Archive for Albrecht Dürer

Monkey Business: The Paintings of Ferdinand van Kessel

Posted in Christine Cariati, Fine & Decorative Arts, Flora & Fauna, Painting with tags , , , , , , on May 4, 2010 by Christine Cariati

by Christine Cariati

Ferdinand van Kessel, Monkey’s Feast

Ferdinand van Kessel’s (1648-1696) humorous and engaging monkey paintings feature many types of monkeys and apes indulging in various human activities. Like other painters of the 17th century, van Kessel was very interested in the natural sciences and painted all kinds of specimens and wildlife very much in the cabinet of curiosities style. The monkey paintings are a hybrid of his natural history and allegorical work.

Ferdinand van Kessel, Landscape with Birds, 1681
Oil on copperplate
The Hermitage, St. Petersburg

In the history of western art, monkeys have appeared in several different guises. Earlier on, monkeys were often depicted chained or tethered—representing man trapped by his senses and earthly desires. Monkeys were also often depicted eating an apple, symbolizing man’s fall from grace. In the 17th and 18th centuries, as interest in natural history grew, monkeys in art were no longer symbols of sin and enslavement, but mimics of the foolish behavior of humans. It is only in some of the great natural history illustrations of the 19th century, that monkeys, drawn in their natural habitats, are depicted with autonomy, respect and dignity–although it is still very rare that human characteristics and expressions are not attributed to them.

Albrecht Dürer, Virgin and Child with Monkey, c. 1498
Copperplate engraving
The British Museum

18th century engraving from a painting by Jan Brueghel the Elder (1568-1625)
Courtauld Institute, London

Frans Francken and David Teniers, The Interior of a Picture Gallery, c. 1615-50
Oil on panel
Courtauld Institute, London

There is not much information available about Ferdinand van Kessel. All that I’ve really been able to determine is that he is the son of the great Jan van Kessel of Antwerp, and thus a part of the extended van Kessel/Brueghel family that produced so many great artists.

Circle of Jan van Kessel, Study of Birds and Monkeys, c. 1660-1670
Oil on copper
National Gallery of Art, Washington, D.C.

Circle of Jan van Kessel, Study of Birds and Monkeys, c. 1660-1670
Oil on copper
National Gallery, Washington, D.C.

Ferdinand’s father, Jan van Kessel (1626-1679), was the grandson of Jan Brueghel, and largely continued in his tradition, painting still-lifes of flowers, insects and animals. Jan van Kessel also painted allegorical works depicting animals, the four elements and the senses. Accuracy was very important to him—he worked both from nature and scientific texts. Jan van Kessel worked mostly in oil on copper—his paintings are small-scale gems, intensely colored and filled with meticulous detail.

Jan van Kessel was very influenced by the scientific naturalism of Joris Hoefnagel (1542-1600), particularly his studies of flowers and insects. A folio of fifty-two of Hoefnagel’s engravings, Archetypa studiaque patris Georgii Hoefnagelii, based on his father Georg’s watercolor paintings, was published in Frankfurt in 1592.

Joris Hoefnagel, detail of frontispiece from Archetypa studiaque patris Georgii Hoefnagelii

Jan van Kessel, A Cockchafer, Beetle, Woodlice and other Insects, with a Sprig of Auricula, c. 1650s
Oil on copper
The Ashmolean, Oxford

Here are three more of Ferdinand van Kessel’s monkey paintings. I wasn’t able to find out where they are located, so I’ll assume for now that they are in private collections. I’d love to know more about them, if anyone has information, please join the conversation.

Ferdinand van Kessel, The Painting Monkey

Ferdinand van Kessel, Apes Celebrating in the Kitchen

Ferdinand van Kessel, A Monkey Smoking and Drinking with an Owl

In the future, Venetian Red will do a second installment about primates in art, discussing the work of Chardin, Watteau and others—leading up to the multitude of monkey paintings as social commentary in the age of Darwin.

Advertisements

Insects in Art: The Busy Bee Has No Time for Sorrow

Posted in Christine Cariati, Design, Female Artists, Fine & Decorative Arts, Flora & Fauna, Illustration, Installation, Painting, Printmaking, Textiles, XC with tags , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , on April 20, 2010 by Christine Cariati

by Christine Cariati

Seest thou the little winged fly, smaller than a grain of sand?
It has a heart like thee, a brain open to heaven and hell,
Withinside wondrous and expansive; its gates are not closed;
I hope thine are not.                       — William Blake

While rather squeamish about actual insects, I am entranced by images of insects in art—in still-life, natural history illustration and design. As Albrecht Dürer (1471-1528) wrote:

It is indeed true that art is omnipresent in nature, and the true artist is he who can bring it out.

Albrecht Dürer, Stag Beetle, 1505
Watercolor on paper
Getty Museum

Dürer’s beautiful and dignified watercolor of a beetle is an early embodiment of the Renaissance respect for nature—Dürer was among the first of his contemporaries to give an insect center stage in a work of art. In antiquity, insects had been included in trompe l’oeil and memento mori paintings to demonstrate technical virtuosity and as symbols of evil and death, while butterflies represented transformation and resurrection. Insects in themselves were considered unworthy of consideration as subjects for painting.

By the 17th century, the obsession with natural history—and with insects as a miraculous part of the natural world—took precedence, and symbolism was left behind. Insects became subjects of study and fascination. Dürer, as always, ahead of his time, brings his masterful draughtsmanship to his watercolor, of a beetle—which he considered a finished work of art, not a study.

Francesco Stelluti‘s Melissographia, 1625, was the first scientific illustration done with the aid of a microscope and included three magnified views of a bee.

Wenceslaus Hollar, Forty-One Insects, Moths and Butterflies, 1646
Etching from Muscarum Scarabeorum
Metropolitan Museum of Art

Wenceslaus Hollar (1607-1677) was a Czech-born master printmaker, whose natural history illustrations have an elegant sense of pattern and design. Cabinets of curiosity were the rage among collectors of the day, and assemblages such as this would part of the display. Hollar’s illustrations were likely influenced the engravings that Jacob Hoefnagel did from his father Georg Hoefnagel‘s original drawings.

Like many still-lifes of the period, Hoefnagel’s natural history studies often had a somber message. The title of his piece, below, which features flowers, a chrysalis, insects and a moth above a dead mouse reads: Nasci. Patri. Mori. (I am born. I suffer. I die.)

Jacob Hoefnagel, Archetypa Studiaque Patris Georgii Hoefnagel, 1592
Engraving
Private collection, Switzerland

Alexander Marshal (c.1620-82) is famous for his beautifully drawn florilegium (flower-book) which he worked on for thirty years, until his death. This lovely butterfly study, above, was painted from one in the collection of naturalist, gardener and plant-hunter John Tradescant the Younger (1608-62) when Marshal was a guest at his house in London in 1641.

Robert Hooke, Ant, from Micrographia
London, 1665
The Huntington Library, San Marino, California

John Covel, Natural History and Commonplace Notebook, 1660-1713
Drawings and notations by Robert Hooke and others
The British Library

Robert Hooke, Eye of a Fly, from Micrographia, 1665
Engraving
The Huntington Library, San Marino, California

The work of Robert Hooke (1635-1703) is extraordinary in its detail and accuracy. Hooke’s Micrographia is a landmark work in natural history illustration. It contains thirty-eight copperplate engravings, his subjects all brilliantly translated from his keen observations under the microscope to an authentic, beautifully rendered two-dimensional image.

Mark Catesby, Nightjar and mole cricket, detail, c. 1722-6

Mark Catesby‘s (1682-1749) life work was his The Natural History of Carolina, Florida and the Bahama Islands. His work really captures the life force of his subjects, and in this case, the predatory demands of survival.

William Blake, The Sick Rose, from Songs of Innocence and Experience, 1789

No artist captured the contradictory aspects of nature with more force and beauty than the great visionary Romantic poet, illustrator and printmaker, William Blake (1757-1827.) Blake, who described the human imagination as “the body of God,” and died singing and clapping his hands at the vision of heaven that awaited him—was nevertheless able to beautifully describe the dark, destructive aspect of nature.

O Rose thou art sick.
The invisible worm,
That flies in the night
In the howling storm:

Has found out thy bed
Of crimson joy:
And his dark secret love
Does thy life destroy.

Lens Aldous, Head of the Flea, c. 1838
Hand-colored lithograph, poster for Entomological Society of London
Hope Library, Oxford University Museum of Natural History

Two more impossibly detailed images of the heads of insects. Above, Lens Aldous was a specialist in micrographic illustration. The year this image was made, Charles Darwin was Vice-President of the Entomolgical Society of London.

Jan Swammerdam, The Book of Nature; Or, The History of Insects, 1758
Engraving
Cambridge University Library

The drawing, above, of the head of a male bee, is in a book from Charles Darwin’s personal library. Microscopic studies were extremely important to the development of Darwin’s theories about evolution.

R. Scott, Arachnides, Myriapoda, c.1840

This illustration, above, is not just an inventory of types of spiders, it also shows the predatory nature of these creatures—note the bird in the grasp of the giant spider.

Jan van Kessel, Insects and Fruit, c. 1636-1679
Oil on copper
Rijksmuseum, Amsterdam

Jan van Kessel, Insects on a Stone Slab, c. 1660-70
Oil on copper
Kunstmuseum, Basel

My favorite painter of insects is Jan van Kessel (1626-1679.) As with his bird tableaus, van Kessel created mini-universes teeming with life in his natural history scenes. His works are mostly small oil paintings on copper or wood. Often studies like these were made into prints for natural history collectors.

Justus Juncker, Pear with Insects, 1765
Oil on oakwood
Städel Museum, Frankfurt am Main

There are many 17th century still-lifes in which insects do not have center stage but instead play a supporting role. This beautiful painting by Justus Juncker (1703-1767) presents the pear as a sculptural form—the dramatic lighting and its isolation on the pedestal gives it a mysterious and monumental presence. Again, there are intimations of mortality—the plinth is chipped and cracked, and the small tears in the skin of the fruit has attracted insects.

Maria Sibyla Merian, Branch of guava tree with leafcutter ants, army ants, pink-toed tarantulas, c. 1701-5

I can think of no more intriguing examples of botanical art than the work of artist and naturalist Maria Sibylla Merian (1647-1717.) Merian began her entymological studies at thirteen, when she embarked on a study of flies, spiders and caterpillars.  In 1705, Merian published her stunning Metamorphosis, a folio of 60 engraved plates of the life cycle of the butterflies and insects of Surinam, where she’d been on expedition from 1699-1701. I love the way Merian plays with scale, conflates species and creates drama with her lively and energetic compositions.

Maria Sibylla Merian, Passion flower plant and flat-legged bug, c. 1701-5

Maria Sibylla Merian, Vine branch and black grapes, with moth, caterpillar and chrysalis of gaudy sphinx, 1701-5

Insects also fired the imagination of Victorian fairy painters. Their work was full of creatures that were half-human/half-insect—and elves and fairies ride around on the backs of butterflies and birds. This costume sketch, below, is from Charles Kean‘s production of a Midsummer Night’s Dream which was produced at Princess’s Theatre, London, in 1856. Shakespeare’s play was an abiding theme in paintings of this genre.

Joseph Noël Paton, The Quarrel of Oberon and Titania, detail, 1849
Oil on canvas
National Gallery of Scotland Edinburgh

John Anster Fitzgerald, Faeries with Birds, detail

In the area of design, textile designers have also made good use of insect imagery, for example, this charming and colorful insect design from France, c. 1810.

And, below, Dagobert Peche‘s vibrant Swallowtail design done for the Weiner Werkstätte c. 1913.

In 1926, master of French Art Deco design, Emile-Alain Seguy painted this beautiful pattern of butterflies and roses.

Seguy was perhaps most famous for his amazing series, Insectes, done in collotype with pouchoir.

Contemporary artist Jennifer Angus creates large-scale installations made from petrified insects that are reminiscent of Victorian cabinets of curiosities. Angus’ work, with its kaleidescopic imagery, is an amalgam of science and art. It is highly decorative but is also meant to educate the viewer about the important role of insects in our environment.

Jennifer Angus, Grammar of Ornament, 2004
Installation, University of Wisconsin

Angus gets most of her bugs through harvesters in Southeast Asia, and recycles insects from piece to piece. A link to a podcast about Angus’ 2008 show at the Newark Museum, Insecta Fantasia, is below:

Before humans drew plants, landscapes or images of themselves—they drew animals and insects. The fascination with the natural world and the creatures that share our planet is ancient and enduring. I am grateful to the artists whose sustained intense observation and attention to detail have brought these creatures to life on the page.

The busy bee has no time for sorrow.
The hours of folly are measur’d by the clock; but of wisdom,
No clock can measure…
—from The Marriage of Heaven and Hell by William Blake

Hans Holbein: Tricks of the Trade

Posted in Fine & Decorative Arts, Liz Hager, Painting with tags , , , , , , , , on March 6, 2010 by Liz Hager

By LIZ HAGER

Oh Stranger, would you like to see pictures that appear to be alive? Then look at these, made by the hands of Holbein. Nicolas Bourbon

Hans Holbein (the Younger), Henry VIII, 1540
Oil on wood, approximately 35 x 29 1/3 inches
(Galeria Nationale d’Arte Antica, Rome)

Three European countries claim Hans Holbein (the Younger) as their own—Germany, where he was born (in the Bavarian town of Augsburg circa 1497 or 98); Switzerland, where he received his artistic training; and England, where many of his most celebrated works were produced under the patronage of Henry VIII.

Hans Holbein (the Younger), Jane Seymour, ca. 1536
Oil on panel, approximately 35 x 26 inches
(Künsthistorisches Museum, Vienna)

Henry was notoriously passionate about splendor and Holbein had the artistic ingenuity that allowed him to fulfill any of the King’s many and varied whims. By 1537 Holbein was not only the most fashionable painter at Henry’s court, he was functioning as the King’s “designer,” creating interiors, jewelry, place settings and other precious objects.

It is safe to say that the more than 100 miniature and full-sized portraits completed by Holbein during his time at court have informed all subsequent generations’ sense of the Tutor era.

Hans Holbein, Thomas More, 1527,
oil on oak panel, 29 1/2 in. x 23 3/4 inches
(Frick Collection; Henry Clay Frick Bequest)

Holbein is judged today as a virtuoso portraitist, in part because much of his other work—monumental and religious paintings—survives only through preparatory drawings. Through the portraits one immediately grasps the ways in which Holbein differentiated himself—a brilliant mastery of the paint medium; obsessive attention to visual detail; and access to the important personages of his day whose own reputations would endure through history.

Holbein’s style was driven by reason, rather than emotion. He was obsessed with the richness of details, compelled to precision in rendering the myriad of visual “facts” that lay before him. According to expert Paul Ganz Holbein “was an artist who attained his mastership by long and hard struggle; under every conceivable circumstance he trained himself to keep his eyes open to see and learn. . . ”

Hans Holbein (the Younger), Anne of Cleves, 1523,
Watercolor on parchment, approximately 25 1/2 x 19 inches
(Louvre, Paris)

Contemporaries have left records marveling at his ability to capture the exact likeness of sitters and the elegance of their garments. Indeed, his figures are so real as to seem as if they could walk off their picture planes plastically intact.

Hans Holbein (the Younger), Erasmus, 1523
Oil on limewood, approximately 17 x 23 inches.
(Louvre, Paris)

Yet, Holbein’s true genius may have lain in his ability to effectively edit the details. He grasped the notion that a sitter is defined by his/her salient physical features.  In the portrait of Erasmus above, for example, he perfectly captures the essence of a scholar absorbed in concentration. We know, because he’s pursing his lips in profile.

Hans Holbein (the Younger), Merchant George Grisze, 1532
Oil on wood, 96.3 x 85.7 cm
(Gemaldegalerie, Berlin)

In his 1923 The Mastery of Drawing, art historian Joseph Meder advanced the theory that Holbein had utilized the tracing (perspective) apparatus first described by Albrecht Dürer in his The Painter’s Manual (1525). Or perhaps, like the artist below, he painted on glass to get contours and spatial relationships just right.
Albrecht Dürer—Woodcut illustration from his Underweysung der Messung. . . (Instruction in Measurement. . . ), 1538.

Albrecht Dürer—see above.

It’s not so far-fetched an idea. In his fascinating book book Secret Knowledge , David Hockney posits a similar theory about Ingres, Velázquez, and Caravaggio (among others) use of optics and lenses to “improve” their draftsmanship, and with it portraits that were far and away more naturalistic than those of their contemporaries.

Hans Holbein (the Younger), Margaret More (daughter of Thomas More), 1535
Vellum laid on playing card, approximately 1 3/4 inches in diameter
(Metropolitan Museum of Art, NY)

It is widely acknowledged that Holbein started with chalk drawings of his sitters, which he (or others) transferred (in puzzle assembly mode) to larger wood panels using the pouncing method or metal stylist.

Some contemporary scholars, however, are not at all persuaded by Meder’s argument. Through infrared investigation they conclude that Holbein’s drawings were not meant to be complete finished likenesses of his sitters, but simply records of their essential features. Further, their studies confirm that many of Holbein’s drawings were in fact used as patterns for other paintings, both by him and by others after his death. In some cases the drawing and “corresponding” painting are not as closely related as had been supposed. All of which would argue against “tracing.”

The jury is still out. Whatever the case may be, let’s remember that in most hands a tool is just a tool.

Hans Holbein (the Younger), Nicolas Bourbon, ca. 1535
Colored chalks, pen and ink on paper, 38.4 × 28.3 cm
(Royal Collection, Windsor Castle)

Wider Connections

Holbein and England (Paul Mellon Centre for Studies in British Art)
The Rare Book Room
Holbein Portrait Drawings (Dover Art Library)
SUNY-Oneonta—“Albrecht Dürer: Artist Drawing a Nude with Perspective Device

Mathias Grünewald’s Isenheim Altarpiece

Posted in Fine & Decorative Arts, Painting, XC with tags , , , , , on January 19, 2010 by Christine Cariati

by Christine Cariati

Mathias Grünewald, Crucifixion, Isenheim Altarpiece, c.1512/15
Musée d’Unterlinden, Colmar

I’ve been thinking lately about the transformative power of art and its relevance in our troubled world. In medieval times, through its connection to the church, art held a more central place in people’s lives, as it sought to enlighten, instruct and relieve suffering.

This brought to mind the Isenheim Altarpiece by German painter Mathias Grünewald (c. 1475-1528). The Isenheim Altarpiece embodies the human condition laid bare—from the extremes of catastrophic darkness to the rapture of resurrection and eternal life. The graceful, linear quality of the drawing and the vibrant, expressionist use of color would be enough to set this work apart—but Grünewald’s individualistic iconography and the intense emotional impact of the Isenheim Altarpiece make it completely unique.

There is also another aspect of the Isenheim Altarpiece which intensifies its powerful spiritual presence—it was commissioned by the monks of a medieval hospital in the tiny hamlet of Isenheim to help lessen the suffering of their patients afflicted with a terrible skin disease called St. Anthony’s fire, or ergotism, which was caused by rye fungus. In a time before painkillers, the patients meditated on Christ’s intense suffering and resurrection to help them cope with their own agonies.

Crucifixion: Mary, John and Mary Magdalene (detail)

The Isenheim Altarpiece, painted on nine hinged panels, contains twelve images, including two sets of folding wings. It can be viewed in three ways. In its closed position—the way it would have been viewed originally on weekdays at the hospital—the central panel shows the Crucifixion, with side panels of St. Anthony and St. Sebastian. The second view shows the Annunciation, the Angelic Concert, the Madonna and Child and the Resurrection. In the third view, a pre-existing carved and gilded wooden altarpiece is flanked by Grünewald’s paintings of the Temptation of St. Anthony and the Meeting with Anthony and Paul.

The Annunciation

Madonna and Child

Resurrection

As the panels of the altarpiece were unfolded, the enormous scope of the intense, riveting drama was revealed. Grünewald’s image of the crucified Christ is imbued with a visceral and emotional intensity. Christ, his skin a grayish green, covered with wounds—has clearly writhed in agony, his limbs twisted, his hands distorted, his head with its crown of thorns hanging painfully on his chest. This is a portrait of a brutal, solitary death—the sense of immediacy, agony and isolation is palpable. By contrast, the resurrected Christ, surrounded by light, is a triumphant image of the rapture of eternal life.

Crucifixion: Head of Christ (detail)

Resurrection: Head of Christ (detail)

Mathias Grünewald’s real name was Mathis Gothardt Neihardt—the name Grünewald was mistakenly attributed to him 150 years after his death. For a painter who was so well-thought of in his own time, remarkably little information about him has been passed down and few of his works survive—only about ten paintings (including multi-paneled altar pieces) and 35 drawings. All the work that remains is religious in nature. Unlike Albrecht Dürer and the other great German artists of the time, who excelled at woodcarving and other forms of print making, Grünewald only made paintings and drawings, which in itself is very unusual. So little was known about Grünewald, that until the 19th century, it was believed that the Isenheim Altarpiece was painted by Albrecht Dürer.

Study for Isenheim Altarpiece, c. 1512

What we do know is that by 1509, Grünewald was court painter to the Archbishop of Mainz, and that he was commissioned to paint the Isenheim Altarpiece around 1512-15.  Art historians disagree as to interpretations and influences—for example, one categorically states that Grünewald, because of his clear knowledge of Italian painting, must have traveled widely—another asserts he never left Germany. Personally, I don’t think the facts of Grünewald’s life can really do much to explain the expressive, luminous intensity of the work or how he pushed his artistic skill to the point where he could capture so powerfully the tension and emotion of this transformative  work.

Crucifixion: St. Sebastian (detail)

The complex and unusual iconography of the Isenheim Altarpiece is puzzling. The imagery in religious art of the Middle Ages and the Renaissance may seem mysterious to many of us today, but can be easily deciphered by art historians—the reason and background behind every element depicted can be traced, parsed and explained. Not so with Grünewald. Some of his iconography appears to be related to the work of the 14th century mystic, St Bridget of Sweden, whose Revelations was widely read in Germany at that time, but that does not explain all of the unusual visual references. It seems that Grünewald took an eclectic approach not only stylistically, but as regards subject matter as well.

Crucifixion: John the Baptist and the Lamb

Altarpieces were created for one purpose: to embody a specific aspect of generally recognized religious truth. In the process of spiritual meditation the barrier between the viewer and the artistic creation is broken. The Isenheim Altarpiece, in its intensity, tenderness and majesty is the power of this transformation made visible. Like Hieronymous Bosch, Grünewald infuses his work with a highly personal imagination that elicits a strong reaction from the viewer.

Monsters from the Temptation of St. Anthony panel

Grünewald clearly had a knowledge of Central European art from the late Gothic to the beginning of the 16th century, and incorporates elements from these various time periods in a highly original and independent way. There are links to Bosch and Netherlandish painting, as well as intimations of the naturalism of the Renaissance in Italy. Grünewald, on the cusp of the German Reformation, embodies aspects of both medieval and Renaissance art. Unlike the masters of the Italian Renaissance—whose work Grünewald may or may not have seen personally—Grünewald’s heavenly creatures are conjured from light, they are clearly not of this world. Painters of the Italian Renaissance incorporated spiritual beings into the known world. As an example, see the work of Michaelangelo who was painting the Sistine Chapel at the same time Grünewald was painting his altarpiece. In Grünewald, the supernatural world exists outside the human realm.

The Angelic Concert

Angels of the Annunciation

Grünewald’s masterpiece, forgotten for centuries, was rediscovered by a wider public following the horrors of World War I. At the outbreak of war, the Isenheim Altarpiece was moved from the Musée d’Unterlinden and sent for safe-keeping to Munich. After the war it was restored and exhibited for a time in the Alte Pinakothek before returning to Colmar. The Expressionists, then dominating the art scene in Germany, looked to Grünewald as their forerunner and to the Isenheim Altarpiece as the confirmation of their philosophy. The world, traumatized and overwhelmed by the death and destruction of the war, turned to the Isenheim Altarpiece for solace and inspiration.

Wider Connections

The Isenheim Altar: Suffering and Salvation in the Art of Grunewald by Gottfried Richter
Mathias Grünewald
by Horst Ziermann
Musée d’Unterlinden, Colmar

Venetian Red Salutes the Decade

Posted in Christine Cariati, Contemporary Art, Drawing, Female Artists, Fiber Arts, Film & Video, Fine & Decorative Arts, Liz Hager, Painting, Photography, Public Art, Quilts, Textiles with tags , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , on December 31, 2009 by Liz Hager

We thought a Venetian Red salute to a decade of art would be a fitting subject for a final post in 2009.  Admittedly, we weren’t interested in throwing up an amalgamation of critically-lauded highlights of the decade. Rather, we wanted to share with you our own very personal short list—a selection of artists, whose work when we were able to see it during the past decade inspired us emotionally and artistically. We hope that our list will motivate you to collect and share your own list of “art in the aughts.”

William de Morgan, Vase, 1888-98,
earthenware painted with luster glaze. (V&A Museum.)

2000
This little vase opened up two big worlds to me—William Morris and the Ottoman Empire.  In the winter of the Millennium, I didn’t know much about Morris, his workshops, or devotees. My education began unexpectedly on a visit to the V&A one morning. As the textile galleries were closed, I ambled through the V&A’s cavernous rooms, eventually ending up in the ceramics galleries. After hurrying by the cases filled with fussy 18th-century pieces, I came to this gem, a small vase by William de Morgan. Such a gorgeous design and luxurious glow! I later learned a great deal about de Morgan, including his passion for things Middle and Far Eastern. Lusterware was one of his  enduring interests.

As the Ottomans before him, De Morgan made luster glazes by mixing metallic oxides with white clay and gum arabic. He would have packed the painted pieces closely in a kiln and fired at a low heat. At the critical moment, he would have added dry material, such as sawdust, and after a brief, but intense firing period, the kiln would have been shut down, closing off the source of oxygen. The resulting smoke-filled environment produced the irresistible iridescence. —Liz Hager

Henri Michaud, Untitled, 1968.
Collection of Catherine Putman, Paris.

2000
My pick for 2000 is Untitled Passages, a show of work on paper by Henri Michaud at the Drawing Center in New York. Henri Michaud (1899-1984) was born in Belgium and was mostly known as a poet. In his youth he was attracted to the Surrealists, and he admired the work of Paul Klee, Max Ernst and Giorgio de Chirico—but his independent nature kept him apart from all movements and isms.  Michaud felt there were things beyond words that he could not capture in his poetry, and his drawings were experiments with creating work that hovered between writing and drawing.  He drew, scratched and threw ink on to paper to make illegible marks, letters that were part of no alphabet, simple calligraphic marks that had no conscious meaning—Michaud was drawing from l’espace du dedans (the space within). In the 50s and 60s, Michaud also experimented with the drug mescaline and his “mescaline drawings,” done under its influence, using ink, acrylic, watercolor and gouache and collage, represented this state of intense, heightened awareness, the fluidity of time and space, the bridge between control and abandon. Michaud’s drawings and paintings are about the journey, the passage of time and life. From his unconscious, under the influence of drugs or not, his work  reveals itself as part lexicon, part landscape, with evocations of cellular structures, maps, water, membranes, clouds, planets, beasts and insects—a hidden, interior universe made visible. —Christine Cariati

Albrecht Dürer, Self Portrait, 1500,
oil on limewood, 26.38 x 19.25 in.
(Alte Pinakothek, Munich)

Ernst Ludwig Kirchner, Seated Woman, 1907
oil on canvas.
(Pinakothek der Moderne, Munich)

2001
The two paintings above hang in buildings across a plaza from one another in Munich. Although it didn’t strike me at the time, juxtaposing them in this setting amply demonstrates the evolutionary paths that painting traveled during the four centuries that separate the two portraits.

When I was learning to paint as a teenager, the Dürer self-portrait was one of my favorites. That gaze casts a powerful spell. The incredible precision with which Dürer elaborates every strand of fur, every lock of hair, garnered my respect (still does). When I was finally able to see the portrait in the flesh, although I hadn’t thought about it for years, it still packed a mighty punch.  And yet, for all the pyrotechnics of the Dürer, my older self favors the Kirchner for its electrifying color palette. —Liz Hager

John Singer Sargent, Portrait of Pauline Astor, 1898/9
oil on canvas, 96 x 50 in.
( The Huntington Library.)

2002
Sargent has always been one of my favorite painters for the sheer virtuosity with which he applies paint, particularly in the depiction of fabrics. The strong connections between Gainsborough and Sargent had somehow eluded me until a 2002 trip to the Huntington.  Gainsborough’s Blue Boy also hangs there and the luxury of viewing the two in such proximity demonstrated how much Sargent ‘s portrait owes in form and style to Gainsborough’s. And how much they both owe stylistically to Van Dyck.

The connections among the three are freaky. To wit: Pauline Astor was 18 years of age, the same age as Jonathan Buttall when Gainsborough painted The Blue Boy. Sargent was 43 years old at the time he painted Pauline, the same age as Gainsborough when he painted The Blue Boy. It was 129 years after the death of Van Dyck that Gainsborough painted The Blue Boy; and it was 129 years after the creation of The Blue Boy that Sargent began painting Pauline.  —Liz Hager


Mark Lombardi, World Finance Corporation and Associates, 7th version,
1999, 69 x 84 in.

2003
An exhibition of Mark Lombardi’s drawings, Global Networks, was at The Drawing Center in New York in late 2003. In his drawings, Lombardi kept track of political and financial misdeeds on a global scale, linking people and events related to various scandals from the 1960s-1990s. Politics aside, Lombardi’s drawings are things of beauty in themselves. His work was art, not political reporting. Lombardi’s drawings, often very large and delicately drawn in pencil, call to mind the charts of the ancients that delineated arcane knowledge. These works portray webs, networks, labyrinths. The lines arc and loop and intersect, creating order out of chaos. His work seems to be about elusive connections, the flattening of time and space and the fleeting nature of truth. Lombardi’s reputation as an important artist was beginning to take hold when he committed suicide in 2000, at the age of forty-eight. —Christine Cariati

Diane Arbus, Boy with a Toy Hand Grenade, 1962.

2004
Because it included all her published works, many photographs never before exhibited, diaries and other paraphernalia, SF MoMA’s 2004 show “Diane Arbus” was the most complete survey of her work—no, her life—ever assembled. Arbus’ work kindled my early photographic fires; in fact, she was the first artist to inhabit my consciousness. (A copy of the catalog of her small posthumous 1970 show at MoMA is still a prized possession.) The SF MoMA did not disappoint. Arbus’ iconic pictures looked every bit as unconventional as they did in the 1960s. But the truly exciting elements for me in this show were her diaries and the pictures of her studio; they added a dimension of insight I couldn’t have possessed earlier.

Larry Sultan, Boxer Dogs Mission Hills, from the “Valley” series, 1998-2002.

Additionally that year, MoMA mounted an exhibit of Larry Sultan’s Valley series—shots taken inside SoCal tract-homes turned pornographic studios. Though Sultan sought a different message through his work, these photos of a hidden world owe a lot to the territory uncovered by Arbus.  Sultan died earlier this month. He was only 63. —Liz Hager

Maggie Orth, Leaping Lines, 2005
woven circuitry in Jacquard weave, 16 x 72 in.

2005
As a design museum there is none better than the Cooper Hewitt. The “Extreme Textiles” exhibit in 2005 presented a large and fascinating array of cutting-edge textiles. Loosely grouped into categories—stronger, faster, lighter, smarter and safer—the exhibit demonstrated resolutely that fabric isn’t just for making clothing. Maggie Orth’s electronic fabric, designed with an ever-changing surface pattern controlled by software, struck me as one of the most interesting combinations of art and technology I’d ever seen.—Liz Hager


Hans Memling, Portrait of a Young Woman (‘Sibyl’), 1480
Panel, 46.5 x 35.2 cm.
(Stedelijke Musea, Memlingmuseum – Sint Janhospitaal, Bruges.)

2005
Memling’s Portraits, an exhibition of 20 of the 30 existing portraits by Netherlandish painter Hans Memling (c.1435-1494), was at The Frick Collection in the late fall of 2005. Memling was an apprentice to Rogier van der Weyden in Brussels, where he learned the still-new technique of oil painting from van der Weyden, the first Netherlandish painter to master the medium. Memling is more famous for his religious paintings than his secular work—his superb Nativity and Virgin and Child paintings are masterpieces of tenderness and true religious feeling. In 1465 Memling moved to Brussels, where he did very well painting portraits of wealthy Flemish and Italian emigré families. As in all his work, the exquisite detail and use of glazing showcase Memling’s mastery of technique. In the middle ages, when life was fleeting, and death often came early, portraiture was a means of providing a record, proof of existence. By the 15th century things had changed a bit and portraiture also became a way of  documenting one’s wealth and status. Memling’s portraits are criticized for being cool, because the subjects rarely look at the viewer, and are lost in introspection. While it is true that the portraits are not easy-to-read psychological studies, I felt strongly that Memling’s attention to detail, his faithful recording of what he saw in these faces, made them quite revealing. The subjects are undeniably serene and enigmatic, but I felt that I came to know something very significant about these people. In many of the portraits, Memling placed his sitters by a window, through which we see landscapes and glimpses of buildings and activity that add another very interesting dimension to his work, an innovative device that later Italian painters admired and emulated. —Christine Cariati

Loretta Pettway, Quilt, ca. 1960,
corduroy tied with yarn, 84 x 84 in.

2006
I can vividly recall the moment when I turned the corner into the first exhibit room at the de Young’s exhibit of “The Quilts of Gee’s Bend. A group of stunningly-bold pieces nearly took my breath away.  I was dumbstruck: how could so traditional a folk form created by a group so isolated from the modern world appear so strikingly modern? In their abstracted and geometric patterns, the quilts displayed an uncanny kinship to the paintings of Frank Stella or maybe even Barnett Newman from the 60s and 70s.

I felt deep emotion basted into the panels of these quilts. As I moved through the exhibition, the pieces offered me something the work of the Minimalists never has—quiet but intense joy. The reverence and love was palpable. They emanated a kind of spirituality. —Liz Hager

Fra Angelico, The Coronation of the Virgin,
tempera on panel, 10 5/8 x 14 5/8 in.
(Cleveland Museum of Art.)

2006
The work of the Italian Renaissance master, Fra Angelico (c.1395-1455) was at the Metropolitan Museum of Art from October 2005 through January 2006. This exhibition of 75 paintings, drawings and illuminated manuscripts was the first comprehensive show of Fra Angelico’s work since 1955.  Much of his later work, the altarpieces and frescoes, are not movable, so the work in this show was on a small scale—such as portraits of the Virgin and Child and intimate narrative scenes. Many of these were fragments from larger works, which gave the viewer an opportunity to study them closely which would not have been possible in their original locations. Fra Angelico, a Dominican friar, was long mythologized, by Vasari and others, as merely saintly, humble and devout. Recent scholarship gives us a fuller picture of the man, and what is now known about this tremendously intelligent painter—who learned much from Masaccio’s masterpiece, the Brancacci Chapel frescoes—only enhances our appreciation of these luminous, color-saturated, intensely gilded, works of art. Fra Angelico is often considered a transitional painter, but he is more than that—his work anticipates the late Renaissance while in a sense perfecting the Gothic. He continues to use the sumptuous pinks, blues and reds of the earlier period, and perfected the Gothic love of gold leaf—using it masterfully not just for halos, but stamped and engraved as draperies and clothing. It was a transporting show, Fra Angelico’s masterful technique enhances the deeply felt spiritual quality of his work. —Christine Cariati

Francis Bacon’s studio.

2007
While in Dublin in 2007 I did make a pilgrimage to see the famous “lost” Caravaggio (spurred on by a reading of the The Lost Painting
which is a most readable book about a work of art). In the process, I stumbled upon an exquisite Vermeer.

But it was at the Hugh Lane Gallery where the faithful and permanent re-creation of Francis Bacon’s studio (i.e. 7 Reece Mews in London)  cast its indelible spell on me.

What a mess! At first scan, I was tempted to conclude that Bacon was a deeply-troubled hoarder. How in the world could he have painted here? And there, amidst the horrifically gargantuan piles of debris—newspapers, photographs, magazines, paint cans, rags, old socks, trousers, a shirt or two—I saw an answer. A carefully-cleared path makes its way through the piles from the door to his easel. It seems as if Bacon knew after all exactly what was most important. . . focus. —Liz Hager

Mauerweg ©2008 Liz Hager

2008
Berlin is a city chock full of museums and galleries, so there was a lot of art to see there in the Fall of 2008.  Curiously, however, it was the Berlin Wall that made the deepest impression on me.

Even in its remnant state, the Wall inspires awe, not just for the wealth of its symbolic meaning, but for the sheer enormity of its once considerable physical presence. Since the Wall came down in 1989, points along its former path are marked by ceremonious memorials—public facilitators of a collective remembrance.

Other segments, however, have been marked by an unobtrusive path—two parallel lines of cobblestones—embedded by turns in asphalt or earth. It struck me that the path was a powerful work of art, although it wasn’t billed overtly as such. Though physically subtle, the message it conveyed was in some ways more compelling than the public memorials. The path too reminds us of the demarcation of a country and the collective pain of a people separated from itself. Given its horizontal nature, however, the path invites one on a personal journey.  I walked the line, traced the past, and in doing so, I couldn’t help but meditate on what that past meant to me.

Finally, like all great works of art, the path embodies a potent axiom of the cosmos.  These cobblestones, already wearing a mantle of moss, gently reminded me that all things irrevocably return to dust. —Liz Hager

Giorgio Morandi, Natura Morta (Still Life), 1954,
oil on canvas, 40 x 46 cm.
(Private collection.)

2008
My top pick for 2008 was Giorgio Morandi, 1890-1964, a retrospective of his work  at the Metropolitan Museum of Art in the fall of 2008. I went back to see this show over and over. These small paintings, so similar in subject matter and painted in an extremely limited palette, open up as you look at them—the seemingly simple color scheme expands and deepens, and they become monumental in scale. They are very personal paintings, full of mystery—meditations on loneliness, stillness, perseverance. The cumulative effect of seeing so many paintings of Morandi’s at once was astounding. I started to see them as sections of one continuous painting and I’d find myself watching the progress of certain favorite vessels as they changed bearing and grew in presence, dignity and meaning from painting to painting. In fact, for days afterward, every time I looked from my window out at the New York skyline, the rooftops and water towers, in the winter light with a dusting of snow, took on a Morandi-like existence. The quiet, the self-sufficiency, the balance, the stillness of these works put me in a meditative state that lasted for days. —Christine Cariati

2009
William Kentridge is quite possibly the most gifted artist and original thinker working today. From the mail we received in response to our Kentridge post this spring, it’s safe to say that we were not alone in being blown away by the “Five Themes” exhibit at SF MoMA.  In a way, this exhibit does define the decade, for much of the artist’s prodigious output on view was completed in this decade.

A magnificent draftsman, Kentridge might have been content with just producing his drawings. But thankfully, theater is in his DNA, and his drawings are but vehicles for his inventive and intriguing animated films—What Will Come, Artist in the Studio—as well as his tour-de-force staged pieces—The Magic Flute, The Black Box, and the upcoming Shostakovich opera of Gogol’s The Nose.Liz Hager

William Kentridge in his studio

2009
I have to second Liz’s appreciation of William Kentridge. From the first time I saw his work a decade ago, I have wanted to see more, and Five Themes provided that opportunity. In fact, I’d put Five Themes on my best of 2009 list five times, one for each time I went to see it. The work is so rich and deep, every time you view it, it gets more interesting. Kentridge’s work is inspiring and completely original—thoughtful, personal, political, humorous, satiric and filled with meaning—and with an almost unimaginable level of skill. His sense of stagecraft and the integration of music into his work is masterful. I love the way he crafts his animated pieces, fearless about erasing one image as it morphs in to the next—he’s not worried about holding on to anything, there is always more in the well. I also love the way he involves you in his process, you see and feel his creative process unfolding, literally in the case of Artist in the Studio. I can’t wait to see Five Themes again at MoMA this spring in New York—I am sure the work will reveal itself in new ways in a different location and installation. — Christine Cariati

Wider Connections
Francis Bacon’s Studio
Narrative & Ontology—More on The Boy with Toy Hand Grenade
Inner Sympathy of Meaning—The Quilts of Gee’s Bend
William Kentridge—William Kentridge: Five Themes (San Francisco Museum of Modern Art) catalog
Antony Beever—The Fall of Berlin 1945

Venetian Red Bookshelf: 2009 Picks

Posted in Book Review, Christine Cariati, Design, Female Artists, Fiber Arts, Fine & Decorative Arts, Liz Hager, Painting, Textiles, Wallpaper with tags , , , , on December 1, 2009 by Christine Cariati

Most every Venetian Red post cites a book or two related to the topic at hand. Occasionally we review books at length. Many readers have commented with appreciation, and we decided that more in this department just might be better. Today we introduce Venetian Red Bookshelf, a periodic round up of books, favorites from our bookshelves and studio worktables.

Albrecht Dürer, Self-Portrait, 1500

In her beautiful book,  A Face to the World, Laura Cumming writes engagingly about the art of the self-portrait. Cumming draws you into her subject with the mesmerizing self-portrait by Albrecht Dürer (1471-1528) on the cover and keeps your attention by her thoughtful inquiries into the intriguing art of the self portrait via literature, philosophy, history and biography. The book is thoroughly researched, very well-written, extremely entertaining and beautifully illustrated with self-portraits from Dürer to Warhol. —Christine Cariati.

The Grammar of Ornament, by Owen Jones. A classic in the annals of design; there isn’t much more to be said here. But if you do want want more, you might be interested in the VR post A Question of Ornament.Liz Hager

Necklace, Jaipur, mid-nineteenth century

Maharaja: The Splendour of India’s Royal Courts, edited by Anna Jackson and Amin Jaffer, was published as a companion to the current exhibition at the Victoria & Albert Museum, London. It is a lushly illustrated book that explores both the reality and fantasy surrounding India’s maharajas, with knowledgeable essays about the splendid paintings, textiles, jewelry, metalwork and furniture of India’s rulers from the 18th century to 1947. —Christine Cariati.

Yasuhiro Suzuki—Cabbage Bowls, paperclay. Each leaf “peels” off to become its own functional bowl.

Designing Design, by Kenya Hara. “Creativity is to discover a question that has never been asked. If one brings up an idiosyncratic question, the answer he gives will necessarily be unique as well.” Quite possibly the most inspirational book in my collection.  This book by Japanese designer and curator Kenya Hara is chock full of pearls of deep wisdom on design as a philosophy of life. In between them are loads of images of creative solutions masquerading as products, graphics, systems, food, art. Think different!—Liz Hager

Gunta Stölzl, Untitled, watercolor and colored chalk, 1921

Finally, a book that does justice to the contributions of the women of the Bauhaus movement, Ulrike Müller’s Bauhaus Women: Art, Handicraft, Design. Müller explores the life and art of the more recognized artists—weavers Anni Albers and Gunta Stölzl and metalworker Marianne Brandt—along with those whose work has been largely neglected, such as Gertrud Grunow, Ida Kerkovius, Benite Otte, Otti Berger, Ilse Fehling, Lou Scheper-Berkenkamp, et al. An excellent companion book is Gunta Stolzl: Bauhaus Master, recently published by the Museum of Modern Art in conjunction with their current exhibition, Bauhaus 1919-1933: Workshops for Modernity.Christine Cariati.

Color: A Natural History of the Palette, by Victoria Findlay. In this part travelogue, part historical investigation Findlay traverses the globe in search of the often-surprising origin of natural pigments and dyes. Maybe you know that the “Ultramarine Blue” pigment was originally ground up lapis lazuli mined only in Afghanistan. (Michaelangelo is reputed to have held up a painting waiting for the stuff.) But did you know that the royal purple of the ancient world was made from the mucous gland of a sea snail (murex brandaris) or that Napoleon might have died from the arsenic in the green paint of his wallpaper on St. Helena? This book is a welcomed addition to any painter’s bookshelf.  — Liz Hager

Winifred Gill, Sketch of dancers, 1916

Beyond Bloomsbury: Designs of the Omega Workshops 1913-19 was published to coincide with the exhibition of the same name at The Courtauld Gallery, London, which was held from June-September of this year. It is a beautiful book which, in addition to showing finished pieces, also includes many preliminary sketches for designs. For those of you in the San Francisco Bay Area, a related exhibition, A Room of Their Own: The Bloomsbury Artists in American Collections is currently at Mills College, Oakland until December 13, 2009. —Christine Cariati.

William Kentridge: Five Themes (catalog). William Kentridge is quite possibly the most talented artist working today. He’s a man of enormous creative capacity, who has profound things to say. If you missed the “Five Themes” retrospective in San Francisco and absolutely cannot get to NY MOMA this spring to see it, this catalog may be a painful indication of what you have missed. If you did see the show, the catalog will forever be a reminder of his particular genius.  For more on the exhibition, see Last Days in San Francisco.Liz Hager

Wallpaper: The Ultimate Guide by Charlotte Abrahams is a rather giddy celebration of wallpaper, tracing its history, designers, manufacturers and uses—and has many full-page reproductions of contemporary designs. A good companion to the 2005 second edition of The Papered Wall: The History, Patterns and Techniques of Wallpaper edited by Leslie Hoskins which takes a comprehensive and detailed historical approach to the subject. —Christine Cariati.

Francisco Goya, from Los Caprichos, 1797-98, etching.

The Demon & The Angel, by Edward Hirsch. Mark Rothko once observed that “All art deals with intimations of mortality.” Drawing predominantly on Frederico Garcia Lorca’s concept of the the duende (literally translated as “demon,” although the Spanish word implies inspiration in the face of tragedy, even death), poet Edward Hirsch delves enthusiastically into the source of artistic inspiration, which he believes emanates from both the “irrational splendors” of the duende and the inspirational angel (divine, though not religious, notion). Not limiting himself to poets, Hirsch also invokes Jackson Pollock, Robert Motherwell, Jimi Hendrix, Portuguese Fado.  It’s heady to the point of obscurity in parts, but still worth the read for the thought-provoking nature of many of its insights.  —Liz Hager

Trade textile, block-printed and dyed cotton, Gujarat, c.1340-80

Each of the four small hard-cover books included in V&A Pattern: Slipcased Set #1 (William Morris, Digital Pioneers, Indian Florals and The Fifties) comes with a CD which designers can use to rework and redraw the patterns for their own use (after obtaining a license from the V&A.) The V&A plans to issue three more sets in this series, the next, V&A Pattern Slipcase #2, will be out in early 2010 and will include Owen Jones, Novelty Patterns, Secret Garden and Kimono. Not nearly as much fun as spending endless hours rifling through the V&A textile collections in person, but the books are lovely, with an interesting and somewhat unusual assortment of patterns that provide an inspiring glimpse into the vast resources in the V&A’s textile collection. —Christine Cariati.

Edvard Munch, The Scream, 1893, oil, tempera & pastel on cardboard.

Art & Fear: Observations on the Perils (and Rewards) of Artmaking, by David Bayles & Ted Orland.  What working artist facing the inspirational void hasn’t felt a fevered terror similar to the one depicted in Munch’s celebrated painting?  This booklet of 188 pages is both a pragmatic reminder of reality—i.e. “Making  art now means working in the face of uncertainty; it means living with doubt and contradiction, doing something no one much cares whether you do, and for which there may be neither audience nor reward”— and soothing medicinal balm—i.e. “The best you can do is make art you care about—and lot’s of it! The rest is largely a matter of perseverance.” No artist should be without this. —Liz Hager

Venetian Red in Berlin: To the Expressionists’ House We Go

Posted in Fine & Decorative Arts, Liz Hager, Printmaking, Travel with tags , , , , , , , , , , , , on October 28, 2008 by Liz Hager

By LIZ HAGER

Friz Bleyl, Winter, 1905
Woodcut, 17 x 9.9 cms
(Brücke Museum, Berlin)

At the end of a tranquil cul-de-sac on the woodsy fringe of Berlin’s suburban Dahlem district sits Das Brücke Museum, an unassuming, low-slung modernist structure, in which much of the work of the German Expressionists resides. The Museum boasts a collection of more than 400 paintings and sculptures, as well as thousands of prints.  One of the benefits of having a body of work this large and varied under one roof is the clarity of perspective it affords relative to the influence of German Expressionists on later movements, particularly the American Abstract Expressionists. What a wonderful paradox that a museum that houses once-radical art is situated in this rather conventional location; in a world in which most museums of modern art are sited in downtown locations, this suburban location is actually anti-conventional.

The first part of the 20th century was characterized by the ascendency of German-speaking artists.  After centuries of French domination of the art world, members of the Wiener Secession, Das Brücke, and later Der Blaue Reiter stepped into the spotlight, rebelling against Impressionism and pushing artistic vocabulary toward the abstract.  Because the founders of Das Brücke—Ernst Ludwig Kirchner and Fritz Bleyl—were studying at the technical university in Dresden,  the group originally took their aesthetic cues from the Dresden-based expression of the Jugendstil (German Art Nouveau), which staked its artistic legacy on highly-stylized curvilinear forms, mostly floral in origin.

Ernst Ludwig Kirchner, Parterre, Akrobatin, und Clown (Parterre, Acrobat, and Clown), 1909
Lithograph
(Städel Museum, Frankfort)

The Brücke ultimately rejected the traditional notion that lines, objects, and color were tools in the service of the artist’s representation of “reality,” believing instead that these were elements in their own right. For them, objects symbolized ideas and conveyed moods. Not just color, but vigorous line work was critical to the expression of mood. The group’s use of then-unconventional themes—nature-worship, religious ecstasy, nudity as a symbol of the freedom of the soul, exotic and primitive art—enhanced their reputation as avant-garde artists. Nature was a subject the group often tackled, but primarily as a vehicle to express an inner emotion. In their hands, reality was transformed and reduced to its unembellished essential; color became an abstraction, detached from traditional objects and associations.

All of these elements are well-illustrated in Kirchner’s lithograph above: the acrobat and clown have been reduced to a few essential and complementary curvilinear lines; and the flattened red and yellow colors, as well as the poses and accoutrements, evoke an exotic, and exciting, locale.

Albrecht Dürer, St. Anthony, 1519,
copper etching

While best known by the general public for their paintings, the Brücke artists used the woodcut and lithography media extensively. Perhaps their technical training pushed them naturally in this direction, for the print medium certainly allowed them to maintain a close relationship between art and craft in the tradition of the Jugendstil. Interestingly, a large portion of Brücke woodcuts is devoted to advertising the group—cards, posters, and catalogues—belying this connection to the technical, or graphic, arts. The e German Renaissance masters Lucas Cranach, Matthias Grünewald, and Albrecht Dürer were hugely influential on the Brücke and the group was deliberate in its attempt to revive this venerable German tradition.

Karl Schmidt-Rottluff, Bäume im Winter (Trees in Winter), 1905
Woodcut, 11.8×16 cms
(Brücke Museum, Berlin)

Like the Impressionists, the Brücke members were smitten by Japanese woodcuts—the Japanese emphasis on line and flat color, as well as oblique compositional angles in their work fit in naturally with their aesthetic beliefs. Nowhere is the the Japanese influence more acutely demonstrated in the collection it seems than in Schmidt-Rottluff’s woodcut above. He has pared down the scene to such an extreme that all color and embellishment has been banished. What remains is the essence of winter, brilliantly evocative in its simplicity.

Wider Connections

Spaightwood Galleries
Charles Harrison et al. —Primitivism, Cubism, Abstraction

%d bloggers like this: