Tag Archives: American artist

Andrea Kowch: A Beautiful Sense of Melancholy and Nostalgia Permeates Everything

4 Nov

A beautiful sense of melancholy and nostalgia permeates everything as the natural world prepares to surrender itself over to winter.

(Andrea Kowch)

Andrea Kowch, Knolls Edge

Andrea Kowch is one of my favourite contemporary artists. All of her paintings possess a dreamy and mysterious mood that is bound to make one curious. The everyday plain banality of the countryside is transformed into a scene out of some magic realism novel. Without a doubt, Kowch possesses a rich imagination and she has the artistic skill to match it. I mean, her technique and the detailed approach are impessable. In one interview she said that painting was something meditative for her, she even calls it a “self-therapy”: “The process of being a painter has served as a form of self-therapy for me, in that all the hours I spend painting, I also spend thinking and allowing myself to fully feel my deepest emotions and know myself. I come out of each piece transformed in a new way each time. People need encouragement to get in touch with their realest emotions and embrace them. What some may see in my work as “intense” or “disturbing”, others may see as beautiful and liberating. It happens all the time, and neither interpretation is correct or incorrect.

A landscape with two women and a tree in the background, so simple in visual motives and yet so mysterious in the mood it conveys. The ordinary becomes extraordinary under Kowch’s brush. Scenes of magic realism indeed, but an interesting thing is that in novels such as Gabriel Garcia Márquez’s “One Hundred Years of Solitude” no matter the magic realism the plot and the characters still needs to be explained and it needs to make sense to the reader. On the other hand, Kowch doesn’t need to explain anything in her art; why are these ladies sitting here so near to the jumping frogs, why are they dressed so lightly considering the cold weather indicated by the bare autumnal tree behind them? This is all left to us to interpret and this is the beautiful but also the mysterious side of visual art.

The models for all of Kowch’s paintings are her friends. These two women are sitting casually on the meadow; their bodies are turned to different sides but interestingly they are both looking on the left. What is so interesting over there that we cannot see? The frogs are also casually jumping around but the women don’t seem to mind it the least bit. They appear to be fixated on that something which is beyond our sight. Kowch’s female figures always appear frozen, spellbound even, and this just serves to further the mystery. They are wearing their petticoats, tights and boots but their shoulders are bare. How are they not cold and shivering?

The tree in the background, completely bare and its spooky branches reaching towards the “skies that are ashen and sober” are a good indication of the autumnal weather. And this doesn’t appear to be the golden sunny autumnal day, no, this is the portrait of deep autumn’s doom and gloom. The crows in the background flying around the tree and the fireflies dancing and flying around the women further perpetuate the painting’s mysterious, dreamy charms. I like the line which marks the end of the meadow and behind it we see faint traces of vanilla yellow sunlight coming from afar. It creates a beautiful contrast between the lightness coming from the background and the swampy, frog and fireflies laden meadow bellow.

The tree is a definite ominous element and makes me think of something we would find in Edgar Allan Poe’s stories. I also love the way Kowch paints blades of grass; she almost gives individual identity to every single piece of grass or wheat or whatever else she is painting. She truly creates a sense of texture. Perhaps a little bit this meadow and the girls bring to mind Andrew Wyeth’s painting “Christine’s World” from 1948, but the atmosphere is different.

Kowch’s painting style may perhaps even be described as “dark fairytale” because both elements are all-pervading in her canvases; the dark, gloomy, almost Gothic vibes with the elements of fairytales and storytelling. In her own words: “I loved fairy-tales as a girl, and still do. They were an escape into a romantic, mysterious, and magical world. The classic tales of Hans Christian Andersen and the Brothers Grimm were the first to charge my imagination as a child. I later discovered and fell in love with the art of Arthur Rackham and Howard Pyle… I’ve always been drawn to and intrigued by stories that are a bit twisted; the ones containing strange characters and a prevailing sense of impending danger. Perhaps that’s why my paintings often carry a similar feeling. There’s always an aspect of something unknown about to happen. The story is never fully revealed, it simply continues on, each painting serving as the next page or chapter.

Some motives that are bound to be seen in nearly all of Kowch’s paintings are the countryside setting, whether it’s the fields of corn, wheat or barley, or the meadows littered with dandelions and other flowers, strange trees with bare and twisted branches, old barns or cottages; women, often with pale wistful faces, messy hair and strange, old-fashioned clothes, then animals such as ravens, seagulls, frogs, turkeys, dogs, roosters, crickets, grasshoppers, rabbits, even a guinea pig in one painting. The colours she uses are distinctly autumnal. She weaves the dreamy tapestries of her imagination in shades of fern and moss green, garnet red, cider, amber and marmalade orange, mustard yellow, ash grey, cinnamon brown, boysenberry purple…

Kowch is not shy when it comes to admitting her love for autumn: 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.

All the quotes in this post are from an interview which you can read here.

Georgia O’Keeffe – Morning Sky with Houses

5 Oct

“I found I could say things with color and shapes that I couldn’t say any other way – things I had no words for.”

(Georgia O’Keeffe)

Georgia O’Keeffe, Morning Sky with Houses, 1916, watercolour and graphite on paper 22.5 x 30.4 cm

From time to time I enjoy feasting my eyes on the art of the American painter Georgia O’Keeffe. The paintings or large, closely-cropped flowers and plants are surely some of the most popular artworks that O’Keeffe has created, but my personal favourites are, of course, her watercolours which are always painted in a vibrant and free-spirited manner and have that lyrical playfulness and simplicity which keep luring me back to gaze at them some more. O’Keefe decided to become an artist at the age of ten and she, along with two of her sisters, took art lessons from a watercolour artist Sara Mann. It is no surprise then that O’Keeffe kept coming back to this versatile medium all throughout her life and career. “Morning Sky with Houses” was painted in 1916 when O’Keeffe was eighteen or nineteen years old. O’Keeffe opposed painting directly from nature in a realistic manner and preferred to paint in a style that always borders with abstraction. In her own words: “Nothing is less real than realism. Details are confusing. It is only by selection, by elimination, by emphasis, that we get at the real meaning of things.”

This watercolour shows the way Georgia implemented her art philosophy in the creation of her art. The watercolour shows a simple scene; two houses, meadow and sky in the morning, but all the elements in the scene are more suggested than strictly defined. We know these are houses by their contours alone and we assume the space under them is a meadow or a garden, but on paper everything is a playful harmony of different shades of purple, burgundy,blue, yellow and orange; a proper autumnal colour palette perftctly fitting for this time of the year. I love the white space between the roofs of the houses and the sky. The only other details in this almost-abstract watercolour are the fence on the left and a smoke coming out of the chimney on the house on the right. And yet, devoid of all details, this watercolour doesn’t cease to be less interesting, quite the opposite, it excites the eyes beyond belief. Exluding the details, O’Keeffe only gives more power to the colour and this is something beautiful. The colours of this painting are, in my view, a perfect way to start October on the blog!

Childe Hassam – Nocturne, Railway Crossing, Chicago

13 Sep

“…the rain
Is full of ghosts tonight, that tap and sigh
Upon the glass and listen for reply,
And in my heart there stirs a quiet pain…”

(Edna St. Vincent Millay, What Lips Have I Kissed, And When and Why)

Childe Hassam, Nocturne, Railway Crossing, Chicago, 1893, watercolour

These rainy September evenings awake inside me an inexplicable sadness and so I sit there wistfully by the window and I pine, and whine … and, just like in Edna St Vincent Millay’s poem the rain is also full of ghosts that tap and sigh upon the glass and listen for reply… Very fitting for the wistful mood of my rainy days is this hauntingly beautiful watercolour called “Nocturne: Railway Crossing, Chicago”, painted in 1893 by the American painter Childe Hassam. The watercolour is simple in both colour and composition, and yet rich in its lyrical beauty. The nocturnal scene in the watercolour shows a fragment of urban life; a carriage and a tram are gliding down the road on a rainy night. The motif such as this would otherwise be too urban in its ugliness or simply boring, but in Hassam’s vision the rainy night in the big city is a blue poem. Instead of bustle and noise, Hassam hears a blue sonata coming from the steady beats of the rain and the rhythm of the horse-drawn carriage. The title alone, containting the word “Nocturne”, in a proper Whistler style, is insinuating something poetic and dreamy. The watercolour is amost entirely washed away in this mesmerising blue colour, with soft touche of yellow representing the big city lights. The carriage and the coachman are elegantly painted in black, almost like a silhouette, which only adds to the poetic mysterious mood of this night scene, as the French poet Stephane Mallarme said “to define is to kill, to suggest is to create”. In this watercolour, Hassam is suggesting, rather than defining, the beauty and poetry of the night and I think this is what makes this artwork so hauntingly beautiful. There is a special kind of beauty in wandering aimelessly down the streets of a big city on a rainy night, the bright lights of streetlamps and neon lights reflected in the puddles and wet pavements, passing by life but not being in it. Ahh… as I gaze at this painting more I can see and hear in my mind the jazzy music and Robert De Niro’s monologue from the film “Taxi Driver” (1976).

Winslow Homer – Sunset Fires

9 Aug

“Clouds come floating into my life, no longer to carry rain or usher storm, but to add color to my sunset sky.”

(Rabindranath Tagore, Stray Birds)

Winslow Homer, Sunset Fires, 1880

I am a big fan of Winslow Homer’s watercolours and there is always a watercolour which is my particular favourite at that particular moment. Sometimes my favourite Homer watercolour is the one that I discover or rediscover at that moment, and other times it is the watercolour that speaks to me in some way, through the mood or the colours… At the moment, in these watermelon and crimson red late summer days of August my favourite is the watercolour titled “Sunset Fires” which dates from 1880. I am immensely attracted to its rich shades of red and orange. August is a red month for me. I see it red in my mind’s eye; the blood of dying summer. The watercolour shows the sunset at sea, a ship and a smaller boat with loosely sketched human figures of sailors on it. These simple motives; sea, boats, sky, sunsets, is something that we find often in the works of the Romantic painter such as Caspar David Friedrich. So the interesting thing here isn’t the originality of the motif, but rather the manner in which they were captured by the artist’s brush. Homer uses a very limited colour palette; only reds, oranges and greys, but they work in such a wonderful harmony where one colour feeds and kisses the other. The red would not appear as vibrant were it not for the lead greyness to contrast it, and without the warm orange tones the painting would not have its vibrant magic, its fireworks, its explosion of energy and joy. I also love the tiny empty spaces between the brushstrokes where the white paper underneath reveals itself to it; this is an interesting thing about watercolours. Homer loved the American landscape and travelled all over the country to capture the most beautiful spots, but also he travelled across the border, to the Caribbean, constantly seeking new landscapes to explore and capture in his artworks. It is in the Caribbean that the sea, the sky and sailors would become his main motif, but, as much as I adore his Caribbean watercolours, no sky in them compares to the fiery beauty of the sky here in “Sunset Fires”.

Homer’s watercolour can be seen in two ways; as mere sketches, or studies which were intended to serve as the basis for the oil-on-canvas painting, or as independent works of art. In my view, they are the latter because I don’t think one art medium should be seen as better or more important than the another. Why should only oil-on-canvas artworks be deserving or admiration and respect, and other mediums be seen as sketchy or less serious?

“Soon it got dusk, a grapy dusk, a purple dusk over tangerine groves and long melon fields; the sun the color of pressed grapes, slashed with burgandy red, the fields the color of love and Spanish mysteries.”

(Jack Kerouac, On the Road)

Charles Burchfield – In a Deserted House and Bruce Springsteen’s Downbound Train

7 Jun

In the moonlight, our wedding house shone
I rushed through the yard
I burst through the front door, my head pounding hard
Up the stairs, I climbed
The room was dark, our bed was empty
Then I heard that long whistle whine
And I dropped to my knees, hung my head, and cried…”

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

I find myself listening to Bruce Springsteen’s song “Downbound Train” a lot these days. It was in June five years ago that I first discovered it and it also happens the song was released on the 4 June 1984, so with all these little “anniversaries”, I thought it would be nice to write a little tribute to it, in a way. What instantly attracted me to the song was its sad tune and Springsteen’s wailing voice while he is singing about a love that is lost… The song’s opening lines instantly struck a chord with me: “I had a job, I had a girl/ I had something going, mister, in this world/ I got laid off down at the lumber yard/ Our love went bad, times got hard” because they express contrast of good times versus bad times; he had something good and now it’s gone. The protagonist, having lost his job and then a woman he loved, also lost a sense of security and stability. The dream is gone and now there’s a dark, rainy cloud that seems to follow him everywhere. Now he single; alone and lonely, working at miserable jobs where it always seems to rain.

After reading the lyrics, carefully, as if they were a poem, I was struck by this little tale of misery. It almost feels like a short story and not a song because it tells a tale, as Springsteen’s songs often do. The song’s protagonist, a lonely working class guy, is telling us a story of his life and its troubles from the first person; he was working at the lumber yard, then at the car wash and in the end of the song he’s “swinging a sledgehammer on the railroad”. This day to day realism is interwoven with his longing for the woman who one day “packed her bags”, bought a train ticket and left him behind. The culmination of the poem is a wonderful, nocturnal, moonlit scene where the guy hear the voice of a woman he loves calling out to him and he returns to the scene of their marital bliss, a house which is now empty and sad; “the room was dark, her bed was empty” and then he drops to his knees and cries, and later we find out he is working at the railroad now, the very same railroad where the train passed by; the train that his wife took to leave him behind.

“I had a job, I had a girl
I had something going, mister, in this world
I got laid off down at the lumber yard
Our love went bad, times got hard
Now I work down at the car wash
Where all it ever does is rain
Don’t you feel like you’re a rider on a downbound train?
She just said, “Joe, I gotta go
We had it once, we ain’t got it anymore”
She packed her bags, left me behind
She bought a ticket on the Central Line
Nights as I sleep, I hear that whistle whining
I feel her kiss in the misty rain
And I feel like I’m a rider on a downbound train
Last night I heard your voice
You were crying, crying, you were so alone
You said your love had never died
You were waiting for me at home
Put on my jacket, I ran through the woods
I ran ’til I thought my chest would explode
There in a clearing, beyond the highway
In the moonlight, our wedding house shone
I rushed through the yard
I burst through the front door, my head pounding hard
Up the stairs, I climbed
The room was dark, our bed was empty
Then I heard that long whistle whine
And I dropped to my knees, hung my head, and cried
Now I swing a sledgehammer on a railroad gang
Knocking down them cross ties, working in the rain
Now, don’t it feel like you’re a rider on a downbound train?”
*

This scene made me think of Charles Burchfield’s delightful watercolours of houses and abandoned places such as the room in the watercolour above “In a Deserted House”. The grey colour scheme of the watercolour gives it a gloomy, lonely mood that is further expressed in the details such as the tattered wallpapers, torn at parts, a cold fireplace; there’s no one to sit there and enjoy the fire. Now only a cold breeze visits the house and passes through it as a ghostly breath of the past. In the song there is a reference to the bed which isn’t painted in the watercolour but I feel like the mood of the watercolour matches the mood of the scene. Burchfield’s paintings are described as the “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) Abandonment and decay, a poetic sadness, are some things that linger through Burchfield’s artworks, mostly watercolours, and I feel the same vibe from some of Springsteen’s songs such as the “Downbound Train”, “The River” or “The Stolen Car”. Watercolour “In a Deserted House” and the song “Downbound Train” both deal with the motif of what-could-have-been; the house now empty, desolate and cold could have been warm with sunlight, laughter and a fireplace, just as the dark room in the wedding house in the song could have been a place of happiness and love. Both express a sense of something lost, something gone that cannot be recaptured.

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.

John Singer Sargent: Watercolours of the Gardens of Villa di Marlia in Tuscany

3 Jul

It was not so much that Italy was more beautiful than America, but that it was older, a property not generally considered to enhance seductiveness. But age, when coupled with cultivation, can be enticing. Italy was, in fact, so replete with the wisdom of the ages that it was removed from time.

John Singer Sargent, Villa di Marlia, Lucca – A Fountain, 1910

American painter John Singer Sargent was one of the many American and British artists who was seduced by the spirit of Italy. The Romantics such as Lord Byron, Percy and Mary Shelley, and John Keats, and Victorian era writers such as Nathaniel Hawthorne, Elizabeth Barrett-Browning and Robert Browning all marvelled in the charms of Italy. Still, Sargent, having been born in Florence, had a special connection to Italy; the romance of Ancient ruins, the beauty of Renaissance palaces, the majestic paintings by Titian and Tintoretto, the lush splendour of gardens and parks, the warm sunlight and golden air woven with dreams and nostalgia, were things that Sargent was familiar with but that also excited him and inspired him.

It was the mixture of age and cultivated Beauty which made the landscape of Italy so enchanting and alluring: “The artists’ love affair with Italy had this need for an understanding not possible in the raw New World Story had found prosaic. It was not so much that Italy was more beautiful than America, but that it was older, a property not generally considered to enhance seductiveness. But age, when coupled with cultivation, can be enticing. Italy was, in fact, so replete with the wisdom of the ages that it was removed from time. Time, in Italy, must have seemed universal and mythic. After a sufficient number of histories, after Etruria, ancient Rome, the Middle Ages, the Renaissance, and the Baroque, time underwent a curious compression which was also an infinite extension.” (Barbara Novak, Nature and Culture – American Landscape and Painting 1825-1875) Even though Sargent is mostly known for his glorious oil on canvas portraits, he was also immensely prolific in watercolours, having painted more than two thousand of them. The watercolours capture a wide range of motives, from the alligators of Florida, gondolas of Venice, to the beautiful gardens of Italian villas.

Watercolour “Villa di Marlia Lucca – Fountain” is one such work which beautifully captures the fragment of a carefully cultivated garden of the Renaissance villa di Marlia in Lucca in Tuscany where Sargent stayed at the time these watercolours were created. Sargent chose to portray the old parts of the garden which were not renovated but rather showed the true spirit of the times in which they were created. In this watercolour you can almost hear and feel the water of the fountain refreshing the garden, the scent of lemons and thyme colouring the air, the patches of muted yellow on the balustrade are the moss that speaks of the longevity and tradition of the garden; it wouldn’t be there if it was freshly built. The two sculptures in the fountain are the river gods representing the rivers Arno and Serchio. Sargent beautifully captures the play of lights on the water and the lush scenery in the background. The scene is also skillfully cropped, almost like a photographs; the horizontal line of the balustrade in the foreground beautifully frames the painting. Another lyrical watercolour that pays tribute to the past shows the statue of Daphne in the garden of the Villa Varramista. With her hands reaching towards the sky, Daphne looks vivid and almost alive.

John Singer Sargent’s Villa di Marlia, Lucca – The Balustrade, 1910

John Singer Sargent – Villa di Marlia, Lucca, 1910

John Singer Sargent, Daphne, 1910

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

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