Tag Archives: German art

Rainer Fetting: I Remember Standing By the Wall

19 Nov

Rainer Fetting, Yellow Wall (Luckauerstraße-Sebastianstraße), 1977

German painter and later also a sculptor Rainer Fetting was a part of an art movement called “Neue Wilde” which brought strong, bold colours, vibrancy and passion into the art scene dominated by minimal art and conceptual art. I already immersed myself in the mood of seventies Berlin through the film (and book) “Wir Kinder vom Bahnhof Zoo”, musically through the three Berlin-era albums by David Bowie who found the city very stimulating artistically, and now visually through Rainer Fetting’s vibrant canvases. Fetting captured the Wall in many of his canvases from 1970s and 1980s in a particularly raw and expressive way. His brush strokes aren’t wild and strong as those of the original German Expressionists were, Fetting’s paints in a rather smooth way but his use of colour would have certainly shocked the art critic who was appalled by the paintings of the Fauvists in 1905. Still, do not let the vibrant yellow, red and purples fool you; these vibrant colours are a shiny, glamorous facade that conceal the underlying alienation. Back in the age of the original Expressionists, the Wall didn’t exist obviously, but Kirchner captured the spirit of the city in a similar way that Fetting did. In Wim Wenders’ wonderful film “Wings of Desire”, a young man, before committing suicide, laments how “the east is everywhere” and the wall that Fetting had painted here is what divides the two sides. Painting “Erstes Maurbild” shows the mystery of the other side; the windows with bars looks like a prison and one can imagine the chilling silence that lies on the other side; no tree, no birdsong, just concrete alienation which Fetting frantically transformed into a rainbow of colours. Painting “Mauer am Südstern”, with its visible brushstrokes and the subdued red and ocher shades reminds me the most of something that Ernst Ludwig Kirchner could have painted. And of course, when I think of the wall, David Bowie’s song “Heroes” comes to mind:

I, I can remember
(I remember)
Standing by the wall
(By the wall)
And the guns, shot above our heads
(Over our heads)
And we kissed, as though nothing could fall
(Nothing could fall)
And the shame, was on the other side
Oh, we can beat them, forever and ever
Then we could be heroes just for one day
We can be heroes
We can be heroes
We can be heroes just for one day…

Rainer Fetting, Erstes Mauerbild, 1977, tempera on canvas

Rainer Fetting, Mauer am Südstern, 1988

Rainer Fetting, Alte Fabrik (Moritzplatz) [Old Factory (Moritzplatz)], 1978, Dispersion on canvas, 165 x 196 cm

All Souls’ Day: Ferdinand Georg Waldmüller and Franz Skarbina

2 Nov

Franz Skarbina, All Souls’ Day (Hedwig Cemetery), 1896

The graveyard comes alive on All Souls’ Day, candles and flowers for sure brighten up the otherwise grey and lonely landscape of the graveyards. I like to visit the graveyard these days, not for tradition but to enjoy the magical mood where the vibrancy of pink, orange and yellow chrysanthemums and the flickering light of the candles create a unique atmosphere which is half-eerie and half-carnival like. Carnival of souls, I can almost imagine them dancing ethereally between the tomb stones, and the last yellow leaves falling from the trees and joining them in their macabre dance. I found two interesting, but very different examples of this motif in art history; Ferdinand Georg Waldmüller’s painting “On All Souls’ Day”, painted in 1839, and Franz Skarbina’s more atmospheric portrayal of the theme painted in 1896.

Waldmüller’s painting shows two ladies, probably mother and daughter, dressed head to toe in black. Their pale round faces looks almost identical and doll-like, peeking under black bonnets adorned with black lace. The mother’s hands are clasped, as in a solemn prayer, while the daughter is reading a book, probably some verses from the Bible. The grave they are visiting, I assume it is that of the daughter’s father, is adorned with flowers, there’s even a flower wreath on the wooden cross. In comparison, the graves in the background appear cold and grey, like a modern apartment complex, alienated and somber. The ground around the graves is bare, no time had passed for new fresh grass to grow, and the mud everywhere is suffocating. The painting appears static and somewhat sentimental, the emphasis is on the women and their feelings, not on the overall graveyard mood.

Skarbina’s painting is much more vibrant and lively, the flickering candles and the murmuring trees, here and there a white cross arises from the background but it doesn’t appear eerie. The graves speak of eternity while the candles remind us of transience; their fragile lives can stop at each blow of the wind or a drop of rain. The little girl in black is using one candle to light the others while her mother is watching. The yellow light of the candles is warming their faces. The painting has depth and dynamics; we can see other people in the background, other graves are lively and candles are lighted everywhere, whereas in Waldmüller’s painting the focus is solely on that one grave and the others don’t matter. I’m not going to lie, Skarbina’s painting is the one I love more because it has that touch of magic and dreaminess. The mud on the Waldmüller’s painting seems ready to swallow another corpse and that horrid realism unsettles me. Skarbina’s painting is more romantic in spirit.

Ferdinand Georg Waldmüller, On All Souls’ Day, 1839

Carl Spitzweg – The Intercepted Love Letter

22 Oct

Carl Spitzweg, The Intercepted Love Letter, 1855

Carl Spitzweg is a very underrated German painter of Biedermeier period. His canvases are filled with the strangest people; from fiddlers, butterfly hunters and poor poets, to hermits, gnomes and bookworms, it is as if he had an eye for the strange and the eccentric individuals. “The Intercepted Love Letter”, painted in 1855 when Spitzweg was in his late forties, shows a comical romance scene in a picturesque little town. A young student on the second floor is using a thread to lower the sealed love letter to a young maiden on the floor bellow. He reminds me of the student in Oscar Wilde’s tale “The Nightingale and the Rose”, desperately in love with a haughty young girl, prepared to sacrifice everything to have her, only to conclude in the end that love is a miserable lie, and return to science, logic and his studies. This girl bellow doesn’t seem haughty though; she is lost in her needlework, oh the tragedy, and she doesn’t even notice that the letter is arriving her way! But the older woman who is beside her is clearly shocked by what she is seeing before her eyes. She’s probably an old spinster who hasn’t received a love letter in her life, and how could she understand the young student whose heart aches with love? Two pigeons on the roofs are also there to further remind us of the love that is in the air.

Carl Spitzweg, The Garrett, 1849

Spitzweg clearly had a sense of humour and knew how to transfer it into a painting. A Romantic painter would have painted two lovers throwing themselves off of the cliff, or dying from love, but Spitzweg sees the comical side of the situation. In another painting, “The Serenade”, painted in 1854, we see a romantic scene infused with humour again. I wrote about that painting already here. It shows a man climbing up the ladder to play violin to serenade the woman he loves, but he isn’t a young raven-haired Latino lover, he is just an average guy and the setting if far from romantical. Painting “The Garrett” shows a pompous looking old man watering his plants. A young girl on the other window bellow is eyeing him with curiosity. I bet he is the kind of strange eccentric neighbour that everyone has in their street. And I don’t think I really need to point out what is particularly humorous in the painting “The Poor Poet”; everything about that painting is comical. What I am trying to show here is that Carl Spitzweg’s art may appear as “nothing special” at first, it has a humorous touch that makes it stand above the average genre scenes and sentimental Biedermeier paintings.

 

Carl Spitzweg, The Poor Poet, 1839

Carl Spitzweg, The Serenade, 1854

Caspar David Friedrich – Greifswald Harbour: Set sail in those turquoise days…

2 Oct

It’s that time of the year again, when sweet Autumn rains and whimsical winds bring thoughts of Romanticism and Echo and the Bunnymen to my mind. Gloomy, post-punk and a bit psychedelic melodies of Echo and the Bunnymen’s album Heaven Up Here (1981) resonate perfectly with moods of Caspar David Friedrich’s paintings.

1818-20. Greifswald Harbour - Caspar David FriedrichCaspar David Friedrich, Greifswald Harbour, 1818-20

Dreamy and gloomy paintings of Caspar David Friedrich go hand in hand with brooding post-punk melodies of Echo and the Bunnymen’s album Heaven Up Here; this artistic match made in heaven delights me beyond belief, often to the point of tears – tears of beauty. Similar mood pervades Friedrich’s painting Greifswald Harbour and song Turquoise Days; moody melody coming from the distance, from a rocky beach somewhere in Wales, emerging from an ancient Albion mist, coming from the distant Celtic shore… Similar dreamy, yet sombre mood can be found in all of Friedrich’s artworks, specially those portraying a beach or a harbour, where ships appear from the blueish mist, like in a dream.

In ‘Greifswald Harbour’ Friedrich revisits the landscape of his childhood, portraying the harbour of Greifswald; a seaport on the Baltic coast and his birth town. Cold climate and death of close relatives intensified his tendency towards melancholy, his sensitivity and perhaps even a certain sense of isolation that dominates his paintings. Take a look at the painting. I’ll give you a moment to sober up from the beauty of those dusky colours and mystic shades of blue, green, grey and yellow.

Greifswald Harbour was painted between 1818 and 1820, in times when Romantic sensibilities were slowly becoming ‘passé‘, and Friedrich was perceived not as a symbol of a generation and a romantic hero, but as an overly melancholic recluse who spend most of his time alone, wandering woods and meadows, and enjoying the isolation. He said himself: “I am not so weak as to submit to the demands of the age when they go against my convictions. I spin a cocoon around myself; let others do the same. I shall leave it to time to show what will come of it: a brilliant butterfly or maggot.” It goes without saying that the fruit of his life, his oeuvre, is indeed ‘a brilliant butterfly’.

Aesthetically, this is a typical painting of Romanticism. Symbolically, it deals with subjects of transience and painters own mortality. In the dusk, small and large ships appear through a misty veil of Autumn evening. Glimpses of cityscape appear through the grey blueish fog. Shy waning moon shines in the sky. Day is dying in rich warm yellow and orange shades, while fishermen in the foreground are nearing the end of the working day, probably in a hurry to visit an inn or a brothel. Ah, the mood of harbours, with sailors and hookers, goods from the far East, constant change and movement… Friedrich’s harbour is a somewhat desolate place. Those large ships are probably returning from a long trip, or just setting off to a new voyage, but what about the smaller ones? Some ships probably never left the harbour, nothing exciting comes on their path. They could spent a whole existence soaking in the cold sea water waiting for something which never really occurs. It’s like an unlived life. Once again, Friedrich stimulates the viewer to observe the deeper, psychological side of his art.

In Friedrich’s art, human figures are either missing or painted from the back. You may be wondering then, why he decided to include a bunch of fishermen in the foreground? Well, the figures of fishermen and the boat in the foreground weren’t painted by Friedrich himself, but were added later. Infrared photographs of the painting taken in 1974 revealed this two centuries old secret. Why did someone decide to do that, we’ll never know. Perhaps one considered the painting too dull with just ships and sky, and wanted to enliven it with human figures. Indeed, someone who doesn’t appreciate the soft transitional moods of Friedrich’s art would deem this painting non exciting because its beauty and charm are hidden behind layers of gauze veils, just like the face of a Victorian bride. As Ludwig Justi wrote: “We cannot appreciate the secret music of this picture without sensing the inner life of the ship. … The forms, appearing quite sober on first sight, are in fact alive with ardour and longing and dreaming.

I would like to finish this post with beautiful lyrics written by Ian McCulloch of Echo and the Bunnymen.

Just when the thought occurs
The panic will pass
And the smell of the fields
Never lasts
We’ll put your faith
In those crimson nights
Set sail
In those turquoise days…” (Echo and the Bunnymen, Turquoise Days)

Dear reader, set sail in the beautiful turquoise days and crimson nights of Autumn that are upon us.

Franz Stuck: Dark Female Figures in a World of Anxiety and Lust

6 Sep

If you gaze at dark and richly textured paintings of a German Symbolist painter Franz Stuck for too long, you become spiritually drowned in a world of ‘anxiety and lust’, to quote Carl Jung. That peculiar mood of his paintings is as intoxicating as it is heavy and suffocating, radiating the typical turn of the century claustrophobia and interest in eroticism.

1903. The Sin (Die Sünde) - Franz Stuck

Franz Stuck, The Sin (Die Sünde), 1903

Last August, while I was in Berlin, I had a chance to see Stuck’s The Sin and Circe in Alte Nationalgalerie where they are part of the museum’s permanent collection. I remember it clearly, the feeling of being completely and fully mesmerised by hypnotic power of Stuck’s vamp femme fatales; dark eyed Eve luring from the shadow, and Circe, clad in purple, offering a gold cup, and smiling lustfully with moist, half-open lips. The day was rainy and gloomy, the chamber quiet and solitary because most visitors chose to see the Im-Ex exhibition that was on at the time. Even in the middle of the day, painting The Sin seemed frightening and grandiose because of its dimensions, but how magical and sinister at the same time would it look at night, with a few tall candles as only sources of light, shining in brilliant Byzantine golden flames, and a sofa you could lie on, smoke opium and immerse into dreams, watched upon by those big, darkly oriental eyes. I think that kind of experience would be the closest to an acid trip I could possibly imagine.

If you observe Stuck’s oeuvre, you’ll notice that darkness, like heavy November fog, lurks from every corner. World that he created in his paintings is a mythical one, where anxiety and erotic fantasies emerge from every canvas. Sometimes his paintings, just like those of Edvard Munch, can be a tad difficult to digest, at least for me, as they seem to lurk the viewer to the end of the cliff; first to be amazed, and then – to fall. I feel emotionally drained and ill after looking at them for too long, that’s the power of art for you all. Stuck portrays the dark side of mythology and female dominance and images that arise from his artworks are those of suffering and agony, twisted bodies, murky colours and strong contrasts, and ever popular in Symbolism, figures of wicked and possessive femme fatales.

So, what exactly is the true subject of his art, the spiritual fall of the Western society of his own secret Freudian fantasies?

Stu-04-NatGalFranz Stuck, Tilla Durieux as Circe, c. 1913

Stuck painted the subject of Eve’s sin and the consequent Fall of Humanity many times. The version I’ve put here, from 1903, isn’t the most striking, but it is the one I saw. In The Sin, Eve looks directly at the viewer, ironically smiling. Her sickly white, yet robust body emerges from the dark background. Two large, dark, protruding almond shaped eyes resemble those of Luisa Casati, an extravagant Italian heiress and a great example of fin de sicle decadency in lifestyle. A garishly green shadow hides her face. Framed with masses of Rossettian hair so dark it seems to have been woven from darkness itself. And then, as if the painting wasn’t unsettling enough, you notice the snake wrapped around Eve’s body, with thin piercing pupils and purplish skin that distinguishes it from the pervading darkness. If you don’t move your eyes, it will draw you in too.

Circe is visually brighter, painted in three vibrant colours; auburn for the hair, dark yellow with hints of olive brown for the cup, and lastly – purple, like dried larkspur flowers. Three colours against the pitch dark background and again, that strange sickly pale skin, were enough to uplift the mood of the painting. In body sculpting, Stuck slightly reminds me of Burne-Jones. Look at her purple tunic that sensuously falls, then her earrings and the luminous cup. Who wouldn’t be tempted to drink from it, even if the price was entering the kingdom of death and running into the arms of Persephone, a fellow mythological creature that played around with fin de siecle imagination. Stuck’s Circe reminds me of silent film stars of 1920s, such as Theda Bara and Pola Negri, who often played roles of vamp femme fatales.