Peter Weiss at Modern Art & Design

Our Modern Auction this spring presents his work The City (1940), which was clearly inspired by the great Renaissance masters.

Peter Weiss, Staden

Peter Weiss was born in Berlin in 1916 and died in Stockholm in 1982. On Hitler’s rise to power, Peter Weiss’ family fled the country. He grew up in Germany, Great Britain and Czechoslovakia. When war broke out in 1939, his family fled to Sweden where he continued to live and work for 42 years. A sense of marginalisation pursued him throughout his life and had a major influence on everything he created.

At an early age, Peter Weiss proved himself to be equally skilled at writing and painting. His first art exhibition was held in London in 1936, by which time his painting was already highly developed. In an exchange of letters with Herman Hesse, Peter Weiss asked for advice about which form of expression he should concentrate on – painting or writing. The correspondence resulted in Hesse becoming his mentor, and he recommended Weiss to the Academy of Fine Arts in Prague, where Weiss studied for two years. Endre Nemes and Jan Brazda attended the same seat of learning, and these three artists were later to reunite as refugees in Stockholm.
Taking a position on a language poisoned by the Nazis and on the trauma that arose in the wake of World War II is a key theme in the art and literature of the post-war years. Peter Weiss has described this as a kind of linguistic isolation that resulted in him spending a protracted period primarily devoted to painting. With his artistic versatility developed at an early age, he drifted freely between the disciplines in a broad area of production as an artist, film-maker, dramatist and novelist.

His oeuvre can be divided into three phases with different role models. The first period comprises his works from the 1930s and includes compositions that call to mind the paintings of Renaissance masters such as Pisanello, Bosch, Bruegel, Grünewald and Altdorfer. The motifs were contemporary, describing in a spine-chilling manner the atmosphere in Germany in the 1930s. They seem almost to predict the impending catastrophe. A recurring theme in these paintings is the human being in intricate city constructions – metaphors for the sense of vulnerability. In The City from 1940, a thoughtful female figure is shown in the foreground, with the compact city looming large behind her. An electric glare stands out starkly in the jet-black space. The painting is typical of the period, and if you allow your eye to wander among the details, you will notice how power lines and trees build up axiality and depth in the motif. The painting depicts a condition rather than reality.

During the 1940s, Weiss’ colour spectrum lightened and his motifs often centred on the world of the circus and theatre. Jesters and circus performers were common sights in the markets of the town where he grew up, and he retained a fascination for them throughout his life. The paintings from this period are packed with symbols and metaphors, and often contain portraits. His painting entitled The Musicians, for example, consists of a self-portrait of Weiss together with his fellow artist Endre Nemes.

The third period centres on his conversion to surrealism, in which he was inspired by Max Ernst and Man Ray in particular. Surrealism gradually encouraged Weiss to switch to moving pictures. Drawing inspiration from Bunuel and Dali, he created “total artworks” made up of all the elements with which he worked: pictures, words, music, light and movement.

After 1960, Peter Weiss devoted more and more of his production to writing. His plays and novels attracted international attention and in Germany, Peter Weiss is considered a classic author. As an artist he will always be remembered as the masterful depicter of marginalisation.

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