Lesser Ury

Lesser Ury (Birnbaum 1861 - 1931 Berlin)

View of the Schlachtensee near Berlin, 1913

Oil on canvas, 70.9 x 100.4 cm
Signed and dated lower left L. Ury / 1913

Provenance:
Carl Nicolai, Berlin (acc. to mark on the stretcher)
Georg Schäfer private collection, Schweinfurt
German private collection

Exhibited:
Berlin grüßt München. Die beiden Städte an der Isar und an der Spree in Gemälden, Handzeichnungen und Druckgraphik aus drei Jahrhunderten, Berlin Museum, August-October 1972, no. 125

 

Ury’s landscapes are so distanced from content, so visually powerful and so appealing to the eye and the emotions that they hardly admit of discussion. (Martin Buber,[1] writing in 1903)

This view of the Schlachtensee[2] is dominated by a large tree occupying a central position in the foreground of the image. The formal impact of the motif is striking but it is also subtly evocative in conveying light and atmospheric effects. The tree is set on a steep bank overlooking a lake. Its bent trunk leans sharply away from the viewer, leading the eye downwards. The trunk forms a diagonal that crosses the image from the lower to the upper edge. The outline of its crown is blurred and the foliage, with its dots and dabs of white and vivid yellow, is set in contrast to the dark, angular line of the trunk which marks a jagged break in the pictorial space. Hugging the near shore line is a rowing boat, seen directly below the tree. The densely vegetated far bank spreads a dark bluish-green and brown reflection on the surface of the water and its outline is silhouetted against the skyline. The sky, a stretch of brightish grey punctuated by patches of blue, is mirrored on the water in the foreground, leaving a gleaming ribbon of light close to the shore.

Ury was one of three leading Impressionists working in Berlin, the others being Max Liebermann and Lovis Corinth.[3] Today, his reputation rests on depictions of views of the city at night. These he executed in his studio on Nollendorfplatz. They conjure up the bright lights and excitement of the big city, the lamplight reflected on its busy, rain-swept streets, its fashionable life and its cafe scenes. However his repertoire was in fact far more extensive and complex than this and landscape motifs play a major role in his oeuvre. In this he was to prove receptive to contemporary symbolist tendencies.

The year of execution of the present landscape, 1913, marked a turning point in Ury’s career. Earlier, he had had to fight for recognition, had experienced abrasive reviews and little interest in his work had been shown. The breakthrough owed much to his persistence in exhibiting his work. However, a decisive factor was Corinth’s nomination as president of the Berlin Secession replacing Ury’s arch-adversary Max Liebermann. It was no longer possible for Liebermann to block Ury’s work from appearing at the popular Secessionist exhibitions. The new platform would broaden awareness of Ury’s work and help consolidate his standing.

In Ury’s lifetime the term Seelenlandschaft was used to describe the emotional impact of his landscapes with their introverted, reflective and melancholic qualities. The term can certainly be applied to the present landscape. Ury sought out the quiet of the natural world and would select secluded spots and unspectacular motifs. These he depicted in a highly evocative range of colours. Elusive effects of light and changing weather conditions appealed to him as much as the diffuse effects of natural light at different times of the day. This provides an interesting parallel to his depictions of the city which at first glance appear so very different. He had a penchant for the transitional properties of light at sunrise and dusk. Contours and forms seem to soften and dissolve. His skilful handling of natural effects and the play of light and atmospheric effects[4] produces intense, powerful imagery, recalling Corot in his late landscapes. In the present landscape a gentle breeze lifts the foliage of the tree and the highlights on it flutter, veiling the crown with a delicate sfumato. The tonal transitions in the dark bluish-greens have a soft, dreamlike fluidity. Adolf Donath commented on this quality in 1921: What is magical about Ury’s landscapes is that we find landscape’s inner voice in them.[5]


[1] Martin Buber, ‘Lesser Ury’, in idem (ed.), Jüdische Künstler, Berlin 1903, pp. 37-68, here p. 50.

[2] The Lesser Ury experts Sibylle Groß, Hermann A. Schlögel, Regine Buxtorf and Konrad Kaiser have identified the subject as the Schlachtensee. Earlier scholars considered the painting to be a view of the Grunewaldsee.

[3] Lesser Ury experienced considerable hardship in his youth. The family came from the province of Posen, then in Prussia. He broke off a tradesman’s apprenticeship to train as a painter. He studied in Düsseldorf, Brussels and Paris. He travelled widely to hone his artistic skills and was in Belgium, France, Italy and Switzerland. He moved into a studio-home on Nollendorfplatz in Berlin in 1901. He was to live and work here for the rest of his life. Initially, critics rejected his work and it was slow to achieve recognition. He enjoyed the support of Adolph Menzel, the writer Adolph Donath and the patronage of Carl Schapira, a leading collector. He exhibited regularly but did not participate at the Secessionist exhibitions in Berlin until 1915. He was given honorary membership of the Berlin Secession in 1921 to mark his sixtieth birthday. He is reputed to have ‘consistently pursued his own course, unaffected and undeterred by contemporary fashion, a true example to his fellow artists.’ He died on 18 October 1931 and is buried in the Jewish cemetery in Berlin-Weissensee. His estate sale was managed by the Berlin auction house Paul Cassirer. (For a chronology, see Hermann A. Schlögl and Karl Schwarz, Lesser Ury. Zauber des Lichts, Berlin 1995, pp. 108-9; and Hermann A. Schlögel, ‛Der lange Weg zur künstlerischen Anerkennung’, in Hermann A. Schlögl and Matthias Winzen, Lesser Ury und das Licht, exhib. cat., Baden-Baden, Museum für Kunst und Technik des 19. Jahrhunderts, 5 April-31 August 2014, pp. 33-52).

[4] Ralf Melcher, ‛Lesser Ury. Die Leichtigkeit der Atmosphäre’, in Schlögl and Winzen, op. cit., 2014, pp. 181-8. See also Schlögl and Schwarz, op. cit., 1995, p. 35.

[5] Adolph Donath, Lesser Ury, Berlin 1921, p. 31.

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