Archive for July, 2014

Journal making with Adele Outteridge

Last month I attended a two-day ATASDA workshop with tutor Adele Outteridge, learning how to make personal journals. I had a mix of motivations:

* to create something rather than reading about other people creating things
* to mix with real live people rather than sit at my computer
* to extend my work
* to learn techniques that could be useful in presenting my work
* to find a way to ramp up my journal usage

For the first book we used coptic stitch with multiple needles.
journal_01We started by preparing multiple sections of torn paper. I went for a wide variety of different weights and types, many of which I had prepared ahead of time in my theme of bush walks near my home and in particular wattle. I covered the board covers with some lovely imported handmade paper.

journal_02Stitching was done with pairs of needles – mine used two pairs, so four needles in total. Once you get into a rhythm (cross-over, link; cross-over, link) it’s a pleasant process. Adele had a particularly effective teaching process. She would talk about and demonstrate just one or two steps, we’d each go and repeat on our books, and we wouldn’t continue until we were all ready and she’d helped anyone with problems. Then we got the next step. It meant we fully understood each part, because we did it ourselves. There was very little confusion, no frustration, and everyone in the class was happy with their results.journal_03

Most pleasing of all to me is that my new journal is a work in progress. It’s come on walks, had bark rubbings added, flowers encased between pages, and here a “page” of gumleaves supported on open-weave hessian added to the tabs / spacers conveniently included.

journal_04The second method we learnt was stitching over tapes. This is simpler as you only use one needle in the stitching.

The starting point is the same – preparation of sections of paper, cutting and covering of front and back boards. I wanted to use this journal as an ideas book for weaving – just because I never get/make time for weaving nowadays doesn’t mean I’m not thinking about it, and I want to remember potential projects when the time comes. I used alternating folios of gridded paper followed by drawing/watercolour paper.

journal_05I continued the tapes on the covers, making a woven pattern to fit with the theme of the book. Both the board covers and the tapes are more of the imported handmade paper, which has a wonderful texture to it.

journal_06Again the great thing about this book is that I am using it. As hoped, the blank page encourages me to think visually as well as verbally. The page size is just about right to catch a single idea. It also feels much more convenient to have ideas “condensed” in a single book instead of scattered through day books or in the margins of OCA course note-taking.

Very enthused, once home I got onto a supplier for waxed linen thread ( and extra information (books by Keith Smith,, recommended by Adele).

journal_07On the right is my first home-made attempt. It’s a little sketchbook, with alternating sections of grey and off-white paper (foolishly I didn’t make note of the specifics of the paper when I bought it). I used the four needle coptic stitching again. I think I got quite good tension and stitch-formation on this one.

journal_08Once again the exciting thing is that having this special journal is encouraging me to use it. The watercolour on the left is based on a section of Grace Cossington Smith’s The Lacquer Room (see 24-Jul-2014). In the past I’ve deliberately used a variety of papers and media, often A3 since I felt more comfortable at that scale. This smaller scale makes it easier time-wise, and I don’t end with oddments of single sheets floating around the workroom.

journal_09My most recent creation has a link to OCA coursework.

The next (and final) project is Landscape, and in one of the exercises we are asked to visit a landscape and draw or paint it for ourselves. As it happens in a couple of weeks I’ll be travelling through Western Australia on holiday, so I decided to make a sketchbook especially for the trip.

journal_10All the materials used were already in the house, which gives a nice feeling of self-sufficiency (quite illusory really, given the thread recently arrived in the post etc). The paper on the cardboard covers was protecting the table in past painting exercises. The ribbon tie weaves through the back, and I’m hoping will add some stability and protection on the trip. The paper is alternating 160 gsm drawing paper, which holds water colour quite nicely, and brown kraft paper, for note-taking and pencil sketches.

journal_11The basic format is landscape of course, but what I’m very smug about is the central folio of each section. Instead of just being folded in half, the paper is folded so it will open up into an extra-wide landscape format. After all, I’m expecting to see some very wide country!

I love, love, love this feeling of control and ownership. I’m able to consider my particular needs and to make something that I think will work for me.

The workshop was a great couple of days. For another view and some different books, see fellow-OCA student and ATASDA member Claire’s post I’m looking forward to using some of the new skills to enhance presentation of my college work, although postal weight considerations will always be in play.

UA1-WA:P5-p1-Exercise: Annotate an interior view – 2

The Lacquer Room (1936) by Grace Cossington Smith (1892 – 1984) is the focus of my second annotation of an interior view. It’s a slight stretch to see this as “early twentieth-century”, but corresponds to the time-frames of the two suggested artists Matisse (1869 – 1954) and Dufy (1877 – 1953). The painting is on display at the Art Gallery of New South Wales (AGNSW) and is an example of exciting, vibrant, original, Australian art. Light, space and the relationship of figures to the setting are important elements in the painting of interiors, and I think this work provides an exceptional example of all.

Grace Cossington Smith The Lacquer Room 1936 oil on paperboard on plywood

Grace Cossington Smith
The Lacquer Room
1936 oil on paperboard on plywood
74.0 x 90.8 cm

The image above from my phone’s camera has dulled all the colour, lost all the vibrancy and crispness of the original. The AGNSW website (link above) has a better but still not really good version.

CossingtonSmith_sketchThe picture shows the basement café of a major city department store. On the right is shown a sketch Cossington Smith made at the café, including notes of colours and materials (the sketch is held at the National Gallery of Australia (NGA) – see

Light shimmers in this painting. There are a few dark notes – shadow under tables, winter clothing – but most of the painting is in mid to high tones. The light has no obvious source. The wall-mounted Art Deco lights cast only a slightly increased light on the walls above them. The top of the free-standing lamp and the ceiling lights can’t even be seen. Instead an opalescent light suffuses the entire image, reflecting off surfaces to up-light faces. The light bounces around from the walls, floor, counter-sides, and mirror on the right. There’s so much light it is hard to believe this is a basement room (see a roughly contemporary photograph on the NGA site –

There is a darker bulk at the left of the image, women in dark hats and coats. This is cleverly balanced on the right by a truncated figure. Our eyes insert the additional weight.

CossingtonSmith_01The lower part of the image is filled with curves repeating and echoing – chair backs, heads, bodies… The closer you look the more you see – hair, eyes, caps and saucers. There is a uniformity imposed that unites areas across the work.

However that is only the beginning of the lines.

CossingtonSmith_08Contrasting to the lower section, the top third of the picture is boxy, with vertical lines predominating (highlighted in green). Other lines (in pink) vary in direction, but remain straight, distinct, uncompromised.

The two sections are divided by one long gentle curve of countertop from one side of the picture to the other. They are linked vertically by curves which run from one shape to another – a man’s hair parting to a woman’s jaw, for example. A few verticals also venture into the lower section – where lines run amok. The strongest are the red of the chair frames, with a strong band of dischordant near-verticals traversing the image. The edges of tables veer in slightly “off” directions. The floor heaves up to the right. The overall effect is busy, but strangely harmonious. This is a working room, a bustling café, and there is a sturdy sense of order in the momentary disarray.

The picture is full of colour, particularly complementary colours. The immediately apparent colour contrast is red – green. At the bottom of the picture red chairs reflect in the green tabletop in a wide range of “reds” and “greens”, but blues with orange, yellows with purple are also well represented.

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The oscillation of the vibrating contrasts adds to the luminosity of the image. Little dabs of repeated colour – blues in a coat seen again in tiny shadows on chair backs for instance – help to contain and unify what could have become chaotic.

Cossington Smith wrote of the genesis of this work “… I didn’t know it was there, but I just went down to get a cup of tea I think. And found this lovely restaurant. It was a great surprise to me. I was struck by its colour and general design … Scarlet, green and white held me spellbound. I quickly began drawing, writing the colours in words as I worked” (Cossington Smith, 1979). Colour was her inspiration. Writing colour names on her sketches was a standard part of her practice. Bruce James has suggested such notes “represented far more than a collective aide-mémoire. They constituted a chemical table via which the painter could conduct her polychromatic investigations into the dazzling Australian environments around her…” (2013, p. 34). James goes on to suggest that these notations were “so legible, so viable, so realisable” that the charting alone could be the full conception of the work, an early Sol leWitt.

Cossington Smith used distinct short, aligned brushstrokes to create the painting. Generally colour-mixing was done on the palette, or optically in the eye of the viewer. This increases the shimmering effect of the contrasting colours. The modern, highly reflective nitrocellulose paints used in the café itself are captured in matte oil paint – “Light reflecting from the shiny surfaces is cleverly captured through broken swatches of colour” (Dredge, 2013, p. 118).

The distinct brushstokes allowed the use of many colours without muddying, maintaining the bright, clean feel of the picture. The direction of the strokes provides some modelling of forms otherwise flattened in the patterning, and at the same time provide a unity and stability to the pulsation of light and colour.

There is a definite sense of depth in the painting. In the centre the eye is funneled in, through an empty space between patrons and tables to a waitress, then on behind the counter to be stopped by the back of another worker. However on closer inspection the space makes no sense – it is flattened and distorted. Tables dip and bend, their sides twisted from perspective lines. Just left of centre is the dominant figure of a man sitting behind a table – but where is woman who appears just to left of him? Is she sitting at the same table, but somehow just behind it as well? That seems to be her hand, but too large – or is the man possibly waving to us? In which case is the woman at another table further back? Behind this couple is one waitress apparently taking an order, and another possibly serving someone – but who, and how can there be space for them?

Space is sacrificed to pattern, to pleasing rhythms and repetitions. This is an interior, but not one we can really enter.

The various figures are firmly occupying their positions, especially those seated, but there is little relationship between them. Even those sitting at the same table do not interact. Most of those seated look out of the painting at us – or really at Cossington Smith in the act of sketching them. The café workers seem busy, solicitous to the needs of their customers – but which customers? None of those we can see. Faces are sketchy or not described at all, and one patron is cut off right through her face.

Modern, urban
This is a bright, modern, dynamic, urban scene. Although an introspective and solitary figure, Cossington Smith found urban scenes a source of energy and exuberance. The ‘Soda Fountain’ in the lower ground floor of David Jones was everything fresh, modern and exciting – art deco fixtures, American influences, an interior possibly designed by fellow artist Thea Proctor (McNeil, 2013, p. 98).

While celebrating the material aspects of modern life, The Lacquer Room also suggests disquiet at the human impact – “… in this colour- and light-filled vision, the darkly dressed patrons who sit silent, mostly solitary and hardly welcoming in their cartoon glances, continue to express the artist’s ongoing reserve at the strangers the modern city makes of its inhabitants” (Edwards, 2013, p. 148).

The Lacquer Room is a complete contrast to The first born by Gaston La Touche (see 19-Jul-2013). La Touche created his work to please the jurors of the Paris Salon. Cossington Smith had financial security allowing her to follow her own vision. La Touche created an idealised view of the life of the poor worker, Cossington Smith observed and celebrated her own environment. Colour and techniques are obviously entirely different, as are space (depth, flattening / patterning) and the relationships of the people within. La Touche explored morning light through the window while Cossington Smith suffused her work with modern electric lighting. I think the pair make a good introduction to the interior view in painting.


Cossington Smith, G (1979) quoted in ‘Grace Cossington Smith: The Lacquer Room’, Australian Eye: series 2, video recording, Film Australia, Lindfield, NSW & Art Gallery of New South Wales. Producer Malcolm Otton. Director David Muir.

Dredge, P. (2013) “Colour and modern paint in the interwar decades” In Sydney Moderns: art for a new world, pp. 118-119. Sydney: Art Gallery of New South Wales

Edwards, D. (2013) “Ultra-moderne: Implement blue and The Lacquer Room“: In Sydney Moderns: art for a new world, pp. 148-153. Sydney: Art Gallery of New South Wales

James, B. (2013) “Writing colour: from Mrs van Gogh to Grace Cossington Smith” In Sydney Moderns: art for a new world, pp. 34-37. Sydney: Art Gallery of New South Wales

McNeil, P. (2013) “Thea Proctor: towards a stylish Australia” In In Sydney Moderns: art for a new world, pp. 98-103. Sydney: Art Gallery of New South Wales

UA1-WA:P5-p1-Exercise: Annotate an interior view – 2
Understanding Art 1 – Western Art
Part 5: Inside, outside
Project one: The interior
Exercise: Annotate an interior view – 2

UA1-WA:P5-p1-Exercise: Annotate an interior view – 1

This final part of the course begins with the interior – first as represented in paintings, then as an architectural space.

We are asked to annotate two interior views, and for my first I have chosen The first born by Gaston La Touche (1883) – an example of a nineteenth-century genre painting. The painting hangs in the Art Gallery of New South Wales (AGNSW), in my opinion was the best match to exercise requirements currently on display, and had personal appeal in the sense of light and the hint of a textile connection.

This large, square picture was awarded a second class medal in the Paris Salon of 1888 and was purchased from the Salon for AGNSW.

The painting shows a bedroom in a working-class home. A child, the first of the family, has been born and can almost be glimpsed in the straw-line cradle. The new mother sleeps, exhausted after what may have been a difficult birth. The young father sits on a rough wooden box at the foot of the bed, leaning wearily. An older woman, perhaps the grandmother, watches over the family as the light of a new day enters through the curtained windows.

LaTouche_02A series of strong verticals structure the image. A range of diagonal and nearly-horizontal lines, shown in green on the diagram, create the space of the interior. We are looking into a bedroom, perhaps standing in the doorway. The window is deeply set with a small platform, separated from the main room by a light curtain.

The main elements of the image are contained in a smaller area, outlined in pink in the diagram. There are the three adults, the crib, and another presence – a religious image.

Most of the light in the picture is entering through the large window, and it is beautifully dispersed by the sheer curtains. There may be some additional light assumed from the doorway, otherwise it is reflected light which brightens the back of the man’s shirt.

LaTouche_03The light is particularly varied and beautiful around the head of the older woman – reflected from the curtains onto her face, gleaming through what I assume is flax on her distaff, highlighting the shaping of her cap. In addition a small beam of light reaches over the pillow to find the head of the sleeping mother.

The colour palette is limited, mainly shades of yellow and brown, with touches of pink in the robe folder over the end of the bedstead and the shawl of the watching woman. There is a wide range of tones, with that bright white morning light touching each of the main figures, and contrasting dark shadows in other areas.

LaTouche_04Large areas of the image are left bare – texture on the walls and floor – which provides general interest while keeping focus on the main action of the image. However there are also areas given careful attention, such as the still-life of jug and bottles on the rush chair seat, and the wooden box supporting the man.

The general genre of narrative painting of interiors has its base in Dutch art of the seventeenth century, when the wealthy merchant class looked to spend their new wealth on works of art to adorn their homes. Such paintings would be small, suited to the domestic scale, detailed, and show a familiar rather than mythological or religious scene, often with a moral message. Most of those criteria apply to The first born except for the scale. This is a large work, designed as an entry to the Salon. The picture was well received in that environment, a report from that time including “Each actor of this familiar scene is exhibited in the simplest, truest and most impressive attitude, and the light, sifted through the large curtains, enters soft and clear into the humble dwelling, filling its naked walls with a pleasant, subdued radiance. Nothing is abandoned to purr sentimentality, but yet a chastened tenderness seems to be diffused throughout the chamber. M. la Touche has here produced a powerful and exquisite work” (Gazette des Beaux Arts, 1888).

Despite this measure of success, La Touche did not continue with such themes for many more years. He destroyed many of his early work, and in 1891 “consigned fifteen years work to the flames of a bonfire in a single day” (Brindley & Maclennan, [n.d.]). Presumably the AGNSW work was saved by its sale and voyage to Australia.

Gaston La Touche The Arbor ca 1906   oil on canvas

Gaston La Touche
The Arbor
ca 1906 oil on canvas
180 x 201 cm
The Walters Art Museum

The Walters Art Museum suggests “As a mature artist, [La Touche] broke with his realist beginnings to paint in a harmonious decorative style that reflects the influence of the Rococo painters of the 18th century” (The Walters Art Museum, [n.d.]). From the web image it’s certainly difficult to reconcile the two paintings from the same hand. Another work, Pardon in Brittany (1896) in the Art Institute Chicago (, while apparently using a broader palette and quite different technique, shows a handling of light much more in keeping with his earlier work. La Touche was part of the Paris art cafe scene and received advice from Manet and in particular Felix Bracquemond. It is interesting to see a basically classic, academic (although not academically trained) artist producing “vigorous, harsh and somber” works (Turner, 1996?) modify his work to such an extent.



Brindley & Maclennan, [n.d.] BIOGRAPHY: Gaston La Touche ~ 1854 – 1913 [online] Available from (Accessed 19-Jul-2014)

Editor unknown, (1988) Gazette des Beaux Arts, Paris, June 1988, quoted in National Art Gallery of New South Wales catalogue, 1906

The Walters Art Museum, [n.d.] Gaston La Touche: The Arbor [online] Available from (Accessed 19-Jul-2014)

Turner, J. (1996?) The Dictionary of Art Vol. 18, p. 835. Photocopy sighted in Research Library, Art Gallery of New South Wales.

UA1-WA:P5-p1-Exercise: Annotate an interior view – 1
Understanding Art 1 – Western Art
Part 5: Inside, outside
Project one: The interior
Exercise: Annotate an interior view – 1

UA1-WA:P4 Review

This Part of the course has been a struggle. I’m struggling with time; with depth – how far to go in research; and with focus, with a desire to get back to my own work, to be making, creating.

Benjamin Law

Benjamin Law
© The Trustees of the British Museum

Looking back through my blog posts for over the last 4+ months there seems to be an ongoing theme of the politics and social meaning of art. It started with political cartoons, using images to comment on a current and continuing crisis (7-Mar-2014). Selecting busts of Trucaninny and Woureddy as examples of portrait sculpture allowed a more general consideration of the impact of colonisation and the implicit condescension of an “ethnographic” attitude (13-Mar-2014).
Maurice Felton Portrait of Mrs Alexander Spark

Maurice Felton
Portrait of Mrs Alexander Spark
1840 oil on canvas 142.5 x 114 cm
Art Gallery of New South Wales

The annotation of Maurice Felton’s portrait of Mrs Alexander Spark provided a strong contrast in social conditions and also introduced (but did not develop) feminist concerns (19-Mar-2014). When visiting the National Portrait Gallery (11-Apr-2014) it all started getting too big for me – too much history I didn’t know, too many competing issues. My next annotation glanced at the art politics of the Archibald Prize, but is in honesty a bit brief and shallow (13-Apr-2014). (The 2014 Archibald opens in a few days)

Margaret Olley Portrait in the mirror

Margaret Olley
Portrait in the mirror
1948 Oil on cardboard

As a generalization, of all the genres of art I am least moved by or interested in portraits. . . As soon as I wrote that sentence I questioned myself, it seems ridiculous to be so sweeping – but with many exceptions, it’s basically true. I just scrolled through the finalists of the 2014 Archibald – So many of them are a lump of person (head, 3/4, full view) in a limited background. There seems to be a fair amount of effort for a likeness, perhaps with a few ‘tabs of identity’ like a painterly cartoon. I recognize the subject and feel vaguely clever, or I don’t and I can read some facts about them. I can’t tell myself a story about them because there’s a “correct answer”. As always, there are exceptions. I was intrigued by the photo of Mike Barnard’s You beautiful fighter (, and having read the artist’s statement I am still more moved by both the subject and the way he has based his technique on the story and the emotion. I’m looking forward to seeing the actual works when the exhibition opens.

Annotating Discobolus, a classical sculpture, returned my thoughts to questions of idealization, race and colonisation (23-May-2014). Combined with the impossibility of visiting a cast gallery and reflection on why that should be so (30-May-2014), the whole question of the Canon of western art was raised again. Whose heritage, what values, are being celebrated? In the next research point we were directly challenged on this, looking at the female nude through art history and the insights provided by a feminist critique (6-Jun-2014). I found introducing multiple perspectives enriched my experience of the artworks. Unfortunately the next exercise, annotating a female nude (8-Jun-2014), just made me cranky. First we were required to work on a classic nude in the western tradition, which forced me back onto internet images. We were then asked to compare this carefully selected masterpiece to a more recent work by a little-known female artist. I question the purpose of this requirement, which seems to me to trivialize important questions about women as artists and the depiction of women in art.

Henry Moore Helmet head no. 2 1955 bronze

Henry Moore
Helmet head no. 2
1955 bronze

A calming review of figure sculptures of the past century brought home how fortunate I’ve been in terms of access to artworks (13-Jun-2014). This was followed by the annotation of a Henry Moore sculpture (22-Jun-2014), in which I concentrated on ideas taken from the feminist critique, and also the context of work in a physical sense. The work by Moore on the right has only very recently been put on display at the Art Gallery of New South Wales (AGNSW), but makes a whimsical addition which could loosely be seen as “figure”.

Perhaps the most important thing I feel I have gained from the course so far is the ability to see artworks in context – historical, physical, thematic… agnswIn this I am greatly assisted not only by the course learning material, but by my local gallery, the AGNSW. Limited in space, with a major expansion years away, there is constant movement of the works displayed. Rather than a single work by an artist there will be a group of works, together with a couple of related or complementary pieces by other artists. A month or so later they could be gone. Recently the Kirchner I discussed as my Assignment 4 was moved upstairs and can now be seen together with a sculpture by Ossip Zadkine ( and a couple of paintings by Picasso, amongst other delights (the Picasso glimpsed in the photo, Woman lying on a couch (Dora Maar) (1939) doesn’t have a link, as it is on loan from the Lewis collection).

I feel this Part of the course has been a mixed bag – due to access to works, interest in the topics, this that and the other, and always, always time. I have a small pile of brochures and notes from exhibitions and events, just waiting for a write up – sometime soon.

UA1-WA:P4 Review
Understanding Art 1 – Western Art.
Part 4: Portraiture and figure painting

UWA-WA1:P4 Assignment

I have chosen to analyse Three bathers by Ernst Ludwig Kirchner for this Assignment. It fits with the general theme of this part of the course, “Portraiture and figure painting”, it is available for me to view personally, and it was painted by a leader of German Expressionism, one of the founders of Die Brücke, at a critical time in Western history.

Painted in 1913, the work is held at the Art Gallery of New South Wales (AGNSW) – see This large painting shows three women, roughly life-sized, standing knee-deep in foaming surf. A bird flies overhead, a jellyfish floats in the trough of the wave looming behind. There is no shore, no horizon, no sky to be seen.

For the assignment I traced the main shapes on the computer then printed multiple versions on A3 paper. I used these at the gallery to make notes, but have chosen here to recreate them in clean electronic versions for greater clarity.

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kirchner_toneThis is not a painting of high contrasts. On the right I’ve used a desaturated version of the image, indicating highlights in yellow and deeper tones in purple. Both are distributed across the picture.

Dark tones form a perimeter around the painting, enclosing and framing the scene. Smaller areas are used to create shadows and definition on the figures.

The areas of lightest tone are the foam of the breaking waves, a closer frame encircling the figures. Highlights on the bodies model their forms. The light seems generally to be falling from above on the left, but it is not consistent. There is reflected light on the inside of thighs. One of the lightest areas is the palm of the left hand on the rightmost figure. This draws attention to a darker area, and also emphasises the awkward stance of the woman. The jellyfish and in particular the bird also include light areas, drawing attention to these rather odd additions to the scene.

kirchner_thresholdA black and white threshold version of the image helps to identify the focus placed on the main objects by the overall use of light and dark.

The feathery, fluttering forms of gull, foam splash and jellyfish surround the solid blocks of the figures. The sea, the entire environment, is hidden in dark depths.

kirchner_linesShown in light blue/turquoise on the diagram, there is a series of lines across the width of the picture leading down to the right. They follow the crests of the waves behind and in front, connecting the figures especially along shoulders and a long, stretched leg, and in a combination of bird wing and waves in the upper right.

However the image as a whole is not sliding off to the right. The space between the front figure and the edge makes this clear. There are also bolstering, protective lines, shown in green, pushing back on the right and pulling/anchoring on the left. In red are strong vertical lines, particularly in the front-most figure, resisting the surge and providing a stability (although on a practical note, from personal experience I suggest such an attempt to maintain balance in the swell will be ultimately unsuccessful). There are no horizontal lines, although in purple I have shown a few balancing, almost restful, movements in the ocean swell.

There are lines in the figures going in almost every direction – those descending diagonals, also including heads, jaws, breasts, but these are countered by slightly less strong opposite diagonals, and also the erect front figure. This supports the idea of a captured moment in time, of dramatic change about to happen, a tense calm before the (overwhelming?) force of the wave hits and the figures are tumbled and overturned. Renée Free suggested that “the successive repetition of the line of the wave opposed by the verticality of the figures stiffening to ward off the threat, creates the sense of psychological and physical clash by compositional means” (Free, [n.d.]), and certainly the sense of threat and unease is strong.

The jellyfish provides a strange, ambiguous moment. There are so many lines, but there is no sense of a prevailing movement. I imagine it riding up the face of the wave then bobbing down, without anchor, at the mercy of the forces surrounding it – but within itself unmoved, in its element. A side note: this same object is seen by Donald Gordon as a “weed-covered rock” (Gordon (1968, p.92). I have returned to the original, but cannot accept this.


Landscape with houses Georges Braque Winter 1908-1909 oil on canvas 65.5 x 54.0 cm

Landscape with houses
Georges Braque
Winter 1908-1909 oil on canvas 65.5 x 54.0 cm

On first view the picture appears to have a limited colour palette – largely blue-greens and yellow-orange-tans. Renée Free in an AGNSW publication ([n.d.]) suggested Kirchner’s colours were those used by Picasso and Braque, as in this painting of Braque’s, derived in turn from Cézanne. Free also quotes Donald Gordon’s comments about the monumentality of Three bathers, evidenced in part by the “starkly simple colour scheme, playing off the blue-green of the waves against the orange hues of the figures”. I think these comments over-simplify what is actually a very complex use of colour by Kirchner. The cubists were interested in form and worked with a restricted palette. Kirchner made complex use of colour, together with brush technique discussed below, to model form.

kirchner_colourOn the right I’ve picked out just a few of the many touches of red and green that can be seen in the “orange” figures.
kirchner_colour_2The most obvious use is on the lips, suggesting lipstick and the dislocation of urban figures into a natural environment. However there are reflections and touches of red in the shadows of the jaw, the hair, a trace on the upper chest…
kirchner_handThat awkwardly turned hand of the rightmost figure is detailed in red, further highlighting its importance in the composition.

This complex use of colour is very different to the throbbing slabs of colour of works by Kirchner only a few years earlier, such as Four Bathers, 1910 (the best images I found were page 9 of and The differences could be due to a different location and light (the Moritzburg lakes rather than Fehmarn on the Baltic coast as in the focus painting), the tension of the threatening political situation, a move away from the influence of the fauves, or the new painting techniques Kircher had developed.

kirchner_techniqueKirchner used a range of techniques in different areas of the painting. The multiple layers of hatching used to model the forms of the figures is particularly interesting.
kirchner_hatching This section shows the torso of the central figure, bounded in front on the right by the arm of one figure and behind on the left by the arm of the other. The volumes are strongly modeled by a series of vigorous hatching lines in a wide variety of colours.

An early influence on Kirchner and other members of the Brücke group was tribal art seen at the Dresden Ethnographic Museum and coming from Palau, a Micronesian island at that time a colony of Germany. An angular mode began to appear in Die Brücke works. This was followed in Kirchner’s case by an interest in Buddhist cave paintings from Ajanta, India (see examples at Kirchner wrote of these frescos “They are all plane and yet absolute mass and, accordingly, they have absolutely solved the mystery of painting” (quoted in Gordon (1987) p. 77). Donald Gordon explained “in the course of 1911 [Kirchner] devised a zigzag hatching technique to model such rounded forms, both in his drawings and his paintings”. In Gordon’s account the frescos helped Kirchner to consider means of representing forms in two dimensions, part of the “fundamental ambivalence between sculptural and pictorial values, between representation and decoration, that lay at the heart of Expressionist style” (Gordon, 1987, p. 77). In this context it is particularly interesting to view Kirchner’s carving Lying Woman (1911 – 1912) – see

kirchner_hatching_2This section shows that Kirchner used a broader version of the zig-zags to create the volume of the waves in the upper left section of the picture. The crest of the wave behind is a dense, heavy mass of greens, reaching over to stab down on the women. There is a lovely, wide, more open zigzag in dark blue further to the left, describing the deep swell of the sea. Elwyn Lynn wrote of this work “All is vibrating. The nudes come to look unsubstantial, the brushstrokes indicate a nervous uncertainty” (Lynn, 1984). In my eyes the figures are solid and three dimensional, but certainly their situation appears temporary. The broader, more integrated brushwork on the sea generally suggests a swelling force, the descending crest a crashing power, that cannot be resisted.

kirchner_foamThe frothy mass of the smaller wave that has broken in front of the figures uses an impasto technique, with thick blobs of paint, dribbles and flutters creating depth and movement. In person the lumps catch fragments of light, creating still more life and sparkle. In the splash to the right of the picture the dribbles break up into feathery lines of foam. Elsewhere complex layers of colour suggest the depth and mystery of the turbulent waters.

In considering the symbology apparent in the picture, it is useful to review the changes Kirchner made from an initial crayon sketch to the final work.
The image of the sketch is taken from a copy in Darby (1985). The most significant change made was to the left-most figure, transforming from a male to a female. This provides a clear reference to the symbology of the Three Graces. James Hall provided a number of alternate meanings and attributes of this trio – “the personification of grace and beauty”; “the threefold aspect of generosity, the giving, receiving and returning of gifts”; “three phases of love, beauty, arousing desire, leading to fulfilment; or “the personification of Charity, Beauty and Love” (Hall, 2008, pp. 312 – 313). Given the erotic nature of much of Kirchner’s work the phases of love seem fitting, but there is a certain stiffness and remoteness about the figures which partially negates this. These Graces are awkward rather than graceful.

The Three Graces are also frequently seen as attendants to a goddess, in particular Venus. The sprays of foam around the feet of the figures is certainly reminiscent of the familiar image of Botticelli’s Birth of Venus (, although here there is no gentle breeze caressing, or shy shielding of bodies. When looking at mythological paintings earlier in the course we were asked if these could still be relevant, and I think this more modern take with its edge of unease is a meaningful update.

This is not the only instance of myth in Kirchner’s work. Judgement of Paris (1913) is held by the Wilhelm-Hack Museum (see, but I found a better image in a Royal Academy publication (see, p. 12). In this “highly unusual and modern interpretation” we see “three modern, urban goddesses, … striking, mask-like features …, parading in front of a dark and mysterious Paris”, who may be Kirchner (Miall, 2003, p. 13). The three women are again arranged tightly together in a descending line, their faces clearly showing the influence of the Ajanta paintings. This time instead of an absent artist we see him in shadows, judging, disconnected.

Another interesting comparison is La ville de Paris (ca. 1911) by Robert Delaunay – see Here the three graces are seen in an urban environment, very clearly Paris. In this, “while still interested in portraying simultaneous views of his subjects, [Delaunay] rejected Cubism’s privileging of line over color and its virtual elimination of visual sensation through its muted palette” (The Toledo Museum of Art, [n.d.]). There is no angst or alienation here, and the colours as seen on the computer image are beautiful.

A second area of change from the sketch is the alignment of the bird to the upper right. The inward pressure in the final picture is an important structural element. Darby, following Hall, suggests this is a “symbol of air, one of the four elements”. This interpretation would highlight the absence of any land, let alone fire, to be seen. Venus can be associated with doves or swans, but this bird looks more like a seagull – which I’ve seen referred to as both good and bad omens for seamen.

The third change marked is the size, positioning and detail of the jellyfish. Darby again finds a mythological link, with “girdle of venus” a colloquial name for jellyfish. My internet search suggests this is a particular, flat, ribbon-like jellyfish, quite unlike the one shown in the painting. However the name could perhaps be used more generally. The change of position and sharpening of shape allows the jellyfish to provide an inverted continuation of the line of elbows and breasts across the canvas.

The sea is the birthplace of Venus, or Aphrodite (a name which may be associated with aphros, foam). Water is the source of life, and the threat of drowning; it can cleanse or engulf; the sea can be therapeutic, health-giving; it can be dark and mysterious; it is an unstoppable, undeniable force of nature. The figures stand in this seething mass, and their own position and nature is ambiguous. Their feet can’t be seen – are they mermaids rising from the depths? And come to that, where is the painter? He seems to be below, looking up, but there is no sign of the shore. He must be awash.

Donald Gordon wrote that “the prime emotional state of Expressionism is tension, ambiguity, ambivalence” (1987, p. xvi). The artists are reacting to their society and situation, anxious and critical of the stresses and alienation of urban life, rebelling. There was fear and hope – “central to the Expressionist enterprise was reciprocity: hope as answer to fear, decline as prerequisite for renewal” (ibid, p. 3).

In the Museum of Modern Art in New York is a canvas by Kirchner which vividly illustrates these concerns and ambivalence – On the front of the canvas is Street, Dresden (1908; reworked 1919; dated on painting 1907). Using heightened colours, Kirchner shows “figures with masklike faces and vacant eyes in an attempt to capture the psychological alienation wrought by modernization” (MoMA, 2009). The scene is crowded, bustling, airless, but each figure is alone in the crowd. On the reverse is a natural landscape, and nude women bathing. Continuing the theme of ambiguity, Gordon discusses this same work in comparison to Munch’s Evening on Karl Johan Street. There is the same “aura of decadence” and “anxious expressions”, but Gordon concludes that “despite protestations, Kirchner at some level wanted the Munch connection to be seen – in order to stress his conversion of a gloomy attitude into a gayer one” (Gordon, 1987, p. 29).

Nature and the City
kirchner_natureThe figures in this picture have chosen to bathe in the sea, but they are uncomfortable, alien. Rather than nurturing, nature surrounds and threatens. A bird arrows in, a jellyfish comes up behind perhaps about to sting, water is everywhere, about to mindlessly destroy. The individual will be lost to greater forces.

Lynn (1984) compared this to the painting by Braque shown above: “Braque gives order and completeness to nature; Kirchner tears it asunder with a conflict of adventurousness and timidity, threats and naive aspirations to harmony”. This is consistent with the ambiguity and tension of Expressionism. Will the bathers actually be overcome? Darby (1985, p.5) suggests that while “vulnerable and at the mercy of the elements” the figures “seem set to triumph over the threat and survive to be further fortified by nature”. This suggests the health-giving, restorative qualities of the sea are ultimately stronger than its mindless force.

Around the time of this painting Kirchner embarked on his series of urban street scenes, showing the decadence and moral and personal disintegration of the city. Darby continued “[Kirchner’s] paintings of prostitutes in the streets of Berlin, painted immediately after Three Bathers provide a contrast; his bathers retain some hope.”

Hope, War and beyond
Where Darby sees hope, Gordon sees something else – “the facial expressions of all three bathers and, particularly, the protective bunching of the shoulder muscles behind the neckless head of the rear figure betray an emotion which up to now was lacking in Kirchner’s imagery: fear” (Gordon, 1968, pp. 91-92). This directly raises the political situation of the time. In the summer of 1914 Kirchner and his companions were forced to flee early from their annual retreat in Fehmarn, following the declaration of war. On the journey home Kirchner was twice mistaken for a Russian spy.

Kirchner was an ‘involuntary volunteer’, signing up as an artillery driver to avoid conscription to the infantry. He suffered a series of mental and physical breakdowns. In Self-Portrait as a Soldier (1915 – see Kirchner brutally records the damage and loss he feared as both artist and human being. The model in the background shows many similarities to the figures in Three Bathers – a life and world now irrelevant and powerless.

In 1916 Kirchner painted a mural in the Sanatorium where he was staying.

By Ernst Ludwig Kirchner (1880-1938) [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons

By Ernst Ludwig Kirchner (1880-1938) [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons

By Ernst Ludwig Kirchner (1880-1938) [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons

By Ernst Ludwig Kirchner (1880-1938) [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons

The panel on the right seems to show a return to the Three Graces. The central figure is now seen from back, a more classical presentation. The “jellyfish” is definitely a rock, the bird of omen is now nearly past. The figures are now deeper, up to their waists in water, and the black smoke of modern engines is seen above. Can we claim that the worst has happened, the cataclysm hit, and the gaunt survivors have come to some kind of accommodation to their new reality? Are individuals once more able to connect with each other, to find a measure of freedom and joy?

For Kirchner himself it seems his life continued to be a struggle. Towards the end of his life he wrote ‘Did you know that as far back as 1900 I had the audacious idea of renewing German art? … I wanted to express the richness and joy of living, to paint humanity at work and at play in its reactions and interreactions and to express love as well as hatred…’ (quoted in Gordon, 1987, p.2). Kirchner admired the works of earlier German painters such as Cranach and Dürer (in this assignment I haven’t considered Three Bathers in the context of the history of nude paintings, but there is obvious potential for comparisons with Cranach’s The Three Graces, (1535 – see and Dürer’s The Four Witches (1497 – see , which could potentially be viewed as Aphrodite and the three graces)).

Instead of leading a new, vital German art, in 1926 Kirchner wrote “Modern German painting has moved so far away from me and become unintelligible in areas in which my work had, and still has, an influence…” (quoted in Kornfeld and Stauffer, 1992, p. 10). In 1933 the situation had worsened. Kirchner wrote “In the museums, the hard-won cultural achievements of the last 20 years are being destroyed, and yet the reason why founded the Brücke was to encourage truly German art, made in Germany. And now it is supposed to be un-German. Dear God. It does upset me.” (ibid, p. 12). In 1937 works by Kirchner were confiscated as part of the German campaign to ‘cleanse’ modern art, works by Kirchner were included in the “Exhibition of Degenerate Art”, and he was expelled from membership of The Academy of Arts in Berlin. In 1938 Kirchner took his own life.

Textile afternote:
I’m always happy to find textile connections when researching artists. Kirchner designed both embroideries and tapestries, although the only online images I’ve found is a small one of Black Spring, 1929 executed by Lise Gujer ( and some large stitching on a tablecloth in a photograph of Kirchner’s studio in Berlin in 1912 ( There was a flow-back into Kirchner’s painting, in what is called his “tapestry style” – see

Darby, G. (1985) An iconographical study of E. L. Kirchner’s Three Bathers 1913 (Manuscript) Methodology Essay Fine Arts IV 1985 (University of Sydney) Typescript.

Free, R. ([n.d.] “The First Acquisition”. Photocopy sighted in Art Gallery of New South Wales Research Library. Publication details not available.

Gordon, D. (1968) Ernst Ludwig Kirchner. Cambridge: Harvard University Press.

Gordon, D. (1987) Expressionism: Art and Idea. New Haven: Yale University Press

Hall, J. (2008) Dictionary of subjects and symbols in art. Boulder: Westview Press

Lynn, E (1984) “Nature versus humanity” in The Weekend Australian, 1-2 Sept, Surry Hills.

Kornfeld, EW and Stauffer, CE (1992) Biography Ernst Ludwig Kirchner Kirchner Museum Davos [online] Available from (Accessed 12-Jul-2014)

Miall, N. (2003) Kirchner: Expressionism and the city: An Introduction to the Exhibition for Teachers and Students Royal Academy of Arts [online] Available from (Accessed 29-Jun-2014)

MoMA (2009) Ernst Ludwig Kirchner Street, Dresden Gallery Label Text. [online] Available from (Accessed 29-Jun-2014)

The Toledo Museum of Art, [n.d.] Catalogue entry [online] Available from (Accessed 7-Jul-2014)


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