Figurative Facts and Flesh-
Updated: Nov 9
Figurative Facts and Flesh- French Connections- An essay on the human form in impressionist art- by Brian Keeler
The inspiration for this essay comes primarily from a book on painting in 19th century France that I just finished; “Bodies of Modernity; Figure and Flesh in Fin-de-Siecle France” by Tamar Garb. This thorough analysis of the impressionist era paintings, photos and sculpture is a great read that brings to light so many insights, along with revealing the context that we probably had not considered. The focus is on sexuality, gender issues; controversial subjects then and now. Representations of the male and female nude are the primary subjects.
So reflecting on some of my favorite paintings of that era, with new access to so many of the less-than-obvious associations in those works was part of the pleasure of reading this text. The book however instills a recollection of some experiences of looking at French art in the museums of Europe and here in America. The Louvre comes to mind, of course, as does Musee d’Orsay. The Tuilleries, The Petit Palace, The National Museum of Ireland and the Museum of Modern Art in Rome are also repositories of the period. And there’s no shortage here in America, with one of the best collections being at the Clark Institute, and virtually every museum has some examples of impressionism. The Barnes in Philadelphia and the Phillips Collection in DC being among the best.
Part of the personal enjoyment of reading about a certain group of painters is reflecting on times spent in front of their work or visiting their homes. For example, one year, traveling between Italy and Spain, I stopped in at Aix-en-Provence to visit the Aetellier de Cezzane. I also walked the same road to Mt. St. Victorie that he had trod to paint so many of his depictions of that Mountain. Visiting the Louvre and Musee d’Orsay was beyond a treasure trove to marvel at so many virtuosic works.
In short, this is a fascinating read that delves into the context along with gender and sexuality issues of those impressionist paintings of people on the streets and nudes in various settings. The author's propensity for interpreting everything with a sexual agenda might be carried to a fault, as there is an abundance of this approach. At times I found myself wondering if this aesthetic and focus by the author would also become dated and representative of the late 20th century rather than a document of impressionism. If it is a phalic symbol or a representation of female genitlia it may be interesting, somewhat- but what then? Does all this innuendo really lead anywhere?
Manet’s two iconic figure paintings come to mind as prime examples of paintings of the nude from this group of painters. I am referring to his “Luncheon on the Grass” and the equally powerful “Olympia.” The first canvas, has become noted for its reinterpretation of a Raphael work, but based on an etching by the renaissance printmaker, Marcantonio Raimondi. We artists appreciate this appropriation for how artists can use the heavy lifting of a previous artist, that is to say, the conceiving of poses in this case, and alter them and changing the context and even changing the genders to be put into a new work. Such was the case with Manet, who used Raphael's work for his central figures seated on the grass. The Luncheon and the Olympia both flaunted convention and assumptions in a major way that is hard to relate to in our world. They both seem completely staid and non-confrontational to viewers today. We also think of Sargent’s “Madame X” as another bygone controversy that leaves us scratching our heads wondering what all the fuss was about.
The author’s insights are valuable and thoroughly researched. The rewards of reading this historical account with all the sexual associations, assumptions and mindsets of that age keeps us readers engaged. Perhaps the most insightful chapters are the last three with an analysis of Cezzane and Renoir and how the two are contrasted as polar opposites. The author’s titles speak to this on their own; “Renoir’s Fantasy of the Feminine” followed by “Paul Cezanne’s The Eternal Feminine and the Erotics of Vison” and finally Cezanne’s Late Bathers and Sexual Difference.”
Many have often admired Cezanne’s painterly canvases and their devotion to the search and highlighting the process in a raw manner. Here is what the author thinks the difference is between the two painters; “ Where the Renoir surface is highly finished and polished, texture and touch being carefully contrived to give the effect of smooth alabaster like flesh of soft feathery foliage, The Cezanne reveals an overall painterliness which makes no distinction between body and landscape."
If you’re into Freudian-like readings there are no shortages here, as Garb offers us ones like this; “..a naked woman is framed by a shadowy, cavernous, triangular canopy which functions as a sign of the sex that is hinted at but cannot be represented on the body. The canopy both contains and symbolizes woman. Its assertive triangularity substitutes for the inverted genital triangle which is indicated but not described in the space between the woman’s thighs.”
Many of us will recall the huge painting of Cezanne’s in the Philadelphia Museum of Art of bathers under the huge trees that are leaning in to form a triangle. Renoir’s three nude women disporting themselves in a rollicking stream scene is conveniently located in a nearby room at the PMA so we can compare the actual paintings for ourselves.
Speaking of triangularity- this geometric armature or architecture was also a hallmark of the high renaissance. It could be seen in many of the religious paintings of Raphael and Leonardo. We wonder if the same connotations are ascribed to those pieces by Garb as are the modernist works under consideration in her book. The compositional schemes of the renaissance are also called pyramidal, as they often imply a more spatially organized plan.
In many of my own canvases I have drawn inspiration from the high renaissance order and used the triad-type of arrangement. It seems to be more dynamic and it takes into consideration the basic number of the main actors in a given canvas.
The purely painterly or distilled aesthetic of Cezanne’s work is worth appreciating and Garb brings us to this understanding in many ways. For she addresses the rarefied internal workings of these pictorial poetics. Indeed, she refers to the arrangements as having rhymes within themselves. This adventuresome and deeply regarded orchestration is providing us with new insights into art for art’s sake. Here is a quote “…the hands fuss with the shrunken head of the crouching figure while the passage of the shoulder connects with the faceting brushwork of the sky behind. Neither the body’s boundaries nor the specific anatomical character of its parts are sacred here. Buttocks rhyme with breasts or knees, creating analogies of shape and structure. Hands fuse with feet, heads and foliage, destroying the specificity of each while subsuming all into the stringent demands of picture making.” What artist, or layman for that matter, cannot delight in such perspicacious observations that reveal the innerworkings of art."
Garb is in fact describing an ideal that many painters strive for. This goal is to have our canvases work as an interrelated concert. There is an idea from the Divine Comedy of Dante Alligeri that I like to consider. His definition of harmony or Concordia is that there is a proper relation of the whole to the parts. Another way to think of it is, that when any given painting is successful, any part of it cannot be subtracted without upsetting the balance. Nor, can anything be added to a complete composition, as it too will disturb the balance.
Garb goes on to show us that these paintings of Cezanne encompass opposites and dichotomies. For example they represent a deeply conservative approach and one that is also transgressive. Just what or how these paintings are violating a norm or flaunting a protocol is unclear, but the traditional borrowing of an approach from art traditions is more apparent. The genius, I would say, is in the authenticity and in the ground breaking method of Cezanne. His canvases are like nothing before, yet they honor a tradition. There is an adage that is appropriate here; "Tradtion fosters innovation, and innovation invigorates tradition." Picasso and Matisse later venerated him as being essential. Picasso said; “ Cezanne’s influence gradually flooded everything.”
An early chapter in Garb's book on Caillebotte is of particular interest too as it shows a painter who brings us splendid examples of the everyday, like his wonderful canvas of men scraping a floor. But his depictions of men after a bath casually drying themselves show us that the male nude is equally worthy of depiction. These paintings of men however turn a tradition on it’s head as they no longer show men in heroic rolls but in the everyday routines.
The reversal of the way artists appreciate the opposite sex or of their same gender is broached here too. For Mary Cassatt’s wonderful work that many love, she is primarily focusing on depicting women in settings and context that had heretofore been a male endeavor. She was however going against the grain and barnstorming in an art dominated by men. But, Garb shows us that her depictions are not unlike those of artists like her teacher Degas. Is there any rule that women cannot find the same appreciation of women without being accused of utilizing the "male gaze"? Conversely, Cailebotte’s depiction of the male nude in after-bath scenes are parallel to Cassatt’s in their reversals.
Appreciating these great works of French figurative painting is an activity that most have loved in the museums and through wonderful and insightful books like this; we are given more windows through which to view these treasures.