I deliberately set out to prove I could do four entirely different sorts of picture like Picasso.
Until 29th May 2017, Tate Britain are exhibiting the life works of David Hockney (b1937), one of the most widely acknowledged artists of the present day. Displaying work from his early days as a student at the Royal College of Art right up until his newest works, the exhibition showcases the different styles and techniques Hockney experimented with during different periods of his life. Arranged in chronological order, the artwork tells the story of its creator as well as delving into the mind of a true artist.
Whilst studying in the 1960s, Hockney was subjected to the influences of a whole range of styles and artists. Although it is usually easy to identify a Hockney painting, his work as a student was vastly different. Inspired by abstraction, Hockney produced child-like canvases filled with splashes of paint, graffiti styled letters and numbers, phallic shapes and freehand drawings. Most of these artworks were related to themes of sex, love and homosexuality, which is suggestive of issues he may have been facing at this time.
Shortly after finishing college, Hockney moved on to new topics and new styles. Although his subject matter remained broad, he began focusing on more domesticated scenes. These, naturally, contained people, and are probably some of his more famous work. Later he got people to sit for him, however at the end of the 60s, Hockney was more focused on the people he observed around him. Often featured were naked figures, continuing his theme of sex and love.
For a large part of his life, Hockney has lived in the United States, relocating to Los Angeles as his career began to take off. Exposed to new scenery, climate and architecture, he began to use these as the focus points of his paintings. California is a state with one of the warmer climates, therefore items such as lawn sprinklers and swimming pools were fairly common. Whilst Hockney was beginning to take a naturalistic approach to art, he implemented a simple form of abstract style to capture the sense of water in motion. Therefore, his artworks were unique, not conforming to any particular movement.
Hockney soon moved on to portraits, although not commercially. Only painting people he was already acquainted with, Hockney carefully staged the compositions, combining informal poses and comfortable settings with the traditional portrait style. Hockney has become well-known for his portrait style – in fact, the Royal Academy exhibited a series of these in 2016. What makes these paintings most impressive is the choice of media and his resolution to paint everything from life. Choosing acrylic paint was a bold move; as artists will know, this paint drys quickly and cannot be removed from the canvas, therefore mistakes could not easily be rectified.
The 20th century saw the biggest changes in technology and, unlike artists from bygone eras, Hockney was able to attempt new ways of making art as each advancement appeared. In the 1980s, for instance, Hockney utilised the growing interest in photography, particularly in the form of the Polaroid camera, to create abstract works of art. Instead of photographing a scene in the traditional way, Hockney photographed each section individually, using the carefully positioned print outs to reveal the whole image – sort of like a jigsaw. This meant that the final outcome often had a double-vision effect as a result of overlapping sections where the model or scenery may have shifted, or the imprecise placement of the camera.
As the world entered the 21st century, even more options were presented to Hockney to manipulate into works of art. His most recent works have fully encompassed digital inventions, making him one of the most versatile artists of the time. Firstly, he embraced the world of film, using multiple cameras to create a cubist-like sequence showing the changing seasons of a particular scene in Yorkshire. The Four Seasons is on display toward the end of the exhibition, although examples can be found online.
Hockney has not left his drawing and painting behind however, but with the discovery of the iPhone and iPad, he has almost dismissed conventional sketchbooks, preferring to use digital apps to draw using his thumb or a stylus. Again, a few examples of these can be seen in the final room of the Tate’s exhibition.
To this very day, David Hockney continues to engage with his accustomed range of subjects, including portraits and still life. They may have taken on a more digital nature, however that does not stop them from being works of art. Despite his increasing age, it looks like the world can expect more Hockney masterpieces in the near future.
A couple of weeks ago, thanks to a very good friend, I was lucky enough to attend the Member’s Preview Day of the National Gallery’s latest exhibition: The Credit Suisse Exhibition: Michelangelo & Sebastiano. Rather than merely displaying examples of each artists’ masterpieces, the gallery has focused on and emphasised the friendship and collaboration between the two Italians. With in-depth information accompanying each work of art, an extraordinary story is told.
It goes without saying that Michelangelo is the more famous of the two – his name is well known regardless of whether people are able to bring his paintings or sculptures to mind. Sebastiano, on the other hand, is probably only heard of by those in the know – the artistically educated.
Michelangelo Buonarroti (1475-1564) was a man of many talents and highly influential to the Renaissance era. Living primarily in Florence, he was respected for his sculpting, painting, architecture, draughtsmanship and poems, although is mostly remembered for the former two. Due to his exceptionally long life, Michelangelo’s career spanned more than 70 years, and as a result, was the leading figure in Italian art.
Art historians are exceptionally lucky, particularly regarding the lack of preservation methods of the time, that so much is known about Michelangelo. Not only have innumerable artworks survived, a multitude of written correspondence is also still in existence, providing a great insight into his career and personal attributes.
Michelangelo’s first major piece of work is arguably David (1501-4, Accademia, Florence) – a larger than life statue sculpted from marble and erected outside the Palazzo Vecchio. This statue has since become a symbol of Florence and Florentine art. Michelangelo could have had many other equally significant works during his time in Florence, however a great number of his commissions remain unfinished, largely in part to summons to Rome from Pope Julius II – something that occurred with later Popes, too.
It was Pope Julius II who commissioned one of Michelangelo’s most significant achievements: the frescoing of the ceiling of the Sistine Chapel (1508-12). It can be surmised from letters and so forth, that Michelangelo was rather reluctant to take on this project, since he viewed himself primarily a sculptor. The finished painting shows representations of biblical characters, particularly those found in the book of Genesis, as well as the most important figure, Jesus Christ.
This brief account of Michelangelo’s life is typical of art books and encyclopaedias, but fails to mention the significance of his unaccounted for friend.
Sebastiano del Piombo (1485-1547) was a Venetian painter, although worked predominately in Rome, where he incidentally met Michelangelo and formed a strong friendship and professional relationship. It was through this connection that Sebastiano became known, developed his painting style, and picked up commissions as a result.
Although Sebastiano owes Michelangelo for a large part of his success, his early works prove that he already had an exceptional gift. His impressive painterly skills can be observed in Judith (or Salome?) (1510, National Gallery, London) in which he expressively demonstrates the character’s beauty.
Sebastiano may have been overshadowed by the great Michelangelo, however he was recognised for his portrait artistry, a skill that supposedly had no rival. Sebastiano painted portraits of a number of significant figures, including Pope Clement VII.
Initially, Michelangelo sought out Sebastiano with the intention of making his rival, Raphael, jealous. By providing Sebastiano with drawings and designs to use as starting points, Sebastiano was constrained to Michelangelo’s particular style and method.
As you walk around the exhibition, it is almost impossible to distinguish between the two painters. Sebastiano perfectly replicates Michelangelo’s distinctive approach to painting, causing him to rise in popularity and receive just as many commissions as his more experienced contemporary.
Michelangelo and Sebastiano became favoured artists of many noteworthy individuals, including various popes. As a consequence, other up and coming artists began to mimic the method, resulting in Michelangelo’s original approach being adopted as the new Roman style of painting – something that continued long after their deaths.
Wandering the gallery rooms of the exhibition, it is highly noticeable that the two painters were very keen on religious scenes, particularly the death and resurrection of Jesus. This will come as no surprise to historians due to the fact the Catholic Church dominated over most of Western Europe during the 1500s. Also, the demand for paintings would have come from those who could afford them – for example, the Pope – and the majority of commissions were requested to decorate churches and chapels.
As the pair’s careers progressed, they were often separated. Michelangelo was called to Florence whilst Sebastiano remained in Rome, however they did not let this hinder their partnership. As evidenced within the exhibition, Michelangelo and Sebastiano kept in touch through letters. These reveal the intricacies of both their friendship and professional relationship, often updating one another on the progress of their current commissions.
Unfortunately, Michelangelo and Sebastiano’s relationship was not to remain amicable for the entirety of their lives. Michelangelo continued painting until his death, whereas Sebastiano began to wind down in his old age – something that Michelangelo deemed as laziness. After Sebastiano’s death, his so-called friend made malicious comments about him, thus suggesting their friendship may not have been quite as it appeared.
The National Gallery have done a fantastic job at curating their latest exhibition. Although the most famous artworks could not be displayed (David and Sistine Chapel, for instance), the paintings, drawings and sculptures on display exude a phenomenal sense of awe and intrigue. The scale of some of the paintings are quite remarkable, and go to show the talent both Michelangelo and Sebastiano had.
The exhibition continues until 25th June 2017, so there is plenty of time for Londoners to visit these unforgettable artworks, and, as a bonus, learn about the artists themselves.
The Entombment – Michelangelo
The Raising of Lazarus 1517-19, Sebastiano del Piombo incorporating designs by Michelangelo
The following essay was originally written in 2011 during my second year studying BA Graphic Design.
This essay will talk about the development of technology from the 15th century until the digital technology of today. It will also explore in detail the effects, both positive and negative, of digital technology in relation to illustration.
Over thousands of years the idea of what illustration is has changed, especially in recent years. Illustration most likely began with someone drawing in the dirt with their finger however now illustrations are being produced for book covers, magazines, posters, websites, and so on. (Zeegen, 2009)
Over the past six or so centuries, technology has developed in ways that have changed the process of producing written and illustrative work. “It is hard to imagine a world in which every image was unique. Prior to the fifteenth century, images were not only-one-of-a-kind but rare.” (Thompson, 2003) [Online] Before the fifteenth century, all illustrated books were produced by hand, making them also very rare. (Mugnai, 2009a) This would have taken time meaning that books and illustrations would have been expensive due to the limited amounts of copies. So at this time copies of books or even the originals would have been found in select places of status such as palaces and churches. (Thompson, 2003)
During the 1400s the printing press was developed by Johannes Guttenberg resulting in the ability to reproduce thousands of identical images. However it was possible to reproduce images before this. In Europe in the 1390s woodcuts were used which then led onto etching and engraving in the middle ages. Some examples of etching are the illustrations by H.K. Browne for Charles Dickens’ novels. (Fig. 1) By the nineteenth century artists were finding ways to add colour into their prints. Books were now becoming easier and quicker to produce and hence costs were reduced rapidly. (Kreis, 2004) This also meant that individual people could then own a copy of a book rather than having to go to other places to look at or be read to from one.
Once methods of printing had been invented there were less hand-drawn books being produced. By the end of the 18th century lithography was invented but this was soon replaced by the end of the 19th century with “photomechanical processes that made possible the reproduction of a wide variety of painting and drawing techniques.” (Columbia University Press, 2007) [Online] The 19th century saw the development of the Golden Age of the Victorian Illustration and also the beginning of the Golden Age of Illustration in America. This period saw a rise in printed book and magazine illustration due to the developments in printing technology. Illustrators from this time were inspired by pre-Raphaelite art, Japanese colour prints and art nouveau style. (Wigan, 2009)
After the two world wars illustration styles changed as illustrators were influenced by the different artistic movements of the time, such as, Pop Art and Photorealism. (Mugnai, 2009c)
In the world today methods of illustration are completely different to those of the past. Bruce Wands suggests, “Computers and the Internet have revolutionized the way people communicate and how they produce media” (Wands, 2000:p40). Styles of illustration have changed to fit the growing developments, such as more visual content is needed on websites and blogs therefore digital approaches to illustrations have increased. (Tallon, 2008)
Picasso once said, “computers are worthless. They can only give you answers.” (Zeegen, 2007b:p41) However as Picasso died in 1973 he was not alive to see the development of digital illustration. In recent years the computer has provided illustrators with an additional means in the process of creating their work.
Digital technology was the next step for illustration and has altered the nature of the discipline. “The digital revolution would take no prisoners – it was clear, adapt or die!” (Computer Arts, 2006) [Online] It was in the early 1980s that the computer began to be used for illustration. At this time computer screens could not display extensive colours and everything was displayed in a low resolution. Therefore Pixel illustration, “is arguably where the whole digital illustration shebang began” (Goldman, 2011) [Online]
Although Goldman argues that digital illustration began in the 80s he also mentions that a different kind of illustration emerged in the 1990s. Adobe Photoshop fully emerged at the beginning of the decade but in 1995 once the software had been developed “digital photo illustration was born.” (Goldman, 2011) [Online]
Soon, although there were illustrators who still preferred to produce their work by hand, less hand drawn illustrations were being used in magazines or on book covers and “images composed of squiggles and geometric shapes, courtesy of Adobe and Apple” (Stermer,2000:p30) began to appear instead.
The invention of programmes such as Photoshop meant that illustrators could edit their work digitally. For example, as Wands pointed out, illustrators could now work purely in black and white then scan their work into a computer and using digital software manipulate elements and apply colour on screen. This meant that artists no longer had to spend hours producing everything by hand and starting again when corrections were required. As well as Photoshop there was Adobe Illustrator, which allowed artists to create illustrations and enlarge them to any size due to the flexibility of such vector software. (Wands, 2000)
Photoshop and other software in theory offer more savings in relation to production. Today many comic book artists draw their work by hand but choose to add colour using digital software. In Goldman’s article he mentions another specialised software, Corel Painter. In similar ways to Photoshop this programme can be used to edit illustrations and photographs or create illustrations from scratch, however in a way that can imitate “the way that watercolour Paints behave when wet, with drips, runs and splashes.” (Goldman, 2011) [Online] This software is time saving as it is possible to produce something comparatively quickly with it, whereas to do the same by hand, for many people, would take a long time as the artist or illustrator may not have skills in a range of media and digital simulation may offer an alternative solution.
Digital technology has given those that are not confident at drawing by hand the opportunity to become illustrators. Computers have opened up new styles of illustration such as Pixel Illustration, as mentioned earlier, and Vector Art. Vector Art is an appropriate type of illustration to be used on websites as files are small in size whilst retaining clarity and are quick to download. Vector illustrations can also be reproduced at any scale without losing clarity and sharpness. Artists usually use photos or hand drawn materials as a template to draw around using digital software. (Goldman, 2011)
However, even though digital technology has become popular in relation to illustration, this does not mean that all illustration has to be entirely digital. Since the development of digital technology there has been a rise in multimedia art. This is where more than one type of media is used within an artwork for example painting, print and photography, and now more recently, digital images. This style of art was fairly popular in the 1990s where technological advancements were giving illustrators and designers new methods to experiment with. (Mèredieu, 2003)
Dave McKean is an example of an illustrator that uses a multimedia approach in his work. He has made many illustrations for book covers, CD covers and graphic novels. He has become widely known for his work with the writer, Neil Gaiman. McKean uses the computer to layer his multimedia compositions, a lot of which are often made by hand. He has a fairly positive opinion about the use of digital technology when producing illustrations. He has suggested that with a computer there is “obviously incredible control” (Miller, 2004) [Online] and it is a good way of layering images no matter what the media; digital or handmade work. McKean is a skilled draughtsman so combines traditional practices with the flexibility offered by digital software. (Fig.2)
His main negative view of digital technology is not one that really relates to illustration work but only that people end up spending most of their time sitting in front of a computer. He also says that many people assume that it is possible to use digital software to edit photographs to get the required affect, however depending on the image this is not always possible.
Despite McKean having positive views on digital technology he believes that illustration is in trouble. “I’m sure this is just the computer’s honeymoon period, but in the meantime, illustrators are having a tough time getting work.” (Miller, 2004) [Online]
Although digital technology has its positive aspects there are other people who have negative views on such developments. Roger Parker believes “recent advances in computer imaging are blurring the line between photos and illustrations”. (Parker, 1998:p93) Caplin and Banks tell us to “forget the ‘photograph’. Nowadays it is just another word for an image. All images are images, however they are produced.” (2003:p6) Françoise Holtz-Bonneau points out that digital images produced on a computer are either overly geometric or they are “excessively realistic in an all too perfect way”. (Mèredieu, 2003:p109) Rick Poynor argues that illustration generated using a computer has become “predictable and trite”. (1999) [Online] Many people have learnt how to use digital methods to produce illustrations, which after a while have become similar and clichéd.
As now it is not essential to be able to draw to be able to produce illustrations, Milton Glaser argues that the invention of computers has made illustrators unnecessary. (Arisman, 2000) If people can produce their own illustrations easily then they will not need to hire illustrators to do this for them. Karl Marx predicted a society where there would not be any professional artists as all people would be artists. “The particular way in which art is expanding and becoming diluted at present” would not please Marx, however he did foresee the possibility of these things occurring such as the blurring of the boundaries of the disciplines. (Mèredieu, 2003:p222)
“Anyone with a computer and a printer now has an artist’s studio, photography studio, film studio, printing press, and laboratory on their desk.” (Herriott, 2009:p6) Although this was said as a positive response to the advancements of technology, it backs up Marx’s view that it is possible that all men will be artists. Everyone will have access to technology that gives them the ability to make their own illustrations, which “makes illustrators unnecessary”. (Arisman, 2000:p55)
Neil Churcher writes about Marion Deuchars, a tutor from the Royal College of Art, in an article saying that she believes that drawing by hand, for example into a sketchbook, shows that the illustrator has design skills. However she thinks that computer aided design has lessened this importance as now it appears the most important thing is digital visualisation. Churcher refers to the graphic designer, Phil Carter, who says that “drawing is a skill that is sadly being lost”. (Churcher, 2002) [Online]
Steven Heller writes in his essay, The End of Illustration, that people are digitally changing aspects of others art works without their permission. (Heller, 2000) Therefore some artists have “willingly offered their pictures, carefully crafted over a career of individual commissions, to be used and misused… altered beyond recognition on attribution.” (Stermer, 2000:p30)
Milton Glaser has written about how he was once approached about a business plan, which would involve compiling a disk of illustrations that people could buy and use as they wished. So someone could buy the disk and then “use any image, for any purpose, modified as desired, combined with any other images, recoloured, reshaped, reconfigured… forever.” Illustrations, therefore, would no longer be unique. (Glaser, 1997:p258)
Glaser fears that the profession of illustration will eventually disappear especially if business plans such as these go ahead and succeed. If people are able to get their hands on such disks then the professional illustrator would no longer be needed or even wanted because, as Glaser points out, it is doubtful that clients will want to pay for illustrations when something similar could be acquired for nothing. For persisting image-makers, such as illustrators, artists and photographers, there is the risk they will not be well known, as they will just be “reduced to the level of anonymous image providers.” (Glaser, 1997:p259) If a disk such as this had ever been produced then illustrations would have become standard images that would get overused and boring. On the other hand, because of the overuse of the same illustrations again and again, people may desire new original visual approaches.
Traditionally a work of art was a unique thing as it was made only the once; there was only one copy. Nevertheless, once technology began to develop it was possible to make copies of these unique art works. The copy, however, would “lack the authenticity and aura of the original work, so be worthless.” (Hillis Miller, 1992:p20)
“That which withers in the age of mechanical reproduction is the aura of the work of art.” (Benjamin, 1936) [Online] Walter Benjamin wrote an essay in which he suggested the idea of aura in relation to artwork and the effect that mechanical reproduction had on this. By reproducing a work of art, for example, it is removing the original from its “domain of tradition”. (Benjamin, 1936) [Online] So even if the reproduction of the artwork is faultless, it is still lacking in something: “its presence in time and space”. (Benjamin, 1936) [Online] The work of art has been removed out of its original context. For example a religious painting would have an aura in the museum or church in which it is displayed, but this aura would be destroyed if it were to be used as a magazine cover as it has been removed from its original domain. Technology has also changed peoples reaction towards hand produced art because original artwork, such as a painting, was only “viewed by one person or by a few” (Benjamin, 1936) [Online] and its aura could only be appreciated by these people. However, once copies could be produced, these art works, now lacking in aura, were viewable by the public who would not value them in the same way as someone who viewed them in their original domain.
This essay was written before the digital technologies of today, as the first computers did not appear until the 1940s (Mèredieu, 2003). However Benjamin’s argument is still relevant today because it can be applied to digital technologies.
The idea of a loss of aura is evident in “photographs of photographs, photocopies of photocopies, and copies of video tapes” (Mitchell, 2004:p5) where each copy has a lower quality than the original. Matt Soar mentioned this idea of an aura: “that illustration beginning with the hand and ending with pens, brushes, or pencils has an affective quality – an aura”. (Soar, 2000:p33) He says that this quality cannot be created by digital processes such as photography and computer software.
Another example of this lack of aura are photographs of things. A photograph of an object is just that, a photograph of an object. By looking at it no one actually sees the original object, what is actually seen is “the original of a reproduction – with all the associated loss of aura.” (Rodman, 2007) [Online] Howard Rodman uses as an example the Eiffel Tower. The actual tower has an aura whereas the postcards, t-shirts and other merchandises do not have this aura.
Lucinda Rogers is an illustrator who produces everything by hand. This consists of mainly reportage drawing which involves her drawing on the spot. Deuchars says that when drawing no one can tell what the final outcome will be like, or whether it will be good, until it is finished. “You have to let it go on its own journey. What you have to do is to start without thinking.” (Churcher, 2002) [Online] With digital technology this is not possible in the same way.
Although many believe digital technology to have caused problems for illustrators and maybe even the end of illustration, Zeegen writes that before digital illustration grew in popularity, illustration was “only moments away from the final nail being hammered into the coffin.” (2010) [Online] Whereas some illustrators believed that all was not well for illustration, Zeegen (2007a) [Online] poses the question “Where did it all go right?” Therefore, digital technology has for some brought new life into the discipline, especially, as Zeegen also points out, through the growth of the Internet where “illustration has become more noticed on an increasingly global scale”. (Zeegen, 2010) [Online]
Overall there are many different opinions about digital technology and its effect on illustration. A Scottish illustrator, Bernie Reid assumes that digital illustration will begin to decline, whereas Michelle Thompson has expressed the view that she believes that both hand-rendered and digital illustration can both exist together especially as image-makers are benefitting from digital techniques within their hand produced illustrations. Peter Arkle, another illustrator, feels that there should be a growing interest in work that shows evidence of being produced by a human hand even if some of the illustration is digital as it really stands out. (Hyland and Bell, 2003)
Although digital technology may be an exciting new method and has made it easier and quicker to produce illustrations, Steven Wilson, who has done illustrations for The Guardian argues that it is “only as exciting as the ideas you have inside your head”. (Computer Arts, 2006) [Online] So illustrators are still needed to come up with the ideas for illustrations. Emily Alston, who uses digital methods, points out that “every illustrator and designer has the very same technology available to them, and if everyone uses the tools in the same way, nothing would ever stand out as different or original.” (Computer Arts, 2006) [Online]
Caplin and Banks believe that digital technology is a positive thing due to the fact that designs and illustrations can be produced faster than by hand but also they point out that “from cave painting on, image making has followed technological advancements and will continue to do so.” (2003:p7) So just as with development of the printing press, lithography and so on, digital technology is simply the next advancement of an ancient and continually evolving process.
On the whole digital technology has had a positive effect on illustration as it has brought new opportunities and methods to the field. With the development of technology, illustrations have become quicker to produce both from the reproduction point of view, with the development of the printing press and later computers; and also in producing the original image, thanks to digital software. There are, on the other hand, negative view points about digital technology as some artists fear that the more traditional methods will be abandoned and that the profession of illustrators will slowly decline because of the ability of everyone being able to produce or copy others work using software available to all. Overall, every time that technology advances, illustration is able to adapt to the new methods of producing, whilst still being able to integrate traditional methods. Therefore, digital technology is the next step in the continually evolving creative activity known as illustration.
Glaser, M. (1997) The End of Illustration (Or the War is Over, Part 2) In: Heller, S. and Finamore, M (eds.) Design Culture: An Anthology of Writing from the Aiga Journal of Graphic Design New York, Allworth Press
Soar, M. (2000) It Begins with “Ill” and Ends With “Digital”:The Riddle of Illustration’s Declining Fortunes In: Heller, S. and Arisman, M. (eds.) The Education of an Illustrator New York, Allworth Press. P.32-35
Stermer, D. (2000) What the Hell Happened to Illustration? In: Heller, S. and Arisman, M. (eds.) The Education of an Illustrator New York, Allworth Press. P.29-31
Tallon, K. (2008) Digital Fashion Illustration with Photoshop and Illustrator London, Anova Books Company Ltd
On a recent trip to the Tate Modern, a friend and I came across a couple of paintings by the Dutch artist, Piet Mondrian (1872-1944). Without reading the accompanying title plaque, we both recognised the artist’s distinctive use of geometric shapes and colours. We learnt that these particular paintings were titled Composition B andComposition C, to which we both responded, “Where is Composition A?” Whether or not the Tate was displaying this painting (the website suggests it was) we never found it, but it made us wonder about the significance of these compositions.
With thanks to Google, I located a photograph of Mondrian’s Composition A, which conforms with his well known style, however contains significantly more colour.
Having now seen all three of these compositions and compared them with each other, I was still none the wiser to their purpose or significance.
I wish to approach truth as closely as is possible, and therefore I abstract everything until I arrive at the fundamental quality of objects. – Mondrian
Born on 7th March 1872, Piet Mondrian, was one of the leading individuals in the establishment of abstract art. His early works were realistic representations with a delicate use of colour, however this all changed from 1907 onwards.
Mondrian was a pioneer of more than one art movement, the first significant one being Cubism. During the first world war, Mondrian was influenced by other painters of the time to stop using curved lines within his artwork. This led to the geometrical paintings Mondrian is well known for, and the development of another movement: De Stijl.
As the main face of De Stijl, Mondrian named his personal style Neo-Plasticism, a system that restricted artists to straight lines and basic colours (usually primary). During this period of time, the world was rapidly changing. The Great War provoked transformations in governments, societies, technologies and general day-to-day living. Mondrian attempted to find the undeviating reality buried beneath all the upheaval and believed that his strict, grid-like, asymmetrical paintings reflected this.
The art world may have moved on from Cubism and De Stijl, but Mondrian was a great influence on artists at the time, yet also the later industrial, decorative and advertisement art that began in the 1930s. His use of bold grids and thick black lines, encouraged designers to be more mindful of the ways artwork and typography are presented within a design. The grid structure was heavily adopted by the Swiss Typography movement, and is still used and taught today in design schools throughout the world.
Mondrian’s Compositions A, B and C, were essentially his way of coping with the destruction of the world he grew up in. By stripping back to the bare bones – black and white, primary colours – Mondrian was trying to reduce the world to its basic elements. The balance between black and white with red, blue or yellow are a representation of opposing forces that create a balance in the world, i.e. male and female, positive and negative.
Looking at the above paintings alone, you may conclude that Mondrian was an eccentric man, deliriously believing that he was accurately representing the world. However, if you study the progression from his early works to the ones he his more famous for, you will notice a gradual development of style, rather than a rapid, out-of-character change.
Whilst we will never know exactly what was going through Piet Mondrian’s head (unless we read his numerous writings), we can speculate that painting real life representations of landscapes and so forth lost the appeal after the destruction of countries as a result of war. Who would want to paint that, when instead you could focus on the true, never changing actualities at the heart of our existence?
I don’t want pictures, I want to find things out. – Mondrian
What do you think of when you hear the term ‘Russian Art’? The majority would probably picture geometric shapes, sharp angles and bright colours, but this is only an example of one genre of art that has emerged from Eastern Europe. It is one of the few styles that managed to spread to the Western world before the Russian government had an opportunity to crush it. Russian art is actually so protean, it cannot be summed up in a simple description. How would you describe British art, American art, French art, Italian art etc? So many movements have influenced artists, thus constantly changing the styles and fashions of each country. Russia was no different.
For centuries, Russia was under the autocratic rule of the Tsars until in 1917, provoking a civil war, Vladmir Lenin rose to power as a Communist leader. With this revolution came dramatic changes to Russian society, and art was swept up alongside it. Avant-garde artists were excited about the new developments and the opportunities they would bring about for creative individuals. However, their eagerness was short lived.
Lenin and the Bolshevik party came to power so suddenly, they has been unable to gain the support of the majority; therefore drastic measures needed to be taken to ensure they gained popularity. This, however, was not going to be an easy thing to tackle in the profusely illiterate country. For that reason, artists were given the task of spreading ideology through the means of mass propaganda.
In April 1918, Lenin revealed his Plan for Monumental Propaganda, which relied heavily on artists and photographers to carry out. Paintings, sculptures and everyday paraphernalia were utilised in order to glorify Lenin and the Bolshevik party. Graphic designers were commissioned to design posters sporting slogans that honoured the party. The colour red was often used to represent the revolution.
One of the most shocking tasks Lenin demanded was the removal of artworks used by the Russian Orthodox Church, replacing the figure of Jesus with an icon of himself. It is hard to imagine how a predominantly Christian country would agree to let this happen, however, it did, and Lenin became almost saint-like.
After Lenin’s death, Russia became a very dangerous place to live, especially for artists who wanted to express their own voices. Joseph Stalin took Lenin’s place as leader of the Soviet Union. Throughout his dictatorship, Stalin made many changes and demands. One of these was the proclamation that Socialist Realism was the only acceptable artistic style. Gone were the opportunities for artists to experiment with their creativity. Ironically, the artworks accepted hardly revealed the truth about the Soviet Union, despite being classified as Realism.
Stalin believed that Russia was behind the times and was determined to industrialise the country. He introduced the concept of a Five-year Plan, which would set targets for every factory and farm belonging to the Soviet Union. Physical labour was demanded of all citizens in order to reach these goals. To encourage the population, Stalin commissioned – or more likely forced – designers, photographers, film producers etc. to promote his scheme. Photography was perhaps the preferred medium since its content is more believable than a painting and could be easily reproduced on posters and spread amongst the masses. However, these photographs were often staged in order to make situations appear better than they really were. Behind the lies of smiling faces, most workers were treated like slaves, often imprisoned or killed for not working as well as others. Thousands died from accidents, starvation or poor living and working conditions during this period.
The effects of the Russian revolution and Stalin’s dictatorship is evident through many artists’ changing styles. Kazimir Malevich (1879-1935) is a significant example of this. Although Social Realism was not enforced until the very end of his life, the reshaping of Malevich’s personal style documents the gradual elimination of techniques by the Soviet Union.
Black Square 1929 by Kazimir Malevich. Photograph: State Tretyakov, Moscow, Russia
Born pre-revolution, Malevich believed that art was a method of expressing spirituality, therefore outcomes need not be realistic, and could be based on metaphor rather than truth. At the height of his career in 1915, Malevich patented a style named Suprematism, a purely abstract art movement characterised by the use of geometric shapes and a limited range of colour. A particular famous piece that symbolises this movement is Black Square.
Unfortunately, Malevich’s movement was eventually denounced by Soviet authorities on the basis that it failed to convey social realities.
Malevich attempted to conform to Soviet ideology, however was still adamant to work in an abstract style. Despite rebelling against the governments artistic rules and regulations, Malevich’s new paintings were accepted and displayed at the State Russian Museum in 1932.
Woman with Rake, c.1932 Photo:as above
Presumably the subject matter of Malevich’s paintings were what granted him approval to painting in an abstract style. Depicted were anonymous figures showing peasant workers out in their fields. The blank faces and limited colour make up a characterless person that hides the truth about their working conditions. On the other hand, it also represents the loss of identity these people felt under the oppressive rule of Joseph Stalin.
At the very end of his life, shortly before dying of cancer, Malevich was painting in a style that the Soviet Union was enforcing throughout the country. Contrasting Malevich’s final self-portrait with an earlier one shows these dramatic changes and emphasises the control the Soviets’ held.
Although there were artists who refused to conform, yearning for the days when art showed the beauty and charm of Tsarist Russia, the world saw a utopian version, hiding the terrible truths.
As you can see, it is impossible to categorise something as “Russian Art”. There is pre-revolution art, which encompasses a wide variety of styles, and then there is Soviet Art, a “realistic” portrayal of Russia under Lenin, and then Stalin – as long as it expressed Communist ideology. Then, of course, there are contemporary artists living in a post-Soviet country, giving “Russian Art” a brand new meaning.
To fully understand the effects the Soviet Union had on the art world, it is best to see it with your own eyes. Luckily we have hindsight on our side, preventing us from falling into the trap of believing the lies and exaggerations shown in paintings and photographs.