Opening the Door to German Art

I recently did a post on Opening the Door to Russian Art, so I thought I should follow it up with Opening the Door to German Art. There’s so much to discover in the arts that many people find the topic just too big. I find that a brief introduction is sometimes all a person needs to get started. So here’s a place to begin:

Albrecht Dürer

In an era abounding with complex Renaissance masterworks, Dürer’s gentle rabbit, with its slightly startled look, astonishes us. It’s created using a combination of watercolor and gauche, which is similar to watercolor, but opaque. The rabbit is painted with such detailed accuracy, it could appear in a scientific textbook. A simple rabbit was a surprising subject for an artist famed for imposing portraits, intricate altar paintings, and detailed allegorical engravings. His best-known work is also deceptively simple: a pen-and-ink drawing of the praying hands.

Adam Elsheimer

Adam Elsheimer painted usually on copper plates known as cabinet painting. Choosing religious topics and themes from Classical Antiquity, he filled his paintings with action. This small oval painting, though, is focused on the Holy Family fleeing across a rocky, yet scenic hill. The figures bend together, conveying their urgency. Elsheimer painted another, dramatic version of this theme in 1609, set in the deep of night. Painters influenced by Elsheimer include Rembrandt and Rubens.

Carl Spitweg

Spitzweg’s tender, detailed portrayal of everyday German life endears him to viewers, even today. His paintings harmonize with the fashionable movement known as Biedermeier, a restrained, elegant style that valued stability and domesticity in the aftermath of the Napoleonic Wars. His paintings convey a sense of intimacy and humor. He preferred gentle, even eccentric subjects to the dramatic Gothic themes popular with many of his contemporaries.

Adolph von Menzel

Menzel’s powerful, dark portrayal of the new industrial era shows just how dangerous life could be. In the bottom right corner, removed slightly from the heat, we see a child among the workers devouring their meager meals. What has been called a “demonic drama” of man and machine is broken only by dim light in the top third of the painting. This painting contrasts with his painting depicting Frederick the Great playing the flute in his gold-leafed Sanssouci palace.

Franz Marc

One of the most interesting of the German Expressionists, Marc used a basic theory of colors: blue for masculinity and spirituality, yellow for feminine joy, and red for violence. This painting was one of many bold, fantastic paintings of animals, including The Red Horse and The Yellow Cow. A founder of the avant-garde group known as The Blue Rider, Marc’s paintings reflected the conflicting forces that led to World War I. He served in that war, dying at the Battle of Verdun.

Now that we’ve opened the door to German Art, try exploring some more paintings by these same artists.

Aivazovsky Seascapes

  • Aivazovsky, Strong Wind

  • Aivazovsky, Wave

  • Aivazovsky, Stormy Sea at Night

  • Aivazovsky, Sea View at Moonlight

A Crimean-born Armenian, Ivan Aivazovsky was raised largely in Poland and then studied art in St. Petersburg. He loved travel, found solid success, and enjoyed commissions from Russian aristocrats and highly placed officials as far away as Istanbul. Late in life he painted the oppressions of his fellow Armenians, but his overriding passion was – always – the sea of his childhood.

Aivazovsky combined the realistic quality of photography with a penetrating romantic intensity. Waves crashing, ships careening, a silvery moons forcing clouds to part: everything moves. In this respect, he was the Russian J.M. W. Turner, the earlier English master whose canvases of the sea awe us even today. Aivazovsky understood how Turner had shaped paint and light to create a gale or build waves that crashed a ship to slivers. He then added a modern eye for realism shaped, no doubt, by the advances of the new technology of photography.

Even when Aivazovsky’s seascapes are peaceful, there is always motion, as in Sea View by Moonlight. The kind of artistic energy that created Aivazovsky’s Wave would never be content with a sea of glass.

Here’s what I suggest. If you are near a good art library and can find a high-quality book of Aivazovsky’s reproductions, go there. Otherwise, use the Internet, and travel through canvases of the sea. Expect to be shaken and tossed about, for you will be. And wonder, along with me, how light, a flat surface, and paint can combine to bring the massive power of the sea to life.

Paintings by Konstantin Makovsky

As I began to write this post about the paintings of Konstantin Makovsky (1839-1915), a friend called to tell me about today’s catastrophe in the Moscow Metro. This is a line I easily could have been on this morning. It’s the line my Russian friend was about to take en route to join me at my hotel.

Ironically Makovsky’s demise came about from a collision of his horse-drawn carriage with one of the new electric streetcars. That was big news when it happened, much as today’s terrible accident.

Makovsky was a wonderful artist who lived very much in a technologically expanding world. He traveled widely and was notably modern in many ways. His paintings invoked controversy because of their immediate popular appeal. His choice of subjects correspond with themes favored by the famous school of Russian Realists known as the Wanderers. There are wonderful historical paintings, such as several documenting the struggles of merchant Kuz’ma Minin and Prince Dmitrii Pozharsky to restore Russian rule after a dismal early 17th-century period known as “The Time of Troubles.”