#006 On influences
Many painters, writers, and philosophers grappled with the dilemma of influences throughout their creative lives. Here below I'm going to explore two opposite mindsets, taking advantage of some historic episodes from the Impressionists, while sharing my own thoughts about it.
In 1895, Paul Cézanne, now well into his 56 years old, started to be recognized as an innovative painter and as critics were positively writing about his work, fellow French Impressionists started to care about the issue of influences, and mutual influences, among each other, and how this would be misrepresented by journalists. Camille Pissarro, an impressionist painter who had a close artistic exchange with Cézanne for the past 20 years, wrote his opinions about this topic in a letter to his son:
“Camille Mauclair published an article about Cézanne which I am sending you. You will see that he is ill-informed, like most of those critics who understand nothing. He simply doesn't know that Cézanne was influenced like all the rest of us, which detracts nothing from his qualities. They [the critics] forget that Cézanne was first influenced by Delacroix, Courbet, Manet, and even Legros, like all of us; he was influenced by me at Pontoise, and I by him. You remember those remarks made by Émile Zola and Antoine-Ferdinand Béliard on this issue. They imagined that you could invent painting from scratch and that you could only be original if you looked like no one else. What is curious in that Cézanne exhibition at Vollard's is that you can see the kinship there between some works he did at Auvers or Pontoise, and mine. What do you expect! We were always together! What is certain, though, is that each of us kept the only thing that matters: “one's sensation!” This would be easy enough to demonstrate...What cretins!”1
Two points are worth analyzing from this text. The first is the rational difference between originality and influence. Zola would argue that originality is archived when an artist would an artwork with any sort of external influence as if it would come out from nowhere. Pissarro (and Cézanne) believed instead that every artist was affected by influences and that these influences, in no way, diminish an artist's originality.
The second point is that despite Pissarro's lists of the people who influenced Cézanne, including himself, and in a reciprocal way. What truly matter was the fact that each artist's sensation was intact, unaltered. In spite of influences, each artist can remain true to his own sensibilities.
Very interesting are the following words by Matisse reflecting on the influence Cézanne had on his own work:
“Cézanne, you see, is sort of a god of painting. Dangerous, his influence? So what? Too bad for those without the strength to survive it. Not being strong enough to withstand an influence without weakening is proof of impotence. I will repeat what I once said to Guillaume Apollinaire: For my part, I have never avoided the influence of others, I would have considered it cowardice and lack of sincerity towards myself. I believe the artist’s personality affirms itself by the struggle he has to survive. One would have to be very foolish not to notice the direction in which others work. I am amazed that some people can be so lacking in anxiety as to imagine that they have grasped the truth of their art on the first try. I have accepted influences but I think I have always known how to dominate them.”2
Also, Cézanne himself talked about Pissarro in similar terms:
“As for the old Pissarro, he was a father to me.
He was a man you could turn to for advice; he was something like God.”
I find it interesting to point out that among the cited person, all the painters (Pissarro, Cézanne, and Matisse) agree on the same philosophy, while the writer (Zola) and critic (Mauclair) disagree.
Personally, I believe that Matisse's analysis is spot on and I agree with the painters here. What matters, to me, is to follow your intuitions and create expressions of your own sensibility. Studying past and present artworks is a very positive thing to do as it will school you, nurture you, and may inspire you to do more, to go beyond, and further your own ideas. Since I started studying and then working in visual arts through computer graphics, I used to see a ton of books filled with artworks by amazing talents but never felt let down by it to the point of just giving it all up and “go open a food stand”. (I mean no disrespect here, and I've put that between brackets because this exact thing has been literally suggested to me, by an experienced animator when I was 16...and yeah, it wasn't pleasant to hear, but boy, that gave me a massive push to work ten times harder!)
The following interaction from the movie Whiplash (2014) between Fletcher and Neyman perfectly frames my own beliefs:
Neyman: “But is there a line? You know, maybe you go too far and discourage the next Charlie Parker from ever becoming Charlie Parker?”
Fletcher: “No, man, no. Because the next Charlie Parker would never be discouraged.”
All these influences inspired me and also made me see what was already been done so I was seeking to create different work while trying to match that high quality.
Honestly, without seeing other people's work and success I would have never realized that:
a. There are people actually doing my dream job for a living, so, that's actually possible.
b. That is the quality I have to strive to achieve in order to make it. It kind of gave me a goal to reach. But, of course, I couldn't just copy those 3D models or animations, I had to come up with my own stuff, otherwise, why would a company choose to hire me and not them or anyone else?!?!
The same is applicable to photography, or any other visual art for that matter. You go to photograph the Grand Canyon or a lonely tree in a field: In order to stand out, you got to listen to yourself and find something you individually respond to.
If you find it hard to tap into your own feelings when you are in iconic, possibly even crowded places, and find it difficult to find a personal way to photograph the scenery, try to practice photographing a forest. I know, that would be exactly the opposite, and that's the whole point. Photographing forests is very difficult because it is the most chaotic environment you can find. Sometimes even moving through it is hard. Finding ways to interpret chaos into order will require your mind to be in a higher state of calm and attention and sustain it for long periods of time. Then try to apply the same focusing mechanism in other kinds of environments.
Finally, going back to artists influencing each other, it's common knowledge that Hokusai's ukiyo-e woodblock prints had a massive influence on impressionism in Europe as well as on other Japanese ukiyo-e artists such as Hiroshige and Hasui. Japan used to be a very secluded country for the 200 years preceding the 1850s, therefore very little was used to travel in or out across its border. The first ukiyo-e prints appeared as “wrapping paper” for pottery and porcelain that were exported overseas via the Dutch (the only people trading with Japan at that time). Eventually, this wrapping paper became popular and some traders purchased ukiyo-e woodblock prints as art.
In 1867, ukiyo-e prints were exhibited to represent traditional Japanese art at the World Exposition in Paris. This art and oriental aesthetic were soon called “Japonism”. It had significant influences on Claude Monet, Edouard Manet, Renoir, Van Gogh, and Henri Rivière.
Rivière was particularly inspired by Hokusai's “Thirty-six views of Mt. Fuji”, printed between 1830 and 1832, and went on producing a similar project choosing the Eiffel tower to unify his lithograph series of Paris, called “Thirty-six views of the Eiffel tower” (Les Trente-Six Vues de la tour Eiffel). Although there are many similarities in subject and composition between his and Hokusai's project, Rivière choose to illustrate themes of isolation and alienation in an urban environment that reflected the anxiety over modernization felt by many Parisians at the end of the 19th century. This project represents one of the purest examples of Japonisme in Western art and a remarkable portrait of Paris at the beginning of the twentieth century. Hokusai's influence on Rivière is undeniable, but just as undeniable is Rivière's personal transposition of that aesthetic into his own vision of a modernizing Paris.
1.Pissarro, Correspondances IV,121. Letter to Lucien. November 22, 1895.
2.Borély, 1911, in Cézanne, Conversations, 21
January 27th, 2022