09 March 2009

Henri Ottmann

After looking at his paintings I suspect that Henri Ottmann (1877-1927) possessed a gift for not taking life too seriously, along with a dazzling talent for painting. His contemporaries were convinced that, but for the fatal auto accident that took his life at fifty, Ottmann would have occupied a deserved place as a major artist.
Consider Sleeping Courtesan (left), an apparent comment on Manet's Olympia. In the intervening half century Manet's odalisque had gone from shocking affront to the bourgeoisie to priceless national treasure. There is something almost loopy about Ottmann's sleeping beauty, lolling with her hair hanging off the edge of the bed as an impassive servant watches over her mistress.
Again, in Woman In Blue Stockings (right), our preconceptions are nudged by her quiet seductiveness playing off the words 'bluestocking'.
As a young man, Ottmann had exhibited with the Belgian avant-garde group La Libre Esthetique, qualifying his admiration for the work of the supremely bourgeois Renoir by judging his colors too "harsh."
Ottmann's portrayal of himself at work gives no hint of his early poverty or his struggle to support his art through commercial work. Able to absorb new influences, from Fauvism to Art Deco and Cubism with ease and distinctiveness, Ottmann was at work on a series of large canvases on the theme of modern life when he died.
We can imagine what was lost by looking at an early Ottmann work, The Luxembourg Train Station In Brussels from 1903. His palette was still under the influence of Impressionism, the steam rising from the trains recalls Monet, but how different the overall intention. Reportedly painted from a bridge overlooking the rail yard, the larger portion of the canvas is a decorative swirl of tracks gleaming in the light as they spiral and slice their way across two thirds of the canvas. The puffing smokestacks and the propulsion of the engines are largely positive phenomena as presented here, a world away from the railroad as a destructive monster presented in Frank Norris's novel The Octopus (1901).

1. Sleeping Courtesan - Henri Ottmann, 1920, Centre Georges Pompidou, Paris.
2. Portrait Of the Artist In His Studio - Henri Ottmann, no date, Musee des Beuax-Arts, Nantes, France. 3. Woman With Blue Stockings - Henri Ottmann, 1917, Centre Georges Pompidou, Paris.
4. The Luxembourg Station In Brussels - Henri Ottmann, 1903, Musee D'Orsay, Paris.