by Roderick Conway Morris

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Wulf Winckelmann
Fondamenta Zattere Ponte Lungo by Wulf Winckelmann, 2015

Views of Venice: following in Turner's footsteps

By Roderick Conway Morris
VENICE 23 October 2004


Venice has probably attracted the largest number of foreign land- and town-scape painters over the longest period of any city in the world. Some artists have even come here and shied away from painting it at all, concluding that the city and its lagoon are already pictures in themselves, and there is little if anything left to add.

Turner, however, was one that rose to the challenge, and Venice stimulated some of his finest work. The artist spent less than four weeks total in the city during three visits between 1819 and 1840, and made hundreds of sketches in various media, but his more 'finished' pieces were executed at his studio in England after he had returned home.

Thus most of his works at the current 'Turner and Venice' exhibition at the Correr Museum have never been exhibited here before. (The show, which has come from the Tate Britain gallery in London, and is attracting large numbers of visitors, continues until Jan. 6.)

Coinciding with this event is a private gallery exhibition of the German artist Wulf Winckelmann's contemporary take on the city and its water-girt setting. Venice has been central to Winckelmann's painting for a number of years, but this is the first time that he has shown in the city itself. His works tend to more abstraction than even Turner's most abstract pictures of Venice, but their starting point is not dissimilar in that, as in Turner's late paintings, memory, imagination and atmosphere take precedence over literal reality. (This show continues at the Gallery Holly Snapp until Dec. 10.)

Winckelmann was born in Freiburg, Germany, in 1967, and now lives and works in Wiesbaden. According to family tradition, a distant uncle was the highly influential art historian and inspirer of Neoclassicism, Johann Joachim Winckelmann, who spent much of his life in Italy. Wulf Winckelmann has been a frequent visitor to Venice for a number of years, usually during the winter. 'November, December, January, this is the season I like most here,' he said. 'Not only is the city less crowded, but I love the light at this time of year. This is the real Venice for me.'To an even greater extent than Turner, Winckelmann gathers material here only afterwards to be fully realized in the studio.

'I have never done a painting in Venice itself. I need to see a lot, to accumulate impressions with all my senses, to soak up everything like a sponge. What I then try to convey is a total impression - not just what you see, but what you feel in the presence of the landscape,' he said.

Winckelmann also takes impressive landscape photographs, but said that he never uses them as direct sources for a painting.

There are in addition practical reasons why Winckelmann creates his final works in his studio rather than on the spot in Venice. He builds up his images on canvases, some of very large proportions, laying down complex strata of acrylic and oil paints, filler pastes, various pigments, inks and varnishes. There are sometimes up to 40 layers in all, but lower levels remain partly visible and sometimes even the canvas itself. Using this idiosyncratic method, which he has developed over the years, he achieves remarkable effects of light, depth and color.

'I have always painted landscape, even from when I was very young,' he said. At one stage, he added, his pictures were becoming more and more abstract, tending toward exercises in pure color and texture, but this came to seem a dead end. He now considers his work to be something between figurative and abstract, but always containing a figurative element. In his Venice pictures, he captures wide views dominated by reflecting sea, marshland and sky, usually concentrating on the lagoon rather than the city, although in some paintings canals and buildings can be dimly perceived in a crepuscular or nocturnal light, or filtered by Venice's atmospheric winter mists.

Just as human figures became ever more evanescent in Turner's later paintings, in Winckelmann's they have evaporated into thin air. 'It has been said that people do not appear in my paintings. It is true in a strictly formal sense,' he noted, but then goes on to argue that the human being as observer, as the viewer responding to landscape, remains at the heart of his work.

Interestingly, Winckelmann's Venice pictures have been received well in Hong Kong, where he exhibits at the Kwai Fung Hin Art Gallery. And, despite the territory's economic and other travails, he has recently secured several substantial commissions there from corporations and institutions, including the new Cyber Center, the Sheraton Hotel and Hong Kong University. Some of these are on a very large scale and given the cumulative weight of the materials Winckelmann customarily uses, unusually heavy for paintings. His graceful, sail-like image on the 11-meter, or 36-foot, high wall of the Cyber Center lobby weighs about a ton.

Responses to his work can sometimes be very different in the East than in the West, said Winckelmann, and he has had to adjust to a new environment there: 'Many of my landscapes were typically untitled, and this proved a problem. In fact, I found myself arguing with the gallery there over this. But they said, we know you have a tradition of untitled pieces in Europe, but in China paintings without titles suggest that they have no sense.'

'Colors and numbers, too, in Asia have strong symbolic values. Colors like red, orange and yellow can denote money and power, so this gives my paintings a significance that they do not carry in the West. And, for example, at the Cyber Center, where the painting is divided into sections, there are eight pieces. I had originally planned on seven, but seven is not an acceptable number. So I had to make eight, eight being the perfect number.'

First published: International Herald Tribune

© Roderick Conway Morris 1975-2024