Friday, July 1, 2016

Cartoons, Art, and Identity

Note to visitors: This post revamps and replaces an earlier 2010 post.
It concerns cartoons, art movements, and identity, and is informed by a 2015 exhibit at the National Gallery, Berlin: Im Ex, Impressionism-Expressionism, Art at a Turning Point –– an exhibit my editors and I did not attend but for which useful proxies exist via review articles in The EconomistArtwis.comThe 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 stepwise 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.)

Readers, can you guess what these images are?

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, –– a website with the encouraging, albeit peculiar instruction to "Turn yourself into a cartoon!”  While this is something we might all think about, Todd, seized with the idea of becoming a cartoon, had no time for thought.  Off he went pell-mell, exploring 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 which might clarify these terms.

Among sources I found, 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 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)
Which is to say, both broke from 19th century Realism and its portrayals of "objective" reality –– instead offering visions of reality that reflected the subjectivities of the artists.  But before we define and contrast these movements, here is a gloss of what preceded the Realism they both rejected. (See Gustave Courbet's realism, opposite.)

We'll keep it simple and not enter an infinite regress through Art History.  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)
The Enlightenment era was known for the scientific method, the encyclopedic cataloguing of knowledge, the primacy of reason over dogma.  It was an era that systematized understanding of the natural world via classifications of flora and fauna; also an era fond of Neoclassical art, with its reworking of Classical antiquity's clean lines and sense of order; also an era keenly aware of social inequality and injustice.  It coincided with the Industrial Revolution, urbanization, factory systems, mechanization of agriculture and, in due course, the American and French Revolutions.

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 –– heroes, nymphs, satyrs –– graven in eternal poses, 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 to cause a ruckus, break the mold, let it all out –– a time for revolution, idealization, passion, nationalism, the sublime.
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)
spring to Realism, which was an artistic correction to the perceived extravagances of Romanticism.

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 was almost certainly 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)
Sounds pretty good.  What's wrong with that? you might think.  Well, in depicting reality in concrete, "photographically" recognizable ways, Realism nonetheless rankled a group of artists and prompted the rise of Impressionism which, in its turn, later triggered Expressionism. (Proving that nothing stands still for very long.  Movements beget other movements, the latter being partial identifications with or elaborations on the originals, or maybe disidentifications and rejections, or maybe something else entirely.)

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.  Impressionism 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)
Claude Monet
Impressionism depicted the effect of light on swirling dancers, flowing water, landscape scenes, cafe life, domestic interiors –– often using pastel colors to heighten that effect. It had an unfocused fuzzy look. With soft, congenial color palettes and gauzy brushstrokes, it's easy on eye and mind.  The play of light on natural settings is prominent, but depicted as if seen through sleepy eyes.  It's dreamy, peaceful, sunny.  The scenes shown are often painted outdoors, en plein air, versus the formalism of academic studio painting.

Impressionist art gave rise to a sonic spin-off, Impressionist music –– which typically had spare instrumentation, a hesitant quality, and emphasis on surface ornamentation more than pronounced melody.  It's easy on the ear, not in a formulaic "easy listening" way but through its suggestion of delicate atmospheres, as though we are bathing in a wispy mood-pool while notes flit about our heads.

Portrait of the Artist's Wife 
with Hat (1909)
August Macke (German)
As touched on above, Expressionism depicted emotion-laden images of the same subject matter dear to Impressionists. Scenes of seashores, landscapes, city life, interiors, these look very different in Expressionist hands. For example, in August Macke's painting of his wife, Elisabeth (opposite), we see –– or better, feel –– the Elisabeth in Macke's mind more than the "real" Elisabeth.

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; 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 which 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)
This was an art movement contemporaneous with Impressionism, and also essentially French, but a movement whose images were more structured and solidly "there" in the frame –– less dreamy and romantic than Impressionist ones, less evocative of unconscious currents than Expressionist ones.

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 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)
As in Seurat's "Le Chahut" above, and these works by Émile Bernard and Édouard Vuillard.

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)
for expressive effect.  And since Pointillism is considered a Neo-Impressionist subset of Post-Impressionism, might not Wormism be as well?

Maybe, but at this point a problem emerges.

We may like our Impressionisms straight or Post-, or instead prefer Expressionism, or perhaps enjoy 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)
Abstract Expressionism was a post-World War II movement with a strong New York presence.  It encompassed many styles but in general was a mix of abstract, non-representational, and surreal styles –– resulting in a kind of hopped up German Expressionism with emotional intensity, deep subjectivity, and pronounced, sometimes splashy spontaneity. Figurative elements, if any, were nearly unrecognizable.  (The De Kooning image, opposite, is more figurative than most.)

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)
Todd LeGrand 
Recall that Todd originally transformed our photos using a cartoon website. Yet our abstract images are decidedly not cartoons, not as we ordinarily encounter them.  This is obvious and requires no discussion.  And in any event, it must be true that Todd and I are not cartoony because otherwise ... well, this entire post would be just a sad attempt to gussy ourselves up into fine art.

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 which 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 tropes.  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.

Self-Portrait (2016)
Todd LeGrand
Plus, aside from being abstracted I became distracted along the way by Art History learnings, wisdom I will happily share with my layout editor when he returns from wherever he's gone to.  For it seems Todd has left the premises.  Besotted with a burgeoning artist within, he slipped off some time back to go shopping for a beret.  He left a note to that effect, adding that he has changed his name to something more fitting, and casually dropping that his provenance dates to the Dawn of Art –– to a time when his European-mammoth cousins were posing in the Lascaux caves in southwestern France.

Self-Portrait (2016)
Cyril LePrécis
née Anglo-American)
I think I see him returning now.  Wait, too small to be Todd.  Looks familiar, though.  No, it can't be ... why it's Cyril!  With uncharacteristic abandon, he has morphed into an abstraction.

Turns out he's the most Impressionist of us all.


Bob Schelleng said...

Your post prompted me to learn more about Courbet via Google. There seems to be more going on in his “The Meeting” than an just encounter between three guys bumping into each other in the countryside.
The original title is “Bonjour Monsieur Courbet”. The figure on the right is Courbet himself and the well dressed gent in the middle is a patron of his who is the son of a wealthy banker in Paris. The third is the the patron’s servant. The key to the picture is the tilt of Courbet’s head and his jutting beard which is interpreted as the artist’s declaration of artistic independence from his monetary supporter. Courbet’s roots were rural as shown in the painting but a painter had to be in Paris. So the painting can also be seen as a statement of support for the common folk vs the industrialization going on in France at the time.
He was a republican and was involved in the Paris Commune in the 1870’s. He was admired by the Impressionists because, like them, he insisted on painting common people in their everyday environment. Some art historians think that the central male figure in Manet’s “Picnic on the Grass” represents Courbet.
French music doesn’t seem to have kept pace with the expressionist painters. On the playlist only Dukas has some expressionist flavor; the others are sweet and fuzzy.

Kit said...

Thanks very much, Bob. I read something similar about that particular Courbet painting and I appreciate your comment –– which nicely extends the post by adding relevant material (material which otherwise would not easily fit in the main text page, but which is very good stuff).

About the original title of the Courbet painting, Todd tried at first to show it underneath the thumbnail image but he ran into space problems. That is, he wanted to keep the title confined to one line, and it looked like he'd have to go onto a second line with the longer title. And he just didn't like that look on the blog page, felt it looked sloppy. He's our graphics guy so I deferred to him. The thing is, um, mistakes may have been made ... and anyway, it does fit, quite nicely. So we have amended the title to its original. Thank you.

Comments are appreciated: