Tag Archives: Magical

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?

Hylas and the Nymphs – John William Waterhouse

3 Apr

John William Waterhouse was a painter of mystery, beauty and dreams. Continuing the Pre-Raphaelite tradition, and adding a few Impressionistic touches, Waterhouse created an original and mystic world of melancholic, wistful and often fatal beauties.

1896. Hylas and the Nymphs - John William Waterhouse 11896. Hylas and the Nymphs – John William Waterhouse, Manchester Art Gallery

Little is known about John William Waterhouse; he was a private man and therefor left no diaries or letters, no famous quotes, private dramas or thrilling love stories. Up until recently, the names of his beautiful models were wrapped in mystery as well, some still are. Waterhouse was born in Rome to English parents who were both painters. Even the precise date of his birth is unsure, but he was baptised in early April 1849; the same year that the Pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood, led by the dashing young painter Dante Gabriel Rossetti, first created a stir in the London art scene. His early life in Italy, and many trips to Italy later in life, inspired him to paint scenes of ancient Rome and scenes from Roman mythology. Over and above, Italy was a great source of inspiration for the Pre-Raphaelites as well.

Lack of information regarding his private life may compel some of the viewers to find his paintings cold, lacking in the ‘intensity and emotion’ of the other Pre-Raphaelite artists. In addition, some (recent) critics have classified his work as being pure imitation of Rossetti and Millais’ works, lacking the personal touch thus making his paintings vague in comparison with Pre-Raphaelite masterpieces such as Millais’ Ophelia. I highly disagree with these claims! Waterhouse, although adopting the Pre-Raphaelite painting style, created paintings that burst with originality, beauty and mysticism.

Their dreamy quality simply draws the viewers in, allowing them to escape from reality into the mythical world where nymphs, antic heroes, beautiful heroines and satyrs reside; the magic world that combines romantic Arthurian legends and mythological creatures with the painter’s own sensibility, poetic brush strokes and Victorian symbolism. The lack of known personal involvement with the subject in my opinion only adds to the element of mystery, thus making his paintings more intriguing and even harder to understand.

1896. Hylas and the Nymphs - John William Waterhouse Detail

Waterhouse painted this painting ‘Hylas and the Nymphs‘ in 1896, at the age of 47, when much of his most famous works had already been painted. The painting shows Hylas, the young and handsome companion of Hercules, surrounded by enchanting nymphs peaking from the tranquil greenish water. Hercules and Hylas had arrived at the island of Cios, and as soon Nymphs noticed young Hylas, they became enchanted by his beauty.

As usual, Waterhouse is never direct, he instead presents us the occasion just the moment before the inevitable happened. Hylas is being pulled by the Nymphs into their sinister watery abode, but we don’t see that tragic moment, we only see one Nymph taking Hylas’ hand and focusing her cold, wistful gaze at him. Only a moment later, lurid cries reverberated through the island; Hercules was calling for Hylas, but in vain. Waterhouse proficiently portrays dark and tragic moments, giving them beauty and serenity.

Nymphs are female creatures in Greek and Latin mythology. They are usually depicted as beautiful and fatal maidens who love to sing and dance, and behaving naughty as one can see in the story with Hylas. They represent power of nature. Name ‘nymph’ comes from Greek word ‘nymphē‘ which means ‘bride’ and ‘veiled’, referring to a marriageable young woman. One of the meaning is a ‘rose-bud’, perhaps indicating the beauty all the nymphs possess. By choosing nymphs as subjects and portraying this tragic story of love and doom, Waterhouse fully expressed his romantic sensibility, and revealed his fascination with strong and beautiful female figures. Nymphs are presented as alluring, and Hylas is powerless against their charms.

1896. Hylas and the Nymphs - John William Waterhouse Detail 2

Nymphs obviously stole the poor Hylas’ spotlight with their luminous skin and sensual bodies, capturing the viewer with their beauty in the same way they captured Hylas. Nymphs have been painted in art before, but never quite as magically, or as sinisterly. In previous versions they appeared plump and cheerful, whereas Waterhouse portrayed them as having more girlish bodies, with fair skin that exceeds into mystical green shades underwater. They appear otherworldly in every sense of the word. Their hair is sleek and wet, decorated with modest flowers, and they have different face expressions, ranging from cold to wistful and idle gazes.

Then there are those splendid lilac brush strokes which emphasise the magic and captivating strength that these beauties possess. The water is green, strangely calm, sprinkled with tiny white flowers. In India, water-lilies are considered symbolic of the grief of separation. Knowing the story, we could connect water lilies as symbols of separation for Hylas; separation from this world. Two nymphs on the far right are shown dreamily playing with large water lily leaves. These are the nymphs that Faun from Mallarme’s poem ‘The Afternoon of a Faun’ was obsessed with.

These nymphs I would perpetuate.

So clear

Their light carnation, that it floats in the air

Heavy with tufted slumbers.

Was it a dream I loved?

Listening to Claude Debussy’s ‘Prelude to the Afternoon of a Faun’ you can almost feel them dancing and laughing in the background, the green water splashing around, their long hair floating on the water, their skin shining in the sunlight.

1975. Ondine Bath Dew1975. Advert for ‘Ondine Bath Dew’, Cosmopolitan, July, Photo found HERE.

The advert above was particularly interesting to me because it was obviously inspired by Waterhouse’s masterpiece, mixed with ’70s aesthetics. I think the photo captured the atmosphere very well; magical, dreamy and sinister.

The photo below shows a dress called ‘Nymphe’; an example of Parisian fashion for May 1921. I can imagine Nymphs wearing something similar, fluttery and decorated with flowers.

1921. Les Modes (Paris) May 1921 'Nymphe' robe du soir de la Maison Agnes1921. Les Modes (Paris) May, ‘Nymphe’

Subjects from Greek and Latin Mythology or Arthurian legends were especially popular in the nineteenth century, for they seemed to touch a nerve with Victorians whose everyday reality was far from ‘magical and romantic’; Industrial revolution was in full bloom and poverty and social injustices were on every corner.