Archive for Wassily Kandinksy

A Sense of Place: Marsden Hartley in Berlin

Posted in Fine & Decorative Arts, Liz Hager, Painting, People & Places with tags , , , , , , , , on April 8, 2009 by Liz Hager

By LIZ HAGER

marsden hartley, lighthouse

Marsden Hartley, Lighthouse, 1915, oil on canvas, 30 x 40″ (courtesy Christie’s).

Marsden Hartley was largely misunderstood during his lifetime. Depending on one’s viewpoint, the artist was either woefully out of step with or gloriously ahead of his time. Undoubtedly, much of this mismatch was the result of Hartley’s eccentric personality, peripatetic lifestyle, and restless experimentation with different styles. The cause of his art was certainly not helped by Clement Greenberg, who in the 1940s did much to sideline the artist through his dismissal of the place of the “Stieglitz artists” in modern American art. (Greenberg’s championing of  John Marin as the link in the stylistic chain from Impressionists to Abstract Expressionists had perhaps everything to do with his desire to unseat Stieglitz as the reigning monarch of modernism.)

Perhaps not so amazingly then, there have only been three comprehensive shows of the artist’s work since his death in 1943.  But Hartley’s early relegation to the dustbin of art history has been our gain. Unlike others of the Stieglitz circle (O’Keefe springs to mind) his work hasn’t been overexposed to near trivialization.  Thankfully, Hartley has been resurrected to his rightful place in the history of modernist art.  To the unjaded eye his work still looks way ahead of its time.

To be sure, the painter’s catalog is painfully uneven. His lesser work ranges from derivative to just plain uninspired.  But Hartley could soar too, and his best works still pack a punch that offers an unvarnished emotional view into a bygone era.

marsden-hartleye28094painting-no-47-berlin-1914-1915-oil-on-canvas-hirshhorn

Marsden Hartley, Painting No.47, Berlin, 1914-1915, oil on canvas, 39 1/2 x 31 5/8″ (courtesy Hirshhorn Museum and Sculpture Garden).

Hartley was deeply imbued with the Transcendentalist concept of “place.”  Though often referred to as “the painter from Maine,” the artist was actually an extensive traveller, a restless seeker of spirituality. It was Berlin during the early years of the First World War that coaxed the first true rays of brilliance from the painter, providing him with emotional and creative sustenance.

In 1912 the artist embarked on his first European journey, financed by Stieglitz. During his stay in France, the artist frequented the salon of Gertrude and Leo Stein, where he fell under the spell of Cézanne, Matisse, and Picasso.  In the spring of 1913, he moved to Berlin.  “I like its ultra-modernity and I like the calmness of the people.” he wrote in a postcard to Stieglitz (1/1/1913.) As he settled inspired him: “I cannot estimate to you the worth of this German trip—it has given me my place in the art movement in Europe—I find in this my really creative period,” he wrote to Stieglitz, shortly after arriving in the German capital. (Postcard to Stieglitz, 2/1/1913.)

The city itself was not Hartley’s subject; the intense stimulation provided by the city encouraged him to look within for his subject matter. Certainly, Blaue Reiter members Wassily Kandinsky and Franz Marc, whom Hartley met in Berlin, deeply influenced his thoughts on spirituality and art.  However, on a visceral level, it was the masculinity of a capital city teeming with military officers that seduced him. Further, in Berlin’s prominent gay subculture Hartley must have felt a true sense of belonging.

Marsden Hartley, Portrait of a German Officer, 1914, oil on canvas, 68 1/4 x 41 3/8 ” (courtesy: Metropolitan Museum; Alfred Stieglitz collection).

The outbreak of war in August of 1914 and the subsequent loss on the Western Front of his close friend and probable lover, Lieutenant Karl von Freyburg, threw Hartley into deep grief. The artist discarded an existing project and began pouring his feelings onto 12 canvases. Known as the “War Motif” series, this body of work would become his passionate memorial to von Freyburg and, by extension, to the generation of men who surrendered their lives in the trenches. Contemporary Wilfred Owen equally captured the sentiment of sacrificial love in his poem Greater Love: “Till the fierce Love they bear/Cramps them in death’s extreme decrepitude.”

The horrors of trench warfare were still to come as Hartley began his project in late 1914. In the first year of the Great War, armies went to battle as they had for centuries, with pageantry and fanfare. Hartley’s iconography—Germanic flags, company ensigns, mystical numbers, von Freyburg and his own initials, the Iron Cross—perfectly captures the essence of the 19th century military, while the abstract jumble of forms mirrors the chaos that the closely-connected Europeans must have felt in those years.  Rendered in flatly colored forms and energetic brushstrokes, these paintings still look altogether more modern than most other American work of the time.

Perhaps then the true genius of the Berlin paintings is that they at once capture an old world dissolving sorrowfully into history and herald a dynamic modern world to come.

* * *

In December 1915, amid the growing tensions between Germany and America, Hartley was forced to leave Berlin. Re-entry into American culture was difficult for him, not in the least because the subject matter of his “War Motif” paintings was interpreted as glorifying the German cause, causing many to question his patriotism.

Wider Connections

Alfred Stieglitz portrait of Hartley

Peter Schjeldhal on Marsden Hartley in The New Yorker

Marsden Hartley & American Modernism

Roberta Smith—Marsden Hartley’s World

My Dear Stieglitz—The Letters of Marsden Hartley and Alfred Stieglitz

Pat Barker—Regeneration

First World War Poetry

The Color of Genius: Van Gogh’s Night Café

Posted in Artists Speak, Fine & Decorative Arts, Liz Hager, Painting with tags , , , , , , , , on December 30, 2008 by Liz Hager

van-gogh-cafe-de-la-nuit

Vincent Van Gogh, The Night Café, 1888,
oil on canvas, 28 1/2 x 36 1/4″ (©Yale University Art Gallery, Bequest of Stephen Carlton Clark)

In early September, 1888, nine months before he entered the Saint-Paul-de-Mausole asylum, Vincent Van Gogh (1853-1890) wrote a series of letters to his sister Wilhelmina and brother Theo, which detailed his objective in painting The Night Café.  In composite form, this text functions as both a roadmap of the robust complementary color scheme employed by the artist and an evocative explanation of the emotional substance of color, then a driving concern in the artist’s work.

I have just finished a canvas representing the interior of a night café illuminated by lamps. A few poor night wanderers are asleep in a corner. The room is blood red and dark yellow, and there under the gaslight the green billiard table casts an immense shadow on the floor. There are four yellow-lemon lamps with a glow of orange and green. The blood-red and the yellow-green of the billiard table, for instance, contrast with the soft tender Louis XV green of the counter, on which there is a rose nosegay. The white clothes of the landlord, watchful in a corner of that furnace, turn lemon-yellow, or pale luminous green.

In my picture of the “Night Café” I have tried to express the terrible passions of humanity by means of red and green. . . the café is a place where one can ruin oneself, go mad or commit a crime. There are 6 or 7 different reds in this canvas, from blood red to delicate pink, contrasting with as many pale or deep greens. Everywhere there is a clash and contrast of the most alien reds and greens, in the figures of little sleeping hooligans, in the empty dreary room, in violet and blue. I have tried to express the powers of darkness in a low public house, by soft Louis XV green and malachite, contrasting with yellow-green and harsh blue-greens, and all of this in an atmosphere like a devil’s furnace, of pale sulpher.

—Vincent van Gogh. Letters to Theo van Gogh. Written 8-10 September 1888 in Arles. Translated by Mrs. Johanna van Gogh-Bonger, edited by Robert Harrison, published in The Complete Letters of Vincent van Gogh, Publisher: Bulfinch, 1991, numbers 533, 534, W07.

The primary, secondary and tertiary colors of the Color Wheel.

In one letter, Van Gogh mused aloud that this color palette would cause his mentor, Hermanus Gijsbertus Tersteeg (note below), to peg The Night Café as “delirium tremens in full swing” (Letter 534).  It may have struck contemporary viewers as Van Gogh feared. Today, however, when standing in front of the painting, one marvels in how effectively the painter deployed that many different shades of green. Further, when one considers Night Café (and indeed other Van Gogh paintings from this decade before his death) in relation to the works of his contemporaries—Monet, Pissarro and Degas—one truly grasps Van Gogh’s monumental genius in the realm of color.

Claude Monet, Montagnes de l”Estére,1888,
oil on canvas, 65 X 92 cm, (© Courtauld Institute of Art, London)

Hilaire-Germain-Edgar Degas, After the Bath, Woman Drying Herself, 1888,
pastel and charcoal on paper, 18.5 x 23.75″
National Gallery, London)

Camille Jacob Pissarro, Vue de Bazincourt, 1889,
watercolor over graphite on plain weave cotton pasted to pulpboard, 8 1/16 x 10 1/16
Brooklyn Museum)

In viewing the painting its hard to imagine that the painter has managed to effectively utilize  By separating objects from their “local” (true optical) color, the artist freed himself to explore the inner nature of an object—its symbolism and emotional content.  This bit of innovation was to directly influence the next generation of artists, most notably Matisse, and lay the ground work for 20th century artists to abandon realistic representation of objects altogether in search of emotional reality.

Henri Matisse, Interior in Venetian Red, 1946,
oil on linen (Musées Royaux des Beaux-Arts de Belgique).

Wassily Kandinsky, Sketch for Composition II, 1909–10,
oil on canvas, 38 3/8 x 51 5/8″
(Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum, New York Solomon R. Guggenheim Founding Collection, 45.961.Vasily Kandinsky © 2007 Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York/ADAGP, Paris)

Jackson Pollock, Eyes in the Heat, 1946,
oil and enamel on canvas, 54 x 43 inches
(The Solomon R. Guggenheim Foundation Peggy Guggenheim Collection, Venice, 76.2553.149.
Jackson Pollock © 2007 The Pollock-Krasner Foundation/Artists Rights Society, New York).

Note: Van Gogh had worked briefly under Tersteeg (1845-1927) when he was employed as a clerk in his uncle’s art gallery Goupil et Cie in The Hague in 1869,  before being promoted and transferred to the company’s London office.

Wider Connections
Van Gogh’s Letters
Van Gogh Museum
The Vincent Van Gogh Gallery
Impressionism and the Making of Modern Art

Close to Kandinsky?

Posted in Contemporary Art, Liz Hager, Painting with tags , , on October 30, 2008 by Liz Hager

Chuck Close, “Self Portrait,” 2000, oil on canvas

All artists trawl the art historical waters, appropriating consciously or subconsciously concepts, images, and techniques from the net  It’s a natural part of developing a unique and, if one is gifted, a progressive artistic voice.  All artists are linked thus linked in a long, unbroken line.

In past eras the trawling process was facilitated by the teacher/disciple, atelier, and guild traditions.  Today a good art school performs the function (though often it doesn’t). Without a good working knowledge of the work of previous generations of artists, or more importantly, without a strong sense of the work that is personally meaningful,  how can an artist develop a truly unique style?   Sometimes the connection between artists is obvious (e.g. Matisse/Dufy); other times, a legitimate connection is buried, perhaps even in the mind of the artist.

In the 1970s, Chuck Close began to develop his signature style—thousands of individual marks harnessed in the production of gigantic and commanding highly-realistic portraits. Beginning in the early 90s, his debuted a brilliant technique—cell-bound millefiori, each of which operated as its own abstract painting, but ensemble morphed into a stunning portrait.  It’s a clever contemporary twist on the Impressionist concept of thousands of colored strokes defining patterns of light and shadow.

Close has always been tied to the grid—larger or smaller cells—as the starting point for his paintings.  But where did these colored circles as painterly mark originate?

(detail) “Self Portrait”

As influences on his own work, Close acknowledges de Kooning and Ad Reinhardt’, in particular the latter’s writings. He has said that Vermeer is his favorite painter, describing the works as “magical apparitions” blown onto the canvas like “divine breath of air.”  He’s said that his marks have no symbolic meaning. I suspect, if asked about the circles, Close would say they just happened while he was working. And he’d be right. Those transformational moments tend to happen while an artist is at work, not thinking about it.

Wassily Kandinsky, “Farbstudie Quadrate,” 1913, oil on canvas

Close’s circles may be entirely accidental, spontaneous. Or he could have appropriated them from anywhere—afterall targets as a human “mark” are found on even the most primitive of artifacts. And Kandinsky’s abstract circles, completed early in his career, served a different function from Close’s (i.e. abstractions in themselves). Still, I can’t help but wonder whether Kandinksy’s work and these images in particular sneaked into Close’s subconsciousness at one point through a back door. And whether the hand cracking open the door belonged to de Kooning.

Wider Connections

Chuck Close on Charlie Rose

Laura Cumming, UK Observer: “What Drove Kandinsky to Abstractiion?”

The critic who made de Kooning—Harold Rosenberg: The Tradition Of The New

“A Circle is a Living Wonder”—Wassily Kandinsky

Posted in Artists Speak, Fine & Decorative Arts, Liz Hager, Painting with tags , on October 9, 2008 by Liz Hager

Wassily Kandinsky, Landscape with Red Spots, No. 2, 1913,
oil on canvas, 117.5 x 140 cm
( Peggy Guggenheim collection)

. . . An empty canvas is a living wonder—far lovelier than certain pictures.

What are its basic elements? Straight lines, a straight, narrow surface, hard inflexible, maintained without regard to anything but itself and apparently going on its own gait like a destiny that has already been fulfilled. Thus and not otherwise. Stretched, free, tense, evading and yielding, elastic, and indeterminate in semblance like the fate which awaits us. It could become something different, but abstains from doing so. Hardness and softness at once, and combinations of both that are infinite in their possibilties.

Every line says “Here I am!” Each holds its own, reveals its own eloquent features, and whispers “Listen, listen to my secret!”

A line is a living wonder.

A dot. Lots of little dots which are just a little smaller here and just a little larger there. All of them have their place within its compass, and yet retain their mobility—a host of little tnesions ceaselessly repeating their chorus of “Listen! Listen!” They are little messages which by echoing each other in unison help to build up the one great central affirmation, “Yes.”

A black circle—distinct thunder, a world apart which seems to care for nothing and retires within itself, a conclusion on the spot. A “Here I am!” pronounced slowly, rather coldly.

A red circle—it stands fast, holds its ground is immersed in itself. Yet it also moves because it covets each other place as well as its own. Its radiance overcomes every obstacle and penetrates into the remotest corners. Thunder and lightning together. A passionate “Here I am!”

A circle is a living wonder.

But the most wonderful thing of all is this: to combine all these voices with still others, lots and lots of them (for besides the simple basic forms and colors already mentioned, there are plenty more really), in one picture—a picture which thus becomes a simple and integral “H E R E   I   A M !”

Limitation, a grudging economy, wild richness, prodigality, thunderclaps, the buzzing of mosquitoes; and everything that lies between them. Milenaries would be only just time enough to get to the bottom of it all, to the utmost limits of these possibilities. And then, after all, finality does not exist.

For close on twenty-five years I have been communing with these “abstract” things. Even before the war I loved the thunder-clap and the buzzing of mosquitoes and turned them to account. But their diapason was the “dramatic” note: explosions, patches violently impacting on one another, lines without hope, eruptions, rumblings, outbursts, catastrophies. The elements—the line-colours, the structure, the brush-work, the very technique, the general ensemble—were, as they ought to be, “dramatic” and subordinated to that aim. Balance was lost, but there was no destruction—only an informing presage of resurrection carried to the pitch of cold serenity. . .

—Wassily Kandinsky, The Painter’s Object (1937)

Wider Connections

Kandinsky in museums

The Chess Theory Visual Art Museum—Pictorial essay on the development of Kandinsky

Kandinsky—Concerning the Spiritual in Art

Inner Sympathy of Meaning

Posted in Bay Area Art Scene, Fine & Decorative Arts, Folk & Tribal Art, Liz Hager, Quilts, Textiles with tags , , , , on May 27, 2008 by Liz Hager

By LIZ HAGER

Lorena Pettway, Quilt (Gee's Bend)

Loretta Pettway, Quilt (4 block strips), ca. 1960
78 x 73 inches
(Courtesy Quilts of Gee’s Bend).

Loretta Pettway has spent her whole life in Gee’s Bend, Alabama, a tiny rural community largely cut off from the rest of the world since after Civil War by a cruel trick of nature. The Alabama River meanders around the town in a horseshoe shape creating a virtual island out of the community. Ferry service ran sporadically until the 1960s, when it stopped altogether. This physical isolation guaranteed that generations of Gee’s Benders would remain wretchedly poor and pretty well ignorant of the world at large—much less the New York art scene.  Ironically, it was this very isolation that enabled the Gee’s Bend women to preserve their rich and beautiful tradition of quilting, passed down through four generations of mothers and daughters.  In a further twist of irony, the quilts themselves have become the means by which the contemporary community has reconnected with the world beyond the bend.

At the de Young exhibition of the quilts last year, I vividly remember the moment when I turned the corner from the hallway into the first exhibit room. That first group of stunningly bold pieces 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. . . well, strikingly modern? In their abstracted and geometric patterns, the quilts displayed an uncanny kinship to the  60s and 70s paintings of Frank Stella or maybe even Barnett Newman.

As I moved through the exhibition, the quilts offered me something that most of the work of Minimalists never has—quiet and intense joy. It’s the same emotional chord struck in me by a Rothko painting. Perhaps its that large blocks of color function as a long forgotten, but deeply-ingrained, juju on the human psyche. In their uniquely exuberant, yet dignified way, the quilts connected me the wonder and bliss of being human. I felt a kinship to the Gee’s Bend artists, even though I’d never met them. Ultimately, given the evidence of this beautiful handiwork, should it be such a surprise that despite, or perhaps because of, their separation from the world, the quilters of Gee’s Bend had a profound and universal connection to it?

In the early years of the last century, Wassily Kandinsky (1866-1944), one of the first truly emotive abstract painters, wrote: “the relationships in art are not necessarily the ones of outward form, but are founded on inner sympathy of meaning” (Concerning the Spiritual in Art). Kandinsky believed in the artist as a spiritual teacher.  He strived hard to express the soul of nature and humanity in his work. I believe he would have found true “sympathy of meaning” in the works of Gee’s Bend.

Wider Connections

Mark Rothko (Taschen 25th Anniversary Special Edition)

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