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John von Wicht
Harbor Impression, 1956
Oil on canvas, 36 x 50 inches
Born in Holstein, Germany, in 1888, John von Wicht emerged as a minor but important figure in modern art. When he was a boy he showed an aptitude for art that caught the attention of Gerhard Bakenhus, a local artist. Under his direction, John von Wicht learned about the great artists of the Renaissance. This taught him how to appreciate nature from an artist’s perspective.
Soon he became an apprentice to the master painter F.W. Adels. Adels taught him oil painting and an appreciation for color that lasted his lifetime. In 1907, he created a painting titled Interior of a Farmhouse, which he was able to sell. His mother thought being an artist would be a good career for him. She had him attend a private school run by the Grand Duke of Hesse. The curriculum was naturalistic and centered around drawing and painting elements in nature, like flowers. John von Wicht artist and student learned a lot from his professors, including the art of calligraphy and the local European Renaissance masters like Durer and Memling. This gave him painting techniques and principles that emerged later in his abstract paintings.
World War I cut his art studies short. He was called to fight, was wounded and partially paralyzed. During his rehabilitation, he honed his artistic skills designing books and doing illustrations. During this recuperation period, he discovered the artwork of the abstract painters Mondrian and Malevich. This forever changed his perceptions of what art is and could be.
In 1923, John von Wicht emigrated to the United States to escape the impending economic crisis unfolding in Germany. In New York he found peace and prosperity working with a lithography company. He then transitioned to working with stained glass and mosaic. His artwork transformed from naturalistic to using more symbolism with a good dose of geometry inspired by the linear abstraction of Mondrian and Malevich. His sense of color developed significantly and by 1937, he was exploring abstraction. He created an abstract watercolor series titled Force. This was to commemorate Juliana Force, the first director of the Whitney Museum of Art. This was John von Wicht, artist and painter, first major work of abstract painting. Close to Kandinsky in style, they were a long way from his early days of naturalistic painting. His force series was popular and received critical praise.
He exhibited at Whitney in 1941 and enjoyed some success. The War made progress slow and he captained a supply barge in New York. But after the war, John von Wicht artwork explored cubism and the new surrealism spreading across the West. By the start of the new decade, he jumped into abstract painting with both feet, painting and drawing full time. His earlier influences from the school of Hesse made their mark here. Particularly with the Eastern calligraphy he had learned. His second solo exhibit, at the Passedoit Gallery in 1951 was a success.
The MacDowell Colony in New Hampshire has fostered many excellent artists over the years. John von Wicht received 12 annual residencies at the colony. There he met inspiring artists from around the United States and other parts of the world. The fertile atmosphere of the Colony had quite an impact on John von Wicht and his artwork took on a wider range of themes and techniques. He met composers as well as artists, and this becomes clear with his paintings on musical symphonies.
The decade of the 1950’s saw his painting style transform from tight geometry and bright colors to becoming looser and more expressionist. He traveled widely and boats and harbors turned up in his artwork as his real life experiences transformed into art. By 1959, John von Wicht was exhibiting in Paris, France, Brussels, and other European cities. His exploration of form and concept had expanded, taking in music (his 1954 show at Passedioit was based on symphonies and a subjective interpretation of the music), over painting. John von Wicht enjoyed considerable success during this time, both artistically and with his paintings for sale.
The latter years of John von Wicht’s life were productive and further expanded his painting techniques. The transformation away from rigid lines, bold, brilliant colors, and fundamental abstraction to more intuitive painting was gradual and is clearly seen in his artwork. In his last years, the passing of the seasons became a recurring theme. Often involving familiar subjects painted at different times of the year or day. These late paintings were less defined by geometry and more by a naturalistic expression of form and spirituality.
John von Wicht artwork had almost come full circle, going back to his days as an apprentice of learning to draw and paint through close observation of nature. Strikingly emotional, the boldness of color he learned as a boy was ever present in his artwork to the end of his life. Artist John von Wicht died on January 20th 1970 of pneumonia.