Tag Archives: cityscape

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

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.

George Bellows – The Lone Tenement

22 Jan

The first thing I love about this painting is the title: The Lone Tenement. Doesn’t it sound so evocative of someone lonely, solitary, sad and abandoned? I say “someone” because both the title and the painting awake strong feelings in my heart; I almost want to hug the lonesome tenement and make its loneliness go away. I like to imagine that this is exactly what George Bellows did in his own way; by painting the tenement he preserved a memory of it for all times.

George Bellows, The Lone Tenement, December 1909

George Bellows’s painting shows a lonely building which stands as a relic surviving from an old neighbourhood block. The sight of the tall isolated building reminds me of a misunderstood, melancholy human figure from one of Caspar David Friedrich’s paintings. In a cold December twilight, the lonely building stands on the outskirts of New York City as the sad witness of the urban expansion and progress and the last relic of the old. Thickly, richly applied paint and those dazzling orange and lavender shades somewhat oppose the sombre subject. If there is an expression ‘Living in the moment’, than I’m calling this painting ‘Painting in the moment’ because this building stood there lonely and vulnerable in December 1909 when Bellows painted this, but perhaps if he’d waited a month longer it wouldn’t have been there at all. And a month earlier, two more buildings would have been there too. In this painting, Bellows turned an ugly sight that most people wouldn’t even notice into something beautiful, lyrical and able to awake strong emotions.

George Bellows (1882-1925) was an American painter connected with the group of painters called The Ashcan School who concentrated on portraying the everyday reality of the city that never sleeps: New York City. In his last years, Bellows focused on domestic scenes and portraits of his wife and two daughters, but early in his career he painted urban New York and some very well known boxing scenes. Bellows was the City’s greatest portraitist in the beginning of the twentieth century; he portrayed the disappearance of the old and intimate New York and scenes that interested him were the demolitions of old neighbourhoods, building of new bridges and train stations, construction sites, and places where the urban meets the wild nature surrounding the City. Each of his paintings has a distinct mood and if you concentrate you can almost hear the sounds in the distance and smell the air. Bellows observed and painted meticulously the City’s rapid change, its vivacious energy, its joys, sorrows and struggles for a sense of identity in a never ending flow of change. Here is a quote from the magazine Harper’s Weekly from 1869 in connection to Bellows’s portrayal of a culture that is always rushing and always changing: “In London or Paris you may see some relic of past centuries; these are reverenced and preserved as long as they endure, but New York is a series of experiments, and every thing which has lived its life and played its part is held to be dead, and is buried, and over it grows a new world.”

When I daydream of New York, my visions are pink and soft-edged like clouds and shaped by Lou Reed’s songs and the street-wise groovy rock ‘n’ roll of Velvet Underground, Patti Smith and Robert Mapplethorpe’s romance as artists working side by side, Edie Sedgwick on one of the legendary parties wearing huge earrings and talking to Andy Warhol, Sid Vicious and Nancy kissing in an alleyway in the film “Sid and Nancy” (1986), Johnny Depp as Ichabod Crane walking hand in hand with Katrina in the last scene of “The Sleepy Hollow” (1999) as snow starts falling gently… so being introduced to Bellows’s art and gazing through New York City through his eyes is just adding to the richness of my daydreams!

Rembrandt, The Mill, 1645-48

In connection to the sentiment of seeing the building in the full scale of emotions that you would see a human being with, I will mention Rembrandt’s darkly romantic and hauntingly beautiful “The Mill” which shows a scenery and a mill bursting with emotions. It’s more than a landscape and the Mill appears more like a melancholy loner than just a mill.