Fortess, Karl E.
Oil on canvas
20 1/8 x 40 3/8 inches
Wichita Art Museum, Museum purchase, Director's Discretionary Fund
Not Currently on Display
About the Artwork
For centuries, nature and the changing moods of the seasonal cycle have been among the principal themes for painting throughout Western culture. In this impressive work titled Winter Landscape executed in 1940 by the American painter Karl Fortess, a barren setting at the height of a bleak winter is convincingly depicted. The ground is blanketed with snow, trees are leafless, the icy roadway is deserted, and the pervasive mood is one of gloom. Nowhere can the human image be found.
Yet if we look closely, the composition seems to come to life, for forms and spaces dynamically interpenetrate, and a restless pattern of alternating dark and light areas is spread across the entire surface of the canvas. Indeed, the naked tree branches that reach upward and the powerful geometry of such interesting masses as the small section of wall at the left, the sweeping roadway that ascends from the lower foreground together carry the eye toward a narrow streak of delicate blue that glows through the otherwise cloud-filled sky. Moreover, swollen forms in the distant terrain coupled with occasional patches of muted green, russet and yellow that punctuate the desolate landscape convey a sense of latent vitality and the promise of renewal and therefore of hope for the future. Spring will follow winter; the cycle of life will go on and beauty will once again be reborn.
But there is another aspect of the painting which cannot be ignored. This work was painted in early 1940. War in Europe was already underway and news of the Hitler-Stalin Non-Aggression Pact, signed just a few months before, was particularly shocking to artists throughout the nation. That America would eventually become involved seemed inevitable.
Like a dream, a painting is sometimes an unconsciously expressed wish fulfillment. And it is therefore not surprising to find hope combined with despair in such a work as this executed in a moment when the political and psychological climate was so fearfully threatening. And in this instance, it was nature — a source of consolation and of beauty and truth — that Fortess apparently found the appropriate symbolic outlet for transforming his deepest concerns.
Karl Fortess was born in Antwerp, Belgium in 1907 but settled in America while still a youth and became a U.S. citizen in 1923. He studied at the Art Institute of Chicago, the Art Students League in New York and — with Yasuo Kuniyoshi — at the Woodstock School of Painting. Throughout his prolific career he has been the recipient of numerous awards including a Childe Hassam Purchase Award, a Guggenheim Fellowship, and a Salmagundi Prize through the National Academy of Design. In 1940 he was awarded First Honorable Mention in the Carnegie International competition for Landscape in Winter. His works are included in such major collections as the Museum of Modern Art, the Brooklyn Museum, the National Collection of Fine Arts, and numerous others. For many years Fortess was a professor in the School of Fine Arts at Boston University.