Tag Archives: street

Darkness on the Edge of Town: Charles Burchfield and Egon Schiele

28 Jul

“You can tell her that I’m easily found
Tell her there’s a spot out ‘neath Abraham’s bridge, and tell her
There’s a darkness on the edge of town
There’s a darkness on the edge of town…..

…Tonight I’ll be on that hill ’cause I can’t stop
I’ll be on that hill with everything I got
With our lives on the line where dreams are found and lost…”

(Bruce Springsteen, Darkness on the Edge of Town)

Charles Burchfield, New Moon, November 1917, watercolor and opaque watercolor with graphite

Egon Schiele is a painter whose artworks I have been in love with for many years now and Charles Burchfield is a painter whose work I only discovered two years ago but am getting more and more enthusiastic about. Both of these artists had a particular flair for capturing the houses and townscapes not as mere physical objects made out of wood, brick and mortar, but rather they captured their mood and character. And both artists preferred the medium of watercolour or gouache to the more traditional oil on canvas, and, as my readers here know, watercolour is my favourite medium. Charles Burchfield’s painting “New Moon” and Egon Schiele’s painting “Edge of Town (Krumau Town Crescent) are painted around the same time, in 1917 and 1918 respectively. Whilst Schiele’s painting shows the entire small town of Krumau with many houses crammed close together, Burchfield’s watercolour focuses solely on one house and a particular one indeed.

Burchfield’s watercolour “New Moon” shows a strange and twisted black wooden house which is very close to the road. There is a tree growing in front of the house and it visually disrupts the scene; the tree trunk is in the way of the scene and the black tree branches are thin and clawlike, stretching to scratch whichever intruder passes by it. The facade of the house is contorted in a surreal manner, almost as if it was laughing. A house with a grin and three windows with teeth in them. We can see only a part of the house next door on the left and it looks equally eerie. The sky is dusty pink and yellow and the colours match the blackness of the house. And we can’t even see much of that candy floss-vanilla sky because the house takes up most of the space on the paper; it domineers, almost swallows the space around it, making the scene look mysterious and claustrophobic. There is not space for anything but the house on that paper. I can only imagine what stranger Hawthorneesque characters might inhabit this Gothic abode.

Egon Schiele, Edge of Town (Krumau Town Crescent), 1918

On the other hand, Schiele focuses not on a single houses but on a cluster of houses which, strangely, seem to make up a living organism of its own, a unified skelet that would fall apart if one house was demolished. Schiele’s portrayal of the small and picturesque Czech town of Krumau (which, in Schiele’s life was still part of the Austro-Hungarian Empire) is vibrant and dense. He uses thick brushstrokes of warm, heavy, earthy tones; brown, yellow, orange, warm purple, some muddy green. This combination of colours and brushstrokes makes the town appear old, uninviting and slightly claustrophobic. If you look up pictures of Krumau you will see that the town is as dreamy and fairytale like as can be, and this is definitely just Schiele’s vision of Krumau. This is Schiele’s portrait of the town, its character and mood and the way he perceives it. The town seems uninviting to me, and I can imagine a person walking down those narrow streets and the houses just getting closer and closer, obscuring the sky with their roofs and crushing the person to death. The town is melancholy and decaying but it doesn’t like someone to see it. In his portraits, Schiele usually focuses on the person and ignores the background, he doesn’t care to fill it with colour, but here he takes time to add brushstrokes and brushstrokes of thick, muddy brown.

Both of these artworks disturb me, but in a good way and when I hear Springsteen singing ‘darkness on the edge of town’ this is what comes to my mind… But also, seeing the way Burchfield and Schiele portrayed houses, streets and towns makes me look at houses and street with a pair of new eyes, it makes me notice the strangeness and the character that many houses and builings possess.

Thomas Fransioli – Rain in Charleston

16 Jun

Thomas Fransioli (American, 1906 – 1997), Rain in Charleston, 1951

I had never heard of the American painter Thomas Fransioli until one day a few weeks ago, by serendipity, I stumbled upon his painting “Rain in Charleston” from 1951 and I was immediately captivated by its cold, sleek style and hints of magical realism. Fransioli was born in 1907 in Seattle, Washington and studied architecture at the University of Pennysilvania. In 1930 he got his degree and for a while worked as an architect, making plans for the exhibition rooms in the National Gallery of Art in Washington. The Second World War interrupted his career in architecture and he served in the Pacific Theatre from 1943 to 1946. After the war he took up painting and settled in Boston, Massachausets.

His love of archicture pervades his painterly work, for his oeuvre consists almost entirely out of townscapes, street scenes and buildings. Fransioli showed little to no interest in portraying people and they are almost never seen in his paintings. The style of his paintings shows a love of structure and precision, a longing for order in the midst of a chaotic world. This makes me think of something that Oskar Schlemmer, a German artist associated with the Bauhaus school, said: “If today’s arts love the machine, technology and organization, if they aspire to precision and reject anything vague and dreamy, this implies an instinctive repudiation of chaos and a longing to find the form appropriate to our times.”

Fransioli’s painting “Rain in Charleston”, with its sleek, structured appearance, the sharp and algular, boldly outlined buildings, and its impersonal mood shows a distinct influence of the Precisionism. After all, the painting shows a street devoid of people, another characteristic of the aforementioned art movement. Precisionism was a distinctly American and distinctly modern art movement which first appeared in the early twentieth century in the paintings of Charles Demuth, Charles Sheeler and others. The favoured motives of Precisionist painters were the objects tied exclusively to the modern world; tall buildings, urban landscapes, industrial architecture and factories. In the late 1940s, Fransioli was asked to paint townscapes for the magazine covers of the Collier’s Magazine and so it happened that, on his travels, he was passing through Charleston on one occassion and made some sketches, one of which he would later use as a basis for this painting.

Painting “Rain in Charleston” shows a street scene, more specifically a view of the Laurens Street in Charleston, on a rainy day. The main motifs in the scene are buildings, street, streetlight and trees, and a dark, gloomy sky looming over the town in threatening way. Each building – grey, white, red, blue – looks solitary and is standing separate and alone from the other buildings. Fransioli choses strong and dark colours to set the mood of the painting; a gloomy mood, tingled with strangeness and melancholy. Fransioli usually avoids portraying people in his paintings, but even when he does paint them, like here we see a man standing on the doorstep of his house and a person with an umbrella down the street, they are so small and insignificant that their presence is not strong enough to break the strange, desolate overall mood. Even when it comes to painting nature, such as trees, it is bare and desolate. The contrast between the gloomy, dark sky in the left part of the sky and the light sky in the right part of the sky is beautifully painted.

The combination of the dark clouds and the wet street and pavements really makes this painting atmospheric. One can almost feel how it would be to step into the puddle in the street; it is so realistically and vividly depicted, and almost mirrorlike. I have seen other paintings of towns that Fransioli painted, but I think this one is the best because it is so atmospheric and the rain is definitely something interesting to capture in art. The painting simultaneously appears very realistic and yet very strange because the buildings and the street are painted in a precise, realistic manner but the overall mood of the painting is a desolate, strange one. A rainy street with no people, or a very few unnoticable people, is like a dark dream. In this regard, Fransioli combines the precise and cold style of Precisionism with the Italian Metaphysical style of painting or Magic Realism, the example of which is Giorgio de Chirico and his lonely, melancholy scenes of empty squares and towns.

Camille Pissarro – Impressions of Parisian Streets

27 Nov

Camille Pissarro, Rue Saint Lazare, 1893

Pissarro is a somewhat neglected Impressionist and understandably so; his private life wasn’t rife with scandals and excesses, and his art wasn’t scandalous and fleshy either. It’s easy to see why the dandyish Monet, Degas; the painter of ballerinas, or Renoir with his pretty girls are more popular, but Pissarro’s oeuvre shows both steadiness and experimentation. Pissarro lived in the countryside most of his life and thus most of his paintings are scenes from the countryside. Still, due to health reasons, he moved to Paris near the end of his life and there he continued paintings plein air but his motifs weren’t the meadows, trees and haystacks of his beloved countryside, but the bustling streets of a big city. These delightful urban landscapes are the crown of Pissarro’s painterly career. These paintings remind me of that wonderful feeling; when you find yourself in the midst of a bustling city, on a square or walking on the pavements, and suddenly feel yourself detaching from all the noise and bustle, and simply observing it all. Seeing the people, walking fast or walking slow, cars and trams gliding down the streets, show windows and neon shop signs.

I named this post the “Impressions of Parisian Streets” because this series of paintings that Pissarro had painted throughout the winter of 1897/1898 marks not only the end of Pissarro’s oeuvre but also his final return to a more free, sketchy Impressionist style after he spent a few years flirting with pointillism and learning from Signac and Seurat. These urban landscapes are Pissarro’s “impressions” of the streets he saw from the window of the hotel in the place du Théâtre Français. Seen from afar, these impressions of Parisian streets look like a vibrant and bustling place, but if you look at the paintings from up close you see that the carriages, trees and people have all turned into blurry dots, dashes and dabs of colours. The Impressionist desire to paint plein air and to paint the real world around them reminds me so much of sociology because both basically observed society and world around them. Pissarro basically sketched what he saw in these urban scenes, and even though the style is very free and subjective, he pretty much portrayed the objective truth that was before his eyes.

Camille Pissarro, La Place due Théâtre Français, 1898

Camille Pissarro, Rue Saint-Honoré in the Afternoon, Effect of rain, 1897

Camille Pissarro, Boulevard Montmartre, 1897

Camille Pissarro, Place du Théâtre Français, Paris – Rain, 1898

Camille Pissarro, Boulevard Montmartre, Morning Mist, 1897

Claude Monet, Boulevard des Capucines, 1873-74

I also decided to include this painting by Monet just because it’s so beautiful and captures the same motif.

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