January 2017

An Important Collection of the Nashville Painter’s Work

Stanford Fine Art | January 6–February 28

by Margaret F.M. Walker

Dance Macabre, 1976, Oil on board, 39” x 27”

This month, Stanford Fine Art, a gallery focusing mostly on impressionist and historical art, is featuring a pop-up exhibition titled The Wonderful, Wacky World of Werner Wildner. His work, aesthetically, takes a turn in a different direction, but this established Nashville gallery is excited to pay tribute to one of the city’s own and a truly skilled and innovative artist.

Werner Wildner was born in 1925 in Germany. He immigrated to the United States with his family as a child, first landing in Detroit and soon after moving to Nashville. Though a naturalized American—he even served in the army in WWII—Wildner’s deep German roots are apparent in his phantasmagorical art, honed with the precision of a Dürer woodcut and imbued with imagery one would expect to find in the depths of the Black Forest or a Brothers Grimm fairy tale.

When it comes to the grounding in European masters, though, Wildner is most often—and appropriately— compared to Hieronymus Bosch. He even considered himself a modern-day incarnation of the late artist. An exhibition of Wildner’s work at Cheekwood in 1975 included a piece titled Hieronymus – Self-Portrait, now in the collection of Ben Caldwell. A study for this piece is on view at the Stanford Fine Art exhibition. Hieronymus Bosch was a mannerist painter in the Netherlands in the late 15th and early 16th centuries. His paintings are suffused with a dark whimsy, revealing humankind’s deep-seated desires, vices, and virtues. The Garden of Earthly Delights, in Madrid’s Prado Museum, is Bosch’s best-known masterpiece.

“This is a world of owls and toadstools, dancing gnomes, mischievous elves, and the occasional musical skeleton.”

Untitled, Oil on Masonite, 7” x 6”

In his early career, Werner Wildner was less interested in the depravity of mankind than Bosch was, and his art is filled with meditations on the fantasy of the forest and its creatures, both real and imaginative. This is a world of owls and toadstools, dancing gnomes, mischievous elves, and the occasional musical skeleton. More often than not, his works are small and detailed portraits of these intriguing creatures; it is quite rare to see them situated in their natural element (whatever form that might in theory take).

One of the most iconic, majestic, and mysterious animals of the forest is the owl, and this bird plays a prominent role in the art of Werner Wildner. Many of the artworks in the exhibition are graphite and charcoal drawings, detailed grayscale studies highlighted by the faintest white gouache. There are two beautiful, full- color owls in the exhibit, though. In one, the bird is perched on a textured ledge, looking askance contentedly. The pattern of its feathers plays against the irregular surface on which it is perched. Tacked just below in trompe l’oeil fashion is a slip of paper bearing the artist’s signature. Incorporating his name into the picture so fully is a sign of how personal this artwork was for Wildner and the degree to which it is born of his own imagination. Another owl stands, wearing a red nightcap. Its wide yellow eyes stare directly at us, framed by a white collar of feathers and the curve of the red hat. This addition of clothing and the lack of a perch make the owl’s stare, somehow, more human and more piercing.

Death of Humpty Dumpty, 1989, Oil on board, 17” x 13”

In the intricate, imaginary world of Werner Wildner there are new laws of physics and anatomy. He clearly enjoyed playing with the theoretical physical limitations of gnomes and goblins. Most frequently, they are engaged in smoking or some task while balancing atop a ball. Other times, their lopsided figures play leapfrog or sprint through the forest toting mushrooms their same size. In one dynamic and whimsical drawing, a skinny elf, complete with pointy ears and a beak-like nose, dances for a mouse. Though seemingly aged, carrying a cane, the two creatures lock eyes and the elf demonstrates a kick worthy of the Rockettes and so hearty his shoe goes flying. The anatomy and agility are entirely fictional and yet plausible. In a similarly inventive manner, there are at least two works with tree-men befitting a Tolkien novel. Both are scenes of benevolent coexistence and even friendship between the personified giant of the forest and the birds that flutter about from one to the other. In one of these drawings, we see the tree-man’s face in profile and his Pinocchio-like branch nose. What would be a grotesque creature is softened by its wide smile and the four tiny birds perched atop the branch.

Ceremony, 1975, Ink and wash on illustration board, 28” x 16”

Werner Wildner is a household name for the old Nashville, if not yet for the new. In the later years of his life, he became a recluse, his work evidenced in increasing preoccupation with the grotesque and eventually trickling off entirely in production. There was a long article on Wildner’s life and work published in The Tennessean in 1995 and an exhibition of his work at the Vanderbilt Fine Arts Gallery in 1999, before his passing in 2004. Stan Mabry, owner of Stanford Fine Art, speaks about how delighted he is to recognize this superb draftsman and artist with an exhibit in 2017. He says that “I still look at his work, and it is very original. Though Werner Wildner is now deceased, his work continues to resonate. He was a part of Nashville’s art scene since 1962 and is truly part of the city’s artistic fabric.” Mabry said that he will also have Wildner’s work in Stanford Fine Art’s booth at the annual Antiques & Garden Show.

The Wonderful, Wacky World of Werner Wildner is on view at Stanford Fine Art, January 6 to February 28. For more information, visit www.stanfordfineart.net.

Untitled, 1986, Oil on board, 18” x 13”

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