Going underground

Vienna is a guarded, secretive city, where people go about their business privately, and very often, quite literally, turn underground. When I think of the artistic climate in which we live, the prevailing worship of autobiographical indulgence and ill-eduated expressiveness, it’s no surprise that artists who care for draughtsmanship, intelligent mark-making and the knowledgeable construction of pictures exist at the fringe. Without even a chance to secede, for we were never admitted in the first place, we retire to the cellars beneath our city and keep our happy occupations among ourselves.

Only, we ourselves have grown so much since we tentatively began meeting over a common interest in investigating the human form. Our collective expands and changes, absorbing new members with their own priorities, and our sessions adapt organically, organisational responsibilities shift hands, emphases adjust. But our many faces reflect a common conviction that makes us something of a movement: our very existence asserts with Wittgenstein (1953: 178),

‘Der menschliche Körper ist das beste Bild der menschlichen Seele.’

(‘The human body is the best picture of the human soul.’)


© Christine Schmidl















On Thursday we put on our second group exhibition. Our familiar Keller was bursting at the seams, filled with the merry faces of our dear friends and families, of long-lost acquaintances; the walls were decked with the astonishingly diverse works of twenty artists—some amateurs, some professionals, some students, some in sister artistic fields, and at all stages in between. Quick, gestural notations hung alongside careful, long-term studies; painted portraits beside pencilled figure drawings; shape-laden abstractions beside colour-drenched impressions of the figure; animated marker drawings next to fresh digital works.

Our hunger for more visual material connects us with so many other circles—our friends include musicians and dancers and scientists who all submit to our voracious appetite for interesting faces. It also means we are fortunate enough to be closely acquainted with exceptional musicians who enchanted us with Grieg and Debussy, performing with gravity and with spunk, showing us that finely-tuned expressive control over their auditory media which we search for in our own visual ones.


© Christine Schmidl








If Vienna has taught me anything about life, it’s that if you can’t find your place, go underground. Rilke (1997 [1903]: 14) urges us from the distant past,

‘Sie sehen nach außen, und das vor allem dürften Sie jetzt nicht tun. Niemand kann Ihnen raten und helfen, niemand. Es gibt nur ein einziges Mittel. Gehen Sie in sich.’

(‘You are looking to the outside, and that above all you should not be doing now. Nobody can help and advise you, nobody. There is only one way. Go into yourself.’) And when you turn inward, sometimes you are pleasantly surprised to find that you are not alone after all, and the like-minded fringe-dwellers will find you. The glamorous, reticent yet ebullient Vienna of our dreams is alive and well, and eluding you just beneath the surface.


© Christine Schmidl








Rilke, Rainer Maria. 1997. Briefe an einen jungen Dichter / Briefe an eine unge Frau. Diogenes: Zürich.

Wittgenstein, Ludwig. 1953. Philosophische Untersuchungen / Philosophical Investigations. Trans. G. E. M. Anscombe. Basil Blackwell: Oxford.


Gemütliche Gesellschaft

Diana (oil on linen)

Diana (oil on linen)

Our peripheral community of artists in Vienna is steadily growing. Our fluid group moves between two locations: Mikes Werkstatt in the third district and Kaffeebar Quentin in the seventh. Our sessions have evolved from weekly gatherings in a Wohnküche to consume most evenings of the week. Sometimes we draw costumed models, sometimes we paint portraits sustained over many weeks, sometimes we focus on short poses, sometimes we concentrate on fundamentals of drawing.

But all this close contact and mutual interest in working from life has forged a pleasant and vibrant little society, and we are excited to share our most recent projects in a group show early next month in Takt Keller, 1090 Vienna! We are well-practiced in carving out cosy and secretive burrows in the hidden nooks of Vienna, and we invite you to enjoy a little hospitality and the musical talents of our gifted friends while you cast your eyes over our work.

Thursday, 7 April, 2016
Galerie Takt
Ingen-Housz-Gasse 2, 1090 Wien


The above painting is partly from life, partly a study of Titian. I wrote a little about it here.


Common ground

Takt Keller

It’s amazing to think that despite Vienna’s rich artistic history, our young sketch group is somewhat on the periphery. Life drawing doesn’t hold the privileged position it once did in artistic circles, and our group exists only out of the sheer determination to grasp after a manner of learning that has been all but lost. And so, in the city of Klimt and Schiele, whose life drawings and impressively knowledgeable figure paintings attract visitors by the busload, we found ourselves holding a ‘first ever’ group show for our motley collective.

Takt Keller2

We welcomed a cellar-full of visitors and found ourselves needing to explain why such a group might exist, and what we hoped to gain from this endeavour. It wasn’t obvious to our guests that an artist might draw regularly as a musician might practice scales, or that the life model provides a testing ground for consolidating new learning. A solitary worker has much to gain from some like-minded company, and saves a little money on a costly resource by sharing in a group. The regularity of such sessions keeps the brain active and responsive and focused. And the private, fundamental work that goes on in such groups supports and strengthens our personal work that we more usually present to the world.


And so, the exhibition was a furtive backstage pass to see the inner workings of the minds of a diverse group of painters, illustrators, animators and designers. Despite our different intentions and varied efforts, a common strategy unites us, and it was wonderful to display this commonality to others. Our visitors may observe our shared origin—a respect for the fundamentals of drawing—and see for themselves how we diverge from here and go on to make original creative works.


I usually work in pencil at our sketch group, thinking about the construction of the figure, how to represent the three-dimensional volumes, and always trying to improve the energy and fluency of my lines. I think good draughtsmanship is fundamental to good painting, and wanted to emphasise this by exhibiting clear, strong drawings. I chose to show works that demonstrated such stripped-back thinking: three-dimensional blocks arranged in perspective, an emphasis on weight through the body, the search for connections between the parts to form a pleasing whole.


Despite being underground and on the periphery, important things are happening here. I hope that our determined efforts inspire others in our broader intellectual community. The time is ripe for action!


If you’d like to draw with us, find our groups on Facebook: Sketch Group Vienna (Thursday evenings) and Life Drawing Vienna (Sunday evenings). A heartfelt thank you to Alexandra Kornienko for her untiring efforts to make the sketch sessions and the exhibition possible. You are a star. x


Eine Einladung

It was a real delight to show my most recent works in Takt Keller several weeks ago. Dazzling Vienna set the perfect backdrop: its secret cellars and multifariously talented inhabitants simply beg to be combined. The thing about Vienna is, no one ever seems to be only one thing. A physicist is also a concert pianist; an interpreter is also a dancer; a dancer is also a photographer; a biologist is also an artist; an engineer is also a linguist. Everyone seems to have a little extra to give, and it is these overlaps that seem to make conversation fluid and to ignite friendships and partnerships.

It was plain to me that an art show in Vienna could not simply be an art show, but should be an immersive aesthetic experience. And so we not only hung our arched brick bunker with paintings and drawings, but flooded it with candlelight, adorned it with understated white flowers, and drenched the air with music—a live piano performance by Pawel Markowicz. A little wine and some gently intelligent conversation transported our unsuspecting guests into a ‘ganz zauberhaft’ evening.

As I explained on the evening, the show was, from its inception, an invitation into my studio. I wanted to simply share my self-educatory efforts and my grappling with the physical world, with light and space and extended objects, my fledgling steps into the domain of oil-painting, my foundational exercises by which I hope to bolster future imaginative work. I’ve a long way to go to painterly maturity, but perhaps there is something revealing about the stage I am in, and something of intellectual interest to my open-minded friends and acquaintances. I see myself in an intermediate stage—having secured the fundamentals of my craft, and ventured out on my own, I am now taking the impressive pieces in the European galleries as my teachers, building up a tool kit of visual imagery while gleaning everything I can from those who went before. This sort of independent learning is perhaps invisible if not wholly neglected in our time: mainstream art schools strive to teach the inventiveness and fluency that comes only with experience and practice; independent art schools preach realism as an end in itself and produce competent student-painters with limited scope.

Joshua Reynolds (1997: 27) neatly summed up the painter’s maturation into three stages some two hundred and fifty years ago: ‘Having well established his judgment, and stored his memory, he may now without fear try the power of his imagination’ (my emphasis). Having laid up some observational skills, I find myself in the phase of ‘amass[ing] a stock of ideas, to be combined and varied as occasion may require’ (1997: 26). I am ‘now in the second period of study, in which his business is to learn all that has been known and done before his own time.’ And as the studious works in the show demonstrated, ‘this period is … still a time of subjection and discipline’ (Reynolds 1997: 26). In a world where students are prematurely ushered into imaginative realms before their technical abilities can support their ideas, or where the over-zealous student and her studio nudes are put upon a pedestal, I am simply happy to invite you to cast your glance over the efforts of a painter somewhere in between. I am not yet free of observation and of subjection to the masters of the past, and my inventive efforts are yet tentative and unsteady. But perhaps my very openness about this is fascinating to art lovers who expect a finished product.

And so, rather than inviting people into a thinly-disguised shop, I discarded titles, explanatory captions and prices. I gave a short speech in which I drew attention to technical concepts and pointed to my paintings as experiments with these ideas. I spoke briefly about colour as being fundamentally about relationships, and how I had learned so much from simply setting many colours against the purple walls of my Viennese flat. I contrasted form with tone as a method of creating illusory depth, and my motivation for exploring form.

Given something comprehensible to grasp, people displayed infinite curiosity. Questions no longer revolved around matters of time or money. Instead, people wanted to know, ‘How does that plant look full and round? How does the light come through the windows like that? How do those lemons pop right out, and why does it feel like there is depth and heavy space when there are no shadows?’ Suddenly, I wasn’t defending my income or expounding on tenuously strung-together concepts or even talking about myself. Suddenly, I was having detailed discussions with non-painters about the very building blocks of a painting, about my struggles and my intentions and my motivations. And people seemed pleasantly surprised to understand and even genuinely intrigued by such ideas.

Indeed, it was satisfying for me to talk about paint and how I use it, for that is where most of my own thinking is directed, far more than into motifs and messages and missions. For anyone might try to decode symbols, but not everyone is privy to the secret life of paint, and as John Dewey (1934: 199) argues, in paint, ‘media and esthetic effect are completely fused.’ And he (1934: 199) is none too kind on ‘critics who tell us how they feel without telling or knowing in terms of media used why they feel as they do,’ nor on ‘persons who identify gush with appreciation.’ It was satisfying to me to help people appreciate just what it was that had so caught their attention, to equip them with a way to speak intelligently about what they saw, to express their impressions about painting in a meaningful way.

While Dewey (1943: 199) concedes that ‘it is true that artists seem themselves often to approach a work of art from an exclusively technical standpoint,’ he defends our bias thus: ‘for the most part, they so feel the whole that it is not necessary to dwell upon the end, the whole, in words, and so they are freed to consider how the latter is produced’ (1943: 200). It was incredible to invite people to look at my pictures in this way. It was liberating to draw attention to these pictures as steps toward something else—without qualifying them, without aggrandising them, only presenting them as the result of my recent investigations.


Dewey, John. 1934. Art as experience. Minton, Malch & Company: New York.

Reynolds, Sir Joshua. 1997. Discourses on art. Ed. Robert R Wark. Yale: New Haven.

Vielen Dank to Jacques Pienaar and to Kathrin Buczak for this fantastic opportunity! x

















It gives me great pleasure to announce that an exhibition is on the horizon. Next month I will be showing the work I’ve produced during this period of intense independent study in Vienna. I’ve had the unimaginable luxury of a Dachgeschoss studio with north-facing windows beaming me achingly lovely views of the city, impressive galleries but minutes from me by bike, the world’s best and creamiest coffee, and, most importantly of all, sweet, precious time in which to draw, paint, study anatomy and think.

I’m pleased to share my studies and experiments in the flesh, in a cavernous brick cellar hidden underground in the ninth district. It promises to be a tasteful Viennese affair: witty conversation, philosophising and elegant attire are encouraged. Ich freue mich auf deinen Besuch!