Ferdinand Kulmer

Brown Picture


Ferdinand Kulmer 1925–1998
Oil paint and tempera on canvas
Frame: 1465 × 985 × 28 mm
support: 1470 × 973 mm
Purchased 1961

Display caption

Kulmer was part of a generation of painters in Croatia (then part of Yugoslavia) working with gestural abstraction. This style of painting is known for its free sweeping brush strokes. Kulmer maintained a link to experience and reality in his work. The heavily worked surface of this painting was his response to the ‘climate of the forest’. It was included in Contemporary Yugoslav Painting and Sculpture at Tate in 1961. The exhibition was part of a wider cultural effort to signal Yugoslavia’s independent political position at a moment of increased tension in the Cold War.

Gallery label, June 2021

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Technique and condition

The painting is in oil, natural resin, and oil-modified alkyd paint on canvas. What is particularly striking is the extremely thick, heavy and uneven application of paint which gives the painting a sculptural quality. There are areas of medium rich, glossy paint, which have a distinctly wrinkled surface. The wrinkling was likely caused by the thick application of paint, where the surface dried faster than the bulk paint. Other passages of paint appear matte and fairly uniform, with evidence for the use of a thick brush dragging heavy paint of a paste-like texture. It is possible the artist was modifying commercially prepared oil paints to achieve specific surface effects, which could explain the presence of natural resin and oil-modified alkyd in some but not all of the paints. Pigments used include various earth colours (iron oxide), French ultramarine and Prussian blue. Barium sulphate, calcium carbonate were extender pigments identified in the paints.

The painting is in a good condition, and was last treated in 2009 when the painting was lightly dusted to remove surface dirt. A backboard was also fitted to provide extra support to the canvas. Most of the painting is water-sensitive; water sensitivity is often encountered in unvarnished twentieth century oil paintings and is an area of concurrent research (see the Cleaning Modern Oil Paints project). The painting is currently unframed and unglazed.

Further reading
Ferdinand Kulmer: l'oeuvre 1975–1983, exhibition catalogue, Paris Art Center, Paris, 1983.
Ulje: Ferdinand Kulmer, Zagreb 15.I.1961-31.I.1961, exhibition catalogue, Galerija Grada Zagreba . Galerija Suvremene Umjetnosti, Zagreb, 1961.

Judith Lee
February 2017

Research on this work was carried out as part of an AHRC funded Collaborative Doctoral Award at Tate, 2013–2016.

Catalogue entry

Ferdinand Kulmer born 1925

T00429 Chestnut-Brown Picture 1960

Inscribed on stretcher 'KULMER | "SMEDA SLIKA" ulje 149 x 97'
Oil and wax encaustic on canvas, 57 3/8 x 38 1/4 (146 x 97)
Purchased from the artist through the Yugoslav Committee of Cultural Relations (Grant-in-Aid) 1961
Exh: Ferdinand Kulmer, Galerija Suvremene Umjetnosti, Zagreb, January 1961 (10); Contemporary Yugoslav Painting and Sculpture, Tate Gallery, April-May 1961 (25) as 'Brown Picture' 1960; Herbert Art Gallery, Coventry, June-July 1961 (25); Ferens Art Gallery, Hull, July-August 1961 (25); Brighton Art Gallery, August-September 1961 (25)

The artist told the compiler on 5 January 1962 that painting, for him, must always have some suggestion of space or a figure - it must have an organic character.

Later he added (in a letter of 15 September 1979): 'The suggestions of space in my paintings of the period were due to associations produced by the patches of colour and by the pictorial material, and they changed in the course of working. They were mainly details of the forest, the theme which was the basis of my "tachiste" pictures. They included foliage, earth, water, humidity, the bark of trees, and sometimes the sky like an "aerial hole" in the dense matter. I remember that in the course of working on the Tate's painting an association of the earth and stones seen through water (as in a stream) was one of the ideas that inspired me. In most of the compositions of the period there was also some suggestion of figuration in the patches and groups of patches (in the way that patches of damp on a wall suggest a battle, a figure, a horse's head and so on), but always subordinated to the "climate" of the forest.

'In any case the associations followed the act of painting which was not a considered gesture but rather the result of a "resemblance" which I saw to a naturalistic image, a resemblance often destroyed by the next painting acts to create a different resemblance. This was a method of controlling the gesture and the act of painting.

'As the years went on the act of painting led to marks which were more precise and more "calligraphic", and the "resemblance" of the rather amorphous patches of the period 1957-65 gave place to the "significance" of the signs.'

Though this work was exhibited in England in 1961 as 'Brown Picture', the word 'smeda' of the original title can be translated as 'brown' or 'chestnut'; 'chestnut-brown' seems the most appropriate translation in this instance.

Published in:
Ronald Alley, Catalogue of the Tate Gallery's Collection of Modern Art other than Works by British Artists, Tate Gallery and Sotheby Parke-Bernet, London 1981, p.403, reproduced p.403

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