The modernists lived during a time in which society was undergoing major technological, material and existential changes. Their time was characterised by large noisy cities, rapid social change and the breaking away from old, possibly secure, frameworks.
Reality offered new technology, new means of communication and travel to large vibrant cities. Tendencies like anxiety, restlessness and alienation are generally connected with modernism, but in this exhibition room, we would like to conjure up the sensual qualities of the new technological and material reality.
Many critics have pointed out that the male modernists have had too great a focus on technology, alienation and progress, and that, subsequently, modernism lacks stories about bodies, gender, souls and lived lives.
Charlotte Wankel, Gudrun Kongelf, Else Christie Kielland and Agnes Cleve are four artists who paint the new modern society with empathy and sensitivity.
This Swedish globetrotter travelled between Berlin, Paris and New York and moved in the inner circles of the modernist art world. She studied under the French cubist painter Henri le Fauconnier at the Académie de la Palette (the Palette Academy) in Paris, but she was also heavily influenced by two expressionists: Vasilij Kandinsky and Gabrielle Münther. For that reason, her style came to be called ‘cubist expressionism’.
Much of Cleve’s art includes landscapes, portraits, industrial environments and views from her studios in Stockholm, Gothenburg and Bohuslän. Her work also features scenes from her travels throughout Europe, North Africa and America.
Cleve depicts the pulsation and dynamism of this new, modern life. Using intense colours and shapes, she creates paintings that radiate light, sound, pulsation and energy. In letters from Paris to her children at home, she writes that people do not understand the new modern style.
And then always the same irritating feedback of being told that it doesn’t look like that in reality. And what a pity that you can’t copy reality more accurately!
-Agnes Cleve in Paris, 20 June 1914
Kongelf was one of the leading Norwegian non-figurative artists of the 1950s. She said that her abstract style arose out of her search for an understanding of the world around her. She felt that it was the modern world with all its uncertainty and anxiety about the future that had led artists to search for a new means of expression.
In her 1950s’ paintings, Kongelf avoided any connections with natural forms. The paintings were constructed using universal geometric shapes and the concrete instruments of the painting itself such as materiality, colours and textures. ‘Really, the secret lies in displacements in the surface, line, form and colour.’
The objective of her paintings seems to be to get ‘behind’ reality, to a spiritual, existential condition. In the painting Hvit Ekspansjon (White Expansion) (1955), she combines grey and yellow geometric shapes with softer organic lines. The composition is a dynamic form that bursts out of the surface like an expansion or an explosion.
The artists have turned away from the “outer world” and worked inwards towards the more invisible part of nature. They had to go on their own personal journeys to, through realisation, seek a force that is totality.
had studied at the Académie Matisse and at the Académie Moderne under the French purists Amedée Ozenfant and Fernand Léger. There she had learned to observe pure geometrical forms and to understand how to create a stringent composition where shapes worked together by using a carefully adapted colour scale.
The purists together with the Italian futurists and the American precisionists were all in awe of modern machinery and technology. And if we consider Wankel’s Ved bryggen (By the Quay) in terms of Ozenfant’s purism, it becomes clear how Wankel tries to isolate and experiment with the geometric forms as pure aesthetic elements. The squares, ovals and tube-like forms are all purely drawn and the cool, pastel tones she uses help to give the painting a pure expression that directs our thoughts to machinery or metal.
Modern cubism has a clear connection to what is currently going on, and it satisfies the needs of our time. It tastes of iron and cement and gives expression to a movement that can be found again in the latest architecture.
ELSE CHRISTIE KIELLAND
One of the major themes in 1930s art was the need to create order on the picture plane. The Danish artist Georg Jacobsen taught at the National Academy of Arts in Oslo and instilled in the so-called Jacobins a geometrical pictorial language.
Else Christie Kielland (1903–1993) was one of these artists; she not only learned from Jacobsen, but Harriet Backer as well. Kielland had a particular interest in geometrical and regular forms, and although her work is rarely as abstract as Charlotte Wankel’s paintings, her interest in mathematics and geometry is there like a backdrop .
Her interest in geometry is obvious in her woodcut Komposisjon med halvmåne (Composition with Half Moon) (1935), which features a stylised, geometrical landscape. Christie Kielland produced a large number of landscapes of Western Norway in which her view that it is only ‘within regularity that great art can be created’ is clear to the observer.
… I have two different forms of expression … just as a poet has poetry and prose, I have the abstract, decorative and the naturalistic painting.
-Else Christie Kielland