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.


Proj 6, Ex. 3: A Portrait from Memory

The hardest part of the exercise for me was to think of someone to portray who did not look generic and uninteresting.  At first, I thought of a young bloke I had seen the other day in Canterbury.  I had received a parcel at Christmas and keep a piece of brown wrapping paper which had an interesting surface texture.  I decided to use charcoal on this, using the paper as the mid-tome and try to draw the image without an outline, thereby achieving lost and found edges.

I was not really happy with the result and could not picture the image in my mind so decided to rub back the image and try again.  This time I thought of an older man I had seen and had another go.

Again, I was happy with the result so rub back the charcoal.  All these attempts were building up another surface on the paper and adding layers of history to my final piece so I was not worried by drawing and then rubbing back and re-using the paper.  This is in stark contrast to how I would have felt at the start of the course, when no doubt I would have thrown the paper way and kept re-starting on a new sheet of paper.

I sat down and thought about all the people I have seen recently and who I should draw.  Suddenly I remember a young man I had seen on the tube when I was travelling to the Modigliani exhibition who had thick jet black hair which caught the light and was dressed quite retro including quite old-fashioned glasses.  I therefore build up my tones again in charcoal, drawing over my previous attempts.  I then lifted out the charcoal using a putty rubber to create the skin tones.

When I look at my image I was quite pleased with the result especially as I doubted that I could draw someone just from memory.  I think I have caught the thick hair and features quite well and he does have a slightly dated look to him.

After taking a break I realised I had not put in any highlights so added some in white Conte crayon.  I think this improves the image and brings out the structure of the face a bit more (the white is not so bright in the actual image – I think the flash has highlighted the lines).


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.

Proj 6, Ex. 2: Your Own Head

As I am attending Life Drawing classes there is an opportunity to draw a model’s head so I completed a few drawings before attempting my own head.

The first set below are all 5 minute poses on A2.


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The next set are all 10 minutes poses (A2).


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The next drawing is a 30 minute pose (A2).


The final drawing in this series is 40 minutes (A2).


This sis probably for me the less successful of all the drawings of the model’s head.  I over-thought the drawing and tried using colour that just did not work.

I then moved onto drawing my self-portrait in my A4 sketchbook.  The first is a 5-10 minute drawing using a 6B graphite stick.  The mirror was positioned to the side above my head.  I tried to avoid drawing an outline and just used shading to define the shape of the head.  This was quite difficult as I would normally sketch in a light outline with indication marks for the position of the eyes etc to make sure my proportions were right.  Here I had to adjust the shaded areas to get the proportions correct.  I think this drawing is quite successful as I have caught a likeness, got the shading and proportions correct and like the expressive nature of the marks.

I then tried another quick sketch using Sharpie pens.  I repositioned the mirror, still to the side but level with my head.  This image is much less successful, the proportions are wrong, I found it difficult to maintain the same position in the mirror and as I tried to correct the drawing it got messy.

I moved onto making the longer study, moving the mirror back up and keeping to the side.  I used A3 Watercolour NOT paper and a 6B Graphite stick.  Again, like the first sketch I tried to avoid outlines.

This has not photographed well as the tonal values are greater in the actual drawing.  I think this is a successful drawing, a good likeness with a good variety of marks.  The mouth is not quite right and I look a bit miserable but I think that is a result of keeping the pose over a 40 minute period.  I particularly like the contrast between the softer and harder edges as well as the shading has defined some of the forms, such as the ear.

I then went back to try a longer drawing using Sharpie pens on A3 paper.

This is much more successful than my original quick sketch using this medium.  I like the monochrome blue and the variety/energy of the marks.  The eyes are not quite right but the mouth is better.

Overall, I am quite pleased with my self-portraits especially as I would not normally draw myself and am happy to remain hidden in the background.  Perhaps, my hidden self could be my personal project for Unit 5 – something to consider?

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.