How Art Inspires
Five great paintings and why they changed my life
When I was aged 16, my art teacher at school took me aside one day and asked me if I’d ever heard of a painter called Wassily Kandinsky. I never had. I was exploring the possibilities of art at the time, and since my own paintings were beginning to move towards abstraction, my teacher thought that I might find Kandinsky interesting.
I took his advice and went to the school library where I found a book dedicated to the Russian artist. I had never seen anything quite like it. Kandinsky was a Russian who spent much of his adult life in Germany where he taught at the Bauhaus school of art and architecture. As a painter, he is credited with making some of the very first purely abstract works in Western art. Painting, he wrote, “can develop the same energies as music.”
To share here, I’ve chosen a piece called Composition V which Kandinsky painted in 1911.
The work is an explosion of colour, shapes and form appearing and disappearing with theatrical suddenness. Great ribbons of black, like pathways over hilltops, encircle highlights of blues and reds and other shades, contours intersecting and combining feverishly.
The painting came midway in his career, though as an abstract piece it is one of his earlier works. It contains all the vital energy he would later resolve into more complex and deliberate compositions. For me, the unbounded liveliness of Composition V gives the painting an untamed, dream-like quality. Though I didn’t know it at the time, I realise now that Kandinsky taught me to understand the power of spontaneity and in releasing my senses into the realm of intuition.
‘Bacchus’ by Caravaggio
When I was 19 I was fortunate enough to spend three months exploring the capital cities of Europe. When I reached Florence, Italy, I visited the famous Uffizi Gallery and saw Caravaggio’s Bacchus. I was enthralled by the image and remain so.
In my late teens, I was at an age when the measureless breadth of the world was just becoming apparent to me. Walking through ancient and modern cities, meeting other travellers, seeking out romance, my impression of what was possible in life was transforming.
The painting shows Bacchus, the Greek God of wine, as a callow youth. The boy-god is swathed in autumnal vine leaves, draping over a thicket of black hair that itself might be a bunch of black grapes. His cheeks are plump and red. He is half-robed, clutching a ribbon in one hand and a glass of wine in the other, reclined before a table bearing a carafe of wine and a basket of overripe fruit. There is pomegranate, pear, apple, peach, quince, fig, plum and grape.
The setting is opulent yet also unstable. For me the force of the painting lies in two details: The first is the particular shape of the wine glass offered by the boy, a glass so extraordinarily shallow that it seems to emanate decadence itself. The wine inside shimmers with fresh ripples — as if the boy is shaking a little with excitement as he passes it. All of the energy of the painting is concentrated in this wine glass. The boy seems not the least bit drunk, only placid and self-assured as he welcomes us into his private soirée. As if to underline the worldly setting, the second detail that always catches my attention is the grubby pillow on the bottom-left of the painting, exposed beneath the sheets, the one with the blue stripe, reminding us that the opulence here is makeshift and temporary.
This painting has always felt to me like an invitation to something velvet, a certain lurid promise beneath a veneer of calm. It gave expression to the experiences I was having as a 19 year old, of being made aware of possibilities for my own fulfillment, ever more real as I stepped out into the world and moved through it’s urban landscapes — accompanied by the question: ought I to reach forward and take the drink?
‘Evening Over Potsdam’ by Lotte Laserstein
After my travels I went onto university. One of the text books for my course in philosophy had on its front cover a painting that truly caught my imagination. I looked at it again and again and came to adore its details. It has remained one of my very favourites paintings.
Lotte Laserstein was a German painter who lived through the Weimar years as an independent artist in Berlin. She kept a studio in Wilmersdorf, a popular area for artists and intellectuals alike. It was a province of the neue Frau and a fashionable district for shopping and entertainment. As a female artist, Laserstein had to compete for status among male painters. One is impressed by the clarity of her decision, at the age of eleven, to never marry, which was also the same age she resolved to become a painter. She kept her word, later arguing that forgoing marriage was a necessary choice for maintaining her independence as an artist.
When Laserstein painted Evening Over Potsdam, she was in her early thirties and still in the early stages of her career. Few of her other paintings achieve the same monumentality and complexity of feeling as this work. She depicts the late afternoon remnants of a luncheon party on a roof terrace in Potsdam, a town near to Berlin. It is a virtuoso painting of youthful pathos and shared disquiet, with its cast of five characters (and a sleepy dog) positioned across a seven foot canvas in various poses of naturalistic languor. Behind is the city, beautifully depicted in muted brown and yellow tones, with church spires pricking the skyline.
‘Portrait of the Journalist Sylvia Von Harden’ by Otto Dix
Since I discovered Lotte Lastestein in my early twenties, I went on to take a deep interest in the artists of Germany in the years between the wars. In particular, I grew to revere the movement known as Neue Sachlichkeit, or New Objectivity as it is usually translated.
As an art movement, New Objectivity rejected romantic idealism in favour of a crueler and more candid type of art form. It is not to everyone’s taste, but for me I remain deeply impressed with the portrayal of a troubled society in a painterly manner that is both highly-charged and satirical.
This painting, by Otto Dix, of a well known journalist called Sylvia Von Harden, is in my opinion one of the great works of the twentieth century.
It is unsentimental and naturalistic, and has a bruising severity about it. The way her hand rests on her hip with fingers splayed, the way her stockings are beginning to unroll down her legs, the monocle fixed in her right eye, the bitter expression on her face, and most of all, the terrible clash of colours between the strawberry-red of her dress and the pink-purple of the wall in the background. All of these details combine into a gripping and hypnotic image.
If you would like to see this painting, it currently hangs in the Musuem of Modern Art at the Centre Georges Pompidou, Paris.
‘Christina’s World’ by Andrew Wyeth
I have always kept a lookout for works of art that get beneath the surface of everyday reality. Works that, perhaps, offer an eerie perspective on ordinary experience.
Andrew Wyeth painted Christina’s World in 1948, when he was 31 years old. What is particularly arresting to me about the image is how Wyeth has generated extraordinary psychological tension within the work through its composition: see how the woman leans from left to right, creating a surge of repressed energy that moves diagonally across the canvas through her body to the house in the top corner. Her left hand reaches forward towards the house whilst her left leg trials behind. This upward arc is mirrored in the tire tracks that lead up to the house on the right-side of the painting.
The image gains pathos when one learns that Christina was a friend who had been stricken with polio. In the painting, she is making her way across a field without a wheelchair. It is one of the best-known images in 20th-century American art, currently in the collection of the Museum of Modern Art in New York City.
As I grow older, I find it remarkable how certain works of art have stayed with me through the years. Paintings that survive over centuries, speaking from other eras, from countries not my own. These works of art inspired me once and have since become my way-markers, the points on the landscape that I return to for orientation. I hope you enjoyed looking at them.