14 April 2017. After a long year without major events regarding the viewing of original art we finally made it to Vienna on April 12, on the one hand in order to prepare an exhibition of my own political caricatures in Groß-Enzersdorf near Vienna (Kunst.Lokal, 2017), on the one hand to see the graphical work of one of my all-time favourite artists, Egon Schiele (*1890-1918, Austria) (Albertina, 2017). The commemorative presentation was meticulous, extensive and drained me of all my energy, something I had never experienced before. Seeing his gouaches and pencil drawings I noticed a threefold split in my respective reactions: a magnetic attraction to most of his works, a strong repulsion occurring with some due to the worrying approach to some subjects chosen by him (naked children in highly unchildlike poses) and a weird indifference regarding the commissioned work following his abrupt rise to world fame immediately before his tragic premature death caused by the Spanish Flu.
In this post I want to concentrate on his outstanding loose drawing and painting techniques, though. No matter how closely I look at his drawings, no exaggeration of body features his style is so famous for seems out of place or out of proportion. Schiele like I think no other painter before and to date after him had an innate infallible sixth sense and uncanny ability to feel and depict the human body and its emotional state. Vara (2009) describes that his viewing position from above – which, surprisingly, seems to have been a novelty at the time – and the extreme foreshortening ensuing from that helped him to draw persons in a distorted way while in fact having correct proportions. The very same effect allowed Schiele to address one of his major concerns, the brevity and frailty of human life. As I hop between looking at the above website and continuing to write this post I realise a strange connection my mind has just made between Schiele’s compositions and Ötzi, the famous stone-age mummy found in the Tyrolean Alps in 1991. I know Ötzi’s characteristics well from an exhibition I curated many years ago at the science museum I used to work for. The connection is so weird, because the extremely well-preserved mummy in its famous distorted position, facial expression and skin colour could have been painted by Schiele without much adaptation (Gostner, 2011) and also because it could not have been a better example for Schiele’s interest in the frailty of human life:
Particularly impressed I was at a series of drawings, which Schiele made on what looks like baking parchment with a very smooth, glossy surface. On this support he was able to paint with gouache in a way which I had discovered for myself during this course using highly diluted acrylics on an acrylics background (Lacher-Bryk, 2016). Look at the self-portrait below for the technique I described just now and also at its posture – its resemblance to Ötzi is almost unbelievable:
I love the composition, the almost sleepwalking confidence in drawing, mixing and placing colour. In my new course I started a few weeks ago (UPM) I will try and experiment with using what I think were Schiele’s techniques.
Since we had desperately little time at our hands, we had a far too short look at the permanent exhibition “Monet to Picasso” (Albertina, 2017), where I met some of my other favourite painters. I was extremely drawn to the atmosphere in Emil Nolde’s (1867-1956, Duchy of Schleswig) “Moonlit Night” (Nolde, 1914), the humour streaming from Picasso’s work, from drawings to a series of painted plates (Albertina, 2017), and the wonderful choice of colours in “Winter Landscape” painted by Edvard Munch in 1915. It was a good feeling to be able to recognize almost all the painters in the Albertina and I notice an increasingly focused appreciation for their respective merits. Two years ago I would not have thought this possible.
Gostner, P., Pernter, P. Bonatti, G., Graefen, A. and Zink, A.R. (2011) ‘New radiological insights into the life and death of the Tyrolean Iceman’ [abstract] [online]. Journal of Archaeological Science, Volume 38, Issue 12, December 2011, pp. 3425–343. Available from: http://www.sciencedirect.com/science/article/pii/S0305440311002731 [Accessed 14 April 2017]
Kunst.Lokal (2017) Veranstaltungen [online]. Kunst.Lokal, Groß-Enzersdorf. Available from: http://www.kunst-lokal.at/ [Accessed 14 April 2017]
20 November 2016. In order to make it for cut-off I decided that I would need to start working on my assignment alongside the remaining exercises for this part.
The requirement is a large format. I will go for the largest support I have at home to fit the portfolio (60 x 90 cm grey carton). The landscape will be totally imaginary again and I will try and paint an extensive river gorge/cave in the rough painting-knife style I discovered to work well for me in one of the previous exercises (Lacher-Bryk, 2016a).
22 November 2016. Last night I went in my head through my personal spontaneous reactions when hearing the term “claustrophobia”, and what first appeared as an image in my head was that of a cave diver getting stuck with his oxygen cylinders in one of the rocky tunnels. So maybe this is a pointer for closing around, so to speak, my river gorge theme.
While leaving my last sketch and background for the exercise I am working on at the moment to dry, I embarked on some additional research considering the term “claustrophobia”, so that I would not base all my planning on the overwhelmig feeling of mental overload I have at the moment. I was particularly interested in approaches by different artists. Many works of art are interpreted as being “claustrophobic” by the art world, although they do not explicitly address the phenomenon as main subject of the work. The person shown in Expressionist Edvard Munch’s (1863-1944, Norway) “The Scream” for example is interpreted by others as showing a claustrophobic reaction (Bolton, 2013, p. unavailable), while Munch himself explained his inspiration thus: “One evening I was walking along a path, the city was on one side and the fjord below. I felt tired and ill. I stopped and looked out over the fjord—the sun was setting, and the clouds turning blood red. I sensed a scream passing through nature; it seemed to me that I heard the scream. I painted this picture, painted the clouds as actual blood. The color shrieked. This became The Scream.” (Art Institute of Chicago, 2013) (Fig. 1).
When entering the search term “claustrophobia” into my browser, it became immediately obvious that there does exist a need of visually transporting this feeling. There are many similar ideas, with persons trapped in tiny, bare, box-shaped spaces with no way out. Many of them with outstretched arms or arms crossed very tightly across the chest, as if trying to make the space (outside or inside the body) larger and/or avoid for it to get even smaller, see e.g. a collection of related images on Pinterest (Pinterest, n.d.(a)). Many of them do not feel related to what I am looking for, but the eighth photo down on Graphics Think Tank (2011) probably gets close to what I need. It appears as if there are many different kinds of claustrophobia, some of real places, some of real people, some of unavoidable overwhelming situations. And I will have to be very careful, because obviously the subject is a playground also of the horror movie gang.
24 November 2016. Maybe better to follow my own idea, especially since I do not want a person at the centre of this picture, but the landscape. A claustrophobic landscape, basically, is one that provides too little space for the person entering it. If I want this effect to work for everybody, I will need to employ strong signals, e.g. abnormally low ceilings in a cave. Today I came across the work of Ted Pim (*?, Ireland), who draws his inspiration from the Old Masters, but takes his dark subjects into abandoned buildings. What I found especially haunting at first sight was the location of one of his outdoor murals, “Bass Brewery” (Pinterest, n.d.(b)). Looking further for “claustrophobic landscape” I found the work of American concept artist and illustrator Jack Gallagher and his small series called “Obstructions” (Gallagher, 2016), which composition-wise comes close to where I want to get, although mine would be somewhat more complex.
However, while watching this short video documenting attempts at entering a cave via an impossibly narrow crack in the rock (Bennett, 2012), I kept thinking that I am looking in the wrong places. For me it is probably not so much the fear of getting stuck, but the fear of not being able to breathe. And this finally takes me to where I really need to be in this assignment. It is all about an operation I had when I was six years old. It was no spectacular operation, just having my nasal polyps removed, because until then I had been able to breathe through my mouth only. Back then, 44 years ago, it seems to have been common still to get etherised. At least this was what I got, black face mask pressed hard on my nose and mouth, sick, sick feeling of suffocating, wanting to scream and kick with my arms and legs only to be held down by doctors and nurses, taking ages (several minutes in fact) to fall asleep with operation theatre going round and round in dark circles. Just now I found a detailed German language article describing exactly my own experience to the smallest detail (Zimmer, n.d.). It is basically a trauma, which left me with horrible nausea every time I smell ether or related substances and an intense fear of places, situations and stressful experiences, where there might not be enough oxygen.
So I need a really tight place to transport the feeling. Like this (Vela, n.d.).
26 November 2016. I decided that the best way to proceed would be initially to produce several spontaneous large-scale (A2) charcoal sketches while trying to invoke the traumatising situation from the operation. Here comes the result of the first round, experimenting with an imaginary cave, which suggests a way out, but which by the looks of it is agonizingly narrow. The rock I want to feel heavy, but smooth, without too many sharp points and cracks, because this is what the increasing paralysis provoked by the ether felt like. While drawing it was difficult for me to breathe, so this approach is probably not far from what I need. Interestingly, the drawing worked in all directions (looking somewhat like a coloscopy image :o)) and I compared them for their relative properties (Fig. 1-4):
The second version was my favourite, since it appeared to provide the greatest resistance to leaving the cave, but I will have to increase the stifling feeling inside the hall. It is too spacious yet. So I produced another large-scale charcoal sketch on the basis of the former and tried to make the interior feel tight, with the way out near-blocked several times, while the sky is clearly visible (Fig. 5):
Although the cave is not as dark as I would have liked it to be, the arrangement seems believable. Guessing from the chosen eye-level the size of the nearest crack is probably too narrow for anyone but the slimmest persons to fit through without squeezing. In addition, there is no way of telling whether the path behind that obstacle would not be narrow, too. The making of the cave was a very enjoyable experience (apart from indeed feeling claustrophobic), because the charcoal allowed whatever change came into my mind with absolute ease. It would incorporate any previous layers, which had looked completely different at various stages of developing the drawing. Overall I like the way the daylight falls into the cave with the innermost speck of light more or less mirroring the “window” to freedom.
27 November 2016. With this working setup tested for effectiveness on my husband (“I don’t like this, I cannot breathe.”), I started on the next step of the project. In my expectation the choice of colours would play an essential role. I would need a colour standing for freedom (a light blue most likely) to enter the cave to meet a combination of colours, which suggest a suffocating atmosphere. The latter for me always comes with a substance present in the air (ether!), so I went to have a look at the chemical properties of diethyl ether (University of California, n.d.). It is a colourless liquid with a boiling point of 34.6 °C. So it might be reasonable to assume that some (colourless) haze might be visible in the darker parts of the cave to support the message. The light falling into the cave could be made visible in “dusty” rays. I will first test this effect (haze plus light) to see if it would increase or decrease the primary effect. Apart from that I will try and apply intense colour only in areas exposed to the light from outside, the rest of the cave should remain as in the charcoal above, maybe in a warm dark grey in order to make the presence of haze believable (somewhat higher air temperature near cave entrance).
28 November 2016. After having tested a few painted thumbnail sketches with two warm (grey, brown) and cold (violet and blue) versions of the cave, I decided that I would stick with the brown version, because it is much easier to create a believable stifling atmosphere in a seemingly warm environment. Also I had the impression, when comparing the cold variants, that these colours tended to “push me out” of the cave, while the warmer ones “wanted to keep me in”, so to speak. The paper in my sketchbooks unfortunately is not ideal for loose painting, despite priming the paper tends to come off in tiny flakes and the colours grow dim while drying (Fig. 6):
Next I tested how to reproduce the sunlight inside the cave (Fig. 7):
28 and 29 November 2016. I prepared a mix of dark brown, primary cyan, primary magenta, gold ochre and white to produce a warm grey tone. With this I painted a uniform background on a 60 x 90 cm grey carton, then proceeded through several stages to produce the cave. It took a large number of correcting steps in order to create believable lighting conditions inside the cave and an arrangement of rocks, which would cause the required “closed-in” feeling. In the end I found that with this painting it was crucially important to always align my eye-level with the intended size of the cave. A few centimetres out would immediately cause the volume of the cave to “grow” and thus “widen” the way out.
Here are some of the stages (Fig. 8-12):
After having finished the main painting, I found it difficult to determine whether I would be able to include the sunlight and haze interplay as intended. The viewpoint is slightly outside the cone of light, so it might be possible to see some of it, but I was not sure whether it would add to the atmosphere. So I left the painting to dry and returned a few hours later.
Here is the finished piece with the added sunrays. I noticed that extremely good lighting conditions are required for the colours to come out properly, but overall I am quite happy with the result (Fig. 13):
For a detailed analysis of the finished painting please see my self-assessment report (Lacher-Bryk, 2016b) posted separately.
Vela, C.M. (n.d) Cave Explorer [photograph] [online]. Cristian Mihai Vela, Caransebes. Available at: https://www.dreamstime.com/stock-photography-cave-explorer-image19113302 [Accessed 24 November 2016]
Zimmer, J. ( n.d.) Die Entstehung und Therapie von posttraumatischen Belastungsstörungen [lecture script] [online]. Available at: http://www.joerg-c-zimmer.de/57.html [Accessed 24 November 2016]