Posts Tagged ‘visual arts’

Lessons in Composition From “Monet: The Early Years” and “Monet: The Late Years” at De Young Legion of Honor, San Francisco Art Museums

December 3rd, 2020

Art Show Review: Lessons in Composition

From “Monet: The Early Years” and “Monet: The Late Years”

De Young Legion of Honor, San Francisco Art Museums

Are You Rehashing Reductive Rules?

Indian Rhubarb and Reflections, Spanish Creek, Fall, Northern Sierra Nevada Mountains, California, 2017 by David Leland Hyde. (Click 3X to enlarge.) A few people have said this photograph looks like a Monet painting. I do not make photographs to look like paintings intentionally, but if one does, so be it. I like abstract subjects and photograph them whenever possible. Paul Strand’s straight negatives were not altered in any way, but many of them were abstract and their subjects unrecognizable, though they were straight out of the camera.

Everything you have learned about composition is wrong. Most “tips” in workshops and on photoblogs are either purposely or by default overly simplistic, unnecessary and even melodramatic as presented by some teachers today. Many of the “secrets” like “never split the frame with a vertical” or “with the horizon,” “use leading lines to draw the viewer’s eye into the image” and so on, are reductive and often broken by the masters of painting, photography and other visual arts.

Today a painter or photographer starting out may turn to books or more often magazines or blogs to learn craft and technique. Contemporary art publications, online schools and forums, especially in landscape photography, teach composition as a series of logical, “left-brain” methods and techniques. They discuss the merits and limitations of the rule of thirds and drop nuggets of wisdom about foreground interest, emphasizing the subject, eliminating non-essential distractions, sweeping the edges of the frame, simplifying the image, filling the frame, finding background contrast and on and on. Some blogs have devoted large portions of content to discussions on how well participants have applied these techniques to various example photographs. Others get into dissecting and analyzing “composition conundrums faced by landscape photographers,” as one popular blog post said.

All of these serve a purpose and act as a starting point, providing some value in the early stages of learning photography. Beyond that however, if you pack all of this stuff, rattling around in your mind, out into the field and consciously attempt to apply it while making images, it will be like hauling a backpack full of rocks. It will provide little in the way of nourishment or comfort, will slow you down and more often than not result in dead, unimaginative photographs.

Many teachers today, besides presenting formulaic material, follow each other around to the same locations that have been on the landscape photography bucket list for generations. Fifty to seventy years ago, many of these scenes were fresh, but today most landscape photographers are missing one of the obviously lesser known fundamentals of seeing: great art is not necessarily about the subject. The pervasive mentality is that to make a name in landscape photography you must pursue certain views and certain types of scenes. This often sends new camera owners on a far-flung tour, with little thought other than, “I can do it too, or maybe even better if I am lucky to have dramatic light or weather.” Some photographers get hooked on travel and years later are still jet setting all over the world, when they could just as easily find great photographs closer to home, use less petroleum and develop a deeper connection to the culture and land. No wonder most of what we see online and across the industry is starting to look the same.

Throughout the history of art, examples abound of the greatest works breaking the rules of composition, while at the same time maintaining a sense of equilibrium and balance or dynamic off-balance that grabs the viewer’s attention and holds it. Which brings us to the next logical question: How did the masters learn to make successful art without enslaving themselves to rote techniques and guidelines? There are probably as many possible answers as artists, though there are also common patterns among renowned artists.

Straight Photography, Pictorialism and Photography as an Art

Abstraction, Porch Shadow, 1915 by Paul Strand. Paul Strand’s negatives were straight, not post-processed in any way, but many were abstract and their subjects unrecognizable. (Click Twice to See Large)

Like today, in the early 20th Century, until about 1930, clichés proliferated. Technique and gimmick-heavy Pictorialism ruled the day because many thought making photographs look otherworldly, unreal or like paintings was the best way to get photography recognized as an art. It did not work then and is still questionable now. What did more than anything else to establish photography as a fine art was the crisp, fresh, precision craft only possible with a camera, as made by Paul Strand, Alfred Stieglitz, Edward Weston, Ansel Adams, Dorothea Lange and many of their students and kindred spirits such as my father, William Garnett, Brett Weston, Imogen Cunningham, Minor White, Dick Arentz, Al Weber, Dave Bohne and those still living from the same lineage such as John Sexton, Bob Kolbrenner, Jack Dykinga, Charles Cramer, Carr Clifton and a few others.

During the heyday of straight photography, galleries, museums, auction houses and the art establishment had the most interest in photography. Today, the exposure of landscape photography is expanding in certain types of magazines and in tourist galleries in some of the world’s most popular destinations, but the art establishment has left behind contemporary landscapes, especially in color. Galleries, museums and other fine art venues look down on the genre with disdain. This does not have to be.

Attempting to attain dynamic balance in your work through following someone else’s tips, will mainly bring derivative results, whereas through ongoing immersion in a variety of genres and by studying the masters in many disciplines, you can develop an innate sense of what works and what does not. There are no shortcuts to mastery in art and no short list of 10 secrets will take you where in-depth study can. When Ansel Adams founded the world’s first college level photography program to teach creative photography as a profession at the California School of Fine Arts, now the San Francisco Arts Institute, he and lead instructor Minor White and the other organizers required students to take a well-rounded set of electives from many of the other art departments at the school including music, ceramics, sculpture and others.

My father, pioneer conservation photographer Philip Hyde, applied to the program and at first his application was misplaced and delayed a year. In response, another mentor and guest lecturer at CSFA, Edward Weston, suggested that since Dad had the G.I. Bill paying his tuition anyway, he might as well take some elective art classes at UC Berkeley while he was waiting to start photography school. Dad signed up for Interior Design, painting and calligraphy. His professor for calligraphy turned out to be the eminent Japanese painter Chiura Obata, who had recently been released from the World War II Japanese concentration camp at Manzanar on the East Side of the Sierra. Learning from Obata turned out to be an unforgettable experience that deeply influenced the way Dad saw any given subject. Through the example and influence of his mentors, both at UC Berkeley and CSFA, Dad became a student of a wide range of types of art. Dad often explained to his students in turn that Ansel Adams and Minor White hardly talked about composition, at least not in terms of quantified rules, but in the context of the relationships, forms and arrangements found in many forms of art and photography.

Before Impressionism Became Impressionism

The great Impressionist Claude Monet broke more of the rules of composition more often than almost anyone else, while producing a completely new kind of art that still soothes, calms and delights the world. During his early career, when he struggled to keep his family from starving, Monet had already begun to make the innovations that would shake up the art establishment.

Monet enjoyed early success when the Paris Salón accepted his first submission, but many rejections followed. He had to rely on his parents and others to survive, while despite his clear mastery of technique, critics labeled him and the group of painters he associated with revolutionaries and troublemakers. In time he would reinvent how textures were applied, develop new brush styles, specialize in portraying the effects of light like no other painter before him and play a central role in the development of Impressionism.

Monet’s departures from tradition were vividly evident in two contemporary exhibitions of his paintings that toured before the Coronavirus Covid-19 Pandemic began. “Monet: The Early Years” and “Monet: The Late Years,” curated by George T.M. Shackelford of the Kimbell Art Museum in Fort Worth, Texas and originated there in partnership with San Francisco’s Fine Arts Museums. Both shows toured nationally and made a stop in San Francisco at the De Young Legion of Honor Museum.

Fountain and Sunburst, de Young Legion of Honor, San Francisco, California, 2017 by David Leland Hyde. (Click Twice to See Large)

My friend Ronald Schmidt and I saw “Monet: The Early Years” at the Legion of Honor. Mr. Schmidt was my 8th Grade English teacher, but moved to San Francisco years ago and became a member of many of the best museums. He invited me to see both Monet shows, but because unfortunately I never made it to see “Monet: The Late Years,” I will refer to online and book reproductions of the paintings. These paintings from Monet’s later career will also be the most accessible in some ways, though most dramatically break the mold of earlier art. Having pored over art books as a boy and become partial to the Impressionists, I was most enthused to see “Monet: The Early Years,” because while both shows promised to include paintings I had not seen before, the first exhibition would tell the story of how the French master got started.

The Legion of Honor Museum: American Home of Great European Art

Winding up through the neighborhoods and trees to see the California Palace of the Legion of Honor Museum shining bright white in the afternoon sun atop the highest point in San Francisco’s Lincoln Park, made for a dramatic buildup to the show. The Legion of Honor grounds offer sweeping views of the city, the Marin Headlands across San Francisco Bay and the Golden Gate Bridge. Arriving at the parking lot, we stepped out of the car and stared at the light patterns on the water of the aquamarine pool and glinting off the spray of the fountain, which danced in the late sunlight. After a long moment, I reached back into the car, grabbed my camera and started making images. I photographed the entrance gate with striking shadows, acting as a portal for people with illuminated halos. Moving into the courtyard I captured a few couples in various poses, caught details of columns and shadows, but once inside there were only stark white walls until we reached the entrance to the Monet Exhibit on the main floor.

Front Gate From Front Door, De Young Legion of Honor, San Francisco, California, 2017 by David Leland Hyde. (Click 3X to enlarge.)

The Legion of Honor is a smaller replica of the Louvre Museum in Paris. The grounds, courtyard and interior of the Legion of Honor are permanent home to over 70 Rodin statues. As you walk up toward the front gate, you enter another world far away from the bustle of the surrounding city. Architect George Applegarth’s massive columns support a colonnade that surrounds the courtyard. Just inside the front gate, you are greeted by one of the original casts of Rodin’s “The Thinker.” Behind this powerful statue rises a low glass pyramid, reminiscent of I.M. Pei’s installation at the Louvre. See also Greatest Hits of European Art on the Hills of San Francisco. Once inside the museum, you find yourself in a large central space with galleries extending in all four directions. The Legion of Honor is the perfect setting for two exhibitions of one of Europe’s most celebrated Impressionists.

At the entrance of “Monet: The Early Years,” my friend Ron and I were greeted initially by a large wall text. The first painting could be seen beyond the wall text. The text ran from ceiling down to the floor, all in white block letters on a white background:

INTRODUCTION

Before his success, before there was even the term “Impressionism,” Claude Monet labored to define his style and promote himself as an artist. Two forces drove him: his will to be a painter and his desire to become critically and commercially successful. During his early career, Monet struggled to provide food and shelter for himself and his family while creating innovations that would turn the art world upside down.

Just past this text wall, one of Monet’s most ambitious early paintings, “Luncheon on the Grass,” dominated another large wall straight ahead. The label identified it as, “Claude Monet, ‘Luncheon on the Grass, Central Panel’, 1865–66. Oil on canvas, 97 X 85 inches. Musée d’Orsay, Paris” It was too large to contain in a photograph, but I had already tucked my camera away anyway, so as not to be distracted from viewing the paintings while inside the show. The picnic scene splashed across the whole wall and looked almost as though you could walk into it, with bright figures as large and vivid as life sitting in front of a dark, primeval forest. The figure of Monet’s first wife, Camille, who appears more than any other character in Monet’s early paintings, in “Luncheon on the Grass” gestures toward the viewer with an empty plate, as if to invite us to sit down and join the group enjoying their wine and refreshments.

Monet Effortlessly Broke the Rules of Composition and Worked Hard to Capture the Light and Mood

Luncheon on the Grass, 1865-1866, Claude Monet. (Click 3X to enlarge.)

The first three or four paintings were innovations in breaking the rules of composition, as it turns out so also were most of the works in the exhibition. More panels told the stories of Monet’s early painting life. Camille and the other figures in the various paintings were revealed not by detail, but by Monet’s stunning observation of detail and light, as well as a stark precision of emotion and feeling. Even though Monet’s painting style left out many details, the mood and time of day in the scenes gleamed in whites and other suggested, subtle textures. Because the shapes, colors and subjects stood out well and captured the eye, the arrangements of the figures and other subjects could be random, unusual and striking.

In ‘Luncheon on the Grass,’ it is almost as though Monet shifted the frame up and to the left. Part of this shifting and imbalance of the whole composition was exacerbated by the fact that this was only the central panel of the painting, the others having mildewed in Monet’s landlord’s basement while being held as collateral for rent, but the composition would have been skewed anyway. We see only part of the dress and arm of one lady on the left, while large areas of white space and extra forest greenery open up on the right. The picnic blanket is cut off at the bottom, but yet the open, less defined forest soars far above the heads of the figures at the top.

Beach at Trouville, 1870, Claude Monet. (Click 3X to enlarge.)

“The Beach at Trouville” cuts off interesting right side features such as the stairways and buildings in favor of showing more of the open beach, ocean and the expanse of sky, which is the largest feature of the piece. In the painting, ‘Hyde Park,’ Monet slices off a quarter of his right side tree, while including significant open space to the right of the vista. If anything, rather than creating dynamic balance and following the rules of composition, in much of his early work, Monet purposely built his images out of symmetry, but not out of balance or equilibrium. His interest seems to be in disrupting our sensibilities, not in working with them.

Monet, perhaps better than any other artist ever, mastered the portrayal of mood in settings and people. Besides choosing lighter or darker tones, his ability to see and capture the effects of light on objects and scenes and his use of great expanses of sky, though often detrimental to perfect composition, enabled him to visually show the feeling of any given place. In this sense, form, subject and the arrangement of objects within the frame, were subordinate to and less important than the emotions he wanted to elicit. Examples abound in his early and late work.

Hyde Park, 1871, Claude Monet. (Click 3X to enlarge.)

In the paintings exhibited in “Monet: The Early Years,” for example, we can compare the somber hues in “Hyde Park” to the bright, white dominated, yet also colorful scene in “The Beach at Trouville.”

Monet also used composition to indicate what was important in a painting. For example, in “The Cradle” the baby and cradle occupied the center and were depicted in bright, colorful and white tones, while Camille sitting at the baby’s side was only a little over halfway in the frame and outlined in dark olives, grays and blacks.

The Green Wave, 1866, Claude Monet. (Click 3X to enlarge.)

In “The Green Wave,” the top third of the mast and sails of the sailboat are out of the frame. Very little space is allowed for a large sailing ship in the distance and another boat also sailing on the same Green Wave. On the other hand, a large, open space of the ocean in the foreground dominates the painting. The sailboats are not the subject of the piece, the ocean and the wave are. Cutting off the top of the sailboat and devoting over one third of the entire painting to the nearly unvaried green wave also make the creations of man small in the face of nature, another theme of the painting. “La Grenouillére,” on the surface is a painting of the lively swimming hole on the Seine in Paris. The exhibition text explained the painting:

La Grenouillére, 1869, Claude Monet. (Click 3X to enlarge.)

“Monet’s “La Grenouillére,” portraying a popular bathing spot on the Seine, carefully captured in color brushstrokes the effects of light, rendering a feeling of pleasure. The men and women sit leisurely at the café, converse under the central tree, partake in swimming, and prepare for a boat ride out on the sun-drenched water. Yet the true subject of this painting is perhaps the river itself. While the activity of the figures is evoked through quick, energetic dashes of the brush, Monet lavished attention on the water, its multiple colors, its reflections, and its depths.”

Monet continued to break with convention in his later work, but not to the extent he did as a young master, until the last 10 years of his life. Robert Taylor described “Monet: The Early Years” in the San Jose Mercury News as a “stunning, exuberant show of nearly 60 paintings, a revelation for art lovers who think they’ve already seen everything Monet has to offer… They haven’t seen the radical Monet, the experimental Monet, the artist whose bold, dramatic paintings are in high contrast to the placid, familiar garden settings.” Read more, “Monet, The Early Years Sheds Surprising Light on Painter.”

Shakelford, the curator of the show said, “He was taking what Gustave Courbet had done with realism and pushing it forward. He was using bigger brushstrokes. His seascapes are pretty daring, pretty tough-minded.” Yet Shakelford said as viewers move through the exhibition, “we bring people around to the Monet they expected: lovely, lighter, optimistic.”

Over and over in Monet’s early paintings he not only placed objects and people in the very center of the picture, a supposed composition “no-no,” but he also gave them extra emphasis with line and color, which further accentuated their central prominence in the work. The “imperfect” compositions serve another function as well. Because nature was most often his primary subject, imbalance within the frame helped to convey the imperfections in nature, while also showing how perfect nature is anyway, even in its imperfection, just like Monet’s paintings.

Every painting in “Monet: The Early Years” broke at least one of the rules mentioned here. Some of Monet’s creations broke all of the rules. Monet’s work and that of many of the other impressionists, cubists, modernists and postmodernists are good resources for studying why compositions that break the rules often have more impact than those that conform.

Japanese Bridge, 1899, Claude Monet. (Click 3X to enlarge.)

A good number of Monet’s later paintings are also two-thirds or three-quarters sky, or one other element, perhaps a hay field, or a beach. He often split the horizon, placed objects directly in the center or ignored other popular aesthetic preferences. What is going on here? Perhaps if your subject matter and the light on it are depicted well enough, you don’t need the “rules of composition.” That is, if you show other attributes of genius in your work, a dissonance of composition or other departures from standard practice may be possible or even desirable.

Monet Takes Abstraction Further

“Monet: The Late Years,” turned out to be laden with departures as well. The San Francisco Weekly described the show as, “An exhibit of Claude Monet’s final 13 years that included paintings of water lilies that were never publicly viewed during the Impressionist master’s lifetime.” Read more, “The Color of Monet: Get Ready for De Young’s Blockbuster Show.” Monet’s last major metamorphosis came about late in life while he painted his own estate in Giverney, France. With the help of hired gardeners, Monet kept his gardens and water features in idyllic condition. At the same time, his own eyesight began to fade. These factors combined to manifest as greater and greater abstraction in his paintings. He was mourning the death of his second wife, Alice, in 1911 and his son, Jean, in 1914. Cataracts threatened to eliminate his sight completely, just as some of the battles of World War I backed the French army almost up to his doorstep. His paintings became more and more of an escape into an unreal world. The SFist said, “Things get downright psychadelic by the 1920s, when Monet was blind in one eye and had only 10 percent sight left in the other,” in the review, “6 Things to Know Before Going to the deYoung’s ‘Monet: The Late Years’ Exhibit.”

Japanese Bridge, 1899, Claude Monet. (Click 3X to enlarge.)

Shakelford, the curator, argued that Monet’s late paintings were nothing less than the beginnings of Modern Art. Abstract artists such as Wassily Kandinsky and Ellsworth Kelly cited Monet as an inspiration. Kelly said that Monet’s late work changed him when he saw two of the paintings in Switzerland. Indeed, Monet’s “The Japanese Bridge,” one of his most abstract late paintings came as a loan from Switzerland’s Kunstmuseum Basel.

Many of his later paintings, though abstract, remained attractive to collectors because of their pleasing colors, but paintings from Monet’s last decade, made as his eyesight faded, were even more subtle and less striking. They were so subtle, there was no market for them. It took until many years later, after Impressionism took the world by storm, in most cases long after the painters themselves were gone, for some of the more obscure paintings by Monet and the others to be recognized as great and valued with the rest of the Impressionist canon. Unusual compositions in Monet’s early work did not turn off the art establishment nearly as much as the breaking of other conventions in art.

Japanese Bridge, 1918, Claude Monet. (Click 3X to enlarge.)

We could deconstruct Monet paintings until the cows come home to eat haystacks, but regardless of the explanations, what he did in his creations worked, even if in some cases, his paintings did not please the sensibilities of the time, they brought a new awareness and eventually changed how people viewed art and how people made art. Rather than characterizing composition as merely another technique, or attainment through a series of formulas, Monet remade it. Likewise in photography, Edward Weston advised aspiring photographers that composition is merely the strongest way of seeing. Adams, Weston and the other members of Group f.64 reinvented photography by eliminating rules, not by adding to them. We don’t learn to be great artists by studying formulas or memorizing techniques, but through deep observation of our subjects, perhaps by seeing them as deeply as Monet did with failing eyesight, or as profoundly as Edward Weston did. Weston said, “To photograph a rock make it look like a rock, but be more than a rock.” We learn from how great artists before us depicted the subjects we wish to depict, even if this means, seeing beyond what is being depicted. This is perhaps why dying people wish to view Monet paintings one last time before they go. There is more in them than we readily see, perhaps a glimpse of the light beyond that Monet himself could see better near the end. We take ideas from great art and try them in our own work and ultimately in our lives. One idea works, another is a flop today, but next month, next year, or someday, perhaps an idea works in a new situation.

Japanese Bridge, 1924, Claude Monet. (Click 3X to enlarge.)

Artists whose photography or paintings endure give us a transcendent experience. Walking through “Monet: The Early Years,” my friend Ron and I discussed feeling exhilarated and awakened by the spirit of Monet’s paintings and the force of his creativity. Being in the presence of his artwork, we experienced his psyche and took a bit of it home. I can say without doubt that Monet’s paintings changed me, just as they did Ellsworth Kelly. Seeing any great artist’s creations gathered and isolated to bring out their full impact gives us a metaphysical and tangible experience, a momentary sense of another’s life. We left refreshed and re-energized, determined and full of insight. We were enriched by our exposure to excellence and by seeking it over the rehash of mundane technique.