Rage and Turmoil

And you thought you were having a bad day...

In the popular imagination artists are pictured as passionate. And honestly when I think of what it takes to stay at the easel making paintings over a lifetime, I think that word nails our personalities well. But I've come to the conclusion that emotions can to be too strong for an artist to tackle directly. Cezanne once said that while art wasn't the same as nature, it travels on a track that runs parallel to nature. It like that.

The above painting comes as close to a nightmare as any I've ever seen. At times of distress I've found myself looking through Google Images searching for this gruesome oil. It's Goya's Saturn Eating His Children. It's so ghastly I feel bowled over by it. And while I feel it's better than anything Damien Hirst will ever do, it's not one of Goya's better pieces. The image shocks us with its biting graphic action, but after you've seen that I think it doesn't offer that much of a second act for one's eye.

The ability to be passionately involved with one's idea is right at the heart of art. But to make a painting people are going to want to return to over and over one has to master an additional task- detachment. 

Painters have to go to all the corners and recesses of the painting, far away from the "action" and find new things to say there as well. Any painting with staying power is one where all the forms and  colors are intriguing in their own right. The forms themselves have to have to do the singing, not just describe the action. In the Goya for example, I feel Saturn's eyes are so dominant that they overpower the rest of the painting. 

Quite by accident I tripped over the painting below. It's a painting by Emil Nolde (German, 1867- 1956) Sunflowers in the Windstorm from the Columbus Museum of Art in Ohio. After viewing the ripped flesh of the previous painting, this one might at first seem pretty tame. But compare it to all the paintings of flowers you've seen. 95% of them border on saccharine and are predictably painted. It's pretty hard to say something fresh about a yellow flower, but that's exactly what this Nolde fellow managed to do.

Sunflowers are usually painted very yellow, but Nolde plays against our expectations by switching to an orange/ochre blossom at left and two extremely pale flowers on the right. To build their intensity he focuses instead on expressively shaping the petals into a distinctive rhythm. 

And what a wonderful contrast the pale light of the foreground has against the stormy mystery of the  sky. It seems daylight in front and night in the heavens. Nolde's authoritative paint handling lays down both with similar strokes and convincingly knits together two worlds that shouldn't really be connected. The sky reminds me ever so much of the earlier work of the decidedly un-modernist American painter Albert Pinkham Ryder (1847-1917). Like Ryder, Nolde builds a flowing network of darks that move across the canvas from side to side as a counterpoint to the stated round blossoms. 

Is the Nolde painting better than the Goya? To me it is something I could live with over time while the chomping Saturn seems more of an image designed for a one-shot shock. I'm glad Goya painted it because it is so hellish, and we humans have to find forms to express these most difficult sides of our lives. It's a perverse sort of comfort to know that Goya, at least once and a while, felt really really awful-
(you and I aren't the only ones to sometimes have to face that).

But to me art also serves to show us how to have a little distance on turmoil. We don't know for sure whether our sunflowers will survive this storm, but Nolde gives them a fighting chance. His painting seems more a dialogue between violence and grace. Knocking the tenor of his storm down a little bit he's  made a more emotionally durable painting. 

Art is long: Life is short goes the saying. Nolde's flowers seem ready to go the distance.


  1. New to me, this painting, love it, love how it illustrates your point. Totally agree, it's a much more sophisticated and nuanced expression of terror. Title? Year? I shall take a second look at his oeuvre. Thanks, Phil!

  2. Hi Joseph,

    The Nolde was new to me too- I stumbled over it while cruising the Columbus Museum of Art's website. Don't know the year but the title is Sunflowers in the Windstorm.


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