Friday, September 28, 2012

A little about Nicolai Fechin

I was in Minneapolis this last week and returned to the Museum of Russian Art. If you live in that area, or are passing through Minneapolis, this is a wonderful museum  It shows a collection begun about twenty five years ago by Raymond E. Johnson, a Scottsdale, Arizona art dealer. Johnson bought an enormous collection of Soviet era art during the time when Gorbachev was thawing relationships with the west. About ten years ago the museum acquired a Spanish Colonial style church in south Minneapolis. After renovation and some inspired redesign of its interior space the building became a splendid display place for the largest collection of art of it's sort in the country. At 5500 Stevens Avenue South  in Minneapolis the museum is conveniently located. It is right at a the Diamond Lake Road exit on 35, that's the main freeway from the airport to downtown. If you fly in, the museum is right on your way as you go into the city and it is about fifty feet from the exit, so for a traveler, getting there is really easy. Unlike many city museums there is a free parking lot across the street and admission is reasonable. I make it a routine stop when I am in Minnesota, which is frequently.

I love the art of Levitan, Repin and Shiskin etc. but this museum is about the period after those artists, the era of what we once called "boy loves tractor" art, or social realism. Until just a few years ago Americans dismissed  this painting as propaganda and illustration for the evil empire. However Russia maintained the systematic and historically driven training of painters that was discarded by most of the rest of  the world. Many of these Soviet period paintings are very fine. They range  from impressionism to a sort of Norman Rockwell gone Marxist style.The level of technique is very high, higher for the most part than what was going on in this country.

I bring up this venue because they are currently displaying a large retrospective of the work of Nicolai Fechin (1881–1955).  This show runs until January 20, 2013.  Fechin was trained in St. Petersburg under Illya Repin, one of the finest Russian artists at the turn of the 20th century. In 1923, after the Russian  Revolution and the death of both his parents from typhoid fever, Fechin emigrated to America. Himself a  victim of tuberculosis, he ultimately moved  to Taos, New Mexico. Before antibiotics the dry air of the desert was often recommended as a cure. The last part of his life was spent in Santa Monica, California. He was successful financially as both a portrait painter and with his figure painting.

Above is a painting from the show. I hadn't seen many Fechin paintings in real life before the show and knew them from the one commonly available book on the artist.

  Fechin was a master draftsman but what really makes him special is his paint handling and his color. The painting above is typical of his work, the  head is rather smoothly painted and the rest of the painting is very broad and is full of various textures and rugosity of paint. Here is a detail of the painting above.

The paint is troweled on and only assembles into the little girls dress at a distance. The level of abstraction is higher than in a Sargent. This passage is thick and  highly textured. Notice something else, this painting is cracked, Fechin used zinc white which is brittle and prone to cracking. Nearly every painting in the show  showed a fine craquelure. I don't believe these  paintings are going to fall off their canvasses anytime soon, but they are not very old as paintings go and most of the art I have seen of their age has not cracked. There is a warning here for anyone who would choose to work in zinc white. Painters use zinc because it is much lower in opacity than titanium and they feel that it lets there color show more, rather than "eating'' it. That is true I suppose,  but at least when worked thickly, the price to be paid is cracked surfaces. I have seen a lot of Emile Gruppe paintings done with zinc and they don't seem to be cracked, but they are painted much  more thinly, usually in one shot and only a single brushstroke thick.

Here is another detail. Look at the rough texture of the hair and it's contrast with the smoothly modeled  flesh. I  think this is exciting painting and very effective. There is another thing going on here too, look at where the hair meets the face, most painters would soften that edge by stroking along it with a  brush,  possibly  a sable. But Fechin has used the broken surface of the paint to get his softened or minimized transition at the edge. There is another crack right through the cheek of this portrait.

Fechin has laced wonderful accents of bright color into the background here. There are violets and a cold blue and and other notes  dragged over his rough underpainting or ground. These  colors look like jewels because of their contrast with the dark and unsaturated passages onto which they are placed. The grave notes activate the colored notes by comparison. Again the rough surface gives him a soft edge and keeps those bright notes subordinated to the larger passage. Notice how just to the right of the eye he hardens the edge to indicate the abrupt  plane change and the bony zygomatic cage surrounding the eye. I have written a lot about Edward  Seago. Seago used a textured ground and got a lot of his subordinated edges the same way. 

Up close this handling or treatment is more interesting that a more matter of fact presentation. 

It is in this handling or treatment that the ART lives, not in the choice of  subject matter.

  Up close this thing says PAINT, from a  normal viewing distance it says NATURE.

Above is a painting by the late Leroy Nieman. Here is a painting with bravura handling of thick paint that is nowhere near the equal of the Fechins. It is a matter of taste, the Fechins  are beautiful and elegant, the Nieman of Miles Davis has heightened cheese content. This may serve well in a magazine illustration, but it is not fine art the same way the Fechin is. The comparison of these two paintings could serve as a test of sensitivity to fine painting. The Fechin is a waltz of both restrained and grave color contrasting with the accents of saturated  notes. Together the graver and colored notes in the Fechin are beautiful and balanced. The Nieman is all saturated color and looks vulgar.



Hudson River Workshop
with special Guest star Garin Baker

 The workshop will start on Saturday, October 13 and run three days through Monday the 15th. It will be held at the Carriage House Art Studios in Newburgh, New York. Well known and highly skilled artist Garin Baker will be our host and special guest star. If you live in the city or Westchester or maybe New Jersey this workshop should be within easy striking distance  for you

The schedule includes;
  • a demo every morning, on the first day I explain the palette and the various pigments.
  • In the afternoon the students paint and I run from easel to easel doing individual instruction and try to diagnose each students particular barriers to better painting.
  •  after the demo each day I run  a series of exercises  teaching root skills like creating vibrating color and the parts of the light (that is what you need to know to establish light in a painting) I am going to add a new exercise this time on color mixing.
  • I do a presentation before dinner with images from my laptop. One is unpacking  the design ideas in the works of great landscape painters, particularly Edward Seago and Aldro Hibbard, two favorite artists of mine. I will also  do a little presentation on the Hudson River school and their techniques.
  • I promise I will work you like a borrowed mule. 
  • I can save you years of screwing around

There should be some autumn color by this time. This is getting into the best time of the year to paint outside. This is sacred ground to American landscape painting. The early history of American landscape painting was written on this ground by  the Hudson River School.. I will talk a little about their working methods and show some examples of this art as well. You can sign up by going here.


barbara b. land of boz said...

Thank you Stapleton for bringing us a little peek at Fechins art.
Note to self do not use ZINC white. Sounds like a good workshop you have coming up. I always smile when you say your ggoing to work them like a borrowed mule...I bet they think you are only teasing them...Little do they know! Have fun and Keep on keeping on...

Stapleton Kearns said...

Thanks Barbara! We have Cooper French to thank for that inspired turn of phrase.

Judy P. said...

Thanks Stape, when I go to see the Fechin exhibit I'm going to study those edges carefully. Dead guys are really helpful for that.

Douglas K said...


I am confused by the dates listed for the workshop. October 12, 2012 is a Friday, not a Saturday. Am I looking at an old post?



Stapleton Kearns said...

No I screwed that up! Sorry, and thank you for catching that. The workshop begins on Saturday the 13th and goes through Monday. I am so horribly flakey.

Jeny said...
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Jeny said...

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