Wilhelm Thöny—A comparison

5.11.2020 | By Lena Nievers, Curator and Head of collection

In this blog post, curator Lena Nievers juxtaposes two paintings by Wilhelm Thöny (1888 Graz, AT—1949 New York, NY, US) and thus provides insights into his different creative periods. Both can be seen in the exhibition Wilhelm Thöny. Dreaming in Times of Crisis from June 20, 2020.

From Graz, the painter and draftsman Wilhelm Thöny traveled to Paris for the first time in 1929 and was enthusiastic about this city with its liveliness, its silvery light and the bright sandstone architecture. So much so that in 1931 he and his partner Thea Trautner (née Herrmann) moved there for a longer stay. Ultimately, the couple will remain in Paris until 1938.

If Thöny's cityscapes in Graz are somber and cramped, Paris, the “roaring, a thousand times beautiful and interesting city”, as he wrote in a letter in 1931, makes his palette of colors brighter and friendlier and the image sections wider. This can even be seen in the painting Île de la Cité II (1929—1930), created shortly after the first visit to Paris in the Graz studio. Presumably it is the remembered (and therefore not entirely correct) view from Thöny's hotel room over the Seine to Notre Dame that he captured here.

During his time in Paris, Thöny dealt intensively with the subject of color. Although he remains true to the figurative, the color increasingly dominates the image, which makes his cityscapes more remote, like dreamlike visions. In the Paris Gambetta painting (around 1938), the washed-out blue sky takes up more than half of the picture area and covers the delicately drawn buildings like a fog.

Unlike Île de la Cité II, Paris Gambetta does not depict a real city view. Rather, architectural set pieces come together to form a vague, topographically undetermined image of Paris. Possibly the Seine flows in the foreground—at least there seems to be a sailing ship on the left with the tricolor fluttering at the top of the mast, in front of which you can see a bridge. In the front right, a delicate, filigree scaffold-like structure rises—a crane?

Paris Gambetta was created in late 1937 or early 1938, a few months before Thöny and Thea set out on their second trip to America from Paris in March 1938. The couple traveled to New York for the first time in 1933 to visit Thöny's daughter from his first marriage and Thea's family. As before with Paris, Thöny is deeply impressed by New York. In Paris, memories and sketches create numerous images of the city, which Thöny is increasingly looking for (in a letter in 1937 he wrote about his “homesickness for America”), while the situation in Europe is becoming more and more threatening. With the high sky, which would offer enough space for the vertical architecture of New York, but above all with its dreamlike volatility, Paris Gambetta strikingly resembles the painting style of the New York views of the time.

The title of the work as well as the hot air balloon hovering over the city refer to a historical event: the French statesman Léon Gambetta (1838—1882), who, after Napoleon's resignation became the first minister of the interior of the Third French Republic, fled in 1870 with a Montgolfiere from Paris, which then was besieged by German troops to organize the military resistance. Thöny's historical interest is always reflected in his works —for example, Napoleon and the French Revolution are recurring motifs. He often relates historical events to the political and social developments of his time, of which he is a keen and critical observer.

The historically veiled escape motif, the city fragments in the process of disintegration, which seem to anticipate the fading of memory, and the fact that Paris Gambetta is one of Thöny's last Paris pictures suggests that it should be interpreted as a farewell picture of Europe. This is contradicted by the fact that, despite all the bad premonitions, the artist still expects to return to Paris at the time of departure. The decision to stay in New York was made on the way, probably only in 1939 when France entered the war. So if Paris Gambetta is about farewell and loss, it is more in the sense that Paris has lost its magic for Thöny. What remains is the dreamy escape into a Paris of fantasy, in which New York as a new city of his longing is already echoing.

Lena Nievers


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