Paintings of 1918: Narrative and Figurative

Edvard Munch (1863–1944), Bathing Man (1918), oil on canvas, 160 × 110 cm, Nasjonalgalleriet, Oslo. Wikimedia Commons.

As we’re told everywhere, history and other forms of narrative painting died in the nineteenth century. To examine how true that might be, in this look at some of the great paintings of 1918, I start with narrative works, then look at figurative paintings.

Perhaps the greatest narrative painter still prolific at the end of the First World War was Lovis Corinth, who had painted classical and more modern stories throughout his career. By this stage, he had suffered (in 1911) and recovered from a major stroke, and his brushwork was often very loose and sketchy in appearance. My choice of his narrative art, though, is one of his many fine lithographs.

Lovis Corinth (1858–1925), Odysseus and Nausicaa (1918), lithograph, 46.5 x 56.3 cm, location not known. Wikimedia Commons.

Odysseus and Nausicaä mixes moments from the story in book six of Homer’s Odyssey: Odysseus has just been shipwrecked and appears at the right, still naked and clearly neither bathed nor oiled. He pleads with Nausicaä, daughter of the local king, in the centre, who has one handmaid with her. Behind them is a mule wagon, mules in harness, with further handmaids on board, representing the group of women from the palace who have come to the shore to do their washing.

I cannot make out any evidence of their washing clothes, nor playing ball, and the handmaids look surprised but have not run away in shock at Odysseus’ appearance. Corinth does, though, show a town in the far background – insufficient to confirm the improvement in Odysseus’ fortunes, but getting closer.

Henry Ossawa Tanner (1859–1937), Daniel in the Lions’ Den (1907-18), oil on paper mounted on canvas, 104.5 x 126.8 cm, Los Angeles County Museum of Art, Los Angeles, CA. Courtesy of Los Angeles County Museum of Art, via Wikimedia Commons.

The first version of Henry Ossawa Tanner’s painting of Daniel in the Lions’ Den became lost some time before 1907, so between about 1907 and the end of the First World War, he painted another version which appears to be rather looser in its brushstrokes, and is cropped slightly differently.

Tanner had a fondness for painting lions since his student days in Philadelphia, and had at first considered specialising in the painting of animals. Some have suggested that this might be through a tenuous personal connection with Androcles and the Lion, Androcles being a slave who gained freedom and success.

This version is another example of his very tightly constrained colour, and his skilled use of light, which were probably key in the original’s very successful reception.

Franz von Stuck (1863–1928), A Faun and a Mermaid (1918), oil on canvas, 156.7 × 61.5 cm, Private collection (also a copy in Alte Nationalgalerie, Berlin, Germany). Wikimedia Commons.

Franz von Stuck returned to his favourite faun motif, in A Faun and a Mermaid. This has survived in two very similar versions, the other of which is now in the Alte Nationalgalerie in Berlin. His mermaid is a maritime equivalent of a faun, with separate scaly legs rather than the more conventional single fishtail. She grasps the faun’s horns and laughs with joy as the faun gives her a piggy-back out of the sea.

Helen Hyde (1868-1919), Little Miss Muffet (1918), colour etching and aquatint on paper, 22.7 x 17.8 cm, Smithsonian American Art Museum, Washington, DC. Wikimedia Commons.

Helen Hyde is known best for her print-making, which includes this etching and aquatint of Little Miss Muffet. This is a strange account of this well-known nursery rhyme: I can see no sign of any spider, but there’s a rather large white chicken where I would have expected the spider to have been. Hyde tragically died a year later, in 1919, at the age of only 51.

Gustav Klimt (1862–1918), Adam and Eve (1917-18), oil on canvas, 173 × 60 cm, Österreichische Galerie Belvedere, Vienna, Austria. Wikimedia Commons.

When he died unexpectedly in 1918, Klimt had almost completed this painting of Adam and Eve, one of his few works showing biblical figures. Although he hadn’t painted Eve’s right hand or the passage behind it, there is no sign of the traditional references to the Fall of Man, such as an apple or serpent. Instead, the figures are shown as a happy, loving couple, their heads leaning gently to one side, with flowers at Eve’s feet.

This leads me on to look at a selection of figurative works, starting again with Lovis Corinth.

Lovis Corinth (1858–1925), Girl in Front of a Mirror (1918), oil on canvas, 88.5 × 60 cm, Städtisches Museum Abteiberg, Mönchengladbach. Wikimedia Commons.

Throughout Corinth’s career, he painted superb figures, particularly nude women, including his wife and muse Charlotte Berend. She was crucial in the recovery from his stroke, and it must have been encouraging to both of them how he could still paint flesh as well as in his Girl in Front of a Mirror.

Lovis Corinth (1858–1925), Self-Portrait in a White Coat (1918), oil on canvas, 105 × 80 cm, Wallraf-Richartz-Museum & Fondation Corboud, Cologne. Wikimedia Commons.

Corinth himself was showing his age, grown gaunt with the war and his hard road back to painting. In his Self-Portrait in a White Coat he is seen painting with his left hand, using an open sleeve to stow some brushes for ready use.

Charles Demuth (1883–1935), In Vaudeville (Dancer with Chorus) (1918), watercolor and graphite on off-white wove paper, 33 x 20.7 cm, Philadelphia Museum of Art, Philadelphia, PA. Wikimedia Commons.

As with Corinth earlier, the American artist Charles Demuth enjoyed the night-life in clubs, where he painted In Vaudeville (Dancer with Chorus) in watercolour and pencil.

In Vienna, Gustav Klimt remained one of the most innovative figurative artists, but at this time was embroiled in a very difficult commission, to produce a posthumous portrait of a young woman from an affluent family. Maria Munk, known as Ria, had been engaged to the actor and writer Hanns Heinz Ewers; when he called off their engagement, she committed suicide just after Christmas in 1911, by shooting herself in the chest. Klimt’s commission was for Ria’s grief-stricken family.

Gustav Klimt (1862–1918), Ria Munk on her Deathbed (1917-18), oil on canvas, 50 × 50.5 cm, Private collection. Image courtesy of Richard Nagy Ltd, London, via Wikimedia Commons.

Klimt first thought that he had completed Ria Munk on her Deathbed in 1912, but seems to have returned to it in 1917-18. She is manifestly dead, and surrounded by floral tributes. The family rejected the work, which they found too distressing, and asked Klimt to paint her when she was still alive, from photographs.

A second portrait, which Klimt completed in 1916, was also rejected, although there is doubt about the identity of the painting, and the reason for its rejection.

Gustav Klimt (1862–1918), Posthumous Portrait of Ria Munk III (c 1917-18), oil on canvas, 180.7 × 89.9 cm, Private collection. Wikimedia Commons.

Klimt started his third Posthumous Portrait of Ria Munk in 1917, and was still working on it shortly before his death. It was clearly going to be another richly-decorated painting, with abundant colourful flowers in the background, and brilliant peppers and other vegetables.

Of all the figurative artists in Europe, it was surely the young Egon Schiele who was the most radical and innovative.

Egon Schiele (1890–1918), The Family (1918), oil on canvas, 150 x 160.8 cm, Österreichische Galerie Belvedere, Vienna, Austria. Wikimedia Commons.

In the Spring of 1918, his wife Edith became pregnant, which may have been the stimulus for Schiele to revisit the theme of The Family. His three figures seem full of longing and aspiration: the father, surely a self-portrait, looks straight at the viewer; his wife, who doesn’t resemble Edith in the slightest, stares sadly down to the right; their young child peers out from mother’s legs, as if looking up at an object to the right.

My final choice is, I must admit, my favourite figurative painting of the year, by the Norwegian Edvard Munch.

Edvard Munch (1863–1944), Bathing Man (1918), oil on canvas, 160 × 110 cm, Nasjonalgalleriet, Oslo. Wikimedia Commons.

Munch’s dazzlingly vibrant Bathing Man is set on the coast of Norway. The figure and its landscape are fashioned from bold strokes of pure colour, which he modulates skilfully to show the bather’s lower legs under the water.

Next week, I will complete this survey with a look at some of the landscape paintings from 1918 – and some of the most sublime of the century.