Summary

Blue Sisters, Structures of Deviance is a portfolio of ten prints executed in blue ink on white paper. Five are photogravures depicting trees. The other five are soft ground etching and aquatint on paper; these images are abstract and have a smaller plate size than the photogravures. The prints were produced at Druckatelier Kurt Zein in Vienna, where the artist lives and works. They were published in an edition of thirty-five with ten artist’s and publisher’s proofs; Tate owns number eleven in the edition.

Federle has travelled extensively and for many years has taken photographs of trees during his international journeys. The photographs used in this portfolio were taken on four continents and depict large trees in diverse landscapes. The images are taken from a low viewpoint and cropped so that the tops of the depicted trees are not visible. Federle highlights the structural forms of the trunks and branches, and emphasises the connection between the trees and the ground. The photographic prints are reproduced in a deep blue. Although the source photographs were taken in daylight, the colouration gives the prints a contemplative, nocturnal quality.

Federle is known predominantly as a painter (see Norwegian Sight, 1997, Tate T07463). He uses simple geometric forms including segments of the letters of the alphabet as the basis for compositions made with delicate painterly brushstrokes. The etchings in this portfolio are structurally similar to paintings made by the artist in the late 1990s and early twenty-first century in which Federle used a repeated motif of vertical bands. Like the photogravures, the etchings are printed using the artist’s characteristically limited palette. Rather than the deep blue of the representational prints, the abstract etchings are made in a darker blue-grey; the images become progressively looser and less rigidly structured.

Federle seeks to convey a sense of spirituality approaching the sublime in his depiction of simple forms and the natural world. He has averred that ‘it can only be the spiritual which satisfies in art’ (quoted in Eva Badura-Triska, ‘1/1, 1/2, 1/4 (to Johannes Itten)’, Helmut Federle 5+1, p.20). The two styles deployed in Blue Sisters suggest contrasting and complementary contemporary approaches to the Romantic. The photogravures are depictions of landscape in the tradition of German Romantic painters including Caspar David Friedrich (1774-1840) while the etchings show the influence of American Abstract Expressionist artists, particularly Mark Rothko (1903-70; see Black on Maroon, 1958, Tate T01166). Speaking about an earlier series, Federle said, ‘I ... handle the abstract vocabulary with the same emotionality and the same symbolization as if I would paint a landscape’ (quoted in Badura-Triska, p.21).

In this image Federle uses aquatint almost like watercolour, creating a lyrical, contemplative composition with minimal means. The underlying structure of horizontal bands is still present, but the image is more ephemeral than previous etchings in the series. A dark horizontal band lies across the mid-section of the image. Splodges and streaks appearing above this line are faintly echoed below it, giving the impression of an abstracted landscape reflected in water.

Further reading:
Eva Badura-Triska, Erich Franz, Dieter Koepplin, Donald Kuspit, Friedrich Meschede and Theodora Vischer, Helmut Federle 5+1, New York, 1990.
Guy Tosatto, Elisabeth von Samsonow, Beat Wismer, Xavier Douroux & Franck Gautherot, Veit Loers, Nicholas Serota, Friedrich Meschede, Dieter Ronte and Helmut Federle, Helmut Federle, exhibition catalogue, Musée des Beaux-Arts de Nantes, 2002.
‘Working Proof’, Art on Paper, vol.5, no.4, March-April 2001, p.75.

Rachel Taylor
January 2004