By Catherine Wagley
By Catherine Wagley
By Wendy Gilmartin
By Jennifer Swann
By Claire de Dobay Rifelj
By L.A. Weekly critics
By Catherine Wagley
By Zachary Pincus-Roth
I WANT TO INTRODUCE HERE AN IDEA OF MY OWN. I believe there is a stream of Modernism other than the well-known mainstreams of Abstract-Formalism, Dada-Surrealism-Duchampism, and a Realism-Naturalism almost asleep during our time. The stream of art I want to identify I will call Painting-Drawing, where the two methods are wed in a marriage perhaps neglected by critics and historians. The painters who transfix me each day are Cézanne, Degas and van Gogh, with Matisse and Picasso right up there as well. Degas kept an early masterwork of his, sometimes called Young Spartans(1860), all his life -- it was still in his studio when he died in 1917. This splendid oil painting is virtually a drawing in color, in which Degas makes no attempt to paint over the pentimentior history of its drawing. It is the earliest example I know of this Painting-Drawing, a method Degas would bring into blazing power later on, even into our century, especially in his pastel paintings. Cézanne, my favorite painter, painted 200 "Bather" compositions from imagination, where the dark-blue contour drawing, sometimes in a flurry of lines, determines the amazing, unstable, half-human forms, all the way though to his last three tremendous "Bather" epics, again left in his studio when he died in 1906.
Although I believe that Painting-Drawing makes subsequent appearances, in Lautrec for instance, and then arguably in the high moment of Picasso and Braque's so-called analytic Cubism, and in Mondrian's great plus-and-minus paintings, too, the apotheosis of Painting-Drawing lies for me with Matisse in the period from 1910 to 1920. Closer to our own period, the painter who uses this method is, of course, Giacometti.
Back to "my" Vincent. I'm convinced that van Gogh is a prime mover of Painting-Drawing along with Degas and Cézanne. He spends the years 188085 drawing, hardly learning painting at all. He spends the next couple of years in Paris, caught up in the fervor of Impressionism and Divisionism, taught him by the good Pissarro and the doomed Seurat, where drawing takes a back seat. And then, all of a sudden, bang!Arles -- the South -- the Sun -- Gauguin -- and the quick slip into a real madness, all in two years. Two years when he finds and invents his "mature" style. It is my contention that his mature style in oil painting is largely, but not exclusively, a great drawing style. That he is still drawing as if he had charcoal or a Japanese reed pen in his hand. In much of the latter two years, van Gogh is drawing fiercely in paint, with a not-very-wide brush, explicitly, constantly outlining faces and figures and objects like no other painter had ever done.
The emphatic outlining has at least two powerful sources in van Gogh's pantheon: Japanese prints (especially the pen jabs of the Hokusai sketchbooks) and popular graphic illustration in cheap magazines, both of which he collected lovingly. He was a very early appropriationist. There have been engrossing exhibitions of these very sheets at the Van Gogh Museum and elsewhere. Vincent wrote to Theo: "For me the English black-and-white artists are to art what Dickens is to literature. They have exactly the same sentiment, noble and healthy, and one always returns to them . . . I am organizing my whole life so as to do the things of everyday life that Dickens describes and the artists I've mentioned draw." With the possible exception of Gustave Doré, these illustrators are largely forgotten today, but they spoke to Vincent, who tried to find a vocation as a kind of worker-priest quite mad about drawing (and reading). To Theo he wrote: "I have a more or less irresistible passion for books and I continually want to instruct myself, to study if you like, just as much as I want to eat my bread." He read widely, or I should say deeply, in three languages -- Dickens, Zola and Julie Michelet appealed to his powerful proto-socialism, his yearning for utopian ideals that the next century would bring to political-despotic hellfire.
Our finest art historian, Meyer Schapiro, believed that van Gogh was the greatest painter of the peasant ever, perhaps even the last great painter of reality. He wrote: "The strong dark lines that [van Gogh] draws around trees, houses and faces establish their existence and peculiarity with a conviction unknown to previous art." I agree with this. Van Gogh, mad about drawing, simply continued his contour drawing when he wanted to paint the human face and form -- an unheard-of practice in his time, clearly the work of a madman without an audience for his madness. As if that were not bad enough, he kept on drawing with his brush -- strokes which compose the image -- insisting on stabs of line in the modeling of each form as draftsmen do. In fact, the short brush strokes became a force of nature in van Gogh's painting, even in his skies, even in his delirious sense of the southern sun, its heat and aura, as if it, too, was a portrait to be drawn.
At some point in my own life and art, those three painter-draftsmen -- Degas, Cézanne and van Gogh -- worked on me so that I could feel myself drawing hard into the very "give" of the supple canvas with a brush loaded with color, mostly along insistent contours. Later on, Matisse's Painting-Drawing brought a new, experimental, cosmopolitan approach into our art, fit for our awful century. Later it would itself become an endangered species, along with endangered, radical cosmopolitanism itself. Van Gogh wrote to Theo: "I beg you to believe that in Landscape I am going on trying to mass things by means of a drawing style which tries to express the interlocking of the masses . . . I feel strongly inclined to seek style in brush strokes . . . by that I mean a more virile, deliberate drawing!" There you have it from the horse's mouth.
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