Saturday, May 7, 2011

Erika Giovanna Klien: Shapes and Colors (2/2)

This second post on Kinetismus painter Giovanna Erika Klien is mainly concerned with the structure of some of her more famous paintings. They are a true inspiration to me. A short summary of Klien's life and work can be accessed here.

Let’s focus on the clearly structured Diving Bird (Erika Giovanna Klien, 1939) once again:

to fully appreciate the image click on it for larger version.

Regardless whether we recognize the many stylized bird silhouettes, we see two dynamically intertwined overall shapes that divide the picture into four parts of negative space (below left). The lower shape is visually heavier because it is larger and the dark part is darker than its reflective part in the upper shape. One could also see it as a single twirled form in space (below middle) – my own interpretation, of course.

A few rolling extra lines that do not seem to be part of the bird silhouettes define the texture of the shapes (above right). These are following the intersection points of the silhouette lines.

This is where color comes into play: Klien treats the small ornamental shapes defined by overlapping lines independently from the objects and larger shapes these lines describe. Looking at them without the context of the whole picture, these triangles and Ds transport the ornamental quality of decorative patterns. 
The only exception is the lowest eye-catching bird silhouette that is by and large colored according to its outline.
The different dark tones are arranged like a gradient from dark to light in more than one direction. This concept is used in many instances throughout the whole painting as if to underline the perpetual character of a bird in motion.

The gradients of the interlocked patterns converge towards white which heightens the contrast with the dark bird silhouette.

The outermost gray triangle pattern of the overall shapes is more or less kept in the same tonal distance from the background / negative space (with a partial white overlay in the upper shape).

Visual unrest

But her work hasn’t always been this clear and distant. If we look at paintings from her late Vienna period, we discover a wilder – I think more emotional – approach of visualizing movement.

The color palette for one isn’t as muted as in the later bird studies but equally reduced to two basic colors. During the 1920s, Klien seemed to be especially fond of blue-gray vs. yellow-ochre-salmon colors as we can see in the paintings below.

Klien: Vogelflug (bird flight), 1928

Although the five birds are relatively easy to discern, this picture looked like a vivid but well-balanced abstract composition to me at first. Overall there is a strongly felt curve (1) that follows the heads in the direction the birds are flying.

But apart from that and the curved wing outlines (which cannot always be assigned to specific birds) there seem to be some curves (2) and straights (3) that are purely compositional.

Again the resulting minimal shapes are painted as separate parts. Although the colors are not really arranged gradually and hierarchies are harder to detect, there seem to be one or two areas of negative space around the birds. These are filled with the less intense colors. (4)

Everytime I look at this picture I’m drawn to different overall shapes. In my mind, this painting not only depicts motion but creates it by forcing me to constantly re-imagine it.

Klien: Begegnung (encounter), 1927
In Begegnung (1927) I believe I can see at least three human silhouettes going from right to left (with the circles as joints and heels) although the main compositional elements are straights that broadly segment the canvas. The heaviest area seems to be at the top (darker colors) yet the picture does not feel unbalanced. Maybe the human figures are mere figments of my imagination, maybe the whole picture is purely abstract.

Here are some pictures of the same period that are also structured by strong straight lines with decidedly more representational motifs:

Klien: Häuser (houses), 1924
Klien: Häuser (houses), 1924
In contrast to Vogelflug and Begegnung, here the colors are arranged in a way that strongly supports the representational aspects (the blue houses structure the image) and in some instances helps differentiating which elements stands in front of which.

Klien: Kirche (church), 1930

The gouache picture below on the other hand looks fairly representational on the surface but is conceived as an abstract composition. The technical clarity seems to be typical for Klien’s New York years.

Klien: Silex abstraction, 1935

Finally, let’s take a look at Klien’s most famous picture that serves as identification symbol of the DYNAMIK! Exhibition in Vienna:

Klien: Lokomotive, 1926
Combining many characteristics of Klien’s style it depicts a modernist favorite of technical progress: the steam locomotive. Composed of fragmented circles and long straights it is painted in a pointillist fashion. The shapes are often painted in colors that are next to each other, the steam engine itself is depicted in the darkest and most saturated blue and even graded to invoke the materiality of steel. Contrary to that clarity the outlines are somewhat ambiguous with doublings that work look like afterimages to present-day viewers.

The non-representational shapes are emphasized by slight color (value) contrasts as seen in the lower right corner.
(desaturated and slightly exaggerated contrast)

What struck me most in this picture is how well we can see through its physical construction: because of the pointillist technique (that is also visible in many of the other examples) the colors are not only more vibrant but it also allows us to see the larger shapes that are painted underneath in different colors. To make the case even more interesting, there are areas where top and bottom layer are from the same basic colors while in many instances Klien applies blue over an underpainting of the yellow-ochre family and vice versa.

In addition to the particular paintings discussed in these two posts, Klien also created some more distinctly representational pictures including people and typography some of which can be found on the internet as well.

1 comment:

Marie_mari said...

It was a very interesting analysis of Klien´s works. I was at this excibition last week and her paintings touched me.