always becoming

My critique group and I visited the Nicolai Fechin exhibition at the Frye Art Museum in Seattle this week. Fechin was a Russian American artist active from the late 19th to mid 20th Century whose style combined impressionism, expressionism and realism. 
My friend Tara asked about the meaning of the term "grotesque" which was used several times in the text panels to describe Fechin's paintings. We usually associate grotesque with Halloween imagery or just "ew..gross!" and these pictures were neither, so I spent a little time reseraching it as an art term. In visual art, "grotesque" was originally used as a noun to describe the little decorative characters found in the margins of medieval manuscripts or the gargolye figures adorning gothic buildings. 
 "Grotesque" is also used to describe the atmosphere of dark fantasy, especially evident in much early 20th Century German art.

I love this quote from Russian philospher Mikhail Bakhtin, who describes the grotesque as:

 "a body in the act of becoming...never finished, never completed; it is continually built, created, and builds and creates another body."

This metamorphosis is the thing that I love most about Nicolia Fechin's best work. Out of an abstracted field of texture and color, the delicate elements of the face emerge. Backgrounds that are almost completely abstract piles of impasto paint or bare canvas resolve into clothing and hair that is loosely woven in wild wooly brushstrokes. Floating above and out of all is the heavenly face, the eyes lips and nostrils, moist, living and immediate.

I hope that you get a chance to see the artwork of Nicholai Fechin for yourself, in person - these reproductions don't capture the crusty texture and dreamy detail of his canvases. 
Nicholai Fechin: On display at the Frye Art Museum through May 19th, 2013.