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: firstname.lastname@example.org.
I like painters who leave hints. Painters whose work renounces mere representation and engages their audience with some narrative assembly. Jakub Schikaneder, the Czech Realist, is such a tease.
An artist of delicate, sombre pieces that feel at once both full and empty. His technique is remarkably assured, especially in the treatment of the human body, yet ultimately his work’s intent is obscure and unsteady. Schikaneder’s paintings feel as offerings in a sense, invitations up to the discerning, inquisitive eye.
Evening Street (1906)
There is a squinted-eyed dimness to this piece. A sense of solitary chill which permeates the very bones of Evening Street, developing a trace of hazy static as if it were encountered through a light sleet. This is best evident on the worn walls and browning cobbles, their quickly dappled surfaces emanating a bleary frost.
Up top amidst the eaves of the forward facing building, a snow has gathered and grown visible. Above this the night holds impenetrable but for a single defiant star – much akin to the solitary lamplight seen at the far left window – that is fighting against the inevitable tug of a wintry night. Atop the aforementioned pane, another is curiously open to the world, along with yet another which hangs ajar just to the upper left of the unreadable sign. Maybe whoever was there has upped and left; who would want to live in such unenviable cold?
Our only real sense of any powerful light comes through the intriguing passageway at the right. The shine both richly illuminating the pallor of the buildings, as well as pulling us subtly away from the numbed heart of the square to somewhere more inviting. But of course, there is no exit here. Schikaneder is a heckler as we’ve discussed. Rather our eyes become dragged back to the street, wherein it soon becomes clearer on examination that this is an oddly claustrophobic image. One that is walled with no escape at the right, bar the subtle tease, with a solid storefront facing outward defiant towards us. The gloom of the square is less expansive than it may have first appeared it seems.
A feeling compounded by the two departing women who in a sense seem to reflect each other, creating a smaller enclosed division within the open space. Their paths are a near perfect angle of symmetry, along with their similar white covering and haunches both up struggling against the night. With the solitary light and their pale shawls, they can perhaps be seen as ghosts in this wasteland, stalking on the bitter chill of a Prague street.
Murder in the House (1890)
A man at the front of a group gestures to a body, the corpse itself seems to point back. This wonderful picture is one to be scoured for its details and mysteries.
Amongst themselves, regardless of the tragedy around them, the crowd are a fantastic collection of characters. Most, such as the maid with her hands clasped or the older man leaning forward, appear pensive and curious rather than horrified. Perhaps what Schikaneder is showing is a moment past the initial hysteria of discovering a murder.
The majority of the 10 (look out for the easy to miss younger girl beside the older man infront of the door) appear to be focusing more on the older couple up front as opposed to the body. Intriguingly, it seems that the small child is the one most fascinated of the rabble, her pose relaxed yet gripped in its gaze. From the exasperation of the man signalling towards the boy to the more diplomatic reserve of the maid behind him, Schikaneder excels in creating character through expression. On the face of it they seem a disparate bunch, but through placing them all in the context of the horror they feel coherent and believable.
Supposedly images of this kind, which look to the fate of women within squalor, was an arc that Schikaneder plumbed regularly for inspiration. Research has identified the place that inspired Murder in the House as the opening of the dead-end Sitalska street which lead in part to the ghetto of the artist’s home city, Prague. The vivid realism here then is no accident, with the incredible detail of the area indebted to Schikaneder’s own experience. The walls all scrubbed yet dirty, the window frames wooden and uneven. At a close corner by the barrel, a piece of wood festers broken.
There is of course the woman herself too. Despite her clear once-elegance, the artist is unsparing in his depiction of her demise. Her head silently twisted in her own blood puddle, her wrist cast awkwardly backward. Grimly it seems that this position was something she would have stumbled to, with her hand print on the yellowed hallway suggesting she had held herself for a second before collapsing to be found by the crowd.
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