Tag Archives: American 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.

Maurice Prendergast – Two Women Crossing a Field

18 Jul

I shall not speak, I shall think about nothing”

Maurice Prendergast, Large Boston Public Garden Sketchbook – Two women crossing a field, 1895-97, watercolour

Two ladies in white dresses are walking through a yellow field. With their dainty parasols and elegant hats they almost look like porcelain dolls. The scene is closely cropped and we don’t get to see much of the nature around them. We don’t even see the sky the way we do in similar paintings by Claude Monet. Instead of a detailed portrayal of clouds and grass, Prendergast focuses on the intense yellowness of the field and offers us a sketchy but joyous scene in nature. The summer’s ripeness and vibrancy are at their peak. The lady’s red sash is dancing in the wind and its vibrant red colour contrasts beautifully with the yellow and white. Prendergast wonderfully masters the colour scheme where each colour brings out the vibrancy of the other. All of Prendergast’s watercolours have an uplifting effect on me and I really love how he wasn’t shy about using all the rich shades of colours. His love of raw, bright colours and flatness comes from his years of working in commercial arts. The watercolour sketches in the Boston sketchbook were all made after his return from Paris where he was introduced to the art of Aubrey Beardsley, Edouard Vuillard and Pierre Bonnard, but despite all these influences Prendergast returned to America with a vision of art that was playful, childlike, vibrant and completely his own. He took the Impressionist motives of leisure and nature but decided to portray them in the medium of watercolours instead of the traditional oil on canvas. This particular sunny, summery watercolour has been on my mind for a long time now and I thought what better time to write about this lovely watercolour than in the warm, yellow month of July? To end, here is a very fitting poem by Arthur Rimbaud called “Sensation”:

On the blue summer evenings, I shall go down the paths,
Getting pricked by the corn, crushing the short grass:
In a dream I shall feel its coolness on my feet.
I shall let the wind bathe my bare head.

I shall not speak, I shall think about nothing:
But endless love will mount in my soul;
And I shall travel far, very far, like a gipsy,
Through the countryside – as happy as if I were with a woman.

Eastman Johnson and Hasui Kawase: Gathering Lilies

10 May

Eastman Johnson, Gathering Lilies, 1865

With one elegant gesture this lady in Eastman Johnson’s painting is ready to pick a lily flower. Two water lilies are already in her left hand but she desperately wants to pick the third one and, balancing on a thick moss-coated log, she shows not the slightest trace of fear. In one second she could lose her balance and fall into the murky waters of the pond and become the Victorian Ophelia. The water lily – precious and pretty – is worth the risk. Something very interesting about this painting is the perspective; it almost seems like the focalisator of the painting is a frog, like the scene of the lady picking a lily flower is seen from the frog’s point of view and this is very fitting because a frog could likely be enjoying the water and resting on a big lily flower leaf. This way, Eastman made the scene look neverending, the pond fills the space in the painting and disappearing in greenery in the background.

There is no sharp line dividing the pond from the blue sky and the figure of a woman is beautifully situated in the middle of the painting. When compared to Claude Monet’s paintings of water lilies, the colours in Eastman’s painting are terribly dull and brown, but they actually match the real colour of nature better. Brown and green shades dominate the canvas with only a touch of blue where the water is reflecting the sky. That is another interesting thing, because of the perspective we don’t see the sky in the distance but we see the reflection of it in the water. The lady’s clothes perfectly match the colour scheme and she blends into the surroundings. Perhaps a white gown would be a beautiful option as well, and it would then match the whiteness of the water lilies but ah well, I wasn’t around back then to give Eastman my suggestion. It is what it is now.

Hasui Kawase, The Pond at Benten Shrine in Shiba, 1929

It would be fun to compare Eastman Johnson’s painting “Gathering Lilies” with Hasui Kawase’s print “The Pond at Benten Shrine in Shiba” from 1929 because they both portray the similar scene; lily pond and women. As typical for Japanese art, elements in the print are simplified and stylized. The colours and shapes don’t blend here naturally and softly as they do in Eastman’s painting but instead the scene is visually divided into three spheres; green background of trees, the bridge with the ladies observing the water lilies, and the layer of water lilies in the foreground; very simple and very captivating. The leaves of the water lilies here are huge and they seem to grow and expand before our eyes, ready to take over the entire space of the print. They even conceal parts of the bridge and fill the distance as well. Here and there soft pink flowers show through and nowhere is the surface of the water visible. So interesting. Usually the water lilies scenes show the surface of the water and only here and there beautiful flowers and leaves are seen, but here they are so domineering and wild.

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

Robert Henri – Irish Lass

9 Jul

“My people may be old or young, rich or poor, I may speak their language or I may communicate with them only by gestures. But wherever I find them, the Indian at work in the white man’s way, the Spanish gypsy moving back to the freedom of the hills, the little boy, quiet and reticent before the stranger, my interest is awakened and my impulse immediately is to tell about them through my own language-drawing and painting in color.”

(Robert Henri)

Robert Henri, Irish Lass, 1913, oil on canvas 61 x 5.8 cm

Robert Henri, American artist, teacher and a guiding spirit of the Ashcan school, always spent his summers travelling either in Europe or in the States and he was always on the lookout for interesting and peculiar faces full of beauty and character to capture on his canvases. “Irish Lass” is one of such portraits of common people whose inner Beauty shines through colours and brushstrokes, the kind of Beauty seen only by those who seek to see Beauty at every step; the artists and the poets. This portrait of a young Irish girl is one of my favourites by Robert Henri, in general, and in particular these days. I find myself enjoying all the details; not what was painted, but how it was painted. Vigorous in his teachings, vigorous in his brushstrokes, Henri yearned to capture the rawness of the moment and that makes his paintings seem as if they aren’t bound to a specific time, the large blue eyes and rosy cheeks of the Irish Lass seem as fresh and alive as if they were painted yesterday. Vitality, freshness and vivacity permeate Henri’s portraits and other paintings.

Henri’s second wife, Marjorie Organ was Irish-born and the pair spent the summer of 1913 travelling through the emerald greenness of Ireland. I am sure Henri admired the beauty of the landscape, but what he captured on his canvases were not the verdant hills and old ruins, but rather the rosy cheeked fresh faces of both shy and wild Irish girls with auburn tresses. This Irish Lass, with the pink bows in her hair and that pretty white apron, looks like a wistful schoolgirl yearning for a life of adventure outside the bounds of her schoolbooks and her school yard, like a young Jane Eyre yearning to be a bird and transcend the barriers of her life. Her lips and cheeks are rosy, as if she had been running freely and exploring the wilderness. In his portraits, Henri always used colours to convey something; he used red and pink for the cheeks to signify vivacity and liveliness. Inner beauty radiates through the colours and shapes of this portrait, through her eyes as blue as the sea and flower forget me not and through the rest of her face and figure. I love how the volume is built through shades of colours.

Charles Burchfield: Catalogue of Tattered Dreams

5 Jul

“Burchfield’s paintings in the years between the wars are a catalogue of tattered dreams: abandoned towns with their false-fronted ramshackle facades, sitting on the edge of vast prairies, decrepit Victorian rowhouses, resembling tooth-less old women, the barren wastes left by industries once robust.”

(American Encounters: Art, History and Cultural Identity)

Charles Burchfield, Promenade, 1927-28, watercolour on paper, 31 5/8 x 42 1/2 inches (80.33 x 107.95 cm)

Charles Burchfield’s watercolours of streets, houses, lonely barns and fields all have a particularly haunting and captivating lyrical beauty, but his watercolour “Promenade” painted in 1927-28 seems to be my favourite because it is at once so whimsical and poetic and tinged with a certain melancholy of grey and brown shades. Abandonment and decay are motives which linger throughout Burchfield’s artworks. He gave a new life to motifs that Modernism had ignored; in times when other painters, such as Charles Sheeler, George Ault and Max Weber, glorified speed and modern architecture, Burchfield returned to the past, in a poetic and not sentimental way and portrayed all the lonely, forgotten corners of the town. This watercolour may not be the best example of Burchfield’s fascination with the motif of decay and abandonment that linger throughout his work, but it is incredibly poetic and shows how Burchfield gave personalities and unique quirks to buildings and places rather than people.

His watercolours such as “Promenade” look as if they arose from a puddle of rain; watery, grey and dipped in wistfulness and nostalgia. My eye wanders from one corner of the painting to the other and every bit of this artwork delights my eyes; the gloomy and mysterious houses have windows which resemble eye sockets, like something from Edgar Allan Poe, and so are the almost bare treetops with grey masses of leaves and long, dark and thin branches which stretch out like long shadowy arms ready to snatch you and take you down to the underworld. You can imagine the sad autumnal wind playing its mournful tunes and making the leaves dance between the street lanterns, wooden fences and trees. Once shining roofs and freshly painted facades now appear as if the whirlwind of change and decay had left its irreparable mark. The melancholy appeal of trees and houses is broken by the action in the street; cars are driving up and down the street, a plump old lady is walking her dog and three other dog are running after it, and this really adds a touch of liveliness to the mood. Still, the liveliness in the street doesn’t reflect itself on the old Victorian facades.

Watercolour “In a Deserted House” is a better example of Burchfield’s poetic enthusiasm for decaying places where spiders weave their webs in the corners of once dear and sunlight rooms, once cheerful wallpapers are now flaking, old fireplace is now cold, laughter is heard no more, and who lived there, no one knows any more. You can really feel that Burchfield felt the beauty and sadness of those places.

Charles Burchfield, In a Deserted House, ca. 1918-1939

Charles Burchfield, The Abandoned House, 1959

Maurice Prendergast – Watercolours: Hats, Veils and Flowers

14 Jun

“..the June nights are long and warm; the roses flowering; and the garden full of lust and bees..”

(Virginia Woolf in a letter to Vanessa Bell c. June 1926)

Maurice Prendergast, Large Boston Public Garden Sketchbook: Two women conversing on the street, 1895-97, watercolour

Maurice Prendergast was a wonderful American Post-Impressionist painter whose vibrant paintings I have discovered this year and I already wrote about his art on three previous occasions; about his watercolour beach scenes, painting Lady with a Red Sash and his watercolour Mothers and Children in the Park. The latter is a part of the “Large Boston Public Garden Sketchbook”, basically a book of sketches that Prendergast made from 1895 to 1897, right after his return from Paris. The lovely watercolours I am sharing with you today are all part of that sketchbook too. The watercolour above, as the title itself says, shows two fashionable Victorian women having a chit chat in the park. I really love the composition of the watercolour; the mysterious lady in red is seen from the back but her figure occupies most of the paper. We can see her wonderful shining and new white parasol, her hat with a veil covering her face and I adore that vibrant and romantic red colour of her dress and of the flowers on her hat. The figures in the backgrounds are a puddle of soft greys.

Let’s imagine we are truly sitting on a bench in a lovely park on a warm and sunny summer day; we see the ladies in the distance chatting and holding their parasols, we hear birds chirping, sun coming through the lush green treetops and warming our shoulders, and our vision goes from the talkative fashionable ladies to two young girls dressed in pretty blue and yellow gowns with ribbons around their tiny waists. Despite their fashionable appearance, they are still not the posh and proper ladies but children at heart and they run around playing, smiling and laughing. The ribbons of their dresses are dancing in the air as they run and the wind might blow their little hats away. The watercolour I was describing is the one you can see bellow called “Young girls in hats and sashed dresses”; notice the pencil traces of two other girl figures that Prendergast, for some reason, never painted in watercolour. I love the accuracy and immediacy of these watercolours, I can just imagine Prendergast directly sketching the real life around him and still imbuing the scenes that he was seeing with his inner magic and vibrancy, painting in vivid cheerful colours and portraying the scenes with a touch of childlike playfulness.

Maurice Prendergast, Large Boston Public Garden Sketchbook: Young girls in hats and sashed dresses, 1895-97, watercolour

And also, everyone who loves and knows the history of fashion will notice how accurately the fashion is captured in these watercolours; the veiled hats and the puffed sleeves were all the rage in the last decade of the nineteenth century. You can especially notice this in the last two watercolours where the ladies are dressed to impress and Prendergast’s brush strokes on the ladies’ sleeves are just wild in “A woman in a veiled hat decorated with poppies” where the blue meets the rosy shades. And let’s take a moment to appreciate the fact that the woman’s hat is decorated with poppies. How romantic and extravagant! Also, I love the wonderful cherry red parasol in “A Woman Reading a Book” and the lady’s sweet smile under the veil. I wonder what she is thinking of, or rather, of whom is she thinking of whilst reading that book. All in all, these watercolours have the usual Prendergast’s vibrancy and vivacity which just makes me smile. Gazing at these idle and carefree garden scenes truly makes me think of roses blooming, bees buzzing and laughter lingering in the air…

Maurice Prendergast, Large Boston Public Garden Sketchbook: A Woman Reading a Book, 1896-97, watercolour

Maurice Prendergast, Large Boston Public Garden Sketchbook: A woman in a veiled hat decorated with poppies, 1895-97, watercolour

Maurice Prendergast – Vibrant Watercolour Beach Scenes

16 Feb

American Post-Impressionist painter Maurice Prendergast seems to be my favourite painter at the moment. After sharing his beautiful painting “The Lady with a Red Sash” with you, I simply must share these vibrant, dazzling watercolours of beach scenes, bursting with life and vivacity.

Maurice Prendergast, Low Tide, Beachmont, 1900-05, watercolor over graphite and coal on off-white wove paper

A single glance at any of Maurice Prendergast’s delightful watercolours of beaches and the sea is enough to send me into a state of reverie. Memories of past summers fill my mind; I see the wonderful blue sea trembling before my eyes, the steady yet wild waves with a golden shine sparkling in the sun, salty scent tingling my nostrils and sun warming my skin, a plethora of pebbles and parasols in many vibrant colours, the line which separates the sky and the sea is faraway and out of reach. The seaside was a lingering theme in Prendergast’s career, and watercolour appears to have been his favoured medium for these scenes, although he did paint many traditional oils as well.

His watercolour “Low Tide, Beachmont” (the title was given posthumously) seems to be my favourite at the moment. I love the vibrancy and liveliness of the scene, not just the mood of a carefree, idle, leisure day spent at the beach, collecting pebbles, jumping around and laughing, and inhaling the fresh salty scent of the sea carried by the soft western breeze, but also the liveliness of all the elements on the paper. Women and children are enjoying a day at the beach. Little boats are sailing in the distance. Skirts are billowing in the wind, and some hats are eager to fly away; the little in the foreground is holding her hat with both hands. Their reflections appear in the surface of the water which the waves had brought to fill the empty space between the rocks.

This watercolour excites me not merely because of its content, the wonderful portrayal of a fun day at the beach, but also because of the way it was executed. The repetition of elements such as those brown-grey rocks creates a rhythm which is soothing and exciting both at once. It almost creates a tapestry of shapes, swirls and colours makes the painting so playful, vivacious and alive. It makes the painting appear as a decorative ornamental surface and everything seems to be trembling and breathing. In all of his watercolours, but in this one especially, the world appears as if it was painted from a child’s point of view; it’s just so very playful. Before travelling to Paris in 1891 to study in well-respected academies, Prendergast (1858-1924) was apprenticed to work in the commercial arts, and hence he grew to like the flatness and the bright colours. He painted coastal scenes in Brittany during his four-year stay in France and after returning from Paris in 1895 he settled in Boston and often ventured to the beaches north of Boston, Revere Beach and Beachmont to name a few.

As I have already stated on this blog many times, I absolutely adore watercolours. Anything painted in that medium never fails to look lively, immediate and spontaneous. This effect of watercolours being “spontaneous” and “effortless” is very deceiving because this watery medium tends to have a mind of its own; it spills, stains the paper and goes in directions one has not planned. Dates for this watercolour vary a lot; some sources state it was painted between 1902 and 1904, some state the year as 1905, and yet in the bottom right corner there is the painter’s signature and the year 1897. Strange indeed. Now, here are a few more of Prendergast’s wonderful beach scene. While I adore the playful visual rhythm of “Low Tide, Beachmont”, I also enjoy the way the colours in the painting “Children at the Beach” (1897) melt so lyrically, especially around the figures of children. And that serene blue! Ahhhh…

Maurice Prendergast, Ladies with Parasols, 1897, watercolour

Maurice Prendergast, Low Tide, 1897

Maurice Prendergast, Children at the Beach, 1897, watercolour

Maurice Prendergast, Revere Beach, 1897, watercolour

Andrea Kowch – Magic Realism of the Countryside

25 Oct

Last autumn I discovered the prodigious world that Andrea Kowch has created on her canvases and I was instantly captivated by the atmosphere of dreams and intrigues; in her paintings the desolation of the vast fields and weary old barns becomes intriguing and everyday domesticity is transformed into something spectacular.

Knolls Edge

An extremely prolific, imaginative and skilled contemporary painter, Andrea Kowch, was born in Detroit in 1986. She loves fairy tales and uses her daydreams as springboards for her paintings. Also, the band she often listens to whilst painting is Depeche Mode.

You will notice from the paintings I’ve assembled in this post that countryside is a motif which pervades her art; American countryside to be more precise. These canvases are filled with dreamy meadows littered with silver dandelions, golden fields of barley, corn and wheat, barns with paint flaking off, wooden cottages, murky brooks with dark waters, strange old trees, blades of grass swayed by a mysterious wind, roosters, ravens and turkeys. Another recurring motif is a wistful pale-faced woman, often with messy red hair, dressed in an unusual old-fashioned dress. You will also notice a distinctly autumnal colour palette of deep, warm and cozy shades of orange, purple, red, olive green, browns and yellows. Kowch uses these colours to further convey that mood. And also because of other things as well, as she says herself:

Autumn is my favorite season. The scents in the air, changing landscapes, colors, mood of the sky, air of ominous foreshadowing… It’s when the earth begins to truly bare its soul. It’s when I can feel the bones, core, and essence of nature. There is also a cozy and mysterious quality that inspires me to turn inward and relish solitude and explore deeper feelings. The heavy, rolling clouds spark moods in me which translate into the work. A beautiful sense of melancholy and nostalgia permeates everything as the natural world prepares to surrender itself over to winter. All of those things are very poignant, and speak to my soul in many profound ways.” (read her entire interview here)

Perhaps the women appear languid, lost in thoughts or dreams, but the turkey’s disdainful face expression with squinted eyes speaks volumes about what is going on in the scene….

Though repetitive in her use of motifs, Kowch succeeded in creating a world that is realistic at first sight, and very strange and fanciful at the same time. She beautifully illustrated the working of her imagination and opened the doors of her inner world for us viewers. Kowch’s visions of the countryside are undoubtedly very dreamy, but they are a bit eerie as well, there is something strangely silent in them, the fanciful wind is blowing out of nowhere, the women often appear frozen in the moment, not very convincing in the activity they are doing, such as catching butterflies, eating or dancing; though their mortal bodies are there in that space, their thoughts are elsewhere. Whether the setting is a field or a kitchen, a strangeness hangs above the wistful, mysterious figures like a cloud.

…and making pies with forest fruit was never so fun. And look at that crow leaving a print of her tiny feet on the dough, adorable!

Though very peculiar and dreamy at first sight, endowed with a distinct aesthetic, Kowch’s paintings reveal some influences from the art history as well, mainly the Northern Renaissance and the art of Andrew Wyeth. Both Kowch and Wyeth have a similar way of portraying the countryside and people in it, but Kowch is stylistically more vivid in colours whereas Wyeth uses a minimalist toned-down colour palette of grey, white, brown and green. Kowch’s paintings are richer with details that charm the eye, they are more illustrative, resembling scenes of fairy tales rather than desolate state of the soul. The season that fuels her art is autumn, and Wyeth also favours autumn and winter and the way nature is in that time of the year: “I prefer winter and fall, when you can feel the bone structure in the landscape—the loneliness of it—the dead feeling of winter. Something waits beneath it—the whole story doesn’t show.” Grass in Kowch’s paintings bears a similarity to the very detailed grass in Wyeth’s painting “Christine’s World”, and the flimsy curtains dancing in the wind are also a shared motif. Her attention to detail when it comes to portraying scenes from nature, such as the grass in the painting “Knolls Edge”, also reminds me of the very precise way Botticelli painted the background and the grass in his famous painting “Primavera“.

Kowch uses her friends as models for the paintings. The face expressions of these strange and mad women are also very peculiar; they appear troubled, sad, wistful, their pale oval faces laced with yearning and nostalgia. They walk the meadows with wild determination, in silence, only the blades of grass sing sweet songs, they make pies with ravens, sit at the table uninterested in food, or gaze in the void. They seem mute, but with a lot of hidden drama and secrets inside.

Two somnambulists treading their way through the meadow in a misty autumn morning, the birds are curious observers.

There is a constant battle between realistic and surreal, dreamy, scarcely believable elements in Kowch’s paintings. Motifs she uses; women, fields and barns are all very realistic and not unusual at all to our eyes. Her painting technique is detailed, precise and accurate, which further leads our eyes to believe that what she is presenting is real. Still, the final result is all but “realism” in any term of the word. The best way to describe her art would then be: magic realism. Also, her method of portraying the boring and plain everyday reality and presenting it as something strange and whimsical reminds me of a term called “defamiliarization” (“ostranienie” in Russian), used in theoretical discussions of literature, originally coined by Russian Formalist Viktor Shklovsky in his essay “Art as Device”. It’s making things strange in order to intrigue the reader, or here, the viewer. In my view, this is exactly what Kowch is doing to us: she is making us see the otherwise laughably boring and normal scenes is a strange exciting way.

Her paintings definitely leave the viewer with a sense of vagueness, for, what are they really? Scenes from dreams, everyday life seen through rose-tinted glasses, an topsy-turvy world of Alice in Wonderland: the American version, frozen moments in secret tales known only to her…

Grasshoppers even on her hat, now, this is called crossing boundaries!

Rural sisters

Whirlwind

These roosters are madly adorable; little, angry and with great hairstyles! 😉

What is she running away from, what secrets does the barn withhold from us?

And here is our sombre grown-up Alice in Pumpkinland. Gorgeous colours and so much feelings in that landscape.

Shattered hopes, or just painful memories revisited?