Arnold Grabone and German Impressionism

What moves those of genius, what inspires their work is not new ideas, but their obsession with the idea that what has already been said is still not enough.” — Eugene Delacroix

Twentieth-century German art is mostly coined by the expressionism at the beginning of the century, epitomized by the Neue Galleries at 86th Street and 5th Ave, which proudly shows Kokoschka, Klimt, Schiele, and other German/Austrian painters of the period. Scholars are naturally inclined to study the arts in their indigenous nation. The rise of a new school often signifies a change in social environments, thus enabling a broader study of social science. In contrast, after a new style has jettisoned the older schools long enough to become established or even transplanted to other countries, the scholarly interests diminish and consequently, the art market marginalizes its share.

Such a case can be seen in German art in the ’30s and 40s when Hitler denounced expressionism as decadent and degenerate. Hitler, an amateurish watercolorist, favored realistic works with monumental quality. But there was also the German Impressionism school that was not perfectly aligned with propaganda, yet still tolerated with a certain degree of artistic freedom. Perhaps examining Arnold Grabone’s career spanning from the first world war to the post-WWII can shed some light on this topic.

After a series of experiments with different modernism styles, Grabone entered his mature stage in the late 1920s after studying with Max Liebermann, a prominent printmaker and the founder of  German Impressionism. Although not an indigenous style, by the 1920s, impressionism, with its bright palette, scientific theory, and direct visual pleasure did not “shock” Europeans. Libermann’s art was also heavily influenced by the French Barbizon School. Thus, he and his circle, unlike French impressionists, retained a sense of solidity in forms and narrative angles.  Arnold once wrote that Liebermann made him into a true painter, a painter who showed the texture of the landscape in the way that he felt and also how he wanted the viewer to feel it.

In 1932, he moved to Zurich to teach at an art academy. When Hitler rose to power in 1936, Grabone was not much affected because the kind of landscapes he painted, although different from the heroic realism style that Hitler had officially approved and praised, provided an optimistic upbeat, and gaiety mood for the nation. In the same year, Grabone took a timely trip to the US for the first time, through North Africa.

A close look at Grabone’s art reveals that the artist seemed not interested in politics at all. Unlike Max Libermann, who devoted himself to a wide range of subjects, a lot of which were related to social reform and once won him the epithet of “disciple of the ugly,” Grabone was almost a pure landscape painter: more precisely, a landscape painter of natural beauty such as mountains and seas. If Max Libermann adopted Impressionism to his techniques, subjects, and perspective (some of his urban scenes feature wide angles, vanishing points, and merging lines, probably inspired by modern photography), Grabone was an Impressionist only relevant to purely aesthetic manners. In most of the landscapes, he kept a certain distance to the depicted scenes with a coolness of objectivity. Almost universally objects such as trees, boats, or log cabins were in the middle ground, off-center while the rest of the pictures such as mountains, waters, or sky provided atmospherical effects.

Perhaps because of his obsession with the texture, he used a palette knife exclusively. His signature style of palette knife with jewel colors is a celebration of dexterity of painterly skills. One may feel his personality from those moderately-varied, loosely controlled yet well-defined knife strokes. If George Bellows maximized the use of pallet knives with the brutal force rawness to depict gritty urban nights or harsh wintry scenes, Grabone’s pictures are more amicable with a patterned use of pallet knives. He mostly dotted and pressed the blade without dragging it too long to form a visible trace or a direct mixture of paints. For areas of sky or still waters, he tended to press the knife downward harder so that the same amount of paint was dispersed to a greater area and looked thinner. Regarding the main subjects such as trees or boats, he reduced the blade contact area and quickly built up or juxtaposed strokes of paints of different colors so that the texture looked almost architecturally rich.

Most of these scenes do not feature human beings although they are humanized. In these pictures, while the Alps may be gusty, that only provides the advantage of clearing the view of the hundreds of giant facets of the cliff, each of which takes its light and shade and clashes against others like a resilient soul. And one does not feel the coldness in his winter scenes. Instead, it is the interplay of the lightened snow on top of the different textures that is captured and presented as a visual splendor. Grabone repetitively painted the same subjects such as the Alps of Bavaria and South Tirole, the Isle of Capri, or the English Garden in Munich. Such a near obsession with painting multiple versions of familiar subjects provided the painter the advantage to probe the deeper meaning and varied characters of the subject under different light effects. In these quiet pictures, Grabone celebrated the fleeting light, the reflected, the shadowed, the diffused, the fog, or the direct light that gives the color and the texture a lively play.

Arnold Grabone with his work
Arnold Grabone with his work

Being in Zurich gave Grabone a natural cushion during WWII and also led to his later encounter with Eisenhower and Winston Churchill after the war. It would probably be unfair to say that he profited from being in the right school during WWII since he didn’t choose Impressionism beyond artistic spontaneity and didn’t change the style after the war when modernism came to the central stage. In contrast, Max Libermann, his mentor, ended his life miserably. The once president of the Prussian Academy of Arts and Honorary Citizen of the City of Berlin came to a critical point when he resigned from his post in 1933 because he was Jewish. His paintings were removed from museum walls, and he was deprived of the right to paint. Ostracized by the National Socialists, he died on Feb 8, 1935.

Today, seldom do scholars and collectors look at and discuss German impressionism, although Max Liebermann’s art has seen a greater appreciation. It is dangerous to associate one period, or one nation with a particular style without acknowledging art has always been diverse, some styles well known, some minor and some may see a revival shortly. In my opinion, one should not fall into the trap of “ism” or school without looking at pictures. Perhaps, the genius should go to Benjamin Frankin (who has always been wise in giving advice) who said: “Originality is the art of concealing your sources.”

Note: from Oct 20 – Dec 5, 2009, Spartanburg Art Museum at Spartanburg, SC is going to have an exhibition” Artwork and friendships in Postwar Germany — Georg Arnold-Grabone” from the collection of Donald Van Riper. It is interesting that thanks to the unique relationship between Grabone and Eisenhower, an American Institute take a fresh look at German Impressionism.

At the time this article is written, there are two paintings by Arnold Grabone offered on eBay. The item numbers are 330361709301 and 390096141666.

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