Posts Tagged ‘Modern Art’

Our 21st century eyes don’t appreciate Wassily Kandinsky’s radical artistic leap into total abstraction.  (Russian.  December 16, 1866 – December 13, 1944.)

Kandinsky Black Lines

Improvisation No. 29, 1912.  Collection of Solomon R. Guggenheum Museum

My favorite art history professor projected an image of a Kandinsky painting onto the screen and said, “This is considered to be the first completely abstract painting created in the history of western art.  Painted by Wassily Kandinsky in 1910.”  The piece looked utterly current, absolutely new — modern.  “Visualize the methods of transportation in 1910,” she said.  “Imagine how people washed their clothes in 1910.  How did people communicate in 1910?  What  did women wear?  They weren’t allowed to vote.”  And then she swept her arm toward the screen.  “THIS was painted in 1910!”

Kandinsky’s paintings were experiments, testing his complex theories about line, shape and color, and our psychological reactions to them.  He believed that color, shape and line — in and of themselves, devoid of all representation — created emotional reactions.  Eliminate all subject matter from a painting and, simple line, shape and color will create psychological reactions within their viewers.  We experience blue one way, red another; straight line one way, curved another — as purely abstract elements.

In 1912, Kandinsky published his treatise, Concerning the Spiritual in Art, which was widely embraced by his contemporaries and future generations of artists.  It radically altered the trajectory of art as we know it.

Kandinsky Composition VII

Compositon VII, 1913.  Collection of The State Tretyakov Gallery, Russia


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After taking painting lessons from the master Impressionist artist Camille Pissarro, Paul Gauguin resigned from his prosperous brokerage businsss to devote his life to painting.  His work did not sell and he and his family were reduced to poverty, but Gauguin felt called to be a great artist, and he never abandoned his painting.   During his lifetime he realized no artistic success or recognition.

Spending much of his adult life painting in Tahiti and the Marquesas Islands, Gauguin developed a deeply personal style that was a complex combination of Eastern and Western themes, primitive life and brilliant color.

His massive masterpiece Where Do We Come From?  What are We?  Where Are We Going? is now considered to be one of the greatest artistic and philosphical statements in Western history.

Where Do We Come From? What are We? Where Are We Going?  1879-98
Collection of Museum of Fine Arts, Boston

Spirit of the Dead Watching, 1892
Collection of Albright -Knox Art Gallery, Buffalo, New York
The Vision of the Sermon (Jacob and the Angel), 1888
Collection of National Gallery of Scotland, Edinburgh

Ia Orana Maria, 1891
Collection of Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York

Paul Gauguin is classified as a post-Impressionist, but what exactly is post-Impressionism?  It is not an artistic style, but a term applied to a group of painters who worked in the late 19th and early 20th centuries. 

These artists retained the shimmering light effects and outdoor palette of the Impressionists (Monet, Renoir, Pissarro), but they preferred more formal compositions, believing the Impressionists neglected too many of the traditional elements of picture-making in their focused recording of the fleeting impressions of light and color. 

Claude Monet, Impression Sunrise, 1872
Collection of Musee Marmottan Monet, Paris

Claude Monet’s Impression Sunrise (above) gave name to the experimental group of Impressionist artists who chose color and light as the subjects of their paintings.  Their singular goal of studying and recording plein air atmospheric changes was too simplistic for the following generation of post-Impressionists .

Eventually the achievements of the post-Impressionists would give birth to modern abstraction.  Thomas Hoving, former Director of the Metropolitan Museum of Art writes:

To me it’s more accurate to call the [post-Impressionist] period pre-Modern.  The last quarter of the 19th century and the first years of the 20th was a time when artistic experimentation was rampant, and a bewildering number of styles were invented.  In that sense, the period is a mirror of contemporary times.

In addition to Paul Gauguin, other post-Impressionist artists include Vincent van Gogh, Georges Seurat and Paul Cezanne (who is considered to be the father of Modern Art).

Vincent van Gogh, The Night Cafe, 1888
Collection of Yale University Art Gallery, New Haven, Connecticut

Georges Seurat, Sunday Afternoon on the Island of La Grande Jatte, 1884-86
Collection of Art Institute of Chicago

Paul Cezanne, The Peppermint Bottle, c. 1893
Collection of National Gallery of Art, Washington DC
Art in Our Times: A Pictorial History 1890-1980, Peter Selz, 1981.
Mainstreams of Modern Art, John Canaday, 1981.
Gardner’s Art Through the Ages, Seventh Edition, Louise Gardner, 1980.
Art for Dummies: A Reference for the Rest of Us!, Thomas Hoving, 1999.
(Hey, don't diss the Dummies series.)

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