- Artist: Charlotte Wankel
- Creation date: 1936
- Object type: Painting
Charlotte Wankel began to paint portraits at a relatively late stage in her career. The painting’s stylized idiom, with its flat fields of pure colour and highly condensed pictorial space, is characteristic of her portraits from the 1930s. Wankel is also known for her geometric, abstract paintings from the 1920s. Like Thorvald Hellesen, Ragnhild Keyser, and Ragnhild Kaarbø, she was closely associated at the time with the radical art community in Paris. She had lengthy stays there and studied at the Académie Moderne under Fernand Léger and Amédée Ozenfant.
This group portrait juxtaposes two of her colleagues from the Paris years, Ragnhild Keyser and Ragnhild Kaarbø (to the left), with two other Norwegian artists, Henrik Sørensen and Joronn Sitje. Sørensen was a key figure in Norwegian art in the mid-1930s, while Sitje was one of his students. Sørensen dominates the portrait with his towering presence and conspicuously oversized hand. Is the gesture meant as a friendly greeting or a strict admonishment? The principal figure’s mix of favour and rejection hints at the ongoing shift in the era’s artistic orientation: on the one hand the avant-garde experimentation of Keyser, Kaarbø, and Wankel herself, on the other hand the romantic expressionism of Sørensen and Sitje.
Wankel was in her younger years a student of Sørensen’s, and in the 1920s he defended her and other Nordic cubists against the disapproving critics of the era. This would subsequently change, however, and Wankel’s group portrait can be seen as thematizing the artistic climate of the time.
Born 1888 in Kambo, Moss, death 1969 in Bærum
Charlotte Wankel was a true pioneer. She was in high demand as an active member of the art community in Paris, but did not gain popularity in Norway during her lifetime. Her style, which she maintained steadfastly throughout her career, was strongly marked by simplification and abstraction.
Today Charlotte Wankel is often referred to as one of Norway’s most important artists. However, this has not always been the case. Her radical works of the 1920s were more or less forgotten for a long time. It was not until several years after her death in 1969 that her works emerged from oblivion. Since then she has been increasingly acknowledged as one of Norway’s few advanced avant-garde artists of the interwar period.
Backer, Matisse, Léger and modern life
Wankel dedicated herself to art at an early age, but was also interested in architecture and music. Before making a name for herself as an artist she designed her mother’s new house, drawing inspiration from Le Corbusier. She came from a well-to-do background, and studied first at Harriet Backer’s painting school in Kristiania (Oslo), then with Henri Matisse in Paris, and later at the Académie Moderne with Fernand Léger and Amédée Ozenfant.
Wankel’s interest in the effect of colours and her drive towards greater simplification can be detected even in some of her early paintings. It was probably while studying with Backer that she got to know Ragnhild Keyser and Ragnhild Kaarbø, two artists with whom she was often associated. Together they went to Paris, painted, showed their works at exhibitions and lived a modern life. One of the high points of Wankel’s career occurred in 1925, when she participated in L’Art d’Aujourd’hui, the first major presentation of trend-setting art in the period after World War I.
The stormy 20s
Wankel favoured a simple, architectural and restrained style. Her work was an extension of Cubism, which was an established phenomenon in the Paris art community around 1920. Wankel and several others in the Académie Moderne’s circle went further in the direction of abstraction and simplification, however, pursuing a stylistic movement called Purism. She worked in small formats with clear, flat shapes that were characterised by rhythmic movement and few, muted shades of colour. The style was neutral, nearly mechanical or machine-like, devoid of visible brushstrokes or spontaneous gestures. Occasionally some isolated figurative elements can be discerned.
Abstract art was the order of the day in the advanced art circles in which she moved. In some of Wankel’s paintings she was among the boldest of her contemporaries in exploring the possibility of creating pictures without a visible motif: irregular, pattern-like works in black, white and grey.
In 1927 she arranged a group exhibition at Kunstnerforbundet in Oslo, Otte skandinaviske kubister (Eight Scandinavian Cubists). The different artists were united in their use of abstraction with a focus on geometric forms and a controlled painterly execution. This radical style attracted attention and provoked strong reactions. The exhibition was criticised harshly and the artists were regarded as controversial, but they also gained considerable recognition among the more knowledgeable experts of the day.
Recognition and adversity
Wankel held two major exhibitions in 1930 and 1934, where she showed pictures featuring stylised figuration and flat, organic forms. She was particularly interested in portraits and heads. The painting Gutt med agurkranker (Boy with a Cucumber Plant) (1930) is an example of the flat, stylised portrayal of figures. The work was purchased by the National Gallery in 1934, as the first and only purchase of one of her works by a public art museum during her lifetime. The newspapers gave the two exhibitions a hostile reception, and the adversity she experienced was probably an important reason for Wankel’s eventual withdrawal from the art world. From the end of the 1930s onwards, she only participated in minor group exhibitions. Her family situation, with an ill and ageing mother, also meant that she had less time to devote to her work.
But Wankel did not stop painting. Some large compositions of religious figures, made in the 1940s and 50s, have been preserved. Towards 1960 she found renewed energy. Wankel’s later works bear witness to her desire to maintain her own expressive idiom, combined with the will to continue to forge ahead. In her remaining years she developed a new group of motifs, now in the direction of more floating, organic abstractions. Her new interest in abstract forms of expression in these years can perhaps be related to the increased attention given to abstract art in general at the time.