Sunday, August 19, 2012

Snow White and Art

How exactly would you react in the wake of something new, pathbreaking and out of the ordinary? Would you look at it with a tentative sense of dismissal or would you instantaneously applaud it just for being as Indian film people refer to their movies - 'hatke'? In my opinion, we look upon everything with a sense of disdain, for fear of appearing silly, or in some cases for fear of being killed under some regimes, unless of course, we are the magic mirror in Snow White (which also was broken for having spoken the truth). And that is what happened in the late 1800s when a band of painters calling themselves Impressionists happened upon the art scene.

Now, I had my first encounter with Impressionism from very close quarters, a while ago. It was a chance visit to an art museum, and I was admiring the works of Corot and his heart-gladdening rendering of faces, scenes, and near photograph like images, albeit all with a very strong force of brown, black and all shades dark, when I walked into an adjoining room, that suddenly looked so bright and vibrant. And no, the lights were the same, and there were no extra windows. And when I peered down at the names, it said Claude Monet and his rendering of poplars in vivid pink, light blue, lilac and all things light-hearted! There was a picture of the French coastline and some cliffs, and when I looked at the picture from afar, there was a light purple hue and when I went closer, I noticed that there were pink and blue dots, never a blatant purple. Since then, he became one of my favorite painters. The innate engineer in me woke up and I found respect for the science in painting that the Impressionists showed.

Impression - sunrise, the seminal work that gave the movement its name, is a simple image of a harbor, with a factory spilling out smoke, a bright sun casting its morning spill in the water. At the time, the critics and judges at prominent galleries rubbished this work and others as a raw carricature, scribbles of a non-artist even. People came in drones to ridicule the works. Not unexpected, because till then, people were used to the queen in Snow White (figurative only; I'm a huge fan of these artists who made art what it truly is - simple, beautiful and smile-evocative) - typical works of the masters like Corot and Courbet, da Vinci in previous centuries - all biblical representations, not very cognitive, in that art was comprised of pictures as close as possible to photographs and all people needed to do then was admire the brushstrokes, the closeness with which a certain form has been depicted, expressions, the delicacy of fabric on the human form and so on. Enter Monet  and his group of artists (Snow White equivalent) out to break the mould, who were interested in showcasing landscapes, modern day life and were beginning to instill a sense of 'interpretation' into a painting. And people, observers and critics alike, were afraid to appreciate the art, for fear of sounding silly! No one wanted the role of the magic mirror!

I appreciate the actual Impressionist form of modern art for its depiction of landscapes, (they pioneered outdoor painting), the technique of color engineering (using juxtaposition of red and blue instead of a blatant purple) and depiction of real life as against standard biblical images. So, the Impressionists tried to make art more identifiable for the common man. A simple harbor, poplars on a river bank evocative of a gentle spring morning, with leaves but a crisp cold in the air, cliffs on seasides and so on. People could actually and easily discern what they were looking at. Then came the wave of societal depictions - Manet's groundbreaking dejeuner sur l'herbe or luncheon on the grass, which was intended to be more a 'I choose to defy the rules' kind of a picture, with an intention of proving that he had the right to be independent and not be bound by the restrictions that then defined art, rather than a depiction of true life. This sort of set the tone for the societal depiction wave - with Renoir's 'Dance at the Moulin de la Galette topping the list. Nondescript people depicted in dancing poses, enjoying a conversation - a distinct cut away from biblical depictions of the time.

Scenes were events from everyday life - waitresses at cafes and bars, picnics by the river, people at a circus, ballet dancers, basically scenes that the common man could essentially identify with. In some ways, these painters actually made art accessible to the common man!

 In addition, they depicted what was happening in society - women in the workforce, the marginalized sections, changing landscapes. Pissaro was a pioneer in that kind of art. Almost all his work had some factory chimney in a landscape. This represented his temperament of picking up new technology and techniques, not just for subjects but also his method. And in taking real-life depictions further, these artists also had a critical role in expressing public sentiment during times of war. An example is Manet's 'Execution of Emperor Maximilian'

At a time when Industrial Revolution was bringing out the ill side effects and people were getting more aware of their surroundings and situations, it was but natural for the artists, who had by now, found their magic mirror and apologists among the masses to make their points as well. In part, there was populist political support as well for them, but in effect, they managed to ensure that art was truly art for the masses.

But at the end of the day, it is a triumph for pleasing art that is discernible and also appealing to the eye. Be it Monet's water lillies at Giverny or his famous Cathedral at Rouen - the 3 part work in which he tried to capture the play of light over different times. And people as well as critics had no option but to take notice and appreciate the new wave that these artists had initiated. And finally, they had to accept that this form of art was different, yet pleasing and it was indeed a move for the better.

At some point however, the lauding got excessive and Snow White metamorphosed into The Emperor's New Clothes. More on that next time!