Nature is Imagination Itself

In preparation for his Curator’s Perspective tonight, Seeing Nature Curator Klaus Ottmann shares some thoughts on the exhibition.

Install shot_dow cezanne

Installation view of Seeing Nature: Landscape Masterworks from the Paul G. Allen Family Collection. Arthur Wesley Dow, “Cosmic Cities, Grand Canyon of Arizona” (1912). At right, Paul Cézanne, “Mont Sainte-Victoire” (1888–90)

But to the Eyes of the Man of Imagination
Nature is Imagination itself.
As a man is so he sees.
                                     — William Blake (1799)

What is the power of landscapes? What is it that makes the vision of artists applied to canvas able to connect our individual lives with the cosmos itself?

Innate to any landscape are the emotions we feel in its presence. These moods and feelings are not merely in our brains, our heart, and our senses; they are also inherent to the landscapes themselves. For the ancient Greeks, each landscape evoked particular divinities. For the 17th-century English travelers crossing the Alps to Italy, it was the feeling of the Sublime, a “delight that is consistent with reason yet mingled with Horrors, and sometimes almost with despair.”

As William Blake noted in 1799, there is a special connection between Nature and the Imagination. For this exhibition, the Allen Institute for Brain Science has been investigating this special link: “People talk about how our brains are wired to see landscapes, to look at landscapes and to see what’s going on in them—so there’s something about landscapes that seems almost universally attractive,” Paul Allen has said. “It’s a way of looking outward.”

Justine Otto: Phillips Collection Emerging Artist Prize

Justine Otto with work_AW

Artist Justine Otto with her work recently acquired by The Phillips Collection.

This month, The Phillips Collection awarded its second Emerging Artist Prize, again selected from works on display at the (e)merge art fair, which closed October 5. This year’s winner is the 40-year-old Polish-born German artist Justine Otto, whose works were on view at the Hamburg-based gallery polarraum. Phillips Director Dorothy Kosinski, Senior Curator of Modern and Contemporary Art Vesela Sretenovič, and myself selected two small paintings by the artist: O.T. (Strich) and Ophto.

Otto.Justine_Emerging Artist Prize

Justine Otto, Ophto, 2014. Oil on canvas, 19.7 x 15.7 inches. Copyright Justine Otto

Justine Otto’s figurative paintings show some affinities with the so-called New Leipzig School of painting, although Otto studied at the Städelschule, the prestigious art academy in Frankfurt, and lives and works in Hamburg. Like the most prominent protagonist of the Leipzig school, Neo Rauch, Otto’s paintings, most of which are based on found photographs, owe some debt to both social realist painting and surrealism. However, Otto paints in a more expressionist style, with looser brushstrokes, and her paintings mostly depict women, children, and animals, creating narratives that are both puzzling and intriguing.

The oval–shaped painting O.T. (Strich) (Untitled, Line) depicts a group of children working on a long table suggestive of a classroom. The subtitle may refer to series of lines that frequently appear in Ottos’s paintings, giving her work a touch of conceptualism. Ophto features a young woman holding up an ophthalmological instrument to her right eye while standing in a forest. Both paintings evoke the style of German photographs from the 1940s.

Otto’s works are welcome additions to our growing holdings of contemporary German art, which include recent acquisitions by Wolfgang Laib, Walther Dahn, Franz Erhard Walther, Georg Baselitz, and Markus Lüpertz.

As in the previous year, the Phillips Emerging Artist Prize was made possible by the generous support of Hank and Carol Brown Goldberg.

A Wax Room for Anselm

Last month I traveled from Paris to Barjac, a small town in the region of Languedoc-Roussillon northwest of Avignon, to attend the inauguration of a permanent installation by German artist Wolfgang Laib. Laib had been working for the last four years on an enormous beeswax room, not unlike the one he created at The Phillips Collection last year, but on a much larger scale—an underground chamber, about 40 meters (over 130 feet) long with many more lightbulbs but equally aromatic and meditative. Laib’s newest wax room, entitled From the Known to the Unknown—To Where Is Your Oracle Leading You (2014), is installed at La Ribaute, on the grounds of a former silk factory that is now the studio of the German artist Anselm Kiefer.

Laib Wax Room

Wolfgang Laib in his wax room at La Ribaute. Photo: Klaus Ottmann

Kiefer began developing this complex in the mid-1990s. It spreads over 86 acres and includes three 19th-century stone buildings surrounded by fields and woods. Two of the residential buildings are now connected by a industrial-sized enclosed footbridge that Kiefer built for his two young children when he still lived on the grounds (he has since moved with his family to Paris). Kiefer’s Gesamtkunstwerk is now comprised of more than 50 separate buildings out of glass, steel, or concrete as well as a series of underground tunnels—all housing his mostly monumental paintings and sculptures.

La Ribaute

La Ribaute, France. Photo: Klaus Ottmann

Laib’s wax room at La Ribaute is the first of a series of works by other artists Kiefer is planning to commission as he is starting to transform La Ribaute into a public exhibition site. The inauguration, which was attended by 300 guests including artists, collectors, and curators, took place on May 31 with a concert of music by Edgar Varese and Heinz Holliger, performed by the French Classical flutist Sophie Cherrier, a member of the renown Ensemble International, and an opulent dinner in Kiefer’s residential quarters.

One of the most impressive installations by Kiefer is an underground chamber that contains a small version of his work Les Femmes de la révolution (1992), which is comprised of lead beds, one photograph on lead, and wall texts. The work is inspired by The Women of the French Revolution, a chronicle by 19th-century historian Jules Michelet. A larger version of this installation is currently on view as part of Kiefer’s semi-permanent exhibition at Mass Moca in North Adams, Massachusetts.

Les femmes de la révolution

Anselm Kiefer, Les Femmes del la révolution (Installation at La Ribaute). Photo: Klaus Ottmann