Bruce Nauman (1941 –

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. 

Painting is but one of the skills that sculptor, photographer and installation artist Bruce Nauman also has at his disposal. In spite of his myriad of approaches though, there runs an aesthetic minimalist consistency throughout his work. A stoic adherence to precision, with a direct eye that conjures deep juxtaposition puzzles for the viewer within subtle signifiers.

NO (1981)

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The sheer power of words is never better exemplified than in Bruce Nauman’s ‘NO’. The painting is a smart flip on the idea of patheticfallacy, with the chaotic weather of the piece not just representing the idea of the word ‘No’ as a concept, but also incorporating the slick contours of the word itself within the maelstrom. The word charges out from the front, the stormed techniques curving around the contours.

Regardless of the term however, the work throughout is outstanding. Though on first glance they may feel as childish scribbles, there is a consistency to the manic scrawls; spirals tube up and out of the words, small twisted tornados gather in arches, the guttering white at the left hand side of the ‘N’ of the word gifts it a seething, searing quality. Around this depiction of solid refusal there is still some of Nauman at work, with a clean white boundary left around the word, adding a caustic edge to the denial.

Though undeniably powerful even just on the screen in front of you, experiencing’ NO’ in real life, as I did when staying in Liverpool, really allows you appreciate the power of the painting within the context of a gallery. Scanning the upper room of the Liverpool TATE where the painting is housed, it will always catch your eye with monomania.

Ultimately, there comes a sense, especially with ‘NO’, that perhaps analysis as per Kweiseye isn’t even necessary really for this one, its powers self evident and without question.

Ah Ha (1975)

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The title of this delicate mirror image piece is something you may initially mutter to yourself you dig deeper down in its symmetries. There is just not just the black and white of the left and right, nor the fact that opposing words, whose letters can each equally be halved exactly, are in fact the same reflection in both shape and spelling. The interest and trouble then stems from the fact that the definitions of the actual pure words themselves, the ‘ah’ and the ‘ha’ are hard to pin down in terms of empirical certainty.

‘Ha’ is obviously the easier of the two, the standard explanation being laughter, though perhaps it can be of malice. Is the ‘Ah’ an exhalation? A scream of pain? Perhaps it’s meant as mentioned at the opening, as an ‘Ah’ of discovery.

The standard tropes of this blog then, looking at brushwork, imagery etc. these cannot apply here. Yet the piece still retains interest through both the simplicity of its execution, and the effectiveness of the sheer idea of the thing. It is playful and suggestive, alluring in an unpretentious way. A nudge in the gallery to remember that defining artwork is treacherous. And if forced one should be taken by the glee of the situation rather than labored with obtrusive baggage.

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Giacomo Balla (1871 – 1958)

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. 

A leading artist of the Futurist movement, Giacomo Balla differentiated himself from his fellow members by focusing less on the violence and power inherent within machines, and more on a personal envisioning of modern existence that was at once both lyrical and witty.

Street Light (1909)

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Although if may take a minute or two to notice upon first viewing, when the initial onslaught of Street Light’s kaleidoscopic majesty subsides, a shape begins to flesh out around the exploded middle –  a design that concurs with the title.This is not a sun obliterating within itself we must remember then, but a street light. One whose shape appears slightly anachronistic to the modern eye: the light having two poles which crest over it rather than one that keeps it perpendicular, the top of it a wizard hat that allows it to beam outward rather than a flattened roof which keeps its eyes down.

Below the lamp itself, there is a small curve inward which allows a golden purity to collect in a grin. Across the searing middle it seems as if a star is exploding:

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Balla’s paint here is remarkably detailed, with all the various colours blending believable as if churning together amid unimaginable heat. Layers upon layers of tones coalesce to create a thick focal point which throbs and sways with a gripping intensity.

The sense then is of something mythic. The moon itself at the top right appearing but a longer flicker amongst many. With the omnipotence at the center worshipped and rushed at by continually inventive loops and ticks of paint drawn inward. Again though, Balla knows to remind us that this is but merely a lamp rather than a supernova. So he paints the exterior as gloomy aisles, dimmed spots where the seemingly limitless power of the light cannot affect.

Subservience as a thematic idea within Street Light feels valid as this is something common to the Futurists work as a whole. Those who praised and magnified the might of then nascent technology. Perhaps the visage of the lamp within their own time would’ve been far more exciting than its appearance to us today. Or, perhaps the painting is merely reminder that there is true beauty and marvel to be found within the everyday electrical devices that we now disregard in our daily interactions. To uphold the mundane is a common figuration in painting, regardless of the era. And here Balla touches on a consistent thread in a manner both edifying and invigorating.

Pessimism and Optimism (1923)

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You would assume that the dominant black here is pessimism and the lighter blue shade mix is optimism. The more that Pessimism & Optimism is explored however, the less such surgical division seems necessary as the two appear to intersect and influence each other, just as the pure form of each emotion in reality is inevitably tempered by the other. Balla’s depiction then seems more of a rumination on the interaction between emotions amidst experience, rather than merely pitting the polar opposites against each other.

Pessimism is a thick, black, pointed shape, its long spiky talons thrusting out as an inquisitive parry. Across what seems its rear there is a panoply of small pyramids which ridge up in a sense of menacing proportion evoking  an odd sense of unease. There is no softness, no relent from this angular frame. It seems to be perched mostly on a single, diatonic hoof, whose shape is mimicked in various forms throughout its body creating an expansive sense of the thing.

Optimism’s blue is far more interesting in its conception. It isn’t as on the nose as it could’ve been, indeed Balla might have employed more obvious greens & yellows, evoking jubilance and uplift. But he goes more for the cooler tones of blue and white, creating a sense that optimism is a thing to shade yourself with rather than to embody and cling to. The completeness of some of the shapes, in particular the deep ovals at the top right, are a wonder to behold in their execution. To the caustic definition of pessimism, optimism is a sea of soft waves and positive swoops.

As aforementioned,  the two exist not as portraits individually however, but as interacting forces. Within the deepest pit of pessimism’s black we can still see shades of blue infused with its own colour. Likewise, optimism still holds shades of grey within its curve edges. Each emotion is one and the same.

This a painting to ruminate on for far longer than it seems. One whose message and subsequent technical expression is simple, yet the inference forces deep examination of both the canvas and oneself.

For more Kweiseye on Futurism, see earlier blog pieces:

David Bomberg (1880 – 1957)

Christopher R.W Nevinson (1889 – 1946)

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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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Jakub Schikaneder (1855 – 1924)

 

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 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)

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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)

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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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The Royal Academy Summer Exhibition 2015

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. 

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A veritable smugglers cove of an art show, wherein huge varieties of new work hang together as disparate plunder, The Royal Academy’s Summer Exhibition is like no other exhibition at all. There is no theme, no single artist (rather, 1100 or so) and there are no rules for entry it seems. Only that the submitted piece be either sculpture, illustration, installation, or, of course, painting.

Whilst visiting London last weekend I ventured inside and spent the best part of three hours merely scratching the surface of the thing. The show, which is the oldest open-submission exhibition of its kind, is staged across 16 large rooms. With some of the designs, such as that of Jim Lambie (the stripes above belonging to his awesome ‘Zobop’) even spilling out of their predetermined spaces.

And though I must say that the quality was a tad patchy at times – something always to be expected with the nature of something so sprawling. There is routinely some excellence to encounter within this year’s Summer Exhibition and it’s well worth a visit. Here’s a selection of things that caught my eye:

Mick Moon – Noon Fishing/Dawn Fishing

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By stacking these two pieces one on top of the other, the inference comes of them being one complete, cohesive whole. The top , Noon Fishing, showing seagulls circling in the clouds. The lower portion, Dawn Fishing, depicting anglers working on the sea. Moon’s creative reapprproation of wood is a smart surrogate for both the sky and the ocean, all three of these entities being things with a sense of the eternal inherently embedded. All holding a feeling of permanence that far outstrips the things that ever depend on them.

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The use of wood is employed not just as metaphor by Moon though, but also as a very element of the picture. Such as in Dawn Fishing, wherein the knot of the wood itself appears to behave as rippling water beneath the casters. The paint and the material intertwining intelligently to suggest reflection and depth of shimmer on the canvas.

Holloway Back Gardens with Self Portrait – Melissa Scott-Miller

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A terrific, wide sprawl of an image whose detail sadly cannot be given real justice by my craned iPhone camera. This ‘self portrait’ of sorts (the artist can be seen on the left, her own image interestingly of a childish house) impresses not only through its scope, but its eye for the smaller universes of each garden depicted.

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Though perhaps slightly cartoonish at an initial glance, the charming style is of true vision and skill. Not only does the sun fall across the image with great accuracy, with the rays falling lazily across the various outcrops, but the whole thing has a biting affirming Britishness to it. A real for the back garden. All of them depicted here seeming to form an uninterrupted wilderness together, as if the houses are penning them back as one.

Sticky Toffee Pudding – Archie Franks

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Delivered through heavy throbs of pressed down paint, this depiction has a gluttonous weight to it far beyond the connotations of the humble treat it shows. Against a tame and mild flan coloured background, Franks pins us right up against the food at the front. Some of the desert has ran out of the middle, the exposed gooey centre seeming to lift off the easel as if rising lines of heat.

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From afar in the Royal Academy Sticky Toffee Pudding is easy to miss, both because there’s just so much around and also by the small size of the platter, effectively done to scale. Up close though there is a real vibrancy and aggression here, the thick globules suggesting anger and division – all within a pudding.

Olive Tree in a Field of Grass Feed – Paul Sayers

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And finally, here we are in a field somewhere. There comes a suggestion of pattern , the trees seeming to reflect each other’s place on dual parallel lines. Yet the mood is flagging and hazy rather than uniform. The technique rushed yet endearing. With the grass coming in thick, tense brushstrokes of definite crinkled green, whilst the leaves of the trees appear to flutter amongst their own celluar structures.

At the corner of the image another two lines cross as an angle, suggesting further patterning soon to be found off canvas. `

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Evie Hone (1894 – 1955)

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. 

Though primarily regarded as one of the most outstanding stain-glassed designers of the 20th century, Evie Hone was also a talented painter. An extremely devout artist who tended more towards the unreal within her brushwork.

Abstract Study (1930)

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There is a sheath, a skin to this work. An overwhelming presence of blue that itself seems unsteady in the frame. The image plays with ideas of images, the outer limits of the canvas painted on as if wood.

Striking first is the many shades and variation of the colour. It is a blue holding formations and currents beneath, their designs piled on as stencils laced. At the center there comes a sense of a torrent, the shapes in the outer reaches seeming to begin to curve whilst those in the middle conforming utterly to a circle. It is as if the aforementioned sheath is pulling backwards to a determined, gritty difference between the two. A pearl in the oyster.

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This crystallised centre. Intricately measured and judged as bricks of colour from bold, powerful strokes. As orientation is easier down here, it allows a sharper appreciation of the sense of movement and distance between the two areas of the image. The exterior expanses far more sluggish and broad, the heart so varied.

Canal Bridge

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An intelligent balancing act of a painting. In ‘Canal Bridge’ we see all the pieces fitting together smartly: from the disembodied leaves on the top left mirroring as dapples on the water, to the eponymous bridge itself which smiles back in a positive hum. Our view is both teased further and cut off shortly through these catoptric surfaces. There is a sense of being tugged back to the image as you try to spy further into it through its echoes.

It is both modern and engaging, and postcard. There is no depiction bar the very technique that realises the bridge. A theme common throughout Hone’s painting.

The palette overall is far rougher than ‘Abstract Landscape’, with the tempo of the work both urgent yet calming. Everything comes in bold strokes, the water itself seemingly translucent and absent through the build of different responses of the landscape rather than the employment of depth.

Perhaps her fundamentals within stained-glass influenced this crystallised sense of her image. Her goal more to reverent iconic pieces rather than suggestions and prods. Within Hone there is a peculiar silence build from a beguiling, stilling technique.

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George Grosz (1893 – 1959)

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 German anti-Nazi satirist who composed much of his work amidst the rise and fall of The Third Reich, George Grosz (originally ‘Georg’ until 1916 when he anglicised the spelling in antinationalist protest) is a fascinating figure both historically and artistically. Damning and iconoclastic, Grosz’s vibrant, skewered depictions of his battered time are as savage as they are prescient.

To Oskar Panizza – (1917/18)

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Witnessed from high above, the maniacal parade of flags, sabres and hellfire trundles past the viewer with a palpable fury. A procession itself of a chaotic mixture, churning figures prevalent in the post-war despair of the Weimar Republic (the evangelising priest, the jingoistic general etc.) with Grosz’s own apocalyptic flourishes of tone and vision.

Amidst this kaleidoscope display of dulled, oppressive yet varied hues, everything comes tinged with some darkness. The only natural light within appearing from the back – a small fire which has sprung up spontaneously taking several bodies with it.

And perhaps that’s all for the best as this appears a brutal, hellish world. Take the aforementioned priest at the bottom left for example, he who brandishes a brittle white cross, rising from the dead off the back of a pig hybrid that greedily cradles a bottle of wine. This duo themselves being but a moment amongst a panoply of grotesque detail throughout. A world that seems creaky on its hinges as the buildings leer in and out of frame.

Revealingly in retrospect, Grosz detailed the piece as a reflection of his own view of society at the time, his goal to show ‘a diabolical procession of human figures… their faces eloquent of alcohol, syphillis, plague’. A procession who appear riven by a skeleton that carries on atop them by coffin. A symbol easily missed perhaps as its own vague skin assimilates into the riot below, but one that’s important as it serves reminder that though the depiction of this world is cartoonish, the realities are still pertinent. Maybe with our future hindsight it is easy to dismiss the intent, but with such technique and unflinching directness, ‘To Oskar Panizza’ is impossible to ignore.

And Oskar Panizza himself? Understandably he was not a man of peace or reason, rather an objector of the most conscientious and rigorous kind. Repelled by the church, the army (Grosz himself was twice expelled for poor health) and authority of any sort whatsoever. The writer Kurt Tucholsky described Panizza as the most daring, barbed, witty and revolutionary prophet Germany had ever seen – perhaps in Grosz he has found fitting tribute.

‘The Painter of the Hole’ – (1948)

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During World War II, a conflict which felt all but inevitable to Grosz for years prior, the German painted a number of apocalyptic scenes expressing his despair and hopelessness at the tragic developments he had warned of in vain – see ‘The Pit’ or ‘Cain, or Hitler in Hell’

Perhaps it is logical then that in the aftermath of WWII the artist near-exclusively adopted the use of stickmen, a symbol of artistic impotency in the face of annihilation. They are, after all, perfect signifiers of nothingness and fundamentals, something Grosz expanded upon in a letter to the playwright Bertolt Brecht, stating, ‘they consist of thin but firm strokes. They cast no shadow, and are themselves completely grey’.

Yet there seems a paradox at the heart of this painting. As in demonstrating the futility of depiction, Grosz has in fact created a wonderful work. One that is wry and knowing, the message clear and the technique assured. And beneath the Hole Painter’s chair especially, there is great work. The distressed, drained palette allowing Grosz to contrast the squeezed paint tubes and scored notebooks with the flotsam and jetsam of rubble and mess. The righthand corner which gathers with forgotten reproductions of the past, their own images slowly peeling off the canvas back into the dirt. All there seems to be here is the sense of something missing.

The figure himself stands clear from the rest of the faded image with his comic, ghost-like appearance. His weak wrist almost as fluid as the paint that flicks from it. Easily mocked as he is though, this is a man that seems to be respected, seems to be something that Grosz charges with heroism rather than mock defeat. And perhaps this is because he keeps going; through the chaos all around, past the rat that gathers on his image and the other that waits at his feet, his own eye sees forth and he continues to depict knowing that it will offer no change against the past.

Or, more likely in truth as it is with Grosz, this is a final image of defeat. A wonderfully evocative painting with a quieting message about a final loss of hope.

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