After Willi Baumeister

The last few weeks have been hectic and this is the first weekend that I have spent at home for three weeks, due to a conference in Hannover and then workshops in Brussels. In between, I have played a bit with collage and life drawing classes have restarted but there has been no time to draw breath. Over half-term – i.e now! – I have to start working towards the final assignment because, once school resumes, it will be crazy again.

Recently, I came across a collage by Willi Baumeister (1889 – 1955) who was born in the same year as my maternal grandmother. I was immediately drawn to his work because of the ways in which he integrated line, texture and collage elements into an overall abstraction of the human figure. I was also attracted to the predominance of neutral tones, sometimes with highlights of bright colour; further research revealed that he also produced very different, highly saturated work, too.  In Turner am Barren (1934), Baumeister created a ghostly imprint of a figure, resembling an oversized fingerprint, in oil paint and sand.  This painting appeals because of its layers of image and texture which allow the imagination to roam in its depths.

The figures in some of Baumeister’s work remind me of Matisse, who inspired a collage that I made in workshop recently.  I decided to have another go at collage, inspired this time by Baumeister, in which I aimed to integrate line, texture and collage.

In my first attempt, playing with collaged figures, I drew rough figures on newspaper; I applied water with a brush and tore around the outline.  I then broke up the shapes to convey a little more action / energy.  Breaking up the shapes only works satisfactorily if the pieces are arranged at a slight angle to each other.  The central figure has more energy than the somewhat stuffy figure on the left.

Finally, I wet the surfaces of the figures and dropped in Ecoline fluid watercolour, which is a favourite medium on account of its colour range.  I left it for a day or two, not sure what to do next.  Needing a way to integrate the figures into a single image, I used sequin waste as a stencil and applied more watercolour in a vaguely complementary orange and a brighter blue, which has pushed the central figure and the one on the left further into the background.

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The second piece was inspired by Baumeister’s Standing figure with blue plane (1933). The original idea was to take the elements of this work that particularly appealed  (drawn lines and elements of saturated colour against a more neutral, textured background), and to apply these in my own work  This time, I didn’t want a starkly white ground but was not sure how to proceed.  I applied a cautious wash of dilute turquoise ink to eliminate the whiteness and, over this, structure gel was used in a strip near the base of the page; black threads were embedded within the gel.  More newspaper figures were collaged in this piece, but this time their outline was cut. I chose orange silk paper as a contrast to the black and added another figure and something that might be interpreted as a sun or a comet but was really only intended to be a shape to balance what was already on the paper. I came across a picture of a zebra in a magazine and so incorporated some zebra stripes to help offset one of the figures against the ground and to echo the lines of the black threads.  At this stage, it was necessary to consider what kind of texture I wanted to include and how to achieve that.  I accentuated the outline of the figures with smoothly applied gesso and then applied gesso to the background more heavily and with a dry brush, aiming to incorporate brush strokes into the ground.  Here is the image up to this point:

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I then left it for a few days.  I wanted to bring in contrasting colour that would also reinforce the texture.  Eventually, I decided to use a sponge and stamp pads in ultramarine and gold.

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I like the figures, their contrasting size which is accentuated by the variation in direction of the text, but the background doesn’t provide enough of a contrast and they fade into it rather.  There is a lack of definition in some elements, which prevents the whole becoming a single, integrated image. Also, because the threads are embedded in gel, the wishy-washy ink remains and doesn’t really fit.  However, overall, as an exploration to see what might emerge from playing with line and texture it was a useful exercise.

Because this is not really what I should be focusing on just now, I am not taking it further for the time being, although I will return to work with collaged figures at some point.  I am posting this to show that I have not been entirely idle for the past few weeks…

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