Light, Color, Shadow

Gotthard Jedlicka, Ein Spanisches Bettelmädchen/ Sommerlicht in Madrid.

Published in 1958 in Olten. Eightiest publication of the Vereinigung Oltner Bücherfreunde, commissioned by William Matheson.


Question: Why does an art historian write short stories? What kind of stories does he write? And are they worth reading? I’ll get straight to the point: First of all, they are not really short stories but rather personal memories from his time in Madrid, written down by the author. Second, they are about an encounter with a Spanish beggar girl and the summer light in Madrid respectively, as the titles of the two texts give away. Third: The essay about light in painting is worth reading. The encounter with the beggar girl – well, let’s just say I’ve read it so you don’t have to.

Georges Braque, one of the ‘Fauvists.’ Viaduc de l’Estaque (1907-08).

The Art Critic from Switzerland

Gotthard Jedlicka (born 1899), the author of today’s short book, was a renowned Swiss art historian. He taught at the University of Zurich until his death in 1965 and published more than 40 books and over 700 articles on art history and its protagonists: he wrote about Impressionism and Fauvism, about Henri de Toulouse-Lautrec, Pieter Breughel, Édouard Manet, Henri Matisse, and Pablo Picasso.

Vignettes from Madrid

Jedlicka must have lived in Madrid for a longer period of time at least once in his life. What he did to pass the time? He visited the Prado (often!), then spent his days “reading and writing, dreaming and jotting down notes in [his] dark hotel room.” Two vignettes – meaning short, impressionistic literary texts here – have survived: One is called “A Spanish beggar girl,” the other “Summer light in Madrid.”

We don’t know how exactly these texts have come to be published by the Oltner Bücherfreunde (“book friends from Olten,” a small Swiss publisher). However, that the limited edition was printed in Jedlicka’s lifetime and even signed by him suggests a personal relation with the publisher from Olten, William Matheson. The latter had made it his mission to publish rare, lost, or never-published-before texts and make them available for a small readership of book lovers. That also explains the rarity of this book. You won’t find Jedlicka’s texts anywhere on the internet – not as a PDF, not as a digitized copy. They don’t even show up in bibliographies of his work.

The same goes for many other texts by the book makers from Olten: If you want to read them, you have to buy (used) copies. Or you can read our book features on Bookophile – and we’ll tell you what they’re all about. Like we did here in an Olten edition of Hermann Hesse’s Erwin.

Summer Light in Madrid

Jedlicka’s way of looking at the world had been trained by decades of working as an art critic. He perceived colors, proportions, light, and shadow in a different way than we do. And so he noticed something during his time in Madrid which probably would have slipped the attention of most other tourists: the extraordinary summer light in the city. A light in whose special quality he delighted day after day. He wrote:

“A light which makes a house, a wall, human being, animal, tree, every object appear plastically in a heightened, abstract physicality, which not only lingers on the earth, the people and objects, but which seems to have its origin within them: a light, which, from every body, every object continuously, with a consistent density, exudes a subtle, ray-like substance, which covers all colors and shades of color, near and far, with a fine, brilliance-increasing varnish: makes a yellow façade, coarsely mortared, glow like alabaster, makes the grey, reddish, red rooftops shimmer, transforms the main post office of Madrid that’s in my view into a fairytale mansion, covers the greyblack tarmac […] with a diamond-splinter-studded layer of velvet, intensifies the letters and lettering on the palace façades, the stone walls of the houses, and the wooden walls of the small kiosks to neon signs, makes the colors of the awnings – green, orange, blue –, the green of the lawns, trees and bushes in the fields of grass stand out just so that all these colors seem covered in a thin, shining coat.” (my translation)

Francisco de Goya, Pradera de San Isidro (1788).

The Light in Madrid – Secret Hero in Spanish Painting?

So taken, so enchanted is Jedlicka by this spectacle that he asks himself: Why didn’t all painters of the Spanish tradition make this light the center of their paintings? If artists try to capture their own lifeworld, why didn’t this magical light become the hero of Spanish painting? Time and again he wanders through the Prado, contemplating the great masters: Greco, Velázquez, Goya. But he finds the paintings dominated by two colors: red and black. In a single work by Goya, he believes to have discovered the summer light: “Pradera de San Isidro,” which shows a view of the banks of the Manzanera.

How can that be? As Jedlicka considers this, he wonders if art does not depict the surroundings of the painter after all. It is often created in opposition to that which the painter sees. When the metropolises in the early 20th century became ever more crowded and hectic, peopled by automobiles and trains, Mondrian painted squares of the utmost simplicity, in yellow, red, blue. And perhaps the Spanish, against this overpowering, omnipresent light sought just the opposite in their art – darkness.

You can tell that Jedlicka is in his element here. Writing about art is what he knows best. So this edition from Olten leaves me with a mixed impression: The literary world probably would have just about survived even if these two short texts had never appeared in print. Then again, perhaps it allows one bibliophile or another to discover their passion for art and train their eyes for the light, shadow, and colors of life…


Other Things You Might Be Interested in:

Learn all about the Vereinigung Oltner Bücherfreunde in this article.

Want to know more about Gotthard Jedlicka? A biography of the art historian has recently been published by rüffer & rub (in German).

American author Ben Lerner has written about Madrid and the value of art in his brilliant contemporary novel Leaving the Atocha Station.

Get to know Spanish painter Goya more closely in this film by Exhibitions on Screen.

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