Tuesday 15 August 2017

Inspired by Art

The Great Wave by Hokusai

The picture strikes you immediately with an almost physical force, even before you have had time to take it in properly and absorb fully what is happening here. What you notice first is a sense of power in churning motion; the restrained palette of deep dark blue, paler blue and white against a background of grey, black and beige; the ghostly light in the sky. And above all the looming, towering, threatening shape moving into the picture from the left. Your eye is drawn irresistibly towards the curling, clutching fingers (or are they claws?) that stretch forward, reaching out to clasp and grasp and almost over balancing in their eagerness and impatience to do so.

Ah yes, you think (now that you have had time to think) - this is a seascape. But a seascape unlike any other you’ve seen before, rendered with an almost cartoon-like simplicity. Or perhaps like a picture from one of those disturbingly dark graphic novels where threats are lurking in the shadows, just out of sight.

Yes, undeniably a seascape. Just looking at the churning, violent motion of the waves - back, forth, sideways, up, down - is making you feel distinctly queasy, uneasy. And always you come back to that monstrous cliff-wall of water, sweeping forward inexorably to engulf all in its path.

With that thought, your attention is drawn to what does lie immediately in its path: two long, pale, slender ovals of perilously fragile boats. The small, huddled shapes at either end must be the men who are rowing these craft: backs bent with effort as they strain to escape from the sea-beast reaching out to devour them.

ou pause at this point, overcome with the drama of the scene that is being played out here, wondering how it will all end. And then you notice another wave, dark blue and capped with white like the one in the foreground but further in the distance and slightly to the right of the picture’s centre. Given how far away it is, and yet how large, this wave must be another giant one.

Or is it a wave? It’s certainly peaked like one of the smaller waves below the crest of the monster on the right. But it’s also shaped like a volcano. Perhaps it might be a mountain? And what about those small white spots just above its peak? Could that be snow falling on top of the mountain, rather than flecks of foam from the great wave?

One final look, and yet again the picture shifts and yields up a different story. This time you notice the writing in the upper left-hand corner, in a foreign script, with the letters arranged vertically instead of horizontally. In a moment of understanding, you realise you have been reading this picture in the wrong direction: from left to right, instead of from right to left as the artist intended. The men in the boats are not fleeing in fear and panic, desperately trying to outrun the huge wave.

No, they are heading heroically towards it, and up it, and through it to the other side; because they are Japanese fishermen and this is what they do for a living. You can almost hear the voice of their chief urging them on: “Come on, lads! Put your backs into it! One more heave and we’ll be there - and then back home in time for noodles and saki!”

Revealing Weimheim - on a painting by Karl Mulfinger

Few people in England have heard of an itinerant artist called Karl Mulfinger (1882- 1956). However his works are now collectors pieces and auction houses in Germany are glad to promote him. He was commissioned to paint landscapes in central Germany. 

My father fled from Nazi Germany and settled in north west London. Imagine his delight when at an art fair at the Whitestone pond, Hampstead he discovered an old oil painting of his former home town, Weinheim. The two dominant castles overlooking the small town, with it's wall and the railway and a steam train in front of it. The painting was very dirty but despite the grime there was no doubt where it was. He bought it for ten shillings and spent another five shillings on a walnut burr with brass infill frame. It then hung in his office above the shoemakers shop in Paddington Street, Marylebone London. 

After he died I took on running the shop, I tried to see the details in the picture. How could it be cleaned up? The nephew of a Quaker friend worked at the Wallace collection so I went and asked him. 

"Simple soap and water and and a soft nail brush". 

I had a go and the picture was a lot clearer. The sky looked a bit patchy grey in places, but acceptable. 

Several decades later I sold the business and the office was cleared. My relatives were not interested in giving it house room. My wife does bed and breakfast in our house in Amersham which is twinned with Bensheim near Weinheim. I discussed the painting with a guest from Bensheim and he suggested that it be given to the town of Weinheim. He made contact with the museum who asked for details about it. The frame covered the signature so I took it out of the frame and found a second canvass under the picture. I didn't dare to take the top painting away in case it got damaged. The artists signature was K Mulfinger dated 1913. The curator said they would be happy to accept the painting. 

Feeling cheeky we asked if in exchange we could have a tea pot and milk jug from a porcelain firm called F├╝rstenberg. We had a lot of their China but not those items. The curator agreed. We ordered the tea pot and jug and said we would deliver the painting by car. 

In June 2016 we drove to Weinheim where we met the curator and also the Mayor and newspaper reporters. They all studied the painting pointing out details such as the roof of the Pestalotzzi school. Afterwards we had photos taken with the mayor holding the picture. The local newspaper published the photo with an article headlined "Every town has a murky past" They then recounted why my father had fled because his brother was killed in 1935. It went on to say that reconciliation was the reason for it's return to Weinheim. 

The museum decided that the painting would benefit from more cleaning and that was done. The restorers left the second painting that was underneath to be discovered at a later date. We returned recently to Weinheim to see the professionally cleaned up painting. It looked like new. The brush strokes crisp and bright. The colours radiant and much more lively than any photograph. Next to the painting was a small notice explaining how the painting came back to the town, saying that I had returned it. We use the tea pot and milk jug frequently and remember the painting of my father's birthplace.

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