Perspective | Artist didn’t want this masterpiece to see the light of day

What you do in your bedroom — or even your living room with curtains — should be nobody’s business. Or so – sadly – thought Adolf Menzel (1815-1905), one of Germany’s great 19th-century painters and draftsmen.

This paintingOne of Menzel’s paintings of dark and empty rooms, painted between 1845 and 1851, in oil on paper mounted on cardboard, in the Metropolitan Museum of Art. These were private experiences. Menzel never exhibited them publicly, and they were found in his studio after his death.

All five were painted at high speed and with remarkably free brushwork. Menzel was attentive to various sources of light—lamps, moonlight, and, in this case, late effects. The sun filtered through the patterned curtains. Being more concerned with light than with precise descriptions of material objects, they convey a sense of ephemerality (light is always changing). And because they describe the empty interior, their environment also evokes the poetry of inner life, as in the Danish paintings. Wilhelm Hammershoi Or America? Edward Hopper.

Menzel moved in 1847 to the Ritterstrasse area of ​​Berlin, now known as Kreuzberg. It remained unpublished and essentially unknown until 15 years after his death.

It shows a room that by this time Menzel would know well, slivers of late afternoon light coming through drawn shades. It’s a bit dark, and parts of the room are hard to make out. But I find it wonderful. I love the unflinching economy with which Menzel has swept the ceiling and walls, and the skill with which he has captured the streaks of light glinting off the floor, alternating with the soft shadows of the table legs. .

Also noteworthy is the extreme sparing of the mottled brushstrokes that outline the tall sculpture on the cupboard at the rear of the room. The original would, presumably, have been smoother and neoclassical. It more closely resembles a bust. Giacometti.

But the most beautiful are those curtains. How pleasant it must have been to brush across those wrists, incriminating red marks, trusting that somehow, in the mind’s eye, they would amount to an ordered pattern. Just above the window, there are messages in light blue-gray in pale blue-gray where the late daylight hides—too bright, too literal, threatening to spoil the mood of the poetic suggestion, but the curtains It is kept away by

Menzel’s Five Mysterious Interiors, For 40 Years, Home Interiors Pierre Bonnard and Edward Voilard. They are 30 years ahead of comparable works. John Singer Sgt20 ahead of the Impressionists and 10 ahead By Edouard Manet The Age of Great Progress (1860) But clearly, when Menzel made them, he wasn’t thinking about art history.

To me, Menzel’s empty interior is a well-functioning definition of freedom. It might seem like a lot to claim a 19th-century painting of a sitting room. But I’m not talking about freedom as a “right,” which is (historically) a glorious fiction and a matter for courts and constitutions.

I’m talking about freedom as an experience instead: the experience of being on your own; not subject to manipulation by external forces; Responding to the world around you fearlessly and in your own way; Thus allowing the emotions that arise to have free rein.

I am talking about freedom of art.

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