Anatomy of an Artwork: Oscar Bluemner's Dynamic Colours

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Painted in 1934, the brilliant, jewel-like palette of Violet Tones is characteristic of Oscar Bluemner’s work from the decade and illustrates his shared aesthetic and theoretical affinities with Wassily Kandinsky and Franz Marc, the leaders of the German artistic movement Der Blaue Reiter.  In the present work, a darkened street—either Bank or Smith—in Elizabeth, New Jersey, is rendered in bold blacks and greys. Above, the dusk sky blazes with riotous color in vivid hues of pink, blue, purple and yellow. In Bluemner's works, each colour conveys complex symbolic and emotional significance.

American Art
23 May | New York

Anatomy of an Artwork: Oscar Bluemner's Dynamic Colours

  • Oscar Bluemner, Violet Tones, 1934. Estimate $2,000,000–3,000,000.
  • Adopting Styles, Adapting Techniques
    Throughout the first decades of the century, Bluemner mined a diverse range of artistic sources for inspiration, engaging with elements of Cubism, Fauvism, Futurism, and Expressionism to create a unique visual language that championed art as a manifestation of inner consciousness and color as the primary vehicle for this expression. Art, “comes from the inside,” he wrote. “Nature delivers no pictures” (quoted in Barbara Haskell, Oscar Bluemner: Passion for Color, New York, 2005, p. 31). These ideas remained central to Bluemner’s conception of his work as he continuously revised his artistic theories, wrote prolifically and experimented with a wide range of media.  He described this composition in his painting diary on August 24, 1934, writing “I saw very rose violet lightened large clouds in a cyan sky. Black yard spaces. Dull red fences a lemon yellow shed. Old apple trees” (Oscar Bluemner Papers, Painting Diary 1934, Archives of American Art, Smithsonian Institution, Washington, D.C. p. 81).

  • Tones of Colour and of Music
    Befitting the work’s title, Bluemner overlaps varied shades of violet colour to expressive effect. He believed that that both colour and form held spiritual value and painting, like music, had the ability to prompt emotional responses that were unbound to a particular subject matter or image. “Look at my work the way you would listen to music,” he wrote. “Look at the space filled with colors and try to feel; do not insist on ‘understanding’ what seems strange… When you ‘FEEL’ colors, you will understand the ‘WHY’ of their forms. It is so simple” (quoted in Barbara Haskell, Oscar Bluemner: Passion for Color, New York, 2005, p. 146).

  • Signs of Industrialization
    Like many American modernists, Bluemner drew inspiration from the rapidly changing environment of the 20th century. In this work, he alludes to the encroaching industrialization of the country with his inclusion of a telephone pole and factory smokestack. By the beginning of the 1930s, Bluemner had developed a body of work that primarily utilised the local landscape and architecture as motifs, working in both oil and watercolor. 

  • Nature’s Resilience
    The organic forms and arabesque lines of the billowy clouds and twisted branches of the tree in the foreground are what ultimately command the viewer’s attention however. This compelling juxtaposition of the natural and the manmade echoes the work of Georgia O’Keeffe, who also explored the iconography of urban living in this period. Bluemner knew O’Keeffe through her husband, the avant-garde photographer and gallerist, Alfred Stieglitz, who gave Bluemner his first solo exhibition in America at his famed 291 Gallery in 1915. 

  • Recurrent Reds
    In Bluemner’s descriptive palette, red conveyed strength and vitality.  The rust red fence pictured here boldly directs the eye toward the center of the composition. Red structures, rendered in geometric planes, appear throughout Bluemner’s oeuvre, as in  Red Night. Thoughts and Composition  at the Whitney Museum of American Art.  Bluemner, who adopted the nickname “The Vermillionaire,” used the hue to render diverse aspects of his visual environment, from the sides of barns to burning suns, brick mills to rolling hills. The German-born artist’s emphasis on the colour speaks to his influence by Northern Renaissance masters Lucas Cranach and Rogier van der Weyden, who used the colour to evocative effect. 


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