Licht-Bilder: Fritz Winter and Abstract Photography Fritz Winter, Licht, A 1, 1934, Oil on Paper (Images courtesy of 1Fmediaproject)

Fritz Winter, “Licht, A 1” (1934). Oil on paper on canvas. (click to enlarge) (images via 1F mediaproject)

Fritz Winter (1905–1976) is a German artist best known for the abstract paintings he did after World War II. He and Rupprecht Geiger (1908–2009) co-founded the group “Zen 49” in Munich in 1949. Willi Baumeister  (1889–1955) was also a member.

While Winter’s reputation rests on this phase of his career, a view that is unlikely to change anytime soon, an exhibition of his “Licht-Bilder” (“light pictures”) currently on display at the Pinakothek der Moderne, Munich, presents a little known body of abstract paintings that he did between 1934 and ’36.  Along with twenty-two of Winter’s “light pictures,” the exhibition includes cameraless photographs and related photographic processes by five Europeans (Laszlo Moholy-Nagy, Ernst Schwitters, Alfred Ehrhardt, Jaromir Funke and Willy Zieke) and two Americans (Alvin Langdon Coburn, and Francis Bruguiere).

Comprised of sixty works, the exhibition was definitely an eye-opener and a revelation.  For one thing, Winter’s “light pictures” do not fit into any of the categories defining abstract art done before World War II: De Stilj; Suprematism, Constructivism; Der Blaue Reiter. That might have contributed to their being little known in Europe and completely unknown in America. Another reason might be that the “light pictures” form a short chapter in a career that largely gained attention in the 1950s, after Winter was released from a Russian P.O.W. camp and went to Paris to meet Hans Hartung and Pierre Soulages in 1950.

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Fritz Winter was the eldest of eight children. In 1919, he began an apprenticeship as an electrician and started working in mines. During the 1920s he began drawing and painting. The earliest works included in his catalogue raisonné date from 1924—an expressionist portrait of a farmer’s wife and a close-up view of three people gathered in evening prayer.  In 1927, he applied and was accepted to the Bauhaus in Dessau. During the three years he was there he studied with Paul Klee, Wassily Kandinsky and Oskar Schlemmer.

Fritz Winter, “Stufungen (Gradations)” (1934). Oil on paper on canvas.

Fritz Winter, “Stufungen (Gradations)” (1934). Oil on paper on canvas.

Winter was a student at Dessau while Moholy-Nagy actively promoted his “New vision,” which spanned painting, film, and photography.  During this period, Moholy-Nagy worked in a wide range of mediums, including photograms, and early in 1928, he resigned from the Bauhaus and moved to Berlin, where he influenced Eva Besnyo, Grete Stern and Ellen Auerbach, all of whom became major photographers in their own right.

In 1933, Winter moved to Munich and in 1935 to Diessen am Ammersee. He knew things were changing and not for the better. In 1937, the Nazis declared modern art to be “degenerate,” and mounted the infamous exhibition Degenerate Art.  By then, Winter had already felt the effects of this reactionary thinking, because his submission of “light pictures” to a competition in 1934 at the Museum Folkwang was rejected for being “aesthetically remote.”

One of the wall texts at the Pinakothek exhibition suggests that Winter’s interest in the crystal-like forms of his “Licht-Bilder” might have had its origins in his working in the mines, but I think it goes much deeper than that. In 1919-20, Bruno Taut initiated “The Crystal Chain,” a chain letter that circulated among a small circle of architects and artists.  The correspondents included Walter Gropius, Hans Scharoun, and Hans and Wassili Luckhardt.  In the aftermath of World War I, the defeat and subsequent humiliation of Germany, this group speculated about the architecture of the future. The writer and artist, Paul Scheerbart, who wrote sound poetry, science fiction tales, and tried to invent a perpetual motion machine, influenced Taut and Walter Benjamin with his book Glasarchitektur (1914). Taking their cue from Scheerbart, this group of radical architects and artists regarded the crystal — which is organic and geometric, solid and transparent — as an alternative model to earlier architectural forms.

Fritz Winter, "K 35" (1934). Oil on paper on canvas. (click to enlarge)

Fritz Winter, “K 35” (1934). Oil on paper on canvas. (click to enlarge)

In a number of the “light pictures,” Winter compresses semi-transparent crystalline forms, a dark gray, depthless space and a moon-like orb, which he overlays with a black, open linear structure. In these works the tension between surface and depth is held by the black linear structure, through which a soft radiant light emanates from the gray depthlessness and amber-colored crystalline forms. A sharper symbolist glow comes from the cold white, moon-like orbs. The palette runs from white to black with grays and browns marking the in-between areas. The coolness of the palette endows the paintings with a chthonic presence, at once mineral-like and otherworldly. Light and materiality coincide, overlap and even switch places.

In “Grosse Komposition IV” (1934), the condensed layering of whitish transparent planes, glowing red light, orbs rising diagonally from lower left to upper right — all of which is overlaid by an open, black and brown linear structure — evokes a densely packed urban landscape. In his series of nine, equally-sized paintings on paper — studies — that he submitted to the Museum Folkwang, he used a grisaille palette that ran from black to white, but mostly relied on cool gray tones. Shifting between depthlessness and overlapping, semi-transparent planes, these spatially complex paintings evoke a world that is porous and translucent.

Moholy-Nagy’s photograms clearly inspired Winter to explore crystalline forms within an abstract space after he left the Bauhaus.  At the same time, Winter made a body of paintings that distinguish themselves from both Moholy-Nagy’s cameraless photographs and the work of his innovative teachers (Klee, Kandinsky and Schlemmer). In fact, in his best work — which I think his “light pictures” are — I would advance that Winter  achieves something all his own — something dark and disturbing.

Winter’s “light pictures” are decidedly not utopian and in that regard stand apart from the work of Moholy-Nagy, Kandinsky, Piet Mondrian and other of his contemporaries. The biggest surprise for me was that his interest in modernist architectural elements, open linear structures and overlapping transparent planes anticipates the work of three very different contemporary artists, all of whom have gone their own way: Steve DiBenedetto, Joanne Greenbaum and Helmut Federle. Given that Winter is unknown in America it is unlikely that DiBenedetto and Greenbaum even know of his work. It should also be said that Federle, who often dedicates paintings to various artists and writers he feels a kinship with, has never done so for Winter. Finally, the “light pictures” don’t feel like they were done in the 1930s — they aren’t period pieces. They exude freshness, albeit a rather gloomy one.

Perhaps Winter had an inkling of what the future held in store. In 1939, and in his mid-thirties, he was drafted and sent to the Eastern front, where he was taken prisoner towards the end of the war. Nearly five years would pass before the Russians released him in 1949.

John Yau has published books of poetry, fiction, and criticism. His latest poetry publications include a book of poems, Further Adventures in Monochrome (Copper Canyon Press, 2012), and the chapbook, Egyptian...