Harriet Backer (1845 – 1932)

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

Throughout the writing of this blog I have always been on the lookout for new artists to add to my sprawling bullet point list. Rather than picking one of those for today however, I chose to randomise the whole thing, to grab a female artist from Norway for no other reason than that she is a female artist from Norway. Her name is Harriet Backer, and from what I can gather from her scant Wikipedia page, she was a pioneer. An Impressionist best known for her detailed, moodily lit interiors.

Scanning through Backer’s work myself however, I found a motif that feels more worthy of acclaim. As in a large amount of Backer’s images there comes a distinct sense of absorption solely within the moment, a sensation that holds the viewer’s gaze as still as the image that it forms part of.

To barn og tregruppe (1885)


The young couple are at first all but forgotten before the dense shadow of the bulging tree. The tops a distinct  golden in the clear sky glare; the middle branches however coming together much tighter, suggestive more of a hideaway with its gentle, streamed shade.

Backer rushes the tree with a great varying intensity of green, her mostly horizontal brushwork works well in creating a sense of the tree’s threshing movement. Its shadows too are thoughtful in their accuracy, the divide of the top canopy casting the jagged designs behind the boy & girl especially well.

A duo whose own duality is mirrored & emphasized throughout ‘To barn og treguppe’. On the left of the image for example we have a rich band of light untouched by the foliage, its own stark intensity placing into focus the heft of the trees cover. On the right we have the civilized, beaten track leading back up to the titular farm – the couple in a sense then are caught both between and beneath, as above the tree itself seems as if it were cleaved between.

Ultimately, this subtle symmetry of Backer’s gives the painting a calming, pleasing effect, mirroring the lost Norwegian summers day that it evokes so well.

Storebor Spiller (1890)


At the heart of this painting there is a three way split of attention. Initially there is the pianist herself, she who is clearly engaged deeply with her own playing. Her slightly flurried hand sneaking between the left elbow suggestive of some great intensity. Whatever she is playing matters less than how clearly it has caught the young girl beside her.

Anyone who has ever witnessed a familiar in such close quarters as they play music cannot help but be that girl – one who may have even rose from her chair against the window listening to now being perched, watching. Her eyes strictly on the playing rather than merely engaging with the reverie. The dormant violin on lid could be a signal to a teacher perhaps, but the informal nature in which the girl rests her arms and fingers above the keys suggest someone more closely known.

Then above these two who are engulfed in their own raptures, there is us. Ourselves straining at this slow, quiet moment. One that engages so deeply through Backer’s aforementioned interiors. The lush imagining lends a great heaviness to the painting. The lamps on the piano intermingle with the night outside, as well as splitting like an orange in the sheen of the instrument.

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George Romney (1734 – 1802)

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

Whilst fellow portraitsts of the 18th century such as Reynolds & Gainsborough have flourished post-death in both reputation and renown; George Romney, a veritable giant of that same era, is today but a gallery glance in comparison to the continual popularity of the aforementioned duo. Is this fair? Perhaps so, as while skilful in execution, a majority of Romney’s work is reptitive & facile. There are gems however, with these select pieces fascinating not only through way of their accurate, compelling portrayals of people from a time lost, but also through their subtle, playful invention.

Researching today’s piece I perused a number of similar painters from the same era, finding an alarming abudnance of great pieces by artists who hold no recognition to the (or, at least myself as an) average art fan. Perhaps Romney isn’t remebered then for being less than this contemporary talents, rather because that time was just so good collectively for this style.

Mrs Russell and Child (1786)


There is a sweet intimacy about this mother & daugher portrait that elevates it above the usual stationary sitting stodge. Mrs Russell, appearing to us in side profile as if caught between attention for the watching painter and her distracted child, is angled as such that it belies the formality of the occassion. Her relaxed depiction allows us to appreciate the wide complex curves of her dress. The way the light plays against the pink seamed fabric creates a believable depth amidst the folds of the gown twisted by her parental pivot.

This being a portrait of its historical circumstance, there are many signifiers throughout freighting the image with intended meaning. Her left hand for example is suggestive both of marraige to Mr Russell through its ring, as well as education in its rest atop a heavy, gilded book. Her right hand is rendered wonderful through a single, maternal finger that holds her daughter steady as she herself stares at her own reflection staring back. Similar to her mother, the girl’s dress is really well imagined, this time through its sublime meld of whites. The cute red shoes popping out also reinforce the image’s overall sentimental intent.

Through the mirror we appreciate then not only more of the child, but also more of the room itself. Beneath her raised left arm a door is visible, its panelling ornate and complex, the edge s fanciful as the mirror’s own to which the girl confronts herself within. At the top right a window is visible, something which gifts ‘Mrs Russell and Child’ a great depth of reality through not only its suggestion as a physical background to the image that we, as observer, are housed within. But also as explanation of the picture’s light, this shine that blends believable against the sitters, sheening it with a lifelike texturing.

The child perhaps is the ultimate metaphor for the vanity of the portrait. The striving not only to preserve one’s image for future generations and provide chronicle, but also give a thing of a narcissisicm. A reminder of your own myth.

Lady Hamilton as Nature (1782)


In 1782, George Romney’s life changed forever. It was here that he first met his greatest muse & constant infatuation, Emma ‘Lady Hamilton’ Hart; perhaps best known now as Lord Nelson’s mistress. Romney would paint the woman in various guises and poses throughout his career, stylising her as Ariadne & Cleopatra amongst other figure of lore in a storied catalogue of portrayals.

From the off within ‘Lady Hamilton as Nature’ it is the rich juxtaposition that makes the image so captivating. Here is at once both an alluring temptress, rendered cleverly with a slight lip parting that requires a little study to realise thus forcing close physical examination, as well as her dog, a steadfast, obedient hound that seems to pierce straight into the heart of the viewer even more so than its owner.

Romney’s love of ‘Nature’ here is clear, her eyes both painted with a charmed glint, her cheeks rich & rosy. Her look is kind and genuine. The hair seeming similar to the leafs above her in its dense flow – a single lock even seems to have crept over the shoulder, catching gold in the sunlight behind.

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Gustav Klimt (1862 – 1918)

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

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 –

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

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)

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

Leonor Fini would dye 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 on 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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