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Thursday, September 6, 2012

Finishing Strokes

It's not all that uncommon for an artist to start a painting, then for one reason or another, leave it unfinished for a time before going back later to finish it. Sometimes it's much later, several weeks, maybe months, perhaps even a year. How about fifty-five years? We should live so long. His name was Ernst Wille. Born in 1913, he died in 2005 in Cologne, Germany, at the age of 92. He was retired from a teaching position at the University of Art and Design in Aachen, Germany. His bronze sculptures decorate city hall and his paintings hang on the wall of the local Kunsthalle museum. And despite appearances to the contrary, he was not the world's champion painting procrastinator. There were extenuating circumstances--like World War II.

American History (detail), Fort Niagara mural, 1944-46, Ernst Wille
Ernst Wille Self-portrait
In 1944, Ernst Wille was a German soldier manning trenches in Normandy. In his spare time, he would take watercolors and set up his easel on the beach and paint the same serene seascapes French painters had rendered for generations. Then one day, the beaches of Normandy were painted in red, not by Ernst Wille but by the blood of Allied soldiers and their German defenders. Ernst Wille became a prisoner of war. The next time he wielded a brush was behind the walls of old Fort Niagara in upstate New York. There his talents as an artist were put to use painting portraits of officers, fellow prisoners, his guards, and even their families. He also painted a mural on sewn-together bed sheets used to decorate the officer's club at the makeshift prison where he was held captive for two years.

The unfinished mural.
Shipped out on short notice however, the mural remained unfinished. The image haunted the artist for more than half a century. Finally, in 1976, in returning to the United States as a tourist, he saw his mural again. The unfinished painting depicted the history of the old stone fort, built by the French, occupied by the British, and finally now on American soil at the headwaters of the Niagara River on Lake Ontario. In returning to Fort Niagara, he was able to finish his work. As a prisoner of war, he wasn't able to see much of the river or the great falls. But as a tourist with those images in mind, he could more accurately emphasize the importance and power the river played in the history of the fort. It is not a painting about war but about peace with soldiers extending outstretched arms to one another and canon facing away from each other. It is a painting about time, geography, history, and circumstances, but most importantly, finishing that which one starts.
The Joseph Story, 1979, Ernst Wille--his mature work.

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