Sunday, 25 November 2012

Light Against the Darkness: Light and Dark in Western Art

If still-life painting is not invariably an art of contemplation, then what comes closest is perhaps the painting of faint light against dark, like candlelight in the time before electricity, or the gleam of moonlight in the pitch-dark of night. Those are the lights that give out hopes, a sense of security and serenity. I am not referring to the lights that partly reveal the true colour of a monster- the shock of lightening that triggers all the wicked happenings. Those paintings of more sinister overtones are not discussed here. I always value more the glimmer of light than the overwhelming darkness.

Georges de La Tour’s The Penitent Magdalen (1638-43) is a painting embedded with symbolisms. The skull nestling on Mary’s knees is the emblem for mortality; the candle, the spiritual enlightenment; the mirror, the reflection of human’s vanity. Mary is aware of herself as a mortal and thus she is staring at herself instinctively into the mirror. Or rather, she is staring at the candle, or the reflection of the candle in the mirror? It is an irony that the candle is deliberately placed before the mirror. The candle and the mirror therefore are the contenders that fight to become the most lasting value in human lives. Obviously the candle claims the victory in the end, with the mirror submissively allows an imprint of the flame which burns determinedly and coruscatingly- an implication of the dismissal of earthly vanities and the triumph of the power of divinity. Seeing such image Mary is visibly entranced. Her fingers crossed and poised atop the skull; Mary harbours a momentary wish of aligning herself with the deities.

The gleam of hope can also be engendered in a time of hardships and predicaments. Vincent van Gogh’s Potato Eaters (1885) is a testimony of all the sketchiest and the crudest. The peasants’ faces are scarily grotesque: eyes are sunken and creases and indentations ploughed deep. The image is unapologetically ugly, with the its ugliness augmented by the loose brushstrokes and dark colourisation. Amidst the oppressive gloominess the only source of light comes from what hangs from the ceiling. But an artificial light it is, which seems also to serve cruelly as a mockery of the peasants’ impoverishment. Whilst most viewers tend to sympathize with the peasants’ misfortune, what reached me first when seeing this painting was all the characteristics that made Van Gogh distinct from his ancestors. The light therefore is not artificial at all, but a torch bore by Van Gogh, shining up the path treaded by his fellow post-impressionists.

Warmth oozes from the break-through of light, most evident in Jean-Francois Millet’s Angelus (1857-59). This is a painting of contemplation, and the committed love of the earth. Both the man and the woman’s heads hung in devout prayer before heading home after a day’s toil. The figures are shaded with sombre tones and made similar to that of the soil. Their affiliation with the earth they step on is so strong that at any moment the two can blend together unsurprisingly. The setting sun has some pale blueness and redness trailing behind it- the only light colours that leavened the heaviness of the painting.

I do not know if Gabriel Garcia Marquez, when writing One Hundred Years of Solitude, had any particular picture in mind that echoed the image invoked by the novel. By my humble estimation, after reading Marquez’s epic novel, Jean-Francois Millet’s depictions of the farmers’ lives are what come the closest. Both One Hundred Years of Solitude and Millet’s genre paintings exude a sense of humility, not only to the home they are raised in but also to nature and the universe that encompass. Darkness never befalls those people’s lives but only a greyish murkiness that comes and goes periodically. At times a ray of light peeks through the gathering clouds, yet once the heads are lifting up in search of hopes, the light diminishes, leaving merely a trail of faint afterglow that swans weakly around the heaven.

Wednesday, 21 November 2012

The Allure of Still-Life

Are still-life paintings exclusively for the contemplators? Not exactly. One can discover the abnormal amidst the most normal and mundane. Staring at still-lives is like staring at sculptures: you secretly harbour a childish anticipation that somehow these inanimate objects will eventually move. But still-lives function more than mere drab figments of one’s otherwise fanciful imagination. Different from landscape or other outdoor paintings, in which the painters are more like photographers relying on beautiful chances that contribute to their artworks, still-life painters have more leeway of arranging their subjects. In this case the end product is not only an artwork, but a creation.

As hideously as they often appear to be, still-life paintings with raw meat nonetheless never cease to fascinate me. French painter Jean-Baptiste-Simeon Chardin, who is considered a master of genre paintings and perhaps most noted for his Soap Bubbles (1733-34), a nostalgic image of childhood wonders and unspoilt naiveté, made a not-so-appealing still-life painting in 1728, titled The Ray. A pile of dead fish is placed at the centre of the table. Among them an especially repulsive-looking one hung on the meat hook, its entrails spilling forth unrestrainedly. The redness of the entrails is however what lightens up this rather sombre-coloured painting. I am immediately reminded of the colourisation in one of J.M.W. Turner’s volcanic eruption landscape paintings. This painting thus does not seem to me revolting at all; on seeing the red meat a shiver of excitement reaches down my spine. A frisky cat looks determined to stir up a pell-mell of the scene, but by no means can it easily overshadow the presence of the dead fish, which almost stands out as a singular star in this painting.

Even when life is still, it can always manage to play with your sense of reality. In Paul Cezanne’s Still Life with Cherub (1895), everything seems to take a reckless tumble. The painting creates a strong sense of disorientation. Cezanne’s initial conception was actually to present the views of approaching the cherub through various different angles. This is an ingenious attempt at creating a three-dimensional space and an optical effect. That makes the cherub bust the centre of the painting, whilst everything revolves around it. But again, the contrast of colourisation can easily dismantle the assumed ego of the star. Contrary to the pale-blueness of the bust is the brownish-green of the oranges, each of which asserts its identity and refuses to be lumped together as sheer adornment. Still Life with Cherub (1895) is a painting in which every element fights for the spot of the sole star.

Time is never still. Even in still-life paintings when the lapse of time is immeasurable, we vaguely second-guess the changes of appearances over time. In Roger Fenton’s Still Life of Fruit with Mirror and Figurines (1860) we are aware of the gradual diminishment of the freshness and sheen of the fruits; their uncorrupted beauty complimented by the angel busts poising beside. A mirror hangs atop the fruit basket, seemingly to serve as a cruel reflection of the fruits, bearing the record of their imminent rottenness. Fenton’s still-life photography is the representation of decadent beauty- one which is not so anomalous within the aristocratic circle.

For me Fenton’s photography, amidst other even more artistically beautiful paintings, ingrains the most indelible impression in my head. It reverberates with what we feel most tangibly as human beings, that everything just eventually peters out and fades.

Thursday, 15 November 2012

Slaughterhouse-Five: the Theme of Murder in Western Art

American photographer Christian Patterson’s project, Redheaded Peckerwood, follows the trail of the notorious Charles Starkweather and Caril Ann Fugate who, in late 1950s, embarked on an atrocious killing spree which resulted in eleven deaths of their beloved and acquaintances. Most of the photographs feature the remnants left by the victims or the killers. One of them shows a jack knife stuck in the crack of a wall. Around the crack are some tinctures of brownish mud stains. For a second I was even convinced that they were more like blood stains with their colour gradually fading away over time.

But it is the perverted romanticism of the killing spree that makes the story hauntingly enchanting. The love that makes one a robot which is ever-subservient to whatever the lover orders. We travel together and elope, and together we commit crimes which purpose and meaning fail our understanding. Even in the end fate tears us apart and we are forbidden to die together (Starkhouse was executed seventeen months after captured; Fugate escaped the execution to life imprisonment.) The love lives on. Artists who delve into the theme of murder are by no means merely documenting the murder scenes in their artworks. Walter Sickert, one of the individual talents in British avant-garde, took an uncanny interest in the crimes of Jack the Ripper and contributed a series of paintings in relation to the incident. In the Camden Town Murder (1908), the murderer sits beside the body, head bowed down presumably in deep penitence. Paintings like that are about the sentiments: the guilt and anger inherent in every human flesh; even in those who seem callous and claim they never feel.

But murder can never achieved without the acts of violence. Street photographer Weegee rushed promptly to the locale when a murder or any other accidents that left casualties were taken place. For modesty’s sake the lurid details of the crimes are never manifested- Weegee apparently took pictures after the police investigated the case and covered the bodies with white shrouds. But the photographer certainly knew how to captivate his viewers: from time to time a trickle of blood can be seen stealing its way out from the shrouded body, and the cars hurtle through, in complete oblivion of the affair. Weegee’s photography provided significant groundwork for the 1948 film-noir the Naked City (1948), which has the investigation of a murder case operated almost like a scientific research; nonchalance is the word defining the tones of the investigators and the suspects, giving the movie an extra chilling beauty. 

It is the absence of feelings and emotions that makes those murder scenes disturbing, and not the spill of blood, or the undue violence. The aforementioned three who followed in the wake of the murderers and documented every little remnant they dropped, if they were conscious enough to turn back and look, the shadow of a sneaky something quickly slipped away.

Sunday, 11 November 2012

Sealed with a Kiss: Kisses in Art

Eroticism abound in literature. Even under the straitlaced and morally-superior societies like the 18th and early 19th century England, erotica, much to the wonder of the high-minded detractors who considered such “pulp fictions” a considerable threat to the well-being of the community, still managed to flourish. But 18th century erotic novels rarely overstepped the marks by unfolding graphic details of sexuality. There are often no more than just a glimpse of the flesh or an illicit exchange of a kiss. Unlike the satiric illustrations by William Hogarth which mostly chronicle a profligate’s irrevocable downfall, a bawdyhouse is yet making its way to the erotica. But most often a boudoir, the room where women conducted their toilettes and where men were strictly forbidden, that within such a constricted place bespeaks the perfect locale for a couple’s tryst.

Art, in adherence to its supremacy, prefers to let the emotions shown and sentiments felt rather than making explicit of the sexual matter. The theme with a couple interlocking in a passionate kiss was the favourite amidst artists who were daring enough to realize the passionate feelings or even, the sexual tensions, through their artworks. It cannot be more practical to use sculpture as a medium for embodying the motion of a kissing couple. Auguste Rodin, being a sculptor who was noted for his revolutionary technique that marked him as a forerunner of Modern sculptures, showed also a departure of subject matters from those in the antiquity in his Kiss (1889). Marble seems more like a pristine guise for this rather rapturous depiction of love- just look at how the woman writhes her arms around the man’s neck, taking the initiative in procuring a kiss. Even with a sculpture like this that oozes unabashed eroticism, for decency’s sake Rodin restrained the potential gratuity of such intense sentiment. Modesty can be seen in the discreet distance of the pair that, despite their unabated love and irresistible desire, keeps their bodies from being too recklessly intertwined. Eroticism was not something Rodin courted but just pure, unalloyed manifestation of love.

Rodin’s 1889 sculpture reminds me of a painting by Francesco Hayez- the coincidentally titled The Kiss (1859). It is obvious that from how the man is dressed (cape and broad-brimmed hat), the meeting of the couple is surreptitious and thus the kiss should be quick but no less passionate. An impression of conspiracy and danger adds to this painting, with the subtle treatment of its lighting that underscores both figures’ silhouettes, which lurk stealthily up the stairs. Unbeknownst to the couple but to the astounded eyes of the viewers a third silhouette is visible just behind the pillar. As if witnessing a tragedy slowly unfolds, danger looms when the couple still revel in their ecstasy. We all know they will be a doomed pair.

Back to sculpture. No conveyance of love can be as naïve and innocent as that in Constantin Brancusi’s The Kiss (1916). One’s existence is suddenly reduced of its forms when one is in love- not reduced to almost nothingness as the stick-like figures in Alberto Giacometti’s haunting sculptures, but the totality of figure which physiognomy is blurred. And the kiss, sealed by the two overjoyed lovers to a degree beyond recognition, is the sole subject of this sculpture; and what really matters. The display of affection is however by no means merely a transaction of the two. There is always someone witnessing perhaps from afar, as if watching an epic love movie alone in an empty theatre.