Boldly Painted: Reflections on Aesthetic Study in Europe 2018



These past two weeks I took a trip to Europe, and had a chance to visit a number of museums and galleries in Paris, Brussels and Amsterdam. These included the Brussels Royal Museums (Old Masters Museum and Fin de Siècle Museum), the Rijksmuseum in Amsterdam, the Van Gogh museum in Amsterdam, the Rembrandt House in Amsterdam, the Louvre and Musée D'Orsay in Paris, as well as Galerie L'Oeil de Prince, a contemporary figurative painting gallery in Paris, and Galerie J. Kugel, a gallery of antiquities in Paris. It was a time of fruitful study in addition to a vacation, and I learned quite a bit by examining many original artworks by a great variety of masters. 

There were several highlights of the trip: A fantastic exhibit of Delacroix paintings, lithographs, rendered drawings and sketches at the Louvre heightened my respect for the seminal Romantic painter, as it displayed how immensely versatile and prolific he was. Versatility is something I really admire with accomplished artists who can create work in many styles or genres, and Delacroix was shown in the exhibit to be an exemplar par excellence with a ravishing display that included paintings of current events, antique history, literary illustrations of works by Goethe, Shakespeare and others, religious works, still life, floral paintings, romantic landscapes, medieval genre scenes, erotic works, violent works, serene, romantic works... In a range of styles from intoxicated directness of paint application in some of his oil sketches to a sober, rounded classicism in certain religious and antique mythological depictions. There seemed no subject that could escape Delacroix's busy hand.

Many of his works also fit into a new-to-me art historical category which I discovered via a gallery in the Rijksmuseum, that of Historicism, or the deliberate quoting of or revival of prior historic artistic styles in a novel synthesis. "In the mid-19th century, the decorative arts in Europe could assume a wide variety of guises. The severe Empire style gave way to a greater freedom of form. Among the stylistic terms used were 'eclecticism' - from the Greek word for 'to select', and 'historicism' - as designers and craftsmen often chose to revive styles from the past [including] Gothic, Rococo, Classicism, Baroque and Egyptian, [along with] Middle Eastern and Asian Influences. Designers in the 19th century interpreted them in their own fashion, and did not hesitate to combine different styles in a single object. Historicism is also evident in the painting of this period... to evoke a mood of earlier times." (From the Rijksmuseum.) The old made new again. It was a welcome coincidence, as many works in the series I am working on for my BFA exhibit are both eclectic and historicizing, something that has been a matter of criticism, but even that is nothing too new. From the Delacroix exhibit, "Critics were... perplexed by Delacroix's smaller paintings [after myths of Ovid], many of which were tinged with nostalgia. His imaginary landscapes, inspired by close study of effects of light and color... were not admired; his [literary illustrations]... seemed old fashioned... The virtues of memory... were the cornerstone of his creativity. True to his Voltarian spirit, Delacroix cultivated the garden of his imagination." (From the Louvre.) 

Another highlight was an exhibition of Symbolist paintings from the late 19th-early 20th centuries from an unusual locale - the Balkan states of Southeastern Europe. Symbolism, as the French exhibitors humbly pointed out, is often over-emphasized as a French movement, when in reality it was highly international during the period of 1880-1914, roughly speaking. Symbolist painting was one of a cacophony of varied styles taking place during that eclectic modern period of art. Symbolism tends toward the depiction of a sort of dream world outside of time, favoring works that are often strange and beautiful or dark and nightmarish. Figures are utilized in poetic allegory, with a strong tendency toward the nude, and often, but by no means always, the idealized female nude. By nature symbolist works play in idealistic types, drawing from a world of unconscious archetypes, and thus they tend to be the opposite of a more realistic, individualized treatment. But of course these things all exist in a spectrum.

The paintings in this exhibit were amazing for their modern feel - visionary, exploratory figurative and landscape works alongside some pieces that verged on the abstract. Colors are rich, vibrant, and strange in their juxtapositions. Reminiscent of the Fauve painters and the Nabis in French avant-garde of the same time period. Depictions are colored and altered by the filters of memory and imagination. These artists shared that with Delacroix, who as noted favored an approach that prioritized imagination and memory - tempered by rigorous observation of nature - over an optical, realistic approach to painting. At the Van Gogh museum, it was likewise observed that this point became a crux between Van Gogh and Gaugin: Van Gogh favored an observational approach to painting his subjects from what was before his eyes, even if in an expressive manner, whereas Gaugin favored assimilating many observed phenomena into a composite painting colored by recollection and imagination. 

An additional highlight of the trip was the absolute treat of seeing some famous Rembrandts in person at the Rijksmuseum, along with seeing expressive Rubens oil sketches and paintings and Van Dyck portraits at the Old Masters Royal Museum in Brussels. The Rembrandts in the Rijksmuseum on a whole showed just how thick and rich his late painting manner became, with heavy heavy impastos that he is known for, but which are really something notable when seen in person. On a different note, seeing the etchings in his home, the Rembrandt House, was inspiring - with many of them exquisitely rendered on diminutive plates in quick, sure strokes of the needle on copper. The Rubens oil sketches - amongst my favorite treats to see in any museum, as they are rare - were exciting with their virtuoso precision, writhing hurricane sense of movement, and brevity. They give a torrid, dazzling emotional effect. Truly no one since him has had such a command of line with the brush, gleaned from his  exhaustively thorough practice of drawing. Van Dyck gives one the same exact sense of excitement with his portraits - especially the ones with lusher, bravura-style paint application which recalls the late Rembrandt manner. They have some stellar ones in the Brussels museum.

Speaking of virtuoso painting touch, I also discovered the work of the 18th century Venetian Francesco Guardi on this trip, after seeing a reproduction of one of his prints in an Italian restaurant in Brussels of all places, and researching the style online. His paintings of Venetian Venduta, or views, recalled to me the work of Canaletto, but Guardi has a much livelier touch which fits his manner of depicting canal views in with the spritely drawing and oil sketching style of Giambattista Tiepolo, (who was, as it turns out, his brother in law!) and reminded me of the singular work of Alessandro Magnasco (whom I fondly have called the 18th century Dali, for the strange beauty of his works which seem to a bit, well one could say, melted, like Dali's forms.) It was a pleasure to discover this painter, whose works will surely have an influence on my landscape scenes with figures and architecture.

Last, during an afternoon of torrential rain showers in Paris, I took a quick visit to Galerie L'Oeil de Prince in Paris. One of the world's top-echelon figurative art galleries, it offered a nice chance to study the works of others who are equally passionate about continuing the tradition of figurative painting in exciting new directions that build upon the wealth of history as explored here. The gallery has mounted an exhibit titled Americans in Paris in conjunction with Arcadia Contemporary in L.A., in which a number of acclaimed contemporary American figurative artists all took a trip to Paris last year, went to museums, made paintings of figures and landscapes, convened in camaraderie as artists have in that city for centuries, and then made a show out of it. In particular, the works of Shane Wolfe stood out to me for their interesting rendering of flesh tones, precise but open brushwork that included abstracted backgrounds merging with figures, and interesting revisiting of Baroque tropes such as the dangling of a severed head in one that reminded me of Caravaggio's David with the Head of Goliath. The palette in the works of Julio Reyes and Candice Bohannon were also noteworthy, whose portrait works were filled with indescribable middle-gray tones of subtle variation that bear the mark (no pun intended) of refined, controlled painting.


From the Musée D'Orsay Symbolist exhibit Wild Souls: Symbolism in the Baltic States 

Van Dyck portrait details from Brussels Royal Museum: Old Masters

Other symbolist paintings from Brussels Royal Museum: Fin de Siècle. I love the compositions of these.

Other ideas about color from the Van Gogh Museum in Amsterdam and the last one, a well known Sargent, seen in an exhibit at the Rijksmuseum. 

Rubens oil sketches from Brussels Royal Museum: Old Masters. 

Juicy paint details from Rembrandt works at the Rijksmuseum, Amsterdam.