5.December – Mark Rothko

If I had to name ONE artist who influenced me the most, it would probably be Mark Rothko. Born in Latvia in 1903 he immigrate to the USA with his family when he was around 10 years old. Rothko’s early work was influenced himself by German expressionists such as Kirchner and Nolde and he dabbled with expressionism and cubism himself. However, it is his later work, often referred to as ‘color-field’ style, that took a hold of me.

White Center, oil on canvas by Mark Rothko, 1950; sold at auction by Sotheby's for $73 million on May 15, 2007.
Nils Jorgensen— REX/Shutterstock.com
White Center, oil on canvas by Mark Rothko, 1950 (Nils Jorgensen)

In 1995 I travelled to New York on my first ‘Art-Flight‘ to find new and emerging art and inspiration. I visited countless museums and galleries. But I found the art-scene disappointing. Sure, there were the masters in the museums, but I found little inspiring emerging art. Much of the work – to my by then mostly Irish sensibility – seemed to plagiarize one another. As if, forced by the harsh reality of life in NYC, where rent alone could consume a moderate income, artists all jumped on the ONE style that seemed to sell. These works appeared all over the city in many of the small galleries and open studios, was poorly executed (warped canvasses, dirty paper, haphazard framing, etc…) but sold like ‘hot buns’ leaving little room for anything else.

After NYC I travelled to Houston, Texas, with little to no expectation to find great art much less a thriving emerging art scene. How completely naive this assumption, for Houston, I soon learned, was the hot-spot for all things art. Fuelled by a booming economy (mostly around healthcare and medicine), most of the city’s artists had found wealthy sponsors and patrons. Even bartering art for other services (dental or medical treatment, housing, cars, etc…) was common. Allowing artists here, to focus on their work, without the need to commercialize their work in order to survive. Houston was the place, where I found incredible variety and innovation pouring out of the many studios I visited.

My extended stay culminated in a visit to the Rothko Chapel. It was the icing on the cake and simply blew me away.

In this space, which was probably the closest I ever came to finding religion, I could spend hours. Thinking. Seeing. Sitting. Doing nothing. And in my head, I heard the music of another great artist, whose works I frequently listened to while painting: Philip Glass.

But more about that tomorrow.

Nie Wieder Krieg! Anti-war poster

4.December – Käthe Kollwitz

Today let’s look at another artist who has inspired me and whose work, just like Picasso, dealt with war. My first introduction to the work of Käthe Kollwitz was in school when my art class was learning etching and other printing techniques. As an expert printmaker, Kollwitz’ work is frequently used to demonstrate techniques and expression to art students. She was one of the most well known artists in Germany in the 20th century and her work has not lost any of it’s impact today. It is the simplicity of the lines as they form heart-wrenching scenes, that pulled me into her work’s ban.

Kollwitz lived in Berlin’s Prenzlauer Berg, and you’ll find a street named after her there. In fact, the entire district is called the ‘Kollwitz Kietz’.

It’s beginning to look as if my December Art List, and thus my list of artists or artworks that have influenced and inspired me the most, is rather dark and morbid. Fret not, there is delightful color and joy coming.

But more about that tomorrow… 5.December.

Picasso in his studio

3.December – Pablo Picasso

Pablo Picasso undoubtedly ranks among the most influential of artists. He is widely considered a genius and has been written about in abundance. He made several drawings of Igor Stravinsky (see 2.December).

In fact, a lot has been said about the two artists and the parallels between their work and person. Picasso of course, was born several decades before Stravinsky and experienced war first hand. In his Guardian article, Tom Service describes how both artists were inspired by past masters, dissecting their work and re-absorbing the essence into their own work. But that for each of them, there was only one contemporary they respected.

Picasso’s opus is so vast and important, that I will refrain from attempting to tackle describing his life’s work here. But merely point out two of his works, that have special meaning to me.

His drawing of Igor Stravinsky has been used by Dr. Betty Edwards who taught drawing at the California State University in Long Beach. in her book ‘Drawing on the right side of the brain’, Dr. Edwards provides a number of ways to trick your brain into seeing rather than thinking what is there. As a consequence this enables even non-artists to assimilate the skill of drawing. One of these tricks is to turn a simple picture upside down. This makes it hard for our brain to ‘see’ the meaning. Instead we see lines and shapes. And that is exactly how artists see when they draw. They look at light, shape, line, value, rather than nose, hand, eye.

“All children are artists. The problem is how to remain an artist once he grows up.”

– Pablo Picasso

I used this technique repeatedly with my students (during my tenure at Cuesta College) with really stunning results. This in turn has taught me a lot about how other people see. Where I see an amazing play of primary color, others see a sunset. Where I see great balance of negative space, others see a city street. And when I read a book, I see a bunch of words and letters, but I frequently miss the story. Or it’s meaning.

But back to Picasso and the second work he created that has special meaning to me. His depiction of the war – German bombing of ‘Guernica’ during the spanish civil war. With an overwhelming and unique visual language Picasso expresses anguish, pain, fear and suffering without falling back on stereotypes and known symbolism.

Der Schrecken des Krieges: «Guernica» von Pablo Picasso. Foto: Francisco Seco

War has been the topic of another, slightly lesser known, artist who has influenced my own work immensely, Käthe Kollwitz.

But more about that tomorrow, the 4.December.

Tamara Karsawina als Feuervogel, 1910

2.December – Stravinsky’s Firebird and the Rite of Spring

You might find it odd, that my 2.December Art and Inspiration choice is about spring – which seems so far away at the beginning of December. But Igor Stravinsky’s Rite of Spring or Firebird Suite to me is the perfect piece for a depressing early winter’s day. For one, it’s a stunning piece of music. But also because it’s about the rebirth and shows us the light at the end of a dark tunnel, no matter if the tunnel is winter, depression or perhaps the Corona pandemic.

In this video, available on YouTube, you see the London Symphonic Orchestra perform conducted by Sir Simon Rattle. So take some time now, and listen…

Igor Stravinsky’s ‘Infernal Dance’ from the Firebird Suite performed by the London Symphony Orchestra

For the kids

But there are additional reasons why this piece of music and it’s creator are special to me: When my daughter was a small child she loved Disney’s beautiful animation of the Firebird. Through this combination of art forms, children can relate to serious music in more easily.

If you have children, here is the clip from Disney’s Fantasia 2000 Video. Play it for your children and let me know how they liked it. Because, although kids today may be used to (or spoiled by) more flashy videos, in my experience most children do find themselves thrilled and in the ban of this 10min old school animation. The music plays a major role, but it’s the combination of animation and music that makes the magic happen.

Disney’s Fantasia 2000 version of Firebird to the music of Igor Stravinsky

Punk too

And what does this serious music have to do with punk? This bridge forms yet another reason, why the Firebird Suite is special to me and it dates back to my (somewhat punk) youth, attending a Siouxsie And The Banshees gig who opened the concert like this:

Back to visual arts

So you see, Igor Stravinsky is a special composer for me. Full of inspiration to other artists. And it doesn’t end here. Pablo Picasso famously drew Stravinsky. Repeatedly.

But more about that tomorrow… 3.December

Anslem Kiefer

1.December – Anslem Kiefer

I grew up in Germany, where Anslem Kiefer‘s art is cherished and widely exhibited. So it’s hardly surprising, that he should be the first artist in my December art list. But Kiefer’s work to me, is much more than something I grew up with. His work represents in essence one of the main pillars of art: having something to say. Something important. Something that cannot be easily said in a conversation and something that should be remembered beyond one’s own personal time. So artists turn to the tools at their hands: music, paintings, prose, film, theatre, etc… to get the essence across.

Anslem Kiefer in his studio
In his studio, the sheer physical nature of Anslem Kiefer‘s work, is evident. Image credit: CBS News

Kiefer’s work is impressive. Massive. Dark. It can be materially and physically experienced. It makes an impact upon its viewers. You don’t need to like it or think it beautiful, but you will be touched when in the presence of his work!

Most of Kiefer’s paintings involve sculptural 3D elements and go beyond what is normally considered ‘painting’. And it was this fact, that first drew me to the work of this artist from the Black Forest. His visual language is unique and quite overwhelming. There is emotion. Pain. Brutality. War. Suffering. Hopelessness. But there is also Love. And Beauty. And there is hope. The hope that something new must – and will – evolve, no matter how massive and devastating the destruction. The phoenix will rise from the ashes.

But more about that tomorrow… 2.December (stay tuned!)