Vienna, 1 October 2016

The Albertina Museum in Vienna is currently holding an exhibition on pointillism and its reverberations in later art. My wife and I decided to visit it, as a treat for successfully becoming residents of Austria and for finding our apartment in good shape after our tenants had handed it over. We were glad we went. Never had we been exposed to this many Pointillists in one go; the larger collections of Impressionists and Post-Impressionists we have seen generally have just a few pointillist paintings sprinkled into the mix. Not only were there paintings by Seurat, the originator of the technique, Signac, his best-known follower, and other French Pointillists, there were also a roomful or two of Belgian and Dutch Pointillists whom we had never heard of. There was also a whole section devoted to pointillist portraits; pointillism was never a style I had connected with portraiture. There were some examples of late pointillism, by then renamed divisionism, where the earlier dots were replaced by longer and broader paint strokes. And then the final room had a brace of Van Goghs, some Matisses, a couple of Picassos and Mondrians, and a few other odds and ends, to show how divisionism had affected later artists.

All exceedingly interesting. And yet … my wife and I both had the same reaction to the show. After an initial burst of enthusiasm, doubts set in. The effect of seeing so many pointillist paintings together was to have a chocolate-box sensation. The paintings were all preternaturally bright, the skies of the many landscapes were a uniformly blank cerulean blue, and the other colours seemed to all veer towards the pastel. Here’s a couple of pointillist paintings that exemplify what we found before us. The first is by Seurat, the second by Signac.
All this in large doses eventually becomes rather sickly. There was also an eerie stillness in many of the paintings, perhaps because by their nature pointillist works were carefully and patiently crafted in the studio. This stillness, emptiness almost, is obvious in what is probably the most famous pointillist painting, Sunday Afternoon on the Island of La Grande Jatte, which shows what should be a scene full of life and movement but gives the impression of being peopled by mannequins put there for the occasion.
It seems that after an initial burst of enthusiasm contemporary painters also turned away from pointillism, but more because creating these paintings took so much time. Certainly Van Gogh was never convinced by pointillism, although he experimented with it a bit, because it eliminated any spontaneity in painting.

A footnote to the exhibition: many of the paintings were on loan from the Kröller-Müller Museum in Otterlo, the Netherlands. I had never heard of this museum (as for my wife, after an initial bout of amnesia, on seeing pictures of the museum she suddenly remembered visiting it more than forty years ago). Yet this museum has, among other things, the second largest collection of Van Goghs in the world. The collection was put together by Helene Kröller-Müller in the first decades of the last century. She was born into a wealthy German industrialist family and married a Dutch mining and shipping tycoon, a combination which made her the richest woman in the Netherlands.
She used her money wisely to put together a great collection of what was then modern art. Towards the end of her life she donated it to the Dutch state.

When I read such stories, I sigh and wish my father had been a tycoon. I would have loved to spend inherited millions putting together an art collection. Maybe in my next life.

Seurat: https://en.m.wikipedia.org/wiki/Georges_Seurat
Signac: https://en.m.wikipedia.org/wiki/Paul_Signac
A Sunday Afternoon on the Island of la Grande Jatte: https://en.m.wikipedia.org/wiki/Île_de_la_Jatte
Helene Kröller-Müller: http://www.betergeven.nl/over-filantropie/filantropen-in-beeld/helene-kroller-muller/


Beijing, 27 July 2013

It’s already dog days in Beijing, with the mercury climbing into the high 30s Centigrade. This weather brings out these strange extraterrestrial beings onto the roads

Hot Weather Lands In Nanjing

which on closer inspection turn out to be women riding cycles while wearing special UV-protective sun visors and covering every bit of exposed skin.

sun visor-1

As for the pavements, they host the somewhat odd spectacle of women sheltering below umbrellas under cloudless skies.

chinese women umbrellas-1

The reason is the same in all cases: the desire to protect delicately pale skins from suntan. Chinese women have a fetish for pale skins, not only shunning the sun but also spending large sums on products which claim to whiten their complexion.

skin whitener-2

The purpose, of course, even if these women don’t realize it, is to distinguish themselves from their sisters toiling in the fields under the broiling sun and getting a tough, leathery skin for their pains – the peasants, in a word. Despite communist-era claims to the contrary

propaganda poster-3

every Chinese knows that life as a peasant is not particularly pleasant

rural woman-1

which is why China’s rural people escape to the cities the moment they have half a chance, and why city folk look down on their rural cousins.

We who come from cultures which have been worshipping the sun for at least sixty years and have proclaimed far and wide the beauty of a tanned skin

sun tan lotion ad-1

can titter at this Chinese phobia of a darkened skin, which sometimes really goes to extraordinary lengths


But we should remember that before this sun-loving period of ours our genteel women also avoided the sun, for much the same reason. I am indebted to the blog “It’s About Time”, in a section devoted to parasols in Western art (from which I also got some of the photos below), for the following quote from Randle Cotgrave’s 1614 Dictionary of the French and English Tongues, where the French word ombrelle is translated “An umbrello; a (fashion of) round and broad fanne, wherewith the Indians (and from them our great ones) preserve themselves from the heat of a scorching sunne; and hence any little shadow, fanne, or thing, wherewith women hide their faces from the sunne.” Like the Chinese women I see on the Beijing streets today, for centuries our great ladies liked to walk outside screened from the sun, as these paintings from different periods attest:


00 Fragonard with parasol


00 Copley with parasol


00 Goya with parasol


00 Manet with Parasol 1881


00 Monet with-a-Parasol

Renoir (I had the luck to see this particular painting at the Met in New York a few months ago):

00 Renoir-2 with-parasol


00 Seurat with parasol


00 Vallotton with parasol

the American painter Mars:

00 Mars-twenties-with parasols

Are we so right to love a tan? Of course, the snobbish element of having a pale complexion is to be abhorred, but I’m not sure tanning is such a wonderful idea either. I must admit to being biased on this topic; I have a fair skin which burns rather than tans and I’ve always disliked being in the sun. But the rise in skin cancer incidences and deaths is vertiginous in many of those countries where people routinely cook themselves on a beach all summer. It is made that much worse by the thinning of the ozone layer, which is allowing in far more harmful UV than used to be the case. Which explains this public health ad from Australia, one of the hardest-hit countries: many people with fair skin, a strong outdoors culture, and located far south where the ozone layer is thinnest.

australian ad-1

The Slip Slop Slap campaign is another attempt by the Australian government to combat skin cancer:

australian ad-3

Looking at that, it seems to me that maybe our Chinese sisters aren’t so wrong in their sun shunning antics after all.


woman with sun visor-1: http://s1.djyimg.com/i6/5100409191528.jpg
woman with sun visor-2: http://images.nationalgeographic.com/wpf/media-live/photos/000/123/cache/fashion-shanghai-motorcycle_12361_600x450.jpg
Chinese women under umbrellas: http://blog.chinatraveldepot.com/wp-content/uploads/2012/07/103-1024×768.jpg
Skin whitener ad: http://gaia.adage.com/images/bin/image/large/Nivea91008b.jpg?1221045176
Propaganda poster: http://chineseposters.net/images/e11-992.jpg
Rural woman: http://chinadigitaltimes.net/wp-content/uploads/2008/10/13china01-6501.jpg
Sun tan lotion ad: http://file.vintageadbrowser.com/l-2sxa9y5hxoogx7.jpg
Facekini: http://www.ecouterre.com/wp-content/uploads/2012/08/qingdao-china-sun-protection-mask-facekini-2-537×402.jpg
Fragonard: http://farm3.static.flickr.com/2475/4438032996_d685b495fb.jpg
Copley: http://2.bp.blogspot.com/-7FFaKUq3lgs/Th6koRKMutI/AAAAAAAArNs/2WRM4y4ZwUs/s640/p%2B1763%2Bc%2BJohn%2BSingleton%2BCopley%2B1738-1815%2BMary%2BTappan%2BMrs%2BBenjamin%2BPickman%2BYale%2B%25282%2529.jpg
Goya: http://www.aparences.net/wp-content/uploads/goya-parasol-vert.jpg
Manet: http://1.bp.blogspot.com/_CvDCiEFbNy8/TGlqCaT0tMI/AAAAAAAAWls/cEdFU0kuto4/s1600/p+%C3%89douard+Manet+%281832-1883%29+Woman+with+a+Parasol+1881..jpg
Monet: http://www.chinaoilpaintinggallery.com/oilpainting/Claude-Monet/The-Walk-Woman-with-a-Parasol.jpg
Renoir: http://www.renoirgallery.com/paintings/large/renoir-lise-with-parasol.jpg
Seurat: http://farm5.staticflickr.com/4037/4367819565_d255f31c2d_z.jpg?zz=1
Vallotton: http://2.bp.blogspot.com/_CvDCiEFbNy8/TH8YPdMzVyI/AAAAAAAAXno/iOmadhyVbOI/s1600/F%C3%A9lix+Vallotton.+%281865+-+1925%29.+On+the+Beach+Sur+la+plage.+1899..jpg
Mars: http://3.bp.blogspot.com/_CvDCiEFbNy8/TJezx5Y-UgI/AAAAAAAAY1g/HY7j9dPmqIg/s1600/Ethel+Mars+%281876+%E2%80%93+1956%29+Nice.jpg
Australian ad-1: http://www.abc.net.au/reslib/200812/r320709_1428893.jpg
Australian ad-2: http://lavaleandherworld.files.wordpress.com/2013/02/slip-slop-slap-legenda.jpg?w=600