Artists throughout the millennium have sought to illuminate their message through illusion and trickery of the eye and mind.
The artist not only describes appearances of an observed reality onto a two dimensional surface of canvas or paper, but consciously or unconsciously reveals much of their inner world.
Reading a painting, can be an illuminating experience, its like unpacking a coded messages or a meditation, where the viewer discovers their own psychological visions, as well as that of the painter. You can try this yourself. Here are some guidelines.
- A small amount of research is necessary to gain a broad understanding of the artist’s historical/sociological context but apart from that it is just about observation.
- By observing, using the ‘order of perception’, that is the order in which we see things, (suspending our subjective view), and pinpointing the first thing that springs to our attention in the painting. This point is called the focus of the painting, which means this is what the artist wants us to firstly connect with.
- From here, the eye moves over the painting in a spiralling gesture observing as it go, continually deepening understanding of the image and letting go of pre-existing notions, allowing the eye to glimpse the inner world through the veil of illusion.
- Observe such things as geometry, contrasts of shape and colour ie. Curving or straight lines.
In a series of blogs, over the coming weeks I will explore the expressive illusions and tricks employed by various artists.
The following is a study of the painting Dance at the Moulin Rouge, Oil, 115x150cm 1890 by French Impressionist painter, Henri de Toulouse-Lautrec, born 1864-1901. Currently there is an exhibition of his work at the NGA, Canberra.
Toulouse-Lautrec, a member of a distinguished French family, suffered from a genetic bone abnormality where bone fractures prevented growth. Thus, having broken both legs in his teens his legs never grew and his statue became stunted.
This accident of birth and circumstance, coupled with wanting to become a successful painter made it possible for Toulouse-Lautrec to paint with empathy the artificial twilight world of the Moulin Rouge where life was a theatrical, glittering, light, airy play.
While the painting obtensively depicts the humorous light hearted observed reality of the popular Parisian nightclub, with its patrons, the under-belly glamour of the urban Parisian night life, there is a sense of mystery and foreboding darkness throughout the painting.
Nevertheless, the sense of an airy, light hearted freedom dominates the painting at first glance and is probably expressed first in the sketchy quality of Toulouse-Lautrec’s style and brushwork, this, together with the semi-transparent areas of colour and the empty spaces of the green floor boards providing resting/meditative spaces for freedom of eye and mind.
The eye then, is quickly drawn to the strongly lit pink pillar figure of the woman in the foreground, from here, the light brim of her hat points directly at the lithe figure of the Can Can dancer, then the dancers red stockings come into focus against a white petticoat and the figure of Valentino the Boneless jumps into view as the red stockings lead to a red stocking shape directly behind his back (top of a woman’s dress) . The curving lines of this part of the painting explodes with joie de vivre.
But stop, there is something preventing the full potential of the explosion turning into chaos. By using geometric order (small rectangles across the background – the pillars of the bar) and one larger rectangle created by two major upright dark figures in the foreground, the chaos is averted, curbing either mayhem or sublime bliss.
While anchors hold down the bubbling dynamic, the life force, it cannot be suppressed, as Toulouse-Lautrec continues to build the potency.
Especially here, once again, with the central upright fresh and beautiful woman against the partly eclipsed (partly hidden) figure of a woman, seemly not beautiful at all but chinless, bent, and darkly clad.
More intrigue is built as partially cut off figures (men with top hats) leave the picture plane, suggesting there is an unknowing, going on beyond what is seen, like a continuous ‘freize’ depicting the mythology of life (Pathenon freize). At another glance, all the figures in the painting are like an ongoing parade of movement across the picture plane where some people are doers, some spectators, some pillars of society and some who live an unfetted freedom.
In conclusion the artist reconciles his distorted physicality, his nobility and his prowess as a painter by using the dancing figures as a metaphor for his deepest desire to dance and be a part of racy theatrical Parisian night life. His masterful attempts of illusion and trickery suggest he disguises his magician’s hat as a fashionable top hat and he is aware, that life is not always what it seem on the surface, that there are deeper levels of understanding which can be either revealed and concealed at will. This is Henri de Toulouse-Lautrec’s legacy.