19 APRIL 2019. Ian Russell
“One shall no longer paint interiors, people reading and women knitting. They will be people who are alive, who breathe and feel, suffer and love.”
Edvard Munch, 1889
Self-portrait (1895). Lithograph on paper
Prior to this week, I’d been fortunate enough to see two major exhibitions of the work of Norwegian artist Edvard Munch (1863-1944).
His name, incidentally, is pronounced Mʊnk (with the ʊ sounding like the double-o in book, took, etc); definitely not as munch (as in the thing you do to crisps).
And I think, although I’m not 100% certain, that the second d in Edvard is silent (I've listened to it several times on Google and I still can't decide if it's actually there or not).
This week, I saw a third exhibition of Munch’s work. Whereas the first two (at the National Gallery and then the Royal Academy) focussed largely on his painting, this latest, brilliant show at the British Museum is mainly about Munch’s printmaking.
Vampire II (1896). Lithograph and woodcut on paper
Why does Munch’s work deserve attention?
Despite its potentially misleading name, European Modern Art, as a recognisable style/approach/attitude, started in the latter half of the 19th century. Munch was one of its early pioneers. In its time, his artwork was highly original and innovative, and eventually became hugely influential. His best-known image is probably The Scream, of which he created several versions, as paintings, pastel drawings, and prints.
The Scream ((1895). Lithograph on paper
Munch has explained the inspiration for this piece. He was out walking with a couple of friends on the edge of a fjord, near the city of Oslo. It was around sunset and the clouds suddenly turned "blood red". At that point, Munch says, it felt to him as though there was an "infinite scream passing through nature". He could well be describing a type of anxiety attack. It's usually assumed that the central figure in this piece is screaming; that's probably not the case. His mouth isn't really the right shape; people normally show their teeth when they scream. According to Munch, it's the landscape that's screaming; the man on the bridge is just trying to block out the noise.
Head by Head (1905). Woodcut on paper
Munch was clearly an extremely good draughtsman; to put it another way, he was great at drawing. Most of the things in his compositions (such as bridges, buildings, cafe interiors, etc) are immediately recognisable, and in his portraits he always achieves a good likeness. You could, therefore, say that his work is figurative or representational. But Munch’s art is about much more than just showing us what people and things look like. Crucially, it's about expressing, or communicating, an often heightened emotion or state of mind. As the curator of the British Museum’s show puts it, “Munch’s idiosyncratic expression of raw human emotion reflects many of the anxieties and hotly debated issues of his times, yet his art resonates powerfully to this day.”
The Girls on the Bridge (1918). Woodcut on paper
This exhibition, entitled Edvard Munch: love and angst, is on at the British Museum (www.britishmuseum.org) until 21 July 2019. I would advise booking tickets in advance, and I thoroughly recommend that you see it! Parents with young children, though, should check that they are happy with the subject matter of some of the artworks on display.
Edvard Much sitting on a trunk in his studio (1902)
26 FEBRUARY 2019. Ian Russell
“Certainly, colour had carried me away. I sacrificed form to it almost unconsciously.” Pierre Bonnard, 1912
There is currently a major exhibition of Bonnard’s work at Tate Modern, the first such show for twenty years. Its full title is Pierre Bonnard: The Colour of Memory and it is on until 6 May 2019. It is a glorious exhibition. Bonnard’s canvases, of which there are many, are saturated with light and colour. The paintings are mainly of interiors – rooms in the various homes that Bonnard shared with his partner, Marthe de Meligny – and landscapes.
Dining Room in the Country (1913). Oil paint on canvas
Why does Bonnard’s work deserve attention?
In 1874, in Paris (which was then pretty much the capital of the western art world), a bunch of radical, avant-garde artists, led by painters such as Claude Monet, Edgar Degas and Berthe Morisot, held their first group exhibition in a photography studio in the Boulevard des Capucines. This group, who quickly became known as the Impressionists, revolutionised painting in all kinds of ways but in particular through the way they used colour. Their work led to more radical art being created by the next generation of painters such as Henri de Toulous-Lautrec, Vincent van Gogh, Paul Gauguin, Henri Matisse, and Pierre Bonnard.
Impression, Sunrise (1872) by Claude Monet. Oil paint on canvas
The Impressionists were determined to find ways of doing justice, in their paintings, to the light and colour of the real world. Their innovations made it possible for painters like Matisse and Bonnard to go on to free colour from merely describing the appearance of a subject, to becoming a means of expressing the artist’s feelings about his/her subject. It’s as though painters like Bonnard looked at Impressionist art and thought, “Blimey! If colour can do that, let’s see if we can get it to do this!”
Nude in the Mirror (1931), detail, by Pierre Bonnard. Oil paint on canvas
Even though Bonnard’s pictures are of specific people and places (such as his wife, rooms in their home, their garden, the landscape around their house, etc.) they are not painted directly from life. Bonnard preferred to work from memory. He argued that “the presence of the object ... is a hindrance for the painter when he is painting.”
Bonnard’s colours are vibrant and shimmering. Much of the paint is layered – loosely painted brush strokes of colour on top of other sometimes competing, sometimes harmonising, colours. In that sense the colour is textured, but it is a texture that comes purely from Bonnard’s unblended, still-visible brushstrokes. The paint itself is uniformly thin; it has no physical texture, no impasto.
Who has Bonnard influenced?
There are a number of important contemporary painters whose work seems to demonstrate the influence of Bonnard. Here are just two of them:
Peter Doig (born 1959), one of Britain’s most renowned figurative painters. Like Bonnard's paintings, Doig's images convey a sense that what we are looking at is not simply a picture of a place, but more a representation of a memory of a place and a moment in time.
Swamped (1990) by Peter Doig. Oil paint on canvas
Lucy Smallbone (born 1988), painter of exciting, atmospheric and immersive landscapes. Lucy completed her Masters at the Slade School of Fine Art in 2015. Her work has won her a number of awards, including the Duveen Travel Prize, and in November 2018 she led a highly successful art workshop at SWPS.
River Light (2018) by Lucy Smallbone. Oil paint on canvas. www.lucysmallbone.com
13 APRIL 2018. Ian Russell
The typeface that I have chosen to use throughout this website is called Open Sans. I like it very much; I think it’s highly legible and has a rather pleasing, contemporary, under-stated elegance. It was designed by an American typeface designer called Steve Matteson. He studied at RIT (the Rochester Institute of Technology) in New York State. He’s 53 and lives in Michigan, in the US, with his wife, two daughters, and two golden labradors. I mention all this for two reasons:
When my GCSE students (Years 10 & 11) study the work of contemporary and historical artists, they frequently demonstrate an interest in, and respect for, typeface design in the way they present the results of their research:
There is a great deal that goes into the design of a typeface. Usually the aim is to make each letter of the alphabet work well alongside all the others. If the size, proportions, or weight of an individual character is slightly off, it will trip up the eye as it travels across a line of text. So, designing a typeface usually requires a huge amount of attention to detail. It can take months, or even years, to design a full alphabet.
Picture by Amanda Mahoney-Fernandes (2015)
There are lots of ways of categorising fonts/typefaces (these days those two words mean virtually the same thing). The two broadest, and probably most commonly used, categories are:
A serif font is a font whose letters have serifs – the points that stick out at the end of most of the characters. The word sans comes from the French word meaning without, so sans serif fonts are, literally, typefaces without serifs. The earliest example we have of a serif font is on Trajan’s Column, built in 113 AD as a tribute to the Roman emperor Trajan.
Picture courtesy of Codex 99 (2011)
In theory, because of the way serifs curve or reach out towards the letters on either side of them, they give words on a page a kind of visual fluidity that makes a line of text easier, more comfortable to read. This is probably why large bodies of printed text, such as you would find in the pages of novels, newspapers or magazines, are commonly set in serif fonts.
Body copy set in the serif font Financier, designed by Kris Sowersby. Financial Times (2014)
We tend to associate sans serif typefaces with a sense of up-to-the-minute modernity, but many of the sans fonts we use were designed quite a long time ago. A particular favourite of mine, for example, is the typeface Futura.
Image by Jeremy Peck (2016). www.jerepeck.com
It was designed in 1927 by German designer Paul Renner.
One of its distinctive features is that it has a circular letter o; the o in most fonts is more like an oval. Renner’s design, with its strong emphasis on geometric shapes such as the circle and the triangle, was almost certainly influenced by the work of the Bauhaus, a German school of design that has become hugely influential.
Futura is one of the two typefaces we use in the SWPS Magazine.
Cover artwork by Rhiannon (Year 10)
Just My Type: A Book About Fonts (2010) by Simon Garfield. Published by Profile Books.
The Field Guide to Typography: Typefaces in the Urban Landscape (2013) by Peter Dawson. Published by Thames & Hudson.