Ernst Wilhelm Nay
From 1963 to 1964, Ernst Wilhelm Nay began work on his “Augenbilder” (Eye Paintings) series. The series represented the next step in Nay’s development after his Disc Paintings (1954-1962), which had taken the circle and its possible permutations and distortions as its starting point. By reintroducing notions of the graphic to this abstract mode of painting, Nay discovered his “eye” motif, in which he traced the edges of rounded forms and highlighted them in contrasting colors. He then further distorted and stretched these principal forms into pointed oval shapes, which, when superimposed on the solid circle beneath, resemble an eye. Additional circles and dots inside the oval define the iris and the pupil.
In 1964 Nay was commissioned to produce a new set of “Eye” paintings for the third edition of the Documenta exhibition in Kassel, Germany. His three canvases, each four-meters (about 13 feet) square, were mounted on the ceiling in a spectacular display that resulted in praise and criticism in equal amounts. Although the hanging presentation seemed appropriate for the idea of the elements and the firmament explored in the paintings’ titles, such as Meteor, controversy ensued on the grounds that the display was not conceived by Nay himself, but rather by the show’s creative director, Arnold Bode. The response to the exhibition in the press was divided in the opinion of critics and artists alike with respect to the “Eye” series as a whole.
From 1925 to 1928 Ernst Wilhelm Nay studied painting at the Hochschule der Künste (College of Arte) Berlin under the tutelage of the German Expressionist painter Karl Hofer (1878–1955). Nay was particularly interested in the paintings of Henri Matisse (1869–1954), Ernst Ludwig Kirchner (1880–1938), Caspar David Friedrich (1774–1840) and Nicolas Poussin (1594–1665). Nay traveled to Rome in 1931 to study at the German Art Institute (known as the Villa Massimo), and in 1937, through a grant given by Edvard Munch (1863–1944), he studied in Norway. That same year, Nay’s paintings were included in the infamous Nazi-organized exhibition Entartete Kunst (Degenerate Art) in Germany. His ability to paint and exhibit was severely curtailed at that time. Nay was conscripted in 1940 and went with the German infantry to France, where he painted in secret in a French artist’s studio. From 1945 to 1948 Nay’s work explored myth and poetry, grappling with the trauma of World War II. In 1950, Kestner-Gesellschaft Hannover organized Nay’s first retrospective. Nay work became completely non-representational after he moved to Cologne in 1951. His work was shown in the Venice Biennale (1956) and Documenta, Kassel (1955; 1959; 1964).