narrative writing & arts
FINDING THE INNER MUSE
Beatrice. Odilon Redon. 1897. Fine Arts Museum of San Francisco.
A work of art is above all an adventure of the mind.
Eugene Ionesco (1909-94), French dramatist
During 2008 I had the good fortune to travel and work for an extended period in the west coast region of Ireland. That trip provided an opportunity for me to explore my cultural identity and how that impacts my writing and my sense of who I am. The visual experience of those landscapes still guides my voice and provides me with a personal connection to the extraordinary literary and story telling tradition of Ireland.
In the video below, Elizabeth Gilbert talks about her experience of writing Eat Pray Love, a memoir about a woman writer's journey to find herself.
AUTUMN 2008: SELF PORTRAITS
Lydia at a tapestry loom. Mary Cassatt. 1881. Flint Institute of Arts.
Self-portrait. Mary Cassatt. 1878. Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York.
I have touched with a sense of art some people – they felt the love and the life. Can you offer me anything to compare to that joy for an artist?
Mary Cassatt (1844-1926)
The bath. Mary Cassatt. 1893. Art Institute of Chicago.
Mary Cassatt was an American painter and printmaker, part of the French Impressionistic movement and perhaps best known for her portrayals of the intimate bond between mother and child. She was born into a wealthy Pittsburgh family who placed great importance on travel as an aspect of education. By the age of ten she had already visited many of the world capitals. As a young adult, even though her parents disapproved, she pursued the study of painting at the Pennsylvania Academy of the Fine Arts. The Academy was not a good fit. Cassatt felt the pace of instruction was too slow and the male faculty and students too patronizing. She relocated to Europe in 1866 to study the Old Masters on her own.
At the start of the Franco-Prussian War, Cassatt returned to the United States to live with her family. During that time, her parents provided her basic necessities but refused to purchase any art supplies. She was able to return to Europe when the Archbishop of Pittsburgh commissioned a series of paintings which required her being in Italy. Afterward she traveled throughout Europe.
By 1872 she had acquired a mature style and was studying in Paris with the patriarchal French Impressionist Jacob-Abraham-Camille Pissaro. She met Edgar Degas shortly after that and his work and friendship were influential to her craft. Her success within the French Impressionistic circle continued until the ill health of her sister and her mother, who had moved to Paris in the late 1870's, prompted her to quit painting to take care of them. By the mid-1880's, her sister had died and her mother had recovered and Cassatt was painting again.
The 1890's marked the beginning of the most creative and productive period of Cassatt's life. She had broken with the Impressionistic movement, developing a style which observed life through a personal and yet unsentimental lens. This approach was particularly evident in the works for which she is best known: intimate portraits of mother and child in everyday settings. During this time, she also began mentoring other American female artists and advising collectors.
Around 1911, Cassatt developed chronic health issues and by 1914 blindness forced her to cease painting. She then became involved in women's suffrage, showing her paintings at an exhibition in support of the movement.
[left] Under the Horse Chestnut Tree. Mary Cassatt. 1898. [above] A child in a straw hat. 1886. National Gallery of Art. Washington, DC.
SUMMER 2008: WATERSHED ART
THE IMPRESSIONISTIC MOVEMENT
Impression, Soleil Levant (Impression, Sunrise). Claude Monet. 1872. Musée Marmottan-Monet, Paris.
The breeze at dawn has secrets to tell you.
Rumi (1207-73), Persian poet and mystic
In the 1870's, after viewing Claude Monet's painting, Impression, Soleil Levant, a Parisian art critic coined the term "impressionism", intending it to be a pejorative. However, the association of artists who embraced this style adopted the term and a ground-breaking artistic movement was christened and launched.
Two art forms had a significant impact on French Impressionistic painting: Japanese block prints (Monet had an extensive collection) and the emergence of photography. Photography, particularly snapshot photography, had an influence on both landscape and portrait art. The blurring of images coupled with the cropping and unusual juxtaposition of forms and figures created a feeling of movement and spontaneity, a goal of French Impressionists.
In addition to a feeling of movement and spontaneity, French Impressionism had several distinguishing characteristics.
In a departure from traditional indoor studios, artists worked in out-of-door venues (plein-air painting). Additionally, their subject matter centered around everyday people in these casual outdoor settings. This differed from earlier traditional forms which focused on rich or highly ranked people and historical or biblical themes.
Technique changed as well. Broken color and broken brushstrokes gave the paintings a sketchy and unfinished quality. These two techniques were also highly evocative, conveying a sense of light and atmosphere. There were other departures in technique. Traditional artists mixed colors on the palette. Impressionists, however, applied pure, unmixed color directly on the canvas. This further enhanced the sense of atmosphere that the Impressionists sought. Finally, in their continued exploration of light, these artists accomplished the shadowing of images with color rather than with blacks and grays. Their work in open air settings and the impact of color in those settings influenced this development.
French Impressionistic painting influenced movements in both literature and music, where writers and musicians continued the exploration of environment and atmosphere. This includes the music of Claude Debussy and Maurice Ravel, the writing of Virginia Woolf and Joseph Conrad. Notable French Impressionistic painters include Claude Monet, Berthe Morisot, Eduoard Manet, Pierre-August Renoir, Edgar Degas and Mary Cassatt.
SPRING 2008: ODILON REDON
A PORTRAIT OF THE ARTIST
Muse on Pegasus. Odilon Redon. 1900.
The job of the artist is to deepen the mystery.
Francis Bacon (1561-1626), English lawyer and philosopher
Odilon Redon (1840-1916) was one of the outstanding artists of the Symbolism movement. Symbolism was a multi-disciplinary arts movement, most active in the late nineteenth century, which rejected naturalism and realism in favor of spirituality, the imagination and dreams.
The canon of his work presents in two distinctly different forms. The first half, until roughly the mid-1890's, is comprised of charcoals and lithographs. These pieces explored unusual and often grotesque subjects (e.g. plants with human heads). Redon was a private man and his work during this period remained relatively unknown until the publishing of J. K. Huysmans's novel À rebours (Against Nature) in 1884. The book's decadent hero collected Redon drawings and this mention brought considerable recognition and attention.
From 1886-1895, events in Redon's life laid the groundwork for the transformation of both the artist and his art. He and Camille Falte, his wife, had their first child, Jean, in May 1886. When Jean died the following November, the acutely sensitive and artistic Redon entered a prolonged period of depression and spiritual crisis. His melancholy further deepened during a serious illness in the mid-1890's.
His artwork during this ten year period provides an intimate window into his healing, as he moves from macabre-themed charcoal sketches to mythological and floral works bathed in luminous color. Though unhappy for most of his life up to that time, the illness transformed him into a more joyful and optimistic person. Some art historians credit the birth of his second son Ari in 1889 as being an important factor in Redon's eventual recovery.
Head of a martyr. 1877.
The works by Odilon Redon, above and below, illustrate the transformation of his work following an illness and a spiritual crisis in the 1890's.
Beatrice. Odilon Redon. 1897. Fine Arts Museum of San Francisco.
I have often, as an exercise and as sustenance, painted before an object down to the smallest accidents of its visual appearance; but the day left me sad and with an insatiate thirst. The next day I let the other source run, that of imagination, through the recollection of the forms and I was then reassured and appeased. A Soi-même (To Myself), Odilon Redon.
The Buddha. Odilon Redon. 1905. Musée D'Orsay, Paris.
Portrait of Ari Redon. Odilon Redon. 1898. The Art Institute of Chicago.
I forsake the black more and more. Between us, it exhausted me a lot. Odilon Redon (1840-1916) in a letter to Emile Bernard (1895)
Evocatoin of butterflies. 1911. Detroit Institute of the Arts.
While I recognize the necessity for a basis of observed reality... true art lies in a reality that is felt.
Odilon Redon (1840-1916), Symbolist artist
Museum of Modern Art, New York.
WINTER 2008: BERTHE MORISOT
A PORTRAIT OF THE ARTIST
A child in a garden among staked roses. 1881.
It is important to express oneself . . . provided the feelings are real and are taken from your own experience. Berthe Morisot (1841-95)
Berthe Morisot (1841-95) is one of the two most important female painters of the late nineteenth century, the other being the better known Mary Cassatt. Born into a refined and affluent family, Morisot took lessons in drawing and painting as a young woman. She met parental opposition, however, when she chose to pursue the craft seriously rather than as a gentile pastime.
Family members and friends served as her models. Butterfly Hunt (La chasse aux papillons) features her nieces and her sister, Edma. During the mid to late 19th Century, there were gender and class restrictions which dictated what subject matter was appropriate for a female painter. As a result, Morisot avoided nudes as well as urban scenes. However, her intimate exploration of domestic life was unusually daring for the time, as several paintings depict Edma pregnant.
Morisot's work did not gain significant recognition until well into the twentieth century.
Butterfly Hunt (La chasse aux papillons). Berthe Morisot. 1874. Musée d'Orsay, Paris.
An oil painting, of a young mother playing hide-and-seek behind a cherry tree with her little girl, is a work that is perfect in the emotion of its observation, the freshness of its palette, and the composition of its background. [Philippe Burty], La Republique Francaise, 25 April 1874
Hide and seek (Cache-cache). Berthe Morisot. 1873. Collection of Mrs. John Hay Whitney, New York. This painting features Morisot's pregnant sister, Edma, with her daughter Jeanne.
Berthe Morisot has wit to the tips of her fingers, especially at her fingertips. What fine artistic feeling! You cannot find more graceful images handled more deliberately and delicately than Berceau and Cache-cache. I would add that here the execution is in complete accord with the idea to be expressed.
[Jules-Antoine] Castagnary, Le Siecle, 29 April 1874
The cradle [Le berceau]. Berthe Morisot. 1872. Musée D'Orsay, Paris. The Cradle is the most highly regarded and best known painting of French Impressionist Berthe Morisot.
[My desire] is limited to wanting to capture something that passes; oh, just something! the least of things. And yet that ambition is still unreasonable! A distinctive pose of Julie, a smile, a flower, a fruit, the branch of a tree, and every once in a while a more vivid reminder of my family, just one of these would suffice.
Berthe Morisot (1841-1895)
Julie dreaming. 1894.