Friday, February 5, 2010

If you're just joining the conversation about the ideas of the late Kirk Varnedoe and what makes modern art modern, you might want to go back to the two previous posts starting on 2/1 to catch the thread.

We talked about how Degas "discovered a world of space in the peculiar margins of perspective conventions" that others had noticed but not used in their art (A Fine Disregard, K. Varnedoe, Harry Abrams, Inc.). Volumes have been written about how Van Gogh, Gauguin, and others were greatly influenced by Japanese prints, primarily those of Ando Hiroshige. But Varnedoe thinks that artistic influence went in the circle.

Here's Plum Estate by Ando Hiroshige (1857). Van Gogh produced a painting almost identical to Hiroshige's but he also adapted the looming foreground in this painting, Spring in Arles, below,(1889).

While Varnedoe provides a lot more background than I have room for here, much of what he says boils down to this: "The tradition in which One Hundred Famous Views of Edo was made was a tradition of Japanese engagement with Western perspective."

He cites a book by historian Henry Smith who points out "long before there was Japonisme in Europe, there were waves of European influence in Japan." The first wave was in the 1600s, primarily with religious art. The second wave was in the 1730s and included Dutch books with interior views, landscapes, and anatomical charts. He believes the Japanese were fascinated by perspective and began to copy, but without understanding all the principles.

Some Japanese artists, like Shiba Kokan, produced "fully perspectival views," but others felt free to splice together aspects of perspectival systems, resulting in images that have figures, objects or still life grafted onto scenes depicting deep space. (pages 56-57)

It's Varnedoe's theory that as these Japanese artists experimented, they solved problems in their own ways and became quite inventive in their rather flexible approach to perspective.
"One solution to the problems Hokasai had. . . was to give up on the
ideal of a continual recession into space." (p. 57) Notice the splice of foreground directly over the background view of Fuji in his famous The Great Wave off Kanagawa.

By the time you get to Hiroshige, working later than Hokusai, you're noticing some comic inventions with perspective, such as Naito Shinjuku, Yotsuya, in which the horses hindquarters are looming in the foreground. (Apparently Shinjuku was a brothel area outside Edo, and poetry going back decades mentioned the mixing of two aromas - p
erfume of the courtesans and odor of the horse manure.)

Below is Degas' Racecourse, Amateur Jockeys (1876), with Hiroshige's Ushimachi, Takanawa beneath it.

Varnedoe is not suggesting that the Europeans simply copied the Japanese, but that perhaps a number of things were brewing at once (including some borrowing from the earlier Realist tradition). He thinks the Europeans, and Degas in particular, were more than responders, inventing in their own way, and that Degas was constantly moving figures around, taking a figure from one painting, a staircase from another, and trying something new every time he made a picture. He thinks that Degas and others probably figured out the same things the Japanese did - "that you do not have to construct space as a deep stage and coherently organize everything to fit consistently into it; if you layer together little and big elements, foreground and background parts, and leave out the transitional middle ground, the viewer will use these clues to fill in the binding, overall space."

Here's The Ballet from 'Robert Le Diable' (1876) - only foreground and background!

In fact, Varnedoe points out that Degas had been splicing elements together for years, as early as this painting, Woman Leaning Near a Vase of Flowers, 1863.

He says, "Mechanically, in fact, in the Woman Leaning, Degas seems to have begun with a perfectly normative and conventional conception of a flower still life; then he added a little of another, portrait convention, and the result became something that alters both parts, and will not settle down into either norm. The portrait aspect now involves a sense of personality that depends on the dialogue between her sense of inwardness and the expansive beauty of the still life, and suggests thereby a whole different format for showing being and surroundings, person and place, as interconnected bearers of identity."

Of course, there's much more in A Fine Disregard but I fear I'm running on too long.

He discusses the innovative compositions of Munch, Caillebotte, and Gauguin, all taking bits and pieces of conventions which they were now familiar, and rearranging them in new ways to make paintings that produced a different world view, a different mood, or a new way of looking at the individual in society.

Maybe Gauguin and Matisse deserve a day, and then that will be enough on his ideas about the "road to flatness" and what makes modern art modern.

Time to start work on a horse's hindquarters series. . . actually I have an opening reception today for an exhibit so I need to get out the door. Looking forward to hearing your thoughts.


  1. Very good juxtapositions of works to illustrate the points that you and Varnedoe make. I liked the post and look forward to further stops on the "road to flatness".

    By clicking on your facebook link I found my way to your website, where I enjoyed seeing your paintings. Perhaps you might consider putting a more prominent link to the site here on your blog. I did later see that one is included under
    Blogs I enjoy sidebar, where, incidentally, I was touched to see you have included me. Thanks.

  2. I would be interested to hear the thoughts on Gaguin and Matisse because splicing certainly can't account for the flat color...would be interested to know what does. It seems like such a leap.

    I was photographing some horses the other morning and they kept turning said hindquarters towards me! Very rude :)

  3. Hi Suzanne,

    Your illuminating comments on 'finely disregarding' some things to find new things, or new combinations of things, triggers . . .

    my musing about how the amorphic swirling stew of the cultural-societal-political geist (ie, not just artists' formal developments) influences artists' evolving view of what they conceive as 'reality'.

    For instance, in Place de la Concorde, there's a specific, more contemporary feeling of urbanity evoked by the people who, though quite proximate, pass without acknowledgement or recognition, lending a sense of the isolation one can feel in crowded cities. Also, Lepic's leaning forward stride has a momentum, akin to the quickening pace of cities. A multiplicity of individual intentions in the girls & dogs looking/going in different directions, and a psychological fragmentation evoked by the images cutoff by the edge of the frame -- contribute further to evoking a more 'modern', than pre-industrial, urban reality.

    The City's energy is so upclose, one cannot see it as whole object, at arm's length. Its diversity and volume perhaps can't be gleaned from one perspective viewpoint. It encompasses us and our narrow view.

    So, I guess I'm trying to agree with what you said -- more succinctly -- about how there are many sources for the evolution of artistic ideas and innovations.

    The deliciousness of the artistic pursuit -- making and investigating -- seems to me, to be the numberless vantage points from which to perceive and enlarge one's view. And reflect on how we conceive 'reality'.

    Thanks Suzanne, for your investment of time & talent to share lovely, specific insights. Inspiring, as Bill says!

  4. interesting thoughts.

    while i agree that influence flowed in both directions (in the 1600s as well, witness vemeer's kimono-wearing astronomer, and a progression of durer/turner/constable etc minimalist landscape painters), i believe that while yes, while an awareness (and thus representation) of such "scientific" things as perspective, and shadows and reflections, the influences in the other direction were, artistically, more profound.

    the asymmetrical framing was learned from hiroshige's horse's hindend more than anything in that image was learned from the west.

    not to even mention the west's beginning to outline and simplify in color planes most all of the visual arts.

    i will also go as far as to say that free verse was made possible by introduction to the haiku et al, flwright by portrait's of japanese theaters and homes, and modern drama by No.

    and the west's embrace of buddhism.

  5. All of you raise so many interesting points about the many, impossible-to-untangle influences combining to create new ways of making art (and poetry)- it's hard to imagine that even the artists themselves were aware of every influence working on their imaginations. About haiku, I don't know the history of its development - thanks for raising that. What is "flwright"?