Gustav Klimt (1862 – 1918)

As a painter of great delicacy and sexual expression, Gustav Klimt’s more subdued works are often unfairly maligned in favour of his glorious, erotic paeans. The Austrian Symbolist came of age during an era of artistic revival within his native Vienna, a time when the word ‘modernism’ first emerged and the decadent was something outwardly conscious rather than inwardly repressed.

Avenue of Trees, Schloss Kammer (1912)


The swirling, hypnotic painting technique of this piece comes with such a vivid smoothness that it seems as if ‘Avenue of Trees, Schloss Kammer’ is still drying 113 years later. Its layering is both remarkable and believable, the hidden sun above gilding the canopy leaves with a triumphant contrast of colours. Whilst Klimt had painted this summer holiday Salzkammergut home many times before, it was here, through an intelligent, thoughtful application of perspective, that the he really achieves something of note.

At the left the trees come away as individuals, all curving in someway to a collective middle above the tempting path before us. Whilst at the right, the trunks are much closer, leering inward and liquid, suggesting perhaps that this is a turning around a corner rather than straight facing view. The feeling here then is slightly secretive, of something unattainable. A thought propelled further by the mere glimpses Klimt affords us through the branches. Not only is there a path leading to hints of a building on the ground – the door itself tantalisingly leading on further – but higher up, in the reaches of the thatched trees, we see signals to somewhere else altogether, the sky. By mirroring these two pathways, Klimt compounds the sense of being afar from this home, of being held back and stationed as observer.

This matters little however, because beneath these gnarled boughs is really were you want to stay staring. Up top the detail is entrancing, the knotted arms of bark not just behaving as one but blending believable to a thick dense thatching of a healthy, interesting green. The wet oils work well too against the background solidity of the house, creating a formidable sense of wonder and intrigue from what is effectively a commonplace occurrence. It is Klimt’s expressionistic leanings so prominent here that charge the image with an indelible magic.

‘Mermaids’ (1899)


Stripped to their pure fundamentals, these nymphs are less Ariel and more Rene Magritte – see here for an earlier analysis of his disturbing fish-woman hybrid piece, ‘Collective Invention’ . The depth of the ocean is as different too, its fathoms feeling more akin to an unfinished plaster on a wall than the usual bubbling backdrop. Its gasped, scratches of paint, along with the odd scorches of white that fire parallel near the top, pushing our eye forward to the odd, unsettling creatures.

They lurk almost as standing rather than floating and seem to hover up formless, coating the picture with unease. These are not long enticing bodies with piscine leanings then, rather these are abstract shapes to which female faces seem to have emerged as if gathering breath. The two profiles should be commended seperate in their detail, the taller one aloof and looking outward off the canvas to some victim perhaps more important than us, the other more lackadaisical, her coiffed fringe near indistinguishable from its spotted shape.

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Dirk Skreber (1961 -

Dirk Skreber is an artist enamoured with catastrophe. One whose eye is mostly for the chaos caused by a faceless omnipotence; the aftermath of a car crash for example, or, as in ‘Untitled’ (below), a flooded suburb. The German’s style is dense yet intimate, populated with moments of tragedy & wonder. His images often providing kindling to personal rumination on our odd relationship with nature.

‘Untitled’ – 2001 


The punishing length of this piece (300 x 170cm) sludges us in with it from the start. Skreber forces us to count the cost as our eye scours the thick slosh. Noting every wonderfully realised vehicle, every life now ruined as a result of this anonymous spill.

Through its paint fused with tight, subtle layers of tape, a unique thickness and depth is achieved for the grim torrent. Whilst at times small air bubbles creep up off the stratified canvas giving a slightly sickly effect to the brown, the surface is mostly smooth, almost akin to floor tiling in its patterned panelling. By achieving a keen serenity through this repetitive design, Skreber allows the viewer to become quickly acquainted with the true reality of the situation rather than merely wallowing in its shock.

Viewed from above in a voyeuristic, surveillance perspective, the artist presents the cars as microscopic. The row on the left seeming to carve inward like a bacterial strand. They have owners of course, but now they are comically reduced nothings, small shapes that don’t really fit to anything recognisable bar small, contracted versions of themselves. Indeed, the only thing fully familiar is the RV on the back of the white trailer at the left. Its amenities fully flaunted amongst the wet misery – a subtle joke perhaps at its supposed capability to provide a home anywhere.

It is the negative space however that conveys the greatest sense of abstraction. So much of ‘Untitled’ is Skreber’s browned tape that cars come almost as a surprise after a while of staring, their bonnets leering out suggestiveof an unclear time prior.

‘Untitled’ – 1990 


Though it is a consistent trope of his work, it perhaps makes most sense here, with this very painting, that Skreber left it untitled. As, how would you really describe it? This obscure, rapturous apartment building of various painting styles that exists incoherent on some sea floor. Or, perhaps that’s an entirely wrong analysis of this design and that it’s of something entirely different. Part of the delight in the work seems to be in giving it some logic that it will precariously wriggle out of when viewed again.

There is structure in the tower though, the storied design inviting the viewer to explore each section. From the top which seem to represent cave paintings succumbing to the inner moisture of their rockface canvas, to others more simplistic, such as the middle panels that are mere rushes of colour outstretching no further than their designated floor. Right at the summit too there’s a curious roof which seems to be hollow, peering downwards through the entire thing. Perhaps the suggestion is of sedimentary layers slowly devolving in their progression. Yet the entity does have a bottom, one of a curiously kitchen tabletop blue.

Again, this could very well not be underwater at all, but the wispy shadows cast and the murky, filtered light of the background blend makes methink otherwise. The piece of kelp to the right that rises up against the design also suggests submersion. Its playful evocation seeming to crest at the third floor but in actual fact merging with the tones of the back and topping around the seventh.

Whatever this actually is though, it doesn’t really matter. Rather it is the remarkable confluence of techniques that Skreber employs, along with the cold, disjointed atmosphere, that make ‘Untitled’ such a fascinating work of art. From the harsh realities of ‘Untitled’ to the fantastical escape of ‘Untitled’ (this is getting difficult), the artist maintains a direct level of realism that is both affecting and moving.

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Leonor Fini (1907 – 1996)

Leonor Fini would die her hair gold, blue or orange and attend private viewings and parties dressed as a man or wearing nothing but boots and a cape of white feathers. Leonor Fini produced the first erotic male nude ever painted by a woman. Leonor Fini though now, through whatever wild reason governs popularity, is barely outside her native Argentina. Which is a shame considering the widespread talent of her work, as well as the intriguing thematic thread throughout of fantasy made hyper-real. Both arcane & urbane, Fini’s work is unsettling in its verisimilitude. A Rene Magritte perhaps of a more exotic, sensual persuasion


La Toilette Inutile (1964)



By positioning the viewer uncomfortably above this morbid, intimate image, Fini challenges us head about how to feel with what we see. As, on one hand, there is a great level of macabre in the work, with the corpse’s pale, weak hands rising as that of a puppet pulled upwards by unseen strings. The face too is skeletal, its drained skin as white as the dead’s gown itself which gasps up around the collar area.


But, on the other hand, through its deep, complex wash of autumnal red, there is a majesty here. An exuberant technique that boldly contradicts the passing at the painting’s core. The dress is just wonderful, a detailed concoction that shifts and bubbles volcanically. With certain sections rising and establishing themselves around the pale of her body and the deepspace-black of the work’s edges. At once both furnace flamed in certain sections and as subdued as chalky fingerprints in the next – the outcome is intoxicating.

Yet, perhaps, also quite meaningful. As within this summoning of opposites, Fini appears to be suggesting some equanimity, some reason to death. The funeral dress after all appears to be engulfed in what only really can be described as energy. The inference seeming then to be towards the duality of death, how one’s passing in a sense provides new life and opportunities for others in the same world. An existential uncertainty  told beautifully through the delicate skill which Fini employs.


Red Vision (1984)


The fiery technique of ‘La Toilette Intutile’ returns 20 years later in ‘Red Vision’, which finds two apparitions encountering each other, with  the only recognisable human form of the image having his back turned, ignorantly looking out the window.

For such a fantastical scene, Fini’s eye never strays from the telling body language. On the ground, the young, translucent girl is full of innocence and curiosity. Her guiding hand suggests that perhaps this something she too had just came upon, her eyes our eyes, both transfixed on the hovering demon who takes on a more mythic quality in his smudged, yet perceptive features. His face old, judgemental. The cues here are altogether difficult to take, but the surreal meeting’s effect is not lost. Neither is the unsettling, incongruous nature of the floating form.

Around the two, rooms are imagined in heavy block shapes, but lifeless outlines that hang show onto nowhere and push our glance back to the centre. Fini attacks from all angles here: the forms themselves fascinating and different, the messaging obscure, indefinable and, finally, her intelligence to imagine the hallway as opening onto the viewer as if we were privy and others, such as the window learner, not so. The sense is of a secret begin shared, an unseen thing occurring in the most banal of locations.


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As the only female member of America’s (at the time) only indigenous modern-art movement, Precisionism, it would perhaps have made sense for Elsie Driggs to produce art concerned with a separation from the established order. As it were though, as with the majority of her fellow Precisionists (see the term-coiner himself, Charles Sheeler) the Connecticut born artist is nowhere to be found in her work. Rather, ‘The Javitz Center’ & ‘Pittsburgh’, along with numerous other topographically titled works of Driggs, center on the idea of place & object, approaching the familiar with a hard-edged, oft abstract vision.

‘The Javitz Center’ – 1926


We come to ‘The Javitz Centre’ from an intimidating, underside angle. A perspective that pins & perplexes the viewer; first in the optically intriguing glass that overlays the skin of the building & the sky alike, and then secondly through the sheer size of the construction. Regardless then of what this colossal feat actually holds within, the title indicating some sort of exhibition center perhaps, its sheer sense of purpose is readily apparent through its engulfing display.

Though a little gauche maybe in terms of its presentation, the underlying conceit here finds Driggs suggesting through the diaphanous form of the sky and the structure that they have achieved a new similarity of permanence. Sky scrapers and eyesores were burgeoning at the time, something slowly being realised here by Driggs as a symptom of the future rather than mere fad.

What could have been quick & gimmicky in its execution is stunningly rendered through a thoughtful approach to the catoptric elements. At the top roof section for example, where there is little visual interference, the blue of the sky fades into the glass effortlessly, creating a languid sense of the afternoon absorbed in the building itself. Down below the reflections get more quivery as the building seems to reflect in of itself. The shaky lines arching back as bars as Driggs imagines the complexity of these cast iron lines interacting with a representation of themselves.

‘Pittsburgh’ – 1927


Yet again, Driggs is taking us to the lesser seen angles of common utilities. Tellingly in ‘Pittsburgh’ we aren’t even given a form or function, rather it is these drab tunnels, these elements of machinery keeping the place running that stand for the southwestern town. There is a sense of humour here though in ‘Pittsburgh’, one found in the essence of contradiction throughout.

As the association to such a sight is initially one of hard work; a tough, sour place in which the world is kept moving.What’s unusual then is the freshness of the forms, almost as if the tubes and equipment were themselves pulled straight new from a production line, of which there are not doubt hundreds within. A comparison could even be made to the factory looking like a trumpet of sorts, the four towers as sooty, ethereal valves. Indeed the place feels at once heavy and weightless through the shifting, mercurial smog.

With this dislocation in place, Driggs does what most great art tends to do, it defamiliarise the familiar. It suggests new interpretations of the common, forgettable backdrop of my of our lives. Be it back in 1927 when this could be taken as an image of great hope & promise, or right now when the factory seems to smoke as a charred carcass.

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Erich Heckel (1883 – 1970)

Heckel was one of the original founders of Die Brücke (1905 – 1913), an influential German school of painting that aimed to connect their regional artistic past, such as that seen within the tradition of Neo Romantic painting, with the contemporary Expressionist present – the name translates literally as ‘The Bridge’.

As a result of this interesting style pairing there is much of the inner experience within the work. Immediacy is heightened through an abandonment for the most part of proportion & perspective, with colour, much like through the Fauvists before them, becoming a means of emotion in of itself entirely. Yet whereas the Fauves were filled with exuberance and joy (such as the earlier explored, Raoul Dufy), Heckel’s work is fraught and complex in emotion, developing its direct impact from its precise sense of detail rather than its detail being absorbed by sheer sensation.

‘Crystal Day’ – 1913


In its own scorched & jagged way there is much beauty within ‘Crystal Day’. Though said attraction doesn’t stem from the faceless voluptuousness cut off at the ankles in the water, or indeed the general quietness of the scene, but rather it is through the use of the angular that Heckel employs throughout.

The image really seems to clamp down around the viewer. The shoreline at the lefthand side extending out from the gently evoked greenery to the water itself and forming a hinge of sorts which leans forward reflecting the abstract clouds to the jagged icicles below. As a result of this inward cast horizon everything is foreshortened. The woman upfront bathing appears to perfectly embody this mildly contorted aesthetic as her oddly positioned arms fit snugly within the cliffside reflection of the water. The worn rocks too are nearby neatly nestled but never touching the cloud patterns on the lake. Heckel’s effect here then is one of the crystalline, a sense of direct statis in which all parts carefully lattice.

The artist has our eye both transfixed into this stillness as well as onto the slightly abstruse cloud patterns that shout from the inverted back edge of the image. These designs seeming less to strive towards any technique, and more to act as fodder in which Heckel can experiment with ideas of reflection and distortion. Everything comes in a furious brush that at times give the scene a slightly uncomfortable edge. As with the majority of Expressionist influenced work of the period, there is an erratic quality burrowed beneath the vision so that the setting and figure are common, but the feelings are not.

‘La fábrica de ladrillos – 1907

Erich Heckel (13)

This painting positively hums with colour. The technique festive and involving, both perfectly logical within the context of Die Brücke’s goals as well as objectively intriguing with its muddy swathed technique. There is no message here, no familiar signal to something else through a compositional language. Rather it is the sense of immediacy that is king.

It does perhaps seem at first that the building stretching throughout the painting is maybe on fire. The lunges of goldenrod lapping above the structure in greedy uproars. But when the bubbling ground and shifting eaves are observed closer it becomes clear that this is merely the mode the German has chosen.

And whilst the ground is remarkable for its strange spills of colour with small tufts of flowers emerging from the undergrowth for a spell before being swallowed by the marshy greens – the sky crafts a sense of actual communication. With the diaphanous sky blue interacting with the blazing sky as if they were two dyes in water. The section around the steep column at the middle of the church is particularly fantastic. Its delicacy of blending a hypnotic construction viewed unclose. Everything seems calculated here by Heckel, the pleasure perhaps more in the ability to construct what appears to be frantic, rather than something that is.

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Armando Reverón (1889 – 1954)

Though best known for his haunting & enigmatic muñecas (dolls), Armando Reverón’s mercurial painting style is equally worthy of mention. His canvas work as delicate and subdued as the aforementioned constructions are twisted. Amid the Venezuelan’s brush we are given a world half-seen, one built from flittering glimpses.

‘Naked Woman Reading’ – 1932


Upon first glance it is the title of this painting, rather than what usually would be self-evident within its display, that helps us realise that there is indeed a woman present at all – let alone one not only reading, but nude. When noticed however, she is difficult to shake. This impact both down to the captivating simplicity of  ‘Naked Woman Reading’, as well as through the distinct washed technique Reverón employs to evoke the eponymous model; a style that unites all elements of the image to capture something more akin to hazed memory rather than voyeuristic viewpoint.

The female’s exposed thigh for example takes on the same ethereal fullness as the pillows underneath. Her open book too holds more presence and elegant detail than the weightless hand holding it down. This then is not a showcase of beauty or celebration of self-betterment; it is a self appointed challenge. One in which the ever experimental Reverón plays with the idea of absence to display something of worth and meaning.


Robbed through its monochrome style of any sensuality or sexuality, Reverón transports a traditional painting idea, the nude woman as prize, to a piece that just about remains within the tangible. Very similar to the ways in which a great Impressionistic painter (such as the previously explored Alfred Sisley) can connote such vibrancy from a distance only for it to amass to mere frantic brushstrokes on inspection; the engrossed woman from afar equivocates to barely anything when encountered up close. What is given then is a masterclass in economy. An image that through its reverential, secretive aspects creates a multitude of feelings through a limited yet freeing technique.

‘Fiesta en Carballeda’ – 1924

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There’s a wonderful effect in this work that sees the amassed congregation growing more interchangeable as they near their place of worship. A perhaps not exactly subtle inference perhaps on the nature of religion, but one that is realised exceptionally well as Reverón blends the attendees’ own colours to a translucent, celebratory mass prior to their entry to the only real solid shape of this work, the church’s entrance.

This strive towards establishing a sense of realistic movement and energy was one of the central tenets of Impressionism, and though living at the time of painting far far away from its Parisian origins, Reverón succeeds as he draws your eye against and across the filing crowd, allowing it to stop every now and then to marvel at the delicate details of dress, of relation, that emerge and move on. And though the crowd is a majestic thing in of it self, it it is the upper regions of ‘Fiesta en Carballeda’ that really excite me. Their rippling drifts of arching leaves dealt with in a fantastic merge of chalky, sweaty colours that frame the scene effortlessly. Almost as if the flock are being heralded by higher up toward the cool closed mouth gloom of the building.

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Édouard Vuillard (1868 – 1940)

Perhaps unsurprising for a group that named themselves after the Hebrew for ‘prophets’, the Nabis were a forward-thinking yet short-lived artistic movement (little more than 10 years) based within France at the close of the 20th century.

Imbued with a desire to go beyond the excessive & superficial effusiveness that the collective perceived in Impressionism; their focus was to capture the intimacy of everyday life through a more decorative sense of paint. One that realised its own constrictions and thus strove further within this admission to appeal to a more refined, evocative aesthetic that wasn’t afraid in treading towards more exotic palettes at the sacrifice of realism. Expounding further on this notion in his book Théories 1890 – 1910, the movement’s founder, Maurice Denise, reminded his fellow members that all art is essentially illusion, declaring: ‘remember that a picture, before being a war horse, a nude woman or some anecdote, is essentially a flat surface covered with colours assumed in certain order’.

Unlike the Obelisk worship of Dutch Nabi contemporary, Jan Verkade, or the extravagant theatrical subjects of fellow Frenchman, Ker-Xavier Roussell, Édouard Vuillard’s work is intensely confidential and hushed. His individualised ‘Intimisme’ approach to the Nabis style predicated on intimate domestic genre paintings. Through Vuillard we are privy to the glory of everyday life, his superbly human pictures achieving both a domestic reality as well as a subtle dream-like essence.

‘Mother and Child’ – 1900


Though simple, and, perhaps on first glance maybe even quaint or twee. It is the subtle experiment with depth by Vuillard within ‘Mother & Child’ that endears it as an interesting piece.

Starting with a decisively low central focal point in the fumbling child, our eye is given time to appreciate the canted, knee-high level with which the artist has constructed the scene. From here we see the tremendously realised wall recession that amid its retreat endows the image with a believable, engaging sense of perspective. The wallpaper of this section worth a mention not only for the slightly embittered floral glare of the pattern that Vuillard paints it with, but the way in which both sides of the design seem to emanate outward from aforementioned dimensional curve gifting it an enticing visual quality. Yet this isn’t the only element of the painting that does this.

The eponymous ‘Mother & Child’ too possess an oddly circular dichotomy. At first our eye is with small girl who is clearly engrossed within her own personal struggle. Watching, more annoyed perhaps than engrossed, but still watching all the same is her mother. A parent whose dominating red glowers as true as the pitting embers behind her. In the act of observing with them then, we ourselves become implicit and caught between this dialectic inspection. Engrossed both between the two figures at the centre, and the sense of perspective that retreats behind and away from then.

To allay fears of getting too carried away though, let’s look at what Vuillard intended. His delicacy of paint for one, in particularly when it comes to the clothes of ‘Mother & Child’. Not for nothing it seems did he spend his youth in-and-out of his mother’s shop. The artist seems to notice every detail, catching the exact cut and texture of how both dresses fit. The mother a matriachal post box, as immovable as the elements behind her. The child below a wondrous flurry of delicate frills gasped through with thick confident strokes.

Captured here then is the accommodation of parenthood. The in-between sections of buttoning up and getting ready before everything else; the times parents remember were once a chore to them, and, perhaps in the future, may be again.

‘The Haystack’ – 1908


Windswept and transulucent in its chaotic scribble of tones, the Haystack of ‘The Haystack’ stands as an ethereal watch-guard of the three companions before the rough bluster of the background. Again, Vuillard’s eye for clothes is remarkable, the inward fold of the female on the right especially virtuoso. Though a sense of actual purpose is more difficult to ascertain here than ‘Mother & Child’, the mood is crisp and effective. Slightly perplexing perhaps in the incongruous pairing of the companions in of themselves, as well as the collective together against eponymous shape, but still inviting.

Behind the Haystack though the world seems an unwelcoming place. The sky a granite wash in which blue is but an afterthought, the trees spiking upward from the coming wind. It seems as if to placate this atmosphere even further Vuillard gifts us a single sheep standing and looking up defiantly to the menacing clouds that echo his on a macro scale. The trio don’t seem to care for any of this however, they have found refuge behind a glorious swath.

A central image to which it is hard to know where to begin as its influence seems everywhere. Various spindles have fell on the floor giving the ground itself, with its delicate intermingle of burns, flowers and hay an almost Waterlilies feel in its incalculable delicacy of thought and imagination. The haystack itself rises as a question and draws us all the further in. Its tangled shape a tangle of shapes similar to what the great Scottish poet Norman MacCaig description of  hay as, ‘like tame lightnings’.

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