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Wednesday, January 13, 2016

Fritz von Uhde

The Ascension of Christ, 1908, Hans Rosenhagen, after Fritz von Uhde, 1897
The contemporary Jesus Christ
Although there isn't all that much of it done in today's contemporary art world, one of the more interesting developments in the area of religious art is the depiction of Jesus Christ in a modern day context. The works of Stephen Sawyer, Thomas Blackshear, and Harry And-erson, come to mind (left). Such work has a tendency to be startling, even rejected by some in the traditional Christian community as somehow denigrating of the iconic image of Christ as projected from the words of the gospels. In seeing them today, we might tend to think of them as a purely modern phen-omena. If so, we'd be wrong. As far back as the 1880s, the depiction of Jesus Christ in everyday human encounters was a hallmark of the German painter, Fritz von Uhde. If the name is unfamiliar to you, I'm sure in seeing his self-portrait (below) you'll not soon forget his face. He had a handlebar moustache so wide he quite likely had to turn his head to get through a door.

A face only his barber could love.
Fritz von Uhde was first and foremost a genre painter. However, painting religious subjects came fairly natural to him, his father having been not only a painter himself, but also the President of the Lutheran Church Council in Wolkenburg, Saxony. Born in 1848, Uhde shared his father's Christian commitment. The fact that Uhde was able to combine the two separate content areas puts him in something of a class by himself, not just insofar as German art was concerned, but that of 19th century painting the world over. It's not all that obvious at first glance, but Uhde's Ascension (top), originally painted in 1897, has the witnesses dressed in then-current peasant garb, casting them into the climactic Gospel event as contemporaries of Christ...or perhaps, vice versa. (The latter may have been more Uhde's intention.)

Christ in an everyday setting.

In contemplating Uhde's many religious works, it would seem that he pretty well covered all the major events in Christ's life from his birth to his ascension (I could find no images of the crucifixion or resurrection, however). Especially notable is his Meal Time Prayer (bottom-right), dating from 1885, in which Christ is depicted as a peasant farmer's dinner guest. Most of his other religious works place Gospel scenes in a contemporary setting. This one does not depict an event from the gospel, but is more in line with Uhde's genre paintings. The social realism of Uhde's work was often criticized as vulgar and ugly. However, his paintings also attracted the admiration of others. His work was well known by the French. Vincent van Gogh mentioned Uhde in personal correspondence. The critic, Otto Julius Bierbaum, who wrote his biography, noted, "As a painter of children...Uhde is extraordinarily distinguished. He does not depict amusing or charming dolls, but with extreme, very strict naturalness." Uhde's practice of treating biblical episodes realistically by transferring them to modern times, was also appreciated by others who praised his symbolic message and sense of evangelical morality. Uhde's version of the nativity, Holy Night (left column, above), is especially poignant. It was the last painting he did before his death in February, 1911.

Children and young people enjoying life.
In his genre work, Uhde depicted the ordinary lives of families of peasants, fishermen, and farmers; children and youngsters, as well as young and old women. In doing so, Uhde chose both indoor and outdoor settings, with detailed, ordinary surroundings, and natural, colorful landscapes. A trip to the Netherlands in 1882 brought about a change in Uhde's style, as he abandoned the dark chiaroscuro he had learned in Munich as a student in favor of a colorism formed by the works of the French Impressionists. Encouraged by his friend, Max Liebermann, Uhde painted Fishermen's Children in Zandvoort (below), as an experiment in plein-air painting, but chose to exhibit a more conventional version of the composition, the Arrival of the Organ-Grinder (right column, above) from 1883. Quite apart from his content--religious or otherwise--this conflict between innovation and caution was likely the most notable element in Uhde's career.

Fishermen's Children of Zandvoort, 1882, Fritz von Uhde


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