In the early years of Picasso‘s career the artist went through several stages in the development of his work, including the blue and rose periods. The plates from the book of a 1997 exhibition I visited, Picasso-The Early Years 1892-1906, are rich in examples of portraits which convey mood and atmosphere – some of them are shown in the gallery below. I spent a very rewarding hour or two looking at his work and thinking about how and why he represented people in the way he did during this period. He was deeply engaged in the political upheavals and social problems of his day, and these, as well as personal tragedy, informed his art.
Many of his paintings from the early years convey a deeply disturbing sense of misery and pain. This is very relevant to my concerns in Part 3, while I investigate my theme of refugees, particularly children and groups of people. They concern the poverty and suffering of marginalised people, but not in a politically charged way. His subjects – prostitutes, beggars, indigent families – are silent and self-contained, passive, withdrawn, indifferent to their surroundings in the despair of loneliness and exhaustion.
p97, Crouching Woman, 1902 – the pose itself – crouched, arms folded, face hidden from view – reflects a person turned in on herself and shutting herself out. The sea is indifferent.
P150, Mother and Child (oil on cardboard) – this is the odd one out, with its bright colours. THe stance of the woman’s head and leaning body – looking for the end of the road? The child’s feet seem placed too high relative to hers.
p171 Mother and Child by a Fountain – like the baby in the previous image, this one is denoted simply by a rectangle of white and a circle for a head. Again the stance of the woman’s head creates the emotional pull.
P172, Seated Woman and Child – the circle enfolding the baby, of face, back and arms is so protective.
P173, Saint -Lazare Woman by Moonlight – beautiful background, like the first (Crouching Woman) comprised of simple tonal rectangles, in perspective. She is also withdrawn, arms folded in, leg placed to is courage any approach.
P181 Woman and Child by the Sea – an implacable, empty sea, and an empty boat. What can the red flower signify?
P185, La Soupe – the contrast between the child’s lively gesture and the mother’s defeated, worn stance
P184 Crouching Woman – her face in deep shadow lends her an air of utter misery
P186 Mistletoe Seller (gouache and watercolour on paper) – this is different from the preceding paintings – the subject a man and boy, but also the harsh quality of the light on the man’s face – I have the feeling it’s lit by a light held by someone just out of the picture frame, someone he’s talking to.
P190 Tragedy – again the sea – has a child been lost to it? The boy, pleading for information and reassurance, his parents each turned inward to their own grief.
P191 Blind Man’s Meal
These were mainly oil paintings on canvas. They are predominantly painted in blue, with sometimes a sort of cold khaki colour; and muted pale flesh tints highlighting faces, feet and hands. In general his portrayal of his subjects is simplified and stylised – this is how I would portray my refugees – they are anonymous, types, expressing a state of being rather than individuality.
Boy With a Dog, 1905, (p248, Picasso – The Early Years 1892-1906) shows the same characteristics, but now the palette, though still blue, is lighter.
Van Gogh‘s Head of a Peasant Woman and the other portraits in this gallery resemble the family group members in the famous Potato Eaters, for which they were probably done as a series in preparation. He depicted the peasants in dark colours and dark, meagre surroundings, indicating their hard, impoverished lives. The first face for example portrays the struggle to survive on the land. Her features are coarse and lumpen, complexion weather-beaten, the brow and eyes express anxiety; her hair and cap awry, she has no time for grooming or resources for finery. Even the rounded line of her shoulders suggests a malnourished, hard-working life.
These paintings strongly informed my response to the exercise ‘Portrait Conveying Mood or Atmosphere’. I wanted to convey a similar gaunt, worn mood and dark atmosphere.
Rembrandt painted hundreds of portraits and self portraits. Many are placed in a mysterious twilight world, with the occasional splash of sultry colour. His pictures of old age – his and others – are especially wonderful. He concentrates on the face and the hands, shrouds them in darkness, the light shining golden-brown to highlight a cheek here, a collar there, capturing pity and pathos in light and tone. He makes his characters not only life-like but seem to feel.
All these paintings have strong tonal contrasts, but the chiaroscuro is more subtle than Caravaggio’s. Backgrounds are dark sepia or umber, but not black and empty.context is suggested in smoky tones. Clothes, hair and hats are nearly always dark, affording the greatest contrast to the skin, which is brown but appears golden and shining. By far the greater part of the picture is dark – light is restricted to the focal points – an approach I’ve adopted, for example in my assignment painting ‘Boy with Baby’ where the baby’s face is strongly highlighted.
German Exressionists tried to express meaning and emotion rather than reality. They manipulated appearance – facial features, hands, background, proportion – in an attempt to capture their subjects’ psychological state. They used distortion (extreme angles and flattened forms), garish colour, unusual settings. I looked at the work of Egon Schiele, Oskar Kokoska, George Grosz, Kathe Kollwitz (brooding introspection, melancholy), Emil Nolde, Max Beckmann, Otto Dix. Many of these artists were traumatised by their experiences of the First World War, and later denounced as ‘degenerate’ by the Nazis.
Kathe Kollwitz‘s drawing of a mother with her dead child powerfully expresses (by exaggerated gesture and dark atmosphere) feelings of intense love and grief. This is relevant to my paintings of refugees, in which I tried to use similar approach to express these feelings.
Oskar Kokoska painting below also portrays a somber atmosphere; I subconsciously adopted a similar palette and approach to light in my Telling a Story painting, which I think turned out to have the strongest atmosphere of all my part 3 paintings.
His appears to be a very oil-painterly approach to painting – brush-Mark upon brush-Mark, wet on wet, the fluid colours built up until there are many subtle under-layers of colour and mark. I like the way the face shines out of the dark smoky background, a bit reminiscent of the Rembradndts above.
I love the garish colouring-book colours of these. The black outlines of the young couple give an even more ‘coloured-in’ look. None of the subjects are looking directly at one another, yet they seem to be intimate, expressing feeling and intent by their stance, gesture, closeness. I’ve tried to adopt these approaches in my assignment pieces.
Otto Dix’s portraits above (with the exception of the last ’Woman Smoking’ lack the subtlety of characterisation of the other artists I’ve looked at, and of his own paintings concerned with war and ‘social realism’. They’re more akin to caricature, with their rather superficial stereotyping of the subjects’ supposed attributes, suggested by the title of the pieces – the painter, poet, journalist, lawyer, dancer etc. I get the feeling he didn’t get under his sitters’ skin.
Picasso – The Early Years 1892-1906, Ed Marilyn McCully, National Gallery of Art Washington, Yale University Press, 1997
Rembrandt by Michael Bockemühl, pub Taschen 2007
Rembrandt Sixteen Examples in Colour of the Artist’s Work, Mortimer Menpes, Pub A&C Black, 1911
World Art by Dr Mike O’Mahoney, pub Flame Tree Publishing, 2006