Lilly Martin Spencer (1822 – 1902)

 

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. 

To walk through any large American art gallery is to see numerous artists akin to Lilly Martin Spencer. Her antebellum themes of family life, jovial occasions and light-hearted mischief are nothing new then, rather what intrigues is the subtle gender repositioning occurring often within Spencer’s work.

Young Husband: First Marketing (1854)

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How very humorous! A man is sent out to gather food from the market and, lo and behold, he struggles! Around his uneasy, clopping heels there already lies a tomato amongst radishes, whilst above these a chicken clings tightly by the legs to another bird which is also slipping out of an expertly realised basket menagerie.

Though the image is of course quite funny, both in a contemporary sense of general slapstick and also through its retroactive perspective on stereotype subversion, Young Husband: First Marketing reveals a hidden pain. Namely, the worry of establishing and maintaining a household well within the public arena. This melding then, of genuine hilarity and poignant anxiety, forges a bittersweet aura within. Something Spencer gently complements through her depictions of the rest of the watching crowd featured in Young Husband.

At the front then is, of course, the husband himself – he whose unfocused glance is both uncomfortable and askew. Behind him, a gentleman looks inward with a knowing smile:

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And at his left we see a woman hitching her skirt up in an act as gender defiant as the centre-point. When these three are taken together, an odd sense of momentum is formed as their moving directions counteract the other, compounding the sense of isolation the husband no doubt feels.

A common volley of complaint cast at Spencer is that her heads are often too large for her persons. And though perhaps that stands here, it’s undeniable that there is some real prowess demonstrated on the canvas. With the stairs at the right edge being notable in their defined polish whilst the retreating back is commendable in its misty mesh of branches and homes.

Reading the Legend (1852)

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A woman stares off; perhaps at the castle, perhaps enraptured within her suitor’s words, perhaps even lost within herself. The magic that has captured her is something  that we cannot see. Spencer takes this idea and runs with it within Reading the Legend, employing the signifiers of the image to pose an important question about the nature of imagination.

The castle in the background is Ireland’s Blarney Castle. Spencer always feels more comfortable to me with buildings rather than people, and the subtle battle here between Blarney’s degradation and the creeping vine is executed fantastically. It isn’t hard to imagine the majestic aura this battlement would give off back in its heyday, and at the far right edge we can see more of it crumbling off, suggesting mass.

And while the castle is integral here, it’s the three figures at the forefront that create such an engaging picture. Is it best then to be regaled, as the suitor does, by someone else? To hear them read someone else’s interpretation of a thing to send you elsewhere? Much like I, Tom Kwei, am doing now? I’m reading this picture in my own way for you and letting you know.

Maybe it’s best to be at the woman, to take in what I’ve said but to contemplate separately. Or, finally, you could behave as the dog, ignoring all around you and searching for your own answers within. Regardless of these digressions, Spencer yet again is enshrining the importance of the feminine experience, as here it is she rather than he that is seen as the central figure of the painting.

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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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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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Joan Eardley (1921 – 1963)

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. 

Some of my all time favourite songs are instrumental. Freed from the conventional storytelling of lyrics, there often paradoxically seems to be more to be said through a weaving melody line than couplets that inevitably chorus climb. Of course there isn’t any actual tale being spun within a song of this ilk like, say, Dirty Three’s excellent ‘The Restless Waves’, rather it seems the lack of a coherent centre allows the technique and style of the musicians to flourish.

As Tommy Emmanuel and Guthrie Govan before her then, Joan Eardley feels to me as an instrumentalist. An artist who primarily feels concerned with pageantry, her affecting style taking over her stark depictions. Eardley’s world is one of great force and abandon, a place dominated by the brush rather than any message.

July Fields (1959)

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This painting captivates through its impenetrable surface. With little in the way of pictorial representation July Fields feels essentially an exhibition for Eardley’s sublime control of chaotic colour blending. Such simplicity of image – the gruff of a field beneath a smudged blue sky – inevitably invites scrutiny, and up close the complex grassland begins to disintegrate to something more akin to the tapering plaster of a wall than a waist high meadow.

Its blends come in pockmarked creases, the brushstrokes visible as they mingle. Every inch of the greenery feels worthy of interest as its subtle tones weave in and out, leading the audience’s eye with them. The grass here is dense and stubborn rather than flowing, almost concrete in its recalcitrance. It seems that no matter how hard you scour, it’s impossible to get past the first layer.  And it is here within this investigation that the true wonder of ‘July Fields’ is revealed, with two distinct halves emerge from the pasture.

As Manet famously said, ‘there are no lines in nature, only areas of colour, one against each other’, and here within July Fields we see a perfect demonstration of this collision. At the far right there being a more typical depiction, the greens deep and verdant, their flowers evoked as white wisps of flick on a leaning stem. Whilst at the left there holds a splodge of red on top of the brush, the sun perhaps, that seems to have dribbled down into the reeds as water.

Perhaps the impervious nature of July Fields works in its favour, as down here, as nature towers above, we feel relaxed, guarded. Free from the heat of July and able to singularly appreciate the sense of isolation that Eardley stubbled technique conjures.

Sea and Snow (1958)

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Caught amidst two marauding elements, the smiling inward curve of a shore appears battered between. Eardley’s painting is truly remarkable here, capable both of evoking the slushy drifts of snow on the sea, as well as the blistered browning rocks before the tide.

The foreshortened sky and indulgent coast pulls the image closer to us as viewers, giving a reduced distance to everything. Detail is sparse. And within the broad, gnarled strokes of the sky and the near translucent bluffs at the bottom right, Eardley presents a vague, cold world. A place in which the sea and the snow work to drain each other of definition, their interactions, such as the long streaks of turbulent white against the furthest point of the cliffs, marvels of layered discipline.

Similar to the earlier explored Raoul Dufy, Eardley seems to revel in the artifice of her work. There is no effort towards true mimicry (what are those pink streaks on the water for one?) rather an indulgence in the raw revelry of display.

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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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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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Odilon Redon (1840 – 1916)

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. 

All but unknown for the first fifty years of his life (a period in which the artist drew near exclusively in black and white), Odilon Redon came to fame with the publication of J.K Huysman’s celebrated novel A rebours in 1884. Typical of its decadent period, the book details the life of a perverse, disenchanted aristocrat who collects Redon’s paintings. He being drawn to them through their strange, amniotic creatures – designs themselves which would later bear influence on Edgar Allan Poe.

In his elder years the formally monomaniacal monochromist experimented widely with colour, heralded for his flower work from as high as Matisse. There is a wide gamut of mythic troubled emotions to be found here, Redon’s imagination as vibrant as his palette.

Breton Village (1890)

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There is no real extravagance on display here, yet ‘Breton Village’ is a disquieting, intriguing piece from the off. Amid its gentle hum of colour the world feels slightly apart from itself. A feeling fostered through the distant perspective that Redon employs. The namesake village not only shown squeezed above a tide of shrubbery and below vast, opaque sky – but from an exterior angle too. Through positioning the viewer at the end of the outcrop, Redon gives us no sense of the people to which the structures belong. Rather signalling just the hind slopes of the roofs, a pile of hay heating in a creviced intersection.

Across this all, the sun falls wonderfully, its reflections bright and true. Afore of the settlement the gruff brush is a masterful mix of visible, coarse strokes along with a fluid, dense technique that suggests threshing.

Life, from this angle at least then, seems free and easy. Yet the blistering heat evident would no doubt make labour punishing, so perhaps the sense of desertion is a sign of a sleep. The village is a curious place regardless: the road seemingly a tapering of the wilderness, the red shrub at the close right hand seeming to seethe.

Redon would’ve hated those last three paragraphs. He being the one after all claiming: ‘My drawings inspire, and are not to be defined. They place us, as does music, in the ambiguous realm of the undetermined’. Beyond all the analysis then, perhaps we should find ourselves within the image rather than critiquing outward. And as pretentious as that sounds, it feels possible with the odd invitation Breton Village extends.

Figure (1876)

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Just as the woman holds the disembodied head with the ease of drying washing, the sun behind feels similarly omnipotent. Its wide berth not only containing perfectly the guillotined top within its circle but covering the entirety of the background, doing away with any sense of the outward exterior perspective.

The head itself looks off with a wry, knowing intent. Its stern jaw detailed with an earthly simplicity, contours stern and strong as the holder’s own face is scrawled. With an alarming surety, the head gazes off beyond the image to elsewhere. She is not concerned with the situation, and suggests that neither should you be.

Rather the real marvel here is the palette of Figure, its dry, radiating heat that folds over the image with a wicked hue. Below the duo a crispy bracken falls. Seemingly glowing from within with an aureate display.

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