Monday, 23 February 2009

Dexter Dalwood

Ceauşescu's Execution, 2002
Oil on Canvas 268 x 347 cm

Tate Britain, London
26th February 2003

This was the first Dexter Dalwood painting I had seen and its dramatic size and bold colours gave it a lot of presence. I loved the contrast in the brushwork between thick slathers of paint in the background and the thin blended surface in the foreground. The specks of broken glass and shards of wood give depth and imply by association the event implied in the title of the painting.

I was intrigued by how successfully the painting conjured up memories of the downfall of a regime whose palaces were filled with priceless silk, porcelain, marble, silverware, and of course chandeliers, by such non-specific content.

His earlier pieces are predominantly imagined interiors of the homes of historical and contemporary figures. For example, Dalwood's painting Kurt Cobain's Greenhouse imagines the private home in Seattle where the eponymous rock singer committed suicide in 1994. These “portraits” are achieved through association with the person’s artifacts and by allusion to the time by appropriating art of the period. This work came from his desire to depict places that one had heard of but hadn't necessarily got a picture for in your head.

His painting of Ceauşescu's Execution extends that recreation of time and space to summon forth the atmosphere and implications of a historical event and marks a development of both his ideas and technique. The result is a post-modern version of the traditional history painting and I enjoyed the challenge involved in unpicking his work.

The starting point for the painting is the size; this is exactly the same dimensions as Francisco Goya’s historical painting Third May 1808 which depicts the execution by firing squad of a group of Spanish patriots by Napoleon’s Imperial Guard. The Ceauşescus were also executed by a firing squad consisting of elite paratroop regiment soldiers who shot them with AK-47 assault rifles. At first I thought this was also the source for the triangle of table top in the foreground, as there is an area of illuminated foreground in Goya’s masterpiece, but the shape is identical to the foreground in Caspar David Friedrich’s Der Mönch Am Meer. The effect of the light under the gloom above is similar to bleakness and desolation invoked by Friedrich’s painting. Given that the splinters on the table top resemble the shards of ice in another Friedrich painting The Sea of Ice, I think the later interpretation is more likely. The hard part was the background which I thought looked like the work of Abstract Expressionist Franz Kline, yet I could see no connection with the title or the late 1980’s. Fortunately the exhibition catalogue[1] came to the rescue and the source for the “curtains” dripping with blood is a painting by Georg Baselitz titled Der Krug which was completed only months before the execution of the Ceauşescus was broadcast on television

I have since become a real fan of his work and have seen both earlier pieces at Saatchi’s Gallery in London and been to the opening night of a recent large exhibition of new paintings at the Gagosian Gallery in London. However, nothing has come close to the impact of seeing this painting for the first time and I thought it was one of the best pieces in the Triennial exhibition.

[1] Tufnel, Ben Days Like These Catalogue Tate Publishing 2003 pp64-69

©blackdog 2009


  1. I have always problems to post comments on your painting blog, but today it is never possible, therefore I'll send some thoughts to you in this way:

    A very careful and knowing analysis again! A very impressive and in some way moving and touching painting, - in my opinion- a convincing kind of art in order to 'represent' and to hint to the horrors and cruelty of that Roumainian tyranny -the colour bloody red, flowing down in streams (we have a phrase in German: Blut fließt in Strömen), the dark stripe, the "splinters on the table top" (in opposite to the lustre)- all details remind of one of the most terrible regimes! it is a general problem (in literatur, too): how can be 'depictured' violences? In a more realistic way? Or is it quite more convincincing to represent only "the shadows" of the horrors and atrocities, for there are limits of representation of such unbelievable and -nevertheless- very real horrors. I prefer the second way as this paining also might confirm.
    I agree with your reference to CDF, Sea of Ice (but not: "Der Mönch am Meer")- Melancholy? Rather a feeling of horrors, terrors, frightfulness. Melacholy has -for me- always- a beautiful, poetic touch- your pic today is rather melancholic indeed!
    Philine Kleinknecht

  2. Sorry to hear that you are having trouble commenting Philine and thank you for perservering. It means a lot to get some feedback to the writing.

    I too like his treatment of flash points in modern history by alluding to the issues rather than trying to take them on in all their gory detail. Painting cannot compete directly with television and film in this respect, yet it does provide a much more considered response, which when done well can be as equally moving. Especially as we get immune to the attrocities everday on the news.

    I was in an airplane flying back to the UK from America when the wall came down, and when I arrived Germany was one. Remarkable achievement, and perhaps shows the depth of resentment in Roumania.

    Now lets see if it posts ;o)