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Expressive style: Georges Seurat and Ernst Ludwig Kirchner

Georges Seurat (1859 – 1891) was a post-impressionist painter and discoverer of a technique he called pointillism. He is well-known for his paintings and deserves to be better known for his luminous, atmospheric drawings in black conté. In Margaret Davidson’s book, Contemporary Drawing: Key Concepts and Techniques (4), the author states that the perception of what constitutes drawing changed after Seurat because drawing came to be seen in terms not only of marks but of the relationship between the marks and the surface upon which they were made.

I was fortunate in being able to see many of Seurat’s drawings in an exhibition in the Schirn Museum in Frankfurt in 2010. Seurat’s drawings convey their images through the interplay of light with the rough surface of the papers that the artist used (he used several types, amongst them a French handmade laid paper called Michaillet (5) ) and his techniques, which included stumping, erasure and scratching (7).
This is illustrated in Embroidery (a portrait of the artist’s mother, 1882-1883). His drawings share something in common with pointillism; both techniques lack a definite outline, being more expressive than controlled in the way in which they convey an image.
Source: http://www.wikipaintings.org/en/georges-seurat/the-painter#supersized-artistPaintings-198547.

Seurat’s use of highlights creates a luminous quality that pulls the viewer into his drawings. Typically, his subjects are silhouetted against the light, as in The Plowing (1882-1883), or the light is angled into the frame from the side, as it might enter a dim room through a window, as occurs in The Embroiderer. His subjects are often focused on a task or glancing away from the viewer, creating a sense of intimacy, which is enhanced by the hazy atmosphere of his drawings.

In The Embroiderer, the highlights are mainly on the woman’s face and on her hands, with the brightest light focused on her chest, between hands and face, which serves to unify the image and draw attention to the task which completely absorbs her. The room in which she sits is lost in shadow. In the words of the writer (associate curator, Jodi Hauptman (?)) who introduced the 2007 exhibition of Seurat’s drawings on the MOMA website, “In bridging description and evocation, Seurat masses tones to abstract figures (and) weaves skeins of conté crayon to test the limits of decipherable space” (6).

A selection of Seurat’s work can be seen here.

A contrasting expressive style is that of Ernst Ludwig Kirchner (1880 a 1938). Kirchner was a member of Die Brücke, part of the German Expressionist movement of the early 20th century. The expressionists reacted to realism in art and created a more fluid, representational style, frequently with a social message. Kirchner’s work included paintings, drawing and woodcuts that reflected the tensions and edginess of German society from the time leading up to the Great War to the period following it. He suffered a breakdown while on military service and perhaps never fully recovered. He lived in Switzerland during the rise of National Socialism in Germany and much of his work was confiscated by the Nazis in the 1930s when they clamped down on what they considered to be “degenerate” art. This led to the loss of Kirchner’s work from museum collections, such as the Städel Museum in Frankfurt (1). Kirchner committed suicide in 1938.

Examples of Kirchner’s edgy, expressive style include the Berlin street scene drawings and paintings that he executed between 1912 – 1915. These were the subject of a MOMA exhibition in 2008 (2). One drawing from this series can be seen here. This drawing dates from 1912 and is about 60 by 50 cm in size.
Kirchner often depicted women as either wealthy or as prostitutes, a distinction that could be blurred in his images, as in this one, in which the women appear wealthy but could also be perceived as talking with a client.

In Reclining Nude in a Bathtub (1930), Kirchner uses minimal lines to create an unmistakeable image of a woman in a bath, her knees drawn towards her. Every line is a curve, curves echo each other, simultaneously depicting and encasing the woman in her bath, so that she is held in a frame within a frame.
Source: http://www.wikipaintings.org/en/ernst-ludwig-kirchner/reclining-nude-in-a-bathtub-with-pulled-on-legs

Another example is a drawing of a couple, in which Kirchner not only conveys his image through his use of line but also through his choice of paper, whose colour he uses to depict light on the skin of his subjects as well as the varied colours that he uses for contours with greens and ochre for shadows on skin. In this image, too, he has created a frame but this time using colour to frame his subjects, rather than line. Source: http://upload.wikimedia.org/wikipedia/commons/0/07/Ernst_Ludwig_Kirchner_Paar_1908.jpg

A selection of Kirchner’s work can be seen here.

Tight style: Daniel Zeller and Stephen Fisher

I have chosen to contrast the looser, expressive styles of Seurat and Kirchner with the more controlled drawing of two contemporary north American artists, Daniel Zeller and Stephen Fisher.

Daniel Zeller (born 1965) produces very detailed abstract drawings in ink and graphite, such as Speculative Symbiosis (2009) in ink and acrylic.

The intimacy in Zeller’s work contrasts with that of Seurat in that his images are fractal-like, and looking at it gives the impression that the viewer could delve into it at increasingly micro levels. When you engage with it as a viewer, you are absorbed by the detail. A different kind of skill is involved here. Zeller favours yellows and blues and certain patterns are repeated across his work but in novel ways so that each drawing is unique. At first sight, his images appear as if they could be micrographs of living things, rather than the abstract images that they are. Some resemble topography, for example, a river valley seen from the air, as in Elemental Inversion (2003).

Zeller’s work merges natural with formal abstraction. The images emerge spontaneously but once on the page, they dictate the direction in which the drawing will go and while they may or may not resemble recognisable things, they do not actually represent them. The following quote describing Zeller’s work comes from publicity published by the Pierogi Gallery, Brooklyn on the occasion of the 2009 Armory Show, in New York: “[The work] is a fluid series of spontaneous choices governed by self-imposed rules and conditions. The main rule is to always respect what has already been put on the page. Other conditions might dictate how color is used or topography rendered. These rules are flexible and serve to mediate and mold what might otherwise result in chaos. Tension between spontaneity and predictability is central to the process. The goal is to discover new vocabulary and new rules that can be incorporated, thus allowing the cycle to expand and evolve”. (8)

Several beautiful images of Zeller’s work here. A review from 2010 in the Los Angeles Times can be read here.

Daniel Zeller can also be seen at work on Youtube.

In contrast to Daniel Zeller, Stephen Fisher has largely focused on landscape and still life. Fisher says of his own work (9):” Common to all the work is my obsession with intense perceptual rigor, compositional manipulation, the viscosity of light, and the tactile, sensual nature of materials

In Stephen Fisher’s still lifes, there is a narrative, just as there is in the drawings of Seurat or Kirchner. However, Fisher’s contain additional intrigue due to the unusual subject matter of his drawings. They could be used as creative writing prompts, they are so full of potential alternative tales! The objects that he has chosen are ambiguous and do not immediately present a coherent image and the viewer is forced to look for connections through a story. An example of this is The Time In-between (1989, graphite) – scroll down and click on the second image from the bottom on the right, although many of Fisher’s images could be interpreted in this way – in which are juxtaposed, amongst other things, a marrow, a half-drunk glass of red wine, a pair of glasses in an old-fashioned wire frame, a photograph of a woman, or possibly a statue, and a pocket watch assembled on a black and white chequered hall table top. The table is in front of a window, which is open just wide enough for a hand to pass through, and do what….? The image is elaborate and although the objects are not obviously connected the viewer is compelled to absorb the details and to find ways to link them.

The chequered motif occurs in several of Fisher’s drawings, sometimes a table top, sometimes a floor, rarely a chess board, and occasionally more than one of these together in the same drawing so that he plays with the scale of surfaces, as well of objects.

There is a huge variety of textures in Fisher’s drawings. (Is this the driving force behind the choice of his compositions?) While Zeller creates abstract textures from his imagination, Fisher evokes texture through his sometimes bizarre choices of subject matter and, through these, he creates compositional narrative. Seurat, on the other hand, works with the texture of the drawing surface, he creates luminosity through working with the physical texture of the paper, and Kirchner evokes texture through contrasting colours.

Donald Goddard in his essay on Kirchner’s drawings (3), points out that expression does not only rely on what is included in a drawing but on the choice of how space is used, and on what is omitted as much on what is included. This statement could be true of any drawing, regardless of style. Although, it might be argued that a detailed drawing leaves less to the viewer’s imagination, the work of the two artists described above does not bear this out. Rather, paradoxically, the more detail there is, the more the eye – and the mind’s eye -looks for.

Sources:
1. Schütt, Jutta and Sonnabend, Martin (2008) Masterpieces of the Department of Prints and Drawings: Drawings, Watercolours and Collages. Städel Museum, Frankfurt

2. Wye, Deborah (2008) Kirchner and the Berlin Street. Museum of Modern Art, New York.

3. Goddard, Donald (2005) Ernst Ludwig Kirchner: Drawings

http://www.newyorkartworld.com/reviews/kirchnerdrawings.html. Accessed 01.01.12

4. Davidson, Margaret (2011) Contemporary Drawing: Key Concepts and Techniques. Watson-Guptill.

5. Hauptman, Jodi (2007) Georges Seurat. The Drawings. Museum of Modern Art, New York.

6. Hauptman, Jodi (2007). http://www.moma.org/visit/calendar/exhibitions/27. Accessed 01.01.2012

7. Buchberg, Karl. Seurat: Materials and Techniques in Hauptman, Jodi (2007) Georges Seurat. The Drawings. Museum of Modern Art, New York

8. Pierogi Gallery, Brooklyn. Daniel Zeller. http://www.flickr.com/photos/halvorbodin/3483551792/. Accessed 01.01.12

9. Fisher, Stephen E. Prints and Drawings. http://stephenfisherartist.com/index.php/about. Accessed 01.01.12