Modern Art in Berlin Pt. 2 (Berlinische Galerie- Berlin, Germany)

Hi everyone! I hope you enjoyed my previous post about modern German art at the Berlinische Galerie. As explained in my previous post, there is simply too much to say about this collection/topic to do it in one post. And so, I am analyzing key works from the collection in four increments. You can read Part 1 here.

Part 1 discussed the Berlin Secession and the Pre-War years. Today I am going to discuss a little-known work painted during World War I: Stürzender Engel, by Benno Berneis (1914). There is so little information about Berneis, we will have to use only our eyes and knowledge of historical context to make sense of this eerie painting.

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At the outbreak of war in 1914, the artist Benno Berneis painted Stürzender Engel (Falling Angel).

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For such an extraordinary painting, very little is known about its painter. Benno Berneis (1883-1916) was a German Jewish painter who served as a pilot in the First World War. He died in service in 1916. According to journalist Von Nicola Kuhn, from the German newspaper Tagesspiegel, Berneis’ work was exhibited with that of Lieberman and Matisse before the War. He was poised to follow in the footsteps of his fellow German Expressionists. Unfortunately, his death cut short what was sure to be an incredible career. Now we are left with a smaller collection, albeit a beautiful one. You can look at his other works on his website, which is run by his grandson, Michael Berneis. I have been struggling to find much academic information on the artist (in German OR English). Please let me know if you come across anything!

And so, in lieu of any academic information, we shall have to use our eyes and knowledge of historical context to sort through Stürzender Engel. Take another look at this beautiful painting:

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What stands out to you? The loveliness of the pastel color palette? The illusion of roundness on the canvas surface? The obfuscation of the figure’s face? The curious nature of the figure itself? How about the tree bending sideways- does your mind attempt to find the source of wind contorting its thin branches?

My mind tries first and foremost to make sense of the space. It is (relatively) clear to me that the tree stands on some sort of green hilltop. The curving nature of the earth next to the tree resembles rolling hills. Additionally, the green pigment coloring the hill becomes less saturated as it approaches the bottom of the canvas. Pinks and browns are introduced, and are blended with larger, swirling brushstrokes. Not sure what I mean? Here’s a detailed look at this part of the canvas:

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Note how the inch above the canvas is a wash of different colors, blended into an ambiguous mist. It is only as the eye rises up the canvas a couple inches that the brushstrokes fall into place and one can make out the appearance of a grassy mound. What results from Berneis’ manipulation of color and texture is the sensation of mist rising, clouding one’s view and understanding of the hilltop’s appearance. My extremely limited experience hiking has taught me that there is quite a lot of mist and fog at higher elevations. Atop the highest mountain in Arcadia National Park, I could see only a few feet in front of me due tot he immense amounts of fog. And so, decreased color saturation and the decreasing specificity of brushstrokes lead me to believe that this painting is situated at a very high altitude… and the drop-off from here is incredibly steep.

What sorts of things do you associate with being at a very high altitude? I think of Heaven, spirituality, isolation, pilgrimages, extreme weather, Mt. Everest and all the people who have died trying to climb it, Cloud Forest in Ecuador and my sister’s incredible experience there, and getting altitude sickness at Yellowstone National Park when I was 15. What all these associations have in common is a sense of otherness of which we are in awe. We look to the highest points on earth with a sense of amazement– for the people and creatures who inhabit them, and for their unique (and often dangerous) climates. For some, the way of life atop Earth’s highest points is so foreign that it accumulates otherworldly associations. Mountains in the sky become religious symbols. It is this angle that Benno Bernis took in painting Stürzender Engel (Falling Angel). The title immediately indicates a religious, or at least supernatural, perspective.

Because of our location atop a misty hilltop, close to the heavens, we are poised to watch the angel’s fall from grace right at the moment of its happening. Take a closer look at her exit from the clouds:

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The angel’s body is still touching the voluminous clouds from which she falls. What are we to make of her descent? Firstly, she is nude. Perhaps her stark nudity symbolizes the loss of her wings; without them, she is naked. She covers her head and face, as if in shame. Berneis has actually emphasized the hiding of her face by blurring the outlines of her forearms and her head until what remains is a mass of pink and yellow over the remnants of dark brown. I have to wonder if this signifies Berneis’ chastising of the angels’ actions, or the angel’s own anguish at her fall from grace.

I think it also bears noting that this angel’s fall is more of a graceful descent. She is not plummeting out of the empty sky. In fact, the cloud from which she is released bears likeness to a human hand. Its three-dimensionality, achieved through careful shading and use of light, provide the form a firmness not characteristic of vaporous clouds. It feels thick and soft to the viewer’s eye, like a human hand. If we take this to be true, whose hand is it? The hand of God? The hand of Fate? It is a kind hand, who carefully releases the angel, newly wingless, into the world.

It follow, then, to ask what the angel has done to merit her expulsion from Heaven. Here is where context plays an important role in visual analysis. Given the context of the years preceding WWI which I detailed in my previous post, and the fact that WWI erupted in 1914, it is impossible to separate this painting from the world in which it was born.

Angels are beings believed to be messengers of God. They are women of extraordinary virtue and moral conduct. For one to be expelled from Heaven, she would need to act in an immoral manner. In 1914, what would qualify as such? Perhaps the angel represents Berneis’ homeland, Germany, and her fall from grace, Germany’s descent into violence. Or perhaps the angel is Europe, in which case Berneis’ criticism of violence would incriminate all of the countries involved in the conflict.

I also wonder if Stürzender Engel (Falling Angel) could be making commentary on the effect of war on spirituality. If angels are God’s messengers, could it be that an angel’s fall represents the death of God’s ties with the human race? Had people finally reached a violence so evil that He no longer wished to communicate with them through His messengers? If this is the case, it would explain the delicate way in which the Hand releases the angel. Her fall is not a plummet; the effect of being thrown in disgust from Heaven. Her fall is a gentle, reluctant push, enacted by a remorseful hand. It seems that Benno Berneis wondered if mankind had reached a low so low that God no longer wished to have contact with people. And so, the angels were dismissed.

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I hope you enjoyed this analysis. It was exciting to dive headfirst into a work of art with no literature to bounce my ideas off of. This is a wonderful example of using visual analysis and historical context to understand a work of art. That is how accessible art is! All you need are your eyes. (And if you paid attention during history class, that is a tremendous plus…)

Until next time!

xoxo, Chloe ❤

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Modern Art in Berlin Pt. 1 (Berlinische Galerie- Berlin, Germany)

Hi everyone! It’s been a while since I last wrote. I’ve been super busy with my intensive German language class. (Es ist fantastisch!) But I’ve been meaning to get back in the game. I never quite finished blogging about my Euro Trip, specifically the museums I visited in Berlin. I really enjoyed the Berlinische Galerie. This museum explores the history of art specifically within the city of Berlin. Rather than discussing one of the special exhibitions I’d like to talk about the permanent collection, and how it reflects the history of Berlin.

I initially planned to discuss the entire permanent collection in one post, but I got so excited writing about the first two paintings that my word count quickly became quite high. And so, I’ve decided instead to break this post into increments. Part 1 examines two works: a painting by Ludwig van Hoffman from 1900 and one by Ludwig Meidner from 1912. The two demonstrate changing conditions and artistic trends in Germany during this vital 12 year period.

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Until the late 19th century, German art predominantly followed the artistic trends occurring in other European nations. The German states witnessed their own Renaissance (as part of the larger Northern Renaissance), and subsequently experienced developments in the Baroque, Rococo, and Neo-classicism. Romanticism found its way to Germany at the same time that it did to England, manifesting itself in a movement with distinctly German character. Think of Caspar David Friedrich, whose Wanderer Above the Sea of Fog evokes the grandeur of the German landscape while shielding the identity of its protagonist. Though the work is filled with tension, it’s undertones of civic duty and grandeur as well as its cleanly licked surface remain academic in nature.

It wasn’t until 1892, when a group of German artists in Berlin chose to secede from artistic conservatism, that German art took on a life of its own. The Berlin Secession, as it came to be called, was more about separation from academic art (the art exhibited in salons across Europe) than it was about specific visual trends. The Berlin Secession encompassed artists who dabbled in pointillism, symbolism, art nouveau, and naturalism.

The following is a painting entitled Abendsonne (Evening Sun), painted in 1900 by Ludwig van Hoffman.

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Note the softness in the brushstrokes that dot Abendsonne. Compare these to the smooth, almost invisible brushstrokes in Wanderer. Furthermore, note the figures’ state of undress. In classical academic painting, nudes are typically Venus figures or nymphs. In religious societies (such as the German States), these nude figures were not seen as German women. They were characters removed from the realities of human flesh and interpersonal interaction. Thus, their nudity was no threat to German morals and values, such as religion, chastity, and female modesty. In Abendsonne, van Hoffman has removed the Greek imagery associated with the acceptable female nude, and left in its place the realities of the naked woman. This unraveling of the myth of the female nude occurred in France several decades earlier. It is exciting to watch it be staged on the German canvas in 1900.

However, though the female figures in Abendsonne resemble actual German women bathing, they have still been awarded a decent degree of modesty. The two entirely naked figures are so far away in the middle-ground that the viewer cannot consume the specifics of their gender. They are also positioned so as to hide the most obvious aspects of their gender. The figure in the foreground holds a wad of fabric around her body as she walks to the water to join the other women. The positioning of this fabric is tantalizing to the viewer. Note the tiny brushstroke between her arm and her chest that indicates the slightest shadow on the side of her left breast. The shadows across her neck and sternum draw the viewer’s eye down her body until it stops, frustratingly, at the obfuscating folds of fabric.

Skin is not the only tantalizing aspect of Abendsonne. The play of light is as delicate and sensual as the shadows dancing across the figure’s skin. Notice how the flecks of yellow brushstrokes seem to rest daintily atop a path of green grass, or the length of a tree-branch. It is as if van Hoffman’s paintbrush were a finger grazing skin ever-so-lightly, leaving behind a bit of light with its touch. The lemony-yellow color of the light- the color of the evening sun- is sensual in nature and in its connotations. Soon the yellow will turn to darkness, and we will lose all view of the naked women. This is our last moment to view them, and to consume them.

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The second painting I’d like to examine is a work from Ludwig Meidner’s “Apocalyptic Paintings” series, which he began in 1912 and completed just before the outbreak of the First World War. 12 years had past since van Hoffman painted the sensual Abendsonne. Life in Berlin had changed, and this was reflected in the work of the city’s artists. Take a look at this Apocalyptic Painting before reading more about the painting’s context.

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In 1882, Germany, Austria-Hungary, and Italy signed the Triple Alliance in order to ensure European allies during their personal quests for land acquisition. Additionally, Germany had only been officially unified as a nation-state in 1871. It was eager to solidify its place on the map of Europe with strong allies- specifically ethnically related allies.

In 1894, the Franco-Russian Alliance was signed in response to the Triple Alliance. It signaled the deterioration of both Franco-German and Russo-German relations. Further alliances were formed as the 20th century plodded forward, indicating growing animosity between Germany and the rest of Europe. The Franco-Italian Agreement in 1902, the Entente Cordial in 1904, the Anglo-Russian Agreement in 1907, The Russo-Italian Agreement in 1909, and the Anglo-French Naval Agreement in 1912 gradually tied together all of Germany’s enemies. This made the Germans very uneasy. The forging of military alliances kept everyone on their toes– the possibility of violence was on the horizon.

Other factors contributed to the strengthening of political and military divides in Europe.  The first Moroccan Crisis (1905) involved the German Kaiser intervening in North Africa to declare his support for the Sultan of newly-independent Morocco. This move was intended to drive a wedge between France and England, whose colonial disputes had a long, long history, but instead brought the two countries together AGAINST GERMANY.

A second Moroccan Crisis, as well as the involvement of the Great Powers in the Balkan Wars, deepened animosity between nation-states.

AND SO, now that you have an understanding of the political situation in Germany between the painting of Abendsonne and Apocalyptic Painting, are you surprised at the differences between the two?

Here is Apocalyptic Painting once more:

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Note the darker color palette. The sky is filled with blacks, greys, and dark blues. The people are a wash of black and maroon clothing. The yellow hills are tinged with a putrid shade of green and a corrosive black to indicate shadows- and perhaps evil itself.

The brushstrokes are much thicker as well. Take a look at this detail that demonstrates the three-dimensional quality of Meidner’s brushstrokes:

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Thicker brushstrokes make it more difficult for the artist to render realistic-looking faces. However, their capacity for emotional expressivity is greater. Globs of paint mottle the countryside, allowing its destruction to be rendered more emotionally than realistically. Instead of a naturalist interpretation of what a field ablaze looks like, Meidner’s painting presents the sensation of one’s home being destroyed. Thick wads of paint render the landscape more and more unrecognizable until it takes on a creepy, garish character of its own. A yellow hill one used to sit on in summertime now looks evil due to its sickly green overtones and sharpened outline.

Thick brushstrokes also allow Meidner to simplify human expression, leaving behind the purest of human emotion while eliminating the anecdotal detail of individuality. Note the two women at the foreground of this detail. The woman on the right has been pared down to her wide eyes and outstretched hands. These two glowing orbs on the front of her face embody the essence of fear. Her hands, clutching each other and stretched in front of her face, reflect man’s last human protective instinct. As if putting her hands in front of her could possibly protect her from what is to come.

Lastly, I’d like to spend some time on Meidner’s attention to space. How is the landscape’s sense of perspective constructed? No plane stands entirely horizontally. The foreground, middle ground, and background blend into one another due to Meidner’s use of curving, diagonal, and intersecting lines. These lines disrupt the viewer’s attempt to separate what is near from what is far. They ignore the rules of physics, swooping from the top of a mountain to a crowd of huddled figures in the span of two inches. Because the surface of the painting is uneven for its own inhabitants, the viewer’s experience of Apocalyptic Painting is equally vertigo-inducing.

The destruction of perspective contributes directly to the painting’s sense of chaos. There is nothing more terrifying than one’s trusted sense of the universe being upended. In Apocalyptic Painting, the end of the world is symbolized by the literal implosion of the earth.

And so, what are we to make of the fact that Meidner painted Apocalyptic Painting BEFORE World War I? He would later explain that he had the gift of foresight, but I would argue that he had the gift of observation. He recognized the tensions rising in Germany due to external political and military conditions. He understood the implications of these conditions and their likely culmination in war.

…But I think there’s more. In Apocalyptic Painting, the world is not simply coming to an end. The ground beneath the people’s feet is caving in. This suggests an internal collapse rather than an external bombardment. It makes the apocalypse personal, even implying oneself in the fact of its existence. Perhaps Meidner had not only the gift of observation, but the (truly rare) gift of self-criticism. Could he have looked objectively at Germany’s growth since 1871, its political and military decisions, rapid industrialization, and the discomfort of its people, and wondered if Germany itself would play a role in its own downfall?

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What do you think about the vast differences between Abendsonne and Apocalyptic Painting? How much of their differences do you attribute to personal style and how much to changing political and military conditions in Europe? Can you even separate personal style FROM the artist’s context? (That question keeps me up at night). Let me know! And keep an eye out for the next post about the Berlinische Galerie. I’ll be highlighting works painted during the Great War.

Additionally, I am very curious about Ludwig van Hoffman and how his art may or may not have developed in the 20th century. I will likely head to the Met Library soon to do some research. Let me know if you have any books or articles about him you recommend.

Until next time!

xoxo,

Chloe ❤

Jana Euler: High In Amsterdam. The Sky Of Amsterdam (The Stedelijk Museum- Amsterdam)

Hi everyone!

Thanks for checking out CanvasAndCrumpets.  As you may know, I just got back from my Euro Trip and I’ve been posting about the exhibits I saw in order. I recently posted about three different exhibitions I saw in England. You can check them out here, here, and here. After a week of museuming and eating bangers and mash with my English cousins, I flew to the Netherlands.  On my flight I was seated in the middle of a large bachelor party, next to the groom-to-be-himself. If you have the chance to travel with a very drunk bachelor party you absolutely must take it because it was the best flight I’ve ever had. There was also a large party of middle-aged-women wearing shirts that said “F*** off, I’m with the birthday boy” and a rather emo looking high school student wearing a shirt that said “F*** off, I’m the birthday boy.” All of the women were screaming.

And so, I arrived in Amsterdam slightly tipsy and very excited. The city did not disappoint (as always!) At the absolute top of my list was a trip to the Stedelijk Museum. The Stedelijk is where I fell in love with Dutch art, and where I did much of my research for my senior thesis. I’m obsessed with the art, the building, the library, and the now deceased museum director Willem Sandberg. (I’m currently reading a compilation of Sandberg interviews).

On view at the Stedelijk right now is the exhibition, “Jana Euler: High in Amsterdam. The Sky of Amsterdam.” While it is difficult to read that sentence without immediately thinking of Dutch drug policy, it would be remiss to read off the German artists’ trippy canvases as mere mushroom-inspired dreamscapes. Euler’s works are explorations of different genres. She takes the concepts and strategies associates with each and plays with them, bending them inside-out. The Stedelijk describes Euler’s work as being “recognizable not by how it looks, but by its effect.” Let’s take a look at my favorite work from this show and see Euler’s process in action.

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Here is the ethereal Understanding Doubts and Logic (2017):

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For this work Euler airbrushed acrylic paint onto the surface of the canvas and then used oil paint on top. The two layers operate as separate paintings as well as aspects of a finished whole. The airbrushed layer features a multi-limbed and multi-breasted female figure resting in a garden filled with flowers. The oil layer features shoes, nail polish, and fake eyelashes. If you look closely, you’ll also see that there are tiny pictures of men sitting at a table with a bottle of wine painted in thin brushstrokes of oil paint. Stranger yet is the fact that white breastmilk from each of the figure’s many breasts pours into the bottles at the men’s tables. Oil is also used to spell the phrase “understanding doubts and logic” and to connect this phrase to a yellow sun by way of a thin yellow line.

Now, I have a lot of thoughts about this painting and what it might “mean.” So I’ll begin by saying that Jana Euler’s work is not explicitly symbolic. It does not fit into an allegorical box that matches icon with signification. Rather, it suggests a multiplicity of signification for various images across the canvas. It points to potential interpretations without maintaining that it must be read a specific way. And so, my reading should be seen as one angle of many that fit Euler’s multifaceted work.

I see Understanding Doubts and Logic as a blend of two genres: the female nude, and the sort of impressionistic cafe paintings that were popular in late 19th-century Parisian art. The airbrushed painting is the nude, as the naked figure takes up the majority of the canvas. Her head heads several inches below the top of the canvas, and her many feet end slightly before it, or have their toes chopped off by the bottom of the canvas. Because she fills the canvas, the focus of the painting is on her. The viewer’s eyes are free to travel across the surface of the painting, consuming different parts of her body at every turn. We as viewers fill the role of the voyeur in the relationship between viewer and subject in this genre. Euler is keenly aware of this dynamic and playfully mocks it by multiplying the subject’s breasts. Euler seems to be saying, “I know you’re going to look at this woman, so why don’t I give you a lot more to look at!” The artist has also multiplied the amount of feet in the painting. I find this very amusing, as it is clear to all that feet were never the focus of the viewer’s gaze.

Another way that Euler plays into this genre is through the figure’s gaze. In classic female nudes like this and this the female figure looks away from the viewer, allowing him to consume her without confrontation. Making eye contact would break the illusion that she wants to be consumed and is there for male consumption. She would be individualized. No longer staring at an anonymous doll, the viewer would feel confronted by the figure and embarrassed by his blatant ogling. And so, restricting eye contact allows the viewer to consume the figure in peace. Like the academic nudes do, Euler’s figure looks away demurely, allowing the viewer to get lost in her multitude of breasts and legs.

However, the longer we stare at the figure, the more we begin to feel that we are being made fun of. Not only has Euler multiplied the significance of the figure’s gender through the multiplication of breasts, but she has also aggressively emphasized other aspects of femininity. The long, curling eyelashes added over the airbrushed layer of paint are so ludicrously long it would be difficult for the figure to open her eyes. There are many kiss imprints haphazardly stamped on the surface of the painting. The figure’s red fingernails are half the size of her fingers themselves. Her breasts are many different colors, as if the figure is somehow able to be many ethnicities at once and therefore satisfy the male viewer’s many racial fantasies. Euler has created a woman who screams “WOMAN” so loudly that she becomes a parody of what the voyeuristic male wants– and expects– women to be.

This interpretation is supported by the second layer of the painting that I find resembles the cafe scenes in impressionistic France. Men outlined in black paint sit around a table drinking from proportionally enormous bottles of wine. I am reminded of 19th century cafe scenes because of the leisurely, gendered nature of each tableau. I find it comical that the female figure has been so artfully constructed with layers of paint and bright, vibrant colors, while the males are designated to mere outlines of form. While painterly attention to the female body is often objectifying, Euler’s self-conscious multiplication of gendered body parts is actually empowering. Thus, the contrast between the colorful female figure and the haphazard outlines of teeny male figures renders the male characters inferior. Euler further emasculates them by unknowingly serving them wine bottles filled with breastmilk. Droplets of white paint spill from each nipple into a bottle on each table. This is perhaps the most amusing aspect of this painting. Euler has taken the sexist notion that a woman’s role is as a wife and mother alone and used it to turn the power dynamic between men and women on its head. The men are infantilized by their small size, simplistic depiction, and the hysterical fact that they are drinking a woman’s breastmilk.

Here are Lara (my travel pal) and I, very amused at this:

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So what do we take away from Understanding Doubts and Logic? I quite like the interpretation I just presented, though I am not sure how the title fits in. Perhaps the female creature, whose forehead bears this phrase, is somehow all-knowing in her female genius. She can understand both the understandable and what we doubt we can comprehend. I come away from this painting feeling empowered and amused. Euler has turned gender dynamics on their head with a coy smile. Her belittling depiction of men is not a statement that women are actually superior, but a commentary on the way the reverse is so prevalent in our society.

I recently read Malcolm Gladwell’s David and Goliath. The point of this book is that the so-called weaknesses attributed to underdogs are actually qualities that give them an advantage against their opponent. Euler has taken the “weaknesses” of women that the patriarchy attributes to the “fairer gender” and turned them into symbols of power. Breastmilk and long eyelashes signify greatness and strength.

Until next time!

xoxo,

Chloe ❤