Saturday, May 14, 2011

Pooh-color [Updated]

While writing about Disney's new Winnie the Pooh (2011) and its American and Russian predecessors I thought it would be fun to do a tiny little color-guessing post once again. It's an easy one whether you know Fyodor Khitruk's 1969 short Vinni-Pukh or not. But if you don't you should probably give it a chance. An English subtitled version is available on youtube.
Screenshot with desaturated bear.
What was Pooh/Pukh's fur color in the Russian adaptation?

You can answer/guess in the comments or simply look it up on youtube: (First short 1969) (Second short 1971) (Third short 1972, part I) (Third short 1972, part II)


The correct answer was C, of course!

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.

Sunday, May 1, 2011

Erika Giovanna Klien: Kinetism (1/2)

Erika Giovanna Klien: Lokomotive, 1926
In an extensive exhibition in Vienna I have encountered Kinetismus (kinetism), a Viennese variation of expressionism established by Franz Cizek who synthesized cubism, futurism and ornamental arts. It struck me that the rhythmic approach of capturing movement in space made Kinetismus a natural kin to animation. The pictures that especially appealed to me were all painted by Erika Giovanna Klien, probably the most important exponent of this particular style.

Erika Giovanna Klien was born in Italy in 1900. When she was 19 and her father wouldn’t allow her to become an actress, she went to the applied arts school in Vienna, later known as the School of Decorative Art. The teaching artists of the European avant-garde “attempted to erase the distinction between fine art and the decorative arts” (

Under her mentor Franz Cizek Klien discovered a holistic approach to self-expression.
“She wrote poems and reworked them as typographical pictures and comic-book style drawings; she formed her handwriting into an artistic gesture and consistently replaced the punctuation marks she found annoying with dashes in her personal correspondence. In her own way she remained true to the theater.” (
Her special love for the theater finally led her to the Vienna Drama School in 1922/23 and she created a “marionette theater with a novel stage, backdrop and figures and wrote a play for it” ( This marionette theater is worth mentioning for its use of unnaturally moving characters within equally moving stages. Unfortunately, these dynamics don’t come through in the sketches of the theater I’ve seen.

After a career as a commercial artist and art teacher Erika Giovanna Klien moved to New York in 1929 and became a U.S. citizen in 1938. She died of a heart attack in 1957 after an emotionally and economically troubled life of trying to survive as a single mother. During her lifetime she was more popular as an encouraging modern art teacher in America than as an artist. Re-evaluation of her work has only begun almost twenty years after her death.

Abstract and representational at the same time
Klien’s pictures may be unique but they were conceived in an extraordinary avant-garde environment that was fuelled by analytical, structural and positivistic thinking. The 1920s in Vienna were the time of twelve-tone music, psycho analysis, constructivism and gestalt theory to name but a few.

Some historians assume that the Swiss painter Johannes Itten (most well-known for his theoretical works on color) might have been a key influence to Cizek and Klien who is even said to have elaborated on Itten’s Vienna period while he himself has returned to representational depictions for many years. I would have liked to compare Itten’s Häuserrhythmen II (1917) with Klien’s Reitschule in Salzburg (around 1922) but couldn’t find either of them online.

Johannes Itten: Die Begegnung (the encounter), 1916
In my opinion, Klien’s examination of movement and dynamics is evident in two different ways: On the one hand, she painted moving objects and creatures with multiple outlines like an animated scene seen on a light table. On the other hand, she interwove geometric shapes with abstract and representational forms and elements to a structure that seems to be in constant motion.

Erika Giovanna Klien: Diving Bird (1939)
In Diving Bird (1939), my favorite of all her bird-flight pictures, we see multiple “snapshot” outlines overlapping as well as a new overarching shape. The resulting splinters of forms are colored like an abstract pattern that works against the bird shape as well as supporting it. The near symmetrical composition as a whole seems perfectly balanced like a piece of ornamental art. In its original size, this painting is a real eyecatcher despite its muted, almost monochrome colors.

As we will see in the second post, flying birds have never ceased to inspire her. Below we see one of her later motion studies using the same techniques twelve years later.
Klien: Flight Rhythm, 1951
Klien's fascinating and – as some feel – threatening New York subway and city pictures are even more monochromous and technical rather than emotional. 
Klien: Turbine, 1930
Klien: New York St. Marks Place, 1930
Klien: Times Square Subway Station, 1931

"In these works Klien seems to have taken the Kinetism and made it a part of the staccato experience of New York. These works are at once both hauntingly beautiful but also strangely lonely. In both images the viewer is apart from the scene as voyeur and observer. Klien the immigrant from Austria was looking at this strange landscape with an astute eye and she managed to capture something about New York that few other artists could relay about that time and place. The ever present hustle and bustle, the despair, the haunting beauty are all there in Klien’s depictions of these New York scenes." (Rob Meredith)
I will further examine the structure and color of Klien's paintings in a second post.

You can still see the exhibition DYNAMIK! (Kubismus / Futurismus / KINETISMUS) in the Lower Belvedere in Vienna until May 29, 2011.

Further reading online: