Art Reviews

Art Review: Lyonel Feininger

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Sunday, September 11th, 2011

Living at the Edge:
The World of Lyonel Feininger

On April 29, 1906, Lyonel Feininger launched his comic strip, The Kin-der-Kids, with a charming caricature of himself as puppeteer and the caption, “FEININGER THE  FAMOUS GERMAN ARTIST EXHIBITING THE CHARACTERS HE WILL CREATE.”  A tag affixed to his ear by a loop of string identifies him as “your Uncle Feininger.”

Self-Portrait (Selbstbildnis) (1915, oil on canvas, 39½” x 31½”), Sarah Campbell Blaffer Foundation, Houston, © Lyonel Feininger Family, LLC / Artists Rights Society (ARS), NY.

Skip ahead nine years and Feininger, now a successful and “serious1 fine artist using oil on canvas, reveals a decidedly different aspect of himself.  No longer the impish uncle introducing his rag-tag crew, he seems to scowl angrily at a visitor’s intrusion or perhaps the adult in the mirror’s reflection.

In a wide-ranging retrospective, Lyonel Feininger: At the Edge of the World, the Whitney Museum of American Art chronicled Feininger’s evolution from cartoonist to painter and printmaker, early adopter of photography for its own qualities and for preparatory studies, and in later years, a proponent of abstraction in the service of the spiritual.

The conflicting tugs on Feininger’s psyche originated in his childhood.  Born in 1871 to a German emigre and civil-war-veteran father and a German-American mother, Feininger spent his first sixteen years living in Manhattan’s East Village.  Raised in an environment permeated by the sounds of German compositions played by his parents, accomplished musicians, by age nine he was studying the violin with his father and by twelve, performing.

Both his parents believed in the power of music to act as a conduit between the artist and a beneficent almighty, a tenet that found its way into Feininger’s art.  He wrote as an adult of his “‘unbounded faith in the goodness of the Almighty’ and in art’s capacity to express it,”2 and he strove to create work in the service of those beliefs.

Frequently left alone by what he would later refer to as his “‘almost hypothetical parents,’”3 who traveled abroad to perform, young Feininger spent many hours with his running buddy and life-long friend, Frank Kortheuer, observing trains in Grand Central Terminal’s rail yards and ships on the island’s two rivers.  They sketched what they saw and used their drawings to enrich the stories they told each other about the two fantasy kingdoms they devised and inhabited, and continued to embellish over time.

A Group of Houses and Figures (c.1949, painted wood, dimensions variable), Art Institute of Chicago, © Lyonel Feininger Family, LLC / Artists Rights Society (ARS), NY. Photograph © The Art Institute of Chicago.

Like many a child left to his own devices, young Feininger found comfort in imagined worlds like these, where events unfolded and characters acted in ways he could control.  That childlike delight in conjuring alternative worlds and their inhabitants, “like something out of a fairy tale,”4 animates his most engaging work–the comic strips and early paintings–and finds literal embodiment in small wooden toys he carved over the years (between about 1920 and 1955) as gifts for his and others’ children.

Well into the exhibition and in their own gallery, in one large central vitrine and four smaller peripheral ones, these handcrafted figures populate streets and houses amid other architectural structures, trains and animals.  Here the visitor encounters Feininger at his most charming and whimsical.  Not surprisingly, many of the objects make appearances in his paintings, prints and drawing, perhaps indications of an ongoing desire to find a way back to a childhood paradise lost.

And lost it was, precipitously, when at age sixteen Feininger was shipped off to Germany to pursue a career in music.  Despite the boy’s superficial obedience to his parents’ wishes, evidence suggests some subterfuge.  The facts are fuzzy, but apparently upon arrival, when learning of the absence of his intended music teacher, the teenager gathered up the drawings he had been unable to leave behind and applied to art school.  He gained immediate admission and quickly excelled.

The rest of the story unfolded, though not quite chronologically, on the white-box walls of the Whitney.  Opening in a large room with the artist’s early paintings–his first forays into the world of fine art–the exhibit announced its focus on Feininger’s oils on canvas, which began about 1906.

The tale of the career that Feininger abandoned at age 35, one in which he achieved prominence as a cartoonist and illustrator, remained tucked away in an easily-missed gallery, on the left, of mostly comics, a few cartoons and several illustrations.  For much of his life, Feininger entertained himself and others with caricatures and then, during his first few years in Germany, parlayed his hobby into income-producing commissions from a humor magazine, hoping to save enough money to return home.

Family circumstances intervened and mandated a two-year stint at a Jesuit college in Belgium after which Feininger managed to convince his father to finance his art education.  Soon turned off by the staid academics with whom he regularly came into conflict, the young artist struck out on his own and, by illustrating stories for a Berlin publication, raised enough money to travel to Paris in 1892.  Combining time in front of art-class nudes with on-the-street sketching, the 21-year-old artist ignored the groundbreaking work being produced at the time by Monet and his ilk.

Wee Willie Winkie’s World, from The Chicago Sunday Tribune, November 25, 1906 (Commercial lithograph, 23½” x 17 13/16″), © Lyonel Feininger Family, LLC / Artists Rights Society (ARS), NY. Photograph © The Museum of Modern Art/Licensed by SCALA / Art Resource, NY.

Back in Berlin after less than a year, Feininger found work for an American publisher  and then as a cartoonist for a weekly humor magazine.  His illustrations were soon published by others and in 1906 he was approached by the Chicago Tribune to pen a comic strip.  The Kin-der-Kids were born and following that, Wee Willie Winkie’s World.

Feininger reinvented Sunday comics.  He broke through the traditional rectangular frame, filling the spaces around them with decorative elements that enhanced the mood of each episode.  In the borders of the strip of November 25, 1906 (pictured above), roosters perch atop art deco style houses while a centrally located, sideways-glancing sun menacingly flashes its teeth.

In Wee Willie Winkie’s World, a small child describes to Uncle Feininger his impressions of a world where everything in the outsized landscape–trees, clouds, houses and even a locomotive–sports a face and occasionally limbs.  At turns his surroundings amuse, awe and threaten him.

In one episode, Wee Willie Winkie notices a row of dormer windows in a house roof.  To the imaginative child, “There is one tiny garret window, like a squalling little baby, with a drowsy, grumpy old nurse next it, who seems to say:  ‘Let it squall if it will;  I’m tired and can’t be bothered.’”5 Such is Wee Willie Winkie’s experience of adult’s attitudes toward upset children and a hint at what it was like for Feininger when his parents tossed him unceremoniously into a foreign land.

In a Village Near Paris (Street in Paris, Pink Sky) (1909, oil on canvas, 39¾” x 32″), © Lyonel Feininger Family, LLC / Artists Rights Society (ARS), NY.

The rich fantasy life that sustained the artist as a youngster and brought him fame and prosperity as a cartoonist remained a vital source of imagery even after he moved on from illustration commissions and comic strip creations.  The pedestrians going about their business In a Village Near Paris (Street In Paris, Pink Sky) (1909) step right out of Uncle Feininger’s imagination and onto the canvas.

By 1906 when Feininger was finally able to afford a second trip to Paris, the garish colors of Fauvism had been around for a while and Cubism was coming into its own.  That year Picasso completed Les Demoiselles d’Avignon and the death of Cezanne inspired a memorial retrospective in his honor, making his radical ideas about painting more widely available.

Carnival in Arcueil (1911, oil on canvas, 41.3″ x 37.8″), © Lyonel Feininger Family, LLC / Artists Rights Society (ARS), NY. Photograph © The Art Institute of Chicago.

The influence of the Paris art scene followed Feininger back to Germany and appears in paintings like Carnival in Arcueil (1911) where the yellow of the buildings complements the violet of their roof tops and of the viaduct, setting up a visual vibration that enhances the action of the paraders who march off the canvas in the lower left.

In a departure from the gaiety of many of Feininger’s fanciful pictures, Untitled (Deserted Child) (1915)–a watercolor produced during the war years–depicts atop a hill three men with walking canes, outfitted in brown suits and turning their backs as they walk off, two to the left and one toward the background, while an orange-colored man heads off to the right.  They leave behind a small, seated, blue figure positioned at the base of the hill, bent over by its contours and the booted foot of the central adult, a reflection of the artist’s position during World War I.

Weighed down by the constant news of the deaths, injuries and psychological traumas suffered by many of his artist friends, Feininger was unbearably torn between his loyalty to Germany and his status as an American citizen.  While some of the work he produced during those years, like Untitled (Deserted Child) and Self-Portrait (Selbstbildnis) (pictured above), suggest this emotional state, others reflect the minimal impact the war had on the practical aspects of his daily life.

The Green Bridge II (Grüne Brücke II) (1916, oil on canvas, 49⅜” x 39½”), © Lyonel Feininger Family, LLC / Artists Rights Society (ARS), NY.

Feininger continued to labor at his oil paintings and The Green Bridge II (Grüne Brücke II) (1916), a remake of an earlier version, demonstrates the mastery he eventually achieved.  Brush strokes are deliberate, colors are thoughtfully layered, and the artist has fully developed his characteristic style of indicating form with gradations of tone across each surface, dark meeting light wherever one plane turns into another.

Entering the sixth gallery of the Whitney exhibit, the visitor meets Feininger after he joined the Bauhaus, one of many organizations that sprouted up after the war, when the establishment of a German republic sparked new optimism for the country’s future.  His new status as faculty member, with its accompanying studio space, served as a tonic for the war-wearied artist, providing him with financial stability.  In 1921, disillusioned with the Bauhaus’s shift away from nature, Feininger was relieved to be freed of his tedious teaching duties and to accept the appointment as head of the school’s print workshop.

Nearing his fiftieth birthday, Feininger began to incorporate into his paintings an awareness of Cubism and lessons learned about light from his experiments with photography.  In a tour-de-force of color and contrast, the awesomely beautiful Church of the Minorites II (Barfüsserkirche II) (1926) epitomizes the unique qualities that set this artist apart from others.

Like many of Feininger’s paintings from this time onward, the Church of the Minorites II brings to mind the geometric elements and luminescent clarity of stained glass windows.  In this oil on canvas, the artist portrays the figures with the same angularity as the forms of the church and, by miniaturizing them, establishes a humbling effect similar to that engendered by the interiors of many towering cathedrals.  Here he comes closest to fulfilling his quest for the spiritual in art.

A few years later, Feininger painted Calm at Sea III (Stiller Tag am Meer III) (1929), another example of his singular vision.  Using variations on the primary colors of red, yellow and blue, he has taken two sailboats and created an abstract study in stillness.  Indicative of the relative obscurity of this artist, few images can be found online for referencing, providing yet another motivation for seeing the exhibit and/or buying the excellently written and lusciously illustrated catalog.

In 1933 when Hitler came to power, Feininger–despite having a Jewish wife–was initially enthusiastic about the possibilities such a strong leader offered Germany.  After awhile, unable to maintain his denial of the dangers of Nazism, and determined to keep his art a central focus, he sought refuge in a seaside village that he knew well from previous visits.  Though producing few oil paintings between 1932 and 1936, he continued to express himself in drawings and watercolors, finding solace in his peaceful surroundings.

By 1937, realizing that as a modern artist and an American it was no longer safe to remain in Germany, and invited to teach at a college in the United States, Feininger fled back to his country of origin, where he would reside until his death in 1956.

Docking in his hometown after fifty years abroad was disorienting for the 66-year-old adult.  Where once low-lying buildings had brought visual access to rail yards and docks, now canyons flanked by tall buildings limited the view.  In an effort to get his bearings, Feininger once again sought comfort in scenes of boats on water.  Paintings done years later in his eighties have the ephemeral quality of a late Turner, depicting light on water and sky, in search of the sublime.

In the last gallery of the Whitney show, sharing the walls with more familiar subjects were new ones of Manhattan skyscrapers.  Returning to New York seemed to have stirred to life the imaginative child for whom the city had once served as playground.  Like the young child that had been drawn to trains and boats, the now much older one looked up at towering buildings, the new emblems of progress.

In a small and simply rendered watercolor, Untitled (Manhattan at Night) (1937),  the artist places the viewer high above the street looking up at a powder blue sky punctuated with four twinkling stars between office buildings covered with rows of lit windows.  Overwhelm turned to wonder.  Inspired by the Manhattan cityscape, Feininger recovered the playfulness of his earlier years.  Buildings took on cartoon shapes again and in Moonwake (1945), a gigantic figure walks among the houses.

Uncle Feininger reappeared with watercolors done in the fifties of odd looking creatures called “Ghosties” (1954).  Most notably, in a watercolor and ink of Montmartre, Paris (1938), two cartoon characters, looking for all the world like Boris and Natasha of Rocky and Bullwinkle fame, approach each other from opposite directions on a night-darkened street.  One longs to see the next frame of this nascent comic strip.


1 Barbara Haskell, Lyonel Feininger: At the Edge of the World, 2011, 24.

2 Ibid, 3.

3 Ibid, 2.

4 Overheard comment at exhibit in front of The Green Bridge II.

5 Wee Willie Winkie’s World, The Chicago Sunday Tribune, September 16, 1906.

Lyonel Feininger: At the Edge of the World
Whitney Museum of American Art
945 Madison Avenue at 75th Street
New York, NY 10021

Catalog available.


Art Review: German Expressionist Graphics

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Sunday, July 3rd, 2011

Art For Our Time:
German Expressionism
at Galerie St. Etienne & MoMA

Max Pechstein, Dancer in the Mirror (woodcut, 19-7/16″ x 15¾”), © 2011
Max Pechstein/Artists Rights Society (ARS), NY/VG Bild-Kunst, Bonn.

The stars must have aligned over New York City for a niche gallery and major museum to concurrently exhibit drawings and prints by German Expressionist artists, all taken from their extensive holdings.  Galerie St. Etienne, a venue that specializes in Expressionism and self-taught art, planned its exhibition, Decadence & Decay: Max Beckmann, Otto Dix, George Grosz, well in advance and not in connection with The Museum of Modern Art’s German Expressionism: The Graphic Impulse.  The shows offered viewers two very different perspectives, but only at the gallery could art lovers walk away with a favorite–once they’d left some money behind.

Accompanied by a catalog primarily written by curator Starr Figura and heralding the digitalization of the museum’s 3,400 plus Expressionist works on paper, the exhibit at MoMA set out to define, illustrate and track the rise and fall of the movement in Germany and Austria from 1905 with the formation of the artists’ groups Die Brücke in Dresden and–several years later–Der Blaue Reiter in Munich, until the confiscation and destruction by the Nazis of hundreds of works of “degenerate art” in the late 1930s.

Max Beckmann, Self-Portrait in Bowler Hat, (1921, drypoint, 12¾” x 9¾”), courtesy Galerie St. Etienne, NY.

The Galerie St. Etienne showcased the work of three Weimar-era artists who did not identify strongly with any one group and whose most powerful images lean toward the left of the political spectrum.  In Jane Kallir’s concise and informative essay accompanying the checklist, she distinguished between these “Verists,” with their uncompromising images of the underside of life, and the “Magic Realists” with their revival of Italian classicism, well suited for the Nazi propaganda to come.  (See review of the Guggenheim’s Chaos and Classicism show.)

Erich Heckel, Portrait of a Man (1919, woodcut, 18-3/16″ x 12¾”), © 2011 Erich Hecke/Artists Rights Society (ARS), NY/VG Bild-Kunst, Germany.

Expressionism, as originally conceived, emphasized “personal expression” and was “characterized by simplified or distorted forms and exaggerated color.”1 Prints–especially woodcuts–and other works on paper became the media of choice, allowing for spontaneity, experimentation and wider dissemination.

The (almost exclusively male) artists presented in both shows are celebrated for their development of printmaking as an artistic form in its own right, but Berlin-based Käthe Kollwitz preceded them by over a decade with her series, A Weavers’ Rebellion (1894–98), soon following it with her Peasants’ War (1902–08).

Although the MOMA exhibit displayed a fair number of Kollwitz’s works, including all seven of the woodcuts that make up her poignant commentary War (1921-22), the main text of the catalog fails to give her the same biographical treatment afforded other prominent artists.  Readers will find only descriptions of her work and, oddly, a first mention of her (p. 29) by last name only, implying a prior reference where none exists.

Ernst Ludwig Kirchner, Winter Moonlit Night, (1919, woodcut, 12-11/16″ x 12-5/16″), © Ingeborg & Dr. Wolfgang Henze-Ketterer, Wichtrach, Bern.

The art of Die Brücke (The Bridge) members reflects their counter-cultural attitudes.  Ernst Ludwig Kirchner seems to have been the de facto leader, attracting like-minded artists and their friends to his studio to celebrate chaos with decoration and dancing.  Both there and at their favorite beach resorts they cavorted nude and sought to “bring art and life into harmony with each other.”2

Franz Marc, Riding School After Ridinger (1913, woodcut, 12-13/16″ x 14¾”), The Museum of Modern Art, NY.

The prime mover of Der Blaue Reiter (The Blue Rider) group, Vasily Kandinsky (mythic father of abstract painting), had a similar interest in the ethereal.  Author of Concerning the Spiritual in Art (1913), Kandinsky and his cohorts, Franz Marc among them, revealed in their work a “fascination with themes of spiritual rebirth and cosmic conflict.”3

Oskar Kokoschka, Hans Tietze and Erica Tietze-Conrat (1909, oil on canvas, 30⅛” x 55⅝”), © 2011 Artists Rights Society (ARS), NY/Pro Litteris, Zurich.
Egon Schiele, Standing Male Nude with Arm Raised, Back View (1910, watercolor & charcoal on paper, 17⅝” x 12⅜”), The Museum of Modern Art, NY.

In Austria, two unaffiliated Viennese artists, Oskar Kokoschka and Egon Schiele, created images aimed at “the facade of complacency and conformity that dominated”4 the culture of their city.  More inclined to compete than band together, they produced a far more unsettling brand of Expressionism.  Hardly idealistic or other-worldly, their work confronts the viewer with overtly sexual and violent images, insisting on spotlighting the darker reaches of the human psyche.

Displayed in the first four galleries at the MoMA show, the pieces by Kokoschka and Schiele stand out among those of dancing nudes and idyllic nature blithely executed by their German contemporaries.  The advent of World War I erased any such disparity among most of these artists.  Forced to confront the uglier aspects of human nature, they responded in various ways.  Many of them served in the military.  Of those, none escaped physically or psychologically unharmed.  Several were killed in action.  A few committed suicide.

Stepping into the next room, one encountered a dramatic shift in subject matter that reflected this altered European landscape.  Kirchner, that espouser of all things beautiful, produced a lithograph depicting a sex murder, an emerging theme at the time.  In his Murderer (1914), a black-suited man stands over a nude woman bleeding from a gaping wound in her neck from which blood trickles down to her crotch where it pools, then spreads to provide much of the color in the print.

Kirchner’s lithograph shared a wall with Night (1914), a drypoint by Max Beckmann of what might be a murder in a brothel.  A man’s body, still partially on the bed, slides onto the floor where a stream of blood runs from the back of his head.  Nearby, an overturned nightstand spills objects onto the floor.  Two women and a man look on with mild interest.

Otto Dix, Skull, 1924 (etching, 10⅛” x 7¾”), © Otto Dix/2010 Artists Rights Society (ARS), NY/VG Bild-Kunst, Bonn.

Moving along, viewers entered a gallery at the far end of which hung images of war’s brutal reality.  Not since Francisco Goya inked his print series, Los Desastres de la Guerra (The Disasters of War), has another artist captured the nightmare of armed conflict like Otto Dix did in his series of etchings, Der Krieg (War).  As an artilleryman for the duration of the war, the artist learned first hand about the horrors and deprivations of trench warfare, relying on drawing to maintain some semblance of sanity.  Years later he observed, “You have to have seen people in this untamed state to know anything about them.”5

MoMA mounted, salon style, all fifty prints of Der Krieg.  In four uneven rows, the etchings depicted trench warfare in all its gory:  Those still living fight amid corpses strewn across lunar landscapes.  People lose their minds: a woman with a crazed look kneels over a dead baby; a boy with an ash-blackened head stares with wild eyes.  Prostitutes stroll along streets and men seek relief from women they pay.  Body parts hang on trees, and skull and limb bones accumulate in piles.  At night, a man comes over the rim of a trench to stab its unsuspecting occupant in the chest.  War cripples trudge along in a line, bringing to mind John Singer Sargent’s painting of mustard gas victims, Gassed (1918).  Broken bodies hang from a bombed-out building while in front of it a bloody-headed baby leans on the corpse of a woman.  Drunks fight in a bar.  A bright rising sun mocks two soldiers crawling on their hands and knees, leaving skeletons behind them.  Three rigid legs of a gutted horse point skyward.

Otto Dix, Bombs Are Dropped on Lens (1924, etching, 11¾” x 9⅝”), courtesy Galerie St. Etienne, NY.

Several of Dix’s War prints also appeared at Galerie St. Etienne.  These, displayed at eye level, afforded a more intimate viewing experience than was possible at the MoMA show.   Also at the gallery were two drawings, Grenade Trench with Dead Men and Man Reading in Foxhole (both 1917).  Sketched on site using the side of a black chalk crayon to create broad, dark marks, they bring the viewer into the trenches with Dix.

No stranger to war’s tragedies, Käthe Kollwitz directed her energies toward exposing the hidden casualties of war:  the parents asked to offer up their children.  Having lost her son early in the conflict (like many caught up in nationalistic fervor, he had quickly enlisted), she suffered acutely from his death.  Her belief in the futility of war finds expression in her series, War, all seven of which appeared in the MoMA exhibit.

Exploiting the expressive power of black ink set against wide expanses of white paper, these woodcuts feature mothers attempting to protect children threatened by the demands of a war machine that would devour them.  In The Parents, an elderly couple form a compact monumental unit; the father, one arm raised to cover his face with a gnarled hand, embraces his wife, who bends over to bury her head in the crook of his other arm.  Their grief is palpable.

In another woodcut from War, The Widow II, Kollwitz places the viewer behind the thrown-back head of a foreshortened body of a woman holding a baby draped across her chest.  Her eyes, in a face that appears upside down to the onlooker, suggest those of the living dead.

Max Beckmann, Lovers I (1916, drypoint, 9⅜” x 11¾”), courtesy Galerie St. Etienne, NY.

On a wall perpendicular to the one with Kollwitz’s woodcuts, MoMA displayed all eleven of Max Beckmann’s lithographs of war’s aftermath, straightforwardly titled Hell.  Characteristic of much of this artist’s work, the prints overflow with chaotically jumbled figures who chat, orate, sing patriotic songs, go hungry and torture others.  Breaking through their pictorial boundaries, many of these images demand deliberate and sustained focus for full comprehension, requiring more than casual viewing.

George Grosz, Saxon Miniatures (1921, ink, 26″ x 19⅝”), courtesy Galerie St. Etienne, NY.

Another critic of post-war German society, George Grosz excelled at the equivalent of scathing political cartoons.  At the Galerie St. Etienne, one found a generous selection of these works on paper.

In Saxon Miniatures, Grosz reveals his view of German manhood.  By positioning figures from background to foreground, he suggests a kind of evolutionary timeline, beginning with a withered old man and moving forward with a military man, then a cleric, and ultimately, a Saxon tribesman armed with a club.

Grosz’s 1921 ink drawing, Let Those Swim Who Can–The Heavy May Sink, speaks to the deprivation suffered by the less fortunate members of post-war Germany.  Grosz poignantly depicts a wrinkled man clad in slippers, jacket and slacks, with a cravat tied tightly around his neck.  Leaning over to rest his skull-like head on one arm while gripping the cane that supports him with the other, the occupant of this small room containing little more than a bed and a couple of chairs looks to be dying from starvation.

In addition to many of Grosz’s works on paper, the MoMA show included two of his 1917 paintings, Metropolis and Explosion.  In both, predominant red tones, heightened by occasional blues and greens, heat up exploding urban views.

In the vertical Metropolis, floating men in suits hurry across the canvas while two bare-breasted women dressed in stockings are destined for a different kind of business.  In the other painting, the eponymous explosion shatters glass, tumbles buildings and scatters lives, an apt metaphor for the hit taken by any society engaging in war.

Like much of the art in both shows, the eleven lithographs comprising Beckmann’s Trip to Berlin (1922) highlighted the chasm between those who benefit from armed conflict and those who suffer because of it.  In this series, shown in its entirety at MoMA, Beckmann juxtaposes The Theater Lobby with Tavern, and in Striptease, unhappy, mostly-nude women attempt to entertain a well-dressed but inattentive audience.  The Disillusioned in formal wear sit around a table while The Beggars in the street look for handouts.

Otto Dix, Apotheosis (1919, woodcut, 11⅛” x 7⅞”), courtesy Galerie St. Etienne, NY.

Apotheosis, a 1919 woodcut by Dix bridges past with present in its elevation to godhood of a bare-breasted, corseted woman wearing black stockings and heeled boots.  Spinning around her in a cubistic array, heads and appendages of men share the background with pieces of buildings.  Dix seems to be addressing both the commodification of sex and the increasing pace of life brought on by industrialization and the growth of cities.

Flash forward.  The mechanical morphs into the digital.  Wars rage, sex sells, cement spreads, rich and poor collide in urban settings.  One wonders how Grosz and Dix would react to 21st century life.

Kollwitz died in April 1945, just months before the bombing of Hiroshima and Nagasaki, fortunate to be spared witnessing the blood-hued dawn of the nuclear age.  What images would she have created in response to such mass murder that might have moved viewers to better safeguard this precious gift of life?
1 Starr Figura, German Expressionism: The Graphic Impulse, 2011, 10.

2 Kirchner, Ernst Ludwig (1913), quoted in German Expressionism: The Graphic Impulse, 11.

3 Figura, 18.

4 Ibid, 90.

5 Quoted by Dietrich Schubert in Otto Dix, 2010, 37.

Decadence & Decay: Max Beckmann, Otto Dix, George Grosz
Galerie St. Etienne
24 West 57th Street
New York, NY 10019

German Expressionism: The Graphic Impulse
The Museum of Modern Art
11 West 53 Street
New York, NY 10019


Art Review: Marie-Louise von Motesiczky

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Sunday, February 27th, 2011

Emerging from Obscurity:
Artist Marie-Louise von Motesiczky

The Old Song (1959, oil on canvas, 40″ x 60-1/8″), courtesy Galerie St. Etienne, NY, © The Marie-Louise von Motesiczky Trust.

The name required pronunciation assistance (think “ch” for “cz”) and bore no hint of familiarity, but the image on the card announcing the first United States exhibition of the work of Austrian artist Marie-Louise von Motesiczky encouraged further investigation.  Accompanying the invitation, a brief biography of the artist written by Jane Kallir, the psychologically insightful co-director of The Galerie St. Etienne (the show’s host), provided more than enough reason to visit.

Greeting the viewer entering the room devoted to the story of Motesiczky’s relationship with her mother, The Old Song (1959) depicts the 77-year-old woman in the bed where she’d spent many daytime hours over the course of her life.  With one of her loyal greyhounds watching from under the bed, Henriette von Motesiczky listens to her neighbor strum a harp while an eagle floats nearby.  The harpist, with ashen face and bright red nails, portends approaching death, though Henriette went on to live another 19 years and to inspire other paintings and drawings by her daughter, many of which joined this work in the gallery.

Self-Portrait with Straw Hat (1937, oil on canvas, 21-7/8″ x 15-1/4″), courtesy Galerie St. Etienne, NY, © The Marie-Louise von Motesiczky Trust.

Paradise Lost & Found, the exhibit’s title, refers not to any one particular painting, but more broadly to the life of Motesiczky.  Born in 1906 in Vienna into an aristocratic Jewish family inextricably linked to other wealthy Jews through bloodlines and social standing, the artist fled with her mother first to Amsterdam and ultimately to England when the Nazi onslaught began decimating the world they had known.  More immediately, young Marie-Louise’s life changed dramatically with the sudden death of her father in 1909.1

Henriette, devastated but emancipated after the death of her husband, and with ample means to live large with few restraints, glommed onto Marie-Louise and never released her.  The other child, six-year-old Karl, remained invisible to his mother but benefited from the close friendship and comforting of his loving sister.  He would die in Auschwitz in 1944, several months after his arrest by the Gestapo for helping Jews escape from Poland.

To insure her daughter’s continued availability, Henriette intervened whenever romance threatened to shift attachment elsewhere.  When 16-year-old Marie-Louise fell in love with her cousin, her mother shipped her off to Holland for a few months and when six years later she wanted to marry a man with whom she shared a serious relationship, her mother forbade it.

Despite her mother’s narcissistic dependence on her, Marie-Louise enjoyed remarkable freedom, perhaps better described as not-so-benign neglect.  In early adolescence, she could choose to drop out of school and begin pursuing her interest in art, taking drawing lessons privately.

After World War I ended, new laws designed to ease housing shortages mandated owners of large residences to take in borders.  The Motesiczky family, mostly insulated from the upheaval of World War I, became host to a steady stream of paying guests, many with intellectual and/or artistic credentials, who provided illustrious company for the very young Marie-Louise.  One, an American architecture student, became a first lover.  The tender age of the girl and the laissez-faire attitude of her mother raises troubling questions about the nature of that liaison.

Fräulein Engelhardt (1926-27, oil on canvas, 24-5/8″ x 23-3/8″), courtesy Galerie St. Etienne, NY, © The Marie-Louise von Motesiczky Trust.

During the summer of 1920, the German artist Max Beckmann, introduced by a family member, paid a visit to the Motesiczky’s.  By playfully entertaining the teenager with an impromptu dinner skit involving a piece of straw dipped in wine, he enthralled the 14-year-old Marie-Louise with his personality, and later his art, laying the foundation for their deep and lasting friendship.

Motesiczky’s educational travels during her teens and early twenties brought her into contact with Dutch art in The Hague and the avant-garde in Paris.  Spending time in Frankfurt am Main, she studied directly with Beckmann, already a strong influence on her early art.

As the young artist gained skill and experience, she developed her own unique and emotionally powerful style, evident in the 1926-27 portrait of Henriette’s close friend, the elderly Fraulein Engelhardt.  The work blends the angular, flat planes of color and thick application of paint favored by her teacher Beckmann with Motesiczky’s own balanced composition, subtle color, and empathic rendering of the woman’s likeness.  Sitting on a cushion-backed chair, the subject of the painting gazes at and points toward a brown, autumnal leaf that rests on the table upon which she leans, as if indicating to the visitor her awareness of approaching death.

Siesta (1933, pastel & charcoal on tan laid paper, 10″ x 16-3/4″), courtesy Galerie St. Etienne, NY, © The Marie-Louise von Motesiczky Trust.
Hunting (1936, pastel & charcoal on paper, 18-1/8″ x 22-3/8″), courtesy Galerie St. Etienne, NY, © The Marie-Louise von Motesiczky Trust.

The painter did not intentionally set out to focus her art on charting the ravages of time but did so in the many portraits of her mother, whose omnipresence in her life and inclination to recline in bed made her a perfect subject.

At The Galerie St. Etienne, the viewer first meets Henriette at the start of the exhibit in a pair of pastel drawings, Siesta (1933, pastel and charcoal) and Hunting (1936, pastel).  In the first, the ample woman, wide-eyed and red-nosed, appears abed, partially covered, hugging her pillow.  In the other, Henriette engages in another favorite pastime, hunting.  Attired in blue dress, legs splayed to balance herself in a rowboat, she looks down the sight of a brown-handled rifle, intent on her prey.

Reclining Woman with Pipe (1954, oil on canvas, 28-1/8″ x 40″), courtesy Galerie St. Etienne, NY, © The Marie-Louise von Motesiczky Trust.

In the room with The Old Song, joining other portraits of the artist’s mother, Reclining Woman with Pipe (1954, oil) captures Henriette at 72.  Marie-Louise depicts her mother sporting a grey wig, propped up in bed, enjoying a pipe.  Though now much older, the woman appears robust and alert, enlivened by the bright yellow pillow upon which she rests and the red nightgown that slips from her left shoulder, exposing pink skin.

Mother in the Garden (1975, oil, pastel & charcoal on canvas, 32″ x 20″), courtesy Galerie St. Etienne, NY, © The Marie-Louise von Motesiczky Trust.

Advanced age suffuses Marie-Louise’s Mother in the Garden (1975, oil, pastel and charcoal).  The shadow on the garden wall, cast by sunlight falling on the spectral figure, attests to the old woman’s substance.  Stooped over and almost bald at 93, Henriette continues to tend her beloved garden.  She would live another three years.

The Greenhouse (1979, oil & charcoal on canvas, 21-7/8″ x 32-1/8″), courtesy Galerie St. Etienne, NY, © The Marie-Louise von Motesiczky Trust.

In homage to her mother, Motesiczky created The Greenhouse (1979, oil and charcoal) a year after Henriette’s death.  At 73, as an accomplished artist with major portrait commissions and work displayed internationally including a 1966 multi-venue solo exhibition, she confronted not just her mother’s mortality but also her own.

The figure of the artist’s mother, now practically transparent, bends over to rake some fallen leaves in her garden.  Close by, two of her greyhounds look toward the barely visible third, a mere outline in front of the brown wood of the pictured structure.  A rising/setting sun in a high-value sky illuminates the glass of the greenhouse, less an actual reflection than an imagined one, with a blue stream flowing through bulrushes, a reference perhaps to Henriette’s love of hunting.

Canetti, London (1965, oil on canvas, 12″ x 10″), traveling exhibition, no. 63, Schlenker 200, © The Marie-Louise von Motesiczky Trust.

Although her mother succeeded in preventing Marie-Louise from ever marrying, she could not stop her from succumbing to the allure of fellow émigré Elias Canetti, a married writer she met in 1939 soon after their relocations to London.  Marie-Louise sustained this romantic obsession, with all its pleasure and pain, until her death.

Involved in an affair that afforded her the luxury of maintaining her own autonomy, after the war Motesiczky provided Canetti with a place to write in her new London flat, a great way to insure his company.  The arrangement lasted until 1957.  Expecting that her status as the other woman would finally change in 1963 when her paramour became a widower, Marie-Louise suffered a devastating shock when ten years later she learned from a friend that he had remarried and fathered a child.

Self-Portrait with Canetti (1960s, oil on canvas, 20″ x 32-1/4″), courtesy Galerie St. Etienne, NY, © The Marie-Louise von Motesiczky Trust.

Her Self Portrait with Canetti (1960s) illuminates well Motesiczky’s plight.  Dolefully staring at the object of her affection, the artist portrays herself to the left of the items separating them: six paint brushes, two quills and a large flowering plant.  Canetti’s attention remains fixed on the newspaper he holds open on his desk; his bushy-haired head, on the right side of the composition, balances not with Motesiczky’s on the left, but with the vegetal display that sits on the table (perhaps representing the wife that Motesiczky blamed for Canetti’s unavailability).  Further highlighting their divide, two shining ovals hover in the open space between them.

As she aged, Motesiczky became more open to sharing her art with the world.  In 1985, the Goethe Institut in London mounted her first retrospective; others followed elsewhere.  The artist, who had always traveled widely, visited Egypt at the age of 84, spent her 87th birthday doing volunteer work in a prison, and continued painting and attending art exhibits during her later years.

In 1996, Marie-Louise von Motesiczky died in London, a few months before her 90th birthday.  Four years prior, she had established The Marie-Louise von Motesiczky Charitable Trust in keeping with her initial impulse to create art:

My longing is to paint beautiful pictures, to become happy in doing so, and to make other people happy through them.2
1 All biographical information from Marie-Louise von Motesiczky, 1906-1996, The  Painter, Jeremy Adler and Birgit Sander, editors, 2006.

2 Ibid, dedication page.

Marie-Louise Motesiczky
Paradise Lost & Found

The Galerie St. Etienne
24 West 57th Street
New York, NY 10019


Art Review: Salvador Dalí – The Late Work

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Sunday, January 23rd, 2011

Forever Young, Outsider Dalí
Danced with Old, Sparred with New

When photographer and friend Phillipe Halsman asked Salvador Dalí during a photo shoot, “Why do you wear a mustache?”, he received the response, “In order to pass unobserved.”

Judging from the size of one of the massive crates required to ship his mural-sized paintings (revealed by an obliging museum guard in a behind-the-scenes peek) and the intense efforts Dalí expended to brand himself (long before anyone used that noun as a verb), he clearly intended that every endeavor generate attention, including the series of photographs that emerged from his work with Halsman.

Those Halsman-Dalí photos welcomed visitors to the High Museum of Art’s exhibit, Salvador Dalí: The Late Work.  They combined portraits of Dalí with accompanying repartee.  Following the question, “Why do you paint?”, and its answer, “Because I love art,” came an image of the artist with his mustache formed into an S turned into the American dollar sign with the addition of two paint brushes.  Coins framed the face.

For only a time a Surrealist but forever associated with that movement, and famous for the melting clocks of The Persistence of Memory (1931), Dalí fell from grace early on because of his unapologetic commercialization of art.  Assembled for the show at the High by guest curator Elliott H. King, a collection of Dalí’s late work aimed to situate this initiator of happenings and multimedia events, innovative sculptor, and expert draftsman and painter where he rightfully belongs: in the pantheon of great artists of the twentieth century.

In the first room of paintings, a vitrine contains Dalí’s copy of The Geometry of Art and Life by Matila Ghyka, opened to the page describing the Golden Section on which the book’s owner penciled notes that chronicled his efforts to understand it.  In The Study for Leda Atomica (1947), Dalí inscribed a couple of phone handsets, a fully inked swan and Leda/Gala within an encircled pentagram, the construction lines for which intersect to divide into segments that relate to each other in accordance with the Golden Ratio.

Such geometric magic along with other scientific interests figured prominently in Dalí’s peculiar thought processes.  The smashing of the atom, especially, captured his imagination and inspired depictions of disintegrating forms.  Conceptualizing matter as reducible to an invisible state of energy suited Dalí’s philosophical and artistic wanderings in the insubstantial worlds of fantasy, dreams and the unconscious.

In addition to his prodigious visual output, Dalí wrote extensively on his favorite subject: himself.  Among other topics, his musings expound upon his artistic choices, beginning with the paranoiac mechanism of his Surrealism days.  Caught up in a multi-tracked train of thought, Dalí arrived at his Paranoiac-Critical mysticism, the underlying inspiration for much of the work in this exhibit.

Writing about his unique view of the world, Dalí aligned himself with paranoiacs who, he observed take “…advantage of associations and facts so refined as to escape normal people [to] reach conclusions that often cannot be contradicted or rejected and that in any case nearly always defy psychological analysis.”1 Indeed, this artist found relationships few others saw, morphing one object into another with his deft wielding of pen and brush.

Devoted to Dalí’s expeditions into the graphic arts, two rooms in the exhibit contained an array of styles and modalities that served as a good introduction to his extensive accomplishments in this arena.  Unfortunately, late in his life he became fast and loose with his signature in a way that challenged future collectors and dealers in their attempts at authentication.  On display, engravings from Ten Recipes for Immortality (1973) and colored lithographs from Don Quixote (1957) (both series inexplicably absent from the catalog) demonstrated Dalí’s expert draftsmanship.  The High could do well to mount an exhibition devoted solely to this aspect of Dalí’s oeuvre.

Among the few early works included in the exhibit, Debris of an Automobile Giving Birth to a Blind Horse Biting a Telephone (1938) combined both Dalí’s paranoiac ability and his facility with both ends of a brush.  On a dark ground, the artist scraped off paint to reveal form-defining lights and applied small dabs of color as highlights on the horse’s rump.  With a radiator to its left, an automobile wheel in place of one of its forelegs and a fender over its other, this bio-mechanical animal bites down with a vengeance on a phone’s receiver, leaving the viewer to ponder what it might mean.

Dalí’s later works drew upon his fascination with quantum physics.  In his Mystical Manifesto (1951), he unraveled the secrets of the Paranoiac-Critical approach and rallied aspiring artists to perfect their craft.  When he wrote that the “mystical ecstasy is ‘super-cheerful,’ explosive, disintegrated, supersonic, undulatory and corpuscular, and ultra-gelatinous…,”2 Dalí included a reference to the quantum theory that energy exists in either wave (undulatory) or particle (corpuscular) form depending on the instrument used to observe it.

In an instructive example of his method, the Paranoic-Critical Study of Vermeer’s “Lacemaker” (1955), Dalí exploded his copy of the Dutch artist’s painting, at which he had spent an hour staring during a visit to the Louvre and then reproduced from memory (so the story goes).  Insisting that he found four rhinoceros horns in Vermeer’s small image, Dalí included those in his updated version along with a recognizable face surrounded by strands and corpuscles of color and light.

The title of Saint Surrounded by Three Pi-Mesons (1956) directly references subatomic particles.  Where others might see a person, Dalí utilized his paranoiac vision to reduce the holy figure to a mass of individual elements.  This relatively small painting, housed in a protective glass-covered frame box, revealed a deftness of touch in the artist’s application of mostly grisaille daubs of paint interspersed with strokes of occasional blue in the face area and bronze on the hands.  Golden tassels dangle at the bottom.  An entire world exists in this assemblage of forms; reproductions barely hint at the effort required for its realization.

A devoted classicist, Dalí took issue with the art trends of his time.  In a preparatory sketch for a page in his Fifty Secrets of Master Craftsmanship (ca.1948), displayed in the vitrine with the book on geometry, Dalí used parameters like “Grafmanschip, coleur, dessino” [all sic] to rate Mondrian, Picasso and himself alongside old masters such as Raphael, Leonardo and Velázquez.  Picasso faired all right.  Mondrian earned almost all zeroes, but so did Bouguereau.

Further expressing his negative feelings about nonobjective art, Dalí painted Fifty Abstract Paintings Which as Seen from Two Yards Change into Three Lenins Masquerading as Chinese and as Seen from Six Yards Appear as the Head of a Royal Bengal Tiger (1962), the name of which says it all.  In the same room as that statement hung The Sistine Madonna (Quasi-grey picture which, closely seen, is an abstract one; seen from two meters is the Sistine Madonna of Raphael; and from fifteen meters is the ear of an angel measuring one meter and a half; which is painted with anti-matter; therefore with pure energy) (1958).  A tromp l’oeil piece of paper and a cherry tied to the end of a string contrast in technique with the benday-dotted ear containing an image of a face.

Possibly one of Dalí’s most beautifully rendered paintings, The Madonna of Port Lligat (1950) showcases the wizardry with which this master could transform two-dimensional canvas into an imagined three-dimensional reality.  With invisible brush strokes, Dalí lavished the same attention to detail on each object pictured.  Brilliantly conceived, the Christ child that sits on the Madonna’s/Gala’s lap looks just like the neighbor’s kid, except for the end piece of a bread loaf that floats in the rectangular space carved into the youngster’s torso.

Two other floor-to-ceiling canvases deserve mention.  In Christ of St. John of the Cross (1951), Dalí depicts the crucified figure from above, within an equilateral triangle, and suspends the cross high above a boat anchored in a large lake.  Perhaps he intended the perspective to suggest God’s view of the event.

Using a photograph of a horse’s head as reference, paranoiac Dalí noticed that the highlight on the creature’s neck resembled an angel.  In Santiago El Grande (1957), the image reverberates throughout the huge painting.  Over a blue latticework background, a rider mounted on a rearing stead hoists a golden cruciform figure.  Fiery orange objects fly around in the uppermost lefthand corner.  In the lower right, shrouded Gala peers out from behind her partly hidden face, confronting the onlooker with her one visible eye.

Not the last artwork displayed in the show but definitely a coda of sorts, The Truck (We’ll be arriving later, about 5 o’clock) (1983) captures the devastation Dalí suffered when his beloved wife and muse, Gala, died in 1982.  Using a combination of oil paint and collage on canvas, this view from the inside of an opened-back truck alludes to “André Breton’s: ‘I demand that they take me to the cemetery in a removal van.’  The subtitle invokes Garcia Lorca’s ‘Lament for the Death of a Bullfighter’ (1935) refrain: ‘at five in the afternoon.’”3 Using a diluted brown and black wash, Dalí painted the interior with a seated figure silhouetted against a brightly lit exterior.  A much darker mass close by looks like the painter at his easel, capturing the love of his life for eternity.

After Gala’s death, Dalí slipped away from life.  His best work behind him, he spent the last years of his life an invalid.  In 1989 when his heart gave out, the world lost a unique and gifted madman–and genius.
1 “Selected Writings by Salvador Dalí,” Dalí, 2004, 550.

2 Ibid, 564.

3 Exhibit wall text.

Salvador Dalí: The Late Work
High Museum of Art
1280 Peachtree Street, NE
Atlanta, GA 30309

Catalog available.


Theater/Art Review: Pass the Blutwurst, Bitte

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Monday, January 3rd, 2011

The Art of John Kelly:
Embodying Egon Schiele

A man rolls out a record player with a green felt turntable and spins a disk that plays period music while two other men enter, carrying identical signs that note defining moments in the all-too-brief life of Austrian artist, Egon Schiele.

In the next scene, the same man dances with a blank canvas, casting purple shadows on its white expanse, striking poses that capture the angularity of Schiele’s images, and focusing on fingers and hands that move of their own volition.

Pass the Blutwurst, Bitte, a combination of theater, dance, video and art, represents a culmination of 28 years of creation and reflection by John Kelly, the writer and performer who plays the young artist.  Introduced to Schiele by an art teacher while attending Parson’s School of Design in the late 70s, Kelly fell in love with and then tried to emulate, often in self-portraits, the quality inherent in Schiele’s drawings, especially his line.1 The more he learned as he researched the artist, the greater affinity he felt for the man who drew and painted in Vienna during the second decade of the 1900s.

The artist Egon Schiele had the misfortune, in 1890, to be born into a family in the grip of a syphilitic father who refused treatment, infected his wife (11 years his junior) and gradually lost his mind to his disease, releasing the family when he died in 1904.  Two years later, the 16-year-old Egon took his 12-year-old sister Gerti to Trieste on a trip that replicated their parents’ honeymoon.2 In 1912, charged with immorality and seduction for having under-aged girls model for him, Schiele spent 24 days in a local prison.3

Kelly captures that jail time in a video that cycles through the nights and days of his confinement.  After an initial encounter with a guard who torches a drawing of a nude girl while a woman’s voice intones in German—perhaps the complainant in the case—the scene alternates between darkness and an overhead view of Schiele on his prison cot bathed in light.  The positions he assumes as he tosses and turns echo his artwork, including one with outstretched arms like a crucifixion: the artist as martyr for his work.

In the onstage action that immediately follows, Kelly—wearing an undershirt—lies on the floor and becomes Schiele on the cot while his alter Egons dressed in suits walk around and mirror his movements.  The tempo increases and when the Egons disappear, Schiele awakens as if from a dream to ponder the dance with his selves.  The scene ends with a wall of stone projected on the screen replaced by his painting of four red-leaved trees.  Out of pain comes art.

For Kelly, revisiting Pass the Blutwurst, Bitte provided an opportunity to rework the youthful version that grew out of his early days as an artist long before the success he enjoys now.  Originally naming it with the more benign sausage knachwurst, he changed it to blutwurst (bloodwurst) because he found the latter more disgusting.4

To the originally physically challenging production that irreverently focused on telling the story—the truth—he added scenes and infused the entire performance with the gravitas that comes with maturity.  The pleasure he experienced in the process surprised him; he didn’t know he would find the desire.  The result exceeded his expectations.5

The scenes Kelly added to the original elaborate on Schiele’s relationships with women.  First came Wally, a young woman he met in art school who became his model and lover.  Then, after his release from jail and an eventual move to a new place, Schiele pursued a more reputable young woman, Edith, who later became his wife and the mother of his children.

Those familiar with Schiele’s paintings and life might have recognized Death and the Maiden, expressive of the artist’s desire to hold onto Wally despite his new marital status.  In one scene, Schiele and his lover disappear behind a covered, tent-shaped form and re-emerge with the lifting of the drapery to reveal their faces in place of those in the painting.  Life animates art.

Schiele’s wife Edith, the woman who had brought love and stability into his life, at six months pregnant succumbed to the 1918 flu, days before the artist did.  In one of the most poignant scenes, the grieving Schiele confronts her body lying where she fell, draws a white chalk line around it, then retraces it, and tenderly, desperately, hugs various parts of her body.

Kelly’s additions and changes, including the ending scene of Schiele’s death, reflect a shift from youth’s blissful ignorance about relationships and their accompanying risks and losses to a more mature awareness of life’s vicissitudes.  Browsing John Kelly’s website suggests a restless soul of many talents whose need to express himself requires a multiplicity of art forms.

Despite program notes that proclaim this as the definitive version of Pass the Blutwurst, Bitte, Kelly might surprise himself again in another 25 years with an urge to revise the piece, adding to and tweaking it from the vantage point of another quarter century of experience, growth and acquired self-knowledge.

1 Interview with John Kelly, December 22, 2010.

2 Alessandra Comini, Egon Schiele, 1976, 10-11.

3 Galerie St. Etienne exhibit essay, “Egon Schiele as Printmaker,” 2009, 1.

4 Op cit.

5 Op cit.


Art Review: Edward Hopper & His Time

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Sunday, January 2nd, 2011

Edward Hopper
Seeking Solitude in
Modern Times

Edward Hopper, Self Portrait (1925-1930, oil on canvas, 25-1/4″ x 20-5/8″), Whitney Museum of American Art, Josephine N. Hopper Bequest, ©Heirs of Josephine N. Hopper.

A museum goer could easily miss it, tucked away in an alcove, the glass-enclosed wall display of two rows of photographs spanning more than fifty years of Edward Hopper’s life: at 21 in the New York Studio School, drawing the nude male model in Robert Henri’s class–fertile ground for the Ashcan School; sketching in Paris around the same time; years later, working on a watercolor of a Maine lighthouse; the older Hopper with his wife Josephine, whom he married at 42; his now older hands, etching; and at 76, sitting near the coal stove in his studio of many years, looking serious if not downright glum.

These pictures of Hopper belong to a cache of over 3,000 items bequeathed, upon the death of his wife, to the Whitney Museum of American Art months after the artist died in 1967.  Since its founding as the Whitney Studio (and then Club) by Gertrude Vanderbilt Whitney in 1914, the museum has provided financial support and exhibition opportunities to a host of home-grown artists, including Hopper, and currently boasts a collection of American art the extent of which becomes apparent as one wanders around the exhibit, Modern Life: Edward Hopper and His Time, and thumbs through the accompanying catalog.

Charles Demuth, My Egypt (1927, oil and graphite pencil on fiberboard, 35-3/4″ x 30″). Whitney Museum of American Art, purchase with funds from Gertrude Vanderbilt Whitney.

The third venue for a show originally conceived as “a broad survey of American art from 1900-1950 that featured both realist and modernist artists…designed as an introduction for European audiences to American art of this period,”1 the Whitney decided to use its turn to focus “on the realist works that depicted modern life, both urban and rural, while also highlighting the artistic relationships that were most formative for Hopper…”2 On this side of the Atlantic, viewers enjoyed twenty more Hoppers (for a total of 32) as well as additional scholarship attempting to link Hopper’s art with that of his compatriots.

A quick walk-through of the exhibit, however, reveals that Edward Hopper operated in a universe all his own.  Part of a group of urban-based artists who depicted city and factory views, folks at work and play, and other topics of life in the then new twentieth century, he labored from a deeply personal place.

The artist must have found validation in a Goethe quote he carried throughout his life:

The beginning and end of all literary activity is the reproduction of the world that surrounds me by means of the world that is in me.3

Expanding on that, Hopper commented:

Great art is the outward expression of an inner life in the artist, and this inner life will result in his personal vision of the world.  No amount of skillful invention can replace the essential element of imagination.4

Perhaps because the creative experience required encounters with his unconscious, Hopper often found himself stymied in his efforts to produce.

I wish I could paint more.  I get sick of reading and going to the movies.  I’d rather be painting all the time, but I don’t have the impulse.  Of course I do dozens of sketches for oils–just a few lines on yellow typewriter paper–and then I almost always burn them.5

Nevertheless, and much to posterity’s benefit, many sketches did survive to become paintings, more than enough to provide an ample selection for the Whitney’s Modern Times exhibit and to be included in collections throughout the world.

In the show, a few early paintings by Hopper lack the skill so apparent in work a decade later.  In Tugboat with Black Smokestack (1908) and Queensborough Bridge (1913), the subject matter generates more interest than the draftsmanship, composition, palette or paint handling, highlights of the artist’s mature work.

Though Hopper might not have yet developed his facility with the brush, a psychologically insightful composition rendered in conté crayon and opaque watercolor, Untitled (the Railroad) (1906-7), demonstrated that he could certainly draw.  Peopling a bustling train station with an assortment of types performing a variety of actions, the artist focused attention on an unhappy looking child tagging along behind a woman, perhaps the mother, while a well-dress man boards the train.

Edward Hopper, Soir Bleu (1914, oil on canvas, 36″ x 72″). Whitney Museum of American Art, Josephine N. Hopper Bequest, ©Heirs of Josephine N. Hopper, licensed by the Whitney Museum of American Art.

With Soir Blue (1914), perhaps inspired by what he had seen on his three trips to Paris between 1906 and 1910, Hopper discovers the emotionally compelling world of color.  At a terrace café, six individuals occupy tables while a woman with a painted face and low-cut dress stands erect in the background.  Each distinctively pictured, as though a portrait of a personality the viewer should know–Manet (or Courbet) on the right?  Van Gogh with the red beard?–none interacts with another, foreshadowing the isolation of the actors in Hopper’s later scenes.

In the primary-colored world of Railroad Crossing (1922-23), the wind, evident in the solitary tree in the foreground, sweeps over a diagonal road that leads the eye to the eponymous crossing.  Barely noticeable in the shadow of a yellow house with blue roof and red chimney, a figure of a woman introduces an indeterminate narrative.  The house, centrally located and flanked by two telegraph poles, has no visible neighbors.

Not surprising then that Hopper admired the art of, and became good friends with, Charles Burchfield,6 another realist whose work evolved into idiosyncratic depictions of town and country views devoid of human presence, like the two desolate winter street scenes included in the show.  Each artist wrote about the other over the course of their lives.

Edward Hopper, Seven A. M. (1948, oil on canvas, 30-3/16″ x 40-1/8″). Whitney Museum of American Art, purchase and exchange, ©Whitney Museum of American Art.

Absent inhabitants, classics like Railroad Sunset (1929), Early Sunday Morning (1930). and Seven A.M. (1948) imply an observer wandering alone while others gather elsewhere.

Edward Hopper, New York Interior (ca. 1921, oil on canvas, 24-1/4 x 29-1/4). Whitney Museum of American Art, Josephine N. Hopper Bequest, ©Heirs of Josephine N. Hopper, licensed by the Whitney Museum of American Art.

Edward Hopper, South Carolina Morning (1955, oil on canvas, 30-9/16" x 40-1/4"). Whitney Museum of American Art, given in memory of Otto L. Spaeth by his Family, ©Whitney Museum of American Art.

Paintings by Hopper that do include figures, like New York Interior (1921), Night Windows (1928), Gas (1940), South Carolina Morning (1955), and A Woman in the Sun (1961)–all in the show–come upon subjects engaged in solitary activities, oblivious to the onlooker who keenly watches them.

In searching for the perfect image to depict the ephemeral intersection of psyche and experience–reality filtered through the soul–Hopper found himself peering into the private moments of others and wandering around unpopulated locations.  In the cacophony of modern times, he sought and perhaps finally found the freedom of existence inherent in solitude.
1 Sasha Nicholas, co-curator, in a communication from the Whitney’s press office.

2 Ibid.

3 Quoted by Peter Findlay in Edward Hopper: The Capezzera Drawings, 2005, 2.

4 Ibid, 22.

5 Ibid, 14.

6 Barbara Haskell in Modern Life.  Edward Hopper and His Time, 2010, 49.

Modern Life: Edward Hopper and His Time
Whitney Museum of American Art
945 Madison Avenue (at 75th Street)
New York, NY 10021
(212) 570-3600

Catalog available.


Art Review: Degas: Drawings and Sketchbooks

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Sunday, December 19th, 2010

Drive to Draw
Trumps Handicap

In all three of his books featuring old master drawings as instructional aides for depicting figures and learning artistic anatomy, Robert Beverly Hale (during his lifetime, a sought-after teacher at the Art Students League) included several examples from the hand of Edgar-Hilaire-Germaine Degas (1834-1917).  Hale singled out Degas’s “marvelous knowledge of anatomy”1 and explained that “[m]uch of Degas’ [sic] drawing is achieved by variety in the handling of his line and values.”2

From classically trained beginnings, Degas’s evolution as a draftsman took an unforeseen turn around 1870 when, while doing voluntary military service during the Franco-Prussian war, he began to experience visual problems.  Finding “bright lights intolerable,” he “was forced to work indoors in a controlled environment.”3

A few years later, during an extended visit with family in New Orleans, the artist resigned himself to permanent loss of visual acuity in his right eye.  Describing his affliction in a letter written during his travels to his friend and fellow artist James Tissot, Degas focused on what he still had rather than on what he had lost:

What lovely things I could have done, and done rapidly if the bright daylight were less unbearable for me.  To go to Louisiana to open one’s eyes, I cannot do that.  And yet I kept them sufficiently half open to see my fill.4

Added to his problems with glare, Degas soon began to suffer from a centrally located scotoma, a discreet area of impaired vision.  In an 1874 letter to Tissot he expressed his fear of going blind:

My eyes are fairly well but all the same I shall remain in the ranks of the infirm until I pass into the ranks of the blind.  It is really bitter, is it not?  Sometimes I feel a shiver of horror.5

From his forties onward, Degas persisted in creating art despite his partial blindness.  By age 57, he could no longer see well enough to read.  That year, in a letter to another friend, Degas complained:

I see even worse this winter, I do not even read the newspapers a little…Ah!  Sight!  Sight!  Sight!…the difficulty of seeing makes me feel numb.6

In Degas: Drawings and Sketchbooks at The Morgan Library & Museum, in a one-room exhibition displaying works on paper in oil and dry mediums mostly from Degas’s early years, only one suggested the radical stylistic changes necessitated by the encroaching blindness of his later years.  The 19 works on paper accompanied by two sketchbooks and some memorabilia, all from the museum’s own collection, demonstrate the skill with which this artist refined his observations to produce arresting images, some of which found their way into fully realized paintings.

Self-Portrait in a Brown Vest (1856, oil on paper, mounted on canvas).

Beginning with the typical student fare of self-portraits and a nude male study produced in his early 20s, the selection included the expected ballerina and racehorse pictures associated with Degas, and surprised with Ingres-inspired portraits of some friends.

Study of a Seated Woman (1868-69, oil paint thinned with turpentine, over graphite, on tan paper, mounted on canvas).

Two oil sketches, Study of a Seated Woman (1868-69) and Standing Man in a Bowler Hat (ca.1870), both done on tan paper, relate to a painting of a still undecipherable narrative dated around the same time.  Interior (Philadelphia Museum) depicts a woman seated in much the same way as that in the sketch and, on the other side of the room leaning with his back to the door, a man similar in attitude to that of the Standing Man.

In light of the approximate dating of Standing Man and its similarity of execution to the Seated Woman, it might represent one idea among many entertained by Degas before he settled on the final version.  In the study, the man looks down his nose.  In the painting, he glares at the woman turned away from him on the other side of the dimly-lit room.

Seated Dancer (ca. 1871, oil paint thinned with turpentine over pencil, on pink paper).

Still working with turpentine-thinned oil on toned paper, Degas turned his attention to the ballet, where the gas-lit interior of the Opéra provided intriguing effects and mitigated his problems with glare.  One of many preparatory studies for Dance Class at the Opéra on the Rue le Peletier (Musée d’Orsay), Seated Dancer (ca. 1871) exemplifies the artist’s drawing skill, knowledge of anatomy, and confident handling of paint.  With brilliant economy, he reserved the pink of the paper for the light on the dancer’s back, the shine on her satin shoes and the highlights on her skirt.  Her dangling neck ribbon defines the curve of her back.

Three Studies of a Dancer (ca. 1880, black chalk, Conte crayon [?], and pink chalk, heightened with white chalk, on blue paper faded to light brown).

In his late forties when he drew Three Studies of a Dancer (ca. 1880), Degas might have found working three-dimensionally a more manageable way to continue his investigations into the form and movement of bodies–dancing or at rest.  In this study, the artist depicted his model from three different views as a prelude to sculpting the well-known Little Dancer, Fourteen Years Old.

In rendering the dancer’s pose–hands clasped palms down behind the back–Degas carefully observed the rotation of the arms and movement of the shoulder blades, depicting the strain inherent in the awkward position.  Pentimenti around the far left foot reveals Degas’s design decision to make the foot visible from behind.

Landscape with Path Leading to a Copse of Trees (ca. 1890-92, pastel over monotype in thinned oil paint).

Over a decade later, when Degas executed Landscape with Path Leading to a Copse of Trees (ca. 1890-92), reading had become impossible for him.  This monotype, one of 50 he painted based on the countryside he observed during a trip to visit his friend, painter and printmaker Georges Jeanniot, eerily echoes how the world must look to someone with a scotoma in his central field of vision.7

With the medium of monotype, Degas could return to oil paints, which his failing vision had forced him to replace with the easier-to-handle pastels.  The process entailed “roughly indicat[ing] elements of the landscape with a brush” on a metal plate, then running “the plate through a press,” which produced a print that he could then “enhance with pastels.”8

In much the same way he did in his pastels of dancers and bathers of the 1890s, in Landscape with Path, Degas deftly deployed color accents and arranged the subject in an arresting composition.  Flowers dot the field, a path runs diagonally up to the right, creating a zigzag pattern where it meets the horizon line and takes the eye past the contrast of dark trees to the pink and blue sky beyond.

Despite his visual handicap, Degas gave the world enough paintings, pastels, prints and drawings to populate collections around the world and influence generations of artists.  Quite possibly, had he not suffered from a visual handicap, he might never have found his way to the daring work of his later years.

But then again, had his eyesight never faltered, with the added benefit of normal vision, combined with his expert draftsmanship, love of color, and always inquisitive mind, he might have evolved even more intriguing modes of expression.
1 Robert Beverly Hale, Drawing Lessons from the Great Masters, 1989, 244.

2 Robert Beverly Hale, Master Class in Figure Drawing, 1991, 59.

3 Eliana Coldham, et al., Art, Vision and the Disordered Eye, Vision and Aging Lab, Department of Psychology, University of Calgary (, 2002.

4 Ibid.

5 Ibid.

6 Ibid.

7 See Retinopathy at

8 Explanatory text, The Morgan Library & Museum.

Degas: Drawings and Sketchbooks
The Morgan Library & Museum
225 Madison Avenue
New York, NY 10016-3405


Art Review: Chaos & Classicism

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Sunday, November 28th, 2010

European Art Between the Wars:
Pay No Attention to that
Rubble Behind the Column

In her thoughtful classic, Trauma and Recovery, Judith Lewis Herman addressed the fickle nature of society’s attention to the wounds of war (as well as to other human-inflicted assaults on individuals, like the sexual abuse of children).

Citing the medical community’s involvement in the treatment of “shell shock,” the diagnosis that emerged from the Great War, which conflated explosions’ concussive effects on the brain with the emotional damage inflicted by the horrors of trench warfare, Herman described how “[w]ithin a few years after the end of the war, medical interest in the subject of psychological trauma faded once again.”1

Otto Dix, Skin Graft (Transplantation) from The War (Der Krieg) (1924, etching, aquatint, and drypoint, 7-7/8″ x 5-3/4″), The Museum of Modern Art, New York © 2010 Artists Rights Society (ARS).

It returned during World War II, disappeared soon after, then reemerged again with the United States’s military involvement in Vietnam, officially becoming Post-traumatic Stress Disorder in 1980.  Now, Iraq and Afghanistan veterans’ struggles–both on battlefields and stateside–to manage their traumatic stress, once again challenges psychiatry to attend to the psychological wounds of war.

In keeping with humanity’s innate drive toward attaining pleasure and avoiding pain, and reeling from the devastation of a war that killed over 16 million and injured millions more, leveled cities and obliterated landscapes, what was left of the population of Europe retrenched, desperate to embrace any semblance of order.

In a masterful curatorial feat, Kenneth E. Silver dove into a sea of European art from the 20s and 30s and emerged with works to support his thesis about the resurgence of the classical ideal during those in-between years.  In Chaos & Classicism: Art in France, Italy, and Germany, 1918-1936, an exhibit at the New York Guggenheim Museum, he has chosen mostly paintings and sculptures, with occasional photographs and film, to highlight this unsurprising recoil from the intolerable reality of the ruins of the first world war.  Silver interprets this turn to columns, monumental edifices and figures, and machine-inspired precision, as evidence of Europe’s compelling need to retrieve the grandeur of a much earlier period in Western civilization and forget about its capacity for mass murder and destruction.

Retreating from the free-wheeling creations of the pre-war avant-garde, culture in the years leading up to the next conflagration veered right in its insistence on constraint and conformity, and on adherence to newly established standards.  A shell-shocked populace, artists included, hitched their hopes to rising stars who promised security but instead delivered up Fascism and Nazism, logical but disastrous consequences of suppressing difference and dissent.

The exhibit begins at the bottom of the building’s ramp, opens with Pablo Picasso’s Bust of a Woman and some words of his that set the tone for what ensues.  “The art of the Greeks, of the Egyptians, of the great painters who lived in other times, is not an art of the past; perhaps it’s more alive today than it ever was.  Art does not evolve by itself, the idea [sic] of people change, and with them the mode of expression.”

Following that, one can stroll into the nearby gallery and view a selection of 15 prints from Otto Dix’s Der Krieg (War), graphic depictions derived from personal experience of exploded buildings, mangled bodies, and other trench detritus.  Reminders for those too eager to forget, these images refuse to participate in the collective denial epitomized by the balance of the work on display.

To strengthen the point of the exhibit, the curator omitted works by artists who, like Dix, insisted on portraying reality.  In Germany, the prints of Käthe Kollwitz (Never Again War! [1924]) and Max Beckman (Hell [1919]), and almost everything by George Grosz, stand out as exceptions to the general trend presented here.  Even Salvador Dalí, known for his self-serving, right-leaning politics, painted forebodings about Hitler (The Enigma of Hitler [1938]) and the Spanish Civil War (Soft Construction with Boiled Beans [1936]).

Pablo Picasso, The Source (La source) (1921, oil on canvas, 25-3/8″ x 35-3/8″), Moderna Museet, Stockholm © 2010 Estate of Pablo Picasso/Artists Rights Society (ARS).

Although well represented with a number of paintings from his classical period, Picasso continued to march to no one’s drummer but his own.  Appalled by the 1937 bombing of Guernica, that same year he lavished considerable creative energy on producing one of Europe’s greatest anti-war paintings, Guernica, in a distinctly nonclassical manner.

The art included in the exhibit after Dix, perhaps because of its regression toward the norm, mostly lacks depth and in many cases, craft.  Interfering with the viewing experience, the architecture of the Guggenheim building forces the interested to stand some five feet from the paintings and ricochet between the elusive wall text and its distant referent.

Mario Sironi, Leader on Horseback (Condottiero a cavallo) (1934–35, mixed media on canvas, 114-3/8″ x 108-1/4″), MART Museo di arte moderna e contemporanea di Trento e Rovereto, Italy © 2010 Artists Rights Society (ARS).

Arranged in seven categories, roughly chronological, the exhibit takes the viewer upwards toward the rise of Hitler, Mussolini and Franco.  The best of the work reaches back to Greco-Roman and Renaissance art for the sake of meaningful expression rather than for the glorification of Nazi and Fascist leaders, although in the final gallery illustrating The Dark Side of Classicism, Mario Sironi’s almost ten-foot-high Leader on Horseback (Condottiero a cavallo) (1934-35) excels in its ability to exploit the power of paint on canvas to aggrandize a military personage.

Self-portraits, like those of Carl Hofer (1932), Fridel Dethleffs-Edelman (1932) and Dix (1931), along with portraits by Alfred Courmes (Peggy Guggenheim [1932]) and, especially, Picasso’s Olga (1923) use a variety of approaches to excellent psychological effect.

Paintings by Marcel Gromaire (War [La Guerre] [1925]) and Barthel Gilles (Ruhr Battle [Barricade] [1929-30]) demonstrate that art could still convey the reality of war within the confines of existing styles.

An unusual sheet-iron figure, Antinous (1932) by Pablo Gargallo, while Greek in subject matter uses flat planes and lines to define a figure in space, deviating significantly from the other, far more representational, figurative sculptures.

The excellent catalog accompanying the exhibit convincingly links many European artists and their oeuvre with the rise of right-wing ideologues, some because of their own political beliefs, others out of expediency.  Apparently little had changed since Greek and then Roman sculptors and painters served power hungry aristocrats and clergy, benefiting from the lucrative patronage.

One wonders what curator Silver might uncover after rummaging around in the art produced in Europe since World War II.  Would he find European artists still turning to the rich and powerful for support and if so, what form does that patronage take now?  While waiting for the sequel, viewers can enjoy the gems in this show at the Guggenheim and work off that frappuccino hiking up the ramp.
1 Judith Lewis Herman, Trauma and Recovery, 1992, 23.

Chaos & Classicism:
Art in France, Italy and Germany

The Solomon R. Guggenheim Muesum
1071 Fifth Avenue (at 89th Street)
New York, NY 10128-0173
(212)423 3500

Catalog available.


Art Review: Franz Xaver Messerschmidt

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Sunday, November 14th, 2010

Franz Xaver Messerschmidt:
Sculptor of Pain

Many years ago in a mountain town in what is now Germany, a ten-year-old boy’s father dies and within months the child finds himself in an unfamiliar and urban environment after his mother moves the family to Munich to live with her brother.  Soon after, the boy becomes an apprentice in his uncle’s sculpture studio.  Years later as an accomplished portraitist, he produces over the course of 12 years a series of unusual heads that remain in his studio until after his premature death at age 47.

Matthias Rudolph Toma (1792-1869), Messerschmidt’s “Character Heads” (1839, lithograph on paper), Österreichische Nationalbibliothek, Vienna.

Historical records provide little additional early biographical data on Franz Xaver Messerschmidt, the subject of that story and of an exhibit at the Neue Galerie, beyond those directly relevant to his artistic development.  Born in 1736, by age 23 he had secured commissions from the royal family in Vienna, where he had moved six years before to study at the Academy of Fine Arts.

Hints of emotional instability surface by 1770, the year Messerschmidt’s financial success enables him to purchase a house in the suburbs.  Coincidentally, that year also sees the death of his patron of 15 years, the artist Martin van Meytens (1695-1770).  By 1771, at age 35, the sculptor’s life has unraveled.

Commissions have slowed to a trickle and the support he’s enjoyed as acting professor at the Academy evaporates.  In 1774, when the Academy’s professor of sculpture dies, Messerschmidt–long considered his natural successor–finds advancement barred.  The professors’ committee seizes this opportunity to free themselves of a man whose “…reason occasionally seemed subject to madness.”1 Further along the decision-making ladder, the State Chancellor reports that the artist is “not suitable for [the position]…because for the past three years he had demonstrated ‘some mental confusion’ and suffered occasionally from an ‘unhealthy imagination.’”2

During this period of time, in an attempt to prevail over his demons, Messerschmidt begins work on what will later be called–for lack of better understanding–“character heads,” sculptures depicting extreme facial expressions.  His artistic talent and ability never desert him, as evident in the exquisite 1773-74? portrait of Prince Joseph Wezzel of Liechtenstein.

Prince Josef Wenzel of Liechtenstein (1773-74?, tin cast), Sammlungen des Fürsten von und zu Liechtenstein, Vaduz-Vienna.

In 1775, Messerschmidt attempts to relocate.  He fails to find room at his childhood home, tries Munich for several years, then in August 1777, finds a place to live and work in Bratislava (now part of Slovakia) with his younger brother, also a sculptor.  Within three years he has purchased his own home outside the city, where a brief illness thought to be pneumonia, ends his life in 1783.

The Neue Galerie’s exhibition, Franz Xaver Messerschmidt 1736-1783: From Neoclassicism to Expressionism, showcases both the skill and eccentricity of this artist.  Greeting the viewer at the entrance to the show, an oval screen mounted behind a drawn picture frame, part of an ornately decorated wall, runs a video showing the “character heads” morphing one into another, looking for all the world like the sculptor posing in front of his mirror.

The first gallery presents work from Messerschmidt’s Early Years in a spacious room with white walls covered with outlines of Baroque paneling and intricate scroll work.  Occupying a vitrine in the center of the mostly empty space, six portrait heads dating from as early as 1769, but also as late as 1782, establish the skill with which the sculptor captured images in marble and metal, and perhaps also the soundness of his mind.

Standing on its own in a corner, the portrait of Prince Joseph Wezzel of Liechtenstein, like the uncaged sculptures in later rooms, draws immediate attention by the power of its achievement.  Metal becomes flesh and hair, bringing to life one of Messerschmidt’s first patrons.

In the second gallery, the viewer meets the artist transformed.  A chorus line of seven heads in a long vitrine kicks off the intriguing subject of Messerschmidt’s Character Heads, his motivation for creating them, and his mental state at the time.

The impossibility of knowing the exact etiology and nature of the sculptor’s breakdown has not deterred the propagation of hypotheses, beginning with Friedrich Nicolai’s account of his 1781 visit to the artist’s studio.  In a skeptical and condescending tone, Nicolai made observations and shared what he managed to extract from the reticent Messerschmidt.

He learned that spirits “frightened and plagued [the sculptor] at night,” pursuing him despite his having “lived so chastely.”3 Following a convoluted line of reasoning that Nicola valiantly attempted to record and explain, Messerschmidt arrived at the belief that “the Spirit of Proportion was envious of him because he came so close to perfecting his knowledge of proportions and for this reason caused him those pains [in his belly and thighs].”4

Further, the artist imagined that “if he pinched himself in various parts of his body, especially on his right side amid the ribs, and linked this with a grimace on his face which would have the same Egyptian proportion required in each instance with the pinching of the rib flesh, the height of perfection would be attained” and therefore protect him from the spirits.5

Nicolai came to his own conclusions about what ailed Messerschmidt as did Ernst Kris centuries later in his 1932 book on the sculptor, elements of which appeared in the 1952 English translation of his Psychoanalytic Explorations in Art.6 Each naturally brought to the endeavor his own point of view, not unlike the blind men and the elephant.  Nicolai embedded his assessment in the rational thinking of his Age of Enlightenment and Kris wrote in the psychosexual language of Freudian theory.

The “character heads”—the best place to start in any analysis of Messerschmidt—tell their own story, speaking volumes about him.  Unfortunately, because no one has yet found a way to date them, they can’t be used to track the evolution of his condition.  Nor has anyone had the courage to alter the misleading and sometimes comical names given them after Messerschmidt’s death.

As a group, the “character heads” suggest a person in great distress.  Although Messerschmidt referenced his own mirror image, only some approach self portraiture, the rest depict types.  Most of the sculptures have eyes shut so firmly that folds and wrinkles accrue around them.  The ones with wide open eyes stare blankly at nothing in particular, an effect enhanced by the absence of pupils.  A few open their mouths but the majority close them tightly, hiding their lips.  By way of explanation, Messerschmidt pointed out to Nicolai that “men must simply pull in the red of the lips entirely because no animal shows it.”7

The Artist as He Imagined Himself Laughing (1777–81, tin cast), private collection, Belgium

Messerschmidt’s suffering suffuses all his “character heads” including The Artist as He Imagined Himself Laughing.  Closely resembling its creator, this sculpture presents a man in a lamb’s wool hat with a mouth open wide enough to show the top row of his teeth.  As expected in any heartfelt grin, the action of the muscles that pull back the corners of the mouth push up the lower lids to cover the bottom of the eyes.8 That they come almost halfway up the eye belies the expression’s authenticity and provides evidence of the sculptor’s striking the pose for other than representational purposes, perhaps to openly challenge his demons.

The Difficult Secret (1771-83, tin cast), private collection, New York.

Anything but happy, The Difficult Secret expresses Messerschmidt’s pain in its eyes, where the action of the muscle raising the inner portion of the left brow pulls up the inner corner of the left upper lid.8 The downturned corners of the mouth, usually associated with disgust,9 coupled with the clenched lips, give the impression of grim determination.  Each sculpture portrays Messerschmidt’s relentless battle to repel the evil spirits haunting him.

A Hypocrite and Slanderer (1771-83, metal cast [lead-tin alloy?]), The Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York.

Possessing one of the sillier names, A Hypocrite and Slanderer departs from the typical upright or slightly lifted head positions by tilting downward, requiring viewers to get on their knees for a complete view, raising the question of Messerschmidt’s own position while creating it.  With the head retracting into the chest/body/self, this sculpture poignantly expresses the sculptor’s shame.

Messerschmidt could have unconsciously projected onto imagined evil spirits those impulses and emotions that his psyche found intolerable.  Young children who lose a parent often blame themselves for the loss, remembering times when in a fit of frustration at a request denied, they wished their parents dead.  For a child, the loss of a parent equates with abandonment and leads to diminished self-worth; after all, parents don’t leave good children.  Without help, these children grow up harboring unanswered questions about early parental loss, and doubts about their own role in their parent’s death.

From age 19, Messerschmidt benefited from a relationship with the much older van Meytens, his early patron, perhaps more than just artistically and professionally.  The 15-year bond with van Meytens provided an opportunity for the artist to receive care and attention from a father figure but might also have stirred up fears based on unconscious shame, guilt and rage from the long ago death of his father.  In addition, the natural competition between student and teacher might have contributed to Messerschmidt’s projection of jealousy onto his demons following the man’s death, a manifestation of his guilt over seeking to best his mentor.  Finally, consideration must be given to the possibility that the relationship with van Meytens had a sexual component, which would explain Messerschmidt’s lack of interest in women and his sexual conflicts.

When van Meytens died in 1770, Messerschmidt found himself awash in that little boy’s emotional turmoil.  Adults who re-experience child feelings usually fear for their sanity because of the visceral and non-adult-like intensity of them.  To preserve his ego, Messerschmidt regrouped by blaming his reactions on jealous demons who pursued him.  Paranoid feelings can indicate projected guilt.  When the paranoia overflowed into his work situation, the Academy had to get rid of him. Once again he found himself abandoned.

Just Rescued from Drowning (1771-83, alabaster), private collection, Belgium.
The Vexed Man (1771-83, alabaster), The J. Paul Getty Museum, Los Angeles.

In two carved alabaster sculptures, Just Rescued from Drowning and The Vexed Man, Messerschmidt demonstrates his expert handling of the soft stone, incising impossible wrinkles to suggest aged skin and to emphasize the expression.  With pursed lips, scrunched up noses, shut eyes and heads pitched forward, these old men anticipate imminent contact with something distinctly unpleasant.  They brace for it and at the same time seem resigned to its inevitability.

The Yawner (1771–81, tin cast), Szépművészeti Múzeum (Museum of Fine Arts), Budapest.

At first glance, The Yawner seems to be screaming, but a mouth that opens by lowering the chin into the chest impedes the flow of air in and out of the lungs, opposite of the maximum exhalation required for a scream.  As for the work’s title, Darwin had this to say about yawning: “[It] commences with a deep inspiration, followed by a long and forcible expiration,”10 not possible under these circumstances.  The vulnerability of the open mouth contrasts with the avoidance of the retracted tongue, squinting eyes, and nose wrinkled in disgust, indicating ambivalence–or more painfully, conflict–about the situation.

Quiet Peaceful Sleep (1771-83, tin cast), Szépművészeti Múzeum (Museum of Fine Arts), Budapest.

The title bestowed by the anonymous author who originally named the “character heads” comes closest to accuracy in Quiet Peaceful Sleep.  Here Messerschmidt has captured in a face devoid of the usual abundance of wrinkles an expression of peaceful resignation.  Gently lowered upper lids close the eyes under a minimally knitted brow.  The nose sits neutrally over a mouth that betrays some tension in its thinned upper lip, which rests on a full lower one.  The expression brings to mind the state of the suicide shortly before an attempt, when despair has lifted enough to liberate energy for action; a calm descends on the victim who looks forward to final release/relief from pain.

For a full comprehension of Messerschmidt’s struggles, notice must be paid to the sculptures with bands across their mouths.  If the tightly pressed and retracted lips in the rest of the heads fail to impress with their need to keep something in (or out), then slapping a strip across the mouth surely clarifies that intention.

Messerschmidt must have feared the power of his mouth to give voice to the taboo feelings he carried and perhaps also to divulge the true nature of his relationship with his early patron.  Wrestling against that force, he left behind for posterity to ponder, beautifully crafted alabaster and metal portraits that continue to keep his secrets.
1 Maria Pötzl-Malikova in Franz Xaver Messserschmidt 1736–1783, 21.

2 Ibid.

3 Frederich Nicolai, “Description of a Journey through Germany and Switzerland in the Year 1781, in Franz Xaver Messserschmidt 1736–1783, 208.

4 Ibid, 209.

5 Ibid.

6 Ernst Kris, Psychoanalytic Explorations in Art, 1971, 128.

7 Op cit.

8 Paul Ekman and Wallace V. Friesen, Unmasking the Face: A Guide to Recognizing Emotions from Facial Expressions, 1975, 104–5.

9 Ibid, 117–119.

10 Charles Darwin, The Expression of the Emotions in Man and Animals, [1872], 1989. 165.

Franz Xaver Messerschmidt 1736-1783:
from Neoclassicism to Expressionism

Neue Galerie
1048 Fifth Avenue
New York, NY 10028

Catalog available.


Art Review: Gottfried Helnwein

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Tuesday, October 5th, 2010

Gottfried Helnwein:
“I Was a Child”

Wandering through the Friedman Benda gallery in Chelsea, the viewer encounters large format, hyper-realistic paintings of children with expressions ranging from inquisitive to apprehensive and sad.  Not unknown in the United States, the creator of these works, Austrian expatriate Gottfried Helnwein, currently enjoys an opportunity to introduce his subjects to a broader audience with his first full-scale exhibition in New York.

The Murmur of the Innocents 3 (2009, oil and acrylic, 87″ x 130″)

The painting that greets visitors, The Murmur of the Innocents 3 (2009, oil and acrylic, 87″ x 130″), in its relative innocent portrayal of a young blond girl in a camisole, barely hints at the distressing depictions that follow.

The Murmur of the Innocents 16 (2010, oil and acrylic, 86″ x 130″)

Several of the other works in The Murmur of the Innocents series contain images of a girl in a military-like, navy blue jacket with epaulets and gold braiding on the cuffs, (numbers 16, 17, 18, 19 and 20).  Three of these are closeups of the girl’s face, one has her left hand covering half her face, perhaps wiping a tear from her eye, and the first shows her from the shoulders up, lying near a pool of red with bloody nose and blood-soaked hair.

The Murmur of the Innocents 20 (2010, oil and acrylic, 71″ x 47″)

Lest there be any doubt that these images speak about the impact of violence on children, in number 5, the young blond girl from the first painting, now dressed in a long white undershirt, holds a machine gun pointing to the right of the viewer and looks sideways at a cool green, toy manifestation of a cartoon character, reminiscent of Roo from Winnie the Pooh, who stands with hands on hips and stares back.

Untitled (Disasters of War 24) (2010, oil and acrylic, 195″ x 243″)

In another piece, Untitled (Disasters of War 24) (2010, oil and acrylic, 195″ x 243″), a child with a gauze bandage wrapped around forehead and eyes, wears a white lab coat with epaulets and decorative cuffs, and points a large pistol at an icy blue girl doll, passing along the legacy of violence.

How does an artist come to such subject matter?  Helnwein, born in 1948 in Austria amid the devastation that was Vienna at the time, grew up in a world that offered abundant evidence of humans’ capacity for cruelty.  In an interview with Peter Frank, posted on the gallery’s website, he had this to say:

Maybe it’s a defect, yet ever since my earliest childhood I have seen violence all around me, as well as the effect of violence: fear.  I absorbed any piece of information I could get hold of on persecution and torture like the Holocaust, the Vietnam War, tyrannical regimes such as that of Pinochet’s Chile, the Inquisition…and finally, the general mistreatment of children.

The obsession with inflicting maximum pain on others, in particular on the defenseless, that runs throughout human history has always been a mystery to me.  The creativity that people develop in committing such atrocities is startling.

How can someone show anything but love and admiration to children?  I have seen pictures taken by forensic doctors of children who had been tortured to death, often by their own parents, images that will not let you sleep well for awhile.

That was the reason I began to paint: aesthetics were not my primary motivation.

By the age of 18 I finally realized that art was probably the only possible way of defending myself against the impertinences of society.  For me art was a weapon with which I could finally strike back.

Less a defect than a search for meaning, Helnwein’s acute awareness of ambient violence stems from his own childhood immersion in the visual evidence of its ubiquitous nature.  His artwork forces viewers to confront the same mysteries of human nature’s dark side that have long troubled him.

“I Was a Child”
Gottfried Helnwein

Friedman Benda
515 West 26th Street
New York, NY 10001