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