Monday, October 17, 2016

Forsberg's "Death of a Hero"

A secret to good composition is to group and simplify the tones. But the tonal organization must serve the story. 

Let's look at an example, along with my pencil sketch.

Nils Forsberg (1842-1934) La Fin d’un héros (Death of a Hero) 1888
Oil, 300 x 450 cm, Stockholm, Nationalmuseum

Story
At the moment of his death, a war hero is slumped on his improvised bedding. The setting is a church. A priest gives him last rites. His wife or mother grieves at the foot of the bed. His fellow soldiers pay last respects. On the left are other wounded patients laid out on other beds.

Tonal structure
The dying hero is the crux of the design. He is a light shape surrounded by the light-toned bedding. Those light patches are shape-welded to the illuminated vertical column behind his bed. 

I don't know if it was intentional, but that column ascends like an elevator to heaven. The only other light-toned figures are the altar boy with the candle and the attending priest. 

The rest of the mortals are mostly dark. The ailing figures on beds on the left are enveloped in darkness. Wherever possible, dark tones are grouped into large shapes to simplify the design. 

Perhaps I'm reading into it a bit, but the light seems to be associated with spiritual life or afterlife or redemption, and the darkness seems to be associated with mortality and suffering. The point is that tonal organization isn't just a design issue, it's also a story issue
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Previously: Shape Welding

12 comments:

David Webb said...

James, I don't think you're reading into it. There's definitely a message in there.

I don't think there was much left to chance here. I imagine there would have been umpteen design sketches made of this ( much like you're one here) before a final decision was made.

There are some great examples of 'shape welding' in the work of the Glasgow Boys, such as James Guthrie's Highland Funeral.

Kunst Kommt Von Können said...

James, his name is Forsberg, not Forberg

A Colonel of Truth said...

Good artists do not "accidently" include (nor omit) anything. And good analysts miss neither. On the mark, James.

Norman said...

Insightful analysis and such a great exercise to sketch studies from great paintings.

Thanks,

Norman

Luca said...

A very interesting advice, as always! :) but i noticed - perhaps it's just how my screen shows it - that, by simplifying, you somehow switched the value of the upper part of the wall above the head (which goes toward a darker value) and the one behind the isolated man with the beard, which is quite light: in your beautiful sketch, the background behind the man is very dark and the wall behind the bed all very bright, which creates the "elevation" result. I suppose that in some inconscious way you were thinking to, i don't know, soul going to Heaven and it reflected on how you simplified the values, which is a subjective step i think. :) Anyway, there's surely a kind of deep meaning here, but since the floor is very bright, like under a spotlight, i think that the painter was thinking to God's light from above, more than soul going up, but more or less the meaning it's the same. Sorry for the long reply!

Tom Hart said...

For what it's worth, I find my eye drawn to the altar boy a bit more strongly than to the dying hero. Probably because the contrast of the boys surplice - especially his near shoulder - to the dark area surrounding him is so great.

Jim Douglas said...

Tom Hart,
I agree the altar boy becomes a rival or even dominant focal point of the painting. Perhaps that makes for a deeper and more meaningful reading of the image:

The dying hero, whose silhouette is mostly lost in the bed sheets, is already dematerializing into the light and ascending into the next world. In contrast, the altar boy's shape is clearly defined; he remains a body in this world with much of his life yet to live. The boy is a bright and innocent figure surrounded by the potential darkness of mortality and suffering. What future will he choose for himself? Will he learn something from the dying hero? The flickering of his candle flame symbolizes a pensive mind.

This is a powerful painting I had never seen before. Thanks for the introduction, Mr. Gurney.

Tom Hart said...

Very well put, Jim Douglas. Thanks for that.

A Colonel of Truth said...

And then there's the wonderful balance of reds.

Christian Schlierkamp said...

Great lesson! Thanks a lot, Jim!

Paul Ashford said...

Great Posts

Mark Martel said...

The light altar boy against dark and the dark man against light also suggest good & evil, youth and age. I also see the suggestion of the top of a cross in the floor and wall. It can also be a balance scale.