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

Sunday, 7 June 2009

Norbert Schwontkowski

Das grüne Leuchten, 2005
Oil on Canvas 55 x 70cm

Not Seen
Private Collection

Unfortunately I have only seen this painting in photographic reproduction, which isn’t ideal for such a subtly painted work. However, I have seen a number of similar pieces from the same time at art fairs, which gives me an understanding of his process and how the finished paintings look.

He adds metallic oxides to his ground which lead to unforeseeable changes of colour in his paintings as the chemical compositions change through oxidation. He will start a canvas, leave it to mature for a couple of weeks and then return to it and modify the altered state.

Like most of his work, the image comes from his imagination rather than an appropriated source. It shows a tiny incident all too familiar from my childhood holidays - our car was always breaking down too! Innocent in itself but the gaseous lime green glow hovering on the horizon fills the image with a sense of dread. The family watch from a safe distance whilst the father, head under the bonnet tinkers with the engine. It is almost as if the family are hovering on the horizon between mundane reality and the surreal happenings beyond.

The painting has a gentle naive quality, but as with all his work the title and image are inextricably linked, and translating this title as The Green Light we see he has a sense of irony too; green for stop rather than go! I associate the green light in this painting with the dreary tones of winter skies that warn of an immanent snowfall, but it could also be read as a green ray. These are rare optical phenomena that occur shortly after sunset or before sunrise, when a green spot is visible for a short period of time above the sun, or a green ray shoots up from the sunset point. It is usually observed from a low altitude where there is an unobstructed view of the horizon, such as on the ocean.

Although it is the image itself that fills me with a sense of loss, the process is a key component of the melancholic feel of his paintings. It is like a slow version of the development process associated with wet photography and results in the luminous glow of pastel colour that haunts his work.

©blackdog 2009