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Monday, August 8, 2016

Anton Azbe

The Village Choir, ca. 1900,  Anton Ažbe, seen here heavily damaged
by an inept attempt to restore it.
Very often artists are self-taught, whether by necessity (college tuition costs) or by choice. Some would proclaim that to be the best way to become an artist. Others would claim that in being self-taught, the student can be no better than his or her instructor. I guess there's a valid argument to be made from either side. However, almost without exception, the self-taught artist misses out on at least one invaluable area of study--the drawing and painting of the human anatomy from life. Figure drawing classes have been part of the core curriculum in art schools for as long as there have been art schools (at least six or seven hundred years). Even before that, under the apprentice system of training artists, the study of the nude figure was seen as a key element in an artist's learning experience. Yet, for the self-taught artist today, it's a relatively rare occurrence, whether from life, or at the very least, from photos. For the self-taught, privately hiring a nude model for an extended period of time from which to draw is not cost effective, nor is it usually socially acceptable. There's a lot to be said for learning to draw from photos, but doing so does have its limitations, especially in the area of learning to draw the unclothed human figure. It's like trying to draw a smile without ever learning to draw teeth. Anton Ažbe was a Slovene realist painter and teacher of painting back around the turn of the century. Teaching figure drawing was his specialty.

Though not a dwarf, Anton Ažbe was small in stature.
Alois and Anton Ažbe were twins, born to a peasant family in the Carniolan village of Dolenčice near Škofja Loka. in 1862 the area was part of the Austrian Empire but today, it's located in Slovenia. Their father died of tuberculosis at the age of 40, when the boys were only seven years old. Their Mother suffered from severe mental illness causing the boys to be placed in foster care. As the twins entered adolescence, it was evident that Anton Ažbe had serious congenital health problems causing him to lag in physical growth. His legs were weak and he had a deformed spine. His foster parents decided that Anton was not fit for farm work, so after completing elementary school, Anton was sent to commerce school in Klagenfurt (southern Austria).

Works such as these landed Azbe a job "grading papers"

Ažbe spent the next five years working in a grocery store "learning commerce." In the late 1870s, he fell in with another Slovene painter, Janez Wolf, who was associated with the Nazarene movement and involved in numerous church mural projects. Although little is known of their relationship, Wolf hired Ažbe as his assistant. In return, Wolf helped Ažbe obtain admission to the Academy of Fine Arts in Vienna, where Anton studied for two years, though he was highly dissatisfied with outdated, uninspiring Viennese training. In 1884 Azbe switched to the Academy of Fine Arts in Munich, which was, at the time a much more modern, liberal, school as compared to the conservative Viennese Academy. Ažbe made a superb impression on his teachers Gabriel Hackl and Ludwig von Löfftz thereby earning free tuition. Though studying on a full scholarship, Azbe earn a living, by teaming up with Ferdo Vesel, in selling classroom works and run-of-the-mill kitsch scenes to wholesale dealers. Half of Ažbe's surviving works date from his years at the Munich Academy. By the time he finished his studies, Ažbe was recognized as a professional portrait painter and was regularly exhibiting in shows at the Glaspalast (the Munich equivalent of London's Crystal Palace).

Ažbe was not a prolific painter. He preferred teaching to producing
great works, except in his mine (where most of them stayed).
Around 1892, Ažbe landed the rather menial job of correcting and grading student work at the Munich Academy. After a couple months, a sudden surge of new students allowed Ažbe to rent a studio and start the Ažbe School. Later Ažbe rented another building for the school classes and moved his private workshop to Georgenstrasse in Munich's Bohemian quarter. The school was never short of students, with enrollment usually numbering about eighty. Altogether Ažbe trained somewhere around 150 students, most notably Alexej von Jawlensky, Matej Sternen and Marianne von Werefkin. Ažbe remained the sole instructor for most of the school existence. The Munich Academy and the Imperial Academy of Arts in Saint Petersburg, both recognized Ažbe's school and recommended it as a preparatory or "refreshment" course. A lifelong smoker, in 1904 Azbe developed throat cancer and within a year, he could hardly swallow food. Ažbe agreed to a surgery that passed without immediate complications, but a few days later on August 6, 1905 Ažbe died. The school of Anton Ažbe survived without him until the start of World War I.

Kandinsky was a student of Anton Azbe. As a result, he
came to despise drawing figures (and seldom did).
Ažbe's home was his studio. He slept on an untidy sofa in a workshop filled with his students' paintings. He always painted in his studio and never ventured into open air painting. Only four paintings, dated from 1890 to 1903, can be considered mature art. influenced by the Munich Secession, The largest and most complex of these, The Village Choir (top), dating from around 1900, was heavily damaged as the result of a botched attempt at restoration. Ažbe's training system relied on two overriding themes, the Main Line and the Ball Principle. The "Main Line" involved capturing the essence of a model's pose with a single line, then elaborating upon it with a minimal amount of details (a surprisingly modern concept for its time). The "Ball Principle" stipulated that a human head was simply a sphere with lighting following the same rules as reproducing a plaster ball. Facial features were seen as merely protrusions and cavities of the ball's surface (not too helpful unless drawing Charlie Brown in the nude). Some students thrived on this method of rendering the human figure while others, Wassily Kandinsky, for instance (above), hated it. Ažbe was a master of human anatomy, who enforced rigorous training in the subject, from nude figure drawing to "fieldtrips" to a local morgue to sketch autopsies.

Drawing at the morgue--at least dead models seldom moved.


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