Layer Cake and Picture Puzzles

When I was a kid my sister Kathy and I would spend inordinate amounts of time putting together those big 1000 piece picture puzzles. I loved them. One particular favorite was of a covered bridge flanked by maddeningly intricate marsh grasses and forests. To put the darned thing together required incredibly sharp observation of the colors and patterns. But just as much one had to study the distinctive silhouettes of the cut out puzzle pieces to see if they might be the right one to fit the annoying empty hole in the left size of the bridge. Honestly, I can't imagine a better training for an artist-to-be.

Above is an oil by a German-American painter Oscar Bluemner done in the first decades of the 20th century. Look at the elegant spaces between the yellow houses where Bluemner planted his trees. Their thick bending trunks push back agains the encroaching architecture. Here the artist is consciously playing off two very different kinds of flat silhouetted form against each other. There's a little bit of a struggle going on, but it's fun to watch. I have a suspicion Bluemner played with picture puzzles when he was a kid too. His love of expressive flat shapes like these give him away.

Below is a seemingly different species of landscape painting, an 1860 oil by the Amerian Sanford Gifford.

Like the Bluemner though, Gifford is thinking about flattening out his shapes into an interlocking arrangement. From the left a sunlit foreground plane pushes in and overlaps an opposing dark row of trees that entered the stage from the right. They in turn overlap a looming orange mountain that came in from the left. And it lies on top of the final actor, a distant blue mountain who made his entrance from the right. It's like a fancy four layer wedding cake.

Notice though that each of Gifford's four major planes has its own distinctive silhouetter- he bends over backwards to not let them just be just vague organic shapes. Instead, like our friend Bluemner above, each flat plane has its own personality.

There is a richness to being alive. Good art speaks to that. In these two paintings we see two artists evoking some of that richness by drawing shapes with intrinsically expressive flat silhouettes.

Reality is also so much more than just silhouettes. We spend our whole lives swimming through a sea of space and air. Gifford very obviously wanted to express great spatial depth in his work. Bluemner, in a way that's less obvious, did too. Both artist built convincing spaces by piling lots silhouettes on top of each other.

Next time you're lookng at a painting, ask yourself to imagine eating cake, a tall piece of a three or four layer cake. And think back to when you used to put picture puzzles together, picking up the individual pieces in your fingers, studying the protruding and indented outer contours. If you can put the whole puzzle together maybe you can have a second piece of cake (I'm told it's really yummy).

Here's another Bluemner.

Bluemer met the famous photographer and pioneering art gallery owner Alfried Stielitz in 1908. Steiglitz championed Bluemner's powerful work. The aritst was included in the historic Amory Show in 1913 and two years later had his first solo exhibition at Stieglitz's famous 291 Gallery. Unfortunately his work never sold well and he and his family lived in near poverty. His wife died and several years later Bluemner, overwhelmed by his setbacks, committed suicide. Sadly, of course, now his work is avidly collected at very steep prices. Not much in the way of justice for Bluemner. But he did produce a vast number of very beautiful modernist landscapes.


  1. Great post, Phil. Though I was familiar with 291, I don't recall hearing about Bluemner. I like the work, and I'm glad that Stieglitz tried to promote it.
    Alfred was a great dealer, and an early champion of American art. Imagine having that kind of talent and representation, and still not being able to create even a modest income.
    Very tragic, indeed, the commerce of art is littered with broken dreams.

  2. "the commerce of art is littered with broken dreams"

    Joe, that's sad but also a pretty poetic line. Fortunately it's not written in stone that is HAS to be that way, and there are some genuine "happy ending" stories to place alongside the sorrowful tales.

    Still, your point is well taken. I remember reading a biography of Camille Pissaro and being astounded at the financial hardship such an icon of classic French Impressionism in fact endured. Then you read about some of the insane prices "hot" contemporary arists like Damien Hirst are getting and you just want to cringe.


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