To coincide with the retrospective of her work at the National Galleries of Scotland, British artist Bridget Riley has written a series of texts on works in our collection that are of special importance to her.
Firm in the belief that “looking carefully at paintings is the best training you can have as a young painter”, the experience of looking at and learning through the work of other artists has been significant to Riley throughout her working life. Over the years, she has published numerous essays and presented lectures on artists and works of the past, focusing her critical and appreciative attention on those who have tackled pictorial problems relating to colour, tone, form, rhythm and space.
In the following texts, Riley offers her insights on a selection of works from our world-class collection including paintings by Titian, El Greco, John Constable, Camille Pissarro, Vincent Van Gogh, Claude Monet, Edouard Vuillard and Henri Matisse. Read on to discover these works anew through the eyes of Bridget Riley.
Titian (Tiziano Vecellio)
Diana and Actaeon
The composition is opened on the left with Titian’s palette of crimsons, blues and yellow ochres in the curtain, the distant landscape and the tanned body of the young man, his hunting equipment and garments. Actaeon has inadvertently drawn aside a rose coloured curtain revealing the strong blues of the sky and distant mountains, and releasing a brilliant shaft of light.
Colour is treated as a single modulating element throughout the painting, simultaneously unifying (harmonising) and differentiating (contrasting). Titian orchestrates the whole in a rhythm of arcs and curves, verticals and diagonals which take the eye into every corner, sensing every passage and appreciating every detail. The composition is ordered in much the same way that Cezanne will adopt when beginning a painting of Montagne Sainte-Victoire, over 300 years later.
Titian's legendary mastery of his palette, the colour mixing and handling of his crimsons, blues and yellow ochres, is responsible here for what Delacroix later called the first merit of a painting, to prepare “a feast for the eye”.
El Greco (Domenikos Theotokopoulos)
Christ Blessing ('The Saviour of the World')
El Greco, hearing of Titian's increasing prowess as a colourist and sharing in the Byzantine roots of this development, left Crete as a young man to join Titian's workshop in Venice as his pupil. The crimsons and blues, and the beautiful subtle greying of the flesh tones, show how much he learnt from the master. The modulations of these flesh tones, discretely lower than the light of the Trinity which throws Christ's head into relief, relate directly to Titian's practice. Jesus is shown in the light of the world, which, falling on the folds of his robe and cloak, recalls the hieratic symmetrical posture of The Saviour in the Christian iconography of the Byzantine tradition.
El Greco has reserved his brightest purist white for the painting of the Trinity and, it seems, for the whites of Christ's eyes as he gazes lovingly into the soul of the beholder. This is set in a frame of loosely brushed greys, subtly warm browns and cool blues, which make up the void out of which the figure of Christ emerges. The globe on which his left hand rests is treated in a like manner, whilst his right hand is raised in the act of blessing.
The Vale of Dedham
In this glorious painting Constable shows us, with dazzling assurance and mastery, ‘one of those bright and silvery days’. He brings about a gathering together of opposing and conflicting natural forces. The huge sky with its rain heavy clouds and patches of celestial blue, the tall wind-tossed trees straining at their roots, the great plain receding through a rhythm of light and shade into the far distance, the close proximity of the shadowy figures crouching in the foreground, and all bespattered with the glitter and sparkle of reflected lights. The pictorial space opens up as near and far, immeasurable in any perspectival sense, but firmly built and understood by the painter.
Constable is responding here to ‘the Grey of Nature’ - Pissarro's term - which, as Cezanne said, is so very difficult to achieve. It seems that he may be using a form of ‘flochtage’, that is to say, the building up, assemblage or ‘flocking together’ of colour by various means: palette knife, long and short strokes, by the tip or broad side. Brush marks, never for their own sake, never for bravura, only for the application of particular colours, remarkable equally for their purity and for their dissolution. This technique, which accepts a kind of cancellation of colour identity, and was later subject to divisionism, sometimes leads, as in this painting, to an overall silvery greying of the colour, in itself a beautiful and very particular envelope of light.
Kitchen Gardens at L'Hermitage, Pontoise
'The humble and colossal Pissarro’, as Cezanne called him, acted as a guide and theoretician to the Post Impressionists. A pioneer of Impressionism with Monet and Renoir, Pissarro nevertheless recognised and continued certain traditional practices bringing to the younger generation of painters a valuable understanding of pictorial craftsmanship.
Here, he demonstrates the importance of the mid tone as advocated by Delacroix. This approach was also known as ‘peinture blonde’ amongst both the Impressionists and Post Impressionists. By bringing all colours together through the mid tone, and preserving the purity and particularity of each, the composition is pulled together, unified and harmonised.
Vincent van Gogh
A surprisingly bright, almost glaring white sky, against which, again surprisingly, light blue clusters of olive branches, twisting and turning in the wind, are thrown into relief. A foreground of fleeting shadows and glittering patches of light rise up towards a high horizon reaching the strongest blues and greens. Deep oranges in the tree trunks and branches of the olive trees seem to advance towards the viewer throwing lighter, brighter shadows across the foreground, rendered in short sharp separate brushstrokes. Pale greens, bright whites, yellow ochres, poppy reds and vivid orange hues account for the pictorial mid ground. Despite a sense of urgency in the application of the paint, the making of the painting is ordered, disciplined and methodical.
The intensity of the impact of the painting today seems to convey and express the impression Van Gogh may have received on leaving the shadowed interior of the asylum and stepping immediately outside its front gates. The olive grove is still there, still sloping upwards towards the high horizon, with the curve of Les Alpilles in the background. The mistral still ravages through the countryside bringing with it an incredible brilliance.
Haystacks: Snow Effect
The painting is mysterious and surprising, both in its subject matter and treatment. Almost an exercise in or demonstration of Monet’s famous ‘envelope of light’, his way of unifying a painting. Orange and blue stake out the polarities of light and shade. Gone is the tonal rendering. Instead he puts his two colours through their paces to account for both the open space and for the volumes of grain stacks seen ‘contra jour’ - against the day.
La Chambre rose [The Pink Bedroom]
‘Contra Jour’ – seen against the light – is the driving force behind Vuillard's intimate, delicate, study like painting. From the white light source outside the window to the tablecloth in the foreground. From the tablecloth up to the chandelier and the reflected light on the ceiling. From the flower heads of the potted plant across to the little girl sitting on her stool, the flood of white light stakes out the dimensions of the pictorial space.
By painting ‘Alla Prima’ – first applications of paint made directly into the ground, in this case a grey, un-primed canvas – Vuillard establishes a vital mid tone, which holds the painting together, supporting strokes of orange, red, green ochre, blue, violet and the rose pinks of the title.
Vuillard completed this painting just before the First World War, when the legacy of Impressionism and Post Impressionism was still intact. Form and structure on one hand, colour and light on the other, with Monet much in mind. Both tendencies, under the aegis of sight – how we look and what we see – unite the viewer with the artist as one. In this work Vuillard offers a route through which we may make contact with the insights and practice of his great predecessor.
La Leçon de peinture or La Séance de peinture [The Painting Lesson or The Painting Session]
In this painting Matisse simultaneously divides and unifies his composition. The first impression is one of stillness, withdrawal and a rapt concentration in a world beyond our reach. Each of the participants pursues a separate course of engagement and each contributes to this engagement. The bond is imperceptible, a mystery plainly visible for all to see and which, by these means, increases in density and impenetrability. The viewer continues looking, scrutinising the entire situation – nothing is revealed.
The darkness of the interior holds the top edge and the right hand side of the canvas, just as the lower edge and left side are held by the light on the cloth and the figure of the painter. The canvas appears to be divided diagonally - but not equally - by background and foreground, dark and light. Little of which has to do with the subject matter of the picture, but a great deal to do with the making of the painting. The mystery heightens. A second and powerful diagonal enters the picture plane. Extending from the horizon of the distant sea reflected in the mirror, taking in the palm tree and the rose colours, it continues through the vase of flowers standing on the dressing table, and comes finally to rest on the corner of the table. Work continues.
Composition with Double Line and Yellow
One of the first paintings in which Mondrian introduced the ‘double line’. It caused consternation amongst his followers, seeming almost as though Mondrian had thrown a spanner into the planar reading of his compositions.
The avant-garde of his day traced the lineage of his planes back to Cézanne, and even to Poussin, but the introduction of the ‘double line’ created an interval which threatened his compositional method and raised questions. What precisely was it? And moreover, where was it?
Another tension emerged in this painting. A powerful diagonal which, although not drawn, is perceived. And the ‘double line’ intersecting with the vertical provides flash points on route.
In Mondrian’s own words, the painting would seem to realise for us ‘the equilibrium of the dissimilar’. Perhaps he himself was surprised by what he saw.