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, 26 January 2014

Last week, I went to visit a factory on the outskirts of Beijing which recycles waste equipment.  They take old TVs, old computer monitors, refrigerators, air conditioners, and washing machines; if the regulatory conditions become right, they will also start taking mobile phones. They disassemble these old products and recycle the various components, having first properly separated them. It’s fascinating to watch the disassembly, which is the exact mirror image of normal manufacturing: the process starts with the whole product, which as it moves down the (dis)assembly line slowly comes apart, ending up back as its individual components.  This is the future, my friends. All the products we make should be collected at the end of their useful lives, brought to factories like this one, and taken apart so that their component materials can be reused: “Circular Economy” is the tag for this.

But actually, I want to write about something completely different. After visiting the disassembly line and talking with the company management about its plans for the future, we were invited to lunch in the company’s canteen. As is customary, we were taken to a separate room, which contained one large round table and the usual Lazy Mary languidly turning in the middle. As we sat and chatted and picked at the dishes going by, my eyes wandered around the room. They fastened on this painting on the wall:

canteen photo 002

It was a welcome dash of cheerful green on what were otherwise rather drab walls. That being said, it was not much to write home about, a clearly amateur rendering of the scene, the sort of thing one could pick up for 1 euro at any flea market. And yet … there was something about it which sparked a faint memory. The memory fluttered indistinctly around in my mind as we said our goodbyes at the end of the lunch and headed back to the office. It was like having a grain of sand in one’s shoe, softly but insistently irritating. There was nothing for it, I was going to have to do some research when I got back to the office. Luckily, it didn’t take long to pin down the memory. What I had been looking at was a copy – or a copy of a copy of a copy … – of a famous painting by the French painter Camille Corot, Souvenir de Mortefontaine, painted in 1864 and now hanging in the Louvre Museum:

Corot-souvenir de Mortefontaine

But that’s not where I had seen it first. That memory which I had been vainly chasing through the corridors of my brain was set in my grandmother’s house in London.  She had a copy of the painting hanging on her drawing room wall, from where it would look down on me as I sat on the couch drinking my grandmother’s lapsang souchong tea. Strange how life is … an invisible thread loops through time and space, linking my grandmother’s drawing room in the 1960s, cluttered with family memories, to a rather drab factory canteen on the outskirts of Beijing in 2014.

For all the warm, fuzzy memories it evokes, I would not put this particular painting, in original or in copy, on my wall. Memories are one thing, taste another. I remember my grandmother saying once how much she loved Corot. Me, I find him cloyingly sentimental, his feathery trees irritate me, and the grey-green palette he used in this particular series of paintings – he did a number of such Souvenirs – grates on my senses.  If I were going to have a landscape on my wall by a famous painter, I would much prefer any one of a host painted in the last five hundred years.  I could easily live with one of Bruegel’s paintings of the seasons, his Corn Harvest say:

Bruegel-The Corn Harvest (August)-

or why not a Constable, for instance his Wivenhoe Park:

Constable - Wivenhoe Park

or his Salisbury Cathedral (although calling this a landscape may be a bit of a stretch)

Constable-Salisbury Cathedral-1825

I could also happily live with one of the pre-impressionist works which were already being painted when Corot was painting Souvenirs de Mortefontaine, like this Pissarro, La Maison de Père Gallien à Pointoise, painted just two years after the Corot, but which already shows a more real, more vibrant world than Corot’s honeyed one

Pissaro-Pere galliens house at Pontoise-1866

From the impressionist period, I could take a Monet landscape, like this one from a series he made of the fields around Argenteuil, Walk in the meadows around Argenteuil:


From a little bit later, one of Cézanne’s many proto-cubist paintings of Mont Saint Victoire in the south of France would be lovely:

Cézanne-Mont St Victoire

as would one of Van Gogh’s whirling wheat fields like this one, Wheat field with cypresses

Van Gogh-Wheatfield with cypresses-1889

A pointillist landscape would do nicely too, like this Signac, Comblat Castle and the Pré:


I could even hang a fauvist landscape on my wall, like this one, The Turning Road, l’Estaques, by Derain:

Derain-The Turning Road lEstaques

or even, at a pinch, a cubist landscape like this one by Braque, Big Trees at Estaques:


But maybe I would eschew the modernist trends which I have been following up to now, and go for one of the paintings by the American artist Grant Wood, like this Young Corn, painted in 1931:

Grant Wood-young-corn-1931

There are certain similarities to the Bruegel I started with, no?

But in the end, I wouldn’t need to put any of these paintings on my walls, because I already have my landscape painting, purchased in the Dorotheum, the Viennese auction house.

general photos 002

Maybe one day I will have grandchildren who will drink lapsang souchong tea with me, look at the painting, and ask themselves what on earth Grandpa sees in it.


Pic in the canteen: mine
Corot-Souvenir de Mortefontaine: http://upload.wikimedia.org/wikipedia/commons/thumb/7/74/Jean-Baptiste-Camille_Corot_012.jpg/1024px-Jean-Baptiste-Camille_Corot_012.jpg [in http://fr.wikipedia.org/wiki/Jean-Baptiste_Corot%5D
Constable-Wivenhoe Park: http://upload.wikimedia.org/wikipedia/commons/thumb/1/15/John_Constable_-_Wivenhoe_Park%2C_Essex_-_Google_Art_Project.jpg/1280px-John_Constable_-_Wivenhoe_Park%2C_Essex_-_Google_Art_Project.jpg [in http://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:John_Constable_-_Wivenhoe_Park,_Essex_-_Google_Art_Project.jpg%5D
Constable-Salisbury Cathedral: http://upload.wikimedia.org/wikipedia/commons/4/46/Salisbury_Cathedral_from_the_Bishop_Grounds_c.1825.jpg [in http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Salisbury_Cathedral%5D
Pissaro-Père Gallien’s house at Pontoise: http://uploads6.wikipaintings.org/images/camille-pissarro/pere-gallien-s-house-at-pontoise-1866.jpg [in http://www.wikipaintings.org/en/camille-pissarro/pere-gallien-s-house-at-pontoise-1866%5D
Monet-the Promenade Argenteuil: http://uploads7.wikipaintings.org/images/claude-monet/the-promenade-argenteuil.jpg [in http://www.wikipaintings.org/en/claude-monet/the-promenade-argenteuil%5D
Cezanne-Mont St Victoire-1887: http://upload.wikimedia.org/wikipedia/commons/d/d2/Paul_C%C3%A9zanne_107.jpg [in http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Mont_Sainte-Victoire_%28C%C3%A9zanne%29%5D
Van Gogh-Wheatfield with cypresses-1889: http://upload.wikimedia.org/wikipedia/commons/e/e8/1889_van_Gogh_Wheatfield_with_cypresses_anagoria.JPG [in http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Wheat_Field_with_Cypresses%5D
Signac-Comblat Castle and the Pré-1886: http://uploads3.wikipaintings.org/images/paul-signac/comblat-castle-the-pre-1886%281%29.jpg [in http://www.wikipaintings.org/en/paul-signac/comblat-castle-the-pre-1886%5D
Derain-The turning road: http://4.bp.blogspot.com/_0n9IExEpmh8/S_DnuJ6ZT8I/AAAAAAAAVk4/JCfVk6QJNws/s1600/The_Turning_Road_L_Estaque.jpg [in http://www.artistsandart.org/2010/05/andre.html%5D
Braque-Big trees at Estaques-1908: http://uploads1.wikipaintings.org/images/georges-braque/big-trees-at-estaque-1908.jpg [in http://www.wikipaintings.org/en/georges-braque/big-trees-at-estaque-1908%5D
Grant Wood-Young Corn-1931: http://uploads5.wikipaintings.org/images/grant-wood/young-corn-1931.jpg [in http://www.wikipaintings.org/en/grant-wood/young-corn-1931%5D
Pic of my landscape: mine