By Farley Sanderford
This topic I will, in an intentionally ironic way, be writing about in a series of posts. There is so much to say, and I am also incredibly wordy, so thank you in advance for bearing with me as I try to work through the details.
What is a series as it relates to art? Why do artists make a series of works? What purposes do artists hope to accomplish in a series that a standalone piece would not? What ideas and notions about time, space, sequence, and order might an artist consider while making a series? What have artists from the near and distant past both said about the notion of series, and also created as examples of series in their mediums?
The series in art is something that has interested me since I began my thesis project in graduate school around six years ago. Something I took away from all that research was that generally, there is a false idea that the past is clear, linear, and developmental in nature. However, the past is instead complex, concurrent, and not moving toward a specific goal.
This doesn’t even include the fact that history is always written by the victors, so there were whole narratives and experiences that were not considered, many not until recently. The erroneous kind of thinking I’m describing is present in just about every field of study within the social sciences, and perhaps even in other fields as well. But, on the other hand, it makes sense that some historians seek to impose order and linearity, even if it doesn’t naturally exist, onto events and circumstances of the past. As the creation of God, it is in our nature to seek out order, as well as to see the experiences of people as stories.
Visual art is at the same time a portrayal of the events of history, part of the cultural context of that history, a reaction to or against the events and culture of the time in which it was created, and a personal display of the artist, with all of their individual context as well as the collective memory of the artist’s heritage. As a result, the art that is created is subject to many belief systems in both its creation and its reception.
Add to that the collection of works in the form of a series, and there is yet another layer of narrative and context by which to examine the works of art. So, in summation, when examining a series of artistic works, oversimplification is incredibly problematic and counterintuitive to the very nature of the work. A series is never simply a sequential and linear group of images that depict a narrative in perfect order. To put events and experiences onto a visual timeline of sorts is detrimental to the study of art and art history.
With these ideas in mind, let’s consider a favorite series of mine, though by one of my not-so-favorite artists: the Rouen Cathedral series painted by Claude Monet. I know, he’s one of the famous old guys, but Impressionism just doesn’t normally do it for me. But these paintings of Rouen Cathedral, they’re pretty incredible, especially when they’re all put together.
There are around thirty paintings of the same view of the Cathedral, from the same vantage point, but at different times and on different days. He painted them over the course of a year (1893-1894), then took them back to his studio to adjust the following year. This act of painting outside and using the natural light is a technique called en plein air, which was increasing in popularity during the time when the Impressionists were active.
The choppy brush strokes and focus on color and light, as opposed to realism and linear perspective and form, was a technique, in my opinion, that portrayed the exterior spaces in a really amazing way. The Impressionists, overall, trumped light and color over line and form. In these paintings of the cathedral, Monet focused on the play of the light against the surfaces and the shadows that were cast in different ways as the sun rose and fell.
This particular series of paintings interests me because the artist used the same perspective and the same location, yet he captured so many things with his unrealistic use of color. The artist tells a story through shade and short brush strokes. Each painting captures a moment in time, and I see some parallels to how we experience events in our lives.
We experience things often through a single vantage point, but as we’re able to put those events together, they can link together in a narrative that describes our past. As we look back on those moments, they often tell a story. In the moment, we take in information through our senses, but as we ruminate over those events and experiences at a later time, we process that information and bring them to order.
This is how we were made. We are naturally inclined to impose order, and we tell narratives when we share our stories. We synthesize information, emphasize what’s important, and share our experiences through the telling of stories. Yet, when we are taking in the information processed through our senses, we are physically present in a single moment in time.
That’s precisely what’s happening in Monet’s series.
He painted Rouen, at specific moments in time, using his senses to receive the information. Then, when we put the paintings together, they are a story of the artist’s moment by moment experiences. Often times, the paintings are arranged in an order that follows the movement of the sun from morning to evening. I prefer to consider the paintings together as more of a collage instead of linearly. Each point in time and each painting is connected to the other, and there is still order, but it’s more how my own mind works.
All the moments can be observed simultaneously, and thus, compared and contrasted, and experienced together. Even so, each moment captured on the canvas is in and of itself a single work on its own. But each painting’s significance is increased when considered within the relationship to the others.