Marlene Dumas

Gelijkenis 1 & 2, 2002
Oil on Canvas, Each 60 x 230 cm
Punta della Dogana, Venice 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 Kunstmuseu(not seen), and whilst it is only a facsimile or simulacrum, the copy draws a power and melancholic aura from the original.

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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

Pierre Bonnard

Nude in the Bath and Small Dog, 1941-46
Oil on Canvas 122 x 151 cm
Tate Gallery 1998

I was tempted to write about Indolence, a nude from 1898 that has a definite feel of ennui. However, I chose instead this late painting of his wife Marthe entombed in the bath at their home Le Bosquet. She died in 1942, aged 75.

I find it a very melancholic work and the sense of loss he felt, is heightened by the fact that even in her sixties he is still painting Marthe as the young woman he had met aged 16. We see her, unobserved from above and behind her shoulder. The small dog on a mat gazes out of the painting at the viewer and symbolising fidelity even after she is gone.

Bonnard Nude in Bath.jpg

Bonnard delighted in observing Marthe without being seen and drew her constantly. There are dozens of drawings in his sketchbooks and diaries of Marthe in the bathtub. The subject is fairly central in both planes. Perspective is indicative of space rather than an accurate portrayal and gives a certain dream like quality to the painting.

In this painting the dazzling array of colours, predominantly blue and gold make the bathroom shimmer with light. A collection of sweet wrappers (seen in photos of his studio by Brassai and Henri Cartier Bresson) served as the model for this light reflecting off the tiles.

The very diverse handling of the paint in this piece contributes to its interest for me. Some areas of the paint still look wet, a lot of medium enhances the transparency and contrasts with drier areas such as the curtain on the left. The brushwork is typically nervously dabbed and only makes sense from a distance. Close up it is just paint!

 

©blackdog 2009

Elizabeth Peyton

Jarvis, 1996
Oil on Panel 27.9 x 35.6 cm
Whitechapel Gallery 2009

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.

Elizabeth Peyton jarvis.jpg

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, Peyton 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

Adolph Menzel

Room with a Balcony, 1845
Oil on Cardboard. 58 x 47 cm

Nationalgalerie, Staatliche Museen zu Berlin

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.

Menzel balcony room 1845.jpg

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

Francis Bacon

Head VI, 1949
Oil on Canvas. 93 x 76 cm
Museum of Modern Art, Scotland

August 2005

A special pilgrimage to Edinburgh to see this exhibition of portraits and heads, many of which I had only seen in reproduction before and I wasn't disappointed.

The first room contained many outstanding paintings including two that I have long admired, but only seen before in reproduction. "Head VI" is owned by the Arts Council and is a forerunner of what were to become the popes - a working of Velázquez’s portrait of "Pope Innocent X". It is the first image to include a pope as subject and probably the first use of his space frame in a painting. He sits in this ‘Eichmann’ box, mouth receding like a tunnel, gilded chair described by a few drags of paint, the tassel/pull cord dangling in front of his face, eyes and top of head obscured by a curtain of paint dragged over the top.

francis bacon head-vi.jpeg

The paint is applied very sparsely with lots of canvas showing. Paint thick and opaque, looks very chalky, like there is no oil in it at all! Canvas is not primed. A very simple palette of Episcopal purple mixed with white, a golden yellow for the throne, the darks for the curtains and some bluish greys in the mouth. The colour in this reproduction is a little redder than the painting.

It is well reported that despite the appeal of the Velázquez portrait, he didn’t see it in the original until 1990[1]. Astonishing really as the reproductions convey no hint of its freedom of handling, yet Bacon’s work is incredibly loose.

Taking this as his starting point, Bacon essentially grafted a very graphic photographic or filmic image onto the staid Baroque prototype. The specific source for the pope’s gaping, screaming mouth, shattered pince-nez glasses, and blood-dripping eye is a black and white still from Sergei Eisenstein’s classic 1925 film, Battleship Potemkin.

Velazquez.jpg

While Innocent X directly confronts his papal audience with a confident, almost contemptuous gaze, Bacon’s pope would seem oblivious to observation since preoccupied by pain. Attired in purple vestments the subject is trapped in his ‘box’ and jolted into involuntary motion by external forces or internal psychoses. His face is partly veiled by curtains, maybe to suggest he is in the confessional. The sense of power and control of Velázquez’s Innocent is replaced by the involuntary cry of Bacon’s anonymous occupant of the ‘hot seat’, and we can only speculate whether he is being tortured or is a tortured soul.

In making this devastating image of The Pontiff, God's representative on Earth, screaming in pain, he attacks the principals of hierarchical order and spiritual authority that the Pope embodies, suggesting that either God doesn't exist or he has abandoned us to our own devices. I find this transformation of the Spanish artist’s confident client and relaxed leader into a screaming victim contemplating the loss of God very melancholic indeed.

Bacon remains an inspiration as to what can be achieved with paint and I was pleased I made the effort, it was a real privilege to see these works, many of which are in private hands.

[1] Sylvester, David Looking Back at Francis Bacon, Thames & Hudson, London 2000 p42

©blackdog 2009

Tiziano Vecellio

Flaying of Marsyas, 1576
Oil on Canvas. 212 x 207 cm
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.

Titian-flaying of Marsyas-1576.jpg

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

Johann Heinrich Fuseli

 

Nightmare, 1781
Oil on Canvas. 127 x 102cm
Tate Britain, London
April 2006

This iconic painting was centre piece of the Gothic Nightmares exhibition at Tate Britain. The exhibition explored the work of Henry Fuseli, William Blake and their contemporaries in the context of the Gothic, the taste for fantastic and supernatural themes which dominated British culture from around 1770 to 1830. The exhibition was interesting and informative about Gothic’s romantic roots and its influence on Modern Gothic; I certainly enjoyed the screening of Nosferatu.

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The exhibition was well laid out, responding to the themes, giving The Nightmare its own red painted room, complete with red curtain to protect the innocent.

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Sex and death are inseparable in the Gothic and the Fuseli painting has these ingredients in abundance. Unlike many of his other works at the Tate exhibition this one was well painted and utterly convincing, perhaps because the eye is drawn away from the stylised swooning femme fatale to the grimacing gremlin sat on her chest. The luxurious boudoir appears to be contemporary to Fuseli’s time, and the bottle on the table may contain laudanum, the narcotic drug of “choice” in the eighteenth century. The setting exudes a feeling of decadence. The young woman on the bed has been connected with Anna Landolt[1], the object of Fuseli’s unrequited passion when he was in Zurich in 1779. Her provocative costume and pose suggests a queasy mixture of pain and sensual pleasure. The creature sitting on her on her abdomen while staring at the viewer, may derive from an ancient sculpture of Bacchus, but his features have been taken as resembling Fuseli’s own and the painting has been interpreted as an expression of the painter’s sexual revenge or frustration. The horse is based on a ghostly figure in the background of Salvator Rosa’s Saul and the Witch of Endor (c.1668, Louvre) combined with the sculpture of ‘The Horse Tamers’ on the Piazza Quirinale fountain in Rome.

I have explored ideas of sleep paralysis in my own paintings, influenced by the work of Edgar Allen Poe and others, and lying on one's back, lying on one's left-hand side, a violent oppression of the breast, a loss of voluntary motion were all deemed by early medical theories to cause nightmares. However, Fuseli may have been inspired by folklore relating to the ‘Mara’, spirits who visit in the night, causing bad dreams; or classical stories about ‘incubi’, wicked imps who assault women sexually in their sleep. Although the word ‘nightmare’ derives from ‘mara’ (imp) rather than ‘mare’ (horse), Fuseli may have deliberately mixed the terms up to create a visual pun on the word.

I had gone to the exhibition hoping to find evidence for a link between the visual uncanny and the melancholic. My logic was that if the Gothic aesthetic is essentially a romantic flirtation with the dark side of death then there might be the same sense of suffocating loss that Poe evokes in his writing. Whilst many of the works touch on the link between imagination and madness, I didn’t think that they had stood the test of time in the same way. Perhaps I found it hard to get beyond the visual interpretation, whereas in the written word there is more room for projection and speculation. The Nightmare is certainly an interesting and enigmatic painting and I can appreciate why Freud had a copy on the wall of his consulting room in Vienna, but I didn’t find it melancholic.

[1] On the back of this canvas is an unfinished portrait of a woman, associated by a number of commentators with Anna Landolt.

©blackdog 2009

Ged Quinn

The Fall 2006
Oil on Canvas. 153 x 250cm
Saatchi Gallery, London
19 August 2010

I must admit I was a little disappointed with the Newspeak: British Art Now (Part 1) exhibition at the Saatchi Gallery, there was certainly some quality work, but overall it lacked the impact of the Sensation exhibitition at the Royal Academy in 1997.

One of the artists that did catch my eye was 47 year old Cornwall based painter, Ged Quinn. Several of Quinn’s large landscapes and still lives shared a room with Sigrid Holmwood’s pastich fluorescent paintings of early Van Gogh. Quinn draws on an even earlier source of inspiration, the feathered landscapes of Claude Lorrain.

Ged Quinn The Fall 183x250.jpg

“The Fall” is based on the Claude’s Arcadian setting for his 1668 painting “The Expulsion of Hagar” to which Quinn has added poet and dramatist Antonin Arnaud falling from the sky towards a ramshackle burnt out shed. The painting is clearly layed with meaning and the references from recent history becomes “blots” on the Romantic styled landscape. The shot down Antonin Artaud, the creator of the Theatre of Cruelty, is swathed in combat-plane camouflage refers to Lucifer's fall from grace in Milton's Paradise Lost. The shed is Thomas Edison's first purpose-built film production studio, the “Black Maria”, and it is decorated with Artaud's work. I must admit to a weakness to spending time trying to work out the references in his paintings rather than trying to decipher what the whole might mean.

Black-Maria.jpg

In the Theatre of Cruelty, Artaud was trying to revolutionise theatre - figuratively burn it to the ground so that it could start again. He was trying to connect people with something more primal, honest and true within themselves that had been lost for most people. He believed that text had been a tyrant over meaning, and advocated, instead, for a theatre made up of a unique language that lay halfway between thought and gesture. This has interesting parallels with the theory surrounding the death of painting and provides us with the link to the film industry, where everything is false. Artaud believed in physical expression, something lacking in Claude’s “old fashioned” picturesque landscape painting. It is typical of the mediated vision of the ideal landscape that we all have in our mind's eye and is no longer radical, any power it once had has been bled away by mechanical reproduction.

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A knowledge of the subject of the original Claude painting may provide a different interpretation, it shows Hagar and Ishmael being banished into the desert of Beersheba by Abraham. The original is set in the cool light of morning and is paired by a second painting (a pendant) set in an evening desert landscape when the archangel Michael appears to the sorry couple and leads them to a well, saving them from dying of thirst. In Quinn’s painting centuries have passed, Hagar and Ishmael long gone, the temple derelict and fragments of columns and pediments lying in the foreground, but the cool light of dawn remains. Is this the truth that Quinn wants to represent in his “Theatre of Cruelty”?

©blackdog 2010

Anselm Kiefer

Karfunkelfee 2009
Gold paint, chemise, jesmonite, snake, brambles, concrete, acrylic, oil, emulsion, ash and shellac on canvas in steel and glass frame. 332 x 576 x 35cm
White Cube, London
30 October 2009

This was the first exhibition I had seen of Kiefer’s work in a commercial gallery. The work compromised a series of forest diptychs and triptychs displayed in glass and steel vitrines. The exhibition was titled ‘Karfunkelfee’, after a poem by the post-war Austrian writer Ingeborg Bachmann.

"On the Golden bridge, only he who might know the fairy’s secret word can win. I’m sorry to say, along with our last snow, it melted in the garden.”

Anselm Kiefer Karfunkelfee

Of the four huge works in the exhibition I have chosen the title piece to review. Karfunkelfee roughly translates as Carbuncle Fairy, an ambiguous figure from fairy tales who may be good or evil. As Kiefer explained in an interview with Tim Marlow, the word Karfunkel has two meanings; it is firstly a precious stone but also associated with ergot, a fungus that that grows on wheat and other crops turning them black. Human poisoning due to the consumption of bread made from ergot-infected grain was common in Europe in the Middle-Ages. Interestingly, ergot is known in German as ‘the tooth of the wolf’ and may be connected to the Anglo-Saxon poem Beowolf.

This would certainly be of interest to Kiefer, who since the 1970’s has made art that alluded to Teutonic myths, Wagner, and the Black Forest; an artist celebrating German history whilst acknowledging the guilt of its fatal collision with Jewish history that culminated in the Holocaust. Kiefer was taught by Joseph Beuys in Dusseldorf and both the use of found materials and the sombre palette are obvious influences in his work. Unlike Beuys though, his chosen medium was painting and like Georg Baselitz, he reprised the painterly style of expressionism, alluding to emotion in his work rather than truth.

Kiefer’s process is to start with a normal canvas and apply a 75mm thick pigment layer that cracks on drying and then place these in vitrines to make a threshold distancing the viewer from the painting. The background image is a forest on a hillside covered in snow and the trees are painted with dark slashing strokes. He adds items between the canvas and the glass of the vitrine that relate to the theme of the work, in this case a snake, Moroccan thorns, scattered teeth and an empty hooded smock. The result of these boxed in memories is not unlike a display cabinet in a natural history museum. Although there is an absence of figures, a human element is acknowledged through the inclusion of the floating empty hooded smock in the central vitrine. The perfect metaphor for the ambiguous Karfunkelfee.

The work has a portentous melancholy to it but I cannot help feeling that the symbolism is too overt, too carefully (artfully) arranged and that this reduces the force of the impact. This manipulation of his Expressionist inheritance in order to give an authorial mark of emotion risks the viewer doubting the psychological depth of the work (more message than feeling). [1]

[1]Paraphrased from Rosalind E Krauss in The originality of the avant-garde and other modern myths 1984 MIT Press 194

©blackdog 2010

Vincent van Gogh

Vincent van Gogh
The Sower, 1888
Oil on canvas, 32 x 40 cm
Royal Academy, London
10th March 2010

Unfortunately the recent exhibition of van Gogh’s letters, drawings and paintings proved to be so popular that it was difficult to even stand still in the press of the crowds in the Royal Academy. However, there were a lot of fine paintings on display and it was especially interesting to see them accompanied by his descriptive letters.

I had gone with the intention of reviewing his portrait of the stoic and melancholic looking Madame Ginoux (L’Arlesienne, 1888) but instead I was captivated by a small jewel like version of The Sower painted in the same year. It is a theme he had addressed several times before, originally inspired by the work of Jean-François Millet, a painter who idealised the ‘monumental’ work of French peasants.

The Sower Vincent van Gogh

This version is very much his own though, and shows the influences of Japanese prints on his style. In a letter to his brother Theo from around 21st November of 1888, Van Gogh drew a sketch of the Sower and described the colours he was using “Here’s a croquis of the latest canvas I’m working on, another sower. Immense lemon yellow disc for the sun. Green-yellow sky with pink clouds. The field is violet, the sower and the tree Prussian Blue”[1] . The faceless sower works on the left of a canvas divided by a pollarded willow, a motif that had appeared in a watercolour sketch from 1882. The landscape is schematic and flat, but a strong diagonal leads the eye to the huge yellow ball of the setting sun that almost becomes a halo for the working peasant.

Sower with Setting Sun.jpg

The colour is laid on with short definite brush marks with all the energy of someone working hard against the clock. This energetic expressive brushwork not only adds to the vibrancy of the colour in the painting but also serves to dispense with some elements of ‘reality’ in order to highlight others, particularly the sense of twilight. The lavender touches to the fields provide a strong complimentary contrast to the sun making it jump forwards. But despite the strength of the yellow, there is a darkness to the image, as both the foreground subjects, the sower and the tree, appear as dark silhouettes. It is this combination of denial of detail and unusual colour choices, such as the lime green skies casting a sickly pallor over his homestead on the horizon that perhaps reveal a hidden truth about van Gogh’s version of reality and gives the painting its melancholic feel.

[1] Letter 772 (To Theo van Gogh. Arles, on or about Wednesday, 21 November 1888)

 http://vangoghletters.org/vg/letters/let722/letter.html

©blackdog 2010

Luc Tuymans

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.

luc-tuymans-bendover.jpeg

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

Gerhard Richter

Gerhard Richter

Woman with Umbrella, 1964
Oil on Canvas 160 x 95cm
Hayward Gallery
14 October 2007

From the exhibition of The Painting of Modern Life this is one of the first images you encounter on entering and sets the scene perfectly for this contemporary exploration of Baudelaire’s ideas.

The title (Frau mit Schirm) is deliberately banal and seems to objectify what at first seems a strange painting compositionally. The right hand two thirds of the canvas are occupied with a blurry painting of a woman holding an umbrella in her left hand. She has brought her right hand to her mouth and could be stifling a yawn or stopping herself from crying out. The other third is a vertical stripe of cream down the left hand side, signalling perhaps that this is not so much a painting from a photograph, but a painting of a photograph.

Richter-fraumitschirm.jpg

However, rather than paint the photograph actual size as he has chosen to enlarge the image to life size, letting us stand back to contemplate the subject. The woman’s feet are cropped at the ankle, reinforcing the use of a photographic source. The image is blurred simulating either camera shake or perhaps the poor quality of the printed image of a photograph taken in the rain.

It seems to have an aura of sadness, but perhaps it is only once you know it is painted from a newspaper photograph of the grieving widow, Jacqueline Kennedy, the full weight of melancholy becomes apparent. Interesting that like Warhol, who must be a big influence, he has chosen to paint an image of the young widow taken sometime after the shooting (she wore the pink suit throughout the day despite it being covered in blood), rather than the president as he was killed. This certainly avoids being too controversial, but it also communicates the grief and evokes sympathy, rather than the disbelief and shock of the news footage. It also avoids the iconic look of the Warhol images, which trace the events surrounding the assassination and assumed the stature of history paintings.

Richter’s colour scheme, (which might be his own if the original is B&W – image isn’t in Atlas so I am unable to verify this) is a dark background with pale lemon yellows and greys with a few flecks of pink for the woman’s coat. Whilst this enhances the melancholic feeling of the image, the process is more about trying to remake a photograph rather than invest it with something new. The wet paint has either been dragged left to right across the image with a stiff bristle brush or perhaps a squeegee or repeatedly feathered with a soft brush. The surface is relatively smooth suggesting a fairly oil rich medium and has a certain slickness to it.

jackie kennedy motorcade.jpg

Although the painting has the look of the stills from the film of the presidential motorcade taken earlier in the day, the image is static and the emotion felt is different. Rather than the global loss of the president, we experience the personal grief of the widow. It recalls a moment in history that touched everybody at the time and I think, as a painting, its melancholy aura grows stronger with time as the shock value of using the image lessens.

©blackdog 2009

Henri Matisse

Henri Matisse
The Piano Lesson, 1916
Oil on canvas 245 x 212cm
MoMA, New York
21st November 1999

 

This was my first visit to MoMA and I saw so many ‘great’ paintings for the first time that I find it difficult to even remember them all. However, two paintings made such an impression that I will not forget the experience. One was Les Demoiselles D'Avignon by Picasso and the other was this painting by Magritte.

I remember being really surprised just how thin the paint was, Matisse uses a very loose scumbling of opaque paint over the canvas allowing the scrubby brush marks to be clearly seen. The result is a very lively surface although the hues are unmixed. Instead he gives striking contrasts between these rhythmically arranged flat planes of colour, that suggest an experimentation with the ideas of cubism. The colour scheme is predominantly sombre greys which combined with the sketchy brush work give the painting an ethereal melancholic air.

1916-Henri Matisse-The Piano Lesson

The painting is of Matisse's son having a piano lesson who gazes at the viewer with one eye, the other is obscured with paint. There is a woman, who might be his teacher watching him from behind. There is a balcony on the open window on the left that looks out onto a triangle of grass, and its wrought iron work echoes the music stand on the piano.

1916-Henri Matisse-woman on high stool.jpg

Painted in 1916 at the Matisse home outside of Paris, it is a combination of Matisse’s memory of a time when he was made to study the piano as a young boy and his son Pierre starting to learn 6 years earlier (his elder brother volunteered to fight in the First World War in 1916). The 'piano teacher' is actually a figure in a painting who seems to glare down upon the young pupil. It is a schematic rendition of Matisse's Woman on a High Stool that was hung in the apartment unable to be shipped to his Russian collector Schchukin on account of the war. He also painted one of his bronze sculptures in the lower left-hand foreground. This combination of his own works of art with the image of the memory of his own son playing music make an intensely personal and moving painting.

©blackdog 2009

Dexter Dalwood

Dexter Dalwood
Double Portrait Camden Town, 2013
Oil on Canvas 150 x 220cm
Simon Lee Gallery, London
20 November 2014

I have been looking forward to seeing new work by Dexter Dalwood for some time and my visit to his current show at the Simon Lee Gallery (until 24 January 2015) in London didn’t disappoint.  I was keen to see how his work has changed since his exhibition at the Gagosian Gallery in 2010.  He still uses the collage technique in a similar way, not only using photographic sources, but also fragments or allusions to paintings by other artists.   This collage of ideas generates an image from which he paints an imaginary 'space', but the place in this exhibition is confined to London and the subjects are more strictly personal rather than historical moments of earlier works.

The paintings seem to be about personal memories and associations of past life and times in London.  But as Jorge Luis Borges [1] points out, memories are created in the present and meanings alter slightly with things added and taken away through each recall.  I read the paintings as referencing how this process of retrieval of memory involves thinking about a memory in a new way – rather than just being a faithful record of the past.  They are an assembly of scraps of information that reconstruct Dalwood’s memories morphed through experience rather than images of a static point in time. 

     Double Portrait Camden Town, 2013   Oil on Canvas 150 x 220cm

 

Double Portrait Camden Town, 2013Oil on Canvas 150 x 220cm

Dalwood has often said that you don’t need to get the references to enjoy the work and in a recent interview for Time Out [2] challenged anyone to try.  Whilst that may be the case, I feel that knowing the references helps both understanding and enjoyment of the work and as I like nothing better than a challenge, I thought I would make the attempt for "Double Portrait Camden Town".

Looking at the painting I see two possible references immediately.  The first is that the copper coloured background with the verdigris coloured blobs is a reference to the ‘piss paintings’ of Andy Warhol.  In these works Warhol was paraphrasing Abstract Expressionism in an ironic way by randomly spraying his screen prints with urine such that the copper sulphate paint oxidised.  The painting Dalwood has used is a 1982 portrait of artist Jean-Michel Basquiat who had an obsession with Warhol and later collaborated with him. His use of a double image of the portrait is suggestive of a Rorschach ink blot used by psychologists to determine underlying personality and emotional functioning. 

  Basquiat,  1982 Black photo-silkscreen over oxidized copper

Basquiat, 1982 Black photo-silkscreen over oxidized copper

The second, if I am correct, has a clearer connection to Camden Town.  The chest of drawers at the bottom of the painting reminded me of the cheap yellow-brown dresser in Walter Sickert’s painting Ennui, 1917.  I initially thought that his Camden Town Murder paintings may be the reference but the only similar dresser I could find in this orientation was in Sickert’s Mornington Crescent Nude, Contre-Jour of 1907.  However, the connection may simply be that the location of Ennui is Sickert’s studio in Granby Street, Camden Town.

  Ennui , 1914 Oil on Canvas 152x112cm

Ennui, 1914 Oil on Canvas 152x112cm

In his Time Out interview, Dalwood tells us that the painting is partly “about where Verlaine and Rimbaud lived up in Royal College Street in Camden” [3] so Ennui may well be linked to this intention.  Ennui was a recurring theme running through French literature and poetry of the nineteenth century, both as a subject and a symptom.  It is linked with melancholia; a state of emptiness that the ‘soul’ feels when it is deprived of interest in action, life and the world and featured in Charles Baudelaire’s Les Fleurs du mal (Flowers of Evil), first published in 1857, 16 years before Verlaine and Rimbaud moved to Camden.

  Un Coin de Tabl e, 1872 Oil on Canvas160x225cm

Un Coin de Table, 1872 Oil on Canvas160x225cm

Les Fleurs du mal marked the beginning of Symbolism, where symbolic imagery was used to signify the state of the poet's soul, as a movement in France and was developed by Stéphane Mallarmé and Paul Verlaine during the 1860s and 1870s.  The use of Symbolism in turn leads us to the two vases of flowers on the dresser.  I cannot place the source of the images for the flowers but the reference to their use may be to the painting Un coin de table, 1872 by Henri Fantin-Latour. It is a portrait of the Parnassus poetry group and shows the men are gathered around the far end of a table after a meal. Those present include: Paul Verlaine and Arthur Rimbaud, but two figures are missing: Charles Baudelaire, to whom the painting was initially to have been a tribute, who died in 1867 and Albert Mérat who did not want to be painted in the company of the diabolic poets Verlaine and Rimbaud and was reputedly replaced by a bunch of flowers.

Dalwood says he “wanted to make a painting about the younger protagonist and the elder, the idea that someone is mentoring someone else” and I think that the pairings are evoked perfectly albeit differently.  He also draws parallels with the hedonistic openly provocative lifestyle of the two younger men but the connection of Warhol and Basquiat to Camden is more opaque and is probably personal the portrait of Basquiat coinciding with Dalwood’s time at St. Martin’s School of Art in London.  

So the titles provides the clue and the cool treatment leaves room for the viewer’s imagination and interpretation, but I still maintain that the experience of the work will be much richer for those viewers who can make the associations between the subject and the quotations from painting’s history - I just wish I could spot them all.

©blackdog 2014


[1] “Memory changes things. Every time we remember something, after the first time, we’re not remembering the event, but the first memory of the event. Then the experience of the second memory and so on.”

Jorge Luis Borges

[2] “There's no way any one viewer will get all the references. It's not a checklist.”

Dexter Dalwood

[3]They stayed at 8 Great College Street  (now Royal College Street), where a little plaque commemorates their stay between May and July 1873. 

James Cambell

Peder Balke

Peder Balke
Northern Lights, 1870s
Oil on Panel 20 x 10cm
National Gallery, London
19 January 2015

I was in the National Gallery waiting for my timed slot for the Late Rembrandt exhibition and thought I would kill time having a look at the free exhibition of the work of Norwegian painter, Peder Balke. An artist almost unknown outside of Scandinavia, that I had never heard of, using similar techniques to those I developed as part of my recent PhD thesis! One of those rare pleasant surprises that still happen from time to time.

Peder Balke was born on the Norwegian island of Helgoya and was one of the few artists to venture to the far North of his native land for inspiration. He explored the Arctic Circle and painted the frozen spectacle of the most remote regions of Norway for the rest of his life. His early style that offered him some limited success was represented in the exhibition, but the majority of works were from after 1850 when he had withdrawn from commercial painting to focus on a career in politics.

peder-balke-northern-lights-1870-trivium-art-history.jpg

I have selected one of the latest and smallest works in the show to review. Measuring only 10x20cm, this small irregular shaped painting on a wooden panel epitomises the effectiveness of his technique. Balke sets the scene by applying thin washes to depict the sea and sky divided by simple opaque marks to create a horizon of bleak mountains. Into the night sky he conjures the spectacle of the Northern Lights by vertically scraping away paint revealing the white ground below. The reflection of the lights on the surface of the water and pictorial depth is accomplished by using this technique horizontally. A final flourish is the addition of four boats of various sizes with a few marks and erasures giving perspective to the painting and accentuating the loneliness and isolation of the drama. This tiny painting becomes a metaphor for the despair of the artist’s soul, his career as an artist forgotten and even omitted from his obituary.


Whilst the division of the space into receding horizontal planes owes a debt to the compositions of Caspar David Friedrich; the use of simple motifs, freely painted on a surface unified by a minimal palette and his technique of removal of paint to effect light sets him apart from his generation of Romantic landscape painters. The fact that these landscapes were painted some 40 years after he had visited the far North made this idiosyncratic style both effective and appropriate to capture his memories of the sublime landscape. Contemporary painters such as Luc Tuymans (simplified motifs / palette) and Elizabeth Peyton (bold brushwork / the ground as light) have used similar approaches to signify loss and memory in their work. However, neither of them conveys the boundless isolation with their metaphors as consistently as Balke achieves in his late work. 

An online book of my own works based on The Caravan as a motif is available should you wish to see how I arrived at a similar technique to that used by Balke in his later paintings.  Just proves that no matter how original you think you are, there is nothing new under the (Midnight) Sun!

Peder Balke was at the National Gallery, London, WC2,
until April 12, 2015
(44-020-7747 2885; www.nationalgallery.org.uk)

Wilhelm Sasnal

Wilhelm Sasnal
Girl Smoking (Anka)
Oil on Canvas 45 x 50 cm
Saatchi Gallery, London
7 August 2005

I first saw paintings by Sasnal in the "Urgent Painting" exhibition in Paris in 2000 and this one was my favourite. It was a big influence both on how I wanted to paint and my choice of "Backs" as a subject. Since then I have not even been able to see a reproduction of the painting so this was a special day for me.

I must admit I was a little disappointed and felt it lacked the impact it had first had. This may have had something to do with the hang - in Paris it was part of a group of his paintings and was hung in a very dynamic way - here it was one of a group of three similar works conventionally hung in a small side room.

Able to get much closer here, and deduce how it was painted. Clearly drawn beforehand as the sketch is just visible in parts.

74 Wilhelm-Sasnal-Anka.jpg

Worked back to front, with the figure painted last. Medium thick paint and the brushwork can be seen. Edges are very sharp on the figure and the treatment of the hair is very good. I would say the face was dry before the hair was done. More fuzzy with blending of edges in the background, which gives a good sense of depth. Not frightened of using and showing shorter brushstrokes in difficult area eg between the chin and the shoulder.

Never thought of it at the time, nor made the connection since, but this painting is in effect a miniature Alex Katz. It is also pretty much a one off for Sasnal, most of his work being monochrome and derived from Luc Tuymans' style. Crucially, this brightness of the palette works against the inherent sadness of the image giving us a feeling of anticipation and hope, whereas his usual approach would have changed the mood completely.

2001-Dominika-33x33.jpeg

Another painting in the same group Girl Smoking (Dominika) 2001, Oil on Canvas 33 x 33cm, is much closer to his usual style of painting and the references to Black and White photography are clear. Also the colour scheme seems to reinforce the use of the burning cigarette as a metaphor for transience and slow decay.

© Mike Newton 2018

Adrian Ghenie

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.

2009-adrian-ghenie-dada-is-dead-220x200.jpeg

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.

1920 Dada Fair.jpg

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.
 

2009 dada-is-dead study 52x42.jpeg

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 given 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 Marcel 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.”

©mike newton 2018

Jenny Saville

Jenny Saville
Voice of the Shuttle (Philomela), 2014-15
Oil on Canvas (dimensions unknown)
Royal Academy, London
29 January 2015


In "La Peregrina" at the Royal Academy in London, Jenny Saville RA has curated an exhibition to show the influence of Rubens on 20th and 21st century artists ranging from Picasso to Sarah Lucas.  As part of this personal response she has included a new painting of her own called "The Voice of the Shuttle (Philomela)" based on a myth depicted by Rubens (“The Banquet of Tereus”, 1636-37 Museo Nacional del Prado).

 

The large canvas is dominated by two decapitated heads, named Tereus and Pandion, floating above a tangle of limbs in the foreground of a blasted landscape.  Closer inspection reveals the words “jug jug” amidst the bodies in a spidery charcoal script and a child’s head on the ground to one side.  There are a few sparse abstract painted marks in the centre of the canvas in blue, brown and crimson but the majority of marks are monochrome in either charcoal or paint.  The background of the painting contains some random stains of very dilute paint.

In conversation with Tim Marlow, Director of Artistic Programmes at the RA, Saville explains that the work doesn’t directly quote from the Rubens painting but instead uses the source text from Ovid’s Metamorphoses for her inspiration.  This tells the myth of Philomela, a daughter of Pandion I of Athens who goes to visit her sister, Procne wife of the King Tereus of Thrace.  Tereus accompanies her on the journey but instead of protecting her, rapes her and when she threatens to tell her father he cuts her tongue out.  Imprisoned, Philomela weaves a tapestry that tells her story and sends it to Procne.  Horrified, Procne takes revenge by decapitating their son Itys and serves him to Tereus at a banquet.  When she reveals the head of her son, Tereus takes up an axe to kill the sisters, but the Gods transform them into birds and they take flight.  Procne is transformed into a swallow and Philomela a nightingale, because of course in nature the female nightingale is mute and only the male sings.
 

Without the title it would be difficult to decode the imagery in the painting, because although Saville uses text within the painting to reinforces her theme, e.g. the words Tereus and Pandion, we get no clues from the heads themselves.  They are actually from a photograph of the heads of two notorious brothers, Abel and Auguste Pollet, guillotined in 1909 for crimes including robbery and murder (no mention was made of rape). The words “jug jug” make an additional literary reference, this time to T S Eliot who in turn directly referenced the myth of Philomela in his epic poem “The Waste Land” and evokes of the call of the nightingale. 

The change of Philomel, by the barbarous king
So rudely forced; yet there the nightingale
Filled all the desert with inviolable voice
And still she cried, and still the world pursues,
"Jug Jug" to dirty ears.

Eliot, T(homas) S(tearns). "The Waste Land" (Faber & Faber: London, 1972) lines 99–103

E01220.JPG

The final photographic source is the landscape, taken from a photograph of gaunt bare tree trunks in the devastated Chateau Wood, a portion of one of the battlegrounds in Ypres taken in 1917, which gives structural depth to the painting and provides a contemporary context.

Saville comments on the rarity of images in art to do with rape and how when talking about art “the issue of rape, the abduction of a woman’s body is never discussed”.  She acknowledges the difficulty of depicting rape in a painting and in this work uses a variety of sources to support her theme.  Perhaps best known for painting monumental close-ups of large nude women, Saville dispenses with any Rubenesque fleshy paint to savour, keeping the mood of the painting as grim as its subject.  The style adopted is a continuation of her relatively recent experimentation with pentimenti. These altered marks found in a traditional painting usually suggest that a correction of a pose was made in the under-drawing for the work.  Here they are clearly visible on the canvas and work in a totally different way depicting elapsed time as the artist strives to resolve the image and evoking the violent struggle in the tangled bodies on her canvas.  Although the face of the male perpetrator is hidden in melée of body parts, Saville has included as historical avatars the Pollet brothers, executed for their guilt 100 years earlier. This ensures the rape is not seen as a sexual impulse that has got out of control but as an aggressive and violent manifestation of sexuality. The introduction of the battlefield reminds us that rape was seen as an unpleasant but inevitable by-product of war that only recently was deemed a severe a breach of conventions.

©Mike Newton 2018

La Peregrina was showing as part of the exhibition Rubens and his Legacy at the Royal Academy, London, WC2, until April 10, 2015.


(44-020-730- 8000; www.royalacademy.org.uk)