Suspense & Tension in Nicole Eisenman's 'Biergarten' Series

Suspense & Tension in Nicole Eisenman's 'Biergarten' Series

Nicole Eisenman's career-defining series serves as a commentary on contemporary culture, whilst harking back to the bucolic scenes of the Impressionists.
Nicole Eisenman's career-defining series serves as a commentary on contemporary culture, whilst harking back to the bucolic scenes of the Impressionists.

I n 2015, the Brooklyn-based artist Nicole Eisenman was awarded a prestigious MacArthur Fellowship award. She was praised for “expanding the critical and expressive capacity of the Western figurative tradition through works that engage contemporary social issues.” Born in 1965, Eisenman is an alumna of the Rhode Island School of Design and regarded today as one of the leading painters of her generation. Her most celebrated series, Beer Garden, depicts an array of contemporary Brooklynites – many of them her friends – socialising in beer gardens.

Eisenman took her principal inspiration from Pierre-Auguste Renoir’s 1876 painting, Bal du moulin de la Galette, one of the masterpieces of Impressionism. This captured a large group of Parisians enjoying themselves on a Sunday afternoon at a popular dance spot on the Butte Montmartre. Eisenman chose to update that picture for the present day, with one significant difference.      

The Frenchman conveys a wholly joyful atmosphere, something reflected by his use of vibrant, brightly coloured brushstrokes. The Beer Garden scenes, by contrast, though tending to be lively, have a slight sense of unease about them. Speaking in 2008, a year after she began her series, Eisenman said her settings are where “certain residents of 21st-century Brooklyn go to socialize, to commiserate about how the world is a f***ed-up place and about our culture’s obsession with happiness. The paintings… hopefully present something of a ballast to that obsession. It's healthy to look at sadness in the world, and in yourself, and to dwell on it for a little while”.      

Biergarten, the first painting from Eisenman’s series, is being offered in the Modern & Contemporary Evening Auction featuring The Now sale at Sotheby’s in London on 6 March. The title of the work is the German word for "beer garden", reflecting the Bavarian origins of this type of venue. Eisenman also chose to set this scene not, as per the rest of the series, in her home borough, but in a bucolic German landscape. Boasting a particularly bountiful apple tree, this beer garden is depicted under a blue sky, with rolling hills in the distance.    


Two figures sit beneath the tree, clinking beer glasses together in the foreground. Behind them a group of five people are gathered around a table, one of them strumming a guitar. At first glance, this vibrantly colourful scene seems to be one of pure pleasantness. On closer inspection, however, a more nuanced dynamic becomes apparent – in line with the rest of the Beer Garden series. The figure on the right stares into space, avoiding the glance of their companion, the disconnect between them augmented by the difference in the colour of their hair, skin and clothing – as well as the beer they drink. Each member of the quintet, meanwhile, is lost in a drunken stupor. No figure in this scene shares eye contact with another, recalling Edvard Munch’s compositions where multiple figures occupy a relatively small space and yet still all seem isolated.

“When I painted my first beer-garden scene, I immediately wanted to keep painting them”, Eisenman has said of Biergarten. She began the series in 2007, and it remains ongoing. Examples from it featured prominently in Nicole Eisenman: What Happened, the artist’s first comprehensive retrospective, held recently at Munich’s Museum Brandhorst and the Whitechapel Gallery in London. That show’s title reflected its subject’s gift for chronicling the joys and adversities of urban living at the end of the last century and the start of this one – often with a satirical eye. Her oeuvre is distinguished by its interplay between contemporary subject matter and centuries-old art historical influences.  


In the case of Biergarten, those influences extend beyond Renoir and Munch to the 1930s murals of the Federal Art Project, whose figures are recalled in this painting’s stoutly-built main couple. (It’s worth noting as an aside that the couple, though assumed to be a man and woman, are probably of indeterminate gender – as Eisenman’s figures often are.)
The artist made her breakthrough in the early 1990s with a set of eye-catching drawings, many of them violently anti-patriarchal in nature. Over subsequent decades, her art has evolved and – as noted by the MacArthur Foundation – increasingly explored the broad topics of community, identity and society. The Beer Garden series is a wonderfully vivid example of this: snapshots not just of goings-on in different beer gardens, but of how we live today.

Contemporary Art

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