Wind in the sails of art history
About the exhibition "Le vent - Cela qui ne peut être peint" (The Wind - That which cannot be painted), until 2 October at the MuMa in Le Havre.
Projecting smoke into a box to make the air streams visible is the kind of experiment that the physiologist Jules-Etienne Marey was already conducting between 1899 and 1902. It is also the kind of experiment that the photographer Corinne Mercadier, represented by the Binome art gallery in Paris, took up in 2022 to produce a painting on glass with a digital file, entitled "Aux quatre vents" and belonging to the series "La Nuit magnétique". This is one of 170 works of art to be discovered in Le Havre until 2 October, evoking an element as fascinating as it is invisible, in the exhibition "The Wind - That which cannot be painted" proposed by the André Malraux Museum of Modern Art, or MuMa. "The wind has inhabited our myths since the beginning of time," explains Malika Bauwens in the summer issue of Beaux-Arts Magazine.
Paintings, drawings, sculptures, archaeological objects, photos, videos... the curators Annette Haudiquet, director of the MuMa, Jacqueline Salmon, photographer, and Jean-Christophe Fleury, art critic, have masterfully brought together a number of works that bear witness to the determination of artists from Antiquity to the present day to represent the wind. In this museum, which faces the sea spray, they have designed an invigorating and breathtaking tour. Here the storms rise or the breeze blows its lightness... In any case the atmospheric experience is total, just after the exhibitions that the MuMa had devoted to waves and clouds.
If you look up the definition of meteor on the internet, you will immediately come across a description of this geological formation in northern Greece, which has been home to Orthodox Christian monasteries since the 14th century. But the word meteor also refers to any atmospheric phenomenon that can be observed, with the exception of clouds. The wind is therefore a meteor. It entered artists' studios at the same time as the Quattrocento brought in its wake the notions of perspective, three-quarter portraits or the representation of emotions... And speaking of emotions, what could be better than a gust of wind to make you feel the calm before the storm? To make you shiver with anxiety? To make an adventure seem breathtaking? Whether they are cinematographic or plastic, works of art were not going to protect themselves from the wind!
In short, giving form to the invisible is the immemorial challenge that the wind has faced artists, and it is to the solutions they have brought to this paradox that the MuMa has chosen to devote its sixth edition of "Un été au Havre". The focus is on the plastic forms developed by artists over the centuries, as our understanding of this meteor becomes more precise. More than a hundred works are on display, including works by Dürer, Goya, Pierre-Henri de Valenciennes, Hiroshige, Hokusai, Baron Gérard, Turner, and others, Baron Gérard, Turner, Corot, Hugo, Daumier, Millet, Nadar, Etcheverry, Caillebotte, Boudin, Daum, Monet, Renoir, Gallé, Steinlein, Anquetin, the Lumière brothers, Sorolla, Vallotton, Vlaminck, van Dongen, R. Dufy, Arp, Man Ray, Lartigue, B. Keaton, Brassaï, Gilbert Garcin, Alexandre Hollan, Bernard Moninot, Corinne Mercadier, Philippe Favier, Eric Bourret, Jean-Baptiste Née, Thibault Cuisset, Véronique Ellena...
Paintings, drawings, prints, photographs, videos, engravings, glass... an invigorating breeze blows over artistic creation from Antiquity to contemporary art, even if we had to wait for the invention of cinema to be able to capture its movement in time. So that the wind is no longer merely suggested by its fixed image.
For the wind can be seen in the effects it causes in "hair, branches, foliage, fabrics", noted Leon Battista Alberti in his treatise "De Pictura" in 1441. Artists now devoted themselves to the meticulous observation of nature, and the personification of the invisible meteor in Zephyr, Boreas, Aeolus, the angels of the Apocalypse and other Ulysses struggling with the contrary winds was no longer enough. Leonardo da Vinci took over from Alberti at the beginning of the 16th century, devoting several fundamental texts to the air, the storm, the wind, the flight of birds, etc. The wind itself is not visible," wrote Leonardo da Vinci. "We see in the air, not the movement of the wind, but that of the things it carries away, which alone are visible in it.
"How to paint the wind" or "How to paint the storm" are not questions posed by the Tuscan master in 1492, but short essays with practical advice for young painters. One thing is clear: the wind is only perceptible through its effects. Trees bend, bodies struggle, ships' masts lean into the fury of the waves... and everything is nuanced when it comes to depicting a light caressing breeze or a frantic gust. Leonardo da Vinci's treatises will thus set the codes for the representation of the wind for at least three centuries.
At the end of the 18th century, with the advent of Romantic painting, nature, agitated by tempestuous winds, became the reflection of the torments of the soul, while Lavoisier established the composition of air and the first aerostats rose into the sky. The taste for landscape painting was affirmed, nourished by the aesthetic theories of the picturesque and the sublime developed in England by William Gilpin and Edmund Burke in particular. Japonism and the importance given to meteors such as rain, wind or snow in Japanese prints were to influence 19th century painters.
Soon, William Turner would have himself tied to a mast in the middle of a stormy sea, Eugène Boudin would wrap himself up to face in Normandy "the dreadful weather on the coasts where the wind reigns without a break", Vincent Van Gogh would bury the legs of his easel in the ground by fixing them to an iron stake to face the mistral, in Arles, and Claude Monet would moor his easel with ropes and stones in Belle-Île-en-Mer. Artists wanted to confront the elements. And the wind began to be understood by scientists. It is no longer an effect that one seeks to represent, a figurative auxiliary responsible for increasing the dramatic character of a scene. It is physically experienced.