Tuesday, April 03, 2007

Point of view

O. writes from the Continent:
“Do you know I always read your blog... and get quite annoyed when there isn't an update for a few days.”
Which inspired me to spend lunch wandering round Manet to Picasso, which is free and until 23 May. I’ve gone on about what follows before (sorry), but it does have the distinction of being almost not-at-all Droo.

I got to know O. when we were doing A levels together, and especially due to one summer’s homework. We had to go to famous galleries dotted all over London, sketch a set list of Worthy Old Paintings and forego all our pocket money for postcards. O. was a good companion for that sort of thing because he has quite different ideas about pictures. We spent many afternoons idling in pubs shouting, “No, you big fool!” back and forth.

The impressionists were my pin-ups. No, I don’t mean J. Culshaw and company – which included D. Tennant on Friday and writing my two of my Droo chums. Heck, wasn’t going to do that…

The late 1800s were rather exciting artistically, with all sorts of clever ideas. These included lightbulbs and photographs and refined chemical processing. And these things had an affect on the hapless, cravat-wearing creatives who flounced around drawing from nature.

Until these inventions came along and spoiled things, an artist’s talent was easy to quantify. The trick was to make what you had drawn look like the thing you were drawing. Even now, there are learned scraps over painted portraiture hinging not on who is the sitter but whether it’s at all a good likeness.

But photography came along and with a point and click reality was caught in an instant (well, it took a bit of time when they first got invented, but not anything like as long as a painting).

Photos also showed up the falseness of the way paintings presented their subjects. Paintings composed the elements of the picture, framing them the most pleasing way. A photo captured the raw immediacy – blurs, blinks and ignoble posture. It could brutally crop parts of the scene, creating a new and dramatic, if troubling, composition. And once snapped, there was little way to correct it. At least canvas could be painted over.

Photos were still in black-and-white, so these painters tended to glory in colour. The brilliant sky-blues and vivid pinks were another technical innovation – colour that’s still stunning a century later. The artists experimented with “complimentary colours”; clashes of blue and orange, red and green, purple and yellow, that made their work more vibrant.

At the same time, electric light transformed painting. It wasn’t just that they could work later in the day, and on less bright and airy subjects. The lightbulb made evident many of Newton’s observations about the spectrum, and without needing to shove sticks in your eye sockets. It made the artists see reality in ways they’d never seen before.

While the impressionists were daring to show optical mixing and coloured shadows, and Seurat contrived scenes out of blobs of coloured light, the hapless, much-moustached physicists just over the border were thinking maybe light travelled in blobs.

Impressionism was then excitingly brash and modern, on the nose of the latest developments. And its proponents got into trouble with the establishment – who still wanted pictures that looked just like the subject.

Scruffy old Claude Monet, who is a bit cool, dared to suggest that my throwing some paint around a canvas at slapdash speed you could still create the feeling of the subject. Not like a photograph in all its detail, perhaps, but something with more of an emotional flavour.

So even before you get to all the politics that the paintings might also reflect, there’s something a bit brilliant to see in all those pictures of the same haystack or cathedral. By painting the same subject over and over, Claude was breaking all sorts of rules, the old punk.

It was on one of these daytrips with O. that I discovered a real dazzler of a painting:

Water Lillies, Claude Monet, after 1916
Again, Claude painted lots of huge water lilies – the canvases almost as big as his tiny Japanese garden in a fashionable Parisian suburb. But this one is my favourite, being more yellow than green-purple and with more of the canvas left bare.

It's big: 2 metres tall but 4¼ metres widthways. You need to stand at the far end of the room to appreciate what you’re seeing – up close it’s a mess of unconnected marks and squiggles.

And so (because I’d seen Droo defuse a bomb in Earthshock part two) a question formed in my brain: how the heck did Monet even paint it?

He could have only ever been an arms length away from the canvas. And if that wasn’t boggling enough for you, Claude was also fairly blind when he painted it.

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