In the early 1920s Walter Dexel created a series of works which treated technical subjects, such as sailing boats, steam ships, locomotives and airplanes. He confronted modern inventions in an avant-garde style, his subject and method in artistic concordance. Among them, there are only five known works representing sailing boats, and Segelschiff I is the only oil painting from this rare series.
The square-rigged sailing boat depicted in Segelschiff I is a superb example of Dexel’s distinct Constructivist idiom. Diagonals are to represent the sails, cream-coloured L-shaped geometric forms to delineate the mast and its spars, the hull in quarter-circles below. The whole composition is built up with subtle contrasts of red, beige and blue, a play of fine harmonies and softened complementary colours. It thereby reflects the aim of the Constructivists, towards an artform of an ordered and rationalised universe, in the wake of the atrocities that the First World War had recently scarred them with.
‘In stark contrast to De Stijl, [Dexel] emphasised, in relation to Bruno Taut’s painted facades of 1921 in Magdeburg, the necessity for light and broken colours, even years later: “…buildings painted in white, delicate yellow, light blue, light pink and light green colours, naturally not in succession and not one next to the other, but broken up with compensatory half-tones and with sparse dark, black or even colourful accents in between, result in agreeable images!”’ (W. Dexel, ‘Farbiger Hausanstrich’, in Frankfurter Zeitung, 22 November 1926).
Segelschiff I dates from 1922, a key period in Dexel’s œuvre, when the artist, in his capacity as Art Director at the Art Union in Jena, Germany, came into close contact with an extensive network of artists and intellectuals. Some of the most influential were Jean (Hans) Arp, Sophie Taeuber-Arp, Kurt Schwitters and El Lissitzky, also associated with the Bauhaus movement, Paul Klee, László Moholy-Nagy and Walter Gropius, as well as De Stijl artists, most notably Théo van Doesburg, with whom Dexel developed a close friendship from 1921 onwards. His work was later exhibited in several exhibitions alongside many of his fellow artists at Herwarth Walden’s Galerie Der Sturm in Berlin. Dexel’s illustrious network of connections is not only representative of his prominent position within the avant-garde circles of the time, but the diverse milieu he was part of is also telling of the wide variety of practices he pursued; in fact he was not restricting himself to painting, but he was also practising design, scholarship, typography and curating.
‘Contemporary critics emphasised the pleasant colouring of Dexel’s compositions. Willi Wolfradt speaks of his “chromatic delicacy”, Will Grohmann in 1924 of “pink and yellow forms of child-like cheerfulness and naivety”, which Albert Kranoldt described as “an abstract spirituality and sensuous beauty of colour and harmony … that is wonderfully balanced and conveys something endlessly soothing.” It is this point that marks his bold contemporariness. His compositions are neither cold nor stark. The viability of the forms lies in their pleasant balance. Wolfradt describes Dexel as “no Constructivist pedant and no Constructivist impostor”’ (R. Wöbkemeier, W. Vitt & W. Hofmann, Walter Dexel 1890-1973: Werkverzeichnis, Gemälde, Hinterglasbilder, Gouachen, Aquarelle, Collagen, Ölstudien, Entwürfe zu Bühnenbildern, Heidelberg, 1995, p. 60).