For some artists, it is human emotions and feelings that are their main source of inspiration.
At the end of the 19th century and into the first part of the 20th century in Europe, artists like Vincent van Gogh and Edvard Munch expressed extreme states of emotion in their artwork, mainly through the use of exaggerated and intense colour, and strong contrasts of light and dark. They created “a visual language of the soul”. Both these artists had disturbed and often unhappy lives; both had had difficult childhoods, and later suffered periods of great mental anguish.
Van Gogh painted scenes that were familiar and commonplace, places and faces from which one would expect a feeling of normality and reassurance: his bedroom, his friends and acquaintances, the orchards, the corn fields, a brightly lit café at night. Yet he invested these subjects with a very tormented quality, and an intense sense of drama. How? He achieved this through his famously energetic brushstrokes, the richly textured surfaces of his paint, the heightened colours – a burning yellow being one of them – and sometimes a sense of encroaching darkness.
Munch, on the other hand, often painted scenes of illness, pain, death and shock – imbuing his subjects with haunting and unearthly colour. He had experienced great trauma from an early age; his mother died when was five, his beloved sister when he was 14; and his father was a deeply troubled and unstable man. Edvard often painted scenes of the sickbed, and hollow-eyed and tragic figures expressing great anguish.
He developed a very concise and reduced form, simplified outline; and he differed from Van Gogh in that his works suggest that the scenes were from his own memory and imagination, rather than from what he actually saw in front of him.
Both artists were called Symbolists. The Symbolists attempted to paint pictures of the inner soul as well as the outer appearance of things, meshing the artist’s subjective thoughts with the real visible world before their eyes.
The language of feelings
How has the language of art been used to convey feelings?
We have seen that colour can be used to convey emotional experiences, rather than simply matching the outward appearances of a scene or an object.
Tone, especially strong contrasts of lights and darks, can also create a highly charged atmosphere, rather than simply describing shadows or gradations of light. Line, form and shape may be exaggerated or distorted to create effect. In the examples you see here, these devices are used to express feelings of pain, sadness or anguish.
We will consider how the two South African artists whose images we are about to look at, work with this language in a symbolist tradition.
Talk About This
How do these artists express emotional states?
Look at these artworks by Mmakgabo Helen Sebidi and Cyprian Shilakoe, and then talk about how their images function.
Look carefully at these images; while looking, try to answer these questions:
First – what immediate, spontaneous response do
you have to each images? What does each one seem
to be about?
Now, look more carefully at the way the various art elements are used in each: consider the colour, tones and textures. How does the artist use these elements to create the reaction or feeling it evokes in you, the viewer?