The wind. “that which cannot be painted”

from June 25 to October 02, 2022

Since time immemorial, the wind has presented humankind with a challenge. How can you depict something that is invisible? This exhibition explores the means by which visual artists have tried to solve this conundrum and illustrates how depictions of the wind have evolved through the ages, as our understanding of the wind as a phenomenon has improved.

The invention of cinema, which made it possible to show movement over time, was crucial. Before that, the wind could only be depicted by means of a still image.

The exhibition itinerary features 170 artworks - paintings, drawings, prints, photographs, videos, glassware, etc. - by over 100 artists from classical times to the present day, including Dürer, Goya, Pierre-Henri de Valenciennes, Hiroshige, Hokusaï, Baron Gérard, Turner, Corot, Hugo, Daumier, Millet, Nadar, Boudin, Daum, Monet, Renoir, Gallé, Steinlen, Anquetin, the Lumière brothers, Sorolla, Vallotton, Vlaminck, van Dongen, Raoul Dufy, Arp, Man Ray, Lartigue, Buster Keaton, Brassaï, Gilbert Garcin, Alexandre Hollan, Bernard Moninot, Corinne Mercadier, Philippe Favier, Éric Bourret and Jean-Baptiste Née, ...
The wind. “that which cannot be painted”
How can “that which cannot be painted” be embodied - that which “eludes direct imitation and goes beyond the territory assigned to representation by combining inconsistency with invisibility”? Perhaps the answers featured in this exhibition will show us that “in painting, the wind appears miraculously, like a figurative epiphany, to prove the absolute sovereignty of art.” (Pascale Dubus)

Exhibition Curators
Annette Haudiquet, Director of MuMa
Jacqueline Salmon, photographer
Jean-Christian Fleury, art critic
This exhibition is presented as part of the sixth edition of Un Été Au Havre.
Exhibition produced with the exceptional support of the Musée d’Orsay.

A follow-up exhibition consisting mainly of contemporary artworks, entitled Météores (Weather), which will take place from 19 November 2022 to 5 March 2023.
François GÉRARD, Flore caressée par Zéphyr, 1802, oil on canvas, 169 x 105 cm. . © Ville de Grenoble/Musée de Grenoble- J.L. Lacroix
François GÉRARD, Flore caressée par Zéphyr, 1802, oil on canvas, 169 x 105 cm. . © Ville de Grenoble/Musée de Grenoble- J.L. Lacroix
In Book II of his Meteorologica, Aristote writes that, after demonstrating that there were four elements, his predecessors identified four wind gods among the invisible forces governing the air. Vitruvius’ Architecture (I,6), written two centuries later, includes a town plan that takes wind directions into account. Vitruvious worked from a description of the octagonal Tower of the Winds in Athens designed a few years earlier by the astronomer Andronicus Cyrrhestes: “He set up a bronze figure of Triton with a rod in his right hand. The engine was designed so that when Triton turned, he was always facing the wind that was blowing and pointing the rod in the direction from which it came.” The Tower of the Winds is still standing. Carved on its sides are the oldest surviving depictions of the embodiments of the eight winds with their attributes. Each indicates one of the directions of the weather-vane. On the Athenian Tower of the Winds, science and personification are not mutually exclusive but comfortably rub shoulders.

The wind is embodied by deities in human form. For Alain Corbin, the imaginary conception of the winds based on wind-gods in Greek and Roman mythology and the narratives that stem from it, such as the Odyssey, and later on the Bible, endeavoured to make up for their inexplicability.
The exhibition will explore early responses by artists to the challenge of representing the wind through narrative and personification, which lasted well beyond classical times and the Renaissance and featured characters such as Aeolus, Boreas and Zephyrus, Ulysses battling with adverse winds, and the four Angels of the Apocalypse.

Ludolf  BACKHUYSEN (1630-1708), Seascape, 2nde moitié du XVIIe siècle, oil on canvas, 84.5 x 97.3 cm. . © MuMa Le Havre / Florian Kleinefenn
Ludolf BACKHUYSEN (1630-1708), Seascape, 2nde moitié du XVIIe siècle, oil on canvas, 84.5 x 97.3 cm. . © MuMa Le Havre / Florian Kleinefenn
During the Renaissance, artists tried to devise forms that were equivalent to nature as they observed it. Numerous treatises on painting were written, and the topic of how to depict storms was hugely popular. Leon Battista Alberti described the various movements that occurred when “hair, branches, foliage and cloth” were blown by the wind, warning that “all movements should be measured and easeful and should suggest grace rather than exciting admiration for the painter’s labours.” (De Pictura, 1441)

In the early sixteenth century, Leonardo da Vinci wrote several founding texts about air, storms, the wind, the flight of birds and so on. “The wind itself is not visible,” he wrote. “In the air, we see not the movement of the wind but that of the things it carries away, and only these are visible.” Short essays such as “How to paint the wind” and “How to depict tempests” offered painters practical advice. The question of how to depict the wind is approached via description: the blowing of the wind can only be perceived through its effects. Everything moveable - vegetation, especially trees, raging waves, the angle of boats’ masts, figures battling the wind, and clothing - shows the unseen presence of the wind, sometimes frenzied gusts (there are countless references to “blasts of wind”), sometimes a light, caressing breeze, sometimes a Creator who brings sails and linen to life. These treatises set out rules for depicting the wind that were followed for at least three centuries.

Claude MONET (1840-1926), La Prairie fleurie, 1885, oil on canvas, 65 x 80.5 cm. . ©  Droits réservés
Claude MONET (1840-1926), La Prairie fleurie, 1885, oil on canvas, 65 x 80.5 cm. . © Droits réservés
In the late eighteenth century, as Lavoisier worked to identify the constituents of air and the first hotair balloons floated into the sky, there was a growing interest in landscape painting, nurtured by aesthetic theories of the picturesque and the sublime developed in England by writers such as William Gilpin and Edmund Burke. Raging winds and the havoc they wreaked produced the sensation of delicious horror that epitomized the sublime. Nature buffeted by stormy winds reflected the torments of the soul, and the wind became a topos of Romantic painting.

Thibaut CUISSET (1958-2017), Grand Est. Haut-Rhin, région du Sundgau, Dannemarie (Série des Campagnes françaises), 2016, , 64 x 86 cm. . © ADAGP, Paris 2022
Thibaut CUISSET (1958-2017), Grand Est. Haut-Rhin, région du Sundgau, Dannemarie (Série des Campagnes françaises), 2016, , 64 x 86 cm. . © ADAGP, Paris 2022
The mid-nineteenth century saw advances in meteorology and changes in artistic practices. Painters left their studios to paint outdoors from life. The wind was no longer just an effect they attempted to depict in order to make a scene more dramatic: it was something they physically experienced. Gustave Geffroy met Claude Monet on Belle-Ile-en-Mer in September 1886. He describes the artist as “dressed like coastal dwellers, wearing boots, smothered in jerseys and wrapped in a hooded oilskin. Gusts of wind sometimes [tore] his palette and brushes from his hands. His easel [was] fastened down with ropes and stones.” Open-air painting meant simultaneously experiencing pure movement and attempting to capture its fleetingness in an image that was intrinsically still and framed. Painters tried to find new visual equivalents such as wavy brushstrokes to suggest duration or dissolving shapes that alluded to the notion of the “powderiness of the world”. Now that the wind was real to artists, it was depicted in more homely, less epic terms - playing with washing that had been hung out to dry or adding movement to a scene of a day in the country. It could also be transgressive, lifting ladies’ skirts or making a mockery of decorum and appearances.

Félix VALLOTTON (1865-1925), Le Vent, 1910, oil on canvas, 89.2 x 116.2 cm. . © Courtesy National Gallery of Art, Washington
Félix VALLOTTON (1865-1925), Le Vent, 1910, oil on canvas, 89.2 x 116.2 cm. . © Courtesy National Gallery of Art, Washington
Encounters with Japanese prints rooted in a very different tradition of depictions of the weather from Western stereotypes probably contributed to this change. Artworks by Vallotton, Rivière and Daum show their influence, with striking, highly simplified depictions of weather phenomena, which are often more intense in Japan than in temperate climates.

Louis LUMIERE (1864-1948), Le Repas de bébé, 1895, . © Institut Lumière
Louis LUMIERE (1864-1948), Le Repas de bébé, 1895, . © Institut Lumière
However, it was the invention of the cinematograph shortly afterwards that made it possible to capture the wind by adding the element of duration to the image.

The wind began to feature in cinema footage as early as 1895. In fact, it is so prevalent that it seems to express the substance of the medium. “The wind and cinema... are both absolute movement” writes Benjamin Thomas, emphasizing that “the apparatus that was heir to the study of movement was bound to aspire to the spellbinding beauty of the free variations of the elements” and that “‘becoming wind’allowed [the cinema] to reveal itself completely and instantaneously as the pure, formless movement it was.”

Patrick DAMIOLINI, Hommage au vent, 1983, , 64 x 49 cm. . © Patrick Damiolini / Pascal Victor
Patrick DAMIOLINI, Hommage au vent, 1983, , 64 x 49 cm. . © Patrick Damiolini / Pascal Victor
The fact that the cinema had provided a technical solution to the problem of how to depict the wind did not stop artists from wanting to pit themselves against it and explore its expressive, poetic potencies. Video, more than cinema - where the wind is often subjected to a narrative - gives the artist licence to treat the wind as a subject in its own right, as in artworks by Caroline Duchatelet or Manuela Marques. But other, more traditional media lend themselves equally well to reinterpretations of historical works such as Corinne Mercadier’s take on Jules Marey or Julius Baltazar’s revisiting of works by Victor Hugo, and to novel experiments that enlist the wind and other weather phenomena to play a part in the artwork, as in the work of Bernard Moninot and Jean-Baptiste Née.
MuMa - an ideal setting for an exhibition about the wind
Claude MONET (1840-1926), Effet de vent, série des Peupliers, 1891, oil on canvas, 100 x 74 cm. Paris, musée d’Orsay. © RMN-GP (Musée d’Orsay) / Adrien Didierjean
Claude MONET (1840-1926), Effet de vent, série des Peupliers, 1891, oil on canvas, 100 x 74 cm. Paris, musée d’Orsay. © RMN-GP (Musée d’Orsay) / Adrien Didierjean
MuMa - the Musée d’art moderne André Malraux - was the first French museum to be rebuilt after World War 2. It was opened in 1961 by André Malraux. From the moment it was decided to rebuild the museum, the building was designed to be both a showcase for the collections and a viewing point from which to contemplate the landscape, as shown by its transparent glass walls and superb position overlooking the sea and the harbour entrance. This dual purpose facilitates and enhances visitors’ appreciation of the artworks, most of which illustrate the nineteenth-century predilection for landscape.

The museum’s exhibition programming is partly guided by its collections and the highly novel attention paid to their relationship with the setting. Following on from the previous exhibitions “Waves”, The clouds over there… the wonderful clouds and Impression (s): Sun, this summer, MuMa presents “The Wind. ‘That which cannot be painted.’”, an exhibition about a weather phenomenon whose real effects visitors can observe from behind the glass of the museum’s windows in all their varying strengths, at the same time as taking the opportunity to examine their depictions in the pictures by artists such as Boudin, Courbet and Renoir hanging in its galleries.

“Scholars began to understand the wind during the nineteenth century. Until then, this sonorous emptiness was merely experienced and described via the set of feelings it induced. Inconsistency, instability and evanescence defined this invisible, continuous, unpredictable flux. Because of the wind’s fleeting quality and the vastness it conveyed, people did not really know where it came from or where it went,” writes Alain Corbin.

From the beginning, the wind has been all around us, subjecting us to its power and terrifying rages and offering us its benefits. And from the beginning, humankind has wondered how to conceptualize and depict this familiar yet elusive element. Like air, the wind is invisible. We can feel it, but we perceive it only through the effects it has on the visible world. Even as it shapes and deforms the landscape, the wind continues to elude our sight.

This major exhibition asks how the wind can be painted - how something that is by its very nature invisible can be depicted. It encompasses artworks from a wide range of disciplines - painting, drawing, printmaking, archaeology, photography, glassblowing, sculpture, cinema and video - spanning the whole of history in a way that illustrates the continuing fascination of the challenge to depict what cannot be seen and the poetic power of the wind.