V. From Impressionism to Expressionism

The later nineteenth century displays the primacy of subjective over objective. And nowhere was this more evident than in music. If the Romantic era was largely dominated by Beethoven, the period after his death and that of Schubert (1827/28) marks a distinct shift in fashion. Beethoven, after all, had been about development, the relentless unfolding of a musical theme taken to the most complex form possible. After his death, there’s a change in the wind. Music becomes less goal-driven, less purposive, less about what it’s going after. Instead, what we now have is the dominance of mood, the expression of a subjective state or perspective that doesn’t think it has to be going anywhere. Now the fashionable people are Chopin, Berlioz, and Liszt. Paris, rather than Vienna, becomes the new musical center. And the salon, rather than the concert hall, is often the favorite venue.
Of all the kinds of pieces played there, perhaps none was better suited to it than the nocturne: moody, introspective, given up to a seemingly aimless musical wandering in which a theme figured only occasionally, it was the perfect medium for reverie, symptomatic of the new subjective turn around mid-century. Although originally developed by the English composer John Field, it was unquestionably perfected by Chopin. Here we have one from his later years, very much in the Paris salon style:

Notice, first of all, the very desultory opening, a chord sequence that almost seems like a kind of aimless wandering over the keyboard, with the sort of improvisatory quality of someone just sitting down to play. Immediately after, however, Chopin launches into the main theme, which then gets subjected to endless modulation with an almost hypnotic effect. The Chopin scholar Jim Samson observes somewhere that if we think of various note-sequences as forming a natural harmonic progression, Chopin would typically begin not with the 1st note but in the middle. This in medias res quality of his work gives it a kind of seamless style. In contrast to someone like Beethoven, whose pieces typically have a distinct beginning, middle, and end, Chopin often allows his main theme to weave in and out of the score. And that we might see as the musical equivalent of expressing a mood. Moods, after all, come & go, without any seeming reason or motive. In addition, Chopin passes constantly from minor key to major, & back again to minor. As opposed to a distinct major or minor intervention, then, what we have is something much more like random drift. And this, too, we might take as expressive of mood: going from dark to light, then back to dark again not from any firm musical motive but just because. Altogether, it attests to the primacy of the subjective. Subjectivity is all about mood shifts, changes of color or perspective, wandering, reverie. And the way Chopin allows his music to follow a similar movement makes it less about a particular theme than about passing from one sequence to the next. Because of this back-and-forth quality, the piece becomes less about where it is overall than about where it is at any given moment. And that’s precisely how we might define mood. In its use of transition from what’s neither clearly here nor there to another place that’s equally vague or unspecifiable in order to create a particular mood, the style developed by Chopin would have significant aesthetic consequences.

Chopin, Nocturne Op. 48, no. 2. Maurizio Pollini, piano

One of the best instances where we see its influence at work might be in the two Nocturnes produced by the American painter J.A.M. Whistler during his early middle years. We start with the Nocturne in Blue and Gold, subtitled Old Battersea Bridge:

In this work (given its title) Whistler might well have had Chopin in mind. Note how we have the same kind of transition from a place that’s neither here nor there to one equally unspecifiable, transposed from the musical sphere to its visual equivalent. So the blue of the water shades off into violet, while the blue of the sky is mixed with a muddy gray. On top of that, the boat in the foreground and the bridge itself are merely other shades of blue—just somewhat darker. Even the shower of gold stars behind the bridge glimmers with only minimal luminosity. Altogether, then, these different colors create an effect that’s as seamless as the Chopin nocturne, where we’re only barely aware of the transition from one color to the next. We’ve seen that Chopin manages the passage from minor to major quite effortlessly, and in Whistler we get pretty much the same. By his reduction of the star shower to a minimal glimmer we hardly feel the difference between light and dark. Note that the sky isn’t any brighter than the water—in fact, the water in the left half is probably the single brightest spot of the whole composition. The fact that Whistler muddies the upper half of the sky with a dirty gray makes the patch of sky closest to the water the brightest portion of sky anywhere, making the transition from water to sky or vice versa even easier. Visually, then, the movement from one color to the next is just like the minor/major transition in Chopin, which ought to make possible the same kind of mood shift. Except, of course, that in painting we take it all in pretty much simultaneously. As a result, instead of a mood shift we get a seamless color blending whose effect is to create a single overall mood. It’s also been pointed out that the bridge, as depicted by Whistler, is much taller than it is in reality. And that, too, is very much in keeping with the subjective slant of the work.

Whistler carries the subjectivism of the Nocturne in Blue and Gold to an even further extreme in the slightly later Nocturne in Black and Gold. Here we have a work whose “representational” quality (if we can call it that) is even fainter:

At a quick glance, it isn’t even easy to say what’s going on here. If we didn’t know the subject was supposed to be fireworks on the Thames, we’d be hard pressed to arrive at that from what we’re given here. Whistler has clearly amped up the subjectivism of the earlier Nocturne: where the boatman in the foreground of that work is still definitely recognizable, the shadowy figures in the foreground of the later Nocturne are hardly recognizable as figures at all. In part this is because they blend right into the beach in the foreground. The figure on the left, for instance, is nothing more than a slightly darker wash superimposed on the muddy sand-tint of the ground. As a result, the figure seems barely there—a kind of ghostly presence, in effect. And maybe that’s precisely what Whistler wants us to think. From a phenomenological standpoint, the figures definitely fade into insignificance compared to the visual impression produced by the fireworks. And that’s exactly why they become ghostly presences. Note that the figure on the right produces a split-wash impression: darker when seen against the river background, lighter when seen against the beach in the foreground. Of course the focal point of the work is the place at the river’s edge from where the fireworks are being shot off. Yet here too we see the same subjectivism at work visually: the firing of fireworks at the water’s edge portrayed by a thick smear of bright yellow paint, while the eye glances upward from that to a cluster of light blue-gray washes that figure as the light and smoke produced by these fireworks. But for Whistler these are only part of the total impression. Above all, what seems to interest him is a visual dynamic that involves the upward thrust of the blue-gray washes against the downward fall of a golden shower of points that presumably represent the fireworks themselves. Significantly, however, neither the firing at the riverfront nor the downward fall of the fireworks themselves is depicted all that clearly, so that what we’re really left with is just the contrast between upward thrust and downward fall. And that, I suspect, is exactly where Whistler wants us to be: left with an impression of movement, which is what the eye registers more than anything else. In this way, we might say, the visual reinforces the subjective perspective.

Years later, partly in response to Ruskin’s extremely public attack on the two Nocturnes, Whistler would attempt to justify the subjectivism of these works, and specifically their non-representational nature. His most elaborate defense comes in his famous “Ten O’Clock,” later reprinted in The Gentle Art of Making Enemies:

Nature contains the elements, in colour and form, of all pictures, as the keyboard contains the notes of all music.

But the artist is born to pick, and choose, and group with science, these elements, that the result may be beautiful—as the musician gathers his notes, and forms his chords, until he bring forth from chaos glorious harmony.

To say to the painter, that Nature is to be taken as she is, is to say to the player, that he may sit on the piano.

That Nature is always right, is an assertion, artistically, as untrue, as it is one whose truth is universally taken for granted. Nature is very rarely right, to such an extent even, that it might almost be said that Nature is usually wrong: that is to say, the condition of things that shall bring about the perfection of harmony worthy a picture is rare, and not common at all.

This would seem, to even the most intelligent, a doctrine almost blasphemous. So incorporated with our education has the supposed aphorism become, that its belief is held to be part of our moral being, and the words themselves have, in our ear, the ring of religion. Still, seldom does Nature succeed in producing a picture.

The sun blares, the wind blows from the east, the sky is bereft of cloud, and without, all is of iron. The windows of the Crystal Palace are seen from all points of London. The holiday-maker rejoices in the glorious day, and the painter turns aside to shut his eyes.

How little this is understood, and how dutifully the casual in Nature is accepted as sublime, may be gathered from the unlimited admiration daily produced by a very foolish sunset. (pp. 142-44)

For Whistler, art has to be non-representational because Nature is just the repository of the elements from which art will create. Significantly, Whistler turns to music—rather than literature—as his model or analogy for visual art (think about what Walter Pater will say just a few years later, in Appreciations: “All art aspires to the condition of music”). Once Whistler has managed to establish music as the basis for thinking about visual art, the move to art as non-representational becomes fairly easy. Obviously, music doesn’t represent. But, just as obviously, it has its own internal criteria, which govern the way notes are combined. So once Whistler has managed to establish Nature = keyboard, it seems fairly clear that it’s up to the artist to “pick, and choose.” Otherwise it’s as if he’s just sitting on the piano (i.e., not doing anything with the musical elements at his disposal) rather than playing it. And if visual art is like music, its internal criteria will look a lot like those of music, where harmony is the most essential quality. For that reason, Nature per se isn’t likely to work (i.e., we can’t just represent Nature), because in Nature things rarely harmonize. So Whistler can say “Nature is very rarely right” because “the condition of things that shall bring about the perfection of harmony worthy a picture is rare.” In the last part of this passage, he gives an example of the ugliness of Nature, of things as they are. The sun shines, the wind blows away all the clouds, and then we get to see London with all its industrial-age construction, the Crystal Palace most of all. At the end, Whistler even takes a shot at Turner, with his talk of “how dutifully the casual in Nature is accepted as sublime,” which leads to the unlimited admiration produced by “a very foolish sunset”—presumably because Whistler sees the colors of which it’s composed as discordant, hence not producing the kind of pictorial harmony he’s looking for. But if the sunset isn’t right, what is?

After giving an example of the ugliness that’s out there, Whistler goes on to convey, in a kind of artistic prose that distinctly looks forward to Oscar Wilde, his own sense of the way things should be:

And when the evening mist clothes the riverside with poetry, as with a veil, and the poor buildings lose themselves in the dim sky, and the tall chimneys become campanili, and the warehouses are palaces in the night, and the whole city hangs in the heavens, and fairy-land is before us—then the wayfarer hastens home; the working man and the cultured one, the wise man and the one of pleasure, cease to understand, as they have ceased to see, and Nature, who for once has sung in tune, sings her exquisite song to the artist alone, her son and her master—her son in that he loves her, her master in that he knows her. (p. 144)

Here we see all the conditions that for Whistler made the two Nocturnes into art. With the advent of evening mist, the riverside becomes poetical as all its discordant colors begin to blend together, just as they do in the bluish-gray skyline we see in the Nocturne in Blue and Gold. Likewise with the way the “buildings lose themselves in the dim sky”: we’ve already noticed how in both Nocturnes there isn’t all that much separation between river and sky in terms of either color or brightness, so that this gravity-defying act becomes quite possible. The same might be said about the way the “warehouses are palaces at night”: visually, after all, palaces are just architectural forms, and at night all these forms look more or less alike.

As in Chopin, the seamless blend or the effortless passage from one tone to the next is everything. The only thing Whistler doesn’t talk about is where all this is going. I suspect Ruskin’s attack had made him highly sensitive to the issue of professionalism. The last thing Whistler wants to admit, at this point, is any whiff of the arbitrary or subjective in his color choices. Instead, he stresses the “science” of grouping or arrangement, which will include the science of color choices so as to achieve visual harmony. But when the waterfront blurs at night to a uniform blue-gray color so that “buildings lose themselves in the dim sky,” we’re clearly no longer concerned with architectural or structural specificity. On the contrary: such a color, with its muted softness, could easily become expressive of a mood. In that respect, there’s definitely a hint of subjectivism in the air.

With Oscar Wilde, we get not only subjectivism but something more—a sense of how the later nineteenth century was to move specifically from Impressionism to Expressionism:

Vivian. … Where, if not from the Impressionists, do we get those wonderful brown fogs that come creeping down our streets, blurring the gas-lamps and changing the houses into monstrous shadows? To whom, if not to them and their master, do we owe the lovely silver mists that brood over our river, and turn to faint forms of fading grace curved bridge and swaying barge? The extraordinary change that has taken place in the climate of London during the last ten years is entirely due to this particular school of Art. You smile. Consider the matter from a scientific or metaphysical point of view, and you will find that I am right. For what is Nature? Nature is no great mother who has borne us. She is our creation. It is in our brain that she quickens to life. Things are because we see them, and what we see, and how we see it, depends on the Arts that have influenced us. To look at a thing is very different from seeing a thing. One does not see anything until one sees its beauty. Then, and then only, does it come into existence. At present, people see fogs, not because there are fogs, but because poets and painters have taught them the mysterious loveliness of such effects. There may have been fogs for centuries in London. I dare say there were. But no one saw them, and so we do not know anything about them. They did not exist until Art had invented them…. The white quivering sunlight that one sees now in France, with its strange blotches of mauve, and its restless violet shadows, is her latest fancy, and, on the whole, Nature reproduces it quite admirably. Where she used to give us Corots and Daubignys, she gives us now exquisite Monets and entrancing Pisaros. Indeed there are moments, rare, it is true, but still to be observed from time to time, when Nature becomes absolutely modern. Of course she is not always to be relied upon…. Nobody of any real culture, for instance, ever talks now-a-days about the beauty of a sunset. Sunsets are quite old-fashioned. They belong to the time when Turner was the last note in art…. However, I don’t want to be too hard on Nature…. when Art is more varied, Nature will, no doubt, be more varied also. That she imitates Art, I don’t think even her worst enemy would deny now. It is the one thing that keeps her in touch with civilized man….

Cyril. …. But even admitting this strange imitative instinct in Life and Nature, surely you would acknowledge that Art expresses the temper of its age, the spirit of its time, the moral and social conditions that surround it, and under whose influence it is produced.

Vivian. Certainly not! Art never expresses anything but itself. (pp. 95-96)

Wilde begins by talking about what we see. And what we see is, to a large extent, conditioned by art. Since Impressionism is into fog, we’re now able to see fogs in London. In particular, we see “lovely silver mists that brood over our river, and turn to faint forms of fading grace curved bridge and swaying barge.” As a result, we have climate change—but not, however, of the sort familiar to us these days. Instead, this sort of climate change comes about because we’re seeing something different from what we saw before. And what we see is determined by a single criterion: “one does not see anything until one sees its beauty” (if only that were true!). So people see fogs not because they exist but because “poets and painters have taught them the mysterious loveliness of such effects.” Nonetheless, fogs do seem to exist independently of our seeing them. So Vivian can say: “There may have been fogs for centuries in London. I dare say there were. But no one saw them, and so we do not know anything about them. They did not exist [= they weren’t perceived] till Art had invented them.” At this point, significantly, the passage begins to shift. Vivian starts to talk about natural appearances that seem to be essentially created by art (i.e., not just perceived by it): “The white quivering sunlight that one sees now in France, with its strange blotches of mauve and its restless, violet shadows, is her latest fancy.” These are very “painterly” appearances, you might say (esp. the “strange blotches of mauve”). To which Vivian sees fit to add: “and, on the whole, Nature reproduces it quite admirably.” So now the relationship between Art and Nature seems distinctly changed: if Nature reproduces what Art’s already put forward, then Art isn’t just calling our attention to something that’s already there. Instead, Art now becomes the vanguard, Nature the rearguard. So even though “sunsets are quite old-fashioned” aesthetically, Nature goes on producing these. Playfully, Vivian then takes this to an extreme: “However, I don’t want to be too hard on Nature…. when Art is more varied, Nature will, no doubt, be more varied also.” Heady stuff, no doubt. No wonder Cyril then tries to qualify it, by suggesting that if Art is independent of Nature and even somehow able to create Nature, it still has to come from somewhere itself. As possible sources he puts forward “the temper of its age, the spirit of its time, the moral and social conditions that surround it…” To all this, however, Vivian gives a defiant brush-off. “Certainly not!” And then: “Art never expresses anything but itself.” So here we have it: Art is completely independent of Nature, even invents Nature, and what it produces comes entirely from itself. But if that’s true, what we have to infer is that Art, for Wilde, comes from the mind alone—which is to say: it’s completely subjective. But not only that. Since earlier we were told that beauty alone is the criterion of what we see, it seems clear that Art doesn’t just invent a world. Beauty, after all, is expressive: what’s beautiful produces an effect. And since it comes from the mind alone, it then must be expressive of that mind, of its subjective state. In this way, then, we might be said to move from Impressionism (which is primarily about perception or seeing) to Expressionism.

In tracing out this trajectory from Impressionism to Expressionism I want to say something, finally, about Walter Pater. At first glance this might seem a bit odd: Pater, after all, usually gets discussed before Wilde, who frequently and generously acknowledged him as one of his precursors. And that for the early book that made Pater’s fame: Studies in the History of the Renaissance (or, to use its later title, The Renaissance: Studies in Art and Poetry). But Pater continued to develop, even if much of his later work is less well known. Ironically, we might say that as Wilde went from obscurity (classical studies) to celebrity (author of the most successful plays in London) to infamy (trial and imprisonment), Pater moved in the opposite direction, from notoriety (The Renaissance) to obscurity. Nonetheless, at the end, he was doing interesting work that’s particularly relevant to what I have to say here about the movement from Impressionism to Expressionism. So I want to look at one of his least well-known essays, “Art Notes in Northern Italy,” published in 1890 and reprinted only posthumously by his student C.L. Shadwell in Miscellaneous Studies. In this essay, Pater surveys some pretty obscure (even today) Lombard painters. One of these, however, seems particularly to have caught his eye. Reading between the lines, we can sense a real identification on Pater’s part with this painter. And so his description of the painter’s work becomes in effect an expressionist work, expressive of the aspirations of Pater himself:

Before this or that example of Moretto’s work, in that admirably composed picture of Saint Paul’s Conversion, for instance, you might think of him as but a very noble designer in grisaille. A more detailed study would convince you that, whatever its component elements, there is a very complex tone which almost exclusively belongs to him; the “Saint Ursula” finally, that he is a great, though very peculiar colourist—a lord of colour who, while he knows the colour resources that may lie even in black and white, has really included every delicate hue whatever in that faded “silver grey,” which yet lingers in one’s memory as their final effect. For some admirers indeed he is definable as a kind of really sanctified Titian…. As a matter of fact, at least in his earlier life, Moretto made no visit to Venice, developed his genius at home, under such conditions for development as were afforded by the earlier masters of Brescia itself…. It is, however, as the painter of the white-stoled Ursula and her companions that the great master of Brescia is most likely to remain in the mind of the visitor…. In the clearness, the cleanliness, the hieratic distinction, of this earnest and deeply-felt composition, there is something “pre-Raphaelite”; as also in a certain liturgical formality in the grouping of the virgins—the looks, “all one way,” of the closely-ranged faces; while in the long folds of the drapery we may see something of the severe grace of early Tuscan sculpture—something of severity in the long, thin, emphatic shadows. For the light is high, as with the level lights of early morning, the air of which ruffles the banners borne by Ursula in her two hands, her virgin companions laying their hands also upon the tall staves, as if taking share, with a good will, in her self-dedication, with all the hazard of battle. They bring us, appropriately, close to the grave of this manly yet virginal painter, born in the year 1500, dead at forty-seven. (pp. 102-04)

Two things, briefly, to point out. For anyone familiar with Pater’s earlier work in The Renaissance, I suspect this essay will come as something of a surprise. What we don’t see at all here is any trace of what marked the earlier work so memorably—the emphasis throughout on the sensuousness of Renaissance art. Instead of dwelling on the softness of Titian or Giorgione, Pater has passed to someone much more austere. And in his appreciation of Moretto, note that what he stresses most is the formal purity and elegance, rather than the air or atmosphere. Second, notice how at the end Pater in effect does nothing less than to re-create, from a painting, the conditions or circumstances of actual life. The level light of early morning, the air that ruffles the banners—these are after all only imagined and depicted by the painter. In this sense, what Wilde proclaimed in “The Decay of Lying” (from Intentions) has indeed come to pass: what we have here is art, not copying external reality but creating it, and in the process not expressing anything about its time or place or circumstances, but only itself. And in its expression of itself, which is in fact a double re-creation (Moretto re-created by Pater) completing the trajectory begun by Whistler, by which we move from Impressionism to Expressionism.

We return to the overall schema:

As we move into the 2nd half of the nineteenth century, the primacy of subjective over objective doesn’t just remain one of [math] \frac{Subjective}{Objective} [/math] . Instead, what we get might be better described as a subjectivization of the objective. The objective, in other words, is no longer sustainable by itself: it now gets internalized within the subjective. Earlier, as we saw, there was a brief interlude of intersubjectivity, in mid-late Victorian fiction (ca. 1850-70). But even intersubjectivity isn’t really sustainable. The main problem is that the fundamental relationship of being = thinking can no longer be envisioned after the Romantic era. Maybe it has to do with an increasing preoccupation with development or becoming on the side of thinking. In any case, the upshot is that once thinking is strongly associated with becoming in an existential way, it gets to be very subjectivized (as in Kierkegaard). Or, conversely, we might say that being becomes very existential, and then can no longer be equated with thinking because thinking employs abstract concepts. For a sense of what the objective internalized within the subjective might look like, think of Wilde’s claim that we create the world. If the world exists only within the mind, the mind has to create it in order for it to exist objectively.