Five Paintings That Changed The Way I Look At Art
Sometimes a painting or a sculpture breaks through your conscious mind and leaves an impression that last for years, perhaps even a lifetime. I’ve chosen five paintings that had that effect on me and ultimately changed the way I look at art. Each painting has its own special qualities, but what they all have in common is that they opened my eyes to what art can be: not simply pictures but new possible ways of experiencing the world.
Twittering Machine by Paul Klee (1922)
Against a bluish-purple background that bleeds and lifts like a mist over a lake, four birds cling to a wire. The birds’ heads are cranked at different angles and sing out in all directions. The crooked wire they are perched on is attached to a handle, and with a little imagination you can see the handle might turn, oscillating the birds up and down as it winds.
Interpretations of Twittering Machine are myriad. The artist, Paul Klee, was interested in images that sprouted from his own spontaneous imagination. His doodled drawings carried the weight of precise discoveries.
For me, the pleasure of the painting lies in the fine-line it walks between humour and monstrosity, comedy and tragedy. If it is a allegory — one perhaps that questions the “progress” of mankind’s technologies — then it is up to the viewer’s sensibility to determine how the allegory will end.
Portrait of the Journalist Sylvia Von Harden by Otto Dix (1927)
For me, there are few works of art that so bravely depict life in all its gauche and unnerving contradictions as Otto Dix’s Portrait of the Journalist Sylvia Von Harden.
When Dix painted this image in 1927, he wanted to depict a side of German society that many preferred to overlook: a striking bohemian personality, a female intellectual, a Neue Frau (“new woman”) who represented modern discourses about sexuality, equality and urban mass society. Few paintings are so charged with excitement mixed with anxiety, and a sense of ambiguous debauchery.
Dix was a German painter associated with the Neue Sachlichkeit (New Objectivity) group of artists, a movement that rejected romantic idealism in favour of a more vivid and candid depiction of modern urban life. Many of Dix’s artworks show darker sides of society, including war profiteers, crippled veterans, prostitutes and pregnant working-class women living in squalor. His experiences of war, where he saw action as an artillery gunner, seemed to have had a decisive affect on his perspective on society, especially his sense of hypocrisy of the bourgeois classes.
The portrayal of Sylvia Von Harden has an exaggerated quality to it, so that the characteristics of her posture and fashion become somehow stereotypical. Dix made her into a type, so that we view her as not only an individual but also a symbol of a wider reality. In its unsentimental and harshly naturalistic manner, Dix has managed to produce a gripping and hypnotic image of modern emancipation with all its underlying tensions.
Judith Slaying Holofernes by Artemisia Gentileschi (between 1614 and 1620)
This image was painted by the Italian artist Artemisia Gentileschi. Not only was she a supremely talented painter, she was also unusual for being a woman in a predominantly male profession. Her willingness to challenge convention meant she become the first woman to gain membership to the Florence Academy of the Arts of Drawing in 1616. The same self-confidence is evident in her art, not least in this painting, Judith Slaying Holofernes, made sometime between 1614 and 1620, when Gentileschi was in her twenties.
The subject of the painting is Biblical tale of Judith and Holofernes: Judith was a wealthy widow from the Jewish city of Bethulia. The city was at war with the Assyrian army. Desperately under siege, Bethulia was on the point of surrender. In order to save her city, Judith pretended to desert her people and cross over into enemy territory. There she met Assyrian general, Holofernes. Captivated by her beauty, Holofernes put on a banquet for Judith, and then later took her back to his private quarters. Intent on seducing her, he was instead sedated by too much wine, at which Judith seized his sword and with two swift blows, severed his head. She and her maidservant took the severed head in a sack and returned to Bethulia. After the fate of Holofernes had been discovered, the Assyrian army quickly fell into disarray and consequently retreated.
Gentileschi’s painting, under the influence of Caravaggio, focuses on the graphic moment of the murder. Judith has taken hold of Holofernes’ head by grasping a clutch of hair and turning his head away from her, drawing the sword across his neck. It is a gruesome and vivid portrayal that has no intention of softening the brutal nature of the act.
Gentileschi was an artist who, against the prevailing conditions of the time, developed a successful career as a painter in a male-dominated field. More than this, she made work that continue to astonish viewers even four centuries after they were made. Paintings like Judith Slaying Holofernes are evidence enough of a remarkable talent and a self-confident individual.
The Death of Marat by Jacques-Louis David (1793)
A man lies collapsed in a bath, his head wrapped in a swathe of bandages, a knife wound in his chest. In one hand a letter, in the other a quill pen recently dipped in ink. In the bottom left corner, the bloodied implement of his murder…
This is a striking work of art: simple, silent, tragic. I think one of the great successes of the work is that one can experience it before beginning to wonder what it’s trying to say.
What impressed me when I first saw it — and what still impresses me now — was the theatrical boldness of the scene, as if a moment from a play had been captured in paint. I remain moved by the cool, sober coloring and sparse rectilinear structure of the composition.
The painting is based on the real-life murder of Jean-Paul Marat. Marat was a journalist and political radical during the French Revolution. He was a vocal defender of the lower classes and published his fervent views in pamphlets and newspapers. In his personal life, he suffered from a severe skin condition which he eased by taking regular medicinal baths.
At a time of great social upheaval, which would ultimately lead to the overthrow of the French monarchy and the establishment of a republic, Marat won many admirers — not least the artist David — and also many rivals. One revolutionary faction, the Girondins, though in favour of removing the monarchy, were unhappy with the spiraling momentum of the Revolution. Marat became one of their targets. On the night of the 13th July 1793, Charlotte Corday, a sympathizer of the Girondins, entered Marat’s chambers with a 6-inch kitchen knife and stabbed him once in the chest whilst he lay in his bath. She was quickly arrested and executed by guillotine four days later.
IKB 191 by Yves Klein (1962)
IKB 191 was one of nearly two hundred blue monochrome painting that Yves Klein made during his short life. Klein was French artist working in the middle of the twentieth century and was a pioneer of performance and conceptual art.
Klein began making his series of single-colour paintings in 1950. His interest in painting with just one colour intensified when, from 1957, he began exhibiting multiple canvases with the same identical blue color, a vivid ultramarine pigment which he later officially registered under the name International Klein Blue (IKB).
The British artist Michael Craig-Martin summed up the charisma of these paintings: “The power of a single blue painting to stay in ones imagination for ones lifetime, that’s quite something. There are not many things that leave such a vivid impression. Once you see an Yves Klein painting, you’ll never forget it.”
Growing up, the young Klein spent days with his friends, yearning for the adventure of travel, creation and spirituality. As a teenager, he visited the long pebble beach at Nice and, lying on his back, looked up to the wide expanse of blue sky. It seems the purity and immensity of the sky appealed deeply. “As an adolescent,” he later recorded, “I wrote my name on the back of the sky in a fantastic realistico-imaginary journey, stretched out on a beach one day in Nice … I have hated birds ever since for trying to make holes in my greatest and most beautiful work! Away with the birds!”
At around 1950, Klein began making monochrome paintings — paintings consisting of a single color — in gouache. He settled in Paris and in 1954 published two books, Yves peintures and Haguenault peintures, which were his first public displays of the monochrome series. The books featured reproductions of paintings that, in reality, didn’t exist. His seriousness about his painted works was clearly ambiguous from the beginning: resolutely interested the profundity of direct experience, the books nonetheless emerged as conceptual parodies of the traditional art catalogue.
Klein’s attention was soon occupied with the single colour blue. “Blue is the invisible becoming visible. Blue has no dimensions, it is beyond the dimensions of which other colours partake,” Klein stated.
With these blue works, Klein was reaching for a purer mode of painting, one in which the subject matter completely dissolved. His desire to capture what he called “The Void” found expression in these remarkable paintings that combine profundity and conceptual bravura in a single inimitable gesture.
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