The Rich Legacy of Manfred H. Kuhnert

The works of Manfred H. Kuhnert are wonderful escapes to places ranging from Shanghai to Laguna Beach, as well as imaginary worlds constructed of heavy-handed gestures and abstract forms. No matter the subject matter, he expertly takes us to destinations that feel both distant and familiar. Even in his compositions that venture towards total abstraction, he manages to create the feeling of a specific place or state of mind and brings the viewer along as company.

Born in 1931 outside Dresden, the cultural capital of the then-Weimar Republic, Kuhnert's fascination with art began at a young age thanks to his artist mother, Baroness Gertrud Kob Von Urbensteadt, who was a graduate of the Dresden Academy of Fine Art. He went on to open an art gallery in Los Angeles in 1963 and, then Laguna Beach in the early 1980’s. Over the decades, Kuhnert established himself as a successful artist and prominent figure in the arts community.

A Closer Look At Our Favorite Works

As we will explore, Manfred H. Kuhnert's work expertly draws on many traditions in art history, but his voice remains robustly intact throughout his diverse body of work. To understand the beauty of his portfolio as a whole, let's hone in on just a few paintings that show the impressive range that Kuhnert held as a colorist, a landscape painter, a thinker, and a technically skilled artist.

In The Parker, Palm Springs, what appears to be a patio surrounded by umbrellas and massive palm trees fills the canvas; a sweeping arc that forms a pool's edge immediately captures the eye. Like much of his work, bold, heavy-handed brushstrokes build up the painting, but Kuhnert manages to imbue a certain lightness in the scene as if echoing the leisurely and airy summer atmosphere. Through subtle brushstrokes, he hints at loungers surrounding the pool; however, this is really up to the viewer's eyes, and he leaves much to interpretation. While it is a simple scene in ways, his visual language leaves quite a bit of space for imagination.

Much of his work builds upon the spontaneous, light, and airy legacy of the Impressionists—as we'll explore more in-depth below—but something about The Parker, Palm Springs also reminds us of the distorted yet pleasant landscapes of Vincent van Gogh. The light greens, rich blues, and dazzling instances of orange are symbols of Kuhnert's vivid interpretation of the world around him, akin to van Gogh. On a more formal note, the liberal use of short and curved dash-like brushstrokes also brings the Dutch artist to mind.

Another landscape painting by Kuhnert titled Summer Soiree also echoes the flexuous treatment of foliage and tree trunks that can be found in many of van Gogh's works.

Moving on, An Expression of Shanghai is a beautiful composition that ventures further into abstraction than many of his other works. Vibrant yellows, reds, and blues surround white forms that are empty spaces but still have a life of their own. This painting seems aptly titled; it hovers somewhere between a cityscape and a feeling one might have at a specific moment. In a way, the forms seem to exist as an impression that Kuhnert had as he observed the world around him; it gives a lovely insight into the sort of intimacy that Kuhnert felt with his surroundings.

Passionate Expression walks even further toward abstraction and clearly demonstrates his skill as a colorist without any distractions of subject matter. When looking at his extensive body of work, this painting exists on the far end of the spectrum of abstraction and has a rawness that doesn't surface in his dreamy Laguna Beach landscapes.

While his en plein air compositions and Post-Impressionist-esque vivid landscapes are perfectly captivating, we find this more extreme composition intriguing in its own way. His blacks, reds, yellows, and all-over composition remind us of the great Dutch-American Abstract Expressionist Willem de Kooning and the Action Painters more broadly. When thinking of this school that flourished in New York in the 1950s, images of artists moving around the canvas and using their whole arms to apply marks to the surface come to mind. That same energy is tangible in Passionate Expression.

A Body of Work That Pays Homage to Many Traditions

Many influences can be found in Kuhnert's rich and extensive œuvre. To start, the loose visual connection between Kuhnert and van Gogh mentioned above brings up a broader influence of Post-Impressionism in the German American artist's work.

Post-Impressionism, which began in the 1880s, is a grouping of artists who reacted against Impressionism and includes famous artists such as Paul Cézanne, Vincent van Gogh, Paul Gauguin, and Georges Seurat. Although often mentioned as a reaction against the Impressionist movement, which was championed by Claude Monet, Edgar Degas, Mary Cassat, and Auguste Renoir, the Post-Impressionists had some things in common with the former movement. For example, they both believed in the artificiality of the picture, which differed from other artwork of the time.

However, Post-Impressionists employed a more radical approach to color, often completely forgoing the natural deception of light and color in the world. At times, they used color independently from form and in quite symbolic ways. The Post-Impressionist subjective approach to painting also extended to perspective; flattened shapes and distorted views were common in the group. This aspect heavily resonates in Kuhnert's work in paintings such as Arches of Bougainvillea and Moonlight, Laguna Beach, in which the shapes push against each other in satisfying and poetic ways that ignore atmospheric and linear perspective. These compositions especially bring to mind the great French artist Paul Cézanne, who often employed a sense of contradicting perspective. Similarly, Kuhnert draws upon the Post-Impressionist tendency to use colors symbolically and intuitively.

In a way, Kuhnert beautifully bridges the two movements. His en plein air Laguna Beach landscapes, which are quite airy and tend to use more accurate perspectives, recall the natural brilliance of the Impressionists, whereas his intensity of color and subjective approach to landscape find a home with the Post-Impressionists. He also has works that draw upon both of these traditions equally.

Kuhnert's Beautiful Ode to California

Landscape painting is, of course, a well-established genre that countless artists have explored successfully. However, when examining artists such as Manfred H. Kuhnert, it is not just his evident skill at recreating a three-dimensional scene on canvas that captivates us; it is his ability to convey his deep connection and love of a place with each brushstroke. Like many talented painters, Kuhnert's skills as a colorist and technical artist allowed him to create landscape paintings with an effortless feel.

Kuhnert lived in Southern California for most of his life, founding his gallery in Los Angeles in 1963 and Laguna Beach in the early 1980s. The easy-going California atmosphere shines through in his work, from the calm Pacific waters to the scenes of oceanside leisure. While each work stands independently, there is also power in numbers here. His devotion to painting his Laguna Beach surroundings over and over contains its own sense of intimacy, as Claude Monet did with his beloved Giverny.

For example, in Moonlight, Laguna Beach, we see his unique perspective of the California coast. It's not clear what we're looking at, and that's okay; rather, it captures an interpretation of a time and place. Although the title suggests he depicts the ocean at night, the picture is as vibrant as his paintings of daytime scenes. The 'moonlight'—a few simple yet powerful white flat, wavy brushstrokes—succinctly conveys the intensity the California night can hold.

His latest works before his passing in 2019 feel like love letters to his long-time home, Laguna Beach. Although more straightforward in some ways than his more Abstract Expressionist works, it is touching that he spent his later career paying homage to his serene oceanside community. His love of Laguna Beach is obvious.

The Diverse and Powerful Art of Manfred H. Kuhnert

What we love about Manfred H. Kuhnert, in part, is how he draws upon so many rich artistic traditions while still carving out his own place in art history. Impressionism, Post-Impressionism, and Abstract Expressionism all have a genuine place in his style, but Kuhnert is not one or the other. Rather, he is a powerful blend of influences that demonstrates how he was a student of art history, as well as a witness and participant in some of the most exciting movements of the 20th century.

As with any artist, looking at the different phases of his work is fascinating and inspires questions about Kuhnert’s thoughts. It invites us to ponder what inspired him to paint a subdued feeling landscape at one point and a fiercely gestural abstract composition at another. However, there is a common thread between his undeniable technical skill, emphasis on atmosphere, and sense of specificity with places.

In this way, it is hard to define Manfred H. Kuhnert as he walks along the edges of many different movements. He was many things, including a devoted Laguna Beach artist, an expert colorist, and someone with a passionate eye for his surroundings. With each of his works, he takes us to a specific moment and reminds us of the intimacy that all of our surroundings hold.


Carey and Tara Hotchkis, Founders Hotchkis Gallery