Tag Archives: America

Precisionism and Max Weber’s Process of Rationalisation

24 Nov

The fate of our times is characterised by rationalisation, and intellectualisation, and above all, by the disenchantment of the world.”

(Max Weber)

Charles Demuth, Chimney and Water Tower, 1931

Precisionism was a distinctly American and distinctly modern art movement which first appeared in the early twentieth century in the paintings of Charles Demuth, Charles Sheeler and others. The favoured motives of Precisionist painters were the objects tied exclusively to the modern world; tall buildings, urban landscapes, industrial architecture and factories. Charles Demuth’s painting “Chimney and Water Tower” shows such a motif in its full glory. The painting is painted in tones of red and grey in its entirety, the lines are precise and clear. The red chimney stands tall and proud alongside the black water tower; they are painted in such a solemn and serious manner that they bring to mind the tall and awe-inspiring Gothic cathedrals.

The clear lines and the cold and impersonal aesthetic of these paintings bring to mind a process of Rationalisation introduced by the German sociologist Max Weber. Rationalisation is a process in which more and more aspects of life are undergoing calculation and prediction, the emphasis is on efficiency and productivity; a worker is a just a tiny piece of the machinery; anonymous and replaceable, and it this process is similar to Karl Marx’s concept of alienation. The world has lost its magic. Weber believed that Rationalisation is the main characteristic of modern society and therefore the art of Precisionism, with its frighteningly tall buildings of Manhattan and dehumanising machines of Detroit, is a product of its time and could not have been painted in earlier eras.

Charles Demuth, Modern Conveniences, 1921

Charles Sheeler, Classic Landscape, 1931

Charles Sheeler, River Rouge Plant, 1932

Francis Picabia, French painter active around the same time, also speaks of “machinery” being the “soul of the modern world”; “Since machinery is the soul of the modern world, and since the genius of machinery attains its highest expression in America, why is it not reasonable to believe that in America the art of the future will flower most brilliantly?” (1915) These industrial landscapes appear eerily silent, and if there is any sound, then it is the sound of the machines, not the bird song or a child’s laughter. If Kirchner’s paintings were screams of despair and revolt against the modern world, if Edward Hopper’s captured the alienating mood of the modern city, then the paintings of Demuth and Scheeler are finely crafted spaces of silence and precision where the human was at last eliminated, erased, wiped out.

Even though Precisionism was a uniquely American art movement, it did borrow from the art on the other side of the ocean. The Precisionists and Futurists share in common their admiration and emphasis on the technological triumph of man over nature, and of course the obsession with dividing space and objects into clear and precise geometrical forms is something that they borrowed from Cubism. Still, the subject matter is uniquely American; factories, machines and industrial spaces was hardly worth the attention of European avant-garde artists at the time. Traces of Cubism are more noticeable in the paintings of Charles Demuth and Sheeler, who was also a photographer, preferred the smooth surface and an almost photographic realism. Indeed, looking at his photographs and paintings, one can scarcely notice a difference in approach, save for the colour.

Charles Demuth, Aucassin and Nicolette, 1921

Sheeler painted and photographed not only factories, but also the vernacular architecture and his comment on the barns near his house give an insight into his perception of beauty: “Their builders weren’t building a work of art… If it’s beautiful to some of us afterward, it’s beautiful because it functioned.” Sheeler also loved the Quaker furniture which was simple in style and made to be useful and not pretty. This love of simplicity and utilitarianism spilled over in his paintings. In 1927, Sheeler was invited by the Ford Motor Company to capture their factory in River Rouge, Michigan; they were releasing a new Model A automobile and Sheeler’s visit was a part of the promotional campaign. You can see the paintings of the River Rouge factory bellow. Mass production of standardised products was connected with the Ford factory and this again is tied to Max Weber’s process of Rationalisation; every worker in Ford factory was working on a specific little thing and thus his work wasn’t very valued and wasn’t well paid. We know that workers existed in that Ford factory, but gazing at Sheeler’s paintings alone we might assume that the machine themselves produce all cars.

Charles Sheeler, American Landscape, 1930

Charles Sheeler, Criss-Crossed Conveyors, River Rouge Plant, Ford Motor Company, 1927

Charles Demuth, End of the Parade: Coatesville, 1920

Charles Sheeler, Skyscrapers, 1922

Maurice Prendergast – Watercolours: Hats, Veils and Flowers

14 Jun

“..the June nights are long and warm; the roses flowering; and the garden full of lust and bees..”

(Virginia Woolf in a letter to Vanessa Bell c. June 1926)

Maurice Prendergast, Large Boston Public Garden Sketchbook: Two women conversing on the street, 1895-97, watercolour

Maurice Prendergast was a wonderful American Post-Impressionist painter whose vibrant paintings I have discovered this year and I already wrote about his art on three previous occasions; about his watercolour beach scenes, painting Lady with a Red Sash and his watercolour Mothers and Children in the Park. The latter is a part of the “Large Boston Public Garden Sketchbook”, basically a book of sketches that Prendergast made from 1895 to 1897, right after his return from Paris. The lovely watercolours I am sharing with you today are all part of that sketchbook too. The watercolour above, as the title itself says, shows two fashionable Victorian women having a chit chat in the park. I really love the composition of the watercolour; the mysterious lady in red is seen from the back but her figure occupies most of the paper. We can see her wonderful shining and new white parasol, her hat with a veil covering her face and I adore that vibrant and romantic red colour of her dress and of the flowers on her hat. The figures in the backgrounds are a puddle of soft greys.

Let’s imagine we are truly sitting on a bench in a lovely park on a warm and sunny summer day; we see the ladies in the distance chatting and holding their parasols, we hear birds chirping, sun coming through the lush green treetops and warming our shoulders, and our vision goes from the talkative fashionable ladies to two young girls dressed in pretty blue and yellow gowns with ribbons around their tiny waists. Despite their fashionable appearance, they are still not the posh and proper ladies but children at heart and they run around playing, smiling and laughing. The ribbons of their dresses are dancing in the air as they run and the wind might blow their little hats away. The watercolour I was describing is the one you can see bellow called “Young girls in hats and sashed dresses”; notice the pencil traces of two other girl figures that Prendergast, for some reason, never painted in watercolour. I love the accuracy and immediacy of these watercolours, I can just imagine Prendergast directly sketching the real life around him and still imbuing the scenes that he was seeing with his inner magic and vibrancy, painting in vivid cheerful colours and portraying the scenes with a touch of childlike playfulness.

Maurice Prendergast, Large Boston Public Garden Sketchbook: Young girls in hats and sashed dresses, 1895-97, watercolour

And also, everyone who loves and knows the history of fashion will notice how accurately the fashion is captured in these watercolours; the veiled hats and the puffed sleeves were all the rage in the last decade of the nineteenth century. You can especially notice this in the last two watercolours where the ladies are dressed to impress and Prendergast’s brush strokes on the ladies’ sleeves are just wild in “A woman in a veiled hat decorated with poppies” where the blue meets the rosy shades. And let’s take a moment to appreciate the fact that the woman’s hat is decorated with poppies. How romantic and extravagant! Also, I love the wonderful cherry red parasol in “A Woman Reading a Book” and the lady’s sweet smile under the veil. I wonder what she is thinking of, or rather, of whom is she thinking of whilst reading that book. All in all, these watercolours have the usual Prendergast’s vibrancy and vivacity which just makes me smile. Gazing at these idle and carefree garden scenes truly makes me think of roses blooming, bees buzzing and laughter lingering in the air…

Maurice Prendergast, Large Boston Public Garden Sketchbook: A Woman Reading a Book, 1896-97, watercolour

Maurice Prendergast, Large Boston Public Garden Sketchbook: A woman in a veiled hat decorated with poppies, 1895-97, watercolour

Maurice Prendergast – Vibrant Watercolour Beach Scenes

16 Feb

American Post-Impressionist painter Maurice Prendergast seems to be my favourite painter at the moment. After sharing his beautiful painting “The Lady with a Red Sash” with you, I simply must share these vibrant, dazzling watercolours of beach scenes, bursting with life and vivacity.

Maurice Prendergast, Low Tide, Beachmont, 1900-05, watercolor over graphite and coal on off-white wove paper

A single glance at any of Maurice Prendergast’s delightful watercolours of beaches and the sea is enough to send me into a state of reverie. Memories of past summers fill my mind; I see the wonderful blue sea trembling before my eyes, the steady yet wild waves with a golden shine sparkling in the sun, salty scent tingling my nostrils and sun warming my skin, a plethora of pebbles and parasols in many vibrant colours, the line which separates the sky and the sea is faraway and out of reach. The seaside was a lingering theme in Prendergast’s career, and watercolour appears to have been his favoured medium for these scenes, although he did paint many traditional oils as well.

His watercolour “Low Tide, Beachmont” (the title was given posthumously) seems to be my favourite at the moment. I love the vibrancy and liveliness of the scene, not just the mood of a carefree, idle, leisure day spent at the beach, collecting pebbles, jumping around and laughing, and inhaling the fresh salty scent of the sea carried by the soft western breeze, but also the liveliness of all the elements on the paper. Women and children are enjoying a day at the beach. Little boats are sailing in the distance. Skirts are billowing in the wind, and some hats are eager to fly away; the little in the foreground is holding her hat with both hands. Their reflections appear in the surface of the water which the waves had brought to fill the empty space between the rocks.

This watercolour excites me not merely because of its content, the wonderful portrayal of a fun day at the beach, but also because of the way it was executed. The repetition of elements such as those brown-grey rocks creates a rhythm which is soothing and exciting both at once. It almost creates a tapestry of shapes, swirls and colours makes the painting so playful, vivacious and alive. It makes the painting appear as a decorative ornamental surface and everything seems to be trembling and breathing. In all of his watercolours, but in this one especially, the world appears as if it was painted from a child’s point of view; it’s just so very playful. Before travelling to Paris in 1891 to study in well-respected academies, Prendergast (1858-1924) was apprenticed to work in the commercial arts, and hence he grew to like the flatness and the bright colours. He painted coastal scenes in Brittany during his four-year stay in France and after returning from Paris in 1895 he settled in Boston and often ventured to the beaches north of Boston, Revere Beach and Beachmont to name a few.

As I have already stated on this blog many times, I absolutely adore watercolours. Anything painted in that medium never fails to look lively, immediate and spontaneous. This effect of watercolours being “spontaneous” and “effortless” is very deceiving because this watery medium tends to have a mind of its own; it spills, stains the paper and goes in directions one has not planned. Dates for this watercolour vary a lot; some sources state it was painted between 1902 and 1904, some state the year as 1905, and yet in the bottom right corner there is the painter’s signature and the year 1897. Strange indeed. Now, here are a few more of Prendergast’s wonderful beach scene. While I adore the playful visual rhythm of “Low Tide, Beachmont”, I also enjoy the way the colours in the painting “Children at the Beach” (1897) melt so lyrically, especially around the figures of children. And that serene blue! Ahhhh…

Maurice Prendergast, Ladies with Parasols, 1897, watercolour

Maurice Prendergast, Low Tide, 1897

Maurice Prendergast, Children at the Beach, 1897, watercolour

Maurice Prendergast, Revere Beach, 1897, watercolour