August Strindberg

Purple Loosestrife, 1892
Oil on Canvas
Tate Modern, London 2005

I was surprised how much I enjoyed this exhibition, I found it both charming and melancholic and was interested to read that he was a Gemini and prone to mood swings. Strindberg was clearly influenced by Northern Romantic [1] landscapes, but had his own expressionist way of painting that relied more on the palette knife than the brush. There were many of Strindberg's dark brooding seascapes that shared a single man-made object at the mercy of the elements: a buoy in the midst of a stormy sea, or a startlingly white navigational mark against a tempestuous sky. Several paintings of lighthouses conveyed a similar mood reflecting his inner turmoil, but most interesting were his astonishing delicately painted pictures of wild flowers set against a very loosely knifed / brushed landscape. If these earlier solitary flowers are also to be read as symbolic self-portraits he chose very unappealing plants, thistles, toadstools, and "weeds".

Purple Loosestrife August Strindberg

Purple Loosestrife is typical of the genre, with the painting divided by a pronounced horizon and the plant a small element isolated in the landscape. The mark making is vigorous but the mood is serene and melancholic, he uses a buttery yellow thickly applied with a palette knife for the foreground gradually merging with a blue/white shoreline and then above the horizon line similar blues and whites for the sky but painted in a different style. He was clearly an acute observer of nature and the plant named in the title is painted with accurate botanical detail, causing it to stand out sharply against the loosely painted landscape.

These small flowers in the vast landscape reminded me of the paintings of Caspar David Friedrich that also use the shoreline as a metaphor for the daunting vastness of the world. Whilst it isn’t as dark as Friedrich’s Der Mönch am Meer, for example, it shares some of that painting’s depiction of the sublime; a boundless, silent, solitude. These qualities were typical of all these paintings of solitary flowers that were painted on the shore south of Stockholm and even more pronounced in some e.g. in Lonely Poisoned Mushroom (also 1892) there is no clear division between the land, sea and sky. I found myself reacting to the emptiness in these calm paintings much more than the violent seascapes, as at least in those there was the storm to provide a narrative!

[1]Strindberg wanted Bocklin's painting “The Island of the Dead”, to serve as the final image of his 1907 play The Ghost Sonata

©blackdog 2019

Michael Raedecker

Tipping Point, 2007
Acrylic and Thread on Canvas, 198 x 336 cm (3 Parts)
Hauser and Wirth, London 2007

I always find the wood panelled rooms of this old bank building a strange space to exhibit large contemporary paintings. This show of a mixture of Michael Raedecker’s work was no exception. The subject matter covered the familiar modernist houses, flowers and ruins. The stand out piece for me though was the line of washing drying in the garden. An idea I had had for a painting, but beaten to once again.

I first saw his work in 2000 when he was nominated for the Turner Prize for his fresh approach to painting and his use of unusual materials, the same year as Glenn Brown. He combines thread and paint on the surface, using the stitching to give forms an outline and helps delineate the subject matter. Raedecker takes his images from such disparate sources as Dutch still life painting, photographs of modernist architecture, B-movie scenes and antiquated gardening catalogues creating images that look like film noir sets waiting for actors to come out of the shadows .

69 michael raedecker.jpg

Tipping Point is a very large three panel painting that is so sparsely covered with shades of near white that it is hard to make out the banal subject of washing hung on a line. Without the embroidered description this austere image would be taken for an indulgent modernist abstraction. Yet by defining the subject matter on such a bleak surface, it raises disturbing narrative possibilities that nag at our consciousness. The shirts and sheets are blowing in the breeze but this isn’t a washing powder advertisement, this is our dirty washing hung out to dry. It is very difficult to convey in the photograph, but the subtle changes in tone create strange halos of light which radiate from the image making the washing looks like it is dirty. It is this effect that gives the painting its latent power; we note the absence of any human figures, but conditioned by contemporary film and television drama we know something bad is going to happen. The tipping point has been reached.

©blackdog 2009

Walter Sickert

Ennui, 1914
Oil on Canvas, 152 x 112 cm
Tate Britain, London 2008

The exhibition was of work by the Camden Town Group of painters, who “inspired by the work of van Gogh and Gauguin on the continent, introduced Post-Impressionism to Britain”. This may be the case but in my opinion the biggest influence on Sickert is Degas, using many of his themes such as the music hall and the domestic environment to justify a model’s nudity.

It is interesting that he made full use of titles to add drama to the paintings suggesting a narrative for the work that certainly engaged with life. Ennui is a good example of both his use of titles and domestic interiors as a setting for psychological tension. I have seen this painting several times now and still think it is one of his finest.

1914 Ennui 152x112.jpg

The canvas is one of his largest and is based on sketches of two models, Hubby and Marie, that he used for a number of his domestic interior scenes. The painting depicts the couple overlapped in a tight corner of a sitting room, their gazes are diametrically opposed. He looks out of the canvas to the right whereas she looks into the corner of the room on the left. Above her head a painting of a carefree woman ‘looks’ over a balcony into the room. They are both absorbed in themselves.

It can be no accident that there is a bell jar full of stuffed brightly coloured birds on the chest of drawers. The inference is that the woman is both bored and trapped and the title of the painting makes sure we don’t miss the point. It is a mood that has strong melancholic associations and one can imagine the despondent Marie as the protagonist in Alberto Moravia’s 1960’s novel La Noia who states in the prologue that “nothing that I did pleased me or seemed worth doing; furthermore, I was unable to imagine that anything could please me, or that could occupy me in a lasting manner”. This isn’t the melancholy beauty of the symbolists but a mourning of the loss of purpose (or perhaps freedom in this case) such that the melancholic person thus retreats into a state of inactivity, superbly shown by Marie staring into the corner with vacant mindlessness.

In front of her sits Hubby, leaning back in his chair smoking a cigar at a table with a glass of water, staring into what Virginia Woolf described as “the intolerable wastes of desolation in front of him” . His body language is of one set in his ways and the viewer perceives that the accumulated weariness is such that the situation isn’t going to change.

The tight interior space and the arbitrary crop of the fireplace and yellow chest of drawers give an almost claustrophobic atmosphere to the room and remind me of a photographic snapshot. The painting is built up of several layers of thinly scumbled opaque paint giving a very lively surface but I don’t think it contributed to the atmosphere of melancholia as it does in his earlier sequence of pictures with the collective title ‘The Camden Town Murder’ where the brushwork is much coarser and totally in keeping with the subject matter.


[1]Woolf, Virginia quoted inWalter Sickert: the Human Canvas 2004 Abbot Hall Gallery Kendal 62

©blackdog 2010

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.

2002-Gelijkenis-1-Dumas.jpg
2002-Gelijkenis-2-dumas.jpg

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.

fuseli_nightmare.jpeg

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.

1a.jpg

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

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.

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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)

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

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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)