At the height of the Industrial Revolution in the mid 19th century, artists in France began depicting shadowy, often nocturnal or twilight scenes in which forms appear to emerge and sink back into the darkness. They also explored the depths of blackness in its various imaginative associations, such as dream states and non-idealised representations of contemporary life.
At that same time, these artists exploited the newly available tonal drawing materials such as charcoal, fabricated black chalk, and conte crayon. These new materials, along with improvements in working methods, gave rise to a graphic exploration of darkness.
The Getty is currently showing the exhibition “Noir: The Romance of Black in 19th Century French Drawings and Prints,” on view through May 15, 2016, which examines how artists championed these new, dark subjects. On view are drawings and prints from Gustave Courbet, Edgar Degas, Henri Fantin Latour, Edouard Manet, Odilon Redon, Georges Seurat, and others.
Many artists reacted to the brutal realities of the Industrial Revolution and political repression by retreating into the interior, unfettered world of the psyche. Black was associated with nocturnal, phantasmagoric dreams and the dark expanse of the cosmos. “The meanings and significance of the colour black played a large role as artists searched for a new world of subject matter,” says Lee Hendrix, Senior Curator of Drawings and curator of the exhibition. “These developments had strong beginnings in the art of Romanticism, when artists looked at the darkest recesses of the human condition. The uninhibited artistic investigation of evil, cruelty, and death gave rise to dark imagery of unprecedented power.”
French artists made black prints and drawings with increasing interest in the properties and effects of their materials. These artists– called “Fusainistes” (fusain means charcoal in French)– used charcoal and black chalk to portray the rustic nature of rural existence, and the somber reality of urban life. The Fusainistes recognised that charcoal, with its powdery and floating qualities was also the perfect medium to portray dreams and landscape scenes. By the late 1800s, artists turned to conte crayon as well, with which one could produce a wide range of effects from fine light lines to dense opaque shading. As stated by the artist Odilon Redon, “ Black is the most essential colour.”
The works in this brilliantly presented exhibition are drawn from the museum’s permanent collection and loans from private and public Los Angeles collections.
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