By the deathbed Edvard Munch 1915 Symbolist art painting 1915

“By the Deathbed,” Edvard Munch

1915 By the Deathbed (Fever) oil on canvas 174 x 230 cm Munch Museum, Oslo.jpg
“By the Deathbed,” Edvard Munch (1915)

 

Edvard Munch was an artist given to obsession over graphic notions: his most famous image, “The Scream,” actually had four different versions¹. Other compositions had dozens of versions in pastels, lithographs, oil paintings, and woodblocks. Insofar as Munch’s was an art of iteration, how can we discuss an isolated work? I propose here to focus on one such piece- his 1915 painting By the Deathbed– and draw in to a limited extent references to a few additional articulations of essentially the same compositions.

 

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In all of the versions of By the Deathbed, Munch situates a figure stretched out facing away from the viewer. A cluster of mourners crowd the side of the bed in each work, though the expressions of the mourners vary in each piece: in the pastel version, a feeling of deference to the deceased/deceasing pervades; in the oil paint version from 1895, we see the central male mourner (interestingly the character with the most detail infused into the image) in a more pleading mode. In all of the versions, grief is the predominant mood, with the ages of the female figures varying widely over the different pieces.

In the 1915 version of the painting, the version of the painting I’d like to focus on, Munch uses the same characters for the most part, but the mood and tenor of expressions is much more subtle and uncertain: the older male mourner holds his hands before him, with an expression that could be of deep prayerfulness, pleading (like the 1895 version), or even relief. It is harder to say with certainty what he expresses, and that makes this version of the painting perhaps the most accomplished one.

The nearest figure to the viewer- a female figure- has an almost other-worldly face and expression. She looks like a mask, a clown, or an opera actress highly made-up for the occasion. Her lips are tight and her emotions difficult to ascertain. She stretches her hand out intently, perhaps to grab the medicine bottle before her so as to keep herself preoccupied in the midst of the dreary scene. Perhaps the duties of caring for the dead/dying man falls to her as the others are lost in their own thoughts and feelings. The remaining figures are impossible to discern, as they lack normal human features. Their unnatural coloring says more about their mood than anything else- a woman has a bright red face, perhaps quarreling with the dead person or even with God; the man at her side’s green face betraying nausea and discontent.

One of the most interesting things about the piece is the wallpaper behind the group. Whereas some of the unease and tension of the composition in other versions of this painting comes from the strange perspective over the elongated body of the lying figure, in this piece from 1915, we see a warping and metaphysical distortion of space echoing from the man to the mourners. The pattern of the wallpaper unevenly melts upward and careens toward the mourners in increasingly dark and maroon tones. Interestingly, a common pigment name for that maroon color in Europe was “Caput Mortuum,” or “Death’s Head.”²

This 1915 version is not the only version of the composition to feature strange wallpaper- the pastel version from 1893 replaces the pattern of wallpaper for morbid, grotesque heads and skulls lining the wall. These figures seem to taunt the dying man as he crosses the threshold into death, many of them amused and smiling. This might suggest to us that Munch saw the melting wallpaper as the patched fiber of spiritual fabric surrounding the scene, warping or expanding as the metaphysical balance of the room changes with the death of the lying figure. This more subtle suggestion of the supernatural impact of a death and the prayers and grief of the survivors makes the 1915 version of the painting more compelling and inviting as a viewer.

In conclusion, it would not be fair to say that every successive iteration an artist makes of a core concept improves or enhances the idea. There are times when the purest expression of a graphic idea is the first expression. Nonetheless, the range of moods and experiences, as well as the mystical possibilities of the piece are more refined in this image of Munch’s. The viewer can, in this piece, find comfort, grief, and transcendence within it, whereas other versions focus on articulating one particular impression of the scene.

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the pursuit Leon Spillaert Belgian symbolist painter of night and nocturnal painting

“The Pursuit,” Leon Spilliaert

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“The Pursuit,” Leon Spilliaert (1910)

 

The Belgian painter Leon Spilliaert was an artist preoccupied by nocturnal themes- images of disorientation, loneliness, exuberance, etc, populate his oeuvre. The Pursuit is a unique painting among his work for a number of reasons. I want to draw attention to how this piece is both exemplary of Spilliaert’s style and exceptional for its darker motif and suggestive title.

The first thing about this image worth noting is that it indeed fits well within Spilliaert’s area of visual interest: The span of the road leading up to the bridge, the strange and elongated perspective, the use of a very narrow range of color yet a broad range of value (i.e. gradient of tone from light to dark), the peculiar and enchanting quality of evening/night-time light, and the effect of light on moving water are all classic motifs among his body of work. The eery effect of the perspective of the image, for example, fits in with both his fascination with exaggerated expanses of bare space and his taste for creating disorientation or discomfort. The two images below- Moon and Light and Dyke and Beach– illustrate his penchant for these themes, yet The Pursuit seems to bring them together in the same space.

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“Moon and Light,” Leon Spilliaert (1909)

 

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“Dyke and Beach,” Leon Spilliaert (1907)

What sets The Pursuit apart from much of his work is that while Spilliaert was typically content with a suggestion of uneasiness, fear, loneliness, and even menace in his works, both his use of the title “pursuit” and his inclusion of two figures chasing each other is more overtly assertive about the tension in the image. For example, Moon and Light might be seen as an expression of vertigo. At the same time, it might merely be a feeling of awe at a unique alignment of perspectival elements and colors.

In keeping with Spilliaert’s character as an artist, even with the suggestion of a chase through the night in a haunting and disconcerting space, the viewer is not certain what kind of pursuit is happening: it could be friends leaving the bar, drunkenly joking with each other; it could be unsupervised children playing in the twilight hour, bored as they wait for their supper; or it could be as sinister as a robber and his victim. As I’ve written before of Spilliaert in my article on his painting Nightthe playfulness with his audience about whether his work is brooding or buoyant elevates his work out of what might otherwise be moody and macabre into a unique space that is uncertain and requires inference and repeated engagement by the viewer to this day.

De Young Museum San Francisco

Museum Liveblog: De Young Museum

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This is a very different kind of post, but hopefully an enjoyable one! I’m going to be in San Francisco next week for business and when I’m in the Bay, I can’t resist hitting the museums down there which are some of my absolute favorite.

I’m going to be live-blogging my visit to the De Young museum next week on my instagram page. There’s a feature on the instagram app called “stories” where, much like snapchat, a series of pictures is featured in a stream of photos and lasts only for 24 hours. If you have the app, follow Coup de Dés for the museum liveblog! Also just generally follow the page for lots more art and paintings than I get a chance to post here- I like to do some heavy-hitting criticism on this site, and the insta-feed is much more light and concise, with much more quantity.

If people like this, I’ll definitely keep doing it with other museums and galleries, as I tend to spend a lot of time at one or another!

If you have a gallery or museum you’d like to see me visit and post about while I’m in the Bay, leave a comment and I’ll try to add it to my list of things to do! Or if there’s a spot in Portland or Eugene, Oregon, that’s much more accessible for me since that’s where I live.

Anyhow, if you miss the feed and want to see what I got up to, I’ll probably upload the best pics to this page in a gallery form and you’ll hardly have missed a thing. Edit: I uploaded a bunch of images to this page; see image slideshow above!

Who knows, I might even find some brand new art to write a new post about while I’m down there? Here’s hoping there’s some great 19th century works on view somewhere I happen to visit.

 

Henri Matisse Window at Tangiers

Henri Matisse: Window at Tangier

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It would be a mistake to exaggerate the link between any single 20th century art movement and Henri Matisse. His use of a comprehensive range of styles and approaches in creating his broad and highly influential oeuvre is paralleled by few among his contemporaries. With that in mind, it’s often useful to speak of larger trends, mentalities, and tendencies in Europe when discussing Henri Matisse. In Window at Tangier (La Fenêtre à Tanger), two such tendencies are striking: Essentialism and Orientalism.

Essentialism in European art can be described as the tendency to distill shapes, colors, and other compositional elements into their most basic and elemental expressions. In Window at Tangier, we see this in both the reduction of the colors into large fields of yellow, ultramarine blue, and very pale blue and in the rendering of the tree line and window pane into large areas of more-or-less unified color. Part of what makes this piece so impressive is the impact created by the harmony in the simple and beautiful shapes and hues.

Interestingly, it is difficult to extricate Essentialism from Orientalism entirely. The trend of essentialism that gained traction around the early years of Matisse’s career was inspired largely by Japanese printmaking that was arriving from Japan. Artists such as Hokusai and Hiroshige were very popular at the time, and they inspired artists all over Europe to create similar evocations of harmony. The Tonalist movement of James Whistler, for instance, drew on the techniques used in Japanese prints to create a new language of interior and landscape painting that spread even to the Americas.

 

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Hokusai, Suspension Bridge
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James Whistler, Nocturne:Blue & Gold- Old Battersea Bridge

 

Artists like Matisse, Picasso, Felix Valloton, etc., pushed this new interest in essentialism to new and intriguing extremes. Window at Tangier is by no means Matisse’s most striking or radical exploration of his ability to use economy of shape and tone- late in his career, he explored intensely minimal approaches to imagery with paper cut out pieces such as The Snail (1953):

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So while we can say there is something of an Orientalism that is implicit in the essentialist approach to creating Window at Tangier, we can also point to a more direct and more philosophical/spiritual dimension of Orientalism at work here. First, it is important to note that the painting itself is set in Tangier. While Tangier is located to the South of France, the Moorish culture of Morocco is tightly bound- at least in the European mind- to the religious and spiritual culture of the East: Islam.

There are two parts to why the copious use of ultramarine blue is associated with the East in European painting: one is that the word ultramarine itself (literally “over seas”) actually came from beyond Persia and is associated with Afghanistan, Pakistan, Persia, and the Western subcontinent of India. Artists and art aficionados continued to associate the color with the Orient and Islam due to both the sourcing of the pigment itself and the popularity of the color in illustrated manuscripts, tiling, and pottery of the Middle East.

Beyond the pigment and its unique history itself, the color blue was associated with wisdom- particularly among the French Symbolists and the Theosophists. Symbolism may not have been a dominant trend overtly in Matisse’s works, but he was trained in the atelier of pre-eminent Symbolist Gustave Moreau. I’ve written before about the link between the Symbolists and Orientalism (such as in this essay on James Ensor), but what’s important to note here is that the link in the Orientalist cosmology between and innate, intuitive, and primitive spiritual wisdom and the East is a major feature of the Orientalist mindset. So here we see the link again between the Orient, the color blue, and a kind of spiritual harmony/wisdom that represents a guilt and fear among Modernizing Europe and its cultural expressions.

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Henri Matisse, In the Atelier of Gustave Moreau

Matisse would go on to utilize these tropes more aggressively in many of his later works, using the color blue to color whole figures and canvases as an expression of internal knowledge and introspective exploration. What makes Window at Tangier so successful is the balanced and poetic use of Matisse’s broader affinities in an application to a single, recognizable subject- the painting is both exemplary of his deeper inclinations and a stand-alone evocation of a time and place. This particular balance is, in fact, the essence of lyricism.

 

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By popular demand, I’ve started up Coup de Dés on instagram. If you’ve got a mobile device, follow the account here. I like to exhaust topics here on Coup de Dés to the extent I can, but you can expect a lot more pictures and a lot less commentary on the instagram. Ok, a little commentary.

If you want to see Symbolist, Fin de Siecle, Decadent, Post-Impressionist, Les XX, Pre-Raphaelite, and Art Nouveau art in your instagram feed, you will definitely enjoy the photostream.

PIERRE PUVIS DE CHAVANNES: "The Sacred Grove, Beloved of the Arts and the Muses"

PIERRE PUVIS DE CHAVANNES: “The Sacred Grove, Beloved of the Arts and the Muses”

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The art of Pierre Puvis de Chavannes developed such a reputation for the measured nature of his art that the preeminent French Realist author and critic Emile Zola described it as “an art made of reason, passion, and will.” To the modern viewer, however, it is arguably reason that dominates Zola’s trio of descriptors. Puvis de Chavannes’ use of highly structured composition is remarkable among his peers in the community of Symbolist painters. When one compares his work The Sacred Grove, Beloved of the Arts and the Muses to the more frantic expressions of Edvard Munch, James Ensor, Odilon Redon, etc., his work stands out as far more calculated and restrained. Still, The Sacred Grove remains an exemplary accomplishment among the strain of Symbolist art that privileges the Ideal over the darker side of the Sublime.

Part of the reason Puvis de Chavannes’ work is identified as highly Idealistic is the carefully wrought structure of his work. The Sacred Grove is a prime example of this tendency. The placement of the Muses in this work is careful and deliberate to the aims of a pyramidal composition. I have written before of Puvis de Chavannes’ use of this device in my article on Young Girls by the Seaside. Though Young Girls used this pyramidal device to unique effect, the pyramid has often been used by artists such as Michelangelo and Piero Della Francesca  to evoke harmony, fortitude, and triumph.

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Puvis de Chavannes, “Girls by the Seaside”

The Sacred Grove and Girls by the Seaside were far from the only instances Puvis de Chavannes employed this design element:

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Puvis de Chavannes, “Autumn”
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Puvis de Chavannes, “The White Rock”

There are a number of further examples of Puvis de Chavannes using the pyramid in his arrangement of figures. Suffice to say, its use in The Sacred Grove was not an isolated incident among his oeuvre. I do not seek to level the charge at Puvis de Chavannes that he lacked compositional inventiveness per se. I prefer to ask the question, “what motivated Puvis de Chavannes to repeat his use of the pyramidal organization of figures so often?”

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Twelve years prior to The Sacred Grove‘s undertaking in Lyon, France, Friedrich Nietzsche wrote a treatise on criticism that can be of use in examining Puvis de Chavannes: The Birth of Tragedy. In it, Nietzsche supposes the existence of two discrete tendencies in artistic expression- the Apollonian, the impulse of harmony and order with a potentially unbending mathematical and logical tilt; and the Dionysian, or passionate and animated, perhaps to the point of wreckless. While these two strains were separate in Nietzsche’s mind, their synergy resulted tragedy, which he identified as the highest order of art.

Nietzsche’s observations are particularly salient in discussions of Puvis de Chavannes, as much of his art can be said to characterize that Apollonian quality of intellectual balance to the near exclusion of more chaotic yet passionate elements. Insofar as symmetry and order dominate The Sacred Grove, I propose that this piece is the high-water mark of Apollonian tendency in his oeuvre. Further, whereas Girls by the Seaside displays gestures of languid self-reflection, doubt, and ennui in its characters, The Sacred Grove situates its figures in markedly more contrived and rigid poses meant to convey unmistakable expressions of certainty, poise, and intellect. The idealism of The Sacred Grove is, in the end, remarkable for being so prima facie.

The Muses themselves- the subjects of The Sacred Grove– were in fact lead by Apollo in Classical mythology. In that context, it would seem natural that the Muses would epitomize a visually Apollonian quality. And yet other Symbolist artists occasionally explored a more melancholic or uncertain aspect of the Muses, such as Gustave Moreau did in his Hesiod and the Muse.

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Gustave Moreau, “Hesiod and the Muse”

Beyond the lense of Nietzsche’s critical system, Puvis de Chavannes appears to approach Classicism of subject and style with a Platonistic inclination. Whereas a more tragic or comical view of the Classical Grecian gods might have suggested more lascivious or seductive characteristics in the Muses and their cohorts in this piece, Puvis de Chavannes proposes a harmonious society of enlightened and orderly figures that represents an Ideal to be glimpsed and perhaps pursued by man. These figures do not appear to be a part of the natural world that, in Puvis de Chavannes’ time, was increasingly fraught with strife and conflict.

We are left to conclude The Sacred Grove may seem out of place in the Symbolist context where uncertainty, exploration, anxiety, and tragedy were chief concerns to most of its proponents. What keeps it in company with the Symbolists of late 19th century is a longing to rebel against the rising tide of scientism and “reason” of contemporary French society. While there is a highly ordered and logical nature to this piece that dominates the mood of the painting, it does depict an antiquarian interpretation of the Ideal that proposes a perhaps Supernatural and decidedly transcendent animating force of the arts and culture which is entirely different from the Naturalistic and empirical aims of contemporaries such as Gustave Courbet, Emile Zola, and Honore de Balzac. That world of the Muses- as logically ordered as it may be- is still held out by virtue of its perfection beyond the visible. In this sense, it is moved by the Symbolist spirit.

Albert Pinkham Ryder: “Mother and Child”

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Mother and Child, Albert Pinkham Ryder

 

The image of mother and child is an image of eminent importance and familiarity in the tradition of European painting. Aside from the quintessentially human nature of the subject, the mother and child has a unique role in European art due to the importance of the relationship between Mary and Jesus in the Christian religion (and particularly the Orthodox and Catholic traditions). Albert Pinkham Ryder’s Mother and Child is unique among both this broader genre and his own peers in the Symbolist school in its composition and ethos.

The importance of the Madonna and child imagery hardly needs recapitulation for most students of European art- the list of Renaissance artists who produced a variation on this theme is likely appreciably longer than the list of Renaissance artist who did not. Nonetheless, it’s important to note why that was the case. The fact is, the image of Mary- like most popular images from the Middle Ages onward- was popular as a painting subject because it was a popularly commissioned by the patrons of artists. It would be difficult to overstate the popularity of Mary, the mother of Jesus in European culture over the centuries. Beyond that, the brighter side of parenthood was one of the easier aspects of the Christian canon of imagery to depict- unlike the life, passion, etc. of Jesus, which was quite dramatic, Mary and Jesus seated together presented a subject which is both adequately devout and uniquely serene in nature.

I don’t want to get carried away with providing examples of Madonna and child imagery (that could be a blog unto itself!), but I’ll provide a couple of examples of this trope for reference- one from the early Renaissance painter Duccio and one from a later Italian painter Sandro Botticelli:

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Duccio
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Sandro Botticelli

There is nothing about Albert Pinkham Ryder’s image of a mother and her child that explicitly references the Madonna and child tradition, as easy as it would be to imagine that he would anticipate his image being linked to that tradition. That said, his image is strikingly different from familiar variations on the broader theme of a mother and child. Whereas the image of a mother and child avails the opportunity to display both the tenderness of that relationship and the emotions of the mother in her facial expressions, Pinkham Ryder depicted his pair facing each other with back turned to the viewer. The focus of attention is not on a display of emotion itself.

The act of situating the subjects so that we cannot see their expressions introduces a new and intriguing dynamic to the image of mother and child: the viewer is left to imagine the look on the mother’s face. Is the child asleep? Is the woman comforting a crying child? This compositional device invites the agency of the viewer.

Bringing the viewer to starting-point of a departure of the imagination was the stock-and-trade of the Symbolist painter. As I stated in my introduction to my approach to Albert Pinkham Ryder,

“The labor of the Symbolist was to strategically situate the symbol as a touchstone- a marker at a crossroad or a fork in the road of aesthetic experience- to serve as a point of departure for the viewer into a deeper and more personal state of ineffable spiritual or psychological exploration.”

The journey to the heart of this image is the viewer’s to make- it is not proffered in the the manner of Botticelli and Duccio. This compositional device clearly links this piece to Symbolist tradition. An explicit example of this aim of the symbolist can be found Odilon Redon’s painting Winged Man:

 

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Winged Man, Odilon Redon

In Redon’s piece, we are brought to the cliff of imagination. The eponymous winged man looks out toward the horizon, perhaps toward his goal. Or perhaps he looks inward as he prepares to launch into flight. He might be the legendary Icarus, in which case we wait in suspense and anticipation for the ultimate failure of the central figure. He might be an angel returning to the celestial realm. In any case, any and all of those possibilities are on the table, and the purpose of the image is not to tell us which presumption is correct. The point is to take us to the precipice.

While the approach and aims of Pinkham Ryder’s image may have much in common with Symbolist sensibilities, his choice of specific subject is anything but typical. The Symbolists approached femininity with trepidation and skepticism more often than not. One is more likely to find the Symbolist depicting Salomé- the decapitator of John the Baptist- than a mother and her child. Indeed, Gustave Moreau, the preeminent Symbolist, depicted Salomé many times. Felicien Rops, as I have noted previously, made a career of exploiting fears of the femme fatale archetype. Franz von Stuck took a less provocative approach than Rops, but essentially made the same kind of name for himself as a depictor of female ferociousness. In fact, the list of Symbolists who did not depict femme fatale imagery is, like our list of Renaissance painters who didn’t depict the Madonna and child, is much shorter than the list of those who did. The introduction of a female figure who is not in some way explicitly in tension with masculinity is somewhat of a departure from predominant trends in continental Symbolist art of the day. 

As I hope to illustrate in future essays on Albert Pinkham Ryder, he was adept at utilizing the animating spirit of the Symbolist and “decadent” styles coming out of Europe while maintaining a idiomatic and distinct body of subject matter. Decades after his time, images of the mother and child that employ similar tools of uncertainty and obscurantism started to proliferate: Dali, Picasso, Henry Moore, and Francis Picabia produced variations on the theme ranging from sympathetic to bizarre in character. In this way, we can see Pinkham Ryder here (as elsewhere) as somewhat of a bridge to the Modernist moment, where idioms of expression and subject took privilege over “accessibility” and familiarity of subject.