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Posts Tagged ‘World War II’

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The art of an artist must be his own art. It is… always a continuous chain of little inventions, little technical discoveries of one’s own, in one’s relation to the tool, the material and the colors.

–Emil Nolde

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I totally agree with the words above from Emil Nolde, the German Expressionist painter who lived from 1867 to 1956. The artist’s personal relationship with their materials defines their creative voice, giving it distinguishing characteristics that allow it to hopefully stand clear of the work of other artists.  The way one handles and choose their paint, the way they treat their surfaces, how they define space and form in the picture plane, how traditional methods are altered and adapted to their own way of seeing and thinking– all of these and so many other elements make that creative voice unique. It is these things that make an individual artist’ work distinctly recognizable.

That’s the truth part of this post. Below is the deception.

Now, there’s nothing controversial in this sentiment but I was hesitant in using the words of Emil Nolde, who has been the subject of much scrutiny lately as his past associations with the Nazi party in Germany have come to light.

Nolde’s situation was an unusual one. He was a well established Expressionist painter in his 60’s when the Nazi’s came to power in Germany in the 1930’s. While he was an ardent supporter of the party and a fervent anti-Semite who flew a swastika flag above his home, Nolde’s work was deemed degenerate by the Nazis and was very much disliked by Hitler. I am not sure but he may well have been the only party member to have his work shown in the sweeping Nazi exhibit of  degenerate art.

During the war, Nolde was forbidden from selling his work without the permission of the Nazi party. But Nolde took that caveat and portrayed it as a complete prohibition of his work and himself, which it was not. He was still able to work and he was not persecuted in any way. Nolde created a series of small watercolors which he claimed were ideas for paintings that he was forbidden from painting. It became the basis for a celebrated show, Unpainted Pictures. This idea of a persecuted artist creating a body of forbidden work in his head became a symbol of artistic resistance that sustained his legacy for many years after the war, a story pushed by the foundation he had formed to manage an archive and museum of his work.

But it was a false story.

Nolde and his foundation hid his Nazi past and his anti-Semitism for decades. Passages from his memoirs that spoke of his complicity with the Nazis and his anti-Semitic leanings were excised and stories that portrayed him as a victim were embellished.  This went on until 2013 when the foundation’s new leadership, sensing that the previous administrators had laundered a dirty past, pushed for transparency and released the entire archives, previously under wraps, to the public.

I am not sure how Nolde will be portrayed or judged going forward, whether it will be on his paintings or on his actions before and during WW II. There was a good article recently on this story in the New York Times. I urge you to take a look as it tells the story much better than I can here.

 

 

 

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Chaim Soutine Les Maisons 1921Chaim Soutine was yet another brilliant but tragically short lived painter, dying at the age of 50 in 1943.  He was a Russian Jew who studied art as a youth in his native Belarus then emigrated to Paris in 1913.  There, among the many diverse artistic influences, his distinct expressionistic style found its voice and over the next two decades he produced a powerful body of work.  However, he wasn’t hailed as the great painter he truly was until the days just before the start of World War II.

As a Jew in German occupied France, he was forced to be always on the move from safe haven to the next in order to avoid the Gestapo. He sometimes found himself sleeping outside in the forests.  In 1943, he suffered a perforated stomach ulcer and died during emergency surgery.

He is best known for his paintings of the carcasses of meat and his still lives, all painted in his wild, heavily impasto manner.  However, for me, it is his landscapes that are the real treasures.  They have a tremendous amount of movement through them that forms a rhythm that, along with the color and contrasts of the surface, make them sing for me.  I just see them as being very powerful pieces.

Take a look for yourself at some of my favorite Soutine landscapes.

Chaim Soutine Landscape with Red Donkey Chaim Soutine Landscape at Cagnes Chaim Soutine Houses of Cagne Chaim Soutine Landscape with Cypress Chaim Soutine The Old Mill

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"Mr Wyndham Lewis as a Tyro"- Wyndham Lewis

“Mr Wyndham Lewis as a Tyro”- Wyndham Lewis

For many years now, one of my favorite books to just sit and flip through is my now very worn copy of  A Dictionary of Art Quotes by Ian Crofton.  It has great quotes by artists and critics about artists, schools of art and assorted other things that have to do with art.  The thing that I like most is that Crofton keeps it subjective, often having opposing points of view under each heading.  You might read one quote praising an artist while the very next might be one that portrays him as a hack. It’s interesting to see this contrast of perceptions, often by the artist’s contemporaries.

Some artists receive no negative words against their work or personality– Henri Rousseau, for instance, who was much beloved and respected by his contemporaries.  Most have positive quotes with an occasional barb thrown in their direction.  But the section concerning one artist, Percy Wyndham Lewis, really stuck out when I read it.  There is not anything that could be perceived as positive–Ernest Hemingway even said he had the “eyes of a rapist.”  Not knowing much about this artist, it prompted to find out a little more about Wyndham Lewis, as he preferred to be called.

It didn’t take much research to discover reasons behind the vitriol directed at him.

First, a little background.  Lewis was born in Nova Scotia in 1882, educated in England, lost his eyesight in the late 1940’s and died in 1957.  He was an extraordinarily talented painter and writer and the founder of the Vorticists, an art and literary movement derived from Cubism that flourished in the years before World War I but died out in the aftermath.   He painted and drew , wrote well received novels and published a ground-breaking art magazine, Blast.  No lack of talent, that is for sure

"T.S. Eliot"- Wyndham Lewis

“T.S. Eliot”- Wyndham Lewis

But from what I can deduct, he was a very contentious and very opinionated, always seeking an argument or looking to tweak those he viewed as his intellectual inferiors.  He ruffled more than his share of feathers.  As he said, “It is more comfortable for me, in the long run, to be rude than polite.”   But his biggest offense came in the early 1930’s when he wrote in favor of Hitler and the Fascists, believing them to be the keys to maintaining peace in Europe.  That was, to be sure, not well received and was for many unpardonable even though Lewis did reverse his views later after a 1937 trip to Berlin when it became obvious to him that he had gravely misjudged the intent of Hitler.  He wrote a number of items against Hitler and Fascism and in defense of the Jews of Europe but the damage was done: he was a persona non grata.
He basically disappeared from the art scene although he continued to write prolifically, even after the loss of his sight. There was a re-interest in his painting  and Vorticism in the mid-50’s , just a year or two before his death and in subsequent years his profile as an artist has regained some of its lost stature. He is consdiered among the finest of British portrait painters.  His painting of poet T.S.. Eliot, shown here, is considered one of his finest and one of the great examples of British portrait painting.

I picked up a book on his portraiture and find it very compelling.  The self portrait at the top of the page, Mr Wyndham Lewis as Tyro, really stood out for me as did the ominous Praxitella, below.  An interesting character.  I was glad to come across his work and will continue to explore it.

Wyndham Lewis -Praxitella

Praxitella– Wyndham Lewis

A Battery Shelled- Wyndham Lewis

A Battery Shelled- Wyndham Lewis

Wyndham Lewis- Seated Figure

Seated Figure- Wyndham Lewis

 

 

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The-Best-Years-of-Our-Lives-  Dana WinterVeteran’s Day is coming up and I thought I might have an image that somewhat represents the experience of some vets on their return home.  In the 1946 movie, The Best Years of Our Lives, Dana Andrews‘ character, Fred, struggles on his return to his hometown and comes across a local airfield where they are junking old war planes from the recently ended World War II.  He crawls into an old B-17 bomber and takes his former seat in the front turret of the plane where he was a nose gunner.  He vividly relives for a brief moment the terror that was still haunting him, tainting every moment of his life.  The haunting image of Andrews appearing ghost-like in the nose of that B-17 is a powerful one in a movie filled with powerful scenes, one that doesn’t sugarcoat the experiences and hardships of the returning vets.  It remains relevant to this very day.

I thought for this Sunday’s musical interlude, I would play something in the spirit of this upcoming holiday.  It would be easy enough to play something patriotic but this isn’t really a holiday of nationalism and a call to arms.   No, this is a holiday that celebrates an end to war , namely World War I when the holiday was originated as Armistice Day, and honors the service of all soldiers with the hope that they will soon return home and resume their lives there.  This holiday honors those who have served and sacrificed so much, not the wars to which they are sent.

The song is Johnny I Hardly Knew Ya which is the original tune on which the Civil War era  song When Johnny Comes Marching Home is based.  While When Johnny Comes Marching Home is more celebratory and martial in tone, Johnny I Hardly Knew Ya is pointedly anti-war and mournful.  It was supposedly written in the 1790′s as a protest to the British imperialist invasion of Ceylon, present day Sri Lanka.  It tells of a young woman seeing her lover , who left her after their illegitimate child was born to join the army,  returning from war.  He is much changed in appearance and she mourns for his loss.

This is a very emotional version of the song from British opera and folk singer Benjamin Luxon accompanied by American Bill Crofut on banjo.  Have a great Sunday and gives some thought to the men and women who have given their time and their selves to serving their countries.  Let’s vow to treat them better.

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Taxis to hell- and back- into the Jaws of Death  Robt. F Sargent, USCG Photo 1944I think if you need an image to answer the question of why we take this day to honor  those who have served in the military, this might fit the bill.  It is titled “Taxis to hell- and back- into the Jaws of Death” and was captured during the D-Day invasion of 1944 by Robert F. Sargent, a Coast Guard photographer.  I can’t even begin to imagine putting myself into the boots or minds of those soldiers as they came off those landing barges, can’t fathom to any degree the basal fear  that must have been surging through each of them.  My stomach is in a knot just looking at this.

This is a trial of terror that most of us will never have to face, thankfully.  We should be more than grateful for those who been willing to put themselves in the path of great danger , for those that sacrifice their own opportunity for a long and comfortable life so that their comrades and those at home might have one.  They deserve a day, our gratitude and much more.

I am always conflicted on this day.  It’s too easy to be caught up in the romance  of war and combat from a distance, as though it were a mere video game that you can simply walk away from.  It’s much to easy to beat the drums of war from afar. We must honor the sacrifices of these soldiers by understanding the harsh reality of war and its aftermath,  resolving to try to avoid putting future generations of young men and women in harm’s way.  Who among us would want our children or any other child to have to face the scene in this photo?

Take a moment today and put aside the trappings of the holiday that have evolved from this day and remember why it is a holiday.  Be thankful for those who have sacrificed and pray that we can avoid future wars.

 

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genghis khan Chinggis Khaan statue horse equestrian mongolia 6I came across this photo of the Genghis Khan memorial in Mongolia, about 30 miles outside the capital city of  Ulan Bator.  I’ve always been a sucker for statues of epic proportion and I had never heard of this particular one.  It’s a pretty amazing  image, with Genghis astride his sturdy horse atop a museum,  and one can only wonder how it must appear in person in the vast open air of that Mongolian space.

I always am inspired when I see memorials such as this Genghis Khan statue.  It makes me want to work on something epic in size or at least push the spirit of my  work even harder forward, to think in a bigger way.  Grander in thought.  Perhaps that is the purpose of such memorials, to expand our horizons and broaden our vision.  I know that when I think of some of the other monuments of this proportion, such as the  World War II war memorial featuring a sword-wielding Mother Russia near Stalingrad or the Spring Temple Buddha in China (both shown  below),   that is the feeling that comes to mind.  They push me beyond the smallness of  my inner self where  I often allow myself to retreat in my work.  And that is exciting.

So, thanks for the inspiration, Genghis Khan.  And you too, Mother Russia and Buddha.  I’ll try to be a bigger person.

Stalingrad War Memorial Spring Temple Buddha

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henri-cartier-bresson-leningrad neva riverI wrote the other day about the decisive moment  and mentioned the French photographer, Henri Cartier-Bresson,  who made great use of the term and concept in his work.  I am a fan of his work.  It would be hard to not find something in his work that draws you in.  Many are simply great images  with superb composition and an artistic rhythm running through them, showing the influence of his early training as a painter.  Some are mysterious and enigmatic, making you stop and just wonder what exactly was the story behind the photo, such as the image shown above of a sun bather along the Neva River in 1973 Leningrad .  And many capture defining moments in the 20th century, moments of history and change.

Decisive moments.

henri cartier-bresson_gestapo_informer_1945Cartier-Bresson was born in 1908 and witnessed nearly a century of such moments, his death coming in 2004.  He lived through both World Wars in Europe.  He fought in the second war and was a POW for nearly three years until he escaped and continued the war serving with the French underground resistance.   The photo here on the left is from 1945 showing a Gestapo collaborator being confronted in the aftermath of the war.  He traveled around the world at important moments, capturing the people on the street as change was taking place.  His photo of henri-cartier-bresson China 1949people in 1948 China in a crushing line to get gold allotted to them by the government as it teetered on the brink before finally falling to Communism.  Ten people were killed in the crush of this line.  In that same year, 1948, Cartier-Bresson also met Mahatma Gandhi.  He was one of the last people to meet Gandhi and his photos, taken a mere hour before he was shot and killed, are the last photos of him while alive.  Again,decisive moments.

As I said, there’s a lot in his body of work, something for everyone.  He is considered the grandfather of modern photojournalism, making the move from clumsy large  format cameras to the more portable 35mm  that allowed greater spontaneity and mobility.  It brought the immediacy of the moment on the street to film.

Something I find interesting about his grand life is that  he hung up his camera almost thirty years before his death and spent his final decades at his first love, drawing and painting.  Just an amazing life, a witness to a world at the most decisive moments of the time.

henri-cartier-bresson Aquila degli Abruzzi 1952henri cartier-bresson istanbul 1964

 

 

 

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