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The Norton Simon Museum

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My recent visit to the Norton Simon Museum was very different than any previous experience I have had with modern art. With only a semester’s worth of knowledge under my belt, I was most definitely in awe, and thoroughly entertained, to say the least. Although inspired by many, I chose to analyze two works with very similar subject matter, by two German Expressionist artists. I compared a piece entitled, “Bathing Girls”, painted by Franz Marc, to the similarly titled “Bathers Beneath Trees”; a work by Ernst Ludwig Kirchner.

These artists, both born in 1880, were part of the same German Expressionist movement, but belonged to different schools of the movement. Kirchner belonged to the group named “Die Bruke” that worked in Dresden and Berlin while Marc was centered in Munich with the “Blaue Reiter” painters. The work by Marc was completed in 1910, three years prior to the piece by Kirchner, which he completed in 1913. Both works are oil paintings on canvas and similarly sized. (Marc’s work is 43 x 56 in. and Kirchner’s is 59.5 x 47.5 in.)

One striking difference between these two paintings is the concept of texture, and how paint is applied. Kirchner uses very thick application of paint on his canvas to the point where the texture of the canvas does not show through, and no canvas is exposed. Marc on the other hand, applies paint with equal thickness to Kirchner’s work in some places and leaves the texture quite thin in others, where both the color and texture of the canvas are visible. Kirchner’s paint seems to be applied in thick stokes, leaving the surface rough with bubbles and other imperfections in the surface. Marc’s work has a similar rough, blotted appearance but the amount of paint applied by the individual brush stroke varies.

A difference in brushstroke is also very noticeable between these two paintings. Marc tends to use thick brush strokes that vary in length. The strokes are curved, flowing, and overlap. Kirchner’s brushstroke tends to be heavier, yet thinner in width. The strokes are more linear and consistently shorter than those of Marc, creating a sense of diagonal hatching.

Another difference in the way these artists approach the similar subject matter can be seen in their choice of color. Marc uses light pastel colors with a lot of white. There are many shades of light pink, purple, blue, yellow, and green. This gives the work a sense of fantasy and illusion. Kirchner takes a different approach and uses more earthbound colors, exhibiting dark greens, blues, and browns in the landscape, and earthly shades of orange and brown for the figures. Kirchner accomplishes a color scheme that implies a tribal sense of realism and connection to the environment.

Both expressionists also differ when it comes to the form of the figures and their surrounding landscape. In the painting by Marc the figures are very curved and flowing. Long curved brushstrokes are used to create the figures, which results in an abstract, yet lifelike representation of the human contour. The figures themselves are short and chubby, and seem to be depicted in a dance like motion. The surrounding landscape is very farcical, with a very free flowing, intertwining form.

In Kirchner’s painting form is approached very differently. The figures are very angular and block-like. The nudes themselves are thinner and taller than Marc’s characters, and along with the geometric look, seem much more tribal, and less lifelike. The straight brushstrokes establish a more jagged and sharp appearance, as opposed to the free-flowing sense of Marc’s work. Diagonal use of hatching adds to this sense of shape and construction.

The composition of these two works is also something that should be considered. In Marc’s piece the landscape is formed around the figures. The nudes interact and intertwine with their surrounding landscape. The colors swirl together, and the entire painting seems to be engaging in one fluid motion. Kirchner’s work, on the other hand, is composed quite differently. There is no realistic sense of scale between the characters and their surroundings, which is emphasized by the irrational curve of the horizon. The figures just seem to be placed in the environment without interaction. The landscape is smoother and more realistic than that of Marc’s painting, but the vertical skew and angular appearance reinforces the lack of reality. Another difference can be seen in the interaction of color between the figures and the landscape. In Marc’s painting the figures tend to share the color pallet with the environment, whereas the color of the figures in Kirchner’s work sets them apart from the duller landscape.

Being a musician myself I constantly find myself making the comparison between visual and aural art. My opinions and views on modern art prior to taking this course can be compared to those that I see of amateur music listeners. As with any art form, the audience cannot truly appreciate and understand the work without the knowledge necessary to understand the artist’s intentions. Taking this course really opened my eyes to what can be accomplished in visual art. My trip to the Norton Simon Museum was a great chance to get an up close and personal experience with the art that we have been studying.

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