Death and dissolving boundaries – Morandi, Klimt, Dix

Experiencing both the dying of a friend and of a colleague this summer, reminded me of Morandi’s paintings during the last few years of his life.

Morandi (1890 – 1964) was an Italian painter and printmaker noted for his still lifes. He painted vessels made for everyday use such as bowls, jars, bottles, jugs, cups, vases. One can recognize the same vessels from painting to painting, differing in their geometrical arrangements and the tonal subtlely of their colors. Shadows gives these vessels a spatial context.

What struck me was the appearance of dissolving boundaries of the vessels painted during the last few years of Morandi’s life. In a 1960 painting, the top left of the tall vessel is barely distinct from the background.

In a 1963 painting , an excerpt shown here, the top left of the tall vessel only shows a faint delineation from the background, barely noticeable in this small photo. Note that the colors are becoming more mute.

In a 1964 painting, the year Morandi died, the left top of the tall vessel fully merges with the background. At an exhibition of this still life at the MET, a note next to it showed a comment Morandi made before his death which went something like this ‘I still have so many of my ideas to realize‘.

Dissolving boundaries are also apparent in the last painting by Gustav Klimt (1862 – 1918), an Austrian symbolist painter, done half a century earlier. His painting, now called the ‘Tänzerin’ (Dancer), is reputed to have been begun as a commission in 1916 to memorialize a daughter who had committed suicide. But the parents rejected their commmissioned painting. Shortly before his death in 1918, Klimt altered the painting to show a young woman with bare breasts. Note that the flowers of the girl’s skirt are merging with the flowers of the background. This painting can be seen in the Neue Gallery, NYC.

Rather than denoting the imminent death of the painter, Otto Dix‘s painting coincides with the death of a civilization. Otto Dix (1891 – 1969) taught at the art academy in Dresden but lost his job in 1933 when the Nazis came to power. His work was exhibited by the Nazis together with that of other German artists as ‘entartete Kunst’ (degenerative art). Together with Georg Grosz, Dix was a representative of the Weimar Republic movement ‘Neue Sachlichkeit’ (new objectivity) following German Expressionism. Unlike Grosz who emigrated to the USA, but like Jeanne Mammen, Dix went into an inner emigration and survived economically with commissioned work by friends. In his 1935 painting Mother and Eva, the mother’s deeply wrinkled face resembles the bark of the tree. The face merges with the tree. Mother, during the death of the vibrant civilization in Germany, looks into the distance, rather than relating to the child, the rosy-faced Eva, not shown in this excerpt.

How women painters fared under Hitler

Anita Rée ( 1885 – 1933) was a German avant-garde painter who founded an association of women artists in 1926. The Nazis designated her work as “Degenerate Art” and purged it from museum collections. Subjected to hostility, she committed suicide. A groundskeeper at the Kunsthalle Hamburg preserved many of her paintings by hiding them in his apartment.

Jeanne Mammen (1890 – 1976) was associated with movements of New Objectivity and Symbolism. One of her important works is a series of lithographs illustrating a collection of lesbian love poems by Pierre Louÿs. Until the Nazis denounced her motifs as Jewish, she supported herself as a commercial artist doing illustrations and caricatures for journals. She survived the Hitler regime by practicing “inner emigration”.

Elfriede Lohse Wächtler (1899- 1940) was noted for her paintings of psychiatric patients, as shown here. But many of these paintings were confiscated and destroyed by the Nazis. In addition to pitiless self-portraits, she also painted scenes from the Hamburg harbor with its workers and prostitutes. After undergoing a forced surgical sterilization in 1935, she stopped painting and was murdered in 1940 under the Nazi “euthanasia” program.

Gabriele Münter (1877- 1962), an avant-garde painter, co-founded the Blaue Reiter (the Blue Rider). Kandinski, another co-founder of this art movement, adopted her use of saturated colors and abstract expressionist style. During the Nazi era, she hid all of her own artwork and that of other members of the Blaue Reiter in her home, where, in spite of several searches, it was never found. In 1957, she donated all of this art work to the City of München, Germany.

Marianne von Werefkin (1860 – 1938), another co-founder of the Blaue Reiter escaped persecution having emigrated to Switzerland where she painted, in addition to self-portraits, many colorful, landscapes in an expressionist style.

Nowadays in Europe , the work of these women artists is being celebrated in large exhibitions. In Germany, a prestigious art prize is the ‘Gabriele Münter Preis’.

Human Skin – Lucian Freud, Philip Pearlstein

Conveying extreme views of Human Skin, two large paintings are currently juxtaposed at the MET (metmuseum.org) in the gallery for Modern and Contemporary art :  Lucian Freud’s Naked Man, Back View (1991) and Philip Pearlstein’s Two Models with Bent Wire Chair and Kilim Rug (1984).

Freud’s skin looks sensuous, even hyperreal with its imperfections, while Pearlstein’s skin looks hard like porcelain. Did the MET juxtapose these paintings on purpose or did it happen serendipitously?

Photos are only available at a too low resolutions to appreciate these two oil paintings. Visit the MET to grasp the different views of human skin. 

“Leonardo da Vinci” by Walter Isaacson.

The book is full of useful information. However, the reproductions of paintings are poor. An example is the odd print of da Vinci’s painting of Ginevra de’ Benci

Ginevra de’ Benci, a sophisticated Florentine lady, was admired for her (quoting en.wikipedia.org.) …intellectual and moral virtue on the one hand, and her physical beauty on the other.

In Walter Isaacson’s book (Fig. 14), Ginerva’s face glows as if she had been treated by a make-up artist before sitting for her portrait.

A remarkable lady of our history is trivialized. Seeing da Vinci’s painting of her is worthwhile a trip to the National Gallery of Art in Washington, D.C.

oil painting