Édouard Vuillard (1868 – 1940)

Kweiseye is an art criticism blog written by Tom Kwei. If you enjoy this article, browse the archive here for more than 60 other critiques of both artists and exhibitions. Any questions/queries/use: tomkweipoet@gmail.com. 

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

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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

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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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Tarsila do Amaral (1886 – 1973)

Kweiseye is an art criticism blog written by Tom Kwei. If you enjoy this article, browse the archive here for more than 60 other critiques of both artists and exhibitions. Any questions/queries/use: tomkweipoet@gmail.com. 

I’ve been writing Kweiseye for roughly half a year now. Initially starting as a mere exercise to ensure that I was continually learning about new artists, the blog six months later is now (in admittedly small numbers) read internationally, with the writings within leading to opportunities allowing me to share my own nascent artistic ideas in publications both online & physical. Kweiseye is changing then, and, in a way, so am I.

As prior to starting this blog my central interest in art derived from the desires of the image itself. What intrigued was the art taking place between the intended/unintentional message of the work and the viewer. And though this remains the centric thrust of my criticism herein, there is a new facet to each painting that I face that fascinates me slightly more. Its date. Its point of origin.

Fascinating not just because of where it positions the work on the grand scale of movements reacting to movements, but fascinating on account of the incongruity it can suggest. The works of Dutch Genre painter Jan Steen for example seem to fit entirely well with their 17th century marketplace, Tarsila do Amaral’s images however do not cohere with their 1920 point of arrival. They feel both pioneering and anachronistic for a post WWI work. Signs perhaps towards a sense of universal human experience. The shock of the new entrenched in the old. Whatever the education taken from it, her work is wildly original & creative. The two paintings featured today but the tip of the iceberg for one of the most influential Modernists in the history of Brazilian Art.

‘Abaporu’ – 1928

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Originally a birthday gift to her then poet husband, Oswald de Andrade, this piece, whose title translates as, ‘The Man That Eats People’, eventually became the most valuable painting ever by a Brazilian artist, reaching the value of $1.4 million in an 1995 auction.

Whilst attempting to correlate the value of art with its financial estimation is redundant, it is perhaps worth focusing on why the image is so affecting, and, conceivably, why then it could be worth so much. For me it is that inspite of the fantastical imagery of this sexless, ageless, undressed giant, there is an exquisite sense of contemplation and humanity. Albeit one in which the soul of the sitter’s face is outshined by the very sole of the sitter.

The pose is classic. The image, of course, is anything but. Yet the stoic wondering is relatable to all. If it errs at all to the viewer, it is perhaps because ‘Abaporu’ perches itself upon a level of familiarity that disintegrates upon closer inspection. The limbs of the figure for example lack any connecting joints, with the pondering wrist a detached form, and the long leg up against the chest suggesting an uneasy stick torso if the eponymous people eater was to rise up. The cacti even appears more human than the man, its own arms suggesting a more recognisable pose, one in which a sense of division between composite parts is evoked with clarity.

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Whilst the first internet-found image struggles to do justice to the sensuality apparent within ‘Abaporu’, I was lucky enough recently to have seen the work in person, able then to appreciate the real delicacy at the bottom of the work. It seems almost as two pictures really, the top an alarming abstraction of human form, the bottom a wonderful evocation of the same thing. The skin painted in such a believable and recognisable way as to draw us up back to the humanity that this thing embodies within its Rodin pose.

‘A Cuca’ – 1924

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To draw back to my point from the introduction… how the hell is ‘A Cuca’ from 1924? This delightful, slightly unnerving image feels at least concurrent with current times in its psychedelic animal reimagining.

Regardless of the subtle chaos here, do Abaral, like in ‘Abaporu’, still creates an image of sensational technique. The smooth no-nonsense portioning of her brush working wonders throughout, giving all of ‘A Cuca’ a hazy, thumbed edge quality. One in which trees heave with heart-shaped leaves and tufts of grass spark high and aquiline.

There still seems a semblance of order here though, with the mad animals lining up in a sense around their own podiums within the animal kingdom. Frog, Caterpillar & Bird all looking towards whatever the central creature is, signifying their own biological obedience. The beast does just the same, looking out of the painting towards us, its simple, yet oddly disturbing eyes looking askew yet still face on. We are, in a sense then, above this world portrayed. But through do Abaral’s imaginings, the question of if we really understand it at all lingers heavy.

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Antonio Berni (1905 – 1981)

Kweiseye is an art criticism blog written by Tom Kwei. If you enjoy this article, browse the archive HERE for more than 60 other critiques of both artists and exhibitions. Any questions/queries/use: tomkweipoet@gmail.com. 

The notion of home is a painful constant throughout the work of the pioneering ‘New Realist’, Antonio Berni. His pieces often chronicling the devastation wrought by industrialization upon his native Buenos Aires amid the early decades of the Twentieth Century. Equally comfortable combining colours with his brush or accumulating debris to cast and arrange on his canvas, Berni’s work is urgent and painful. Both incisive and resolute in its interrogation of the effects of mechanical progress on those crushed beneath.

‘Fire in the Shantytown’ – 1958

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Though a fairly small painting to witness in person, the feeling of pure incineration that Berni evokes within it crafts a sense of the image far bigger and more dominant than its frame. At first it is merely this conflagration that entrances, its vivid celebratory design almost suggestive of hands aloft in praise, or, perhaps, sacrifice. Then, as the eye follows the fire to its natural beginning, the eponymous shanty town compounds the wonder to something more troubling.

These aching fronts of nothingness being but mere spindles at the back of the image, and suggestions of evacuated humanity at the front. The fire is clearly unstoppable. Especially against the wooden structures that cruelly enlarge its fervor further. As to what caused it, we know not, rather it is the passage that we are here to witness. The sense of seeing something on the cusp of annihilation. Indeed, there is something so total about this particular destruction that it helplessly draws the viewer closer in towards the inferno at its core.

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The sheer gloop of the paint here is incredible. From the cartoonish red speckled with the dribble of black, to the aches of yellow & orange dotted in parts by the pure white incandescence, Berni forges a pyre of great magnitude and stature. One easy to imagine as a thing of unforgiving, merciless heat. When seen at a distance the flames stand out, but feel impenetrable, almost child-like in their bold strokes. Up close however, the fragility and delicacy of the blaze is revealed.

‘Juanito Laguna Going to the Factory’ – 1977 

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Beginning from the year that he painted ‘Fire in the Shantytown’, Berni conceived two characters, Juanito Laguna & Ramona Montiel, with whom he depicted near exclusively up until 1977. Juanito, a boy who left the countryside to find work in Buenos Aires, ends up living in poverty on the city’s outskirts. Ramona, on the other hand, is a middle-class teen lured into a life of high-society sexual slavery by the allure of expensive gifts & luxury. The series for Berni became a social narrative on industrialization and scarcity, highlighting the vicious disparities between the wealthy Argentinian aristocracy of Ramona’s existence and the Juanitos of the slums.

Here in ‘Juanito Laguna Going to the Factory’, there is a yellow-brick road aesthetic inherent. Work is, in a sense, freedom for the young boy, but his path is cluttered by the detritus of his class, with Juanito surrounded by: paper, cardboard, electronics, smashed cans, zippers to name but a few. It really is quite remarkable the variety of objects that Berni skilfully melds with his own painterly style; the artist utilizing the reality of our world within the imaginary of the painting to forge a distinct, defiant link between the two.

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There is, of course, still paint employed throughout. Juanito’s face above for example is delicately treated, it’s vacant flat stare as telling as the skin-tone echoing the sepia brush behind. The real joy here from a craftsman point of view however is the intelligence of Berni’s design. The factories on the horizon made of upward electrical clips for the fences and a torn torso of a transistor for the buildings themselves, the sky a multifaceted, churned grimace.

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Its complex layering a result of washed cardboard twisted into a deformed horizon. There is, it seems, a silver lining streaked through it. But one that amidst the similar roadside glints of Juanito’s journey suggests little hope.

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Charles Sheeler (1883 – 1965)

Kweiseye is an art criticism blog written by Tom Kwei. If you enjoy this article, browse the archive HERE for more than 60 other critiques of both artists and exhibitions. Any questions/queries/use: tomkweipoet@gmail.com

Perhaps it’s on account of his early work as a Fashion & Commercial photographer that there seems so much of the salesman throughout the paintings of Charles Sheeler. Their sense of presentation unparalleled, with Sheeler’s distinct clarity evoking, in the best possible way, the brochure and the textbook rather than the canvas.

His is an eye of reverence, one that shows familiar images with an entrancing level of detail that has actually been there all along. With a storied career, Sheeler’s approaches to his work changed drastically through the decades of his painting. The first piece here, ‘Suspended Power’ indicative of his populist Precisionist (a term he coined) phase, the second, ‘The Artist Looks at Nature’ signalling toward the more abstract gaze that became dominant for Sheeler before a stroke in 1959 sadly forced him to give up both photography & painting.

‘Suspended Power’ – 1939

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Comissioned by Fortune Magazine to create six paintings that, ‘reflect life through forms … [that] trace the firm pattern of the human mind’, Sheeler picked symbols of great infrastructure. Choosing amongst them: a railroad, a dam, a waterwheel, a steam engine, an aeroplane, and, in ‘Suspended Power’, a hydroelectric turbine.

A turbine that hangs both dormant and dominant within the central space of the image. One worth noting that, regardless of its adroit artistic realisation, is a wonder to its own design. One we are seeing a rare topside perspective of. Its complex hinges and steel circles hidden up above from the view of the worker who is decapitated in a sense by the resting blades that makes him look so tiny.

Sheeler’s ability here to conceive near photographic realisation through his paint is tremendous. From the edged shadows of the brick walls above the exiting corridor, to the two workers stooped together in probably incidental reverence, everything is freighted with reality. Especially the turbine, which feels almost surrealist in its aggressive imposition on the picture inspite of it in fact being amid its natural habitat. Viewing this painting I feel an almost benign aggression by Sheeler, a latent tension that hangs the machine as a noose above the men that it towers.

The men who, after all, have no real power in the picture. They are presumably for maintenance and button pushing, incapable of the unimaginable power that the beast of ‘Suspended Power’ was built for. An omnipotence Sheeler suggests by cutting ‘Suspended Power’ off at the base, as if the machine itself could burrow right off into the ground and away from everything, off out the canvas even.

‘The Artist Looks at Nature’ – 1943

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An Inception of a picture. The artist, presumably Sheeler, sits on a high precipice, seemingly untroubled by the heights as he works on an image of a stove that holds no relevance to the jumbled eccentricity of the landscape hinged before him.  The message seems clear, and indeed directly at odds with the hundreds of paintings akin to ‘Suspended Power’ that he created early on. Don’t trust the artist. Their impressions are just as fallible as yours, and, in witnessing their act of creation, you can see the real truth. All the artist is doing is ‘looking’ at nature, he holds no responsibility to reproduce it.

Regardless of this existential quandary, the bright landscape of ‘The Artist Looking at Nature’ rolls wonderfully down to the righthand side. With the dam-like structure Sheeler sits on blooming a gentle vegetation that arises in a skilful wash. There is a peace here then in spite of all the contradictions. A gentleness that is as absurd as it is comic. Sheeler perhaps wished to hint to all the possibilites open to both the artist and the audience when engaging with a piece. The physical all around us and the imaginative within.

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