attending exhibitions I do read the accompanying text – should I avoid this voice of the curator and just look at the art works and form my own reaction, or just by being aware of the influence the text can have, is this enough?

The third chapter looks at the Nude in art.  Berger proposes that the male presence (real or pretend) is based on a promise of power (which can be large or small dependant on the subject) exercised on others.  The female presence however is based on her attitude to self and defines what can/cannot be done to her.  In European paintings of the nude the principal protagonist is the never painted – he is the viewer and presumed to be male.  The object of the viewer (and painter) is the owner therefore of the female depicted.

This makes me more aware that when making my art I have to consider the viewer and how I depict the subject matter.  In this current unit (Unit 4) I attend life classes with predominately female nude models.  Am I continuing the ‘tradition’ of placing the female in a position of servitude whilst I as the painter am the owner and in a position of power?  How can I make my drawings depict the nude so that the power is shared equally or transferred back to the model?  Perhaps one way to shift the power balance and break the tradition is to draw the nude model as gender neutral? Something for me to consider further.

Berger then goes onto examine why we buy or possess a painting and states that we buy the look of the thing it represents.  He links this particularly to the rise in oil painting where the medium is able to ‘render the tangibility, the texture, the lustre, the solidity of what it depicts’.  It is able to create the illusion of reality.  Painting are brought to depict what money could buy and the position (real or perceived) of the owner in the world.  This is best illustrated by the still-life genre which in its golden age was used to display and confirm to others the wealth of the owner.

In the final part of the book Berger looks at the language of images and in particular, publicity.  He proposes that publicity is used to persuade us to change our lives by showing the transformation a particular product can effect.  It creates an illusion of glamour for those who cannot afford not to be glamorous; in effect publicity creates a felling of envy for a way of life that in theory can be obtained by all but in reality is only open to a few.  He asserts that the model in a publicity colour photograph has replaced the goddess in the oil painting tradition.  However, in the oil painting tradition the image was of what the owner already possessed, whereas, the publicity photograph is of what we aspire to have (if we had the money) – Consumerism.  He goes on to state that publicity is not only about imagination but is also a philosophical system – news ‘publicity’ is about what happens out there, publicity is about what is meant to happen to us.

Whilst I can see the validity of the arguments Berger presents in the book, one thing that did keep coming back into my mind was that he seemed to have chosen to validate his arguments by only really considering the oil painting tradition and almost ignoring artists whose work challenged this tradition – Duchamp, Rauschenberg, etc.  Despite this many of his arguments are as valid now as when this book was written – mass consumerism, the male/female social hierarchy, etc.

Berger, J. (2008). Ways of seeing. London: British Broadcasting Corporation and Penguin Books.

Research: Georgia O’Keeffe

I decided to look at the art of Georgia O’Keeffe as I admire her simplification of shapes and forms in her landscapes and cityscapes.  One of the things which struck me when looking through her images was how much to me they seemed to be design-led.  This was from some of her very first images, such as the charcoal drawing Early No. 2, 1915 through to her flower paintings (e.g. Two Calla Lilies on Pink, 1928), her cityscapes (e.g. Radiator Building – Night, New York, 1927),  her landscapes (e.g. Red Hills and Bones, 1941) and her later works (such as Above the Clouds I, 1962-63).  I think this may come from her early training and her first job as a commercial artist working as a freelance illustrator.  I have also read that it comes from the influence of photography in the early 20th century and in particular her marriage to Edward Stieglitz who was a famous photographer.

What I like about her work is the clean lines she creates catching the main shapes devoid of other clutter, the way she uses positive and negative shapes to create form, her use of colour and the decorative patterns she creates from the shapes she observes.  She also captured the sense of place and time whether it be the city or a New Mexico landscape.  Her work shows her interpretation of what she observes rather than the visual appearance, something I am trying to achieve in my own art.

Book Read:  Georgia O’Keeffe, Randall Green, Phaidon Press, 2014.

Links to images:

Early No. 2, 1915

Two Calla Lilies on Pink, 1928

Radiator Building – Night New York, 1927

Red Hill and Bones, 1941

Above the Clouds 1, 1962-1963

Research: Anish Kapoor Drawings

My tutor recommended I look at the drawings of Anish Kapoor.  Obtaining information on the drawings rather than his sculptures and installations proved surprising difficult until I eventually found a book by Jeremy Lewison of an exhibition he had at the Tate Gallery in 1990/91.

The introduction of the book mainly relates Kapoor’s drawings to spiritual, cultural, sexual and religious ideas, with repeated images of mountains, voids and explosive eruptions.  For me the drawings have a predominately sexual origin, particularly the vagina.  He defines the forms through the energy of his marks and his use of strong colours.  Many of the drawings seem to have an element of chance and spontaneity which I would want to capture in my own drawings.

It is difficult to refer directly to any one drawing as they are all untitled, however,  Untitled, 1987, an explosion of yellow on a brown background with a thin void in the centre, caught my eye for the sheer energy in the marks; as did Untitled, 1990, a blue phallic like void at the centre of a mass of black marks on a swirling brown background.

These drawings inspire me to be more free and experimental with my drawings and to focus in on a shape or idea and experiment, then experiment again with just making marks.  Transforming a drawing (which might be the visual appearance) until the final drawing is far removed from the original by a process of change.

Artist’s Website here.