06 January 2013

Seeing The Light

Thoughts of  light come readily to mind as light begins its return to the Northern hemisphere at a snail-like pace.   About artists painting the light, you don't need to know the scientific theories that artists have relied on in organizing their works to enjoy the finished products.  And  a good thing, too, as many of those theories have been superseded in time.  From the ancients Pythagoras and Plato to Michel Chevreul and Charles Blanc in the 19th century, their influence is still admired at second-hand through the art they inspired.   For the Impressionists and the Divisionists, so different in their outcomes, light as decoded by science was the common raw material.

The Russains Natayla Goncharova and Michel Larionov, before they became Suprematists, penned a joint manifesto in 1913 - Rayism - that reads more like a scientific exposition than a statement of artistic intent.  (“The sum of rays from object A intersects the sum of rays from object B; in the space between them a certain form appears, and this is isolated by the artist’s will.”)  In the event, their compositions disorient the viewer through various techniques, including the appearance of movement and the application of lustre. 

The French phrase 'effet de lumiere'  loses something in the literal translation to  ' the effect of light.'  In her novel Light, as Eva Figes imagines Claude Monet's thoughts on painting during the years when his sight dimmed,  she reminds us that life itself is often defined as light, as in Virginia Woolf's contemporary description (1919)  as " a semi-transparent envelope surrounding us...."  
What the images I've collected here have in common is the effect of light, but made visible in all sorts of ways.  Although light was his great subject, this early painting A Baker's Shop (1888) by the Danish painter Vilhelm Hammershoi is atypical in its stripped-down reduction of light and dark to near abstraction.  From the same year, Georges Seurat uses divisioinist dots of color to reveal the effct of light on land and sea without giving away the basic fact of the time of day.

Paul Klee's La chmabre de roche (1923) was painted two years after he had been appointed a teacher of Form at the Bauhaus.  His room, when placed in proximity to Hammershoi's shop, appears as its deconstruction and its obverse.  Where Klee saturates the canvas with yellow, the primary color that represents light, Hammershoi uses hues strong in gray to convey the experience of light.

Pierre Bonnard, in his later paintings, used color as though it was light itself.   The yellow cascade  of stripes in the curtain does not give the name to the painting La blouse verte (The Green Blouse) but it dominates the composition.   Compared to that curtain, the painted indications of sunlight outside the window pale to insignificance.  Like Hammershoi, and also like the others here, Bonnard paints our reactions to light.  Their verisimilitude gives more appearance of truth than a strict realism would.

Dan Flavin's Monument to Vladimir Tatlin is a real artwork commemorating an imaginary tower  envisioned by the Russian artist Tatlin(1885-1953)  to be constructed of glass and metal.  that would have dwarfed the Eiffel Tower.  Flavin's work, made of fluorescent tubes, is in the collection of  Pompidou Center in Paris.  From fluorescent tubes to video screens, light is a staple of contemporary art, more as stage lighting than as paint on a two-dimensional surface.

For further reading: Light by Eva Figes, Pantheon Books, New York: 1983.

1. Vilhelm Hammershoi - A Baker's Shop, 1888.
2. Georges Seurat - Port-en-Bessins.  Entrance To the Harbor, 1888, Museum of Modern Art, NYC.
3. Paul Klee - La Chambre de Roche, 1923, National Gallery, Berlin.
4.  Pierre Bonnard - La blouse verte, 1924, Metropolitan Museum of Art, NYC.
5. Dan Flavin (1933-1996)  - Monument For Vladimir Tatlin, 1975, Pompidou Center, Paris.


Tania said...

Not enough light in Brussels in recent months, so I particularly appreciate this post. Thanks for Klee and Bonnard's yellows. Best wishes, Jane.

Jane said...

Tania, here in New York the sun sets before 5 PM, although if the sun is out the afterglow lasts until almost 5:30. Yes, it's not enough. We're famished for sunlight. Looked at my atlas and wonder if the sun sets even earlier in Brussels?
Buried in the Blue Lantern archives is a piece I wrote titled "How I Feel About Winter." I still feel that way.

Tania said...

I found it... Now the snow and provision of white !

Jane said...

Tania, do you get much snow in Brussels. I read Textes & Pretexts and enjoy it much. It helps keeps my French up, too.