Harriet Backer (1845 – 1932)

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

Throughout the writing of this blog I have always been on the lookout for new artists to add to my sprawling bullet point list. Rather than picking one of those for today however, I chose to randomise the whole thing, to grab a female artist from Norway for no other reason than that she is a female artist from Norway. Her name is Harriet Backer, and from what I can gather from her scant Wikipedia page, she was a pioneer. An Impressionist best known for her detailed, moodily lit interiors.

Scanning through Backer’s work myself however, I found a motif that feels more worthy of acclaim. As in a large amount of Backer’s images there comes a distinct sense of absorption solely within the moment, a sensation that holds the viewer’s gaze as still as the image that it forms part of.

To barn og tregruppe (1885)

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The young couple are at first all but forgotten before the dense shadow of the bulging tree. The tops a distinct  golden in the clear sky glare; the middle branches however coming together much tighter, suggestive more of a hideaway with its gentle, streamed shade.

Backer rushes the tree with a great varying intensity of green, her mostly horizontal brushwork works well in creating a sense of the tree’s threshing movement. Its shadows too are thoughtful in their accuracy, the divide of the top canopy casting the jagged designs behind the boy & girl especially well.

A duo whose own duality is mirrored & emphasized throughout ‘To barn og treguppe’. On the left of the image for example we have a rich band of light untouched by the foliage, its own stark intensity placing into focus the heft of the trees cover. On the right we have the civilized, beaten track leading back up to the titular farm – the couple in a sense then are caught both between and beneath, as above the tree itself seems as if it were cleaved between.

Ultimately, this subtle symmetry of Backer’s gives the painting a calming, pleasing effect, mirroring the lost Norwegian summers day that it evokes so well.

Storebor Spiller (1890)

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At the heart of this painting there is a three way split of attention. Initially there is the pianist herself, she who is clearly engaged deeply with her own playing. Her slightly flurried hand sneaking between the left elbow suggestive of some great intensity. Whatever she is playing matters less than how clearly it has caught the young girl beside her.

Anyone who has ever witnessed a familiar in such close quarters as they play music cannot help but be that girl – one who may have even rose from her chair against the window listening to now being perched, watching. Her eyes strictly on the playing rather than merely engaging with the reverie. The dormant violin on lid could be a signal to a teacher perhaps, but the informal nature in which the girl rests her arms and fingers above the keys suggest someone more closely known.

Then above these two who are engulfed in their own raptures, there is us. Ourselves straining at this slow, quiet moment. One that engages so deeply through Backer’s aforementioned interiors. The lush imagining lends a great heaviness to the painting. The lamps on the piano intermingle with the night outside, as well as splitting like an orange in the sheen of the instrument.

Enjoy reading that? Click HERE to see a list of all the art analyses on Kweiseye to date.

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Gustav Klimt (1862 – 1918)

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 painter of great delicacy and sexual expression, Gustav Klimt’s more subdued works are often unfairly maligned in favour of his glorious, erotic paeans. The Austrian Symbolist came of age during an era of artistic revival within his native Vienna, a time when the word ‘modernism’ first emerged and the decadent was something outwardly conscious rather than inwardly repressed.

Avenue of Trees, Schloss Kammer (1912)

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The swirling, hypnotic painting technique of this piece comes with such a vivid smoothness that it seems as if ‘Avenue of Trees, Schloss Kammer’ is still drying 113 years later. Its layering is both remarkable and believable, the hidden sun above gilding the canopy leaves with a triumphant contrast of colours. Whilst Klimt had painted this summer holiday Salzkammergut home many times before, it was here, through an intelligent, thoughtful application of perspective, that the he really achieves something of note.

At the left the trees come away as individuals, all curving in someway to a collective middle above the tempting path before us. Whilst at the right, the trunks are much closer, leering inward and liquid, suggesting perhaps that this is a turning around a corner rather than straight facing view. The feeling here then is slightly secretive, of something unattainable. A thought propelled further by the mere glimpses Klimt affords us through the branches. Not only is there a path leading to hints of a building on the ground – the door itself tantalisingly leading on further – but higher up, in the reaches of the thatched trees, we see signals to somewhere else altogether, the sky. By mirroring these two pathways, Klimt compounds the sense of being afar from this home, of being held back and stationed as observer.

This matters little however, because beneath these gnarled boughs is really were you want to stay staring. Up top the detail is entrancing, the knotted arms of bark not just behaving as one but blending believable to a thick dense thatching of a healthy, interesting green. The wet oils work well too against the background solidity of the house, creating a formidable sense of wonder and intrigue from what is effectively a commonplace occurrence. It is Klimt’s expressionistic leanings so prominent here that charge the image with an indelible magic.

‘Mermaids’ (1899)

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Stripped to their pure fundamentals, these nymphs are less Ariel and more Rene Magritte – see here for an earlier analysis of his disturbing fish-woman hybrid piece, ‘Collective Invention’ . The depth of the ocean is as different too, its fathoms feeling more akin to an unfinished plaster on a wall than the usual bubbling backdrop. Its gasped, scratches of paint, along with the odd scorches of white that fire parallel near the top, pushing our eye forward to the odd, unsettling creatures.

They lurk almost as standing rather than floating and seem to hover up formless, coating the picture with unease. These are not long enticing bodies with piscine leanings then, rather these are abstract shapes to which female faces seem to have emerged as if gathering breath. The two profiles should be commended seperate in their detail, the taller one aloof and looking outward off the canvas to some victim perhaps more important than us, the other more lackadaisical, her coiffed fringe near indistinguishable from its spotted shape.

Enjoy reading that? Click HERE to see a list of all the art analyses on Kweiseye to date.

To keep up with the blog and all the art I write about, follow me right here on this blog or here @tomkweipoet

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