Reading visual art: 44 What’s wrong in that painting? 2

Paul Nash (1892–1946), Harbour and Room (1932-36), oil on canvas, 91.4 x 71.1 cm, The Tate Gallery (Purchased 1981), London. © The Tate Gallery and Photographic Rights © Tate (2016), CC-BY-NC-ND 3.0 (Unported),

In the first of these two articles looking at examples of paintings in which there’s something odd and incongruous, I had reached the middle of the nineteenth century. From there on, it became progressively more popular until, in the early twentieth century, some painters went full Surreal.

Arnold Böcklin (1827–1901), Sirens (1875), tempera on canvas, 46 × 31 cm, Alte Nationalgalerie, Berlin. Wikimedia Commons.

Arnold Böcklin takes an unusual approach of almost dereferencing Odysseus in this painting of Sirens from 1875. The sirens shown are very human down to the waist, below which they resemble birds. One sits facing us, clearly in full voice, and alluring in looks. The other, her back towards us, is playing a flute-like instrument, and looks rather obese, to the point of almost being comical, her right breast laid upon a flat-topped rock.

Ludwig Knaus (1829–1910), Behind the Curtain (1880), oil on mahogany wood, 81 x 110 cm, Galerie Neue Meister, Dresden, Germany. Wikimedia Commons.

Ludwig Knaus shows the scene Behind the Curtain of a small itinerant circus in 1880. Performers were often colourful in both their costume and character, with the clown in the centre feeding a baby, and looking straight at the viewer, while an acrobat behind looks as if he’s walking along the line supporting a grubby dividing curtain.

Félicien Rops was a master of the incongruous, to the point where some of his paintings become too cryptic to read.

Félicien Rops (1833–1898), La foire aux amours (The Love Fair) (The Cage) (1878-1881), pencil and watercolour on paper, 27 × 20.5 cm (10.6 × 8.1 in), Musée provincial Félicien Rops, Namur, Belgium. Wikimedia Commons.

His Love Fair or Cage from 1878-81 shows an old crone procuring for the young woman with her cage full of babies. But what of the prominent tortoise with butterfly wings in the foreground? Tortoises are a sign of love, although in this ribald composition I suspect that’s intended to be thoroughly carnal, and probably ephemeral too.

Jules Lefebvre (1834–1912), Lady Godiva (1891), oil on canvas, 62 x 39 cm, Musée de Picardie, Amiens, France. Wikimedia Commons.

Jules Lefebvre wasn’t known for being enigmatic or mysterious, but for his succession of nudes. His excuse this time was the British legend of Lady Godiva, seen here in his painting of her from 1891. She is shown incongruously naked as she passes over deserted narrow cobbled streets, covering her breasts and appearing in some distress.

Some of Félix Vallotton’s early Naturalist paintings contain rich incongruities.

Félix Vallotton (1865–1925), La Cuisinière au fourneau (The Cook at the Stove) (1892), oil on panel, 33 x 41 cm, Private collection. Wikimedia Commons.

His Cook at the Stove from 1892 is a domestic genre scene featuring his partner Hélène Chatenay as its model. She stands at the solid-top range in a kitchen almost devoid of the one thing that kitchens are about, food. The only edible item visible is a bunch of onions suspended in mid-air. Everything – the chairs, pots and pans, and the range itself – is spotless as if they have never been used, and appear thoroughly unnatural.

A few otherwise routine landscape views are also thoroughly strange.

Frederik Hendrik Kaemmerer (1839–1904), At the Seashore (c 1895), further details not known. Wikimedia Commons.

Frederik Kaemmerer’s painting of two women walking At the Seashore (c 1895) shows them strolling past a massive cannon, as if it were invisible. One is pointing into the distance, and the two are locked in conversation, as they pass the gun seemingly oblivious.

Carl Larsson (1853–1919), Model Writing Postcards (1906), watercolour, 68 × 100 cm, Thielska Galleriet, Stockholm, Sweden. Wikimedia Commons.

Carl Larsson’s watercolour of his Model Writing Postcards (1906) is interesting not only for the incongruity of its nude model engaged in writing postcards, but for its inclusion of two paintings within the painting. That on the easel at the left is presumably the painting on which Larsson and the model are currently working, and could be a figure study for one of his larger murals. I wonder what words she wrote on those postcards.

Finally we come to one of the founders of Surrealism, Paul Nash.

Blue House on the Shore c.1930-1 by Paul Nash 1889-1946
Paul Nash (1892–1946), Blue House on the Shore (c 1930-31), oil on canvas, 41.9 x 73.7 cm, The Tate Gallery (Purchased 1939), London. © The Tate Gallery and Photographic Rights © Tate (2016), CC-BY-NC-ND 3.0 (Unported),

Nash’s Blue House on the Shore (c 1930-31) is set on the French Mediterranean coast, which he visited around 1927 and in 1930. It explores the surrealist principle of incongruity, in placing a simple blue building with contradictory perspective, among fishing boats on a sandy Riviera beach.

Harbour and Room 1932-6 by Paul Nash 1889-1946
Paul Nash (1892–1946), Harbour and Room (1932-36), oil on canvas, 91.4 x 71.1 cm, The Tate Gallery (Purchased 1981), London. © The Tate Gallery and Photographic Rights © Tate (2016), CC-BY-NC-ND 3.0 (Unported),

When Nash had visited Toulon on the French Mediterranean coast in 1931 (or perhaps the year before), his hotel room overlooked the busy harbour there. One day he saw the image of a large sailing ship in a big mirror, giving the appearance of the ship sailing into his room. From that visual memory came Harbour and Room (1932-36), a characteristically geometric composition merging Nash’s hotel room, complete with its mirror over the mantlepiece, with parts of a ship, including the carpet of small waves.

Landscape from a Dream 1936-8 by Paul Nash 1889-1946
Paul Nash (1892–1946), Landscape from a Dream (1936-38), oil on canvas, 67.9 x 101.6 cm, The Tate Gallery (Presented by the Contemporary Art Society 1946), London. © The Tate Gallery and Photographic Rights © Tate (2016), CC-BY-NC-ND 3.0 (Unported),

Landscape from a Dream (1936-38) was inspired by Freud’s theories of the significance of dreams as reflections of the unconscious. Nash locates this collection of incongruous objects on the Dorset coast, a landscape he associated with the praeternatural. Dominating the scene is a large framed planar mirror, almost parallel with the picture plane.

Stood at the right end of the mirror is a hawk staring at its own reflection, which Nash explained is a symbol of the material world. To the left, the mirror reflects several floating spheres, referring to the soul. The reflection shows that behind the viewer is a red sun setting in a red sky, with another hawk flying high, away from the scene.

To the right of the hawk is a five-panelled screen made of glass, through which the coastal landscape can be seen: it’s a screen which doesn’t screen.

That’s a good point to finish.