blending an assortment of thoughts and experiences for my friends, relations and kindred spirit

blending an assortment of thoughts and experiences for my friends, relations and kindred spirit
By Alison Hobbs, blending a mixture of thoughts and experiences for friends, relations and kindred spirits.

Thursday, January 8, 2015

The Expressionists

We took the train to Montreal on January 1st, in the evening, eating a tasty meal on board. I enjoyed every minute of that ride.

Kandinsky's expressionist painting of an "Arabian cemetery"
The next morning, Chris and I were among the first visitors of the day to the Musée des Beaux Arts on Sherbrooke Street, to visit the Van Gogh to Kandinsky exhibition there. We did very well to arrive early because an hour or so later the queue for tickets had extended outside the building and the queue to hand in coats at the cloakroom snaked right across the foyer too. It is one of the best art exhibitions I've ever seen; its last day will be Sunday, January 25th, and I'm wondering whether I'll have the chance to go again before it closes. I've no objection to the impressionists––Monet is my favourite––but the subsequent painters' reaction against that style, expressionism, excites me more; it seems to me this was a sturdier art form and had more to say. It certainly used brighter colours!

Paris in 1900 was known by artists as the ville lumière, and there, at the Café du Dôme on the Boulevard du Montparnasse more often than not, French and German painters (and some Americans and Russians) would gather to inspire one another and live their risqué lives. They called themselves the dômiers.

Girl with Flower Vases by Modersohn-Becker
Van Gogh (who painted 25 self-portraits), Georges Seurat (who died young), Gauguin and Cézanne were the painters who influenced the expressionist movement. As young men, Signac, Veuillard, Luce, Cross, van Rysselberghe of Belgium and Amiet of Swizterland all imitated the "dotty" paintings of Seurat. In the 1890s, Gauguin was trying to develop his distinctive style and experimenting with juxtapositions of colour in his depiction of landscapes in the Pont-Aven area of Brittany, but then he announced his determination to live and die in Tahiti instead and set off for the South Seas, never to return. There were some paintings from his self-imposed exile in the exhibition and a note on how he chose to align orange with blue, red with green, yellow with violet, in his work. An aspirant artist named Paula Modersohn-Becker who'd grown up in Bremen moved to Dresden and thence to Paris. Her Girl with Flower Vases was very like a Gauguin. She too died young. The German artists Max Pechstein and Emil Nolde followed Gauguin to the South Seas.

Schmidt-Rottluff's early paintings were very similar to those by Van Gogh. If there's one thing I learned from this exhibition it is how closely allied were the French and German artists, in those days. The First World War put an end to their collaboration, of course.

My husband was very taken by the paint slapped on the nude by Christian Rohlfs (1911).

Vlaminck, taking a look at Van Gogh, liberated himself from conventional colour schemes and burst out with paintings, for example, of orange, red and blue fields. As a focal point, a farmer in the fields was given a bright green shirt.

The group known as the Fauves (wild ones), formed in 1905––Kandinsky and his lover Gabriele Münter, Braque, Vlaminck, Dufy, Manguin and company, congregated at Murnau in the Alps, where the sky was a deep blue and the houses bright with colour (they painted deep blue or dark green shadows for contrast). Gabriele Münter's Wind and Clouds catches the mountain wind in motion, almost blowing the houses over. Dérain paints pink hills, and back in Paris his vivid boats at Chatou on the Seine are set in white water.

Modjesko's transvestite "soprano"
Dodo, by Kirchner
In 1905 four Bohemian artists in their 20s got together to form Die Brücke, in Dresden. The gallery displaying their work in Montreal this month is a memorable one, with provocative images of a greenish nude by Kirchner and Heckel's yellow 10-year old nude with red hair, clutching a doll. Apparently the study of African masks had influenced the way these artists painted their models' faces. Then there was Kirchner's Dodo with a Feather Hat, strongly outlined with her yellowish face framed with dark greens and blue, black and red. Kees van Dongen obviously wanted to shock the bourgeoisie with his painting of Girlfriends––a lesbian kiss between a fashionably fully clothed woman and a naked girl, very daring for those days––or of Modjesko, a portrait of a "soprano singer" who is actually a man in drag. The Purple Garter (1910) is an image of a girl wearing black stockings and nothing else, surrounded by blue / red shadows, streaks of green on her face. Kirchner's street scene in Berlin features prostitutes and their rich clients, its colours limited to pink, turquoise, purple, indigo and white.

Marquet: Beach Scene
Next to those, the landscapes seem refreshingly innocent, a Beach Scene by Marquet, with its unfinished look and limited range of colours, seeming to anticipate innumerable paintings by the Canadian artist David Milne. 

Matisse was asked to join die Brücke, but declined the invitation. As opposed to the impressionists, he set much store by linearity and form. Like Gauguin he loved experimenting with the juxtaposition of complimentary colours and like the young Germans he created vivid nudes, such as a bright pink one. Cézanne was another post-impressionist painter believing that the essence of things is in their structure. His apples and biscuits (imitated in another painting, by Dufy) seem startlingly 3-dimensional, but his Paysan en blouse bleue is the painting I'll remember best: done in 1897, it's the portrait of a farm worker from Cézanne's family estate in Provence, a dignified, contemplative, solidly real person.

Red Eiffel Tower by Delaunay
Sleeping Woman by Feinzinger
The following generation veered towards abstraction. Kalmweiler opened a gallery in Paris showing work by the fauves and the "cubists"––Delaunay's Red Eiffel Tower, for instance. Picasso (copied by Metzinger), Bracque and Marc created new angles, but the most angular paintings of all seem to have been done by the German-American Feinzinger: an extraordinary Bridge picture of 1913 that I wasn't allowed to photograph, and a sleeping woman with green skin.

Canada's Group of Seven picked up a good many of these styles, but that was later. As a young man Lawren Harris had studied in Berlin, which must have given him ideas.

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