Wednesday, April 13, 2016

Norske artister I: Rolf Nesch

I first came across the work of artist Rolf Nesch twenty years ago, in a printmaking manual that was lying around the studio of my etching teacher in London. Recently I saw images of his work online while I was searching for something else, and when I looked at more of his work, I was blown away by it.

Nesch was actually a German, born in 1893. He fought in WWI, was considered as one of the German Expressionist painters, and only moved to Norway after the Nazis assumed power in Germany in the early 1930s. Unfortunately for Nesch, and the Norwegian people, Hitler followed him north less than a decade later. But that's another story.

It was in Norway that Nesch came into his own as an artist, mainly in the area of printmaking. He was one of the first people to experiment with collagraph, the technique of making printing plates either out of found materials or by gluing objects to a surface (then inking and printing them). You could just lift the first ten images from a Google image search, and find something beautiful and striking in each one of them. There are etchings that have a dreamy, Chagall-like quality:


There are collagraphs that combine stylised figures with bold, graphic shapes and colours:


And, of course, his heavyweight collagraphs:


These were made from pieces of cut and shaped steel, and which required layering the plates with up to eight felt blankets before they could be rolled through the printing press (in order for the steel rollers of the press to press the paper into the plate without either tearing the paper or damaging the roller). There is a great video on YouTube showing how Nesch did this:



Nesch became a Norwegian citizen in 1946, and a museum dedicated to his work opened in Oslo in 1993. If I ever make it back to Norway, I will make sure to visit and enjoy this master-printmaker's work up close.

Thursday, March 24, 2016

At the Musee Picasso, IV


For this visit, it's back to Picasso's printmaking. Several of the rooms on the upper floor of the museum have samples of Picasso's linocuts, including a few of the blocks themselves. The print show above is one of his reduction linocuts, a process that he invented, and which entails printing several colours from one block by successively cutting away portions of the block between colour runs. I actually teach classes using this process, and it usually produces great results.

The blocks show below are not reduction, but two blocks used for a four colour print, with an easy dividing line produced by the wavy line between hills and sky:



I notice something that carries over from his etchings: there is a freedom of mark-making, and a refusal to be afraid of simplicity, that lends itself particularly well to the creation of an image using a soft material like linoleum.


Thursday, March 10, 2016

At the Musee Picasso, III


In the previous post in this series, I talked about the displays of Picasso's cubist, or immediately pre-cubist, era sketchbooks that are displayed at the Musee Picasso in Paris. What you also see from the many personal items on show is that Picasso used anything that was at hand as a thing to draw on. In the photo above, a Cubist sketch of two faces appears on the back of an insurance policy. An interesting biographical side note: this is probably from around 1910, certainly pre-1914, and although Picasso didn't leave the bohemian world of Montmartre for good until 1913, he was clearly earning enough by now, and amassing enough worldly goods, that he felt the need to have something as un-bohemian and positively bourgeois as an insurance policy.

I'm also amused by the fact that the policy covers damage to or accidents involving "automobiles and velocipedes."

Monday, March 7, 2016

Six of the Best, Part 36: Lynn Neuman

Part 36 of an interview series in which artists reply to the same six questions. Today's respondent is Lynn Neuman, a Chicago artist who makes Realist paintings that are nevertheless densely filled and overlaid with abstractly observed spaces. Her work is currently on show at Open House Contemporary Gallery, Chicago, through the end of March 2016.

Between Us, oil on linen, 40" x 66"
PH: What medium/media do you chiefly use, and why?

LN: I love working with oil. I start by mixing a palette of fresh paint, usually a gray scale and any other colors I need. I get into a rhythm that relaxes me and eases any fears about approaching the canvas. I enjoy creating luminous, lifelike qualities that emerge from the development of translucent layers over time. A few weeks before my recent solo show, I tried to complete one more piece. It was a painting that I'd been planning to return to for a while. There were several structural elements to figure out and it required 2 - 3 more layers of paint and a week to dry in between each one. To keep myself from freaking out, I calculated how much time I had, solved the compositional issues, fixed the hardest parts first and worked from the outside in. Why didn’t I paint in acrylics, I started asking myself – my inner critic becoming louder and more persistent. That would have been smarter. How else can you work on a deadline? With only a couple days to spare, I finished the painting and transported it wet to the gallery. “Did I smell oil on that painting?” one friend asked at the opening. “Yes, yes you did – and I’m sticking with it.”

PH: What piece are you currently working on?

LN: I'm starting a new piece in a series that reflects the interplay of life in urban centers and the connections between people. It's about the space between being together and being alone, interior and exterior, and movement and stillness. I'm interested in capturing the dynamic moments where unlikely visual and compositionally rich scenes come together. I want to give the viewer pause and something to consider in what might have been an overlooked moment.

Through and Through, oil on canvas, 30" x 48"
PH: What creative surprises are happening in the current work?

LN: After a long detour, I’ve been bringing storytelling and the figure back in my paintings.  My early work was mostly figurative. In college, I’d trek back to campus on Saturdays just to take extra life drawing sessions. Nerdy, yes… the art school version. When I was developing my skills as a painter, my training largely came from an intensive portraiture seminar. Although I was intrigued by what I had learned, I promptly did a 180 to focus exclusively on landscapes. As I’ve evolved from natural to urban scenes, the figure has come back into the picture and it feels more complete to have returned to my roots.

PH: What other artistic medium (or non-artistic activity) feeds your creative process?

LN: International travel. When I put myself in a completely new environment, I'm forced to see things differently and to consider everything with a fresh perspective. In returning home, my outlook is changed. The familiarity of my daily routine holds new possibility. I look at the same experiences and objects with new eyes, with new insight.

When I’m painting music plays a big role. I usually start the day with classical and progress into other genres from there. When I get stressed, I listen to opera pretty much nonstop.

Together Alone, oil on canvas, 30" x 60"
PH: What's the first ever piece of art you remember making?

LN: I was babysitting when I was 16, and after the kids went to sleep, I sat on the floor of their parents’ bedroom and made a drawing based on a piece of art depicting two lovers. Later that week I spent hours recreating it from the initial sketch. I planned to give it to my new boyfriend for Valentine’s Day, only, it felt too personal. Instead, I folded it up and carried it around for weeks, until I had the courage to give him the crumpled drawing. A couple years later I started drawing again, took my first serious art course during the summer at DAAP and then transferred into the University of Michigan art school in the Fall. Looking back, I recognize the curiosity and focus I had while making that drawing as my first real work of art.

PH: Finally, and you can answer this in any way that's meaningful to you: why are you an artist?

LN: I'm an artist because I'm intrigued by life and the visual language that we use to communicate. I’m fascinated by color, composition and by the process itself. Producing something from the way I take in and experience the world around me, is essential for my sense of joy and purpose. I think that everything we experience in life is there in the creation of art. Often developing a work requires us to be brave. Often we feel lost and have no idea where to go or how to solve a problem. There are times when the lines and forms lead us, and inform what to do next. It takes an incredible amount of honesty and clear-eyed critique to get to the point where a body of work feels complete. There are things you don't want to admit you have to change because it's going to be a huge pain, but you realize that you have to do it. There is passion, hardship, love and self-doubt in the making of art. I enjoy this period of exploration, of existing with a developing work until the time when it's finished and has a life of its own.

If you liked this interview, and you'd like to keep up to date with the series, why not Subscribe, or sign-up via Google Connect, using one of the options over on the right? Thanks, and keep creating.

Tuesday, March 1, 2016

At the Musee Picasso, Part II


The Musee Picasso in Paris displays many drawings and works on paper, including sketchbooks from about the time he was working on the Demoiselles d'Avignon, that is 1907. The pencil drawing, above, looks like it might be of the peasant Fontedevila, whom Picasso used as a model when he and Fernande Olivier stayed at Gosol, a Pyrennean village, in 1906. In all of the drawings at this time, we can see how Picasso was striving obsessively to simplify the figure into geometric shapes, in an attempt to synthesize what he saw in African sculptures and in Cezanne's painting "Bathers."


When we are now so used to this way of depicting the human figure. when this work by Picasso has been overtaken by so many cycles of art, we find it difficult to imagine how ground-breaking this was back in the early 1900s. Picasso himself was unsure of what he was doing, and he certainly received little encouragement from dealers, who wanted him to stick with the sentimental paintings of the Blue Period.


I really like the way Picasso used his sketchbook on these pages (above), overlaying pencil drawings with ink drawings, then drawing over those with a heavier purple ink. That herringbone pattern seems to be a flower shape, perhaps. Certainly something that represents a complete contrast to the problem of the figure that he was working out at the same time.

Thursday, February 25, 2016

At the Musee Picasso, Part I


One of the first things to catch my eye at the Musee Picasso in Paris was this: the actual copper plate for his etching Weeping Woman, derived from the great painting of the same name. They also had proof prints taken from the plate:


It's rare to see the actual copper plates (often because they are supposed to be scored with a big 'X' at the end of en edition, and destroyed). so this was a treat for a printmaker such as what I am. My first thought as to why the plate is so dark: the final layer of ink or resist was left on the plate in the 1940s, and it's hardened over the years. But maybe it was steel-faced, a process that prolongs the life of a copper etching (because copper is a soft metal and wears down much more quickly than steel.)

What's great about seeing the plate is how close you get to the process of creation, as you can see every etched line, and engraved line, and ragged fuzzy drypoint line:


You also get a real sense of the force of Picasso's hand as he gouged all those winding lines deep into the surface of the plate. Especially in close-up, you can see how varied the width of the lines are, and how playful and improvised the drawing is.

Tuesday, February 23, 2016

I slept in Van Gogh's bedroom


Actually, a recreation of the famous bedroom from the Yellow House in Arles, which Van Gogh rented in 1888. The Art Institute of Chicago created an exact replica of the second 'bedroom' painting in a condo in Chicago, as a publicity stunt for their exhibition Van Gogh's Bedrooms -- and I was invited to be the second person to stay in the room overnight. I'm writing an article about it for Hyperallergic. (UPDATE: Here is the link to the published article: Inside Van Gogh's Bedroom.) Meanwhile, this happened:

A photo posted by Hyperallergic (@hyperallergic) on

Monday, February 15, 2016

Six Graves

The last two times that I've taught in Paris, I've been very fortunate in renting an apartment just a few minutes south of the Cimitiere du Montparnasse. It isn't as spectacular as Pere Lachaise, but for a relatively small rectangle of land it contains the graves of dozens of interesting artists, politicians, historians, actors and actresses, and more. Some will be more well known to French people than foreigners, but in the course of quite a few walks across the cemetery during my recent trip, I either sought out or stumbled upon the following graves.

Piero Crommelynck
Piero Crommelynck, along with his brother Aldo, ran a printmaking atelier in Montparnasse for more than half a century. Clients included Braque, Picasso, Arp, Hockney, Salle, Dine. As I've mentioned several times on this blog, my etching teacher worked in their studio for a time in the 1980s. So only a small number of people in the world (the tiny world of the history of printmaking) might feel their heart leap when they find this grave -- but I'm one of them.

Jean Seberg
The American actress Jean Seberg, who starred in Jean Luc Godard's 1960 Nouvelle Vague masterpiece Au Bout du Souffle. The pebbles have been placed around an old movie magazine showing stills from that film. I noticed that the grave had fresh flowers every few days.

Chaim Soutine
The great painter Chaim Soutine, who lived in Montparnasse for the longest time. It took a hell of a long time to find this grave, because I didn't expect this eastern european Jewish immigrant to be buried in a grave with a crucifix on it. For my photo, I found the most Soutine-like drawing in my sketchbook and placed it next to the grave.

Sartre and de Beauvoir
Jean Paul Sartre and Simone de Beauvoir, buried in a joint tomb. Her apartment overlooks the eastern side of the cemetery.
Georges Auric
The composer Georges Auric. An obscure choice, perhaps, but I know his music a little bit through his association with Les Six, a group of French 20th century composers that included Satie and Poulenc, and his scores for films by Jean Cocteau.

Brassai
And Brassai, the great photographer and denizen of Montparnasse who was friends with and photographed Picasso, Matisse, Henry Miller, Giacommetti, and whose shots of everyday life on the streets of Paris are part of our mental picture of the city from sixty to seventy years ago.

I don't know why I like graveyards so much. Maybe it's because they are always an oasis of greenery in the most urban of neighbourhoods. There's no special aura or magic that emanates from these graves, or anything like that. But if recognizing a name causes us to think even for a minute about a painting they did, a book they wrote, or a moment from their life, I think it creates another small link in the chain of memories that keeps our civilization going.

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