Judith Leyster (1609 – 1660)

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. 

Despite being highly regarded within her own lifetime, it took more than 230 years after Judith Leyster’s death for her to be rediscovered for a contemporary audience. Up until that point the entirety of her own work was actually considered to be that of acclaimed portraitist Franz Hals, an error eventually corrected by the excellently named critic, Cornelis Hofstede de Groot.

Leyster’s work typically is of people within scenes of entertainment and leisure. The preoccupations of the then growing Dutch middle class.

The Last Drop (1639)

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The signs are clear that the men have indulged too much. The tankard is tipped empty, the long pipe smoking. The drinker at the left is maternally gripped to his jug, cheeks bulging. And as if this wasn’t enough to connote avarice, there are the items that the grimacing skeleton holds too. A flickering candle reaching its end, a running hourglass, and, somewhat more obscurely, his own head. A sight to suggest the loss of reason maybe, or, more likely, something to underscore the uneasiness of the image.

Whilst the moral lesson of The Last Drop is practically spoon-fed (the title a pun on both the end of the bottle and the end of life), what holds interest is the sense of light. From the candle in the middle we have not only the bones themselves illuminated in all their macabre glory: the broken teeth, the wide, searing eyes which are enrapt looking at the oblivious gulper. But the features of the indulged too, the ornately clothed smoker lit up in a delicious execution of skill, the watched man on the left shown on his darker side with the light peeping out, gilding a three dimensional edge to the image.

The light also draws us into the face of the standee whose look is a perfect vision of drunkeness. His mouth toothy and agape above eyes rolled back, looking off over the shoulder of the viewer to some beleaguered sense of reason.

Alongside the skeleton, this element of otherwordlyness is compounded through the blank, grey background. Where actually are we here? A bar or something of that type would make sense but they seem on display as a lesson rather than amidst mere depiction. Everything is good in moderation so they say, even moderation.

Young Flute Player

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Lost in the trills of practice, the small boy (who is much smaller than his large tented clothes let on), looks out into the nothingness that musicians inhabit when they’re amidst practice. Behind him other extraordinarily well realised instruments hang, the sheen of the violin and recorder something really to behold. But he is elsewhere, engaged with his flute; his mouth pursed, his fingers curved into a melody.

Again, much like The Last Drop, Leyster takes us to a blank background to reinforce all the details within. The arch of the chair the boy sits on, the cobra like patterning that creeps up the leg, as well as the delicate, hushed white ruffling of his collar.

There 0f course is no sound in painting, no other sense but sight. Yet Leyster seems to have captured the moment so well in its tranquility and envelopment, that you strain a little to imagine what sound the boy is making.

 

For Dutch genre painting of a similar ilk, read about the earlier explored Jan Steen (1626 – 1679) here.

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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)

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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)

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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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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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The West Midlands Open 2014

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

Housed within the Birmingham Art Gallery, The West Midlands Open 2014 (running till 15 Feb) is an exhibition of artworks by practising and emerging artists from across the region. displaying an impressive array of pieces, including painting, sculpture and photography.

Seeking refuge from the insane German Market crowds that currently plague Birmingham, myself and my girlfriend visited the exhibition last weekend, finding some really interesting stuff amidst the quiet. More information on the show itself can be found here.

‘Zero Zero’ – Anthony Butterfield (2013) 

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From across the wide spaces of the hall, this caustic, near hallucinatory photonegative-esque image really stands out. Through its alien landscape and simple conceit, the painting is one that invites the viewer to come nearer to engage and stare, its bold tones revealing new layers of complexity the closer you do.

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The grass for example (see above), seems to sprout under scrutiny. What at first appears a neon wash reveals to a dense convincing weave of roots evoked through light yet vivid scrapes. The lawn seems to hum with production, with all the small stems subtly suggests a new direction. By having so much hidden detail throughout, it is easy to become entranced in one section and forget the rest. Such as the smouldering trees:

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Their trunks ablaze with a menacing hellish colour. Their own dense red playing melding against the bubbling lava of the orange ground around them. Disregarding any true accurate portrayal, the trees become compelling rushes upward with their brushstrokes aggressively visible. Though, as if to belie the latent energy deep within this painting, between the wild oaks we see a calm, incorrigible sky. Its blue nothingness a smart antithesis to the manic energy elsewhere.

 Castle Drongo – Ian Gibson (2014)

In this wonderfully contorted piece, Gibson calls upon a style slightly comicbook to display the archaic nature of old institutions.

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Or maybe it’s just more of a rumination on the limits of shape. Regardless, I love the fact that this dramatic reimagining seems to not only defy logic through the malleable nature of its pattern, but the fact the various turrets pass through the other as if nothing were there. Everything else in the painting seems normal, and is displayed in an interesting technique of great delicacy. Indeed the forest from above feels more of a seascape, with the mountains at the back ushered through in delicate ghostly blues. The contradictory shape though still remains, and for as long as I stared at ‘Castle Drango’, I felt some definite familiarity but couldn’t place it.

Then it clicked, as, to me, it looks like a heart. The various ventricles and fist-like shape reminiscent of the organ. As to why, I couldn’t really say, perhaps it’s a metaphor? Institutions are nothing without their people? That feels right, but isn’t exactly fun. I much prefer just dwelling on the goofy yet entrancing confluence of its shape.

‘The Love Of Three Oranges’ – David Paul Gleeson (2014)IMG_2722

A work of mind bending detail. This solemn portrait of great precision is quite a sight to behold.  Three oranges rest upon two stacked crates below a single light, with all the permutations of shade delivered in incredible skill.

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From the skin on the fruit themselves, to the light that filters through the first box and down onto the second, the effect is one of peace and calm. With everything from the upside down writing on the top box, to the staples that keep it together realised with a wonderful eye. In its adorning caption, Gleeson states that he wishes to create still life work that obtains a certain portraiture in nature. With its consummate skill and high tangible intensity for such an everyday sight, ‘The Love of Three Oranges’ succeeds.

‘I am sorry to inform you…’ – Dan Auluk 2014

The final piece I’ve chosen is difficult to really analyse without sounding (even more) pretentious. So here’s what the Birmingham Art Gallery have to say:

This piece is a framed rejection letter from the 2010 West Midlands Open. The screwed up letter is the remainder of a brief and deliberate performance in response to the rejection. Through the rejection letter’s submission and acceptance into West Midlands Open 2014 it has been transformed into an artwork.

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I love this idea. As to the actual acceptance subsequently into the competition through it, that doesn’t really matter to me personally. It’s more the statement of that impulse awakened during rejection.

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Alex Colville (1920 – 2013)

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 suppose I approach this primitive form of art criticism through a poetic view. I enjoy symbols and getting grubby hands as I attempt to unearth meaning. And whilst there isn’t any rhyme scheme here to laboriously unpack, this painting does contain an irresistible sense of rhythm.

‘Horse and Train’ – 1954

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The galloping train curves like a backwards smile into the distance. Its crushing speed made fantastically apparent by the subtle division on the horizon; a small bump between the pulled carriages and the lower grasslands. What once was a simple line it seems, can evolve painfully quick to the onrush and light of a hurtling machine.

To some extent when I look at this piece, I feel ensnared like the horse. The steel of the tracks, brighter than any of the world around them, pull out of the canvas, both backwards to another world, and forwards into ours. Through the charging animal however, Colville draws our eyes downward to its fractious mid hurtle position. Beneath the horse, there is an uneasy quietness before the potential collision. The gravel is painted delicately to the pebble, with the thick pregnant marshland belied by delicate brushstrokes beside the tracks.

Yet amid his subdued palate, Colville draws the two majestic roamers of the landscape in equivocation rather than opposition. The smoke of the train itself too blends into the clouds above, with the horse’s hoof merging to the dark churn of the tracks below.

Rather than the obvious symbolic implication of the painting then, Colville offers a more interesting interpretation upon the idea of choice. Both the train driver and the horse have the ability it seems to get out of the way in some form, but both, for this snapshot moment at least, seem unwilling.

‘Chanteuse’ 

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The lid of the piano scores across the female ‘Chanteuse’ singer as an eye patch. Yet viewed more objectively in the disembodied mirror that floats behind the female’s head, we see that all is normal. The instrument splays  wide across the three windows, with the keys eerily fragmented between frame and elbow.

At first I had crudely assumed, both due to the prevalence of skin and the moan, that this was a primarily sexual image. Whilst undoubtedly the connotations are there, I feel Colville presents an even higher, more interesting, level of seclusion – an engagement with art.

Granted, such exultations are displayed are often part and parcel of public artistic exhibitions, but the slightly abstract way in which the singer is shown, suggests an unrehearsed, honest response to the music in front of her. Crucially too, there is no sheet music, she is merely playing, singing. Everything else around is drawn in unwavering precision, whilst amid it all her mouth gapes slightly, open to music we can only imagine.

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