In constant dialogue with the silent world of things, Erich Heckel dedicated himself throughout his life to the theme of stilllife. Alongside the sensuous appeal of the observed objects, this genre above all posed a compositional challenge for the painter which he addressed in numerous oils, watercolours, drawings and prints. Heckel harboured a special preference for the floral motif, which remained at the heart of his creative output right into the final years of his life. Dating from 1968, this present work “First Leaves” is one of the last watercolours ever painted by the artist, who succumbed to a stroke in the spring of 1968. Against a bright blue–white background, the freshly budding twigs of a horse chestnut tree, spilling out of a dark–brown clay jug, appear as the principal motif, which from this close–up perspective largely obscure the surrounding space. The vase containing the sprigs of chestnut is flanked in the left foreground by a sculptural object, a pipe–head from Cameroon, which was probably given to Heckel as a gift by his brother Manfred, who before the First World War was engaged as a railway engineer in East Africa. This exotic artefact – characteristic for the important cultural region of the Cameroon grasslands – can still be found in the house of the artist. In essence, this water–colour draws its vitality from the dramatic contrast between the dynamic motion of the linear twigs splaying out into the room and the harmonious tranquillity of the spatially reduced surroundings. This tension is further enhanced by the intensively effulgent palette, which is carefully modulated to highlight subtle interplay of the blue, ochre and green tones. Lying at the heart of the Heckel's creative intention was the juxtaposition of the ornamentally embellished natural forms and the lucid austerity of the composition itself. Despite the artist's advanced age of 85 years and the approaching end of his creative endeavours, the subject of the budding chestnut twigs assumes a symbolic significance here: The ever regenerating force of nature transcends the passing of time, and continued to inspire this prolific artist into fashioning a joyously vibrant pictorial statement. Erich Heckel had already applied the motif of "First Leaves" in 1967 in the coloured lithography "Zweig" (Dube L 396), which was intended as an kind of annual review for the year 1968. The work was exhibited in 1972 in the solo show "Erich Heckel – Grafik und Aquarelle der späten Jahre" in the Städtische Galerie Fauler Pelz in Überlingen (Cat. No. 40). From 1976 until 1994 the watercolour hung in the Brücke–Museum, Berlin, on loan from the artist's estate.
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