Sunday, 6 December 2009

Euan Uglow

Lemon, 1973
Oil on canvas 19 x 33cm
Private Collection
Not Seen

In July 2003 I went to see the first public exhibition of the work of Euan Uglow since his death from cancer in 2000. Disappointingly this painting of half a lemon was not included in the show. It is quite unsual in that most of his work whether of nude models or still life involved a dynamic pose. The artist notoriously placed his models in geometrical and sometimes stiffly contorted poses and since he sometimes took up to five years to finish a painting and only ever painted from life, his models had to keep such poses for considerable lengths of time.

There is a sense of harmony within the image, not just about the placement of the lemon on the grey shelf, but also the weight of the graduated yellow in relation to the size of the background. The lemon is strongly lit from the right and his planes of colour give a suprising degree of three dimensionality to the flat surface.

I have seen a lot of Uglow’s paintings and drawings and this looks typical of his method working. Taught by William Coldstream at the Slade School of Art in London, he used little registration points and tiny painted crosses to help the drawing process. It is worth noting that his obsession with accuracy ran to marking these reference points on the skin of his life models and that they had to keep these marks between sessions. These marks always remain in the finished painting, revealing the history of its making by a prolonged process of looking hard.

He sometimes took up to five years to finish a painting and only ever painted from life and the marks become a record of the temporal aspect of painting. This recording the passage of time is taken a step further in a little painting I saw in his exhibition at the Holburne Museum of Art, Bath called Diary of a Pear, 1972. He placed the tip of a pear at the exact centre of a perfect square, but he painted so slowly that the pear rotted, and the tip drooped. So each day he began a new square with a new centre point and a series of marks showing where the tip had once been. He has said in interview that he “isn’t interested in producing pictures; but in personal research”

Perhaps because of this perfectionism his paintings seem to lack emotion and whilst I find them technically interesting I don’t feel that they have a melancholic aura, even when the subject is a lonely half a lemon.

©blackdog 2009
Post Script:  Just a note to regular readers that from December onwards I will only post on the first Sunday of each month.  Other commitments prevent me from continuing to post weekly.

Sunday, 29 November 2009

Ferdinand Hodler
The Night (Die Nacht), 1889
Oil on canvas 116 x 299cm
Kunstmuseum, Berne
Not Seen

Hodler was 37 when he made this autobiographical painting on the theme of sleep and the fear of death, ten years before Sigmund Freud published “The Interpretation of Dreams”. Both the central figure and the man top right are Hodler himself, while the female figure seen from the back on lower right is his wife, Bertha Stucki (this is the only time she appeared in one of his paintings).

All the figures appear to be naked and are draped in black sheets, but despite it being “night”, the scene is so well lit that the figure cast no shadows. The figures in the foreground sleep peacefully; those in the background less so. The contented couple bottom right can be contrasted with the man and two women top left who seem slightly less at ease. In the middle lies a terrified young man (Hodler) who has woken up with the figure of death placed squarely between his legs.

Hodler had good reason to be preoccupied with dying, having grown up amidst grinding poverty and having witnessed the slow death of all his family from tuberculosis. His father died when he was 7, his mother when he was 14, his stepfather when he was 17, and his four brothers and one sister all died between his eighth birthday and the time he was 32.

The painting was completed after a serious psychological crisis and marked a break with realism of his earlier work, linking him with the symbolist movement then spreading throughout Europe. Hodler named his take on symbolism, "parallelism", characterised by large format paintings, with monumental stylised figures and a repetition of forms that provides a sense of harmony within the composition. It was this striving for a sense of unity in his work influenced his decision flatten the picture surface; painting the figures with sharp outlines (softer edges would imply depth), no shadows and no perspective.

Whilst I haven’t actually seen the painting I find it hard to believe that the work will have a melancholic aura, despite the content of the painting and the ideas behind it. The stylised treatment seems to rob the image of any deep psychological content leaving just the theories and sensibilities that were “of their time”, but don’t speak to me.

©blackdog 2009

Sunday, 22 November 2009

Michaelangelo Merisi da Carravagio
The Burial of St Lucy, 1608
Oil on canvas 408 x 300cm
Museo di Palazzo Bellomo, Syracuse
Not Seen

In 2005 I went to the National Gallery in London several times to see a wonderful exhibition of Caravaggio's late paintings, from the period when he fled Rome accused of murder in 1606 until his death whilst returning to Rome from Naples four years later.

Whilst the painting I have chosen is one of his late works and his greatest in the opinion of some critics, it wasn’t in the exhibition. So until I make the journey to Sicily my analysis remains based on reproductions of the original and a first hand viewing of The Raising of Lazarus which is of a similar scale and painted in Messina in north-eastern Sicily a year later.

Caravaggio arrived in Syracuse on Sicily's south-east coast on the run from a knight he had offended in Malta. Here he painted this immense canvas depicting the burial of the early Christian martyr, Saint Lucy. Lucy had been buried in the catacombs on the outskirts of Syracuse and the church built on the site was undergoing restoration in 1608.

It is striking particularly for the high vertical format with the empty upper two thirds of the painting almost abstract apart from the shadow of an archway. In the foreground Lucy’s prone body is framed by two gigantic near naked gravediggers and behind them a confused band of mourners and onlookers. On the right are two shadowy figures, a Bishop giving his blessing and a soldier in a cuirass. Tellingly the digger on the left looks to the soldier for direction on where to put the body, not to the Bishop giving benediction, nor to the deacon glancing down at Lucy.

The whole painting is in thin luminous yellow, amber and brown earth colours with the exception of the bright patch of red showing on the Deacon’s robe. The burial is lit by a raking light from the left and we can just make out the gash in Lucy’s neck where she had been stabbed in the throat after being denounced as a Christian. Her face is thrown back and with one arm clasped to her side and the other outstretched the pose recalls the painting of Sleeping Cupid (this was in the exhibition and looked as if it was a painting of a corpse) that he had just completed in Malta.

Whilst I could have chosen most of the paintings in the exhibition as displaying melancholic characteristics, I am most interested in this one because of the composition. The diminishing line of mourners cleverly expands the spatial depth but it is the space above the frieze of figures weighing down upon the corpse with a stillness and silence that contrasts the busyness of the civil proceedings. As far as I know this is the earliest use of this device for such an effect and contributes immensely to the psychological charge of the image.

©blackdog 2009

Saturday, 14 November 2009

Wilhelm Sasnal

Tarnów Train Station, 2006
Oil on canvas 100 x 140cm
Hayward Gallery, London
14 October 2007

I thought the selection of Sasnal paintings picked for the ‘The Painting of Modern Life’ exhibition at the Hayward was excellent and I especially liked the three shown in the downstairs gallery; this view of Tarnów train station, Gas Station 1 and Gas Station 2.

It was at Tarnów station on Monday, 28th August 1939, that a German saboteur left two suitcases packed with explosives in the luggage hall. The bomb exploding killing twenty people and is probably one of the first actions of World War II.

The catalogue suggests that the image depicts African immigrants and guest workers arriving looking for work and draws parallels with the human cargo carried on Polish railways during the second world war[1] . Whichever association Sasnal intended the image has an inherent melancholia that evokes a deep sadness.

It looks like the painting was completed in one session, wet-in–wet. There is a variety of brush marks with thin blended areas complementing thicker passages. What looks like some kind of brutalist sculpture in the foreground, is actually some bushes. These are painted upside down and the paint is allowed to run. The figures in the foreground are against a background of swirling grey brush marks that seem to ooze from the window! A small area of watery sunshine relieves the monotony of the sky behind the station building.

This painting (as is the case with most of Sasnal’s work) is an excellent example of how the removal and abstraction of information through the process of painting has added to melancholic aura of the image.

He works primarily from photographs and whilst the contemporary view of Tarnów station that I have shown isn’t the one that Sasnal used, it does show just how much he has simplified the detail. I find it odd that he missed out the main portico altogether.

The catalogue suggests that this resistance to detailing is tailored to the ‘leaching of individuality’ as capitalism gains more of a foothold but also notes that the effect is to open up the image ‘to new potential meanings as viewers fill in the blank spaces’[2] . I certainly agree with the latter premise, especially as I am conscious that I have a tendency to include too much detail in my own work.

[1 ]Herbert, Martin Rehearsing Doubt ‘The Painting of Modern Life’ Catalogue Hayward Publications 2007 p44
[2] ibid.

©blackdog 2009

Sunday, 8 November 2009

Rezi van Lankveld
Pieta, 2005
Oil on Board 78 x 65 cm
Not Seen – Private Collection

I have seen work by van Lenkveld at The Frieze Art Fairs in London, but unfortunately I haven’t seen this particular painting which I believe is now in a private collection.

Van Lenkveld works on paper, wooden panels and on canvas but essentially her process is the same. She places the support on the floor and pours tonally similar paint until the surface becomes a pool of colour. The image is coaxed out of the meeting of the two colours with here brushwork helping the serendipity along.

In Pieta her process is slightly different and very similar to the one I use myself. The base colour has been brushed vertically down the panel and then it looks as though the second colour has been replaced with glaze medium. Using brushes loaded with medium she has worked into the image teasing the marks into the semblance of a figure.

The head of the reclining figure is thrown back so that we see the underside of the nose, the jawbone and the exposed neck. The chest is a fusion of marks made by dabbing medium into the paint and the legs fold to the right hand side. The figure is wearing a pair of light coloured high heeled shoes done in a similar way to the chest. Vaguely discernable attendant figures are on either side, both less detailed than the subject and the quick brush marks and areas of light tell us little about what is happening. The ground that the paint is applied to plays an important role, it becomes a dynamic absence. Something that is “lost” but still present, seen through the thin layer of paint, as though the image was projected onto it rather than painted.

All her work fluctuates between figuration and abstraction in this way and the viewer’s perception shifts uneasily between the pictorial representation and the process by which the image was made. In my opinion it is when this disillusionment is finely balanced that the work evokes a sense of melancholy. Despite the muted colour schemes and sombre palette, if either the image is too obvious or the process too dominant, then the work doesn’t strike the note of sadness for me.

©blackdog 2009

Saturday, 31 October 2009

Nicholas Poussin

The Dance to the Music of Time 1634-6
Oil on Canvas 82 x 104cm
The Wallace Collection, London
29th October 2009

Hung in a corner of the great gallery on the first floor this modestly sized painting is easy to miss amongst the competition from the numerous Old Master Paintings, French and Italian furniture and bronzes.  This decorous but powerful painting is said to depict the perpetual cycle of the human condition: from poverty, labour leads to riches and then pleasure, which if in excess reverts back to poverty.

Poverty is the only male dancer and he is seen from the back wearing a wreath of withered branches and leaves. Labour, the female dancer on the right of the group has bare sunburnt shoulders and feet; Poussin expresses in the turn of her head weariness and fatigue and seems to be straining to glimpse at the figure of wealth over her shoulder. Riches wears a golden coloured skirt, gold sandals and has gold and pearl jewellery in her hair; her pose is one of self conscious dignity and she gazes at Saturn, the God of Time playing his lyre. Pleasure, the last of the dancers, is the only one to make eye contact with the viewer, she wears a blue robe, white sandals and has a crown made of roses.

The inclusion of Saturn isn’t the only reference to the passage of time and the brevity and futility of life. Apollo, the Sun God rides in his chariot, high in the sky above the dancers carrying the wheel of the zodiac. He is preceded in his journey by Aurora, the Goddess of the dawn driving away the clouds of night. The daylight it brings falls only indirectly on the figures below and lights up a few of the remaining Autumnal leaves on the trees. Either side of the dancers is a putto, one blowing ephemeral soap bubbles and another watching sand trickle through an hourglass. The Janus (double) headed statue is of Bacchus; his old head watching the dancing whilst the young head looks out of the side of the canvas at the unpainted future coming with the new day. Saturn himself is playing the music and is therefore not watching, but activating the dance.

Much has been written about the structure of this painting, including the placing of figures, background and subsidiary elements, and balance of colour and light being dependent on the geometrical expression of ratios. These in turn are shown to relate to musical intervals and the painting demonstrates Poussin’s adherence to classical models, reinforcing the concept of logic and order as an expression of beauty.

Seeing the painting for the first time I was surprised at just how muted the colours and brushwork are, but not as amazed as I discovered by looking closely that Poussin had used his left thumb to texture the entire primed surface of the canvas by pressing it into the wet primer. This seems to have no relation to the subject of the painting and is perhaps the first instance the artist immortalising his “self” in the artwork.

©blackdog 2009

Sunday, 25 October 2009

Adolph Menzel

Room with a Balcony, 1845
Oil on Cardboard 58 x 47cm
Nationalgalerie, Staatliche Museen zu Berlin
Not Seen

I regret missing the chance to see this painting in 2001 when it was shown in the London National Gallery in the exhibition of 19thC paintings Spirit of an Age: Paintings from the Berlin Nationalgalerie. Menzel is perhaps best known for his work as a “court” painter following the history of Prussia from the time of Frederick the Great (since Menzel did the illustrations for a popular book on Frederick's life) to the splendour of the court of King Wilhelm I.

This painting of an interior shows a different side of his artistic talent. One of a number of oil sketches from the 1840’s that explored his Berlin apartment and the views from its windows. Painted purely for his own pleasure, these uncannily modern works are argued to presage the French Impressionists through its use of light and the loose brushwork. Menzel didn’t go to Paris until in 1855 he visited the Exposition Universelle and saw Courbet's 'Pavillon du Réalisme' and is painted 30 years before the exhibition of impressionism in 1874.

Not having seen the painting yet I cannot comment on the paint handling, but it does look as though he has applied it freely using a variety of brushstrokes that suggests objects rather than closely defining them. Despite being a classed as a sketch (it wasn’t shown until a commemorative exhibition was held at the Nationalgalerie in Berlin after Menzel’s death in 1905) it is signed and dated on the front indicating that he felt that his surroundings were a valid subject to paint rather than just an exercise. It is unusual for a painting of an interior of this period, to be neither occupied nor a formal study for a still life. This invites us to focus on the atmosphere of the room rather than on a subject within it.

The balcony doors are open and the curtains billow inwards on the breeze through the window. Today that could be read as a sexual metaphor, but I suspect he was just observing reality rather than trying to imply any moral narrative. The edge of a rug intrudes into the image from the left and a streak of sunlight brightens the floor and shimmers on the empty wall. It is a strange patch of light and suggests that a picture that was hung on the wall has been removed. There are two formal chairs turned away from each other either side of a long mirror in which we see the reflections of a sofa with a gold-framed picture hanging above it. For me it is the positioning of these chairs that give the painting a melancholic aura; whether intended or not I read them as a metaphor for an uncommunicative couple, facing away, and arguing despite the languid quality of the light suggesting a beautiful summer’s day.

©blackdog 2009

Sunday, 18 October 2009

Michael Andrews

Lights III: The Black Balloon 1973
Acrylic on Canvas 160 x 129.5cm
Not Seen

Unfortunately I hot seen this piece, but have seen some of his paintings; the very popular and atypical work "Melanie and Me Swimming" and two of the deer stalking paintings from 1980. Whilst the later are more in keeping with his artistic vision, I have instead selected one of the series of seven “balloon” paintings from 1970 to 1974 called Lights. The title of the series, borrowed from Les Illuminations, a collection of poems by the French Symbolist poet Arthur Rimbaud, evokes this state of enlightenment: a view of the world seen objectively, undistorted by subjectivity.

In the series, Andrews takes as his motif a helium-filled balloon hovering over the earth, disconnected from the hurly-burly of human contact, detached and serene. It becomes a metaphor for the artist’s own ego, present but disengaged, observant but not intrusive, which is seen on a sort of symbolic journey through life.

Andrews himself is quoted as saying that a balloon would serve as vehicle, a think bubble pursuing the theme of "sudden enlightenment", a spiritual steeplechase, a Zen take on that shining seventeenth century metaphor "the voyage of the soul"(1).  He was inspired by the writings of Alan Watts on Zen Bhuddism, which described 'the prevalent sensation of oneself as a separate ego enclosed in a bag of skin' and the work of the psychologist R D Laing.

In Lights III, the dark melancholy balloon sinks low over the Thames approaching Waterloo Bridge, passing over the street lamps, hardly airborne. The balloon is like a black sun, and the image speaks of solitude and a sense of isolation, as the balloon follows the river silently and inevitably towards the infinite sea. In the final painting, the balloon drifts out to sea, conveying a sense of a continuing quest.

The images are painted not with a brush, but with a spray gun to achieve the visual equivalent to weightlessness and silence. As Richard Dorment points out in his review of the Andrews retrospective at Tate Britain in 2001, by “removing all traces of the artist's own touch, Andrews brilliantly symbolises the detachment of the artist's ego from the painting process”. The image is taken from photographic sources, possibly collaged from magazine photos as this is how he built up the source image for Lights II and Lights VI (2).

(1) Michael Andrews Tate Publishing 2001 Essay by William Feaver p54 Quotations from conversations between the painter and the author.

(2) Tate Archive

©blackdog 2009

Sunday, 11 October 2009


Jeune Fille a la Chemise Blanche 1955
Oil on Canvas 116 x 90cn
Foundation Maeght, Nice
August 2000

I have probably seen a dozen paintings by Balthus and find his work at best troublesome. This painting is not typical and I have chosen it because it clearly shows the knowing sadness that hides within most of his work.

As the title clearly states it is of a young girl, and whilst she is stereotypical we have none of the usual tableaux used to justify his obsession. Instead she is formally seated for a three-quarters portrait and has her dress loosened from her shoulders revealing her breasts. The pose and clothing suggest that she is being displayed to satisfy our curiosity in the manner of a slave girl being sold at a souk. She remains remote, withdrawn and self-absorbed with a grave and moody look that suggests she is daydreaming.

Despite having parents who were both painters, Balthus didn’t attend art school, but learnt to paint by copying old masters in museums. He was influenced in particular by Piero della Francesca, whose cycle of murals Legend of the True Cross he saw on a visit to Italy in 1926.

This influence can be seen in the abstract formality of his compositions and in his technique which despite being on canvas evokes the feel of a fresco. This work is almost completely painted with glazes of Burnt Umber allowing an intensity of modelling of the light on the figure that underlines the statuesque pose. One can imagine that the young model has been chosen either for or by the artist and is unhappy with the liberties he is taking. Yet to complain is socially unacceptable and unsure of her ground she sits stoically thinking of something else whilst the artist sketches her.

©blackdog 2009

Sunday, 4 October 2009

Elizabeth Peyton

Jarvis, 1996
Oil on Panel 27.9 x 35.6 cm
Not Seen
27th July 2008

This painting is typical of her work during her ‘rise to fame’. She dropped the small intimate works on paper of historical figures in 1995 and focused on painting. These portraits predate the images of her friends and take the form of tributes by an adoring fan. Despite the distancing effect of working from photographs, the intimate scale, delicate brushwork and directness of touch communicate a romantic love for her subjects and the accompanying anxiety.

This portrait of the singer Jarvis Cocker is a rare composition in her work in that the subject is engaging in eye contact. Typically the skin is bleached to near white and the features are idealised with ‘Rossetti’ lips.

Her colours are clear and transparent and applied in thin loose strokes on primed board. The red-violet of the jacket is set off wonderfully by the touch of lemon yellow in the background. The New York Times critic Roberta Smith accurately describes her style as a strange blend of ‘part Abstract Expressionism, part Renaissance miniature, with a touch of Pre-Raphaelite romanticism thrown in for good measure’.

The panels for her paintings are masonite, which is only available in America (invented in 1929). It is made from wood chips steam blasted and pressed into boards without the use of glues and binders. The nearest we have is medium density fibre (mdf) board which uses formaldehyde resin as a binder. The panels are about 2cm deep and are covered with very thick layers of acrylic primer. This has been applied with a scraper of some kind (I used to use a credit card) and the thick paint runs over the edges and the ridges in the surface become an integral element of the artwork.

In conversation with Steve Lafreniere, EP has an interesting response to his comment that there is a great deal of melancholy in her work…

“It’s not so much sentimental. It’s just that time passes. I am constantly thinking about it, and kind of obsessing about it. How things change, how I change, how there’s no stopping it. But when I’m painting, I’m very unaware. I’m not thinking about any of these things. It’s this other place. I know that sounds like mumbo-jumbo” (2)

Yes it does, but I think that despite her denial it sounds like a sentimentality for the past and that her paintings both acknowledge, but also try and arrest the march of time. The fact that she separates herself from these feelings when she paints implies that her painterly expression is stylistic or synthetic rather than emotional. In other words she uses the tropes of expressionism to evoke a reaction from the viewer rather than it being felt, say in the working of Van Gogh or Munch.

(1)Smith, Roberta Blood and Punk Royalty to Grunge Royalty NY Times 24 March 1995

(2)Lafreniere, Steve A Conversation with the Artist, Elizabeth Peyton Rizzoli International Publications 2005 p252

©blackdog 2009

Saturday, 26 September 2009

William Kentridge

The History of the Main Complaint 1996
Drawings for Projection
Tate Modern, London
12 May 2000

I first came across the work of William Kentridge in 2000 when Tate Modern opened and I saw "The History of the Main Complaint". I recall few details, a shrouded hospital bed, the switches between an echo scan and the eyes seen in a rear view mirror, but do remember the pervading sadness and the subject matter dealing with "White South African" guilt.

The History of the Main Complaint (1996) is the sixth film in the series Drawings for Projection films, which 'star' Soho Eckstein (a wealthy mine owner) and Felix Teitlebaum (a sensitive downtrodden alter-ego to Soho) as their main characters.

The film begins with a scene of Eckstein in a hospital bed - waiting either for recovery, or death. The sound of a heartbeat heightens the tension and the feeling of some imminent doom within the viewer's consciousness.

Every significant image can be interpreted in a metaphorical way. According to Godby(1), Soho Eckstein's body becomes a metaphor for the divided and unreconciled South African state, while the group of doctors attending to the patient cannot reach agreement about the patient's diagnosis. Meanwhile, economic power is metaphorically illustrated by imagery of telephones, sonar machines, and other kinds of office equipment. But all these artefacts hark from period before his birth, evoking melancholic sense of a past era stripping them of their power. The patient remains ill, ailing and isolated. Kentridge uses this metaphor to highlight (by contrast) the importance of the truth and reconciliation process, which was (in one sense at least) a movement away from the imprisoning isolation of personal memory. By creating Soho as a self-portrait, Kentridge makes sure that he himself becomes part of this process that he sees as inevitable for all South Africans of good will.

Kentridge’s technique in producing his animations is to manipulate one image on a single piece of paper, removing and adding charcoal while the drawing progresses. As the moving image consists of 24 frames per second, the process is fluid and energetic. He photographs each drawing before erasing some part of it, and then draws again on the erased section before photographing that for the next frame - and so on. He always leaves traces of the previous drawing before adding the amendment. These remaining traces create an illusion of movement in the film when it is viewed in low light conditions, and are reminiscent of the visual effects created by old black-and-white films. So although there is no painting involved, his process has an element of evolving over time built into it, just like painting. Thus, instead of thousands of different drawings, he makes use of thousands of alterations to one single drawing. Seen as a film it evoked the feeling that it is impossible to remember everything, but it is equally impossible to totally forget. And in order to remember one must be able to forget. By allowing traces of imperfect erasure to remain visible in the images, time is amplified; 'before' and 'now' overlap and subjectivity is experienced as a passage, hovering in a zone between forgetting and remembering. The use of charcoal, the imperfection of the erasure, the shakiness of the camera all produce a film which emphasise the pervasive melancholy and desolation.

(1)Michael Godby, ‘William Kentridge’s History of the Main Complaint: Narrative, Memory, Truth’, in Sarah Nuttal and Carli Coetzee, Negotiating the Past: the Making of Memory in South Africa, Oxford University Press, Cape Town, 1998

©blackdog 2009

Saturday, 19 September 2009

Paul Winstanley

Man Watching TV 2003
Oil on Linen 100 x 121 cm
Frieze Art Fair
15 October 2004

I was lucky to see this work at the Frieze Art Fair in London on the stand of the American Gallery “1031PE”, as it is now in a private collection. He paints very few with figures, usually preferring paintings based on photographs of uninhabited interiors and landscapes. It is unusual in another respect too, his paintings are usually drained of colour and this has a vibrant warm orange contrasting with the blues of the interior.

The title describes the subject of the painting, a man watching television but gives nothing away of the circumstances. However, looking at the painting I make my own associations, and these are of passing time in a waiting room.

The type of chairs, the arrangement around a decorative rug and the lack of a bed suggests a waiting room or a common room in a private hospital rather than a hotel room. We see the man only from the back as we join him in the room and wonder which chair to select. I feel drawn into remembering the times I have experienced this situation myself and the selective blurring and distortion that he has used to develop the image from the original photograph lend it the atmosphere of a memory.

The obvious parallel with his work is with the paintings of Gerhard Richter, but I sense Winstanley is less interested in the reproduction of a photograph than with exaggerating the atmosphere of a memory that is remembered through experience rather than the nostalgia associated with a snapshot.

His uninhabited interiors are usually of non-spaces such as lobbies, offices, corridors and windows with net curtains; places that we pass through without a thought. Whilst they too can have melancholic associations I don’t think they are as strong as those I felt looking at this painting and that is something to do with having to share the space with another.

©blackdog 2009

Sunday, 13 September 2009

Marlene Dumas

Gelijkenis 1 & 2 2002
Oil on Canvas 60 x 230 cm
Punta della Dogana, Venice
17th August 2009

This diptych by Dumas is based on the famous Hans Holbein the Younger painting “The Body of the Dead Christ in the Tomb”, both of which are now owned by François Pinault and were on display in his new contemporary art space in Venice. They were originally exhibited one above the other, but for some reason his curator has split them onto separate walls. I felt this diminished the concept and made any concept behind the work hard to grasp. Of the two it is the second canvas that is the closest to the Holbein which is in the Basel Kunstmuseum (not seen), and whilst it is only a facsimile or simulacrum, the copy draws a power and melancholic aura from the original.

The painting represents a corpse stretched out on a slab with the loins covered with a white cloth. The painting is life sized and we view the painted emaciated corpse from the side with the right arm in full view with the hand protruding slightly from the slab. The chest shows a blackened wound from the soldier’s spear and the hand the stigmata from the crucifixion. The expression frozen on the face is one of hopeless grief, a man deserted by God without any promise of redemption.

Unusually for a painting for a painting from the 16thC, Holbein leaves the figure alone without the usual coterie of figures immersed in grief but also in the certainty of the resurrection. It is this isolation that endows the painting with its major melancholic burden more so than the limited palette of greys, browns and greens. Perhaps Holbein, himself a humanist on the threshold of atheism, is expressing his religious doubt. There is nothing more dismal than a dead God, and by painting a faithful representation of the dead body of a man taken from a cross with the head thrown back in suffering (rather than with the customary traces of beauty combined with the agony on the cross), Holbein confronts us with that possibility.

So what is Dumas trying to achieve with her copies? As she says “you can’t ‘take’ a painting, you make a painting”[1] and consequently for her it must be a decisive moral act. Perhaps the clue is that the first canvas is also partially based on a tabloid image of Michael Jackson sleeping in his oxygen chamber (in an effort to stave off his own mortality). Clearly the paintings have to be read as a pair and perhaps she is emphasising that we are a culture without the will to seriously examine our own problems. We prefer to be provoked and titillated rather examine our real problems, eschewing issues that are complex contradictory or confusing.

©blackdog 2009

[1] Dumas, Marlene “The Private Versus the Public” Marlene Dumas: Miss Interpreted Van Abbesmuseum 1992. 43

Sunday, 6 September 2009

Diego de Velázquez

Aesop, 1638
Oil on Canvas 180 x 94 cm
Museo Nacional Del Prado
18 April 2009

During my visit to the Prado Museum in Madrid to see Goya’s Black Paintings I took the opportunity to see this portrait by Velázquez. Painted as one of a pair as a test of whether he could outdo Rubens for powers of invention and assert his challenge for the patronage of Philip IV.

Although the philosopher Aesop was a renowned figure of antiquity, he had for many years had to perform menial tasks as a slave. He was also described as ugly with a humped back, a pot belly and large feet. This data taken from an anonymous biography of the author is brought to life by Velázquez in this full length (life-sized) portrait. Under his arm is his book of fables whilst at his feet, a water bucket and rags associated with his household duties.

The figure is thinly painted with broad rapid brushstrokes using a very limited palette. The face is more varied; the highlights on the forehead are thickly applied whereas in the shadows on the cheeks the primed canvas is barely covered. The background colour is pale grey over a red oxide ground. Such is the mastery of the brushwork that he creates the impression of a man prematurely aged with sagging flesh and grey hair. He seems to be standing awkwardly with his weight on one foot, which may just be a trick of the perspective or a deliberate device to make him look ill at ease.

The gaze is directly at the viewer and the eyes are intelligent but sad. In fact the aura of this imaginary portrait is one of dignified wisdom maintained in the face of adversity. A much more sophisticated interpretation than Rubens managed with his pair of paintings for the Torre de la Parada of the laughing and crying philosophers Democritus and Heraclitus.

©blackdog 2009

Sunday, 30 August 2009

Adriana Varejão

O Sedutor 2004
Oil on Canvas 230 x 530 cm
Victoria Miro Gallery, London
10 October 2004

The show contained four of these immense, almost life size, paintings of tiled saunas and a number of smaller studies on paper that were framed behind glass. Each had a different monochrome theme and I have chosen the one painted in a variety of blues from tinged white to almost black. The blues themselves range from aqua with a lot of green, right through to almost lavender.

Although she has used a fairly heavy canvas, the weave on the surface isn’t prominent indicating that the surface must be heavily primed to get it flat. The process of painting is fundamental to the reading of meaning behind the work and I would say she has started with a dark red ground, perhaps burnt umber and then painted each tile individually. In light areas colours are not just tonally lighter, but slightly warmer. The paint is uniformly applied, but you can see brush marks when looking closely. There is definitely a glaze with the paint and some of the tiles look like two coats with the paler one underneath. This is left to show at the “tile” edges and helps the 3d illusion as do the edges of shadows’ which are subtlety blended over a small area. The other curious point is that all four of the large canvases had rounded corners; this isn’t easy to do and contradicts the rectangular tiles but I cannot guess the significance.

Whilst the use of the grids that constitute these works could hint at modernist aesthetics, her earlier work depicted fragments of tiled wall with rubble made of flesh bulging and bursting through the painted surface. This use of the tile as a recurrent motif refers to the azulejo, a square terracotta tile used continuously throughout Portugal’s history since the middle ages. Influenced over the years by Moors, Spanish, Oriental and Dutch artisans it was used for decoration in such far distant corners of Portugal’s empire as Brazil. So Varejão is invoking the colonial history of Brazil though the use of tiles albeit in a more subtle way in these Sauna paintings.

In these large scale trompe l’oeil paintings, the tiles have become simple, unadorned, abstract and minimalist, but the space the paintings describe is one of empty luxury, hard and cold. Whilst I find this non-space deeply melancholic on account of the implied solitude, that reading may be at variance with her conceptual impulse. In other words what I am reading as an impersonal modern skin of a contemporary “temple” for the body, she may be referencing the opulence of Portugal’s past fuelled by resources flowing from Brazil. Who is “The Seducer” of the title?

©blackdog 2009

Sunday, 23 August 2009

Luc Tuymans

Bend Over, 2001
Oil on canvas, 60 x 60 cm
Tate Modern, London
8th July 2004

This remains one of my favourite Tuyman’s paintings despite having seen it a number of times. These notes are from when I saw it in the Tate retrospective. It shared a room with other modestly sized paintings some as early as 1988. Despite this non-linear hang and the different themes, the uniformity of Tuyman’s painting practice makes the room work.

Tuymans’s career began with filmmaking, and consequently his approach to painting often draws from montage so additional meaning is conveyed by the pieces’ adjacency. In this retrospective he must have used this room to set up a new dialogue between the works as this piece was originally shown in a show at “The White Cube” called “The Rumour” amongst a series of paintings of pigeons.

This painting, like the earlier works in the room uses short horizontal brush strokes to build the form and also blur it into the surrounding space. Also all the canvases are pinned around the edge onto thin stretchers, as and have no paint on the edges. I have read that he paints on the canvas prior to stretching, which would explain how he maintains this uniformity of look. The other common feature is the continued use of subdued pastel colours. The oils are thin and have a very flat dry look. The colours in this painting are perhaps best described as “sickly” greens and conjure up the institutional colour of old hospitals.

I suspect the source for the painting is a photograph but I cannot find a reference. The image looks like a man, possibly awaiting a thrashing but he or she could just be bending over doing exercises or picking something up. The background gives no indication of a location and the subject is tightly held by the close cropping of edges of the canvas. The former interpretation is perhaps reinforced by the command implicit in the title "Bend Over" rather than the posture i.e. “bent over”. Coming from a time when corporal punishment was still meted out in schools, I find it a powerful image that reminds me of the degradation we were subjected to. Maybe this painting helped Tuymans close an old wound, but it holds one open for me, and this memory isn’t made any more comfortable by Tuymans placing me (the viewer) in the position of perpetrator.

©blackdog 2009

Sunday, 16 August 2009

Giorgio de Chirico

Melanconia 1912
Oil on Canvas, 79 x 63 cm
Estorick Collection, London
March 2003

The show focused on De Chirico’s obsession with the Ariadne myth and contained both early and late examples of paintings based on the troubled Cretan princess.

The myth begins with Minos, the king of Crete, being shamed by his wife’s infidelity with a bull. He has Daedalus construct a labyrinth to keep the progeny of this relationship, the half man, half beast Minotaur imprisoned.

Minos had Athenians fed to the Minotaur by forcing them to enter the Labyrinth. However, his daughter Ariadne falls deeply in love with Theseus, one of the doomed Athenians. She gives Theseus a ball of thread so that he can find his way out of the Labyrinth should he manage to kill the Minotaur. Theseus agrees to marry Ariadne for her help. He succeeds and they escape to the island of Naxos only for Theseus to abandon Ariadne while she slept on the beach. She awakens and laments the loss of Theseus and his treachery.

The painting I have chosen was the earliest on show but like the others depicts Ariadne lying on a pedestal. The title of the painting, "melanconia" is included as an inscription on the base of Ariadne’s plinth, thereby making explicit the intended sentiment of loss and lamentation. There are two figures in the distance but the statue seems to be in an empty square lined with arched arcades. The late afternoon sun is casting long shadows and we realise that there is an onlooker stood behind the pillar of the nearest arch, his/her shadow projecting into the space.

The statue is a Roman copy of a lost Hellenistic sculpture of Ariadne that I think is in the Vatican, and may be a symbol of his childhood in Greece (he was on the run in Paris at the time, charged with desertion from the army). It also has a link with the nostalgia for the irrecoverable past that he saw in the work of Arnold Böcklin. In fact the shape of the mysterious shadow matches the form of the grieving Odysseus longing to return to Ithaca and his wife from an earlier De Chirico painting “The Enigma of the Oracle”. This work is clearly adapted from a 1882 Böcklin painting of the same theme, “Odysseus and Calypso” that shows a portrait of a shrouded grief stricken Odysseus staring out to sea. In a later painting in the exhibition “The Melancholy of a Beautiful Day” the standing shrouded Odysseus is in the same square as Ariadne reinforcing the alienation and loss she will experience on waking.

The crucial point being De Chirico’s development of the same symbolist-derived aesthetic of loss using an avant-garde cubist approach. The simple forms of the painting, like the others from this period, are executed in a dry, thin manner with sombre colours; only in the later works did his palette become more acidic.

©blackdog 2009

Sunday, 9 August 2009

Lucas Cranach

An Allegory of Melancholy 1528
Oil and Tempera on Panel 113 x 72 cm
Royal Academy, London
08 April 2008

I always find the Sackler Wing galleries in the Royal Academy claustrophobic and this exhibition was no exception. There appeared to be no logic to the 'hang', which was neither chronological nor thematic, and I flitted from painting to painting where space in the crowds allowed. Despite the difficulty in seeing the work properly I did gain some appreciation of the diversity of his images and the skill of his workshop.

In the corner of one of the galleries was this little known work that seems to be based on the Albrecht Dürer engraving “Melencholia I” from 14 years earlier. The painting is much more surreal, with clouds full of horses and witches riding cattle and pigs to the left of two towns perched on precipitous rocks in the background. On a balcony overlooking this mayhem sits a woman in an orange dress in a similar position to the angel of the Dürer engraving.

Cranach went on to do at least three more versions of this painting and in two of them the woman in the red dress has angel’s wings, one black wings one white. Strangely the later three also have a bizarre apocalyptic vision in the upper-left corner, a distant landscape and in each the woman whittles while children play.

In this painting there are four children on the balcony seemingly tormenting the same scrawny dog that was sleeping in the Dürer engraving. One of the children (or putti) looks slyly and knowingly at the viewer. There is also a scattering of emblematic devices from Dürer’s work. Instead of a compass her hand holds a knife that she is using to whittle a stick and although not sunk in gloom her expression is one of boredom as she stares into space ignoring the mischievous children. The other elements in the painting are a table and bench bearing two glasses, one empty, and some blackened fruit; on the bench is a puppy sleeping on a red cushion; and above the woman is a tree bearing fruit the same colour as her dress.

My interpretation would be that this is a portrayal of a woman who feels she has accomplished little and is destined to while away her time bringing up the children and that these thoughts are the devil’s work, signified by the Saturnalian ‘dreams’ in the background. Painted at a time when persecution for witchcraft was prevalent in Germany, it explains why the ride to the sabbat has found its way into the melancholic iconography. Cranach lived in Wittenberg and was a close friend of Martin Luther who shared and reinforced the witchcraft beliefs of the culture that produced him[1].

[1] Kors, Alan Charles Peters, Edward “Witchcraft in Europe, 400-1700” Pennsylvania Press 2000 p261

©blackdog 2009

Sunday, 2 August 2009

Michael Simpson

Bench Number 59, 2000-05
Oil on canvas 244 x 534cm
The Tithe Barn, Bradford on Avon
September 2005

This is one of four related paintings exhibited in 2005 in Bradford on Avon. Psalm (Bench #54) and Prayer (Bench #55) at the Old Gas Works and Hymn (Bench #58) and Song (Bench #59) at the Tithe Barn. They are four paintings that form part of Simpson’s ongoing body of work that started in December 1989 and are known as bench paintings, each un-named but sequentially numbered. They are an ongoing homage to the Neopolitan philosopher Giordano Bruno, mutilated and burnt alive at the Campo di Fiore in Rome for heresy in 1600.

Bruno had written of an infinite universe which had left no room for that greater infinite conception which is called God. He could not conceive that God and nature could be separate and distinct entities as taught by Genesis, as taught by the Church and as even taught by Aristotle. Living in Venice in 1592 he was imprisoned and then sent to Rome where he was questioned and tortured in a papal prison and finally judged a heretic. A sensitive, imaginative poet, fired with the enthusiasm of a vision of a larger universe he was martyred not for politics, but for his scientific thinking being ahead of his time.

The use of the bench as a motif can be seen as a metaphor for Bruno’s time spent waiting in prison for his fate to be decided but also a place where justice and injustice are administered. Apart from the very first bench painting none of the works have any figures in them and over time they have become more austere. This series of four perhaps relate directly to the Church and by inference atrocities committed in the name of God. The elements in the painting are few; apart from the bench itself, the division of the space into shallow foreground and wall the other two elements are the ventilation grids below the bench and a church notice board in the upper right hand corner. Psalm (Bench #54) and Hymn (Bench #58) have specific collections of uplifting spiritual works listed on the notice board. Prayer (Bench #55) and Song (Bench #59) are blank. In a more chilling interpretation of the grids, I could see them as drains but perhaps my imagination is too active. They certainly help establish depth on the flat surface.

The most striking aspect of all of the works is their scale which is twice life size. This prevents the image being read as a window onto another world despite the illusion of depth that has been created. For me this anchors the paintings in reality and makes them an object of contemplation. In fact looking hard has its rewards too; gradually you note the making of the painting is evident. The subtle ribbing of the surface, the subsequent layers of ground colour stopping short of the perimeter edge (impossible to see in the reproduction) and the delicate glazes evoking the fall of light on the bench.

They are paintings that give expression to the idea of the dark, insolent and terrible power of belief, giving form and colour to the nonrepresentable. A very minimalist melancholic vision that was well suited to the exhibition venue.

©blackdog 2009

Sunday, 26 July 2009

Tiziano Vecellio

Flaying of Marsyas 1576
Oil on canvas 212 x 207cm
National Gallery, London
March 2003

This was a wonderful exhibition of over 40 of Titian's paintings, from all periods of his life, crammed into the Sainsbury Wing of London's National Gallery. It was a great opportunity to see this work together and despite the crowds I visited several times.

The painting I have chosen is one of his late works and one of his greatest. I always recognised in his work the superb deftness of touch and use of glazes, but in this painting, seen for the first time, the paint is palpably like flesh.

The setting and grouping of the painting in the gallery added to its’ melancholic aspect. Hung high on the wall between the “Death of Actaeon” and “Tarquin and Lucretia” our gaze is level with Marsyas’ eyes. We look closely to see if he has found a way to transcend the inherent horror of what is happening to him as a result of his hubris.

The painting depicts Ovid’s account of the punishment of the satyr Marsyas for daring to challenge Apollo to a flute contest and then losing. Titian paints a life sized Marsyas paying his forfeit by being hung upside down and flayed alive. Much has been written about which parts of Ovid’s myth Titian has based the painting on, with debate about some of the figures being merged with Christian iconography; for example Apollo doing the flaying has angels wings and Pan carrying a bucket for the blood, who only makes an appearance later in the tales, is a metaphor for the devil. What is not contested is that the figure of Midas, who judged the contest, is a self portrait of Titian.

Midas, once a student of Orpheus (who may be the figure playing the lira da braccio and gazing heaven wards), is painted in the classic pose used throughout history to evoke creative thought as well as melancholy. According to Aristotle, "All extraordinary men distinguished in philosophy, politics, poetry, and the arts are evidently melancholic"[1]. In Titian's Marsyas, Orpheus' music possibly represents a cure for Midas' melancholic despair as his unseeing eyes stare blankly downward at the pool of blood on the ground, bound to the terrestrial reality in front of him. His own mortality horribly emphasised by the small cute dog hungrily lapping up the spilt blood.

So much about this painting is brilliant. The theatre and oppressive intensity created by the closeness of the figures to the front of the picture plane, Titian's vibrant brushwork almost as violent as the subject and the fact that up close the image dissolves into just paint with the figure and ground almost indistinguishable. The painting has rightly been seen as a meditation on mortality and human suffering, it is also a huge source of inspiration to anyone wanting to coalesce a body of brush strokes into the illusion of flesh.

[1] In the fifteenth century, Marsilio Ficino (in the De vitatriplici, 1489) reconciled an Aristotelian connection between melancholic humor and exceptional talent with the notion of Plato's mania - the rapture of a divinely inspired frenzy of the soul which tries to grasp through the senses divine beauty and harmony. Saturn, the source of the melancholic state of mind, was also "united" by Ficino with Mercury, the traditional god of the arts.

©blackdog 2009

Sunday, 19 July 2009

Arnold Böcklin

The Isle of the Dead, 1880
Oil on Canvas 111 x 115cm
Museé D’Orsay, Paris
November 2001

I saw this painting in a retrospective exhibition of his work to mark the centenary of his death. There was a large number of paintings, tracing Böcklin's development from Late Romanticism to Symbolism. Rediscovered in the 1920’s by by the surrealist painters, Böcklin became a strong inspiration in his fantastical and iconoclast vision of mythology. Painted mainly from his imagination late in his career, the first version of “The Isle of the Dead” was painted in Florence, and might be based on the cemetery close to his studio. It is probably his most famous painting and he eventually completed five versions of it.

It was certainly the most moving painting in the exhibition, and wasn't surprised to learn that a second version was painted at the request of a young widow who wanted an "image to dream by". It was at her request that he added the coffin and female figure, in allusion to her husband's death of diphtheria years earlier. Subsequently, he added these elements to the first version of the painting. The funereal serenity of what became a symbolist masterpiece was originally titled "A Tranquil Place" perhaps draws on his own harrowing experiences with cholera epidemics. He lost five of his children in infancy and his baby daughter was buried in the cemetery in Florence.

The painting shows a boat with a single oarsman manoeuvring near a small rocky island - in the prow stands a solitary shrouded woman, with a coffin draped in a white cloth. The low setting sun illuminates the backs of the oarsman, “passengers” and the edges of the few buildings on the shore. The morbidity of the scene is reinforced by the sepulchral portals and windows of these buildings that have been hewn into the cliff face enclosing the landing. We are in no doubt that the boat is arriving at the family vaults and burial chambers. Amongst the rocks on the isle are several tall cypress trees, dominating both the painting and the scene with their immobility and silence.

There is some argument about whether the boat is arriving or leaving the isle centred on the fact that the prow of the boat indicates the latter, however, the rower is standing so he could be just ensuring that he docks stern first to allow the coffin to be easily unloaded. The confusion comes about because he added the woman and coffin after the painting was complete, changing the meaning of the work. Whilst this conjecture adds to the mystery of the painting it doesn’t alter the melancholic mood of the work. Nor do we need to know the background to the painting to know that it is supposed to "produce such a stillness that one would be awed by a knock on the door"[1].

[1] Böcklin, Arnold. Unattributed, but I did find that Clement Greenberg wrote in 1947 that Böcklin's work "is one of the most consummate expressions of all that was now disliked about the latter half of the nineteenth century." An indication perhaps that Böcklin must have been successful on his own terms and interesting that this piece has been referenced by a number of contemporary artists!

©blackdog 2009

Sunday, 12 July 2009

Matthias Weischer

Ecke 2005
Oil on Canvas 40 x 30cm
51st Biennale, Venice
1st November 2005

Despite his work being in the Saatchi collection and at Frieze 2004, I had never seen it in either print or at an exhibition before. This is a man who is obsessed with interior space. Almost every painting shown was an interior, all sparsely furnished and unoccupied. In fact I cannot even remember a door or window and the overall effect was of very claustrophobic spaces. I felt they were almost a mental space rather than an actual space - probably because there were limited details to associate with.

My favourite was this simple painting of just a corner. It is typical of the work shown, exploring space through the construction and deconstruction of an imagined interior by building up layers of paint at the same time as creating overlapping perspectives. The paint is so thick that it overhangs the edge of the canvas (see below) making the image almost a sculpture. Then having created the space and depth within the picture, with the thickly painted surface he reminds us of the flatness of the painting by covering areas with fine speckles or drips of paint.

In all of his interior views there is an all-prevailing absence of a utopia, they are sites that seem to have no relation with the real space of Society. However, nor are they sites of voyeurism like the sets of television reality programmes such as Big Brother. These are fundamentally unreal spaces, offering nothing to distract the occupants from their own existence or let them forget their own life. We are given no clues as to the function of the rooms and without windows and doors it is as if the outside world doesn’t exist.

The other interesting aspect of these spaces is the difficulty one has assigning a date or a period to them. Devoid of meaningful visual clues, even when a sparse piece of furniture or decoration is included, we are thrown back on regarding the walls as intersecting colour planes. For me this reinforces the notion that these rooms are psychological rather than physical spaces. Without a connection with time or reality they become somewhere to mentally retreat to, and be alone for reflection and contemplation.

©blackdog 2009

Sunday, 5 July 2009

Adrian Ghenie

Dada is Dead 2009
Oil on Canvas 220 x 200 cm
Haunch of Venison, London
23rd May 2009

This was the first time I had seen work by this young Romanian painter and it certainly was well suited to the Haunch of Venison’s new home in the old Museum of Mankind in Burlington Gardens, behind the Royal Academy. The show was rather obliquely titled “Darkness for an Hour” referring to the protest about global warming earlier in 2009. As the body of work revolved around two themes; Dada and the custard pie comedy of Laurel and Hardy, I couldn’t see the connection. However, the work made up for it and the paintings were sympathetically hung over four rooms. This allowed the twin themes to develop an interesting dialogue between the seriousness of the works related to Dada and the absurdity of Hollywood slapstick film stars.

The painting I have chosen is based upon a surviving documentary photograph of the First International Dada-Fair which was held in the Galerie Buchard, Berlin in summer 1920. This “exhibition” was both the climax of the Berlin Dada movement and its last public event. The organisers exhibited 174 "products" that they proclaimed "Anti-Art" ignoring traditional distinctions between original works and prints, and displayed provocative poster-manifestos on the walls.

The large political paintings by Otto Dix, "The War Cripples (45% Employable)" 1920 and George Grosz, "Germany, a Winter’s Tale" 1917 that were subsequently destroyed during the National Socialist period, can be seen on the left and right hand walls respectively. The suspension from the ceiling of a figure with the head of a pig and wearing an officer's uniform was taken as an insult to the honour of the Ministry of Defence of the Weimar Republic and the resulting court case, which could have ended in a death penalty, fortunately only resulted in a small fine.

Ghenie’s working process has been to use a large copy of the image and then abstract it by painting over areas, adding in what could be another Dada reference; Joseph Beuys’ coyote from his 1974 action piece “I like America and America likes me”, or maybe a wolf signifying the ghost of the National Socialism that is caught prowling the room biding his time. In the finished painting the last vestiges of the gallery goers have been replaced by a work that definitely wasn’t in the 1920 exhibition, “Black Cross” 1923 by Kazimer Malevich.

Although the work is leant a definite melancholy air by its subject matter and reference points, I couldn’t help smiling at the irony in the image. Instead of painting becoming obsolete as predicted by Marcle Duchamp, the inventor of the “readymade” and the high priest of the “anything goes” art, we have the death of Dada being depicted in a painting almost a Century later. The pendulum will no doubt swing against painting again but it is a measure of the confidence in the medium that a young artist can paint with such vigour, have the nerve to use appropriation to make pronounce the death of the very movement that proposed it as a valid artistic strategy. But then as Marcel Duchamp says “the title is just another colour; it just doesn’t come out of a tube.”

©blackdog 2009

Sunday, 28 June 2009

Piero della Francesca

Madonna del Parto c1460
Fresco (detached) 206 x 203 cm
Museo della Madonna del Parto, Monterchi
9 September 2008

The original location of the painting, is the Capella di Cimitero of the Santa Maria della Momentana in the hilltown of Monterchi near Arezzo. The chapel was destroyed in 1785 by an earthquake and the work was detached and placed in a new chapel until 1992, when it was moved to the Museo della Madonna del Parto in Monterchi. The various displays in the museum document the restoration work done after the move, removing all the additions to the painting done by others over the years, and the installation of what remained of Piero's original painting behind a glass case.

Having seen the painting located in a chapel[1] in Andrei Tarkovsky’s 1982 film Nostalghia, it came as shock to see the painting coldly displayed as a museum artifact. However, this surprise removed the painting from the context of the film, and perhaps allowed me to see it “for myself” rather than through another’s eyes.

Piero della Francesca gives his Madonna a queenly status, but does so without the usual royal attributes of crown or throne. Instead he uses her relative size and prominence to convey her elevated status, standing between two diminutive angels in a circular pavillion made from animal pelts. This is covered with red velvet damask that is decorated with designs of pomegranates, a symbol of Christ's passion. She turns towards a light source from the left and touches her prominent belly that is exaggerated by the opening in her antenatal gown. Her eyes are asymmetrical, and her gaze is downwards and distinctly melancholic, perhaps reflecting her sorrow at her son’s future death.

The gaze of the angels is straight at the viewer as they reveal the Madonna by holding back the sides of the tent for us to look in. The two angels are mirror images, realised by the artist with the same holed fresco cartoons, and are depicted in alternating colours of red and green. The Madonna’s gown is lapis lazuli blue.

It is a shame that I never saw the painting in the chapel because despite the invitation of the angels to look, the glass case serves as an additional barrier between the world of the painting and that of the viewer, underscoring the metaphysical gulf between the two. In effect, we are only looking at an "essence" of the painting, objectified in a museum, and it is a testament to the power of the original fresco, that its aura can transcend the clinical setting and convey real emotion.

[1] I have subsequently learnt that Tarkovsky used a reproduction of the painting and relocated the action to a church in Tuscany, some 70 miles away in order to recreate the size and atmosphere of the original Capella di Cimitero.
©blackdog 2009

Sunday, 21 June 2009

Wilhelm Sasnal

Untitled (Kacper and Anka) 2009
Oil on Canvas 180 x 220 cm
Sadie Coles HQ, London
12th June 2009

The press handout says that the twin themes of his new body of work exhibited at Sadie Coles are “food sovereignty and earthly idylls”. It goes on to say how “the paintings of coffee mounds, unmarked barrels, brightly coloured tubs, and a hazy Cuban road: all speak of trade, transportation and global agricultural networks”. Personally I wouldn’t have made the connection between the work and the important issue of food sovereignty, and couldn’t understand why these works would be grouped with paintings depicting “earthly idylls”. However, despite the medium seeming at odds with the message, the paintings were interesting and I have chosen a landscape that is “alluring and yet subtly unnerving”.

This large painting shows a child and a woman standing by a still pool or lake that is filled with debris. The landscape is barren and suggests a beach or industrial wasteland. I suspect that this is painted from his own photograph, and the Anka of the title is the same woman from Anka Smoking 2000. It is interesting that the painting has been extended by a third on the left hand side and the join in the canvas is visible to the eye, if not in this reproduction. This is a key compositional change, as I think the ‘weight’ of the body of water to the left of the child’s reflection adds considerably to the melancholic tone of the painting. The crop of the woman’s head is a definite photographic reference and adds a degree of tension to the image.

The colours are predominantly cool greys with a very cold blue for the refection of the sky on the surface of the water. Most of the brushwork is blended to give a smooth blurred effect but the reflection of the clouds and the bits of debris floating on the surface of the lake are very gestural. Whilst the significance of the scene in hard to discern, the contrast between these interventions and the smooth surface and cool tones draw the eye and focus the attention on the pollution as the subject of the painting. This is reinforced by the stance and gesture of both the child and the woman.

Without seeing the photograph that he worked from we cannot know what has been left out of the painting, but from earlier work I know that he is very selective about the elements included and abstraction of certain details is always a feature of his work. From a distance these abstract marks resolve themselves into the image, but close up the realism dissolves and they are revealed as just paint. For me it is the use of these abstract marks that make the paintings interesting. Clearly they presents a facade rather than the substance of expression, but their use still evokes an aura of compelling melancholia image even though we know that the image is relying on computer generated effects rather than deep seated suffering.

©blackdog 2009

Saturday, 13 June 2009

Nicola Tyson

Figure With Arm Extended 2004
Oil on Canvas

Sadie Coles HQ, London
February 2005

I have seen this painting twice now, once at Sadie Coles in 2004 and again at Frieze in 2005. It is an abstraction of a female (?) figure with atrophied arms leaning forwards. The figure is on left hand side of the canvas, the background of which is an abstract plane with no depth. There is no discernible face but the head thrusts forwards from the shoulders, and it is conceivable that the figure is in motion, perhaps dancing.

I don’t know the source of the image, but I am guessing that it is from a drawing from a photo – possibly of herself. The shape of the figure looks like it has been drawn in outline and then “filled” in. The fact that the feet are cropped by the bottom of the canvas, also suggests that she has used a photographic source. If it is from a photograph of a figure in motion, then the “stumpy” limbs are a translation of the photographic blur. Alternatively it could be a photograph that has been manipulated in Photoshop. A filter such as “paint daubs”, would give a smoothing effect to all features, blanking the face and atrophying the limbs.

The expressive brushwork leaves thin covering of paint with thick ropes of paint along edge of mark. The ochre/brown ground colour is painted over dark a under-painting which Tyson allows to show through in places, breaking up the surface. The figure is wearing a track suit of brown, cream and green and although the under-painting of the clothing is predominantly red, other colours are present. Again the brushwork is loose and sparse allowing the under-painting to show through. The face is pink with a small white triangle that could signify the nose. The way the figure has definite bulk and volume against the flat ground reminds me of the work of Francis Bacon.

I would describe her figuration as hermetic; the deliberate use of exceedingly obscure, convoluted, or esoteric literary or graphical symbolism to carry a personal meaning that the viewer cannot discern. Although the whimsical drawing and painting is inventive, I find the larger than life figure hard to relate to in any intimate way. Consequently the assertive image seems to provoke anxiety through the misshapen limbs rather than any sense of melancholy.

©blackdog 2009