I am too lazy and obstinate to paint small scenes; I can wet the black ink and grind the red, but ideas are difficult. Why busy myself to death with my small talents? Better to discard the brush and face the true mountains.
Uragami Gyokudo (tr. Stephen Addiss)
Uragami Gyokudo (1745-1820) was a musician, poet, calligrapher, and painter affiliated with the Nanga “literati” school of Japanese painting, which drew influence from the earlier Southern School of Chinese literati painting. Known more for his music and poetry during his life, he resigned from his post at age 50 to become an itinerant artist.
In the place of an art of disengagement, which rejoiced in its separation from ordinary life, we are now to have an art which completely involves us in real life – what in France is called art engagé. If I am sceptical about this doctrine, it is because it seems to me to make essentially the same mistake as the theory which it opposes. Both try to escape, in opposite directions, from the plain and fundamental fact that art is an exercise of the imagination, engaging and detaching us at the same time: it makes us participate in what it presents, and yet presents it as an aesthetic fiction. From that twofold root – participation and fiction – art draws its power to enlarge our vision by carrying us beyond the actual, and to deepen our experience by compassion; but it brings with it a pertinent oscillation between actual and vicarious experience. Art lives in this realm of ambiguity and suspense, and it is art only as long as the ambiguity is sustained. However, suspense is an awkward condition to live in, and we are persistently tempted to exchange it for some narrow but positive certainties; and yet we know very well that, as soon as the artistic imagination begins to work on us, we leave the safe shore for the open sea.
The exhibit is a great one, even if it’s a bit small and shortchanges his late work and drawings (which I think have another exhibit devoted to them somewhere or other). I do love Feininger’s work, and he’s probably the artist where I felt the biggest gap between looking at reproductions of his work and seeing the paintings close up. Especially with his post-Bauhaus work in the 1920s, the use of color gets tricky to figure because the lines are so straight and sharp while the color is so diffuse.
I now think of Church of the Minorites II as his absolute masterpiece, but I never would have prior to seeing it up close.
Church of the Minorites II (1926)
The sheer lack of definition of the green lamp on the right, for example, is nowhere near as noticeable. Likewise with the general use of light and shading. This painting is representative of the style probably most closely associated with him, the austere post-Bauhaus view of architecture mixed with sensuous colors. At least of the paintings on exhibit, it stands out as being concertedly richer and massive.
But Feininger’s development does not move in a straight line. There are certainly general shifts, but even within a period he seems to echo back to different styles that he had earlier used. You can’t really say that his work got smoother or more bloodless over the years, because rough and jagged bits reemerge sporadically, even as he made heavier use of much smoother textures. Four years after the above painting he did this:
St. Mary's Church with the Arrow (1930)
The arrow seems to have been borrowed from Paul Klee.
Euphoric Victory has a Kandinsky-ish feel to it, but feels more dramatic to me than any Kandinsky.
Euphoric Victory (1918)
He did, however, mostly move away from drawing people, who generally get reduced to clothing with triangle heads, except for his carved toys, which include chickens and owls with hats among the figures.
Houses and Figures (Birds with Hats)
His angular shading of buildings also translates remarkably well into three dimensions, though you can’t really tell from this picture.
In those early years, his people often had obtuse angles and unsteady curves and the small head/big body combo weirdly anticipates Crumb’s Keep On Truckin’-era work.
In a Village Near Paris (1909)
His comics, which influenced Chris Ware among others, have a more lurching, blocky feeling to them. This panel reminds me of The Triplets of Belleville:
The Kin-der-Kids (1906)
The limits of newspaper printing required higher-contrast lines; his penwork was finer:
The Disparagers (1911)
Yet the frail linework here would return much later in his career in the 1940s. The bolder and generally straighter lines of the 20s were replaced by the suggestion of texture by single lines more than by color. The show doesn’t have much from the late period; I wish they had had some things like the gorgeous Mystic River.
Mystic River (1951)
Feininger wrote a few fugues and that and his “toolbox” approach to painting (he returned to certain buildings and sites repeatedly over long periods, cycling through various aspects of his style, notably with twelve paintings of the Gelmeroda church done over a decade) seem to have suggested a functionalist, engineer’s approach to painting.
It also makes his career much more non-linear than many would have it, those who praise the early stuff and dismiss the later work. (Critics seem to like artists who have more distinct periods.) Don’t be fooled; see the exhibit.
I was lucky enough to see the exhibit of Otto Dix’s paintings in Montreal last year. I previously thought of him as one of the weaker expressionists, being too unsubtle even by their standards (check out his doctors, but his war portraits in particular really impressed me and showed a far greater range than his portraits and paintings. This site with Otto Dix’s War Cycle has a good selection, but many are missing and who knows how long it’ll be up, so here are some of the ones that most struck me. I’m not going to post any of the most unbearable images, and I’m starting with the milder stuff. Some of the most overwhelming are from a cycle he did in 1924, but there are other equally good drawings from around the same time and before.
Before gas masks became a horror staple:
Storm Troopers Advancing Under Gas
There’s a bit of an EC Comics vibe to this one. Art Spiegelman loved the expressionists, Grosz especially, and I think their influence shows up strongly in a lot of the RAW comics of the 80s, Sue Coe for example. Not that it hadn’t shown up earlier in the underground too.
Likewise this one. Recently the black and white drawings of Lorenzo Mattotti seem to have taken on the quality of the scribbled figure here:
Nocturnal Encounter with a Lunatic
This sketch bizarrely seems to anticipate George Grosz:
This one I would swear was *by* Grosz:
As a side note, some apt music for these sketches. I think Richter has the edge but Sokolov here is very, very good. I’m usually a speed demon but this particular movement should not be played too fast.
This one jumps out at me for the dominance of the landscape rather than of the figures, and the overall brilliance of the composition. Usually my eye is drawn toward some central horror of a work by Dix (not just in the war work, but all of it), but here the whole print is balanced.
This picture of barbed wire with bodies needs to be seen in much better resolution, though it’s a lot less horrifying at this size. The whole cycle is compared to Goya but the lines here remind me of Rembrandt.
Barbed Wire in Front of the Trenches
The linework here is amazing:
Finally, as a bookend, an allegorical painting from around the same time. The colors here are not captured well; the painting was much more compelling “in person.”