“Art definitely does reflect its zeitgeist.”
Fwooooosh, Fwooooosh, Fwooooosh. I am just sitting and looking at the girl on the swing. Yes, at first when I saw it I just loved the silvery specks on the tiny shimmering leaves of the trees and shrubs, and was enamored by the verdure that wrapped around the GIRL of the painting and sort of opened up like curtains of a play. I liked the aesthetic, it was like a dreamy fairytale. I liked the way she looked like a spectral pink jellyfish, the rosiness on her cheeks, and her little smirk. However, then I started overthinking things. Art definitely does reflect its zeitgeist. A painting is quite literally stained with the colours of its era. Hence, in this ARTicle I want to take you on a stroll through history. I will try to understand the underlying emotions of the times when different artistic styles arose, by telling you the emotions that different paintings make me feel. I will impose my feelings upon you.
The Girl on Swing was painted in 1767, still the height of absolutist monarchy and divine right. Though she wasn’t painted by an individual who could have realistically foreseen the French Revolution, I find the painting very prescient. The 18th century was a time of overindulgence masking a foetid rot. For those who could ‘patron’ arts, life had a colourful bliss, an infantile jolliness and bounce. Mixtures of strong perfume attempted to cover the smell of faeces that was smeared on the floors of Versailles. On the other hand, there was nothing to cover the smell where the peasants lived, where their bodies decomposed on the streets and people ate bread made of sawdust. This dichotomy created a sinister uneasiness. For the indulged there seemed to be a misty and foggy lightheartedness to life, it was almost like a mirage. Fragonard’s “Girl on Swing,” captures this for me.
At first glance a chipper and beautiful painting, with iridescent pink and lustrous greens framing a jilly jolly girl. But the brightness of the painting seems to create a foggy sheen over the soft lines. Underneath peek out sinister undertones; the statue of cupid shushing as if holding a naughty secret and the two men eyeing the girl like sharks. Now I look at the rope which is holding up the swing. On the left-hand side, we can see the rope already beginning to tear as the fun swing seems to have been swung too hard, and will eventually fall.
The painting is in the Rococo style, which itself symbolises the pinnacle of beautiful gluttony. The Baroque, which preceded Rococo, arose when the Catholic Church wanted to patron arts which expressed the Church’s grandeur in response to the bleak reality of the protestant reformation. In time, as absolute Catholic monarchs cemented themselves in Europe, and notably in France, Rococo arose. Rococo takes Baroque to the extreme with more gold, larger decorations, more ornate woodwork, more expensive statues, more, more, more, and so on and so forth. But the swing did fall. The French Revolution did happen. The perfume could not cover the smell of decapitated bodies piling whilst rivers of blood painted the unpaved roads of Paris.
The Revolution brought with it a rediscovery of a more complex life. There was a sharpening of the edges, and a fight to clear the fog. Central to the enlightenment ideology which buttressed the revolution was an idea that reason and logic can clear the fogginess of the Dark Ages of absolutism and religious enslavement, and uncover the truth. Art itself thus loses its soft lines, and becomes rigid, like classical statues meant to celebrate the old days of the Athenian Republic. Jacques-Louis David’s paintings attempt to replicate the perfect anatomy of the ancient Hellenics, the scowls of thinkers and tinkers, and the power of thought.
As the revolution was conquered by Napoleon, and the French Empire began expanding through Europe, David’s Neoclassical became Neo-Imperial. His art thus appealed more to Imperial Rome than Republican Athens. A tinge of absolutist imagery thus recalibrates the austere neo-classical art of the revolution, in the same way that Napoleon recalibrated the revolution’s liberalism with a tinge of the past social order. The greatest example of this imperial recalibration in art is David’s Painting of the ‘Consecration of the Emperor Napoleon.’ The dictator finally appealed to the legitimacy of the old monarchs and placed a crown upon his own head. The end of revolutionary ideals? A symbolic face of Caesar lurks right behind Napoleon. Meanwhile, Napoleon’s mother, who refused to attend the coronation in disapproval of her son’s act, is forced dragging and screaming into the centre of the painting, thus immortalising her absence.
Then the revolution ended, as Napoleon lost. After years of the devastating Napoleonic wars, the victorious conservative order gathered in Vienna. They wanted to reestablish French Monarchy and reassert the continental authority of the Habsburgs, Bourbons, Romanovs, Brandenburgs, and the like. But the revolution was not forgotten, and official portraits of the kings still had the sharp reasoned lines of the neo-classical. But as Romantic Nationalist revolutions brewed in the mid-19th century, again backed by liberal thought, paintings became more dynamic, the colours more fiery and bold, and the art style of Romanticism popped out. Delacroix softened the lines of the neoclassical to express movement, emotional flurry, and blur. Anger, explosion, and dynamism were the order of the day. The exposed breasts of lady liberty represent freedom and emancipation from the conservative order which had reasserted itself throughout Europe, as she led yet another Parisian revolution over a pantless, emaciated, and naked dead man with sallow green skin.
Yes, splodge and brush, the brush strokes could be seen clearly, yes yes, that is different. But what if suddenly, the brush strokes and movement became even more pronounced? Revolutions, though crushed again and again, had opened people’s minds to thinking differently about things, and this included art. What if the painting was not supposed to catch a long-winded special and historic event, but express a passing ephemeral moment? What if the painting wasn’t supposed to give you the actual picture, but the impression of it? The oldies hated the idea, the GRANDE SALON said a loud and resounding non. But Emperor Napoleon III…. (yes, France got another monarch), created a new salon for the rejects.
The impressionists, the French rebels of their day, embraced the new Salons des Rejets as a badge of honneur (that’s honour in Quebecois). Their rebellious artistic adventure also coincided with the industrial revolution, wherein new and more vibrant colours could be mass-produced, and the invention of the paint tube made artists more mobile so that they could paint in nature.
Suddenly, there was a big bang of art that represented passing impressions. These included the splashes and tactile smears of Monet’s Water Lilies, the gleaming light of Renoir’s French parks, the real flat expressions of Manet’s models, or the canting angles and twisting turns of the eyeless and grey-skinned ballerina’s spinning in the paintings of Degas.
“For thousands of years, artists tried to capture what they saw as perfectly as their eyes perceived it. Now, art became an impression.”
This was a turning point. For thousands of years, artists tried to capture what they saw as perfectly as their eyes perceived it. Now, art became an impression. As the industrial revolution steamed forward, and technological innovation grew at a rapid rate, impressionism paved the way for art to become a science, as Seurat and Signac tried to understand how we perceive colours. The result was their famous pointillist paintings that played with the viewer’s perceptions. Then, as urban life became more depressing and bleak during the industrial late 19th and early 20th centuries, art became an expression of sombre feelings. Hence, expressionists like Modigliani and Munch smeared, melted and bent lines into long solemn faces so as to express how they internally felt. Post-impressionism also came with Van Gogh, who used even more waves and vibrations that created dreamy landscapes and colours that seemed to actually glow and move, mimicking the solar system. The paintings did not look real, but they were satisfying. They felt real.
This new way of painting that tried to feel a certain way rather than looking a certain way, then exploded into the weirdness of inter-war surrealism after World War I. This was because people did feel weird about WWI. They couldn’t understand the destruction, the political destitution, the stench, and the fear. So, they created strange creatures like elephants with spindly legs which trotted lethargically in the distance, and melting clocks that expressed the way in which time sort of flopped and melted into a boring nothing. The world of reality and dreams mashed into one as life became an interwar fever dream.
The world also appeared more abstract than real, and little whistles and blurs could be heard in the distance. The result was spacey and alien-looking abstract art like Kandisny’s floating shapes that had the appearance of an Extraterrestrial language emanating from a UFO or Sputnik, and Miró’s jazzy one-eyed creatures and colourful shapes demonstrating a collage of oddity. Life was odd in the 20th century, unpredictable. Yet, scientific discoveries on issues ranging from space to the inner workings of human psychology, inspired strange yet real paintings.
“But art continued being weird. Art mixed and matched cultures and styles as the world slowly globalised.”
The fascist autocrats of the time hated this type of art. This type of individual expression did not align with the traditional hierarchies that fascist ideology was convincing people to run to for safety. This new art seemed too hard to contain and understand, and thus align with the autocrats’ ideologies of hatred. So this art was rejected as degenerate art. But art continued being weird. Art mixed and matched cultures and styles as the world slowly globalised. One example is Frida Khalo’s inspiration from traditional Mexican religious drawings, or Ex Votos. This traditional style is clearly present in her flat portraits which never seemed to capture proportionate anatomy, but have a strong expressiveness and emotional narrative about modernity and indigenous Mexican culture. Likewise, Basquiat would allude to tribal African art in a modern pop American setting.
The impressionists really did a number, I’ll tell you that much. For thousands of years art was done one way, trying to create the perfect representation of a human or thing or important event, and then…the moment the impressionist splashed paint instead of brushing it, the moment Manet drew a slightly more deadpan face, in the span of 100 years we got Pollock’s drip and Warhol’s pop.
Yet, everything I just wrote is utter nonsense. You spent the last 10 minutes, or so, reading my understanding of other people’s drawings whilst I relaxed with a bowl of cherry tomatoes. If there is one thing that is subjective in the world, and everything is, it is art. But on the other hand, I want to know what others think, as their understanding can help me find out what I think. Not everything I wrote here was an idea that I made up, most were someone else’s. But these ideas sure do sound cool. Some people don’t overthink, as I just ventured to do, and just like the way it looks, or feels….the impression if you will. The only thing that is important is that there is not just one way to look at or think about it; that would be authoritarian. It is impossible for there to be only one way to see it, as I don’t even know if you perceive colours in the same way that I do. Yet, can someone see a dog where one has painted an apple?
By the way, it did take me more than 10 minutes, or so, to write this article.