“…when one has character, one has talent. I’m not saying that character is enough, that it is enough to be a good man, in order to be able to paint well. That would be too easy. But I don’t believe that a reprobate can have artistic genius.” Paul Cezanne
My friend, the painter Gonghong Huang uses the term ‘character’ when he judges painting: “Look, what a good character this painting has!” or “This picture has no character!” I think I understand what Gonghong wants to say. Now I want to define the character for myself and ask what the character of paintings could be.
The word character in Greek means “feature”. In psychological terms ‘character’ means the properties of an individual, on stage it is the role one plays; ‘character’ means the combination of both congential and acquired intellectual and emotional features of a person. But what is the character of paintings or what may be the properties of a painting?
To answer this question, I have chosen three paintings: Titian’s “Crown of Thorn” from 1572 – 76, which can be seen in Munich’s Alte Pinakothek; Cezanne’s “Still Life with Skull and Candlestick” 1900 – 04 from the State Gallery Stuttgart und Mondrian’s “Composition Nr. I, with Red and Black” 1929, from the Kunstmuseum Basel.
When reading Stefan Schessl’s approval work for the state examination at the Academy of Fine Arts, Munich, I became aware of a phrase of art theorist Nikolai Tarabukin (1889-1956): ”In painting, and in art in general, the problem of materials must be considered separately, in that the painter must acquire a developed sense of materials, he must feel the inherent characteristics of each material which of themselves condition the construction of the object. The material dictates the forms, and not the opposite.” Titian paints “Crown of Thorns” 1572 – 76 on thick canvas of a somewhat coarser structure. The painter leaves the dense and heavy character of the tissue clearly visible. Titian paints “alla prima”, he puts down the oil paint with light brush strokes, so that the colour remains on the surface and the structure of the canvas is shining through. The Venetian paints quickly, he is not waiting for the oil paint to dry completely. He uses the same brush on many different points of the canvas, applicates a colour on one point, takes up from this point two further colours and moves on to the next point. The painter lets the form grow out of the character of the oil paint. Cezanne creates “skull and candlesticks” the same way. “Im Horizont der Zeit. Heideggers Werkbegriff und die Kunst der Moderne” Gottfried Boehm writes about Paul Cezanne: “Attempting to approach this temporal structure that is dominating the painting, again we come across the presence of a colored matter, which is woven through all we see.” Cezanne masters the properties of oil paint. The colored matter is made out of strong and transparent and dense parts, out of parts that are applied wet on wet and wet on dry. For Piet Mondrian, however, the properties of oil paint are not essential. In “Composition Nr. I, with Red and Black” from 1929 Mondrian uses the oil paint as a means to clarify the character of the surface. He covers the surfaces layer by layer, until the entire surface results in a unitied consistancy.
Piet Mondrian limited himself to the three primary colours, as well as black, gray and white. Only when I examine Mondrian’s works closely, I became aware that the artist has sought his primary colours while painting and found them by changing and repainting. In “Composition Nr. I, with red and black” the painter combined and distributed red, black and white so as to keep warm-cold and light-dark contrasts in exciting balance. Although Titian never covers up but preserves the brush strokes on the surface, his colours and shades cause the paintings depth and width. The deeper character of colour of intermingled veiled red, yellow, blue and white indicates to the viewer the visual motif of the painting. The balanced colouring of primary colours and white in “The Crown of Thorns” is guiding the eye continuously through the paintings lighter and darker areas. “Cezanne used blue to stress out his yellow, but like anything else he used it with his uncompared capacities of distinction.” – this way Matisse talked about Cezanne in 1908. In “Still Life with Skull and Candlestick” 1900-04 Paul Cezanne uses a complementary contrast. Orange-ocre und blue-gray are counterweights the painter lets collide with rapid brush strokes onto each other to complete the painting. In his book “The Art of Cezannes: Colour, Rhythm, Symbolism” Munich-based art historian Lorenz Dittmann describes Cezanne’s still life. The painting “lives from the contrast of cool blue-gray and yellow ocre. It is “unfinished” – in the sense that the canvas is not completely covered with colour, but the coloured zone within the gray-toned canvas consists a rhythmically full form…”
“We consider rhythm as a repetition of equally spaced accents. For its existence it requires a metre, a measurable unit of distance that allows the regularity of the flow (rhythm). … Such metre can be found in paintings, it is symmetry in the true sense of the word, the commitment to a basic measure. … But now this basic measure can be perceived through the marking accents in appearance, no matter how tender they might be. The emphasis is not without character, not mere emphasis, but rather steadily, irregular, skipping, burdensome, heavy, light, bright, serious and the like. There is nothing like a painting without metre and without rhythm, because only with these two unseparatable components of composition those parts of the work of art constituted, which give to a work of art its required entity.”, writes the art historian Kurt Badt. The late works of Titian and the “Crown of Thorns” are especially marked by the rhythm within the placement of colour. The uniform spacing and regular accents of colour brought onto the canvas with the brush all over the entire surface in different speeds constitute a complete form in terms of rhythm. “All his works are rhythmisized and metric, but in some of his watercolours the basic lines of the metrication still remain visible”, as Lorenz Dittmann writes about Cezanne. Horizontal and vertical outlines and basic lines of the still life bring forth the framework of a rhythmically organized application of colour. The basic lines separate and combine the distances and accents, which stem from repetition and regularity. “True Boogie-Woogie I conceive as homogeneous in intention with mine in painting: destruction of melody which is the equivalent of destruction of natural appearance; and construction through the continuous opposition of pure means – dynamic rhythm.”, Piet Mondrian says. And in the Text “Mondrian and the Music” Karin v. Maur writes: “Of all rhythms, the rhythm of the vertical-horizontal position is the most fundamental. It is therefore that a perfect balance penetrates everything. … In the magnetic field between the “metre” of the given plane with its division into horizontals and verticals and the rhythmically displaced points of gravity of the colour spots and the axial displacements, the pictorial action takes place.” In “Composition No. I, with red and black” Piet Mondrian rhythmisizes the space-time by variable relations of straight lines and pure colours. As with Cezanne and Titian rhythm dominates Mondrian’s Painting; in the process of perception rhythm attacks and overwhelms the visible. “The purest rhythm must be the purest expression of life … all expressions of rhythm are true.”, says Piet Mondrian.
Thanks for help realizing this text to Prof. Bernhard Lypp, Stefan Schessl and Marion Sally Amy Whyte