Tag Archives: German Expressionism

Egon Schiele – Melancholic Sunflowers

19 Mar

Egon Schiele was just one of many painters who gave identity to sunflowers; he painted them laden with a heavy burden of melancholy and alienation. Gazing at Schiele’s sunflowers, for me, raises an awareness of the haunting fragility of life. I hope you’re intrigued by the oxymoron in the title.

1911. Sunflowers, by Egon SchieleEgon Schiele, Sunflowers, 1911

Artist most widely associated with the sunflower motif is Vincent van Gogh, who painted the flowers using quick, ecstatic brushstrokes, in thick coat of intense, almost fire-like, burning yellow-orange colour, their petals almost dissolving on canvas, and saw them as symbols of blinding sun which, in the end, causes madness, or even death. While his vision of sunflowers may have something to do with his over indulgence in absinthe and the fervent sun of Arles, Egon Schiele’s sunflowers are pure sceneries of the soul.

Schiele’s sunflower scenes are gentle portraits of human alienation. He was twenty-one years old when he painted this painting, titled simply ‘Sunflowers’ (1911), but he already showed a profound interest and understanding of the world and society around him. At the age of fifteen Schiele lost his father to syphilis, and he quickly took off the rose-tinted glasses of childhood and became an adult, or at least he tried. My point is that his work is very mature and thoughtful. His self-portraits from the same year show his pondering on the question of identity, and his place in the society. In the same way, these sunflowers here represent the state of his soul, not the scenery he saw before him.

1911. Sunflowers - Egon Schiele Egon Schiele, Sunflowers, 1911

In 1913, Schiele wrote to an art collector Franz Hauer: ‘I also do studies, but I find, and know, that copying from nature is meaningless to me, because I paint better pictures from memory, as a vision of the landscape – now, I mainly observe the physical movements of mountains, water, tress and flowers. Everywhere one is reminded of similar movements made by human bodies, similar stirrings of pleasure and pain in plants. Painting is not enough for me; I am aware that one can use colours to establish qualities. – When one sees a tree autumnal in summer, it is an intense experience that involves one’s whole heart and being; and I should like to paint that melancholy.*

The melancholy that Schiele so eloquently described in the letter (he was a poet as well), is exactly the feeling which overwhelms me when I look at this painting. In stingy colours, using light brushstrokes Schiele created a true psychological study. His sunflowers appear tired and weary at first sight, and believe me, the second sight only intensifies the first one. Murky yellows, muddy browns, shades of green – neither of which is fresh or relaxing, all indicate a certain fatigue of the soul, decay of traditional values. Notice the sparse petals: some are missing while others are wildly protruding. Their stems are weak, dry, directionless, about to break – ‘heads’ of sunflowers resemble a tired head of a disappointed, forlorn man carried on fragile shoulders. The scene inevitably reminds me of these verses ‘Broken thoughts run through your empty mind‘ and ‘Endless hours in bed, no peace, in this mind/ No one knows the hell where innocence dies‘, again by Manic Street Preachers (Sleepflower). I may be aggravating with these verses, but I think similar themes often occur in many artworks, regardless of the time-period and style, don’t you?

1908. Sunflower - Egon SchieleEgon Schiele, Sunflower, 1908

A poem that would go well with Schiele’s vision of sunflowers:

Georg Trakl: The Sunflowers

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

1906. Gustav Klimt - The Sunflower, 1906, Oil on Canvas. 110 x 110 cmGustav Klimt, The Sunflower, 1906, Oil on Canvas. 110 x 110 cm

Unlike Schiele’s isolated sunflowers, imbued with sadness, Klimt’s sunflowers have a mystical aura about them. He painted these sunny flowers incorporated in garden scenes. Whereas Schiele isolated his sunflowers, exposed their anguished heads and tired stems, Klimt’s fear of ‘horror vacui’, ‘fear of empty space’, drove his to fill the entire surface of his garden scenes with flowers, whether in form of tiny red dots and green dashes, or in a form of true flowers such as sunflowers. Klimt painted them with their heads looking in different directions, their green leafs dancing in the wind like tulle skirts. Jewish Hungarian journalist and author, Lajos Hevesi (1843-1910), noticed the contrast between bright yellow petals and ‘dark and mysterious’ inner space. Their appearance resembles the solar eclipse. Sunflowers did have a cosmic meaning to Klimt after all.

1913. Farm Garden with Sunflowers, 1913 by Gustav KlimtGustav Klimt, Farm Garden with Sunflowers, 1913

Comparison: Picasso and Kirchner

27 Nov

Who knew there’s a connection between Picasso and Kirchner? Even though their painting styles are rather different, on one occasion they did portray a similar subject – a subject of prostitutes, common for Kirchner, and also a theme of one of the most famous Picasso’s work – The Young Ladies of Avignon.

1913. Five Women in the Street by Ernst Ludwig KirchnerFive Women in the Street, Ernst Ludwig Kirchner, 1913

These two paintings are executed in very different ways which is a result of the different art movements Kirchner and Picasso belonged to, but the subject that they portrayed so memorably is the same. Pablo Picasso’s painting The Young Ladies of Avignon is a good representation of the Cubist art movement which Picasso co-founded, whilst Ernst Ludwig Kirchner’s painting Five Women in the Street is painted in Expressionistic manner. However, both of the paintings show prostitutes, five of them on each painting. While Picasso painted their bodies in very natural pinkish tones, and shaped them quite sharply, following Cezanne’s theory of shapes (an idea that everything in nature can be parceled into geometrical shapes). If you take a close look, you’ll notice how torsos are shaped like triangles, and their breasts like circles and quadrilaterals. Also, it’s interesting to note the unusual perspective, typical for Cubism by the way; a perspective which shows women’s eyes and nose from different angles, as if the viewer was walking around the painting. On the other hand, Kirchner painted these ‘fallen women’ in a very gothic manner; elongated, with thin, fragile bodies wrapped in dark coats, their faces pale, sickly, resembling masks. While yellow colour in Picasso’s painted exceeds into warm and safe earthly, pinkish tones, in Kirchner’s painting yellow looks feeble, grim and apocalyptic.

Refusal of the traditional conception of beauty is evident in both paintings. If we remember the ways Rubens or Titian painted their voluptuous beauties, and compare it with these part angular, part mask-like body parts, and add the other details I numbered above, it becomes clear that these two paintings are pure avant-garde. Both Picasso and Kirchner’s women appear ugly and grotesque compared to more traditional artworks, but we have to be open-minded in order to appreciate these peculiar, off-beat beauties. It is also the atmosphere of these paintings that differs them; Picasso’s painting appears stable, almost frozen in time, while Kirchner portrayed the city’s dynamics, hastiness, feeling of anxiety, fear and hopelessness – Kirchner’s women are walking up and down the streets of pre-catastrophe Berlin.

1907. Les Demoiselles d'Avignon (The Young Ladies of Avignon, and originally titled The Brothel of Avignon)[2] by the Spanish artist Pablo PicassoLes Demoiselles d’Avignon (The Young Ladies of Avignon) and originally titled The Brothel of Avignon), Pablo Picasso, 1907

City Scenes – Comparison: Impressionism and Expressionism

9 Sep

Diversities of people and cultures, sense of anonymity and optimistic yet fleeting feeling that everything is possible, along with vibrancy of the landscape are some of the things that attracted artists to European capitals. Specific mood and appearance of cities, in this case Paris and Berlin, affected artists who chose to either capture the city’s spirit on canvas, or express feelings which the city triggered.

The Boulevard Montmartre at NightCamille Pissarro, Montmartre Boulevard at Night, 1897

Although stylistically and atmospherically different, both paintings represent city scenes. Pissarro painted the ‘Montmartre Boulevard at Night’ in a true impressionistic manner with small and thin, yet visible brushstrokes, and created a sense of flickering excitement. On the other hand, painting ‘Nollendorfplatz’ is a good example of Kirchner’s typical wild, passionate, almost angry brushstrokes which are responsible for the overall feeling of dynamism. Elements on Pissarro’s painting such as carriages, trees and streetlamps make it an appealing one, specially for modern viewers and their visions of romantic Paris. Pissarro painted a lively and bustling Parisian night – lights are shining, carriages are arriving, people are having fun.

Kirchner’s painting radiates a completely different atmosphere. Starting with the unusual composition in a shape of an X, Kirchner creates a distorted and deformed space. Accentuated contour lines and dramatic choice of colours only deepen the unease a viewer can feel while looking at the painting. Elements that Kirchner chose to portray, Strassenbahns and tall, undefined buildings created a certain coldness and alienation. While Pissarro’s passers-by that occupy the pavement are barely visible, painted in soft and blurry shades of grey and purple, Kirchner’s characters resemble shadows, tall, black and deprived of any individuality, they stroll the streets of decadent Berlin, isolated from themselves and their surroundings, suffocated by the modern architecture around them. A suitable background for this painting would be the song ‘Kollaps’ by Einstürzende Neubauten.

Similarities between these two city scenes can be found in colours, but noticing this similarity again brings us to a great difference that is truly due to the art movements these two artworks belong to. Both Pissarro and Kirchner used blue and yellow in abundance. Whereas Pissarro’s blue is deep and soothing, Kirchner’s is cold, occasionally exceeding into shades of grey. Yellow that appears like a soft flickering light on Pissarro’s painting, on Kirchner’s painting it looks solid and exaggerated, its shade is almost sickly, at parts turning to bleak green shades, framed by solid brushstrokes of black. However, both paintings are ‘portraits’ of cities at a specific moment; vivacious Fin de siècle Paris and decadent catastrophic pre-Weimar Berlin. Still, as an Impressionist, Pissarro was interested in outward appearance and he captured the spirit of Paris at that specific moment, while Kirchner, as an Expressionist, presented us his own feelings and state of mind, using reality merely as an encouragement for expressing artistic experience.

1912. Ernst Ludwig Kirchner - NollendorfplatzErnst Ludwig Kirchner, Nollendorfplatz, 1912

Ernst Ludwig Kirchner – A Vivid Expressionist ‘Bridge’

9 Nov

In 1905. a group of German expressionist artists was formed in Dresden. The group took the name The Bridge (Die Brücke) by a quote from the novel Thus Spoke Zarathustra by Nietzsche ”What is great in a man is that he is a bridge and not an end.

1914. Ernst Ludwig Kirchner - Potsdamer Platz

Although a student of architecture, Ernst Ludwig Kirchner fully committed himself to art since 1905. when he founded the artists group called The Bridge, along with two other architecture students, Karl Schmidt-Rottluff and Erich Heckel. The group aimed to create a new form of expressionism which would form a bridge between the past and the present. They found inspiration in works of Albrecht Dürer and Matthias Grünewald, as well as contemporary avant-garde movements. Their works were compared with their French peers, The Fauvists, who, although called the beasts (fauves) appeared tame by comparison. However, both movements were fond of primitive art, showed interest in expressing extreme emotions through vivid and non-naturalistic colours, both groups enjoyed a crude drawing technique  and shared an antipathy to complete abstraction.

Typical paintings of the group that include the street scenes with melancholic and agonizing mood, and erotic nudes, make the Fauvists seem tame to comparison. Ernst Ludwig Kirchner’s paintings are perhaps the most appealing to me; I’m very much fond of his Berlin street scenes with hectic, yet melancholic and nostalgic atmosphere. Kirchner’s studio in Dresden became a place of gathering for the artists who were drawn to the liberal atmosphere; social conventions were rejected and nudity and casual love making became typical venues for the studio. His studio was described as: ”…that of a real bohemian, full of paintings lying all over the place, drawings, books and artist’s materials — much more like an artist’s romantic lodgings than the home of a well-organised architecture student.” Still, this liberal atmosphere and casualty proved to be inspirational for this group of artists isolated themselves in this working class neighborhood in Dresedn and absorbed the dark mood of it, rejecting their own bourgeois background. Models from the same social circles posed for Kirchner and the rest of the group, most famous of them being a fifteen years old girl named Isabella. She was described by another painter from the group, Fritz Bleyl, as “a very lively, beautifully built, joyous individual, without any deformation caused by the silly fashion of the corset and completely suitable to our artistic demands, especially in the blossoming condition of her girlish buds.

In Kirchner’s ‘Dresden phase‘ his emphasis in painting was on nudes and female portraits in vivid colours whilst in his ‘Berlin phase’ he focused more on the street scenes. In 1906. he met Doris Große who would be his model until 1911. when he moved to Berlin. In his Dresden phase, Kirchner focused on female portraits with natural background and an emphasis on spontaneity. Besides the historical German influences, artists of the Bridge movement also favoured the works of Gauguin and Van Gogh; they influenced Kirchner with their flat colour application and the heavy brush strokes.

1911. Ernst Ludwig Kirchne - Weiblicher Akt mit Hut

1908. Ernst Ludwig Kirchner - Dodo und ihr Bruder

1906. Ernst Ludwig Kirchner - Doris with Ruff Collar

1907. Ernst Ludwig Kirchner Sitzende Dame (Dodo)

1909. Dodo with japanese umbrella - Kirchner1909. Kirchner - Marzella

”The German artist looks not for harmony of outward appearance but much more for the mystery hidden behind the external form. He or she is interested in the soul of things, and wants to lay this bare.”