Some of the works of the Surrealists Salvador Dali, Max Ernst and de Chirico are collected on my Pinterest board here. They are the stuff of dreams, nightmares and hallucinations. I remember once long ago rashly combining sea-sickness pills with alcohol and experiencing hallucinations which involved floating elephants – worthy of Dali. Whether he made use of such techniques to free the imagination we don’t know, but I do think such ‘visions’ can be deliberately induced to mine the unconscious and that if one were to immediately write notes after coming round, some very imaginative work could be done.
My own dreams are often forgotten, apart from a handful which have stayed with me my whole life. I would love to express in painting one or two of these which particularly express deep emotion. The challenge would be how to convey a dreamlike quality, rather than simply paint a scene from the dream as though it were in the real world. The Surrealists used various techniques and games to produce a creative process partly free of conscious control, some forty of which are listed here, including:-
Frottage – place the paper over a textured object and rub graphite over it to create unexpected textures
Grattage – the painterly equivalent of Frottage – prepare a support with a layer of paint, place it over a textured object and scrape the paint off
Decalcomania – cover the support with thick paint and while still wet cover it with some other material such as cellophane, shrink wrap; then remove it before the paint dries. I had a go at the technique using acrylic paint on paper. My results were not great – my technique needs improving. Even then, I would always have to have a larger element of control over the process to get anything useful from it.
The patterns resulting from such techniques are then used as the starting point from which to create an imaginative painting.
De Chirico influenced the Surrealists with his Metaphysical paintings. He painted forlorn cityscapes with a haunted, brooding atmosphere, furnished with empty arcades, towers, long shadows and trains.
I’ve looked at the paintings of artists who interpreted the landscape imaginatively, expressing their own feelings and response to it. Some of them are collected in my Pinterest board here.
Graham Sutherland was a painter of imaginary landscapes, influenced by Samuel Palmer, Blake, Turner; but they were also rooted in his observation of the Pembrokeshire countryside. So for example while his painting Welsh Landscape with Roads was derived from the hills and valley near Porthclais, he wrote that he was trying to express ‘the intellectual and emotional essence of the place’ (www.tate.org). He makes the colours unnatural, includes an animal skull and possible standing stones, and inserts a tiny running figure, creating an anxious, threatening atmosphere. In Road at Porthclais with Setting Sun the paths and lanes wending through the landscape are given a spiritual significance due to the dramatic light from a golden sun against a black sky.
The link with Pembrokeshire also led me to John Piper. He made plein air collages of beach scenes, and had chapels, castles and ruins as his subjects. He frequently painted Garn Fawr, the place where he lived, and what is interesting to note is the many different ways he interpreted the same scene. He said that the features in his landscapes, whether church towers, vineyards etc, were not what the paintings were about; they were about the emotions generated by the countryside and the elements at one moment in one special place. The paintings are full of interesting textures and marks, no area of the canvas left unconsidered as Piper worked to express these feelings.
Landscapes of the German Expressionists
My Pinterest board on this group of painters is here. I looked at paintings by Kirchner, Nolde, Max Pechstein, Mueller, Otto Dix, Max Beckmann, Kokoschka. As a group, their paintings are characterised by use of simple form, harsh black lines and garish, unnaturalistic colour, aiming to express a modern response to the world around them, including its landscapes. I love their free use of colour and apparent simplicity. I gathered my landscapes together and noted a rather predictable and monotonous preponderance of blue and green, and evidence in all of them of a struggle with details. How attractive it seems to celebrate colour in all its variety, and to paint in a simplistic, childlike way.
Later I looked at the expressionist landscapes of Wassily Kandinsky and Gabriele Münter and my remarks in the last paragraph were even more confirmed.
Kirchner was the leader of a group of painters, Die Brücke (The Bridge) inspired by Gaugin, Van Gogh, Munch and primitive art. One painting that caught my attention was his View of Basel and the Rhine. The way the water is depicted, a fast flowing river rushing downhill towards a bridge – a dog is trotting merrily in the same direction with the flow, but the inhabitants of the city on the opposite bank are steadfastly ignoring the river and plodding doggedly in the opposite direction. This struck me as a metaphor for the distance and awkwardness of humans’ relationship with nature, compared to that of animals who romantically are seen to be at one with the world.
Max Pechstein was also a leading member of the Bridge group, and painted in the same manner. But in the 1920s, the anxiety and horrors of the First World War and its ensuing political and social turmoil over, he found a natural progression in his Baltic landscapes and seascapes, softening his Expressionist palette, reflecting more of a sense of peace and harmony found in the harbour towns, bywaters and dunes. ‘Abend‘ is an example.
This painting by Oskar Kokoschka is part landscape part portrait, and seems to express a nostalgia for traditional village life, in a similar way to Chagall. Colours are joyful and teeming with variety. Movement of clouds, animal and humans suggests a whirlwind of time passing, music as a symbol of transience reinforces the message. The woman (mother?) holding a crucifix, symbol of religion, death and eternity. Apart from all that though, it’s just a lovely painting, colour and composition treating the eye.
I studied the portraits and figure paintings of Emile Nolde quite intensively for Assignment 3, and I find his landscapes painted with the same approach; deep, intensely coloured indeterminate washes (with subtle translucent veils of colour layered over them, and pigment granulating interestingly as paint dries); these washes would be meaningless on their own, but Nolde gives them meaning and structure with the addition of a few simple lines and marks, finding his subject hidden in the random flow of paint – a horizon, a few clouds; a hill; some vertical shapes become groups of people. They are gorgeous to look at; many acquire deeply thunderous atmospheric effects through choice of colour; but there seem to be hundreds of them, and I can’t discern a development or progression in his work – he seems to have had one great idea and stuck to it.
Symbolism is simply the assertion of subjectivity and the expression of an idea over a realistic description of the natural world. Personal expression means we recreate emotional experiences through colour, line, composition; we synthesise form and feeling, reality and our own inner subjectivity. Having looked at some of the artists associated with this movement, and thinking about how they have adopted symbolist approaches, I start to think about what ideas and emotions I could try to inject into my landscapes.
Symbolism has its roots in the 19th century, with artists such as Gustave Moreau, who painted scenes of mythology and religious subjects. I’m not keen on his brand of romanticism but zooming in closely to the watercolours, until form disappears and I lose myself in his jewel-like layered washes, is quite a visual pleasure. When I was 9, I had a cheap cut glass ring, a ‘gift’ from a girl’s comic. At Mass every Sunday, in the guise of devout prayer, I would clasp my hands to my forehead, squint through my eyelashes, and manoeuvre myself until the colours of the stained glass windows reflected in the facets of my ring dazzled my senses. I’ve always loved bright, kaleidoscopic colour.
Gaugin, strongly influenced by Moreau, combined heavily outlined simplified shapes with solid patches of vivid colour (Vision of the Sermon), to express the devout character of Breton peasant women. Picasso was a great admirer of Gaugin; his blue period works depict his subjects in a greatly simplified way, characteristic of Symbolists. Edvard Munch was closely associated with Symbolism, The Scream expresses feelings of anxiety, anguish, isolation.
Gustave Klimt’s style on the other hand was decorative and abstracted; he used a quasi-pointillist technique to portray every leaf and every meadow flower in his landscapes of fruit trees and meadows. What was he trying to express? According to The Tate,
“Klimt’s landscapes express his wider concerns with biological growth and the cycle of life. Their dazzling decorative surfaces and abstracted motifs align him with emergent modernist tendencies.” (www.tate.org)
On the other hand, he may have just had a canny eye to the art market. It’s said he standardised shape and size of his landscape canvases to make his paintings sell better.
Surrealist techniques www.wikipedia.org
- Klimt. http://www.tate.org.uk/whats-on/tate-liverpool/exhibition/gustav-klimt-painting-design-and-modern-life-vienna-1900/gustav-8