Tag Archives: Sociology

Camille Pissarro – Impressions of Parisian Streets

27 Nov

Camille Pissarro, Rue Saint Lazare, 1893

Pissarro is a somewhat neglected Impressionist and understandably so; his private life wasn’t rife with scandals and excesses, and his art wasn’t scandalous and fleshy either. It’s easy to see why the dandyish Monet, Degas; the painter of ballerinas, or Renoir with his pretty girls are more popular, but Pissarro’s oeuvre shows both steadiness and experimentation. Pissarro lived in the countryside most of his life and thus most of his paintings are scenes from the countryside. Still, due to health reasons, he moved to Paris near the end of his life and there he continued paintings plein air but his motifs weren’t the meadows, trees and haystacks of his beloved countryside, but the bustling streets of a big city. These delightful urban landscapes are the crown of Pissarro’s painterly career. These paintings remind me of that wonderful feeling; when you find yourself in the midst of a bustling city, on a square or walking on the pavements, and suddenly feel yourself detaching from all the noise and bustle, and simply observing it all. Seeing the people, walking fast or walking slow, cars and trams gliding down the streets, show windows and neon shop signs.

I named this post the “Impressions of Parisian Streets” because this series of paintings that Pissarro had painted throughout the winter of 1897/1898 marks not only the end of Pissarro’s oeuvre but also his final return to a more free, sketchy Impressionist style after he spent a few years flirting with pointillism and learning from Signac and Seurat. These urban landscapes are Pissarro’s “impressions” of the streets he saw from the window of the hotel in the place du Théâtre Français. Seen from afar, these impressions of Parisian streets look like a vibrant and bustling place, but if you look at the paintings from up close you see that the carriages, trees and people have all turned into blurry dots, dashes and dabs of colours. The Impressionist desire to paint plein air and to paint the real world around them reminds me so much of sociology because both basically observed society and world around them. Pissarro basically sketched what he saw in these urban scenes, and even though the style is very free and subjective, he pretty much portrayed the objective truth that was before his eyes.

Camille Pissarro, La Place due Théâtre Français, 1898

Camille Pissarro, Rue Saint-Honoré in the Afternoon, Effect of rain, 1897

Camille Pissarro, Boulevard Montmartre, 1897

Camille Pissarro, Place du Théâtre Français, Paris – Rain, 1898

Camille Pissarro, Boulevard Montmartre, Morning Mist, 1897

Claude Monet, Boulevard des Capucines, 1873-74

I also decided to include this painting by Monet just because it’s so beautiful and captures the same motif.

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

Bohemian Life: Romantics, Pre-Raphaelites, Hippies

27 Sep

Bohemian way of life has always been alluring to me and in this post I decided to assemble my love for Romanticists, Pre-Raphaelites and London Underground scene in the 1960s with a bit of fashion, aesthetics, art and music. I’ve also made collages which serve to substantiate the connection between these three art movements/counter cultures and the bohemian way of life. Enjoy 🙂

hippie romantics 1 text a(Click to enlarge)

‘Cult of genius’ emerged during Romanticism – for the first time in history an artist was considered an individual, an imaginative creature rather than a craftsman as it had been understood before. Romantics were the first rebellions, mostly artists and intellectuals led by the ideals of individuality and freedom they opposed the serious rules of the rationalistic world of neoclassicism. In the aspect of individuality, all the art movements that followed and the very perception of the artist himself owe a great deal to Romantic movement.

It’s not unusual that the word ‘bohemian’ appeared in the 19th century, though a bit after the romantics, but its meaning can fully be applied in context of Romanticists and their lifestyles. Term ‘bohemian’ was first used in French language to describe Romani people because it was believed that they came from Bohemia, Czech Republic, but it later came to symbolize any kind of unconventional lifestyle, often in the poorer but culturally richer parts of the city, involving musical, artistic, or literary pursuits. Bohemians are also seen as wanderers and adventurists. When Pre-Raphaelites arrived on the art scene in the mid-Victorian era, they opposed realism and materialism, and questioned the false values and morals of Victorian society.

A century later numerous young people chose more unconventional ways of living and  opposed the conformist and consumerist Western society – those were the hippies. As you can see, every time period has its bohemians or outsiders. I could write about the large number of artists/bohemians on Montmartre in the late 19th century or the crazy early 20th century bunch on Montparnasse, but in this post I decided to focus on three art movement/countercultures that share similarities in terms of values, ideas, inspirations and aesthetics. How could I not compare the dangerous and dashing Dante Gabriel Rossetti with dark and brooding Lord Byron, and both of them with Syd Barrett for example – art knows no time, art knows ideals, moods and feelings.

hippie romantics 2 a text

Romanticists were rebellions and idealists, and in their works (especially regards literature and music) they put emphasis on subjectivity, love and intimacy, appreciation of nature, and delved into mysticism: they celebrated everything that contrasted neoclassicism and enlightenment. Romantic painters focused on the glorious past, though it often carried characteristics of escapism. The need to escape time or space is a longing which arises from the sense of dissatisfaction in a hopeless reality, and this longing characterised the whole art of Romanticism. Similarly, members of the Pre-Raphaelite brotherhood were fascinated with the past, and in the idealised Medieval world they found the spiritual and creative energy that was (according to them) lost in the industrialised Victorian world. Pre-Raphaelites also found inspiration in their ‘spiritual predecessors’ the Romantics, and their artworks show their interest in mythology, specially Greek and Roman.

A century after the Pre-Raphaelites, in the late 1960s London’s underground came alive. As the Mods and Dollies were on the wane, an alternative scene was thriving in obscurity. Acid heads, pop stars, different eccentrics, artists and outsiders graced the London scene in those years, among that horde was Syd Barrett. ‘Syd was happy being a bohemian, like the romanticised ‘poetes maudits’.* Just like Romantics and Pre-Raphaelites before them, the London hippies drank from the fountain of the past. They drew inspiration from Eastern mysticism (yoga, Hare Krishna, Buddhism, I Ching, Ravi Shankar, Tagore) European mythology, Celts, English folklore, astrology, occult, Ouija boards, tarot cards, meditation and vegetarianism.

hippie romantics 7 text

Music: Ravi Shankar

Parallels between Pre-Raphaelites and London Underground can also be drawn in terms of aesthetics. When artists Michael English and Nigel Waymouth were commissioned to make posters for the UFO, they sought inspiration in the 19th century Orientalism and artists such as William Morris who was a member of the Arts and Crafts Movements, befriended Pre-Raphaelites and shared their ideas and style. In terms of fashion, one can notice similarities. In both cases, a bohemian lifestyle needed a bohemian fashion to match. Pre-Raphaelites came up with the aesthetic dress movement in an effort to loosen and brighten up the rigid and somber Victorian fashion. Likewise, London bohemians found a unique way of expressing themselves by wearing brightly coloured satin, floral prints, wooden bracelets, antique silver jewellery, bizarre and floral prints, velvet trousers, flowing silks… Although they lived a century apart, in terms of aesthetics and style, Jane Morris with her loosely cut dresses in natural fabrics and Marianne Faithfull or Brian Jones with their extravagant psychedelic outfits rightfully belong to the same stylistic universe.

hippie romantics 3 textMusic: Pink Floyd – Chapter 24

Apart from the fact they were inspired by similar things, these three groups of bohemians also shared some ideas despite the fact that they lived in different times and in differently structured society and social norms. Romantics, Pre-Raphaelites and hippies all shared ideas of originality, idealism, emphasis on feelings and love towards nature. Love, intimacy and identification with nature was for Romantics a wellspring of deep, almost mystical rapture. In poetry Nature reflected the way artist felt, but also influenced his feelings. As for Pre-Raphaelites, their paintings speak for themselves, but I won’t fail to mention the patience with which Millais painted the nature surrounding his drowning Ophelia. For London Underground, a part of which was formed by a group of young people from Cambridge, including Syd, nature was part of the growing up; they all enjoyed the Cantabrigian landscape, long walks by the river, in the woods. For Syd nature was imbued with mystical overtones, and he had a spiritual connection with it. I’ll quote the book:

”This profound connection with nature never left him. In his lyrics, the sky was a woman, and love was air.”*

Another thing they shared in common was the ideal of ‘free love’; a social movement which rejects marriage and perceives it as a form of social and financial bondage. It’s not the same as supporting promiscuity. Although the idea of free love is mostly associated with hippies and counterculture of the late 1960s and 1970s, ‘free love’ was a much more radical and controversial concept earlier in the past than in the ’60s. Many Romantic poets supported the idea of ‘free love’, William Blake and Shelley among them. For example, Blake believed that ‘humans were ‘fallen’ and that a major impediment to a free love society was corrupt human nature.’ Percy Shelley, along with Mary Shelley who had inherited her mother’s liberal worldviews, also supported free love, along with vegetarianism – another trait common with hippies. As for the Pre-Raphaelites, one doesn’t need to go too far, Dante Gabriel Rossetti is a good example because he lived with Elizabeth Siddal c. ten years before they married, an act very scandalous in Victorian times.

hippie romantics 4 textMusic: Syd Barrett – Opel

Caspar David Friedrich, the most famous German Romantic painter, is well-known for his landscapes with figures turning their backs on the viewers, as if they are gazing towards something eternal and infinite. Syd Barrett’s song Opel reminded me of Friedrich’s painting ‘Moonrise over the Sea’ which can be seen in the collage above. The beginning of the song beautifully captures Friedrich’s landscapes of skies in the dusk, evening or moonrises, emptiness painted in soft transitions of purple and yellow colour, tiny figures against the vast backdrop of the sea…

On a distant shore, miles from land
Stands the ebony totem in ebony sand
A dream in a mist of grey…
On a far distant shore…” (Syd Barrett – Opel)

In addition to the ideas shared by all three groups of bohemians, Romantics and hippies also shared the idea of pacifism, specially Percy Bysshe Shelley. However, the mood of Romanticism was a mood of disappointment, melancholy, sadness, loss of hope in society, whilst hippies tended to be a rather cheerful bunch (maybe Romantics would have been merry too, had they used acid), putting emphasis on altruism and their inner peace. Live and let live.

hippie romantics 8 text

And last, but not least, we could see how these bohemians lived their lives in different times and expressed their ideas. Percy Bysshe Shelley for example, lived a short but turbulent and unconventional life (as did many bohemians =). In poetry he cherished a ‘cult of pure beauty’, and supported idealism, nonviolence, social justice and vegetarianism (he supported rights of all living creatures that he saw being treated unjustly!). With his strong principles and interesting ideas he became a hero for the generation that followed, poets beyond Europe, such as Rabindranath Tagore (whom the hippies loved) admired his work. Lord Byron ‘mad, bad and dangerous to know‘ led a completely different life, with more danger than integrity, but his actions are good examples of unconventionality. He had numerous love affairs, you could say that free love was his cup of tea, fought in Greece and died there also very young.

As for Pre-Raphaelites, well William Holman Hunt traveled a bit, Millais ‘stole’ Ruskin’s wife Effie and had eight children, and Rossetti lived with Elizabeth Siddal until she overdosed on laudanum and died, painted a few beautiful red haired models, then retreated himself in a house in Chelsea, London, surrounded by ‘extravagant furnishings and a parade of exotic birds and animals’. Oh, by the way, did I tell you that Dante Gabriel Rossetti’s mother Frances Mary Polidori was John Polidori’s sister? And John Polidori was a friend of both Lord Byron and Percy Shelley. Strange.

hippie romantics 5 text

First and foremost, London bohemians of the late ’60s disapproved the lifestyle their parents led so the natural thing to do was to behave in a totally different way; to begin with they listened to blues records, wore colourful clothes and accepted a laid back attitude to life. They traded the drab and grey post-war reality with a colourful, psychedelic and mystical world of arts, music, flamboyance, love and freedom.

All in all, bohemianism is a personal, cultural and social reaction to the bourgeois life. The choice is yours, ladies and gentleman. Peace.

*Syd Barrett and Pink Floyd: Dark Globe – Julian Palacios