Go big or go home, is not necessarily applicable when it comes to making a painting or any visual art form for that matter. A deep thought or quality concept, an expressive mark, or even just plain old craftsmanship can transcend the format or size of an artwork and render that aspect unimportant. Often, what matters the most is that artist is somehow effectively communicating.
“Gems of Modernist Brevity: Alice Schille Watercolor Miniatures,” on view now at the Canton Museum of Art through March 8 is a colorful collection of eloquently painted small paintings by this Columbus, Ohio native. Alice Schille (1869-1955) created her miniature watercolors in a variety of locations — from France and England to North Africa, Guatemala and Santa Fe, New Mexico.
The works range in style from Impressionism to Post Impressionism to Cubism. Schille painted them during her travels, which began in her youth as well as after her studies and continued every summer during 40 years of teaching at the Columbus Art School (now Columbus College of Art and Design or CCAD).
The exhibit features not only small paintings, but also some personal effects. A hat worn by Alice Schille, as well as a picture of her sisters, sketchbooks and a catalog from a show at which she frequently exhibited. Interestingly, the display includes two chairs that Schille purchased while in Paris, France. Schille would have subjects sit in these chairs while she painted their portraits.
The grouping of works chosen for this exhibit is full of impressions of people and places put down on paper by a skilled hand. There is a visceral sense of the energy of the moment this artist found themselves in while painting each scene and that helps to make the compositions included in the exhibition feel more timeless.
Tunis in Mist, is a watercolor of a part of this city made when Schille traveled to the capital of Tunisia (Tunis) in 1922. This work gives an overwhelming sense of the feeling of the moment, which falls inline with the post-impressionist movement that would have influenced Schille.
However, it is also unlike many of the other works included, in that this particular painting only gives enough information to give you a minimal sense of the place and the building at which the artist was looking.
A structure or closely built series of structures is sketched with a series of shapes and then is painted in with purples and grays that move to a yellow ochre. The sky is nearly a uniform blue except with moments where the artist appears to have dabbed at the still wet paper with a piece of cloth.
Cubism appears to be the heavy influence with this piece. This clear change in style and approach by Schille is exciting, because as you walk through and look at the different works chosen for the exhibit, it becomes more easy to see how the artist adapted and grew over time.
Game of Cards, is a 1916-18 watercolor of people playing cards near a dock by the water. The moment captures over a dozen people playing and is uniquely humorous and expressive, as all of the people depicted are wearing a similar and distinctive type of cap.
Little information is painted about what their faces looked like. Rather, their individual body language is shown as well as the main colors of their clothing. Each person is outlined in dark blue, and this adds an air of humor and cartoon-like quality to the painting.
The entire scene takes place around two large barrels on which some of the participants are sitting. Behind the scene, the water is painted with thick short lines of blue and blue-green, done with just enough information to let us know that what’s been shown here is indeed water.
This type of concise and expressive work is indicative of everything included in the exhibit. Schille was clearly a skilled painter, who often used a minimal amount of paint, but did so with enough precision to get her point across, while at the same time leaving enough movement in the brush and pencil marks that the energy and movement of the moment was not lost but retained through her forms and choices of color.
Artists work in a variety of formats and media. They choose the formats because of a message they might want to convey or because a certain size might speak to them. Schille was an internationally known miniaturist. She took her format seriously, and her decades of artistic research continue to stand up to the test of time.