Tag Archives: Art

Terre Potentiel | The City in Art

Paul Klee’s Highways and Byways (1929), 67 x 83 cm or 26.4” x 32.7”, oil on canvas, Christoph and Andr Collection displayed in Museum Ludwig, Cologne, Germany.

Terre Potentiel | The City in Art
by Dr. Mark David Major, AICP, CNU-A

According to the one interpretation of Paul Klee’s Highways and Byways, plots of lands are used as ‘building blocks’ to offer an aerial view of the landscape in order to create the illusion of perspective and relief. “Complexity emerges geometrically by successive doublings from a central ‘highway’ to create ‘byways’ (i.e. small, more dense or compact plots of land), only to be lost again by inversely halving their number.” The largest plots forming the central ‘highway’ approach a water body (probably the River Nile since this period of Klee’s paintings came after a trip to Egypt). However, the title of Klee’s painting indicates a different interpretation than agricultural plots for the colored strata (Source: The Peacock’s Tail: Essays on Mathematics and Culture). It does seem to hint at more than an abstract painting of an agricultural landscape. Perhaps skewed by an American perspective towards the land, it might suggest terre potentiel (the potential of the land). Humans have already intervened in the landscape for agricultural uses and the river already serves as a transportation hub, both associated with the support mechanisms for urban living. “In this pattern of fields, all is order, timeless structure, with a poetic element added… in twentieth-century creative language” (Source: PaulKlee.net). It is in this ‘timeless structure of order’ that can be found the design traces of a future urban pattern, a future city that has yet to emerge from the land but the potential for its emergence is already etched in the landscape. I love this painting, not so much for what it represents in the ‘here and now’ (though it is beautiful only on these terms) but what it represents about the possible, the “undiscovered country,” …the future, where all travelers must venture but none may journey before it is time.

About Paul Klee
Paul Klee (1879–1940) was born near Bern, Switzerland. He studied drawing and painting in Munich for three years beginning in 1898. By 1911, he was involved with the German Expressionist group Der Blaue Reiter (The Blue Rider), founded by Wassily Kandinsky and Franz Marc. In 1914, Klee visited Tunisia. The experience was the turning point. The limpid light of North Africa awakened his sense of color. Klee gradually detached color from physical description and used it independently, giving him the final push toward abstraction. In 1920, Walter Gropius invited Klee to join the faculty of the Bauhaus. Nearly half of Klee’s work was produced during the ten years he taught at the Bauhaus. From 1931-1933, Klee taught at the Academy of Fine Arts in Düsseldorf. When the National Socialists declared his art “degenerate”, he returned to his native Bern. Klee suffered from a wasting disease, scleroderma, towards the end of his life, enduring the pain until his death in Muralto, Locarno, Switzerland, on June 29, 1940 (Source: Metropolitan Museum of Art/Wikipedia).

Visit the Artsy.net Paul Klee page here.

Read a later article about another Paul Klee painting featured in The City in Art series here.

The City in Art is a series by The Outlaw Urbanist. The purpose is to present and discuss artistic depictions of the city that can help us, as professionals, learn to better see the city in ways that are invisible to others. Before the 20th century, most artistic representations of the city broadly fell into, more or less, three categories: literalism, pastoral romanticism, and impressionism, or some variation thereof. Generally, these artistic representations of the city lack a certain amount of substantive interest for the modern world. The City in Art series places particular emphasis on art and photography from the dawn of the 20th century to the present day.

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Abstracting New York | The City in Art

Piet Mondrian’s New York City I (1942), oil on canvas, 119.3 cm x 114.2 cm, Musée National d’Art Moderne, Centre Georges Pompidou, Paris, France.

Abstracting New York | The City in Art
by Dr. Mark David Major, AICP, CNU-A

In the main, Piet Mondrian’s New York City I (1942) can be simply read as an elegantly beautiful abstraction of the Manhattan gridiron whereby streets are represented in primary colors (red, blue, yellow) and blocks in white. However, this first-impression interpretation of the painting is actually dictated by the edge of the canvas itself, which the viewer uses to define a series of unseen parallel or perpendicular streets subconsciously incorporated within the abstracted pattern as a given. Another (equally rich) interpretation of Mondrian’s painting is an abstracted ‘snapshot’ of built form in Manhattan, whereby primary colors represent vertical construction elements (post, beams and/or floors) and white represents the space ‘framed’ within these load-bearing elements. These white shapes could also be interpreted as ‘windows’ into those spaces. In this sense, Mondrian is playing with the two-dimensional plane of the canvas (a recurring motif of 20th-century representations of the city) to not only abstract but also ‘compress’ the abstraction of built space in the city. Given the De Stijl artists’ preference for universality in their abstractions, this latter interpretation might actually be closer to Mondrian’s original vision for the painting since the ‘vertical’ interpretation would be universal to all cities whereas the ‘horizontal’ one tends to be particular to New York and American cities in general. Mondrian’s New York City I builds upon and works within the artistic principles and framework outlined by Mondrian himself for the De Stijl movement, first reaching fruition in 1920 with Composition A: Composition with Black, Red, Gray, Yellow, and Blue. We will see some additional examples of Mondrian’s work in later issues of The City in Art.

About Piet Mondrian
Piet Mondrian (1872-1944) was an important contributor to the De Stijl art movement and group, which was founded by Theo van Doesburg in The Netherlands. Mondrian evolved a non-representational form, which he termed Neo-Plasticism. This consisted of white ground, upon which was painted a grid of vertical and horizontal black lines and the three primary colors. Proponents of De Stijl sought to express a new utopian ideal of spiritual harmony and order. They advocated pure abstraction and universality by a reduction to the essentials of form and color; they simplified visual compositions in the vertical and horizontal directions and used only primary colors along with black and white. Mondrian himself set forth these principles in “Neo-Plasticism in Pictorial Art,” writing, “… this new plastic idea will ignore the particulars of appearance, that is to say, natural form and color. On the contrary, it should find its expression in the abstraction of form and color, that is to say, in the straight line and the clearly defined primary color.” Mondrian attended the Academy for Fine Art in Amsterdam and began his career in the Netherlands. He later worked in Paris, London, and New York. He died of pneumonia on February 1, 1944, in New York (Source: Wikipedia/Tate Gallery).

The City in Art is a series by The Outlaw Urbanist. The purpose is to present and discuss artistic depictions of the city that can help us, as professionals, learn to better see the city in ways that are invisible to others. Before the 20th century, most artistic representations of the city broadly fell into, more or less, three categories: literalism, pastoral romanticism, and impressionism, or some variation thereof. Generally, these artistic representations of the city lack a certain amount of substantive interest for the modern world. The City in Art series places particular emphasis on art and photography from the dawn of the 20th century to the present day.

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Floating Towards Jerusalem | The City in Art

Lajos Vajda’s Floating Houses, 1937, 46 x 32 cm, tempera on paper (Private Collection).

Floating Towards Jerusalem | The City in Art
by Dr. Mark David Major, AICP, CNU-A

Lajos Vajda’s Floating Houses (1937) is a personal favorite. Some sources describe Floating Houses as a surrealist work, which actually seems a better description about Vajda’s artistic circle (see below) than the composition itself. Instead, Floating Houses is better characterized as an avant-garde abstract composition that represents its subject (a townscape) liberated of gravity and dimensionally.

The only concession to gravity lies at the edge of the composition (i.e. canvas). This can be seen in the overlapping houses at the bottom and the inverted house form depicted along the right edge. This ‘gravity of the edge’ abstracts an invariant characteristic of urban form. There is a type of gravity associated with settlement edges, which is both economic and resource-based in nature due to the availability of (cheap) land. By definition, settlements grow at their edges. Floating Houses represents this invariant in a wonderfully inventive and whimsical manner. The only concession to dimensionally emerges from the two-dimensional plane of the canvas itself, most evident in the overlapping house forms at the bottom right. Many artists have played with the two-dimensional plane of the canvas in this manner for depicting an urbanscape. We will see some additional examples in subsequent articles during this series.

Vajda’s use of color for this composition also represents something rich about human settlements. Though the houses have been liberated from gravity and dimensionally in a free-floating environment, the predominant use of earth tones reiterates the unbreakable relationship of the settlement to the land, or man-to-nature. The intermittent use of white, providing a beautiful contrast to the predominant earth tones, appears principally reserved for representing man-made structural elements (window frames, a roof peak, and foundations). This embeds Floating Houses with a dialogue about the man-nature didactic. Interesting, the use of white (a symbol of purity) for representing these man-man structural components may suggest a positivist perspective on this subject within the composition.

For an artist noted for his use of religious symbolism, this might appear to be lacking in Floating Houses…. at first glance. Vajda’s use of four-pane windows and the resulting depiction of a cross might be incidental. However, since these cross forms tend to be framed by the white man-made structural elements, it is rather a subtle comment about religion being primarily a product of man than nature. If we accept this interpretation, then the artist also appears to concede a component of religion to the natural by using the darker browns (of wood, or nature) for the three crosses. In this context, the symbolism of the three crosses becomes significant, i.e. the Holy Trinity, Christ was crucified with two others (criminals) at Golgotha, and he rose on the third day. This introduces a dark undercurrent in terms of purity (Christ) and criminality (those crucified with him) for this representation of a townscape. Vajda then reinforces the message with the depiction of three paneless framed windows in white (good) and three voids represented in black (evil) at the center bottom. Finally, the most central part of the composition (white roof peak with two round voids) takes on an anthropomorphic quality that watches over the town (perhaps God or some other force). Taken together, this embeds Lajos Vajda’s Floating Houses with multiple layers of meaning and symbolism about Man, nature, and religion, good and evil, and town and country.

About Lajos Vajda
Lajos Vajda (1908-1941) was a Hungarian avant-garde painter and a student at the Hungarian Academy of Fine Arts in 1927-30. He studied with Fernand Léger at Paris in 1930-34, where he was introduced to cubism and surrealism. Vajda collected folk art motifs for his artworks. He combined religious (Orthodox Christian, Roman Catholic, and Jewish) symbols, architectural and folk art motifs, abstract, figurative, and surrealistic elements on his art to create complex visionary images. He is considered the most distinctive artist of the Hungarian avant-garde movement. His art influenced generations of Hungarian artists including the members of the European School Art Group (1945-1948) and the Vajda Lajos Studio (est. 1972). Vajda died in a Jewish forced labor camp in the fall of 1941 at the age of 33 (Source: Wikipedia and American University).

The City in Art is a series by The Outlaw Urbanist. The purpose is to present and discuss artistic depictions of the city that can help us, as professionals, learn to better see the city in ways that are invisible to others. Before the 20th century, most artistic representations of the city broadly fell into, more or less, three categories: literalism, pastoral romanticism, and impressionism, or some variation thereof. Generally, these artistic representations of the city lack a certain amount of substantive interest for the modern world. The City in Art series places particular emphasis on art and photography from the dawn of the 20th century to the present day.

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We Are All Big Brother Now | The Outlaw Urbanist

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