From the 18th to 20th centuries, European minds are enlightened by rationalism that develops as an ideological1 extension of capitalism and industrialism. The function of visual arts is now the decoration of the mansions of the aristocracy and of the new rich. Portraits and landscapes are the subjects of most painters. The size of paintings is reduced to adapt to their new architectural destinations.
The enlightenment goes hand in hand with the generalization of the decorating function of visual arts in "white" land. The idea of beautifying living spaces has indeed been adopted by ever larger segments of the populations after adoption of rationalism and today the idea of interior decoration is absolutely generalized.
The development of capitalism in its phase of consumerism forces everyone in industrialized nations into dependance on the offer of goods and services and that leads to deepening individualism. In other words, the market imposes its offers to every single individual in the form of a creation of new needs adapted to the financial capabilities of all. From being reserved for the aristocracy and the new rich who were the only ones who could afford to pay for paintings, architectural constructions, rich furnishings and accessories; visual arts will gradually be offered in cheaper forms in the market. The conception of those cheaper forms has gradually given rise to specialized jobs: designers, marketers, researchers. As illustration of this idea, let's look at how the visual art-form painting will be "democratized".
- In a first phase lithographic limited editions prints serving the same function as paintings will expand the market base.
- Then, following the economic development of Western societies, higher incomes will also allow for an expansion of the customer base for paintings.
- The ultimate expansion of the consumer base for prints will be reached with the advent of offset printing presses that can churn out very large quantities of prints at very low unit cost. Paintings by famous artists are reproduced in unlimited quantities and the sheer size of this market is calling for specialized answers that will take the form of graphic design.
- Finally, paintings themselves will be chain produced for the same market expansion reason. And today, chain production in Western workshops of landscape paintings has been delocalized to cheap wage countries. In Beijing, you can now get a good copy of Picasso's “Boy with a pipe”, that sold in May 2004 for $ 110 million, for far less than $ 100!
It makes no doubt in my mind that, in this maelstrom of a few centuries of economic and technological changes, Western painter artists have been the group of individuals that most interiorized the impact of those changes. Through the effect of such a profound interiorization process they have been reduced to society's margins and have been recognized as special. Notwithstanding that their visions were not understood, they nevertheless were accepted. Van Gogh and others were surely not understood by many of their contemporaries but they have been accepted, their strangeness has been tolerated, only the market had no place for their productions during their lifetime because they themselves had no time or will for marketing or they had no clue how to do it. But again, in finale, the market gradually absorbs that strangeness that makes those works so unique in terms of content and so rare in terms of quantity. I spoke here about people who were searching to put some sense in their paintings who were trying to give a representation of the coming worldview of society at large, in other words about artists. It makes no doubt that they are very few at any given time who can represent in their present what comes next in the future.
Painters artists are now visionaries. They think about their role radically differently with the introduction of new techniques that plunge western societies into cultural shock. Painter artists have adapted their function in society to what they perceive as changed times. All that happens mostly unconsciently for sure.
Landscapes and portraits were the artists' subjects at the start of the modern age. Those were times when the rich wanted to accaparate for themselves the symbolic function that paintings had in churches and palaces. I mean that commoners starting to accumulate richnesses, as merchants, searched to gain “aristocratic airs”, a well known human attitude. The purchase of goods that were symbolic of the “being” of church and aristocracy were an easy short cut to those “aristocratic airs”.
The function of paintings remains decorative, rectangles for wall decoration but their traditional subjects appear gradually out of place in a world that starts to change fast after mid 19th century.
Van Gogh remains a realist in the lines of his subjects but he uses colors as if he wanted to show us the inner working of his landscapes or portrait subjects. Alcohol and drugs allow him to go see inside his subjects but eventually he will have difficulties to come back. The impressionists also remain realists, the changes they introduce are also about how to apply colors, for them it's not the inner working of what they paint that is of interest, it's how to reach a representative image of their subject through the application of pure colors. What they find out is that their images give good impressions of their subjects.
Gaughin as Van Gogh plays the colors. But at the difference of Van Gogh, Gaughin is not really a realist. He is not interested to reproduce an exact visual representation of his subject. He works mostly through memory and influenced by primitive art he renders quasi abstractions that give a feeling of the atmosphere of a landscape or the character of a person.
Van Gogh, Gauguin and the impressionists reflect on the changes in speed that modify visual experiences with the use of trains. Their visual renderings will be largely adapted by the next generation of painters who by adding their own visions will project painting further from photographic realism.
Seurat and other pointillists experience a specific brush touch but do not go further than impressionism.
Matisse integrates classic realism with the approaches of Van Gogh, Gauguin, the impressionists and abstraction that he shares with gauguin. “What I'am after, above all is expression. ...Expression to my way of thinking does not consist of the passion mirrored upon a human face or betrayed by a violent gesture. The whole arrangement of my picture is expressive. The place occupied by objects or figures, the empty spaces around them, the proportions, everything plays a part. Composition is the art of arranging in a decorative manner all the various elements at the painter's disposal for the expression of his feelings. In a picture every part will be visible and will play the role conferred upon it, be it principal or secondary. All that is not usefull in the picture is detrimental. A work of art must be harmonious in its entirety; for superfluous details would, in the mind of the beholder, encroach upon the essential elements”.
Matisse conceived of painting as “the art of arranging in a decorative manner all the various elements at the painter's disposal for the expression of his feelings” about the essential, superfluous details had thus to be eliminated.
The pictures of the works of Van Gogh, Gauguin, the impressionists and Matisse are a good illustration about their respect of realism plus a tendancy to simplify and finally their play of “exagerated” colors.
Matisse's conception is announcing expressionism that would come shortly after.