Pieter Bruegel the Elder

2019 sees the 450th anniversary of the death of Pieter Bruegel the Elder (c 1525/30 – 1569). To mark the occasion the Kunsthistorisches Museum Vienna is dedicating the world’s first ever major monograph exhibition to the artist widely regarded as the 16th century’s greatest Netherlandish painter.

Netherlandish Proverbs Oil on oak panel, 117 x 163 cm; Staatliche Museen zu Berlin, Gemaldegalerie, Berlin.

After an initial period of brilliance, during which time it rose to achieve perfection, Flemish art gradually fell into decline. Although thorough studies of its origins have revealed works, in particular those of the miniaturists, that are deserving of notice and which predate the artistic careers of the two Van Eycks, Hubert and Jan, the genius of the brothers remains stunningly spectacular, surpassing that of their predecessors to such a degree that it would be impossible to find an equally sudden, decisive and glorious evolution in the history of art.

Pieter Bruegel the Elder, The Painter and the Collector, ca. 1565.
Pen and brown ink, 25 x 21.6 cm.
Graphische Sammlung, Albertina, Vienna.
Petrus Paulus Rubens, Jan Brueghel the Elder and his family, 1612-1613.
Oil on wood, 124.5 x 94.6 cm.
Courtauld Institute of Art, Princes Gate Collection, London.

Even so, the lesser artists who followed the Van Eycks, whether they were either directly trained by them or simply influenced by their work, also possessed talent of admirable quality, but their sense and understanding of nature was less penetrating and profound and their execution less scrupulous. In not applying the same closeness of attention, which till then had been a rule of Flemish painting, these artists lost their opportunity for originality, relaxing their focus on nature and placing the primary importance of their work in its details.

Jan Brueghel the Elder and Hans Rottenhammer,
Rest upon the Flight into Egypt with the Temple of Tivoli, 1595.
Oil on copper, 26 x 35.5 cm. Private collection.
Pieter Bruegel the Elder, The Flight into Egypt, 1563.
Oil on wood, 37.2 x 55.5 cm.
Courtauld Institute of Art, Count Antoine Seilern Collection, London.

It became increasingly common for these painters to travel to Italy, and consequently their native impressions became mixed with those evoked by the lands through which they passed. Upon leaving the Flemish plains, the monotony of which is scarcely interrupted, the emigrant artists could not help but be struck by the imposing nature of the mountainous regions along their route.

Joachim Patinir, Saint Jerome in a Landscape, ca. 1530.
Oil on wood, 74 x 91 cm.
Museo del Prado, Madrid.

The Alps, the Tirols, and the Apennines offered the artists the rugged landscapes once sought by the Flemish Primitives, to whom simplicity had been of no interest. In their depiction of panoramas that stretched as far as the eye could see, these nomads remained faithful to their excessive preoccupation with the picturesque.

Pieter Bruegel the Elder, The Rabbit Hunt, 1560 (?). Etching, 22.3 x 29.1 cm.
The Royal Library of Albert I, Brussels.

They were of the belief that no amount of detail could be too much, and they tirelessly added bizarre rock formations and countless rivers to the harsh peaks and mountainous landscapes they painted. In addition, they laid out forests, towns, villages and castles that stretched into infinity. When, during their travels, they spent time in towns, at every step the Flemish painters encountered ancient ruins, monuments of various styles, statues, masterpieces by artists of the Classical age, and works of art no less admired by their less worthy successors; and everywhere they went they came across traditions and new ways of thinking vastly different from those they had known until then. How could they resist the seductions that solicited them from every direction? Their Italian colleagues, who were already organized in associations and guilds, welcomed the Flemish artists, affiliated them with their groups and initiated them into the wonders of the ars nova. On their return home, the travellers themselves often became apostles, extolling the principles of Italian painting and art in general, and attempting, though usually with little success, to imitate the Italian style…

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Shelley’s Art Musings – Delacroix Sexist?

 

Eugene Delacroix – Liberty Leading the People (1830) Musée du Louvre

It’s an iconic and powerfully strong image, isn’t it. Lady Liberty leading the charge of freedom, in what is known as Delacroix’s most famous painting, but the symbolism and composition of the piece have opened debates around sexism and imagery.
Delacroix was notorious for his dramatic paintings, but audiences found his topics and depictions rather hard to stomach, as the scenes are overly violent, too grand, oversized and overpowering in the response that they almost demand.
Delacroix was a leading name in French Romanticism, born in 1798 he was educated at Lycée Louis-le-Grand, and at the Lycée Pierre Corneille in Rouen, where he immersed himself in the classics and won awards for drawing. In 1815 he started his training with Pierre-Narcisse Guérin in the neoclassical style of Jacques-Louis David. When his fellow artist Théodore Géricault painted “The Raft of the Medusa” in 1818, this inspired Delacroix’s first major painting – “The Barque of Dante”.

Théodore-Géricault-The-Raft-of-Medusa
Théodore Géricault – The Raft of Medusa (1819) Musée du Louvre

From this point, Delacroix continued to create works which divided the audiences, and it isn’t by chance that “The Raft of Medusa” was the painting to initially inspire him, as later, when creating “Liberty leading the People” he echoed the triangular structure of Géricault’s piece to add depth and balance to his greatest painting.
Liberty broke a trend in Delacroix’s style, with a woman leading the people to hope and freedom over a pile of dead bodies. It was no secret that Delacroix saw women as an aesthetic to life and many of his paintings have women in them as draped and accepting of their fate, so it is unusual to see a woman so dominantly prominent in his work. This was a far cry from the status of women in the 1830s, and there are some interesting factors within the painting which stand her apart from the women of any class during the French revolution. Is this just another painting which demonstrates Delacroix’s feelings on women, or is the symbolism much deeper than his apparent sexism?
Obviously, the woman leading the people is no ordinary women, she is, in fact, Libertas and is the embodiment of Liberty. She is shown baring her breasts and holding high the tricolour flag, while in her other hand a rifle fixed with a bayonet. She strides over the dead bodies of men as a small boy, armed with pistols, hurries along beside her, as the revolutionary men come to join her march.
You may think that this painting was a heavily political piece, a depiction of the revolution from the view of those who were opposed to the government, but this is a painting of a moment in time in the revolution where anything was possible, created by a man that was trying to make sense of what was going on around him; its a moment of anarchic freedom, it is the most enduring image of what revolution feels like from within: ecstatic, violent, libidinal and murderous.
This painting is in the style of romanticism, which doesn’t concentrate on the realism of a situation, more externalises the feeling of the artist on to the canvas.
Liberty shows her breasts, not in a sexual display, but in a display of dominance and power. This painting pre-dates Impressionists, who recorded what they saw, rather than depicting symbols in a romantic way. Would it have been possible to paint a French mortal woman in this stance? At the time probably not. Only a symbolic woman could have such a role in a piece of historical propaganda rather than a real woman. She is a robust woman, indicating the strength of her convictions. She is shown in profile, almost obvious to the maddening crowd which surrounds her. She barely notices the path of dead bodies which she strides over. She is ready to fight at close range and defend the honour of her convictions.
The young boy is the symbol of how early this moment in time is within the revolution. He stands for the childlike naivety which the masses created barricades to bring down Charles X. It’s always a disturbing image, an armed child, who doesn’t have the full moral or social sense to truly comprehend what is happening to act on judgement; yet it also echoes the hope which is shown with Liberty at the front.
There are dreamlike qualities to the painting. The revolutionary who looks up at Liberty from the ground has a blue shirt and a red headscarf he has a bit of white shirt poking out under his blue top – that is, he is decked in red, white and blue, echoing the tricolour that flies over the barricades. This man is clothed in a decayed, dying version of Liberty’s flag: he is her sick shadow, an indication and premonition of the outcome of revolution. It doesn’t matter who wins in the end, people still suffer and die.
Is Delacroix sexist in his subject matter? Well, of course, he is! In 1830, it would almost be impossible not to be sexist or patriarchal as the dominant society, even in revolutionary France, was sexist at this time, as was the rest of the Western World. However, is the painting sexual and misogynistic? No, I don’t think it is. Its subject matter is not about sex or sexuality but about the power of the revolution. Oh, so often we hear of the women being the temptress who leads men astray, so why wouldn’t the Goddess Libertas be leading men into a dangerous and fraught situation under the guise of the seduction of freedom.
Delacroix has painted the hysterical freedom and joy of revolution. His painting acting as a reminder of revolution’s most charismatic visual icon, and yet it is not naive. Death is part of the glamour, and there is sickness at the very centre of progress. Romanticism is not an optimistic art. If Delacroix’s painting understands the seduction of revolution better than any other, it also acknowledges the violence that is inseparable from that belief in total change and the rule of the crowd.

Edward Burne-Jones

One of the last Pre-Raphaelites, Edward Burne-Jones brought imaginary worlds to life in awe-inspiring paintings, stained glass windows and tapestries

When Burne-Jones’ mural sized canvas of King Cophetua and the Beggar Maid  was exhibited in the shadow of the newly constructed Eiffel Tower at the Paris Exposition universelle in 1889, it caused a sensation scarcely less extraordinary than the tower itself. Burne-Jones was awarded not only a gold medal at the exhibition but also the cross of the Légion d’honneur.

King Cophetua and the Beggar Maid, 1880-1884. Oil on canvas, 290 x 136 cm. Tate Britain, London.

He became one of those rare “Anglo-Saxons” who, from Constable in the early nineteenth century to Jerry Lewis in the late twentieth century, have been taken into the hearts of the French intelligentsia. For a few years while the Burne-Jones craze lasted, fashionable French women dressed and comported themselves “à la Burne-Jones”, cultivating pale complexions, bruised eyes and an air of unhealthy exhaustion.

The Annunciation (“ The Flower of God”), 1863. Watercolour and gouache, 61 x 53.3 cm.
Collection. Lord Lloyd-Webber.

The two great French Symbolist painters Gustave Moreau and Pierre Puvis de Chavannes immediately recognised Burne-Jones as an artistic fellow traveller. In 1892, the cheer leader of the “Decadence” “Sâr” Joséphin Péladan, announced that Burne-Jones would be exhibiting at his newly launched Symbolist Salon de la Rose-Croix alongside Puvis de Chavannes and other leading French Symbolist and English Pre-Raphaelites. Burne-Jones wrote to his fellow artist George Frederick Watts “I don’t know about the Salon of the Rose-Cross — a funny high-fallutin’ sort of pamphlet has reached me — a letter asking me to exhibit there, but I feel suspicious of it.”

Sidonia von Bork, 1860. Watercolour and gouache,
33 x 17 cm. Tate Britain, London.

Like Puvis de Chavannes (who went so far as to write to Le Figaro denying any connection with the new Salon), Burne-Jones turned down the invitation. It is very unlikely that Burne-Jones would have accepted, or perhaps even have understood, the label of “Symbolist”. Yet, to our eyes, he seems to have been one of the most representative figures of the Symbolist movement and of that pervasive mood termed “fin de siècle”.

Going to the Battle, 1858. Grey pen and ink drawing on vellum paper, 22.5 x 19.5 cm.
Fitzwilliam Museum, Cambridge.

Symbolism was a late-nineteenth-century reaction to the positivist philosophy that had dominated the mid-century. It found expression in the gross materiality of the paintings of Courbet and Manet and the realist novels of Emile Zola and in Impressionism with its emphasis on sensory perception. Above all, it was a reaction against the belief in progress and modernity represented by the Eiffel Tower itself and against the triumph of industry and commerce celebrated in the vast “Hall of Machines” in the same exhibition, which had filled Puvis de Chavannes with horror and had given him nightmares.

Clara von Bork, 1860. Watercolour and gouache, 34 x 18 cm.
Tate Britain, London.

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Edward Burne-Jones

Screenshot_1

Lorsque Le Roi Cophetua et la jeune mendiante de Burne-Jones, toile de la taille d’une peinture murale, fut exposée lors de l’Exposition universelle de 1889 à l’ombre de la Tour Eiffel récemment construite, elle fit à peine moins sensation que la tour elle-même. Lors de l’exposition, Burne-Jones reçut non seulement une médaille d’or mais aussi la Légion d’honneur.

Burne-Jones_Cophetua_Beggar_Maid_-_GAP_cropped_hard
Le Roi Cophetua et la jeune mendiante,1880-1884.
Huile sur toile, 290 x 136 cm. Tate Britain, Londres.

Il devint l’un de ces rares « anglo-saxons » qui, de Constable au début du XIXe siècle jusqu’à Jerry Lewis à la fin du XXe siècle, avaient été intégrés au coeur de l’intelligentsia française. Pendant les quelques années que dura l’engouement pour Burne-Jones, des femmes françaises à la mode se vêtirent et se comportèrent « à la Burne-Jones » et cultivèrent le teint pâle, les yeux cernés et les airs d’épuisement maladif.

Saint Georges et le dragon
Saint Georges et le dragon : La Pétition au roi, 1865-1866.
Huile sur toile, 106,7 x 183 cm.
Hanover College, Hanover (Indiana).

Les deux grands peintres symbolistes français, Gustave Moreau et Pierre Puvis de Chavannes, reconnurent immédiatement Burne-Jones comme l’un de leurs compagnons de route artistique. En 1892, tête de file de la « Décadence », « Sâr » Joséphin Peladan, annonça que Burne-Jones allait exposer dans son « Salon de la Rose-Croix », récemment instauré et dédié aux symbolistes, aux côtés de Puvis de Chavannes et d’autres symbolistes français significatifs ainsi que de certains préraphaélites anglais.

Saint Georges et le
Saint Georges et le dragon : La Princesse Sabra tirant au sort, 1865-1866.
Huile sur toile, 106,7 x 183 cm. Hanover College, Hanover (Indiana).

Burne-Jones écrivit à son confrère George Frederick Watts : « Je ne sais rien au sujet de ce Salon Rose-Croix, j’ai reçu une sorte de pamphlet ampoulé assez amusant, une lettre me demandant d’y exposer, mais j’ai des réserves à cet égard. » A l’instar de Puvis, qui alla jusqu’à écrire au Figaro pour nier toute relation avec ce nouveau Salon, Burne-Jones refusa l’invitation. Il aurait été très invraisemblable que Burne-Jones ait accepté ou peut-être même compris l’étiquette de « symboliste ».

Le Chevalier
Le Chevalier miséricordieux, 1863. Aquarelle et gouache, 100,3 x 69,2 cm.
Museums and Art Gallery, Birmingham.

Pourtant, à nos yeux, il semble avoir été l’un des membres les plus représentatifs du mouvement symboliste et de cet esprit « fin de siècle » si largement répandu. Le symbolisme était une réaction de la fin du XIXe siècle à la philosophie positiviste, qui avait dominé le milieu du siècle, et avait trouvé à s’exprimer dans la matérialité crasse des peintures de Courbet et de Manet et le réalisme des romans d’Émile Zola ou encore dans l’emphase mise sur la perception sensorielle par l’impressionnisme.

La Lamentation, 1866.
La Lamentation, 1866.
Aquarelle et gouache sur papier marouflé sur toile, 47,5 x 79,5 cm.
William Morris Gallery, Walthamstow.

Par-dessus tout, il s’agissait d’une réaction contre la croyance dans le progrès et la modernité incarnés par la Tour Eiffel elle-même, et contre le triomphe de l’industrie et du commerce célébrés dans la vaste « Salle des Machines » de la même exposition qui avait horrifié Puvis de Chavannes et lui avait donné des cauchemars.

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Als deutsche Soldaten in mein Atelier kamen und mir meine Bilder von Guernica ansahen, fragten sie: ‘Hast du das gemacht?’. Und ich würde sagen: ‘Nein, hast du’.

Ausstellung: Guernica

Datum: vom 27. März bis 29. Juli 2018

Museum: Musée national Picasso | Paris, France

Als deutsche Soldaten in mein Atelier kamen und mir meine Fotos von Guernica ansahen, fragten sie: “Hast du das gemacht?”. Und ich würde sagen: “Nein, hast du.” – Pablo Picasso

GUERNICA, 1937. Öl auf Leinwand, 349,3 x 776,6 cm
Museo Nacional Centro de Arte Reina Sofía , Madrid

Das blutige historische Ereignis, das Picasso bewegte, dieses Meisterwerk innerhalb eines Monats zu schaffen, fand kurz vor der Pariser Weltausstellung 1937 statt, wo es erstmals gezeigt wurde, nachdem es von der Regierung der Spanischen Republik in Auftrag gegeben worden war. Die Bilder und Empfindungen der dreistündigen Bombardierung und Zerstörung der baskischen Stadt Guernica durch Flugzeuge der Nationalsozialisten waren noch frisch im Bewusstsein der Öffentlichkeit. Diese brutale, monochrome Arbeit war sowohl als reaktives politisches Statement als auch als Kunstwerk stark umstritten. Die Verwendung von Schwarzweiß-Tönen wurde durch Kriegsfotografien wie die von Robert Capa inspiriert. Trotz der Symbolik, die den verschiedenen Elementen seit der Entstehung des Gemäldes gegeben wurde, verhielt sich Picasso sehr geheimnisvoll in Bezug auf die Bedeutung von Guernicas verborgenen Themen und Bildern.

GUERNICA, ZUSTAND 1, 1937. Fotografien von Dora Maar
GUERNICA, ZUSTAND 3, 1937. Fotografien von Dora Maar. Photograph by Dora Maar

Es besteht nur äußerst selten die Möglichkeit, ein Meisterwerk in seinen Herstellungsphasen zu sehen. Dora Maar, Picassos Geliebte zu jener Zeit, dokumentierte das hektische Treiben Picassos im Verlauf des einen Monats, den er damit verbrachte, Guernica zu malen. Die Fotografien dieser beiden Zustände zeigen, dass Picasso einige Teilstücke im Bild während des Schaffensprozesses erst noch erfand. So ist im Zustand 1 noch eine geballte Faust an jener Stelle zu sehen, die später durch einen Pferdekopf ersetzt werden wird. Auch als Picasso begann, Farbe auf die Leinwand aufzutragen (Zustand 3), sind noch Elemente zu erkennen, die in der fertigen Version geändert wurden.

STIERKOPF (STUDIE FÜR ,GUERNICA’), 1937.
Grafit und Gouache auf Pausleinwand, 23 x 29 cm.
Museo Nacional Centro de Arte Reina Sofía , Madrid

Eine der bekanntesten Figuren in Guernica – und in Picassos Gesamtwerk – ist der Stier. Viele Autoren verstehen diesen als Symbol von Spanien, obwohl Picasso auch bemerkte, dass in Guernica der Stier die Brutalität des Faschismus versinnbildlichte.

MUTTER UND TOTES KIND (IV) (STUDIE FÜR ,GUERNICA’), 1937.
Grafit, Gouache, Collage und Buntstift auf Pausleinwand, 23,1 x 29,2 cm.
Museo Nacional Centro de Arte Reina Sofía , Madrid

Obwohl die reduzierte Farbpalette eines der markantesten und aussagekräftigsten Elemente Guernicas ist, erreichte Picasso auch in vielen seiner farbigen Studien höchste Dramatik. Dies ist der Fall in diesem Bild Mutter und totes Kind, wo Picasso sogar echtes Haar an die Frauenfigur fügte. Die enge Komposition und die unruhigen, harten Linien definieren die dramatische Unmittelbarkeit.

KOPF EINER WEINENDEN FRAU (III), (STUDIE FÜR ,GUERNICA’), 1937.
Grafit, Gouache und Buntstift auf Pausleinwand, 23,2 x 29,3 cm.
Museo Nacional Centro de Arte Reina Sofía , Madrid

Von all den ikonischen Bildern, aus denen sich Guernica zusammensetzt, ist das dramatischste vielleicht die Frau, die in Not schreit, während sie ihr totes Kind in den Armen hält. Picasso fertigte viele Zeichnungen und Gemälde, auf denen weinende Frauen wie diese dargestellt sind, an. Obwohl sich diese Studie des schreienden Kopfes von der auf dem finalen Gemälde unterscheidet, erlaubt sie einen Einblick in die vielseitigen Möglichkeiten, die Picasso in Betracht zog, bevor er seine endgültige Arbeit malte. Auch zeugt es von Picassos ursprünglicher Absicht, Farbe im Gemälde zu verwenden.

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Quand les soldats allemands venaient dans mon studio et regardaient mes photos de Guernica, ils me demandaient: ‘As-tu fait ça?’. Et je dirais: “Non, vous l’avez fait.”

Exposition: Guernica

Date: du 27 mars au 29 juillet 2018

Lieu: Musée national Picasso | Paris, France

Quand les soldats allemands venaient dans mon studio et regardaient mes photos de Guernica, ils me demandaient: ‘As-tu fait ça?’. Et je dirais: “Non, vous l’avez fait.” – Pablo Picasso

GUERNICA, 1937. Huile sur toile, 349,3 x 776,6 cm
Museo Nacional Centro de Arte Reina Sofía , Madrid

L’événement historique sanglant qui émut Picasso et l’inspira pour ce chef-d’oeuvre (commandé par le gouvernement espagnol républicain et réalisé en un mois), eut lieu peu de temps avant l’Exposition internationale à Paris en 1937, durant laquelle il fut présenté au public. Les images et les sentiments liés au bombardement de plus de trois heures et la destruction complète de la ville basque de Guernica par des avions nazis sont encore dans tous les esprits. La brutalité tranchante de l’oeuvre monochrome est controversée par son message politique réactionnaire, mais aussi en tant qu’oeuvre d’art. L’utilisation du noir et blanc doit provenir des photographies de guerre comme celles de Robert Capa. Malgré le symbolisme octroyé aux différents éléments depuis la réalisation de cette peinture, Picasso demeura toujours extrêmement secret concernant les sens cachés de Guernica.

GUERNICA, ÉTAPE 1, 1937. Photograph by Dora Maar
GUERNICA, ÉTAPE 3, 1937. Photographie de Dora Maar

Nous avons très rarement l’occasion d’observer les différentes étapes d’un chef-d’oeuvre. Dora Maar (maîtresse de Picasso) nous documente sur l’activité frénétique de l’artiste durant le mois qu’il passe à la réalisation de l’oeuvre qui allait devenir Guernica. Les photographies de ces deux étapes montrent que Picasso invente certaines parties de la toile au fur et à mesure. Notons dans la première étape, le poing tendu qui occupe l’espace et qui sera par la suite remplacé par la tête d’un cheval. Même lorsque Picasso commence à appliquer de la couleur sur la toile dans la troisième étape, on peut distinguer des éléments qui seront modifiés dans la version finale.

TÊTE DE TAUREAU (ÉTUDE PREPARATOIRE POUR GUERNICA), 1937. Graphite et gouache sur papier, 23 x 29 cm Museo Nacional Centro de Arte Reina Sofía , Madrid

Le taureau est une autre figure aisément reconnaissable dans Guernica, mais aussi dans l’Œuvre complète de Picasso. De nombreux écrivains l’appréhendent comme un symbole de l’Espagne, cependant, Picasso semble avoir précisé que le taureau, dans cette oeuvre, représente la brutalité du fascisme.

MÈRE ET ENFANT MORT (IV) (ÉTUDE PRÉPARATOIRE POUR GUERNICA), 1937. Graphite, gouache et crayon de couleur sur toile à calquer, 23,2 x 29,3 cm
Museo Nacional Centro de Arte Reina Sofía , Madrid

Alors que l’aspect le plus puissant et caractéristique de Guernica réside dans le traitement chromatique fortement réduit, Picasso parvient à atteindre un pathos équivalent dans ses études colorées. C’est le cas notamment avec cette Mère et enfant mort, où Picasso a même ajouté de vrais cheveux à la figure féminine. La composition serrée et les traits forts et nerveux traduisent l’urgence dramatique de la toile.

LA FEMME QUI PLEURE (III), (ÉTUDE PRÉPARATOIRE POUR GUERNICA)
1937. Graphite, gouache et crayon de couleur sur toile à calquer, 23,2 x 29,3 cm
  Museo Nacional Centro de Arte Reina Sofía, Madrid

De toutes les images iconiques qui composent Guernica, la plus dramatique est peut-être celle de la femme pleurant et criant de détresse, tenant son enfant mort dans les bras. Picasso réalise de nombreux tableaux et dessins sur ce thème. Bien que l’étude ici présente de La Femme qui pleure ne ressemble pas à celle que l’on peut voir dans Guernica, elle nous donne un aperçu des différentes possibilités auxquelles Picasso a pensé juste avant d’achever définitivement son oeuvre. Ces études témoignent aussi des intentions originales de l’artiste d’inclure de la couleur dans son tableau.

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When German soldiers used to come to my studio and look at my pictures of Guernica, they’d ask ‘Did you do this?’. And I’d say, ‘No, you did.’

Exhibition: Guernica

Date: March 27 – July 29, 2018

Venue: Musée national Picasso | Paris, France

When German soldiers used to come to my studio and look at my pictures of Guernica, they’d ask ‘Did you do this?’. And I’d say, ‘No, you did.’ – Pablo Picaaso

GUERNICA, 1937. Oil on canvas, 349.3 x 776.6 cm
Museo Nacional Centro de Arte Reina Sofía, Madrid

The bloody historical event that moved Picasso to create this masterpiece in one month took place shortly before its first exhibition at the 1937 World Exposition in Paris, where it was shown after it was commissioned by the government of the Spanish Republic. The images and feelings of the three-hour bombing and destruction of the Basque town of Guernica by Nazi planes were still fresh in the public consciousness. The brutally stark, monochrome work was controversial both as a reactive political statement and as art. The black and white must have been inspired by photographs taken of the war, such as those of Robert Capa. Despite the symbolism given to the different elements since the very creation of the painting, Picasso remained very secretive on the meanings of Guernica’s hidden themes and images.

Guernica state 1, 1937. Photograph by Dora Maar
Guernica state 3, 1937. Photograph by Dora Maar

Rarely do we get the chance to see a masterpiece in the making. Dora Maar, Picasso’s lover at the time, documented the frantic activity of Picasso during the month he spent working on what was to become Guernica. The photographs of these two states demonstrate that Picasso invented some of the painting as he went along. Note, in state 1, how a clenched fist takes up the space that would later be occupied by the head of the horse. Even when Picasso began applying paint to the canvas, we see elements that would be modified in the finished version.

Bull’s head. Study for ‘Guernica’, 1937. Graphite and gouache on tracing cloth, 23 x 29 cm. Museo Nacional Centro de Arte Reina Sofía, Madrid

One of the most recognisable figures in Guernica – and in Picasso’s whole oeuvre – is the bull. Many writers understand this to be a symbol of Spain, although Picasso is als noted to have said that in Guernica, it assumed the role of the brutality of fascism.

Mother and Dead Child (IV), 1937. Graphite, gouache, collage, and colour stick on tracing cloth, 23.1 x 29.2 cm. Museo Nacional Centro de Arte Reina Sofía , Madrid

Although one of Guernica’s most distinctive and powerful elements is its reduced chromatic scale, Picasso achieves great dramatism in many of his coloured studies. Such is the case with this Mother and Dead Child, where Picasso even added real hair to the figure of the woman. The tight composition and the nervous, hard lines define its dramatic immediacy.

Head of a Weeping Woman (Study for ‘Guernica’), 1937.
Graphite, gouache, and colour stick on tracing cloth, 23.2 x 29.3 cm
Museo Nacional Centro de Arte Reina Sofía , Madrid

Of all the iconic images that make up Guernica, perhaps the most dramatic is the woman who screams in distress whilst holding her dead child in her arms. Picasso made many drawings and paintings depicting weeping women such as these. Although the present study of this screaming head is not like the one on the final painting, it gives us an insight into the many different possibilities that Picasso considered before making the final work. It also speaks of the artist’s original intentions of including colour in the painting.

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