It concerns cartoons, art movements, and identity, and is informed by Im Ex, Impressionism-Expressionism, Art at a Turning Point, a 2015 exhibit at the National Gallery, Berlin –– an exhibit my editors and I did not attend but for which useful proxies exist via review articles in The Economist, Artwis.com, The New York Times.
A central section pairs five sets of thematically similar Impressionist-Expressionist paintings, some pairings drawn from that 2015 National Gallery exhibit, some being my own. There is also a section that skims art movements in the century and a half prior to Impressionism and Expressionism. Because it is a gloss, it gives the illusion of linear step-wise development, when in fact these movements overlapped and blended.
All images of paintings are of works in the public domain. A playlist of French Impressionist music is supplied to accompany your reading and viewing. (See green box.)
If you guessed myself and layout editor Todd, you are correct. We are here not in our usual guises but as abstractions. Copy editor Cyril is noticeably absent, partly because he is not by nature a joiner, partly because he is above this sort of frivolity, mostly because he tends toward conservation of familiar forms, including his own.
What happened here?
Well, Todd had been researching cartoons when he came upon an appealing website, myWebFace.com –– a website with the encouraging, albeit peculiar, instruction to "Turn yourself into a cartoon!” While this is something we should all think about, Todd, seized with the idea of becoming a cartoon, had no time for thought. Off he went pell-mell, exploring myWebFace.com and coming upon something called PhotoFx, with an "artistic" option called "Worms.”
Not long after, Todd became an artist and we became abstractions of ourselves.
"Abstraction" is perhaps a vague descriptor for our altered conditions, but it is intentionally neutral. You see, I initially tried to locate our abstract selves somewhere within two art-world categories, Impressionism and Expressionism, or possibly their offshoots, Post-Impressionism and Abstract Expressionism. But doubting my knowledge of art history, I went googling for websites that might clarify these terms.
Among sources I found, mentalfloss.com offered this pithy distinction:
If [the art] looks like something recognizable but not too
detailed, it’s Impressionism. If it doesn't look like much
of anything, it's Expressionism. If it really doesn’t look
like anything, it's Abstract Expressionism.
(Editors of Mental Floss, Mental Floss: What's the
Difference?, HarperCollins Books, 2008, p. 149)
There's more to it than that, of course, but it's a start.
Both Impressionism and Expressionism were movements associated with the late 19th and early 20th century, Impressionism preceding Expressionism while overlapping it. Both rendered reality more subjectively than, say, the veridical detail of a still life vase painted in the studio; and by standards of the time, both were off-center and unconventional.
|Bonjour, Monsieur Courbet (1854)|
Gustave Courbet (French)
We'll keep it simple and not enter an infinite regress. Our aim is to contextualize the world in which they developed.
Briefly, and loosely, the Age of Enlightenment (1700s) begat Romanticism (c. 1800-50), which begat Realism (b. mid-1800s), which begat Impressionism (c. late 1800s), which begat Expressionism
(c. early 1900s).
|Venus Induces Helen to Fall|
in Love with Paris (1790)
Angelica Kauffman (Austrian)
It was a pot coming to boil –– within greater society and within the narrower art world. The pot's contents? That soot in the air, that class inequality and servitude; also the natural world, with its forms squeezed into taxonomic data, its countryside commodified as a means for production; also those art-renderings of Classical gods graven in their eternal poses –– heroes, nymphs, satyrs; some cavorting, some suffering, all at odds with the stark realities of the age. (See Angelica Kauffman's neoclassicist image, above.)
|Liberty Leading the People (1830)|
Eugène Delacroix (French)
It was time for Romanticism.
Where we'll stay only long enough to glance at these romantic images (opposite) by Eugène Delacroix and Caspar David Friedrich. And from which we will immediately
|Wanderer above the Sea of Fog |
Caspar David Friedrich (German)
Realism pruned these excesses, stripped the pomp from the hyper-dramatic circumstances of Romanticism. Naturalistic rather than idealistic, it brought riotous and mystical portrayals of nature down to earth. It favored the mundane over the heroic, the contemporary over the historic, and it bared the raw details of social conditions. It almost certainly was influenced by the rise of photography. (Contrast the romanticism of Delacroix and Friedrich with Gustave Courbet's realism.)
|The Stone Builders (1849)|
Gustave Courbet (French)
As for Impressionism, it saw Realism as too mannered, too much a studio-product. A depiction of laborers at an outdoor worksite, for example, might be concretely detailed, yet seem dioramic and staged. Impressionism wanted to inject a kinetic feeling of being there in the lived moment. The subjects in its images seemed less solid and more blurry, less stationary and more in motion. It was less interested in slice-of-life depictions than in the fugitive nature of those slices.
Expressionism felt similarly about Realism, but spurned Impressionism for lacking visceral juice, for being a bit insipid, a bit too pretty.
Expressionism wasn't interested in capturing the optics of fleeting life scenes, but in infusing renderings of those scenes with the emotions evoked by them. The result: a novel hybrid of external and internal, of beach scene or domestic interior with the feelings aroused in the artist by those settings. We'll expand on this contrast below, but it's worth noting that both Impressionism and Expressionism saw the natural world in alternative, para-realistic, mind-expanding ways –– far in advance of mid-20th century Abstract Expressionism, or the psychedelia that came after.
Now as just noted, in breaking from Realism, Impressionism and Expressionism broke differently. Although sharing interests in color, light, movement, and subject matter, they did so antithetically. For while Impressionism played with surfaces, Expressionism dove beneath them.
|Haystacks (sunset) (1890-91)|
|Portrait of the Artist's Wife |
with Hat (1909)
August Macke (German)
Imagine this: we attend a gallery opening in Berlin, it's the early 1900s, we round a corner and are startled by a bathers-at-the-shore painting. The image is neither Realistic nor Impressionist but something else. Color palettes are harder and intenser, brushstrokes more etched. The image seems dimensionally flatter, as if it weren't even trying to be particularly representative of a natural setting. It is more dark than sunny, almost garish. It is punchy, less easy on the eye, more agitating to the mind; and it seems to get inside us. We feel a bit hijacked. (Just such a beach scene will appear shortly.)
Intriguingly, Impressionism and Expressionism sprang from different geographic wellsprings, Impressionism being principally French, Expressionism mostly German and Austrian. I'm no cultural anthropologist and can't explain this difference, and it would be simplistic to fall back on stereotypes of a Gallic laissez-faire ethos versus Teutonic angst: wine and baguettes versus gloomy Danes. It isn't hard, though, to find parallels to Expressionism in Sigmund Freud's early 20th century researches in Vienna –– in his probings into what lies beneath the surface, his conviction that more is at play behind the scenes than the scenes we see, his suggestion that it is always recess behind our schooled perceptions of life.
See for yourselves. To more exactly contrast Impressionist with Expressionist aesthetics, look at the following images. Five similar scenes are paired –– Impressionistic paintings to the left, Expressionistic ones to the right.
|Milking Time (1892)|
Walter Frederick Osborne (Irish)
|Cows, Yellow-Red-Green (1912)|
Franz Marc (German)
|Bathers at the Shore (1913)|
Ernst Ludwig Kirchner (German)
|Boys Bathing (1898)|
Max Liebermann (German)
|The Cheval Glass (1876):|
Berthe Morisot (French)
|Girl Before a Mirror (1915):|
Karl Schmidt-Rottluff (German)
|Reading "Le Figaro" (1878)|
Mary Cassatt (American)
|Girl with Book (1909)|
Hermann Max Pechstein (German)
|Potsdamer Platz in 1894 (1894)|
Hans Herrmann (German)
|Potsdamer Platz (1914)|
Ernst Ludwig Kirchner (German)
Now let's revisit the abstract images of Todd and myself that began this post. Because just now, I'm thinking our abstractions may reflect neither Impressionism nor Expressionism, but Post-Impressionism.
|Le Chahut (The Can-Can) |
Georges Seurat (French)
Post-Impressionism is hard to define and seemingly an umbrella term for a number of styles, including Symbolism and Neo-Impressionism. But just to take a stab at this, Post-Impressionism seemed to grasp the fugitive movements and light shadings of Impressionism and freeze them in time. (See "Le Chahut" by Georges Seurat, above.)
Rather than attempt any further or full definition, I quote this snippet from Wikipedia:
Post-Impressionists extended Impressionism while rejecting
its limitations: they continued using vivid colours, often thick
application of paint, and real-life subject matter, but were
more inclined to emphasize geometric forms, distort form for
expressive effect, and use unnatural or arbitrary color.
|Breton Women at a Wall (1892)|
Émile Bernard (French)
By Wikipedian measures, might the abstractions of Todd and myself be seen as Post-Impressionist renderings? Our colors are vivid, our paint thickly applied, our real-life selves geometrically distorted
|Girl Wearing an Orange Shawl|
Édouard Vuillard (French)
Maybe, but at this point a problem emerges.
We may like our Impressionisms straight or Post-, or instead prefer Expressionism, or perhaps like them all, but art in these styles should still look like something we've seen before, should be a riff on reality. Bathers at the shore, cows in a meadow, street scenes –– these should resemble, however abstractly, bathers, cows, and street scenes.
And this raises the question, are the abstractions of Todd and myself figurative? Do they more or less resemble us?
I confess the answer is probably no. Our geometric distortions seem too buckled, too deformed; I fear we've crossed over into another art-classification, one I'd hoped to avoid. I didn't see it at first because I work closely with Todd and know him. I look at his image and am reminded of his real self within the wormy abstraction –– recognizing that what appears to be a ball of brown yarn is, in fact, Todd. And vice versa. Todd knows me, has an inner Kit-template, can translate wavy lines into a dogiform image.
But for the rest of you, many may find nothing here but squiggles, not Impressionistic squiggles, not Post–Impressionistic ones, not even Expressionistic ones, but Abstract Expressionist ones.
There, I've said it, "Abstract Expressionist," the adjective I'd hoped to avoid. What can it mean?
|Woman V (1952-53)|
Willem de Kooning (Dutch-American)
And Readers, even were you to co-edit this blog with Todd and myself, work alongside us and know us well, there's no guarantee you'd see our abstractions as Impressionistic or Expressionistic. For all your knowledge, we might remain as Abstract Expressionist squiggles.
Because perception is idiosyncratic. Take cases where universally we share knowledge of the same thing –– the outline of a human face, say, arguably the first image any of us has. It still doesn't follow that we will all see a man's or woman's face in the canvas of a full moon. Some will, but many will see a scattering of blotches.
So, Readers, you'll likely classify our abstractions quite variously. As forms of Impressionism or Expressionism should we seem figuratively rendered to you, as Abstract Expressionism should we impress as visual gibberish.
|Kit in Green Field (2016)|
Interestingly, the original meaning of cartoon was specific to the world of art. Prior to the 19th century, a cartoon was an initial drawing by an artist, a preliminary design that prefigured the final painting, fresco, tapestry, or stained glass. An artist had an idea and made a drawing of that idea, which drawing was seminal, primary, full of potential detailings.
The term itself derives from charta (Latin: paper, writing) and is part of a family of paper-related words (card, cartography, cartouche, carton, cartridge, chart).
The modern cartoon isn't a prefiguring at all, it's the finished product, a whittled, stripped down graphic; also an instrumental one, guiding our attention down given paths, usually for humorous or satiric ends. By isolating and highlighting parts of someone or something, it telegraphs a message, often using set props and text as adjuncts. Donald Trump's hair, Huge Hands, the American Flag, the word "Great," these are distilled conduits.
True, a cartoon of any vintage is inherently sketch-like, not overly filled in, but that is its only similarity across history.
Anyway ... uh, hmm, that's it, I guess. An abrupt ending here, nothing else comes to mind. At the outset of this post, I had imagined these musings on art might arrive at a Point. Still, I needn’t feel so bad. I am an abstraction of my former self, after all.
Turns out he's the most Impressionist of us all.