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

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.

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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

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.

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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

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)

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.

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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.

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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