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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David Kakabadze (1889 – 1952)

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 polymath of his time, David Kakabadze was not only a visionary avant grade painter, but an art scholar and innovator of cinematography. Within his sparse depictions there comes breathing room for his affecting technique. His imagery a subtle meld of leftist techniques and his native Georgia.

Rioni Power Station (1931)

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There comes a modern oddness to this painting. It feeling near inconceivable on initial viewing that it has crept from way back within the 1930s. Not only does the anachronistic sense stem from the small, soft concrete of the bridge that feels sharper than it has anything right to be, but via the mountains too, their base, expressionistic patches of surprisingly few shades creating a landscape more affecting than inspiring.

Nothing is given too much definition. The forests darkened deposits rather than detailed leafy canopies. At the top left there stand two solitary trees as guardians, the duo being of only a few trunks visible. Above this all the sky, stark in its realism, only serves to highlight the somewhat Fauvist approach to colours that Kakabadze has adopted. His world a take on the world rather than a fitful representation.

In spite of the blocky discipline though, movement does seem to dribble through here. The sun above falling majestically against the cleft of the world behind the power station, a single ridge, to which another tree watches, lying completely shadowed whilst the rest behind blazes indifferently on.

Sailboats (1921)

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Whenever faced with a Cubist image like this, I always scour the thing for traces or hints to which the title could be alluding to. It’s always best to initially center yourself this way I find, with Sailboats being an easy task for its sharp angles intersecting that resemble as masts. There also occurs small waves on the Sailboats, tiny ripples of water occurring within the white fold shape of the folds. There is little else to engage though.

The boat feels pinned up on the grey to be examined, a specimen. An origami rearrangement whose center folds inward, inverting the colours. This semi transparent shade behind is particularly well realised, the shapes below still visible and submerged beneath. Sailboats a simple puzzle of mental assembly that grows more complex as the subtle patterning of suggested colour are imagined.

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Francisco Goya (1746 – 1828)

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. 

When his works are collected together and poured over, Francisco Goya can seem frenzied and unpredictable in his approaches. Here for example is a painter who depicts a bygone innocence of the Spanish past as richly as he imagines executions of native soldiers by French troops. Here also is a conferred ‘Painter to the King’ whose subtly subversive royal portraits share stylistic similarities to his ‘Los Caprichos’, a haunting passion project of the artist that aimed to explore, ‘the extravagances and follies common to every civilized society’. What ties the entire oeuvre of Goya together though is a distinct sense of something more beneath the paint, a preoccupation not just with satire or veiled critique, but an appeal to feeling beyond the mere rapture of his brush.

The Straw Mannequin (1791 – 1792)

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Despite this no doubt being a familiar carnival sight to the Spanish aristocracy whom commissioned it, ‘The Straw Mannequin’ cannot be anything but acutely disturbing to the modern eye. Taking aside for a second the simple fact that there is a corpse-like dummy being flung high by women who seem enchanted by the act, it is the very moment that Goya picks to crystallise that lends the image such a sinister quality.

Had the mannequin been dropping down head over heels or in some other less recognisably human pose, its discerning qualities could perhaps have been discarded in favour of the jubilation being had. Yet by showing ‘him’ behaving anatomically quite how a person would look thrown upward, Goya revels in the disjunction between the real and the imitative. Look at the slack, unresponsive limbs. The buckled shoes pointing out askance beneath ornate britches. It’s lifeless, painted face that arches back on what looks like a broken neck with a ponytail swinging behind. The figure, of course, isn’t real and feels nothing. But the subtle blurring keeps us as entranced as the foursome.

What is Goya saying here though? Is this a commentary, suggesting what strong women can do with a weak man? Or is the net cast wider and this is more about mob rule and its influence on the single individual caught in the middle? The circumstances are murky, what is clear though is that Goya’s revered attention to detail isn’t just regulated to the action at the centre.

The unusually tall image allows the artist to achieve a fantastic level of depth at both ends of the work. At the base his brush is keen and nuanced. The shadow of the blanket varying in heaviness and shade depending on where it is pinched and the buckles of the women beneath sparkling wonderfully under cover. Above the straw filled body we have a fantastically imagined sky whose washes of wispy cloud ape the golden backed green of the trees.

Duel with Cudgels (1820 – 1823)

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Both of these men feel inextricable from their landscape. The fighter on the right appears to be fading into the white of the backdrop, his legs cut off from the ankle down, one and the same with the sediment beneath. On the left, his opponent is similarly entrenched, his own cudgel appearing to be the source of the smoky clouds behind  There is a grisly madness to this desolate scene. A futility and sadness, a sense that whoever is the victor will still be trapped, still have gained nothing.

With their heights so exaggerated and their bodies so cemented, perhaps the two men are representative of some higher order. Some symbols of how the powers that be are effectively rooted within the same world and that murdering the other is only serving to ruin the world around them. The two even seem spotlit by the landscape’s sunshine, the left warrior’s cudgel also appearing to tear through the clouds themselves.

Up-close however, and the painting definitely should be seen up-close (click it) for its wonderful treatment of diaphanous colour, individual faces and emotions are detectable which draw the magnitude down to a more painful, one on one confrontation. A fight that has been going on a while it seems. The man on the left all bloodied up and continuing, his opponent cocked back on the left ready for a huge swipe lest he be blocked.

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MODERN REVIEW: Cornelia Parker at Whitworth Art Gallery, Manchester.

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 first of a new series of articles entitled ‘MODERN REVIEW’. This infrequently posted selection will feature reviews I’ve done of contemporary UK exhibitions for online publications other than ‘Kweiseye’. IMG_3181

Cornelia Parker at Whitworth Art Gallery, Manchester (01/04/2015).

Original review: http://www.theskinny.co.uk/art/reviews/cornelia-parker-whitworth-manchester-review

Upon entering the newly revitalised Whitworth, it can initially be unclear where Cornelia Parker’s retrospective is actually located. There is just so much to see. Exhibitions taken from the Whitworth’s portraiture collections, new acquisitions and examples from the gallery’s textile archive are all on display on the building’s lower level, and Parker’s show exists among them.

The first groups of pieces focus on Parker’s paper-based and smaller sculptural work. Embryo Firearms (1995) is a disturbing, engrossing piece of reductionism. Two Colt 45 guns are displayed in their earliest form of production accompanied by Precipitated Gun (2015), a suggestively cocaine-like line of powder. This is, in fact, the remnants of a gun that has been pulverised for the exhibition. Throughout, weapons and ammunition crop up with menacing regularity, achieving an odd abstraction through their use as a medium in drawing and painting (for example, the drawings made with melted lead bullets). Although a variety of techniques is employed, one constant remains: a focus on the fundamental parts that contribute to the whole, and how an engagement with such constituents can engender a deeper, more profound understanding of the thing. IMG_3180

This notion reaches its apotheosis with the installation Room for Margins (1998), which consists of a group of canvas linings taken from paintings by Turner during their conservation. The canvases are browned, and show compelling indentation of the proto-Impressionist delights once above them. The gesture is a bold one. Initially these works are confusing and obtuse – we question their veracity – but the process becomes an enlightening one as small images of beauty leak through the surfaces. Further on into the exhibition comes a series of Parker’s larger installation works, including the one she is, perhaps, most famous for: Cold Dark Matter: An Exploded View (1991). The astonishing slow-motion implosion of sorts decorates an entire room in the floating aftermath of disintegration. Opposite this work we find a new commission, War Room (2015), a punishing, remarkable piece wherein the walls and ceiling of a single room are layered with red poppy cutouts – waste material from the Royal British Legion’s Poppy Appeal. The experience is significant, the room seeming to both swoon and be still, the pointillist echo of colour playing out as an angry womb. IMG_3188

These larger installations have certainly been the most advertised and discussed in relation to the show, but do not just be taken in by these grand motions. It is the earlier, more muted sculptures, experiments and works on paper that deserve the most attention. Here the rich imagination of the artist plays out with none of the equipment, posing questions in true, essential ways.

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Paulus Potter (1625 – 1654)

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

Part of the joy of looking at painting is the sense of being connected to the past without filter. Whether a work of art is seen here on this blog or in the oily flesh at a gallery, it always crafts a pure, intimate, historical connection, one essentially unsullied by the degradation that can so often alter other artefacts of the past. Painting then is a dialogue uninterrupted, comparable in a sense, as strange as it may sound, to our own relationships with animals today.

As imagine the way a dog would play with you now on a 2015 afternoon, why it would be rough, ready and rambunctious, no different to a pup playing with Italian schoolchildren in the 15th century. Consider a pig (such as those featured below) of the Victorian era alongside a contemporary counterpart – there feels no difference does there? Rather, it is we who have changed around the infallible nature of animals. A portrait can’t change its subject and a leopard cannot change it spots it seems. They remain the same as we grow further beyond them yet as fascinated as ever.

Never better are these twin threads of animal disposition & eras bygone explored than by Paulus Potter, a gifted Animal ‘Animalier’ painter (see HERE for an earlier explored Animalier/Queen Victoria fave, Edwin John Landseer), whose adroit brushwork forges compelling, mostly farmyard pieces, that retain a deep humanity some 350 years later.

Two Pigs in a Sty (1649) Paulus_Potter_-_Two_Pigs_in_a_Sty_-_Google_Art_Project

Initially it seems as if no painter was even present to record such an image. The poses are just so relaxed and natural. With Potter’s typical eagle eye gifting a quiet, intimate dignity to what is effectively the confines of a sty. A sty the artist seems to respect in his brush: the strips of fell hay lying as tame lightnings across the front & hoofs for example, the small troth recessed against the worn, thick wood.

It is the pigs themselves though that are the real marvel. Their mottled, hay coloured coat a rich antithesis to the traditional porcine pink. At the back, the dominant male leers forward, his furrowed fur and turnip snout lit thoughtfully by the subtle slats of pure blue light flitting in around the couple from the outdoors. His squinted, slightly hazy eyes tucked beneath the floppy eaves appear welcoming, as if he has a dirty joke to share. Below him the other pig is more vacant, a smile perhaps is recognisable, but the eyes betray an element of being elsewhere, her exposed nipples suggestive perhaps of a recent feed.

Free of irony, the image elevates the creatures to the status of portraiture. As just as within the portraits of this era, we see their world, their relationship, signifiers of their status. These are pigs not be looked at as ‘pigs’ but as animals, as creatures, as a record of the humanity that they held and continue to hold, no matter how we may think otherwise.

The Wolfhound (1650) Wolf-Hound

Low beneath the snout of this dog, there’s a masterpiece. A small gruff of a town that Potter skilfully evokes and then stores away for us to seek out. A spire can be seen, a dappling of settlements perhaps before it. Cattle are grazing and one is drinking at the water’s edge, cattle that may well eventually be as the bone beneath this chained beast’s watch.

By creating such an interesting sense of perspective, Potter foreshortens & isolates the hound. He is the centre here, not the aforementioned town, the clouds even seeming to wrap slightly around his watch. He is a guard dog, what he guards we will never know, the world that Potter gives us at the back is cruelly one that he is blissfully unaware. One that may be even further than it seems.

The titular Wolfhound itself is magnificent, its odd size giving a sense of omnipotence to its stance. The long coat a telling of character in its variety, the tough white fur around the legs giving away to solid clumps of muscle. Its eyes ever watchful amid a head all black from the collar down.

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