Sfumato in contemporary painting?

Most of you who had some sort of art history education must have heard of sfumato. Think Leonardo da Vinci and his revolutionary painting technique consisting of obscuring lines or borders to create soft and mellow transitions between shades and colours; basically using high contrast and diffused light. It was his way of rendering the “mystery of life”. Now my question is: what about sfumato in contemporary painting? Is it enough to just make a blurry painting à la Gerhard Richter to create sfumato effects?

Sfumato comes from the Italian ‘sfumare’ which means  “to tone down” or “to evaporate like smoke”.  Take a look at the background landscape of the world’s most famous painting and you’ll see this subtle transition light to dark areas which evokes a hazy feeling whilst adding a gloria of enigma to facial features as if they were seen through a veil.

Leonordo da Vinci - Mona Lisa

It is not the role of this blog to give expert lectures on art history techniques, but in a nutshell, sfumato could be summarised to the “no brush” technique.  By using X-rays, scientists discovered how da Vinci perfected his technique by using 40 layers of ultra-thin layers of glaze and paint. They suspect he used his fingers as absolutely not a single brushstroke can be identified. The way da Vinci managed this near-perfection has long been a mystery for art historians.

Gerhard Richter - Landscape near Hubbelrath (1969)

Gerhard Richter is known for his “out-of-focus” trademark. Whether for representations of landscapes, still-life or portraits but also for his abstract pieces, Richter gives a blurred and hazy appearance to his paintings. No one before applied such a systematic blurry  approach to his work as Richter does. None of the Turners, Monets or Renoirs, who created a flowing unity among colours, went as far as managing this “perfect” blur (although unlike da Vinci he uses dry brushes to “feather” wet paint or in somes cases scrapes into the drying portrait with a ruler or spatula).

Gerhard Richter - Selfportrait

When I first encountered the work of Sophie Pigeron, I had the reflex to say ‘Ah Gerhard Richter’, by the sight of all those blurry paintings. But by giving it a closer look, I realised that Sophie draws the “blur” concept much further as she focuses on details of the “hazy” landscapes to the point of flirting with abstract painting. She wipes out details and points of focus completely so that the painter’s hand vanishes. Sophie deliberately called her series Sfumato and lay claim to the Renaissance technique. Yet, through her use of saturated colours such as fluorescent pink, her paintings are also reminiscent of graffiti street art and contemporary culture.

As we have set forth already, there is a certain return of the pathos and the emotions in today’s contemporary art and Sophie Pigeron’s work typically encourage the viewer to contemplate and remain puzzled by her work, which similarly to da Vinci, attempt to render the “mystery of life”.  As colours blend with light, it is for the beholder to fill in the detail with the help of his sensibility, personal memories and imagination.

Just as I decided to write on Sfumato and ‘blurry’ painting, I heard that there is currently a exhibition at the Hamburger Kunsthalle called “Out of Focus. After Gerhard Richter“, which runs until 22 May 2011. The exhibition description refers to “the tradition of European painting since the fifteenth century, like for example in the sfumato-technique of Leonardo da Vinci.” The exhibition offers a closer, coherent look at this stylistic principle by presenting the paintings and photographic works by 21 artists all born after-1960 together with 21 works of Gerhard Richter. It shows how the artists used different kinds of blurring in various combination as a part of their pictorial language.


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