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

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

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

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