Tag Archives: 20th century art

Andrew Wyeth – Three Master Aground, 29 May 1939

3 Sep

“Set sail in those turquoise days…”

(Echo and the Bunnymen, Turquoise Days)

Andrew Wyeth, Three Master Aground, 29 May 1939, watercolour and pencil on paper

This gloomy watercolour by Andrew Wyeth instantly struck a chord with me because it brought to mind the solitary landscapes of the German Romantic painter Caspar David Friedrich and the moody music of Echo and the Bunnymen’s second album “Heaven Up Here” (1981) which is an all time favourite of mine, and I especially savour it in this time of the year. As someone who is continually seeking the connections between painting and rock music, literature and art, music and literature etc, this is a perfect match in mood, for the sounds of the “Heaven Up Here” transport me to a wet, solitary beach where the sea and the sky meet in a kiss while the dusk is slowly taking over… Wyeth’s watercolour strongly conveys a similar mood, at least to me because the colours are beautifully chosen.

Wyeth, who usually had a penchant for taking an ordinary motif and transforming it into an extraordinary one, took a simple motif of a three master or a ship with three masts and painted a stunning watercolour using a palette of only a few colours, but visually strong and captivating ones. The ship is leaning on its right, the sea waves are strong, they are cradling the ship as if it were a baby in the crib. The nature can easily destroy something man-made, even if it is as big as the ship, and it’s easy to see just how powerless and meaningless the small human figures are compared to the vastness of the sea. The figures here almost appear to be melting into the rest of the scene and they bring to mind the figures in Caspar David Friedrich’s melancholy seascape painting though Wyeth’s watercolour is more dynamic and expressive than meditative and dreamy. The combination of the dark colours and the whimsical, playful way the watercolour seemed to be painting itself creates a contrast that stimulates and excites our eyes.

The liquid and often capricious medium of watercolour is perfect for this kind of a scene because it vividly portrays the sea waves, better than a dry medium of pastel would, for example. When you gaze at these dark and murky waters you know they were painted with water, you can imagine the brush heavy with drops of rich colour hitting the surface of the paper and leaving a rich, dense trace which grows paler as the stroke gets longer… The greedy paper takes in the colour just as the sand on the beach drinks in the water of the sea. I feel that watercolour can translate the mood of melancholy, isolation and gloom better than other mediums. Wyeth was only twenty-two years old when he painted this watercolour; the same age as Echo and the Bunnymen’s singer Ian McCulloch when he sang the lines “set sail in those turquoise days…” from the above mentioned album. In 1937, at the age of twenty, Wyeth had his first one-man exhibition of mostly monochromatic watercolours. Seeing the gorgeous “Three Master Aground” we needn’t be surprised that the exhibition was a huge success and that all the watercolours were sold.

Egon Schiele – Sunflowers, 1909

3 Mar

Amidst those golden
Flowers of melancholy
The spirit is ruled
By silent darkness.

Egon Schiele, Sunflowers, 1909, oil on canvas, 150×30 cm (59×11 3/4)

The elongated format of this painting is very unusual and thrilling, but it isn’t the only thing which makes this painting fascinating. Vincent van Gogh is responsible for immortalising the motif of the sunflower in his wonderful paintings full of ecstatic yellow colour and rough brushstrokes, but Egon Schiele painted quite a few “portraits”of this flower as well. In Schiele’s paintings, the sunflower isn’t just a bright yellow flower, in fact it looks almost completely the opposite. Both Schiele’s nudes and sunflowers are skinny, fragile, melancholy, broken creatures. Despite the extremely vertical format of the painting, there still doesn’t seem to be enough room for the sunflower to grow. The space around the sunflower, although devoid of any background or ornamentation, appears restrictive, almost claustrophobic. There is no room to grow, no room to rise his head up towards the sun. It is hard to believe that such a thin, frail stem can hold such a large head of the flower, dark like the night and heavy with dreams. Trapped on that canvas with no fellow flowers for company, the sunflower is all alone, isolated and lonely. Schiele’s paintings of flowers are always psychological portraits. The mood, the form, the drab autumnal colours are pure poetry and speak more than words can. Despite the visual eloquence of Schiele’s painting, I would still like to share Georg Trakl’s poem “The Sunflowers”:

You golden sunflowers,
Feelingly bowed to die,
You humble sisters
In such silence
Ends Helian’s year
Of mountainous cool.
And the kisses
Make pale his drunken brow
Amidst those golden
Flowers of melancholy
The spirit is ruled
By silent darkness.

This is one of Schiele’s early works, painted at the age of nineteen maybe even eighteen, when he was still experimenting and finding his style. The vertical format is the only thing that connects him with Klimt and thus with Secession and Japonisme as well. The way Schiele uses colour and line is already unique and striking. Bellow is an example of Japanese art of the same vertical format because the format was taken from Japanese art. Interestingly, in Shunso’s artwork the leaves and branches of the tree give the impression that the space is stretching out, outside the bounds of the artwork. In Schiele’s painting the space seems to be closing in on the sunflower.

Hishida Shunso, Black Cat, a Meiji Silk Painting, 1910, colours on silk, 150×51 cm

Tamara de Lempicka and Marianne Stokes – Slavic Girls

23 Jan

Tamara de Lempicka, The Polish Girl, 1933

I am not a big fan of Tamara de Lempicka’s paintings. I do find her life story terribly fascinating and her paintings peculiar and interesting, but her style of painting doesn’t appeal to me personally. Still, this painting of a Polish girl has been haunting my mind for weeks now; there’s just something about it which lures me, it seems. This Polish girl’s plump red lips and large steel blue eyes might otherwise be seductive and alluring, but in this painting they ooze a coldness that makes one hesitate to approach her, even gaze at her. She looks like a living statue; monumental, cold and untouchable. The portrait is closely cropped and she dominates the canvas, there is nothing else to look at but her. The light is hitting her pale, beautifully sculpted face from bellow, and this makes me think of the black and white photographs of glamorous movie stars such as Hedy Lamarr. The frizzy little locks of her blonde hair almost look as if they are paper cut-outs and her hands look like they belong to a wooden doll. Her white shawl with red flowers may appear as part of traditional clothes at first, but in this portrait it doesn’t give off that vibe of familiarity, tradition and warmth. There’s an impenetrable shield of coldness and mystery around this Polish girl. Marianne Stokes’ painting of a Slovak girl this time, is also a portrait of a Slavic girl in traditional attire and yet the mood and the style are completely different. Stokes painted this portrait during her travels to Hungary in 1905 and I’ve written about that here. Seen from the profile, this Slovak girl’s blue eyes are also looking somewhere in the distance. Neither of the girls in portraits are directly looking at the viewer, they are both caught on the canvas and captured, or rather, their beauty is captured. Elaborate headgear graces her head and a plethora of shiny beaded necklaces adorns her neck, and yet she doesn’t seem the least bit haughty with all that adornment, she doesn’t seem to be aware of her beauty and splendour. She seems to me like a beautiful and rare forest animal, unaware of how beautiful she truly is and how special and rare. Interestingly, usually the illusion of volume is here to make the painting seem more alive and real, and here the Stokes’ painting is more flat and yet it seems more realistic because De Lempicka’s illusion of volume is too exaggerated. Two very different artists, two very different styles, and still the motif is the same; a portrait of a Slavic girl.

Marianne Stokes, Slovak Girl in Sunday Attire, 1909

Adrian Stokes – Sketches from Hungary

13 Jan

“Hungary is less frequented by foreign visitors than other great countries of Europe; still, it has charms beyond most In spite of modern development— in many directions—the romantic glamour of bygone times still clings about it, and the fascination of its peoples is peculiar to them.”

(Adrian Stokes, Hungary)

Adrian Stokes, View from our Windows in Vazsecz, 1905-09

As I said in my previous post about Marianne Stokes’ paintings of girls in traditional clothes, Adrian and Marianne were a painterly couple who loved to travel and in 1905 their travels took them to Hungary. While Adrian focused mostly on portraying the beauty of the landscapes, small cottages, meadows and poplar trees, his wife Marianne focused on capturing the local people with their interesting faces and vibrant traditional clothes. They returned to Hungary again in 1907 and 1908, and in October of 1909 Adrian published a book about their travels titled simply “Hungary” which is accompanied by the illustrations of both of them. Adrian Stokes’ paintings are not as interesting to me as those of Marianne Stokes because often portraits tend to delight me more than landscapes do, but in this instance, their paintings make a perfect pair because they unite the motifs of peasants and the villages they lived in. Here is a passage from the introduction to Stokes’ book “Hungary” which gives a little background information about the country:

Various races inhabit the land, but the Magyars — proud, intelligent, and full of vitality—dominate it. The entire population is about 20 millions, of which, approximately, 9 are Magyars ; 5, Slavs ; 3, Rumanians ; 2, Germans ; and 1, various others. Though these races are much interspersed, the richly fertile central plains have become the home of the Magyars ; Slavs occupy outlying parts of the country, and Croatia ; Rumanians, hills and mountains to the east and south-east; Germans, the lower slopes of the great Carpathians, a large part of Transylvania, and the neighbourhood of Styria and Lower Austria. Gipsies and Jews are to be met with nearly everywhere. The landscape is of great variety. Vast plains, bathed in hazy sunlight, where great rivers glide on their way to the East ; wooded hills and rushing streams ; lovely lakes ; sombre forests, from which grim mountains rear their huge grey shoulders in the clear air, are all to be found; and dotted about may be seen figures that recall the illustrations in an old-world Bible.

Adrian Stokes, Rumanian Cottages in Transylvania, c 1909

I enjoyed Adrian’s impressions of the travel perhaps even more than I enjoyed the paintings themselves. His writing is very poetic and he is observant for details and the world around him, both nature and interesting people. Travel from Transylvania to Tátra:

It was a long and tedious railway journey, lasting all one night and half the next day. I remember moonlit rivers and little whitewashed cots with tall thatched roofs, dark as sealskin, and here and there an orange light in a window, and, behind all, deeptoned mountains and the stars. A friendly fellow-passenger told us when we at last entered the Tatra, winding our way among hills richly wooded with beech and oak. We had passed Kassa and its beautiful Gothic church, and went on to Tatra Lomnicz, changing at Poprad, whence one can drive to the wondrous ice-caves of Dobschauer ; but, unfortunately, we did not do so. It was near Poprad that we had our first view of the mighty central range of Carpathians, rising grim and grey from a level plain. They stretch from east to west for about thirty miles, and lesser chains continue, or run parallel with them. (…)

In the Tatra the air is fresh and invigorating. Clearly defined clouds move across blue skies by day, and at sunset the great mountain formations stand sharply silhouetted against an intense light. The scent of pines is everywhere. To many of us pine-forests, with their long serrated edges, and individual trees, each very much resembling the rest, are at first unsympathetic, but by the dwellers in Central and Southern Europe they are beloved. For them they mean health and holidays. As the seaside and salt sea-breezes have from childhood been to us, so for them are pine-clad slopes and the delicious air of mountain regions.

Adrian Stokes, The Carpathian Mountains from Lucsivna-Fürdő, c 1905-1909

It is interesting how Adrian Stokes saw the nature and especially woods beneath the Carpathian Mountains as wild, untainted by civilisation; a primal heaven lost in the west, while at the same time people who lived there and experienced its isolation and harsh living conditions scarcely felt that mystical flair. Czech writer Karel Čapek’s novel “Hordubal” (1933), for example, is set in Carpathian Ruthenia and reading the novel you feel that apart from drinking there is absolutely nothing to do there because it’s such a desolate and poor area, far away from anything interesting or fun. These tall birches in Stokes’ painting above look awe inspiring and dreamy and in his book he explains the name “fürdő”:

The Hungarian word fürdő —meaning bath — seems to occur here of itself. It is usually affixed to the names of watering-places, as in Lucsivnafiirdo, a place near birch-woods, which we had seen from the train and decided to visit. We went one morning, and liked it so well that we made arrangements to stay there on leaving Vazsecz. But that was not yet to be.

Adrian Stokes, Menguszfalva, 1905-1909

Adrian Stokes, Harvest Time in Transylvania, c 1905-1909

Adrian Stokes, Haytime, Upper Hungary, c 1905-1909

Marianne Stokes, A Cottage at Zsdjar, 1905-1909

Marianne Stokes – Portraits of Girls in Traditional Clothing

8 Jan

Marianne Stokes, Young Girl of Zsdjar in Sunday Clothes, 1909

English painter Adrian Stokes and his Austrian-born wife Marianne Stokes (born as Marianne Preindlsberger) loved to paint and travel and in 1905 they made their first journey to Hungary, then part of the grand yet decaying Austria-Hungarian Empire. They traveled throughout the villages and wilderness, soaking in the beauty of nature and reveling in the richness and vibrancy of the diverse cultures in such a small geographical area. They used what they saw to fuel their artistic imagination and they captured the last shine of the Empire which collapsed soon afterwards, at the outbreak of the First World War.

While Adrian focused mostly on portraying the beauty of the landscapes, small cottages, meadows and poplar trees, his wife Marianne focused on capturing the local people with their interesting faces and vibrant traditional clothes. They returned to Hungary again in 1907 and 1908, and in October of 1909 Adrian published a book about their travels titled simply “Hungary” which is accompanied by the illustrations of both of them. The book was a fantastic read. It was truly a window into the lost world and forgotten world, veiled in nostalgia and dreams. I am not saying that Adrian romanticised their travels, no, he was quite perceptive and realistic, but in contrast to how things are today, I cherish the tradition that still existed in those days, a world before modernisation. Nowadays you couldn’t recongnise the people in the villages by the different clothes they wear, girls wouldn’t be dressed in those beautiful clothes, they would all be wearing jeans and t-shirt like the rest of the Europe.

Marianne Stokes, A Rumanian Bridesmaid, 1905

Marianne Stokes, Young Girl of Menguszfal Going to Church, 1909

Now let me give you a little outline of their journey so you can drew yourself a map in your head; they started in Marianne’s homeland Austria, travelled over Orsova to a Slovak village Vazsecz, Lucsivna-Furdo, a Hungarian cathedral town Kalocsa, across Croatia to a seaside town called Fiume, they also visited Zsdjar, Desze, Budapest, Bacs, Lake Balaton and of course Transylvania. Although people in the villages were generally nice to the painterly couple, it proved to be difficult to find peasants who would sit and be models for Marianne. How funny, in some instances it would be considered glamorous and desirable to be an artist’s model and muse, but these peasant girls couldn’t care less about it, they lead their own happy lives not even knowing what art movements are being made miles and miles away in Paris and Vienna. Here is what Adrian writes about this model-finding-problem:

Models being so difficult to obtain in Csorba-to, we determined to explore the villages down below —useless, everyone said, as it was quite impossible for civilized beings to stay there. However, we had tried the highly recommended places, from Lomnicz, * Pearl of the Tatra,’ onwards, without finding what we sought, and felt inclined to take the bit in our teeth and break away from convention on our own account. On learning our intention, the landlord most kindly gave us an introduction to three ladies living in the village of Vazsecz, and there we went on the Feast of SS. Peter and Paul. We arrived during service in the Calvinist church, and waited about to see the people leave. When they did we could hardly believe our eyes, so strange and charming were they. Had we been in China or Tibet, nothing more surprising could have appeared.

The women and girls, tall and slim, wore short, clinging, many-pleated skirts—generally of indigo colour, with a pale yellow pattern on them—which reached just below their knees ; top boots, black or white ; bright bodices ; and hugely puffed-out white linen sleeves. Their pretty caps were hidden under gaily coloured handkerchiefs, round their necks were multitudes of beads, and each carried a large prayer-book with metal clasps and a little nosegay of scented herbs. They stood in groups, amused that we should look at them, and then, like timid animals, ran away.

Marianne Stokes, Misko, 1909

I would love to know the background about the people that Marianne portrayed but unfortunately, most of these “exotic” and lovely girls remain mysterious and anonymous, their names, characters and lives were not recorded for the history even though their intricate clothes were captured on canvas, but here is a painting of an amiable blue-eyed boy called Misko and Adrian wrote a little bit about him in his book:

Among my wife’s models was a boy named Misko—a dear little fellow nine or ten years old. Babyhood seemed still to linger about his eyes and mouth, but in spirit he was a labourer and a politician, as the red feather in his hat proclaimed him. Misko was amiable when not asked to sit. He underwent the martyrdom of posing twice, but nothing would induce him to come again. He willingly consented, however, to be our guide for four or five miles over the hills to the Black Vag, where we were going for a day’s fishing, and a gallant little cavalier he was! He spread branches and leaves in wet places for my wife to walk over, and offered his help at every difficulty on her path. At lunch, when we had given him a share of our cold chicken, he remained quietly at a little distance until he had unwrapped his own food, consisting of bread and a thick piece of bacon. He then cut the best part out of the middle of the bacon and came to offer it to us. My wife found it a joy to be with him, and I was able to proceed with my fishing without feeling that she was neglected.

Marianne Stokes, Slovak Girl in Sunday Attire, 1909

Here’s another description of a Slovak girl and her attire: “How pleasingly different was the spotless appearance of the Slovak girl who burst into our room each morning without knocking, her feet bare, her neck glistening with beads, and in her hands wooden pails full of sparkling water! Every day it seemed a fresh surprise for her that we could not speak the language with which she was familiar, and she would show two rows of exquisitely white teeth in smiles which seemed to express pity combined with wonder.” All in all, I can say that Marianne beautifully captured the girls and their clothes in world now lost, and these paintings are not only an artistic achievement but are also valuable for ethnology. I must also note that the dates give to paintings are not entirely accurate, but more approximate, but that isn’t a problem in this case. I really love the “Rumanian Bridesmaid” girl painted from the profile and holding a candle, and the Rumanian girl with a garlic-necklace captivates me as well, probably because of her red hair. Which one is your favourite?

Marianne Stokes, A Rumanian Maiden, 1909

Marianne Stokes, Romania – Garlic Seller, 1909

Marianne Stokes Rumanian Children bringing Water to be Blessed in the Greek Church, Desze, 1909

Marianne Stokes, An Engaged Couple, ‘Misko and Maruska’ at Menguszfalva, 1909

Marianne Stokes, The Confirmation Wreath, 1909

Marianne Stokes, The Bridal Veil, 1909

Marianne Stokes, Slovak Woman Singing a Hymn, 1909

Marianne Stokes, A Slovak Woman at Prayer, Vazcecz, Hungary, 1907

Harry Shokler: Waterfront – Brooklyn

13 Dec

The skyscrapers were beautiful. They did not seem like mere corporate shells. They were monuments to the arrogant yet philanthropic spirit of America. The character of each quadrant was invigorating and one felt the flux of its history. The old world and the emerging one served up in the brick and mortar of the artisan and the architects.”
(Patti Smith, Just Kids)

Harry Shokler, Waterfront – Brooklyn, ca. 1934

A big city is never as dreary, lonely and miserable as in winter months, and yet, in those desolate times, some artists are capable of finding a certain magic and these paintings of New York City in snow by American painter Harry Shokler are an example of such beauty. “Waterfront – Brooklyn” shows a Brooklyn port, busy despite the cold weather and snow. I bet there was nothing poetic about this scene in real life, just coldness and misery, but through the eyes of the artist the scene is transformed into a harmony of white, greys and browns. The drab industrial part of the city becomes a place where all hope is placed because the workers and the industry will pull the country out of the economic depression of the thirties. Streets, rooftops and cars are all covered with a layer of snow, but the workers are threading their way through the snow and the work has to continue despite the weather conditions. In the distance, through the fog and over the water, the skyscrapers of Manhattan look upright and elegant, at once their elongated form appears ghostly and intimidating. They can be see as visual symbols of hope and progress, they are like lighthouses in the depression, signaling the better times that are surely to come. Surely, I say, because hope stays the last. In Shokler’s another artwork called “Skyline” the skyscrapers appear again and this time they are the stars of the show. Again, in the foreground of the painting we see the snow-capped roofs of vibrantly coloured buildings of the industrial part of town, and then, over a visual layer of water, the skyscrapers appear, so otherworldly and awe-inspiring, like mirages almost, seen through the snowflakes that further brings a hint of magic into an otherwise drab scene.

Harry Shokler, Skyline, 1942

Precisionism and Max Weber’s Process of Rationalisation

24 Nov

The fate of our times is characterised by rationalisation, and intellectualisation, and above all, by the disenchantment of the world.”

(Max Weber)

Charles Demuth, Chimney and Water Tower, 1931

Precisionism was a distinctly American and distinctly modern art movement which first appeared in the early twentieth century in the paintings of Charles Demuth, Charles Sheeler and others. The favoured motives of Precisionist painters were the objects tied exclusively to the modern world; tall buildings, urban landscapes, industrial architecture and factories. Charles Demuth’s painting “Chimney and Water Tower” shows such a motif in its full glory. The painting is painted in tones of red and grey in its entirety, the lines are precise and clear. The red chimney stands tall and proud alongside the black water tower; they are painted in such a solemn and serious manner that they bring to mind the tall and awe-inspiring Gothic cathedrals.

The clear lines and the cold and impersonal aesthetic of these paintings bring to mind a process of Rationalisation introduced by the German sociologist Max Weber. Rationalisation is a process in which more and more aspects of life are undergoing calculation and prediction, the emphasis is on efficiency and productivity; a worker is a just a tiny piece of the machinery; anonymous and replaceable, and it this process is similar to Karl Marx’s concept of alienation. The world has lost its magic. Weber believed that Rationalisation is the main characteristic of modern society and therefore the art of Precisionism, with its frighteningly tall buildings of Manhattan and dehumanising machines of Detroit, is a product of its time and could not have been painted in earlier eras.

Charles Demuth, Modern Conveniences, 1921

Charles Sheeler, Classic Landscape, 1931

Charles Sheeler, River Rouge Plant, 1932

Francis Picabia, French painter active around the same time, also speaks of “machinery” being the “soul of the modern world”; “Since machinery is the soul of the modern world, and since the genius of machinery attains its highest expression in America, why is it not reasonable to believe that in America the art of the future will flower most brilliantly?” (1915) These industrial landscapes appear eerily silent, and if there is any sound, then it is the sound of the machines, not the bird song or a child’s laughter. If Kirchner’s paintings were screams of despair and revolt against the modern world, if Edward Hopper’s captured the alienating mood of the modern city, then the paintings of Demuth and Scheeler are finely crafted spaces of silence and precision where the human was at last eliminated, erased, wiped out.

Even though Precisionism was a uniquely American art movement, it did borrow from the art on the other side of the ocean. The Precisionists and Futurists share in common their admiration and emphasis on the technological triumph of man over nature, and of course the obsession with dividing space and objects into clear and precise geometrical forms is something that they borrowed from Cubism. Still, the subject matter is uniquely American; factories, machines and industrial spaces was hardly worth the attention of European avant-garde artists at the time. Traces of Cubism are more noticeable in the paintings of Charles Demuth and Sheeler, who was also a photographer, preferred the smooth surface and an almost photographic realism. Indeed, looking at his photographs and paintings, one can scarcely notice a difference in approach, save for the colour.

Charles Demuth, Aucassin and Nicolette, 1921

Sheeler painted and photographed not only factories, but also the vernacular architecture and his comment on the barns near his house give an insight into his perception of beauty: “Their builders weren’t building a work of art… If it’s beautiful to some of us afterward, it’s beautiful because it functioned.” Sheeler also loved the Quaker furniture which was simple in style and made to be useful and not pretty. This love of simplicity and utilitarianism spilled over in his paintings. In 1927, Sheeler was invited by the Ford Motor Company to capture their factory in River Rouge, Michigan; they were releasing a new Model A automobile and Sheeler’s visit was a part of the promotional campaign. You can see the paintings of the River Rouge factory bellow. Mass production of standardised products was connected with the Ford factory and this again is tied to Max Weber’s process of Rationalisation; every worker in Ford factory was working on a specific little thing and thus his work wasn’t very valued and wasn’t well paid. We know that workers existed in that Ford factory, but gazing at Sheeler’s paintings alone we might assume that the machine themselves produce all cars.

Charles Sheeler, American Landscape, 1930

Charles Sheeler, Criss-Crossed Conveyors, River Rouge Plant, Ford Motor Company, 1927

Charles Demuth, End of the Parade: Coatesville, 1920

Charles Sheeler, Skyscrapers, 1922

Frans Masereel – Streetlights, Paris in the evening

22 Nov

“Why do people have to be this lonely? What’s the point of it all? Millions of people in this world, all of them yearning, looking to others to satisfy them, yet isolating themselves. Why? Was the earth put here just to nourish human loneliness?”

(Haruki Murakami, Sputnik Sweetheart)

Frans Masereel (Belgian, 1889-1972), Streetlights, Paris in the evening, 1939

Belgian painter Frans Masereel’s painting “Streetlights, Paris in the Evening” really captivated me these days. I just love it so much! The mood is so dark and strange and so fitting for these dreary late autumnal November days. The more I gaze at this painting, the more I am sinking in this atmosphere of isolation and gloom which are so alluring. The buildings, so tall and so dark, with countless soulless little windows, appear threatening and cold. They don’t look inviting and friendly, they look like big ghostly figures ready to swallow up the tiny figure of a man in a red shirt. The sharp, vertical lines serve the same purpose as in Ernst Ludwig Kirchner’s paintings of Berlin streets; to create a sense of anxiety and looming threat. The light of the street lamps colours the pavement in warm yellow hues. The clouds, painted in dark blues and greys, look so robust and strong as if they could crush down the buildings underneath them. It seems the painter took great deal of time to paint the sky and it certainly adds to the mood of the painting. The sky in the distance is tinged with orange. Patches of red, yellow and blue on the otherwise drab facades give me goosebumps of joy because they break the icy coldness of the buildings’ appearance. Can you feel it?…. The cold, frosty breath of isolation blowing through the streets like autumnal wind. Perhaps the entire street scene is actually seen through the eyes of the man in red shirt, perhaps he is the focalizer of this painting and the reason why the street looks so alienating and empty, the buildings so threatening and gloomy, the sky heavy and dark and about to fall on him and crush him, is because he perceives the world around him that way. This is how the evening in Paris seems to this isolated small individual who is wandering the streets alone and lonely, with a mask of despair on his face and a sense of dread weighing his legs and slowing his walking pace. Every little window on every building is an abyss of darkness ready to swallow him in ….. he must hurry! Hurry before they get him.

Frans Masereel, La vespasienne sous le métro, 1926

Frans Masereel, Metro aerien (Hochbahn), 1926

To end, I decided to include these two paintings Masereel painted in 1926. I love all the bold black lines swirling and cutting the space in a very exciting way. The lines, along with the bright turquoise and yellow neon lights really create an atmosphere of a vibrant and chaotic nightlife. It’s interesting to compare the years in which the paintings were made and what was going on at the time; the roaring twenties were an exciting time and these paintings capture this excitement and glamour, and the painting above, with a very different mood, was painted in 1939; the year World War Two started.

Lilian Westcott Hale – Nancy and the Map of Europe

16 Oct

Lilian Westcott Hale, Nancy and the Map of Europe, 1919

American painter Lilian Westcott Hale’s paintings are a doorway to the gentle and secretive world of femininity as she mostly painted interiors with women and children. Lilian was in Connecticut, studied at the School of Fine Arts in Boston where one of her tutors was William Merritt Chase and also Philip Leslie Hale who later became her husband. She painted many delightful interiors with wistful girls, but painting “Nancy and the Map of Europe” is my faovurite at the moment because it is so very simple in composition, but very interesting and aesthetically pleasing. Nothing excessive clutters the scene; Nancy is sitting on the chair, dressed in a pretty blue gown, with a book in her lap. The little porcelain doll is sitting on the floor and is dressed in the matching blue gown. A map of Europe, painted in soothing pastel shades, covers nearly the entire wall and the entire background. The scene reminds me of those long, golden afternoons spent at school which were so sunny and bright and seemed never ending; the sun coming through the curtains would reveal the dust in the air and the shadows would dance on the map of the world on the wall. This sentence comes to mind “The late afternoon sunlight, warm as oil and sweet as childhood, slanted through the high, bright gymnasium windows.”, from Stephen King’s novel “Carrie”.

I use to spend many moments just gazing at maps; following the contours of the countries with my finger, whispering the names of the mountains and river, and imagining how beautiful all those places must be. The colours and the mood of this painting awake a certain nostalgia in me; for childhood, its simplicity, wonder and possibilities. Childhood, a time of hope, joy and possibilities. Nancy can be whoever she likes; all doors are open to her, she can visit all the countries that are shown on the map behind her. There is a mountain of books for Nancy yet to read, a plethora of experiences to gather. Nancy was eleven year old when this painting was painted, having been born in May 1908. She seems like a smart, dreamy and pretty girl in this painting, with her long hair, wistful gaze and that pretty dress. Who knows what dreams occupy her mind? What books fuels her fantasies? What secrets did she whisper to that doll on the floor? Little Nancy doesn’t yet know what a fascinating life she will have, even though the seeds of it were already planted. Nancy published her first story “The Key Glorious” at the age of eleven. A writing career,troubled marriages, emotional breakdowns, that is all ahead of her. In this lovely painting painted by her mother, Nancy is still a simple eleven year old and her head is filled with dreams.

Absinthe Faces: Louis Anquetin and Matisse

21 May

“Seek for the boldest colour possible, content is irrelevant.”

(Henri Matisse)

Louis Anquetin, Girl Reading a Newspaper, 1890, pastel on paper

These two paintings, Louis Anquetin’s pastel “Girl Reading a Newspaper” and Henri Matisse’s “Woman with a Hat” were painted by different artists and are fifteen years apart, but both show the same thing; a half-length portrait of a woman wearing a hat. A portrait of a woman, even a woman wearing a hat, is not an uncommon things in the art, but the thing that connects these two paintings and makes them so unique is the colour. And not just any colour, but one colour in particular: the vibrant, radiant, glowing turquoise shade which, even if present in smaller quantities on canvas, nonetheless seduces the viewer and blinds him with intensity.

Anquetin’s pastel shows a fashionably dressed woman seen from the profile reading the newspapers. Thin lips pressed together and a slightly long, pointed nose give a disdainful, uninterested appeal to her face; her newspapers are more interesting than whatever else is going on around her. Her auburn hair and eerily pale skin, almost glowingly white like moonlight are contrasting beautifully with the domineering shades of turquoise and teal. The colour seems so unbelievably radiant and glowing, like some strange tropical flower or a bug with an iridescent hard shell. When I first beheld this portrait, I thought: this seems like a world seen through an absinthe glass! Even her eyelids have a turquoise shade, her skin is slightly blueish, her newspapers are vibrantly turquoise and there’s even some turquoise on the ribbons of her hat. Interestingly, this pastel was known for many years by the title “The Absinthe Drinker” which has proved to be incorrect, but the colours would surely justify such a title. This painting was shown at the exhibition in 1906. Anquetin’s paintings usually feature scenes of night life, the wild, gaudy and gay underground of fin de siecle so the connection of this particular colour with absinth is very suitable.

Henri Matisse, Woman with a Hat, 1905

Nothing I have seen can surpass the vibrant, absinthe-coloured radiance of this pastel by Anquetin, but this well-known painting by Henri Matisse called “Woman with a Hat”, exhibited infamously at the Salon d’Automne in 1905, has the similar shades of untamed pure colour which doesn’t match the reality. Matisse’s wife Amélie posed for the painting and in real life she was wearing a black dress, but in the mind of her painter husband, the simple black dress was transformed into a jungle of colours which uplift the soul and excite the eyes and among them are the turquoise and teal shades which we’ve seen in Anquetin’s portrait. Matisse is dear to me and that is mostly due to his attitude towards colour. I just love to see an artist being untamed when it comes to colours; no lines, no shading, no imitating the colour in nature, just wild colours on canvas, colour for the colour’s sake. There is something so liberating about that. I love how the face, the dress and the hat in Matisse’s portrait of his wife are all just patches of colours, an expressive and exciting mosaic of shapes. There is a turquoise line contouring the woman’s nose and one on her forehead, how exciting is that!?