Isolation Through Abstraction: An Analysis of John Matulka’s Aqueduct in the Bronx

Name

Professor Katharine Ward

ARH 206

10 November 2010

 

Isolation Through Abstraction: An Analysis of John Matulka’s Aqueduct in the Bronx

John Matulka’s painting, Aqueduct in the Bronx, depicts the advancement of

infrastructure and urbanization and the isolation this creates from the natural environment.

Matulka achieved this juxtaposition of urban and rural settings through the use of many artistic

devises. The brush strokes, color palette, and compositional structure all reinforce the notion of

this separation, yet still allow the viewer to see both realms individually. Many of the

conventions used throughout this painting can be attributed to Matulka’s travels to Paris, France

when he was a young man, and many aspects of this style of painting are present throughout

Matulka’s body of work (Portland Art Museum).

Aqueduct in the Bronx is a cityscape painting of a New York neighborhood. Shown on the

left half of the canvas is a cluster of houses and apartment buildings. These buildings stretch

upward from the bottom corner, covering? three quarters of the canvas, where they are abruptly

interrupted by a large aqueduct. A large sweeping hill that extends from the bottom of the

painting to the top occupies the right side of the painting, where it then supports a cluster of

buildings that continue out of view. The focal point of the painting is the large, arch supported

aqueduct that dominates the background. This structure serves as the horizontal separation

between the painting’s foreground of the homes and apartments, and the mountains, trees, and

sky beyond. A winding road beginning at the bottom of the canvas vertically separates the

 

 

 

painting, passing through an aqueduct arch, and eventually winding off into the distant

landscape. A single telephone pole leaning into the roadway leads the viewer to follow its path

toward the archway of the aqueduct.

The view in this composition is from above ground level, not quite at the same elevation as

the aqueduct, but elevated enough to show a large swath of the city and the landscape beyond it.

This painting is contained in a modest, approximately 36 x 36 inch natural wood frame with a

marbleized band encompassing the perimeters. Compositionally there are no hard outlines, and

very little blending of the different shades of color used. This combination creates flattened

planes of different shapes that both create an overall image when observed from a distance, yet

have their own identity as unique shapes when inspected closer. The colors used throughout the

painting are earth-toned pigments of brown and green. Brown is clearly the dominant color, with

swatches of green and blue dispersed throughout. Only in the distance, through the aqueduct

arches, can you see the lightest greens and blues of the rolling hills and sky. The surface texture

of the painting is very subtle. Brush strokes and slight paint buildup are evident, but there is no

indication that Matulka intended to build thick textures as a feature of the painting. These

elements of the painting combine to create a portrait of a modern city on the cusp of a new era in

city dwelling.

Matulka painted Aqueduct in the Bronx in 1921, three years after the end of World War I.

This was a time of great scientific and industrial innovations, large-scale construction projects,

and the arts taking center stage in the culture of the day. “Historians have called the economic

and cultural exuberance of the postwar years the Roaring Twenties; it was a time of jazz,

speakeasies, radio, and film” (983). This was also a time of great population growth, immigration

from abroad, and increased manufacturing volume in the urban cities. These circumstances make

 

 

 

Matulka’s subject matter of apartment housing, as well as a structure used to transport vast

amounts of water—the aqueduct—that much more poignant, since both would likely have been

very important at this time. Similar to the way a city planner is required to layout a neighborhood

or town, Matulka is no less discerning in locating the elements of his composition on the canvas.

The location of the paintings namesake, the aqueduct, is slightly beyond the primary

cluster of buildings in the foreground. Painted in the darkest pigments found on the canvas, this

structure dominates the view. The four towering arches in the aqueduct serve as windows to the

landscape beyond the city, with glimpses of trees and mountains shown beyond. This shape is

echoed throughout the painting, including many of the buildings windows and doorways.

Repetition of arches can be interpreted in a way such as an arch is used to see out of a building’s

window and into the city; the aqueduct’s arches are windows out of the city and into the

surrounding country. The arch shape is again used in the center of the road, dividing the painting

vertically. It is positioned in such a way to direct your eyes down the road, where you will

eventually reach the aqueduct and the limits of town.

The primary element of Aqueduct in the Bronx that evokes a connection with nature is the

use of color throughout the painting. The colors can be found in a lush forest on a fall afternoon,

or a rolling landscape of farms and fields. This full canvas saturation of color likens itself to

Impressionist paintings, such as Claude Monet’s Wheatstack, Sun in the Mist (880). Painted in

1891, Monet uses color tones and highlights drawn directly from the palette of the subject

throughout the entire composition. Tans, browns, and gold for example, are reminiscent of the

wheat fields in the painting. Without painting a single stalk of wheat, Monet portrays fields

to/in? the horizon using color alone. While Matulka’s painting exhibits this similarity to Monet’s

Impressionist style and use of the color palette, there are other styles that more closely fit the

 

 

 

structure of the paint on the canvas.

By leaving the paint in clusters and shapes, rather than blending uniformly, Aqueduct in the

Bronx draws heavily from a Fauvist influence. Art critic Louis Vauxcelles coined this term

“fauves, or wild beasts,” and referred to paintings of this type as an “orgy of pure colors” (947).

Fauvism was also “the first major style to emerge in the twentieth century” (946). Andre

Derian’s Mountains at Colllioure, painted in 1905 (948), exhibits striking similarities to

Matulka’s painting. Painting a patch of color next to another, thereby creating individual shapes

from the various bold pigments, in addition to not smoothly blended together these patches, are

staples of the Fauvist style.

After moving to Paris in 1919 to study at the National Academy of Design, Matulka was

exposed to Cubism (Portland Art Museum). “Cubism was not just an innovative style that

sparked new ways of thinking about the look of art. It was also important because it introduced

new ways of thinking about the purpose of art” (950). Leaving out a majority of the detailed

representations of depth and perspective that can be found in other painting styles, Cubist

paintings create a flat picture plane, comprising a composition of abstracted shapes, such as

Pablo Picasso’s Les Demoiselles d’Avignon (950). In Picasso’s painting, many of the figures are

almost lost among a full canvas of shapes and colors. It is only when your eye gravitates to a

particular hue that it will follow it to reveal the extents of a figure.

These same Cubist conventions are evident in Aqueduct in the Bronx. The flowing path of

colors that comprise the painting will often stop abruptly when colliding with another, and then

continue to complete a different form. An example of this can be seen among the cluster of

buildings on the bottom left quadrant of the painting. As each roof terminates into the next, an

abstract pattern is revealed beyond simple building roofs. This type of pattern extends into the

 

 

 

layout of the road, and particularly the sky. While it is only composed of a very limited color

palette, the sky appears as a complete abstraction. Marbleized textures and separated groupings

of various shades of white and blue create the clouds and clearings. While these Cubist aspects

of the painting are evident, Matulka keeps a sufficient level of representation throughout, in

order to leave no doubt as to the subject matter he is portraying. This painting, “illustrates

Matulka’s merging of direct observation and Cubist special organization” (Portland Art

Museum).

From the smallest brush stroke used to paint a window, to the exact position and

perspective of the buildings, John Matulka’s Aqueduct in the Bronx has a sense of purpose and

precision in all aspects of composition. Perhaps the meaning of this painting is to show the urban

city and its isolation from nature, or possibly an idealized cityscape completely fabricated in

Matulka’s mind. What is the meaning behind the leaning telephone pole? Is it placed there to

reinforce the notion of isolation and failing communication with nature, or is it simply there to

direct your gaze towards the arches? It is the long history of art and architecture from the great

aqueducts of ancient Rome, landscape paintings such as Thomas Cole’s The Oxbow, 1836 (833)

with its numerous hidden meanings and sublime elements, Fauvism with its bold colors, and

Cubism’s abstractions, that shape artwork such as this. It is impossible to discuss artwork such as

this without finding connections to the past, and presumably this painting could be used as one of

these stepping-stones to connect with artworks of the future.

Score: 80/80 points. You did an excellent job describing this painting, and you juggled several

possible influences, supporting each of your claims with visual evidence. You did a great job

characterizing the post-WWI time period. Your paper is well-structured, you write with a clear,

suggestive tone, and you worked hard to contextualize the quotations that you incorporated.

 

 

 

Bravo!

 

 

Works cited

 

Davies, Penelope J.E., et al. Janson’s History of Art. Upper Saddle River, NJ, 2007. Print

John Matulka, Aqueduct in the Bronx, 1921. Oil on canvas, approx. 36 x 36 ins. Portland Art

Museum, Oregon

Museum Plaque for Aqueduct in the Bronx. Portland Art Museum, Portland, OR, 2010.

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