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