Autumn in Art History

Now that Autumn is upon us I have been going on more walks on the Sussex Downs. This time of year always causes me to reflect, and to take a moment and appreciate the beautiful landscapes. Autumn is my favourite season for a number of reasons; it is the perfect weather for just a cardigan or jumper; the crunchy leaves; the fresh crisp air in the morning mist; cosying up in the evening with a blanket and cup of tea while it’s raining outside! Autumn has an atmosphere that is like no other season, in the urban environment as well as in nature.

What better way to celebrate the season than through art. I have chosen three images that I feel have captured the essence of Autumn. The melancholic and dark depiction of autumn is present in all of my choices, as is the transitional nature of decay and change that has inspired artists for centuries.

Avenue of Poplars in Autumn – Vincent van Gogh

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Vincent van Gogh (1853 – 1890), Avenue of Poplars in Autumn, 1884, oil on panel, 99 cm x 65.7 cm, Van Gogh Museum, Amsterdam.

The term ‘Post-Impressionism’ was coined by the English critic Roger Fry for his exhibition Manet and the Post-Impressionists in London, 1910 – 1911.

The Post-Impressionists had no defined artistic goal, but their work rejected the contemporary bourgeois taste in the art world. Van Gogh, alongside other Post-Impressionists, such as Manet, were dissatisfied with Impressionism’s pre-occupation with momentary impressions of light and nature. This broad, anti-bourgeois movement focused on design and structure and a refusal to imitate nature or moralise through narrative subjects. They demonstrated an attempt to recover the ability and significance of art to reveal its symbolic, spiritual and emotional meaning. Van Gogh’s work was emotionally charged with his reaction to the landscape and the weather. Dramatic curling strokes paint are easily recognisable in most of his work. However, this work, Avenue of Poplars in Autumn, is not as recognisable. In a letter to his brother, Theo, van Gogh writes;

“The last thing I made is a rather large study of an avenue of poplars, with yellow autumn leaves, the sun casting, here and there, sparkling spots on the fallen leaves on the ground, alternating with the long shadows of the stems. At the end of the road is a small cottage, and over it all the blue sky through the autumn leaves.” – van Gogh. 

From the unfinished nature of the work, I assumed it was a study. Sometimes an artists study is more interesting to view. You can attempt to work out the scene they are portraying, and the effects of light and dark on the landscape. Van Gogh’s dedication to the natural world was shared with Gaugin. A new concept of art as a religion; as a way of uncovering the purity of a simple life that they deemed uncorrupted my modernity; was largely driven by van Gogh’s search for personal and spiritual redemption. Throughout his life there were moments of sanity and calm, and then came the storm. Some researchers today believe van Gogh had bipolar disorder. In another letter to his brother Theo, he writes;

“I am good for something, my life has a purpose after all. How can I be useful, of what service can I be? There is something inside of me, what can it be?… I have terrible lucidity at moments, I am not conscious of myself anymore, and the picture comes to me as in a dream.” – van Gogh

Avenue of Poplars in Autumn was painted only three years into his artistic career, during what seemed like a period of relative calm. As the years went on, and he moved to Paris, van Gogh’s work was transformed from light and bright colour palettes to a dramatic range of dark and diverse colours that reflected the decline of his mental health. The changing of physical landscapes was something van Gogh was searching for regularly in his work. His Autumn paintings are experimental in form and application of paint, yet to me, they lack the energy of his later paintings. The tall trees looming over the dark figure who is moving away from the source of brightness and openness are perhaps a reflection on the uncertainty van Gogh felt during this period of his life.

Autumn in Murnau – Wassily Kandinsky 

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Wassily Kandinsky, Autumn in Murnau, 1908, oil on panel, 32.3 cm x 40.9 cm, Private Collection.

Kandinsky once accidentally failed to recognise one of his own paintings, which was placed upside down, he described it as a painting of;

“extraordinary beauty, glowing with inner radiance.”

The expressiveness of form and colour in Kandinsky’s work was intuitive and lyrical. Kandinsky once apparently said he has experienced music in terms of colour, and used it as an emotional effect detached from regular form. Just like van Gogh, he was in search of the spiritual and a truth of life. Kandinsky was keenly interested in the theories of Rudolf Steiner (1861 – 1925) who believed that viewing and practising art was the best stimulant for understanding the spiritual. As most people who view abstract art today, Kandinsky feared that people would view his art as mere patterns and shapes that were deemed meaningless. He came up with the idea of loosely painting form and matter that was recognisable to lead the viewer into his spiritual world of truths and visions. Autumn in Murnau is not as abstract as his compositional studies, however, it does appear as a vision rather than a truthful depiction of nature, it almost looks dreamlike or hallucinatory. The blue tones of this painting for some leave it feeling cold and empty, but to me, it has a comforting warmth about it.

Four Trees – Egon Schiele

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Egon Schiele, Four Trees, 1917, oil on canvas, 110.5 cm x 141 cm, Belvedere, Vienna.

Four Trees was painted in 1917, where Schiele was able to return to Vienna after being in Prague for conscription. The work is said to portray Schiele’s belief that those who followed a more original and virtuous route in life would be happier than those who live more conservatively. The painting draws the eye into the setting sun behind the backdrop of mountains. The trees are dotted equally along the landscape, varying in shape and density. Some researchers believe that the trees symbolise the healthiness of living outside of modern society which can be seen in the healthier trees lying on the outer side of the canvas, and the thinner, unhealthier and sparse trees sitting on the inside.

Schiele’s landscape paintings are significant in that they progressed the movement of European nature painting, and Schiele’s expressionist attitude portrayed his dedication to the emotive aspects of his work. During this period of war, poverty, and industrialisation making artwork such as the expressionists’ was a form of escape, creating a world in stark contrast to their own realities.

Four Trees is a painting that draws the viewer into the different perspectives and depths of the landscape. In creating an augmented reality, Schiele actually gave us a glimpse into the hardships and realities of life in the First World War period. To me, the atmosphere of the painting is so emotive, it truly captures the essence of Autumn; there is a sense of loneliness that is calm and peaceful.

Poems

As I love poetry and literature I have decided to include some of my favourite poems and writings about the Autumn season:


“Is not this a true autumn day? Just the still melancholy that I love – that makes life and nature harmonise. The birds are consulting about their migrations, the trees are putting on the hectic or the pallid hues of decay, and begin to strew the ground, that one’s very footsteps may not disturb the repose of earth and air, while they give us a scent that is a perfect anodyne to the restless spirit. Delicious autumn! My very soul is wedded to it, and if I were a bird I would fly about the earth seeking the successive autumns.” — George Eliot


“You expected to be sad in the fall. Part of you died each year when the leaves fell from the trees and their branches were bare against the wind and the cold, wintery light. But you knew there would always be the spring, as you knew the river would flow again after it was frozen.” — Ernest Hemingway, A Moveable Feast


“It was one of those days you sometimes get latish in the autumn when the sun beams, the birds toot, and there is a bracing tang in the air that sends the blood beetling briskly through the veins.”  — P.G. Wodehouse


“The leaves were more gorgeous than ever; the first touch of frost would lay them all low to the ground. Already one or two kept constantly floating down, amber and golden in the low slanting sun-rays.” — Elizabeth Gaskell, North and South

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