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Masklike Portraits

May 21, 2019

 

As I was reflecting on our theme “Masks” I started to see that a mask is basically a reduction of the human face to a minimalistic set of features. Most masks have at least 2 eyes and a mouth, sometimes a nose, and are oval shaped. This makes them uniform and takes away the individualistic markers of a face. Of course, masks can be pretty elaborate, too, but I was more interested in the reduction to basic human facial characteristics.

 

I remembered seeing an art exhibition in Germany in 1991 in the German town of Wiesbaden. It was an exhibition of works by the painter Alexej von Jawlensky (1864-1941). I bought the exhibition catalogue back then, and it has moved with me a number of times. Looking at the catalogue brought back my fascination with this painter and his portraits.

 

 Jawlensky was a Russian expressionist painter who worked mainly in Germany and Switzerland. He was associated with Wassily Kandinsky, Emil Nolde, Henri Matisse, and later exhibited with Kandinsky, Paul Klee and Lyonel Feininger. From 1918 onwards Jawlensky worked on a series of highly stylized portraits and developed a protoform of geometrical, abstract heads. This was his obsession for at least 10 years until arthritis crippled him so much that he couldn’t paint anymore. During that time the heads became very stylized, formal and symmetrical. He called those works “Constructivist Heads”. They are not unlike icons, looking at you frontally and seemingly without emotion, but conveying so much meaning.

 

“The same components are repeated in the same format, in approximately the same position, in picture after picture, in spite of variations in density of pigments, roughness of brushwork, width of line or tilt of axis.” (Shirley Hopps, John Coplans: Jawlensky and the Serial Image (Catalogue), Univ. of California, 1966)

 

 

 

The use of colour in these formal, highly stylized heads is very varied and interesting. Some are very dark, some very colourful, others more monochromatic. I decided to take these abstract heads as my inspiration for my mask piece. I'm adhering to the formal structure, but making it my own with colours and positioning of small variable elements. I hope you will like what will be revealed next week!

 

Here are some details of my work in progress:

 

 

 

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