Art Movements for Non-Artists: Part II
“What art is, in reality, is this missing link, not the links which exist. It’s not what you see that is art; art is the gap” – Marcel Duchamp
Art is subjective. It is personal. For the emotions behind it. For its expressions. For how it resonates; each person connecting with a piece of art in a way that is unique to them and the distinctive way they perceive their inner and outer worlds. As Georgia O’Keeffee has confessed, “I found I could say things with color and shapes that I couldn’t say any other way – things I had no words for”. In the second of the three-part series, we’ll be tackling Impressionism, Symbolism, and Pointillism.
Impressionism: “In 1874, a group of artists known as the Anonymous Society of Painters, Sculptors, Engravers, etc. mounted an exhibition in Paris that would bring about a radical break from artistic conventions and launch one of the most popular movements in art history… it’s hard to imagine, now, that the quality of brushwork or the choice of subject in a painting could shock viewers, but for 19th-century Paris, these paintings represented something akin to a revolution” – Alison Chang
At the time, history paintings – touching on literature, historical, philosophical or even mythological events – were regarded with the utmost esteem. And what’s the opposite of such grandeur? The ordinary. Which was what the Impressionists painted – something that was unheard of at the time! They drew inspiration from their surroundings, from everyday life; documenting, as art curator Alison Chang puts it, “the social changes sweeping the city of Paris, including the development of the suburbs and the various forms of leisure activity – from weekend sailboat regattas to evenings at the cabaret – that were emerging across a new, urban middle class”. Conservative critics were absolutely disapproving of their work while more progressive critics applauded their ground-breaking portrayal of everyday life. It was actually critics who coined the term! It wasn’t until their third exhibition in 1877 that they adopted the name “Impressionists” after a critic has referred to a piece of Monet as “a mere impression”. Modern art history students comically identify impressionist paintings as paintings that look like you need your glasses prescription updates. According to Alison Chang, “unconcerned with creating objectively realistic representations, the Impressionists sought to capture changing effects of light, weather, and atmosphere, employing their loose, gestural brushwork to convey the dynamism of their new environment.” How did they do this? Through short, broken, brushstrokes, applying paint in thick layers, adopting an expanded color palette, experimenting with synthetic pigments, painting outdoors from direct observation as opposed to from inside a studio – whatever worked for each individual artist. Leaders of Impressionism include Claude Monet (1840-1926, based in Paris), Edgar Degas (1834-1917, based in Paris), Camille Pissarro (1830-1903, based in Paris), and Berthe Morisot (1841-1895, based in Paris).
Symbolism: The name of this art movement is pretty self-explanatory; it is symbolic! And the thing about symbolism is that it can be a bit of a challenge to comprehend. According to culture writer, “the Symbolist movement in art refers to a diverse group of painters who worked in a variety of styles with a variety of themes. Scholars continue to debate what, exactly, constitutes a Symbolist artwork, and who should be included in the movement”. The difference between looking and seeing, between what’s on the surface and the deeper meaning is at the heart of Symbolism – in art and in literature. German philosopher Friedrich Wilhelm Joseph von Schelling introduced the idea of the unconscious in an 1800 publication, convinced that art allowed hidden human fears and desires to surface – to be seen. Freud complemented this notion with his own ideas about the inner workings of the mind, paving the way for Symbolist artists and writers. Leading artists in Symbolism include Vincent van Gogh (1853-1890, based in Paris), Gustave Moreau (1826–1898, based in Paris), Paul Gauguin (1848-1903, based in Paris), and Edvard Munch (1863-1944, based in Norway).
Pointillism: Pioneering in Paris in mid-1880s, Pointillism was revolutionary and was a reaction against Impressionism. Art history students describe this movement as: “looking like a low-res jpeg blow up”. Even non-artists know what that means! Where Impressionism was based on artists’ subjective portrayal of their surroundings, Pointillism, by contrast, was based on a more scientific approach. Artists had to apply paint in carefully placed dots, making sure that each dot was pure and unmixed with the next. Creating a sort of optical phenomena was the goal for Pointillists, abandoning fluid and spontaneous strokes for a more calculated and meticulous technique. How did the movement get its name? From a critic of course (are you sensing a recurring theme here?!). It was French art critic, Félix Fénéon, who used the expression peinture au point (“painting by dots”) and well, as they say, the rest is history. Leaders of Pointillism include Georges Seurat (1859-1891, based in Paris), Paul Signac (1863-1935, based in Paris), Théo van Rysselberghe (1862-1926, based in Belgium), and Henri-Edmond Cross (1856-1910, based in Paris).
As Edgar Degas said, “art is not what you see, but what you make others see”.
Stay tuned for part two with 3 more movements!