Vegder's Blog

September 8, 2017

I wandered lonely as a cloud… – Clouds in Art – Part One – a general survey

My last three posts have all been about roosters and related fowl. They wore me out and I can’t even imagine what they did to you. My apologies… sort of. Actually I have a lot more to say on that topic, but that can wait. We, you and I, both need a break. Don’t you agree? So… I thought: what can I write about that would be a world away from cocks? I know, why not talk about clouds in art. You would be surprised how consuming such a topic can be. How are clouds used in art? How do different cultures deal with them? How in the hell does a great artist capture the ephemeral nature of these ever changing forms? Is there a history of cloud paintings? Who was the best cloud painter? [That is always a touchy question. The best of anything is always up for interpretation. It is always subjective, but then again I don’t believe in objectivity. I passionately don’t believe in objectivity.]

So, this first post on clouds will present you with a number of images that I hope will cause you think and look a little deeper at this subject. There will be little rhyme or reason or order to this post, but in time a pattern may begin to show through. I will start first with Sweden’s Prince Eugen. A member of the country’s royal family and from my perspective a very talented man – if only based on the one example shown here.

The Cloud – 1896
Molnet in Swedish

Prince Eugen (1865-1947), the youngest son of King Oscar II and Queen Sophia, was torn between his royal duties and his desire to be a full-time artist. At 21 he went to Paris and studied with great academic Léon Bonnat. Later he studied with, among others, Puvis de Chavannes – one of my favorites. This painting the prince started outdoors one summer at Tyresö in the Swedish countryside south of Stockholm. That winter he worked on it in his studio and returned to the original spot the next summer, but could never quite recapture what he had seen the first time. However, that does not lessen the effects of this painting with its single path leading over the hill, but to what? To something more hopeful and romantic perhaps. To a form of escape, at least emotionally, from his birthright that placed him near the top of the Swedish social elites.

A quick note: Eugen was known as the “Red Prince” not because he was some kind of Marxist-Commie-pinko, but because he had a penchant for using red paints. At least that is what the Chicago Daily Tribune reported on the prince’s engagement to Duchess Olga of Württemberg in March of 1898. However other contemporary sources paint a different picture of the prince who was thought to be extremely progressive for his day. In fact, the Studio (Volume 31) in 1904 said: “…this excellent artist is not called ‘The Red Prince’ for nothing…”

My favorite English artist of all time is John Constable

I know that is heresy. Most of the educated, art-savvy people that I know would pick Turner, but, for whatever reason, I like Constable more. This doesn’t diminish my love of Turner’s work and his contribution to the field of art history, but… Just saying… Anyway, Constable is my man when it comes to the study of clouds. No one else compares. Years ago my best friend and I visited the British Art Center at Yale. It was a thrilling experience and it raised my appreciation for British art exponentially. But what struck me the most was a series of cloud studies by Constable. Brilliant. Absorbing. Studies I could lose myself in. It was just like lying on a grassy hillside on a pleasantly warm summer day. Lying there watching the display of nature’s beauty in the clouds wafting by. No two the same. The more you look the more you see. That visit to that collection at Yale won me over forever. Below is just one example – the dark cloud.

Dark cloud study from 1821
British Art Center at Yale

Clouds as an eccentric modern expression – Magritte

Les Valeurs Personnelles from 1952
by René Magritte
San Francisco Museum of Modern Art

What do you look at first? The glass or the comb? Just kidding.

Who said clouds are the stuff that dreams are made of? Answer: me! /Correggio’s discretion and insinutation

Detail from the painting shown below

…her eyes beaming with a longing lingering light,
as if Nature had been advised by Correggio in their creation.
                                                                Thomas Hardy in The Mayor of Casterbridge

Correggio’s Jupiter and Io – early 1530s
-Commissioned by Federigo Gonzaga for his palace at Mantua
Kunsthistorische Museum, Vienna

Here I go, off on another tangent – Humphey Bogart said in the ‘Maltese Falcon’ that “The stuff that dreams are made of.” Only, while I have quoted it accurately, it is not the actual quote that it is based on. The original quote can be found in Shakespeare in The Tempest in which Prospero says “…And, like this insubstantial pageant faded, Leave not a rack behind. We are such stuff As dreams are made on…” God I love this stuff. Anyway… Correggio’s masterful cloud piece Jupiter and Io makes me dream of such stuff – even in my dotage.

Under a dark cloud – an expression of mood by Albert Pinkham Ryder

Under a Cloud – ca. early or mid-1880s
Albert Pinkham Ryder (1847-1917)
Metropolitan Museum of Art

“On moonlight nights he would go on to the bridge and watch the numerous craft passing up and down the Hudson,
getting ‘moonlight effects.’ I have known him to walk down to the Battery at midnight,
and just sit there studying the effect of clouds passing over the moon.”

He wraps up the waters in his clouds,
    yet the clouds do not burst under their weight.
He covers the face of the full moon,
    spreading his clouds over it.
He marks out the horizon on the face of the waters
    for a boundary between light and darkness.
                                                 Job 26: 8-10

Ryder once said:  “The artist should fear to become the slave of detail. He should strive to express his thought and not the surface of it.” The art critic Roger Fry said of a similar painting: “…the quality of the paint has the perfection and the elusive hardness of some precious stone.” Fry went on to say that Ryder’s paintings had the quality of  a layered enamel that had been through a fire. He also pointed out that Ryder’s technique of layering paint over paint surface over earlier paint surfaces was poorly thought out and “…for that reason not very desirable.” Not only that, but the paintings do not look like they did when Ryder painted them, nor even like what Fry was seeing when he reviewed them early in the 20th century.

Ryder’s style became increasingly personal – especially in his marine paintings. “…storm-tossed boats under moonlit skies… Although based on Ryder’s observations of nature, these imaginative paintings represent his highly personal vision, with simplified detail, strong overall design, and a concentration on mass and movement.”

Before I leave Ryder, I want to point out that there are any other number of painters who layer their compositions in such a way that it becomes a conservationist’s nightmare. There is Georges Roualt and his clowns, Anselm Kiefer and his angst-ridden post Nazi-era pieces – by the way, I love the work of Kiefer – and then there is always Watteau, possibly the greatest of them all, who despite his classical training and unbelievable genius for composition, experimented many of his paintings to death. A slow and painful death. At some point Antoine Watteau decided that it would be smart to use bitumen in his paintings. Ooooops! Big mistake. Might as well have set a time bomb on them. Nevertheless, Watteau was so remarkable a painter that even another great, later painter like Sir Joshua Reynolds, who owned one of Watteau’s paintings, destroyed it by scraping away the layers in an effort to discover just how his predecessor had created his magic.

And yet, many of Watteau’s paintings have survived, if not exactly as they were conceived, but at least enough so that we can enjoy their full impact. One such example is his historic and magnificent Embarkation for Cythera. I could get lost for hours in this painting and have. Modern society sees only the elements of the Rococo and is put off, but I see something else. Something lyrical, something dreamy, something beyond human scale and understanding. I am posting an image of that painting not only because it has beautiful clouds in it, but because an enlargement of that composition allows us to see a small area of those clouds as though he had our noses right up next to the canvas. You’ll see what I mean. How did he reach such great heights?

The Embarkation for Cythera
Antoine Watteau
The Louvre

Embarkation cloud detail


A Vietnamese example of clouds from the 15th to 16th century

Stoneware dish showing a recumbent elephant among clouds

The curatorial files note that
“… the whimsical elephant and the particulars of the subsidiary design are uniquely the product of Vietnamese artistic sensibilities.”

This next image doesn’t have anything to do with clouds. Instead it is the elephant that I am focused on. There is a wonderful Japanese woodblock triptych in the collection of Mike Lyon from 1850 – several hundred years after the piece shown above. It represents a kabuki production which includes men dressed as a lion, a dancing, prancing tiger and an elephant which is being sat upon. Very witty and very humorous. But what amazes me the most is the similarity between the elephant on the Vietnamese bowl shown above and the man dressed as an elephant. Notice that his left hand is helping to hold an unrolled scroll. When is the last time you have seen an elephant do that? One other point: look at the decoration on the Vietnamese elephant. It looks like he is wearing his jammies.

Click on the image above to see the full triptych at the Lyon Collection.

Clouds in Islamic art – 

It is important to remember the strictures against representations of living creatures, either animal or man, among Muslims. Such images are taboo. The Met wrote of figural content in Islamic art:

“The Islamic resistance to the representation of living beings ultimately stems from the belief that the creation of living forms
is unique to God, and it is for this reason that the role of images and image makers has been controversial. The strongest
statements on the subject of figural depiction are made in the Hadith (Traditions of the Prophet), where painters are challenged
to “breathe life” into their creations and threatened with punishment on the Day of Judgment. The Qur’an is less specific but
condemns idolatry and uses the Arabic term musawwir (“maker of forms,” or artist) as an epithet for God. Partially as a result
of this religious sentiment, figures in painting were often stylized “

That said, the images I am about to show you are more the exceptions than not… and could not be more distant from the Western representations of clouds than one could get and still know that it is clouds you are looking at. They are clouds, but not like any of the clouds we are used to.

A Safavid illustration to a poem by Jami

Salaman and Absal reposed on an isle – 1556-65
From the Haft awrang of  Abdul-Rahman Jami (died 1492)
Freer Gallery of Art

The curatorial comments tell the story of this painting: “When the king reproaches his son, Salaman for his amorous relationship with his nursemaid Absal, the two lovers decide to flee the court. After a month-long voyage they reach an island full of springs, trees, fruit, and birds. This is such a tranquil and beautiful spot that they remain there in carefree, blissful companionship.”

A detail of those crazy, crazy clouds
(Note that the difference between the first image and the detail is rather dramatic.
That is because the first one comes from the Freer page posted online and the second
one is from an online posting of a book put out by that same institution. I think the
bottom image may be the truer colors. One other point: the color of the water on which
boat is sitting was originally a bright silver color which has oxidized.)

Now this man could paint and I never even heard of him

There is a magnificent album leaf in the collection of the Met. I have known and admired it for years, but I never knew the name of the artist. It is by Payag (active ca. 1591–1658). Wow! This man could paint.

“Payag worked for the emperors Akbar, Jahangir, and Shah Jahan over the course of a remarkably long, seven-decade career, and his brother Balchand was also a talented painter with whom he collaborated on a handful of paintings. The attribution of this portrait to Payag, written in the border below the painting by Shah Jahan, was recently confirmed by the discovery of a microscopic signature on the golden tip of the emperor’s bow.”

More about Payag and this particular work of art:

“The commission from Shah Jahan of an equestrian portrait is a measure of [Payag’s] new standing at court; his astute powers of observation and facility in painting the minutiae of jewelry and weaponry enhance the grandeur of this imperial image… It is one of  the great imperial portraits of Shah Jahan’s reign, commissioned soon after his accession. Payag introduced a shallow depth of field occupied by a stallion and its imperial rider, and he sprinkled it with beautifully observed wildflowers. Shah Jahan’s white jama, gold sash (patka), and jewel-encrusted weapons are rendered impeccably. As a trusted royal portrait artist, Payag had privileged access to the inner court, where he could study closely the luxury goods he portrayed with such dazzling verisimilitude. The culture through which this highly idealized portraiture was filtered employed heightened aesthetic refinement as an expression of the imperial self.”

Shah Jahan on Horseback – ca. 1630
Metropolitan Museum of Art

Anyone who could paint like that should be able to paint clouds that truly look like clouds, but… Well you be the judge. Here is an enlarged detail below. There must be one or more reasons they are painted this way. One may be tradition. Another may be so as not to distract from Shah Jahan’s magnificence. Without more specifics we will never know why for sure.

As for Payag, he was a Hindu. Shah Jahan was a Sunni Muslim. The proscriptions in the Hadith and the Qur’an don’t seem to have been deterrents in this case. Thank goodness.

The story of Kay Kavus –

Kay Kavus and his flying machine
Safavid period – ca. 1590-1600
Freer Gallery of Art

Kai or Kay Kavus was a very vain, very stubborn and very foolish ruler. One day he was approached by a handsome young man who said that the king’s lustrous aura was so great that he should be in the heavens ruling over everything and not on earth. What the king didn’t realize was that the handsome youth was actually a devil in disguise. So, the king had a golden throne built for himself and at each of the four corners he had a hungry eagle attached. Up above he dangled food for these eagles. The took off after it and the throne lifted into the sky. Well, you can imagine the outcome. But you will have to wait until a later post to find out what happened – okay?

Now for the flavors of Japanese clouds –

On the celestial side – heavenly clouds

Hiten (飛天) or flying apsara – late 11th to early 12th century
Burke Collection – Metropolitan Museum of Art

The catalog entry at the Met reads in part:

“Also known in Japan as unchū kuyō bosatsu (Bodhisattvas among the Clouds in Adoration of the Buddha), they are often depicted playing musical instruments.

Hiten are important elements in the representation of the Buddha and his realm. They appear on the rim of mandorlas behind statues of the Buddha and on the walls of Buddha halls, and they are often present in painted images. Examples can be cited from the earliest periods of Buddhist art in Japan… Korea, and China. East Asian hiten are wingless, whereas those from India and Central Asia tend to be winged, and in this respect the latter may be associated with the angels of Christian art, who perhaps evolved from the winged deities of ancient Iran. Unlike angels, hiten seem never to have acquired a spiritual function, nor is their iconography or genealogy clearly understood.”

Later the catalog notes: “The Burke hiten are carved in high relief, their heads rendered almost completely in the round. The disks and the rather fussy ribbons that create the suggestion of movement are later additions.”

Welcoming Descent of the Buddha of Infinite Light and Twenty-five Bodhisattvas
Kamakura period – 14th century
Freer Gallery of Art

The golden clouds of Japan

During the Muromachi period  (室町時代: 1336-1573) clouds became golden and waters were made of silver. Flecks of gold had been used in paintings of clouds as early as the 12th century. By the 17th century there was a fondness for presenting mists with powdered gold.

Attributed to Tosa Mitsuyoshi (1539-1613) – mid-16th to early 17th century
4 panel screen on the theme of The Tale of Genji
Metropolitan Museum of Art

“Scalloped gold cloud bands eliminate unnecessary detail and subdivide the episodes into manageable units.”

Suyari  (すやり霞) – The convention for presenting clouds in band-like forms

Below is an 18th century lacquer writing box or suzuribako (硯箱) given to the Met by the Burke bequest.

Metropolitan Museum of Art

The cover illustrates a Saigyō poem from ca. 1206 from ‘The New Collection of Poems Ancient and Modern’ or Shin kokin wakashū.

Was spring at Naniwa
in Tsu Province
a dream?
Wind blows over the
withered reeds’ leaves.
Translated by Haruo Shirane

Hakone Lake In Sagami Province (相州箱根湖水) – ca. 1830
Katsushika Hokusai (1760-1849)
Museum of Fine Arts, Boston

It was a dark and stormy night…

May Night at Kudanzaka – 1880
by Kobayashi Kiyochika
Museum of Fine Arts, Boston
(I love that low-hanging dark cloud in the center of this print.)

A most untypical cloud – Hasui’s woodblock print of Tega Marsh from 1930

Kawase Hasui
Published by Watanabe Shōzaburō

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