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Pastel, snow: fun or facts?

7 February 2014

snowAs we face a week of wall-to-wall television coverage from Sochi, I wonder whether you remember the first time you saw newly fallen snow? That, among the rich variety of materials (many glinting or sparkling) surrounding you in your infancy, snow nevertheless had a special magic (quite different from other whites, even when they matched in hue, saturation and brightness); and that, when you tried to form it into balls, it would turn into ice and lose its splendour. And that the following morning it was there no longer. For the rest of the year, you could content yourself with wonderful colours: brightly coloured plastic toys, perhaps: if you are young enough, red LEDs in electronic devices; even in the kitchen, not only fruits, but basic ingredients like flour, eggs and treacle offer a visual feast for young eyes.

Then, a few years later, your first visit to an artists’ supplier. There is much to delight: tubes of squishy oil paint, boxes of dry watercolour, arrays of pencils and crayons now replace cake ingredients for your delectation. But by now you are probably there to buy them for your own use, not to watch your mother assemble them in your name. And none has quite the same special interest in itself as the snow you still want to play with as an adult. Unless, that is, you were lucky enough to come across the very expensive and fragile boxes of soft pastels that may not even be on display. You can’t gauge this effect from photographs. Take out some real pastels: admire the seductive warmth that glows without sparkling, a sensation of intense colour that is quite simply as unique and special as the proverbially pure, fresh snow.

Now go and see examples of how they were used when the best artists of the day were doing so: look not at a single picture, but find a room devoted to this art, isolated from the louder claims of oil painting – so that the symphony orchestra does not drown out the string quartet. Unfortunately you can’t just drop into Trafalgar Square to do so, any more than you can rely on photographs. You can see some examples of two or three artists who were collected by the British on the Grand Tour scattered through our stately homes, but if you want to form any idea at all of the extraordinary phenomenon that took hold in France in the eighteenth century you will have to go to Paris, and search out the so-called Couloir des Poules (why? look it up in Pierre Rosenberg’s delightful Dictionnaire amoureux du Louvre) which you are likely to miss if you are just walking straight through the galleries as a tourist. And you are even less likely to find yourself in Saint-Quentin by chance. So the “can’t see” becomes the “no interest”: a case of egg and poule.

But if you make the pilgrimage, you may become a convert; and then you will never look at anything else again the same way. You have succumbed to what has been called the erotic or fetishistic quality of pastel. And that’s all that needs to be said about it.

Must we then remain silent? I think not, even though there is no priority debate in my mind: first the sensation, then the ratiocination.

I am certainly not silly enough to suggest that a box of artists’ materials is a substitute for the work of an artist, or to suggest that a bad pastel (of which there are a great many) is somehow better than a good picture in another medium, and so the usual duty of art history, to attribute and rank in importance, cannot be escaped. But other, particular questions begin to enter the head.

What explains these special optical properties of the material? How does this help to create the moment of fascination which is the essence of great portraiture? Why did the medium reach its apogee in eighteenth century France? What were the institutions that supported a school of artists that consisted not of a lone genius like Liotard or Rosalba but several hundred highly competent artists, several dozen of the top rank? Why did some pastellists work also in oil, others not? Why did some sitters chose to be portrayed in pastel rather than oil? Why did it all come to such an abrupt end? What happened to all the lost pastels (où sont les neiges…)? And why did interest in pastel experience a vigorous revival at the end of the nineteenth century, only once again to die equally abruptly?

These are all questions that require a broad study from every angle of the society in which the phenomenon arose – an approach aptly termed prosopographic. (I originally entitled this post “Pastels, hedonism and prosopography” but realised few readers would get beyond the title, and so I cheated – just as I did by omitting the physics lesson on diffuse reflection and refractive indices which properly belongs above.) But if you come across the prosopography (for example, on my Pastels & pastellists website) before you have succumbed to the hedonism, you may well think that this type of study is no better than collecting matchboxes.

The natives of the tropical rain forest have fewer words for snow than the Inuit. Collected matchboxes used to contain the means to set the world alight, but are now empty; prosopography puts art in boxes: it is up to you to open them and let the glow enrich your life.

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From → Art history

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