Art and Maps in "Year of the Amphibian"

"Year of the Amphibian" features much that is art-related, and also the character Mr. Onter likes to show Conrad old maps.

Warning: spoilers.

German Expressionism

Conrad does a project on German Expressionist painters. In chapter six he finds books about German Expressionism in the library, just looking at the pictures, but later in chapter eight he actually reads more in depth in one of Mr. Onter's books. This is loosely similar to my own experience. German Expressionism is something I loved in high school without much understanding: I pored over books of paintings, thrilled by the intensely-colored imagery while blissfully unaware of its underpinnings. Later in college I found a library book that revealed the idealistic and sometimes alarming psychology behind the art: "The Apocaplyptic Vision: The Art of Franz Marc as German Expressionism" by Fredrick S. Levine. Reading this didn't cause me to like the art itself any less, but it was similar to the sinking feeling I felt when I had grown old enough to perceive Christian themes hidden in the Narnia series. Another book that attempts to reveal the people and ideas behind expressionist art is "Expressionism: Art and Idea" by Donald E. Gordon, and there have been many more recent books on this fascinating subject.

Franz Marc was a German expressionist painter who played a major part in expressionism's development but died in World War One, a victim of the very 'apocalypse' his movement was so focused on. Two of Marc's paintings mentioned in the story are "Forest With Squirrel" (left) and "Deer in the Forest II" (right):

Ludwig Meidner is less famous today but his prewar "Apocalyptic Landscapes" define 'expressionist':

Wassily Kandinsky is known for paintings that appear purely abstract, but in fact they grew out of the same soil that Franz Marc's did and both were founders of the Blue Rider group. Kandinsky's paintings from this period show similar preoccupations. For example his "Composition VI" from 1913 is like an apocalypse by water, the chaos from darkness on the left leading to a kind of paradise on the right.

Paintings by many artists who lived though the war reflect not ever arriving at that promised paradise. See Otto Dix (for instance his "War" below), George Grosz and Max Beckmann.

Swedish Fairy Tales

While Conrad is musing at the library in chapter six, he compares the benign blacks in Franz Marc's paintings to the foreboding darkness he remembers from Swedish fairy tale illustrations. Those are by the illustrator John Bauer. My mother had a big volume of these stories when we were little, a rare edition going for a high price nowadays, but you can get the same content in a newer hardcover. The pictures were mesmerizing for me as a little boy, as they were both spooky and gorgeously composed.

An Historical Atlas

In chapter seven Mr. Onter shows Conrad a series of maps obscured by clouds by Edward Quin: his "Historical Atlas" from 1828. I came across these in a 2010 book called "Cartographies of Time" by Anthony Grafton and Daniel Rosenberg, which is full of color reproductions of the ways people have graphically represented time through history.

Art at the Temporary Contemporary

In chapter eight Conrad goes to an art gallery called the Temporary Contemporary, now called the Geffen Contemporary. The "light room" and the "dark room" he experiences in the story did appear there in real life but later in the 1980's, maybe '85, and though I haven't found a clear record they were surely by James Turell. Likewise the papier-mâché subway car was surely the one by Red Grooms. On his way in, Conrad sees a painting by Mark Rothko, one with orange colors. I do remember seeing a Rothko there, and standing in front of it losing perspective as I stared, but Rothko painted more than one with oranges so I don't know which one it was. Below is an example. If you have never seen a Rothko in person you haven't really experienced it.

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