Tonal Expression: Chapter Three of Figure Ground Rhythm Thesis by Jamie Hahn 2010
Low light, nearly dusk, the bland grey sky presents a limitation on the familiarity of forms in the view from here. A tension exists between the inside perspective through the blinds and the quickly, darkening exterior of pine trees and grassy foreground. Within this low tonality, large shapes contrast heavily against the details. All in view is of low chroma. It is a rather expected view of nature after a snow filled winter. The grass is pale and brown. The pine tree is weathered. The brush is raw as it awaits new foliage. Time and light are escaping quickly.
With focus, I can see dry, brown leaves appear to emerge from being embedded in grass, pressed upon by the layers of white mass. Now free, they are wedged too deep to flee from their resting place. Catching my eye in this edge of darkness is their movement. Though entrenched with the blades of grass, almost as if one new formation, they blend and flicker at the will of the wind. Raw forms surface as the shape is caught in a push and pull between remaining light, the speed of the air and an apparent stillness that sets this scene for contrast, and for difference. Lightness is passing, details begin to fade. A contemplative reflection centers my focus on what is seen and how I feel. Within this twilight a reverie has surfaced.
Experientially, my figure within this ground has merged an idea of self or reflection thereof with nature and a landscape. This pairing references concepts developed in representational motifs of not only Monet’s late work, but also of a brief American art movement which occurred from 1880-1910. Prior to this time frame, American artists of the early to late nineteenth century created landscapes of grandeur and drama with panoramic vistas, bold lighting against sharp contrasting details. Figures within were often small as they were metaphorically linked to human simplicity within this grandiose of nature, of the sublime and of God’s creation. Hudson River School painters such as Albert Bierstadt, Thomas Cole, and Frederic Edwin Church among others, represented the culture of the strength put upon the American landscape-one of creation, discovery and awe. Art historian Barbara Novak describes this age in her book “Nature and Culture“, in which “the idea of God in Nature was rendered by landscape painters who believed, along with the culture at large, that the glory of God as shown through America’s natural riches, was proof of the nation’s providential destiny; a reflection of the golden era of idealism”.
Entrenched with cultural identity and progressive embracement of all ideas of science, religion and place, the art of landscape grew into a new representation of “the truth of nature”. Within this realm, paintings became a pictorial entry for a collective mission of unification of every American. Also supporting this ideal were the writings of Ralph Waldo Emerson and Henry David Thoreau. Their reflections greatly impacted societal development and eventually helped to form considerations of nature in an altogether unified, yet, personal manner. Merging scientific detailed focus with a poetic, expressive reflection of an individual experience with nature, these artists and writers professed a new understanding of self reflexivity as it related to identity. Their works directed a kind of transition for the following generation of artists who “stubbornly” sought a deeper intensity of personalization within nature. The new generation “confronted nature as a private and extremely personal experience”.
Little was known or even recognized of this art movement in America until more than halfway through the twentieth century. Considered a “neglected” era, historians and curators of one particular exhibition held in 1972 finally appropriately honored artists such as Thomas Dewing, Edward Steichen, James McNeil Whistler, George Inness and John H. Twatchtman as Tonalists. Entitled “The Color of Mood“, the exhibition was curated by Wanda M. Corn. The accompanying catalog is one of the few written documents focused on what is now known as Tonalism. In the foreword, F. Lanier Graham, curator of M. H. De Young Memorial Museum, states,
“The world of the Tonalists was unique. In their special corner of subjective reality, scientific fact was overshadowed by poetic truth. Withdrawing from the hard edges of industrialization and the visual pollution of an urbanizing cityscape, they worked within the quietude of silent days and moonlit nights. Their subjects dwell in a distant border-state of consciousness, where motion has been suspended and energetic activity has evaporated into ethereal meditation. With perception as vaporous as a fog of colored feeling, they rendered images as tremulous as the murmuring vibrations of mood.”
Drawing from Romanticism, and neglecting Impressionism’s scientific view of nature, the artists created landscape motifs of self-reflection. Mesmerized by fog and other atmospheric delights, they worked upon a variety of surfaces integrating the paint, the canvas, the film and the photographic paper to illuminate moments of tranquility. This infusion of mood was typically dominated by a gradation of color, a tonal diffusion and a kind of translucence. The setting of light and objects related to one another within “an envelope of atmosphere”. Often blurring and confusing spatial relationships, the landscape became one of temporality, suggesting a shift from visual accuracy to an internal reflection of the moment in which the piece was being studied.
Painter and photographer Edward Steichen sought to transform this sense of time in to his “elusive, transient imagery”. His work rendered a pictoriality of his own private emotions,
“Because I found nature most beautiful in twilight and moonlight, all my efforts were directed toward finding a way of interpreting such moments. By taking a streetcar out to the end of the line and walking a short distance, I could find a few wood lots. These became my stamping grounds, especially during autumn, winter, and early spring. They were particularly appealing on gray or misty days, or very late in the afternoon and at twilight. Under those conditions the woods had moods and the moods aroused emotional reactions that I tried to render in my work”.
Steichen was a leader in developing photography as an art of expression. He often combined printing processes to create unique prints that could not be duplicated. The compositions montaged negatives, layered gum bichromate, and mixed toned platinum papers. While incredibly time-consuming, “His richly toned, evocative photographs reflected the yearning in the early years of the twentieth century to escape from the crass materialism and rationality of the everyday world into a space of quiet meditation”.
This kind of pictorial photography became known as Pictorialism. Photographers sought to redefine cultural understanding of an otherwise technological framing device. Photography was then gaining popularity to any average American who could as Kodak claimed, “Press the button, we’ll do the rest”. The Tonalist photographers or Pictorialists, rebelled and began to use the camera as a tool as any other painter would use a brush. By embracing and creating new methods of “making photographs”, their representations of nature appeared to be softened, illuminated by the glowing light of the atmosphere. Uninterested in sharp contrasting uses of light, these artist-photographers embraced the nuance of indistinctness “drawing attention to suggestive shadows and employing light as form” to evoke moods and feelings.
While the Tonalism period lasted for thirty years, its impact evolved to affect art making far into the twentieth century: from abstract expressionism to color field painting and later, experimental cinema and the transformative medium of video. When the exhibit, “Color of Mood” first recognized the movement, the curators acknowledged how the sentiment of expression from an individual reaction to nature was still at play in the consciousness of the twentieth century. Despite a lack in text, research has resurfaced in a new volume entitled “Tonalism”, a five hundred page recognition set to be in print this year, 2010, a hundred years after the end of this delicate, yet incredibly bold movement.
Thesis Bibliography: Chapter Three
Wanda M. Corn, “The Color of Mood: American Tonalism 1880-1910”, San Francisco: M. H. De Young Memorial Museum, 1972.
Barbara Haskell, “Edward Steichen”, The Whitney Museum of American Art, 2002.
Harvey L. Jones, “Twilight and Reverie: California Tonalist Painting 1890-1930”, Oakland Museum of California, 1995.
Barbara Novak, “Nature and Culture: American Landscape Painting 1825-1875”, Oxford University Press, 2007.
James Smith Pierce, “From Abacus to Zeus: A Handbook of Art History”, University of Kentucky, 1998.