Photographic Essays on Intimacy
The photographs of Artur Nikodem were not exhibited or discussed outside of the studio until after his death. The images presented in Photographic Essays on Intimacy examine this rarely seen aspect of his creative life. Although he worked as a painter for the bulk of his artistic career, he was also a prolific photographer, documenting the small towns and pastoral beauty of the Austrian countryside as well as the women in his life. Nikodem captures the essence of these women: his lover Gunda Wiese (who died of tuberculosis), and his wife, Barbara Hoyer. These sensual portraits portray the erotic tension between the older artist and his much younger subjects. The body language is reminiscent of the work of Egon Schiele. Artur Nikodem's portraits have also invited comparison to the series of photographs by Alfred Stieglitz of Georgia O'Keefe, similarly characterized by both playful experimentation and somber meditation.
Artur Nikodem was born on February 6, 1870 in Trent, Austria. As a young man, he studied at the Academy of Fine Arts in Munich, Milan and Florence. Nikodem then served in the Austrian Navy before settling briefly in Paris, where he was strongly influenced by the works of Monet and Cézanne. Awestruck by the ability of pigment to rearrange and restructure life on canvas, Nikodem began his endeavors as a painter. Unlike his colleagues who employed photographs solely as a tool of study for their paintings, Nikodem's skill with a camera flourished independent of his skill with a brush and canvas. Nikodem's burgeoning artistic career was delayed by military service during World War I. After the war, Nikodem returned to his home in Innsbruck where he worked as a freelance artist. After a series of successful international exhibitions, Nikodem emerged as spokesman for Tyrolean artists. In later years, the changing political climate resulted in his work being outlawed in Germany and part of his collection in Nuremberg was destroyed. Unable to secure a position at the Viennese Academy, Nikodem withdrew from public life and lived in seclusion with his wife, Barbara Hoyer, until his death on February 10, 1940.
At a time when Chelsea is filled with wall-size, color-saturated photographs pursuing "the painting of modern life," there is something perversely appealing about a show of miniscule black-and-white photographs made by a painter. Known for his Tyrolean landscapes, agrarian scenes, portraits, and nudes, modernist Artur Nikodem was influenced in his native Austria by the Vienna Secession and Art Nouveau; he studied in Munich and Florence and lived briefly in Paris, where he was especially drawn to the work of Manet and Cézanne. From 1914 to 1930, Nikodem tested photographic equipment for a dealer friend, producing only two-and-a-half-inch square or rectangular contact prints and never showing them as art, though some of the hundreds of images he made at this time surely functioned as studies for paintings.
Nikodem's prints (thirty-four of which were on view here) are so small that the ideal viewing distance is collapsed to a few inches, drawing us into a disarming intimacy that is most effective in his nude portraits of his model (and lover?) Gunda Wiese (who would die, at twenty-four, of tuberculosis) and second wife Barbara Hoyer. In one image Wiese appears poised to rise from an armchair, topless, her dress having fallen in complex folds in her lap. In another, Hoyer's bare legs and feet rest on a patterned cloth strewn with small white objects (game pieces?) as she reaches languidly to steady an alert-looking teddy bear. Most of Nikodem's photographs are shot in a single small, dark room, with shafts of daylight isolating the sitters, who often look directly, lovingly, into the lens. There is one self-portrait of the artist in his studio, standing with his arms crossed, one hand highlighted, beside a large painting of two nudes against an abstract ground. There are landscapes here, too, of rugged slopes and birch copses, but they lack the complexity and particularity of the portraits.
While Nikodem draws on a vocabulary of large simple shapes and luxurious color in his paintings, in his photographs he manipulates extreme contrasts and gradations of light and shadow. Yet the compositional sense is recognizably the same, as distinctive as a fingerprint. What's most remarkable is that Nikodem, more than many other painters who have taken photographs, instinctively recognized that photography is all about composing with light, and that the pleasure is akin to that of composing with color. He even incorporated light streaks and other aberrations into his compositions, using techniques largely ignored by other photographer-painters.
Two images in the show are so perfectly realized that they remain lodged in the mind long after one has left the gallery. In one, Barbara's hands are splayed and crossed before her, catching light and being caught in turn. In the other, a white swan glides in a black pool; the arc of the swan's neck is mirrored in the water, and the forward thrust and lift of its head is memorialized by a fortuitous streak of leaked light, sweeping across the surface like a brushstroke.
Art on Paper
The Austrian painter Artur Nikodem (1870-1940) did not consider his photographs art, or at least art intended for public view. But a group of them, intimate in both size and subject matter, were brought to the attention of New York dealer Robert Mann after they were discovered by Nikodem's great-grandson, and Mann exhibited the small pictures — most are 2-1/2 x 2-1/2 inches — this past winter at his Chelsea gallery. Nikodem, a painter who was influenced by the works of Cézanne and Monet, tested cameras and film for a friend who dealt in photographic supplies, but his images are remarkably personal. Some are of the Austrian countryside, and there's a beautiful photograph of a flag fluttering off the mast of a boat on the Bosporus Sea, c.1914-18, but many are photographs of his wives and lovers.
There's a faint echo of Stieglitz's pictures of Georgia O'Keeffe (in a picture of the hands of Nikodem's wife, Barbara Hoyer, for example, or an earlier nude of Gunda Wiese). But by and large, they alternate between a charming sort of playfulness or even awkardness (in a portrait of Barbara with her hands folded coyly under her chin) and a spare modernism (in a similar portrait of Barbara in a chair with her pale arms outstretched on either side of her, her eyes closed). There's a particularly beautiful untitled nude of Barbara standing, facing away from the camera, one arm raised over her head, her fair skin outlined on one side and nearly in shadow on the other. And there's a strong, austere photo of Nikodem's studio from 1925, a tiny cross above the bed and what seems to be a portrait sketched directly onto the bare wall.
Unlike some other artists, Nikodem did not use the camera as a tool in the creation of his paintings; his photographs were a completely separate endeavor. He was clearly aware, though, of what was going on in the world of photography. In a brief essay published in the catalogue that accompanied the exhibition, curator Monica Faber suggests that the experimental nature of many of the photographs is the result of a certain freedom Nikodem felt, knowing these were private investigations. The show has closed, but the catalogue enables viewers to study these small images up close. They reflect the aesthetics of a developing photographic avant-garde at the turn of the century, in a playful, unusually un-self-conscious body of work.
The New York Times
February 22, 2002
The Austrian artist Artur Nikodem created personal work radically different from his public art. Publicly, Nikodem, who was born in 1870, produced color-drenched paintings that reflected the influence of Monet and Cézanne. Privately, he took strikingly modernist, spare photographs, possibly beginning during World War I when he became a telegraph officer and for a time was stationed in Turkey.
Nikodem the photographer kept that part of his creativity to himself, and it remained a secret for years after he died in 1940. His great-grandson, Martin Krulis, came across a cache of his photographs, most of them contacts printed from glass-plate negatives, and brought them to Robert Mann.
In the exhibition catalog, Monika Faber, a photography curator in Vienna, noted that Nikodem tested cameras and film for a friend, a photographic supplies dealer. His prints here are small, many 2 1/2 by 2 1/2 inches, with a few about 3 by 5 inches. Hung in a dim gallery, each image spotlighted, the 34 pictures raise the expectation that they are all of superb quality.
Many are exquisite, especially those of Barbara, a model who became his wife. Clothed or unclothed, she exudes a smoky sensuality all the more potent because Nikodem doesn't distract with stylized poses or superfluous props. As if taking cues from Stieglitz vis-à-vis the majestic O'Keeffe, Nikodem made love to Barbara with his camera, taking marvelously casual pictures of her feet, her hands, her naked back, as she ate fruit or sat in a chair. But Nikodem's sea and landscape shots of Turkey and rural Austria are nothing to write home about. The show would be stronger without them. Peering at Nikodem's small prints, particularly his inspired portraits of people familiar to him, even his austere self-portrait, you might also wish the gallery had larger prints made. They wouldn't be vintage, but they could be extraordinary.