Thursday, November 29, 2012

Carel Willink Week at The Jade Sphinx: The Blimp (1933)

Well … wow, what a picture.

First, let’s look at what artist Carel Willink is doing on the lower half of the canvas.  He streaks the ground with both rain puddles and shadows.  These actively work to separate the human figures from the world around them, by accentuating the distances between them and creating shadows that clearly demark distance.  In addition, the houses are largely bathed in shadow; the house on the left seems to stare at the people in the street with a particularly sinister cycloptian eye.

The two (significantly) dead trees point upwards to the sky and the airship.  Clearly the dirigible is the focus of attention, but here Willink again plays his games of mood and atmosphere: the sky, though bright, is still overcast.  The men in the street may be greeting the blimp, but Willink clearly sees this technology as a mixed blessing.

That this is the case is not at all surprising: airships wreaked havoc in Europe during the Great War, creating more effective aerial bombardments than the primitive planes of the time.  For Willink (1900 – 1983), who came to his maturity during the Great War, the 1930s enthusiasm for airships must have been met with mistrust at best and downright hostility at worst.  The brand-new notion of terror from the skies is one that would’ve made its mark.

Let’s look at some other things in the picture – first, notice that the third-floor windows of the house on the left have human-shaped columns.  (Rather artful columns, at that.)  The houses were built to an older, more human scale – part of a recognizable European tradition.  The hulking airship looms over this landscape, its scale larger, its design clearly modern. 

Also interesting – any passers-by in front of one of the homes could tip his hat and be recognized, and see who was within.  There is no such potential human interaction with the airship; it is completely indifferent to the people waving below.

The rain, too, is symbolic of both a passing storm, and of new beginnings. Though ponderous, the airship is moving, while the people below are not.  One cannot help but think that Willink thought that technology was moving forward, regardless of its impact on human beings and the changes it would bring. 

There is about Willink’s pictures a feeling that all of its component parts are made of different paintings.  Look at the buildings, the dirigible, the people – they are all made with very hard lines that separate each component from every other component.  It is this sense of isolation in a crowded world that is, to my eye, the most interesting and individual characteristic of Willink’s work.  At times, it seems as if he presents a world of wonders that is completely incapable of supporting a human connection.

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