- Written by Maira Herrero
- Category: Art
Author: Maira Herrero,
Paris is paying tribute to Élisabeth Louise Vigée Le Brun (1755-1842), one of the most distinguished artists of the 18th and 19th centuries, by according her a magnificent retrospective at the Grand Palais until 11th January 2016. Over 160 oil paintings, pastels, sketches and drawings are on display to illustrate the life’s work of this remarkably gifted painter who dazzled Europe’s finest with her mastery.
Élisabeth Louise Vigée Le Brun is arguably one of the few women artists given the attention and recognition they deserve, a rarity as "women's art" has traditionally been paid scant regard. Her reputation could even be said to have reached legendary status in art history, the praise during her lifetime and the wealth of critical acclaim ever since never having diminished over the years. Her tumultuous existence make her an especially appealing personality. High society chic during the Ancien Regime, counting down the hours before the French Revolution, the toast of the most exclusive European royal courts of her time and, when she returned to Paris after a long exile, the Napoleonic Empire at her feet. Always conscious of her own talent, she managed to assert herself in a man’s world and deploy the full arsenal of weapons at her disposal to forge herself a niche in an art world dominated by men. With consummate subtlety, she used her own attractive likeness as propaganda for her skill as a portrait artist, with many of her self-portraits revealing the genius, beauty and vitality of this woman determined to reach the top.
Élisabeth Louise Vigée, born in 1755 into an artistic Parisian family, where her father Louis Vigee, a renowned portrait and pastel painter, introduced his daughter very early to the profession. At fifteen, she began her career as a portraitist and in 1774 enrolled at the Saint Luc Academy where her first works were exhibited. Her marriage to the art dealer Jean-Baptiste Pierre Le Brun opened new doors and paths to recognition for her. She studied the Old Masters and steeped herself in all styles of art for inspiration. In 1778 she painted the first in a long series of portraits of Marie Antoinette, to which she owed her initial fame, and it was this close relationship with the Queen that helped secure her a fully-fledged membership of the Royal Academy of Painting and Sculpture in 1783. Her first portraits exhibition at the Academy was not received unreservedly but she soon won over her critics and the public. In 1785, her large canvas, "Marie Antoinette With Her Children" caused such envy amongst her detractors they instigated a campaign of criticism and libel against her. Although she defended herself ably, her character had been so effectively undermined as to force her to abandon her natal Paris at the onset of the Revolution and begin a long pilgrimage across Europe.
Her first years in exile were spent all over Italy. Turin, Parma, Florence, Venice, Rome and Naples, to name just a few, were the cities where she lived distanced from her world, a world that would never be the same again. Her fame preceded her and, with that, Italian aristocratic and artistic circles opened their doors and welcomed in the renowned French portrait artist. There being no sign of a possible return to Paris, her exile would continue on for many more years. In 1792, she relocated to Vienna, to work for exiled French aristocrats and for the Austrian and Polish nobilities. In 1795, she travelled to Russia and settled in Saint Petersburg. The court of Queen Catherine II received her enthusiastically and for the next six years she would work there tirelessly and bring about a new understanding of the art of portraiture. Her work received official recognition from the Saint Petersburg Academy of Fines Arts and she was again rewarded with the support of both fellow artists and the public alike. During these upwards of 12 international years, her fame and fortune grew substantially, allowing her a freedom rarely afforded a woman of that era. On the 18th of January 1802 she returned, finally and definitively, to Paris where she would remain for the rest of her life, bar a few trips to England and Switzerland. Her work rate was prolific as she battled and managed to maintain her fame and prestige within Europe’s most exclusive artistic circles. Her salons were where the most illustrious of the day would meet: painters, writers, and philosophers. The passage of time did not diminish her artistic fervour or curiosity as she devoted most of her time to nuancing the art of landscape painting, then made very fashionable by the arrival of Romanticism. A few years before her death, she wrote her Memoirs: three volumes recording the experiences of a life lived to the full, without compromise or complaint. Élisabeth Louise Vigée Le Brun died in Paris in 1842 at the age of 86.
Vigée Le Brun's compositions are refined, full of beauty, brimming with life, replete with expressivity and colour innovation that leave no doubt as to the sophistication of her technique. Her portraits are the reflection of a whole era and an unbounded source of research into the ideal woman she herself embodies. Rather than breaking from the stereotypes of the time, her subjects go beyond purely pictorial representation. The poses and gestures of each of her models highlight the importance of her paintings in the study of an entire era. Nothing is depicted by chance. Every scene conceals a multitude of details with a life of their own quite apart from the overt composition. Her work served as a reference point for other painters as she tweaked and customized her themes with the changing times. Examples of this include her allegorical and mythological paintings in the neoclassical style; her Rousseau-influenced paintings of maternal and filial love; and a comprehensive gallery of beautiful and sensual women, each perfectly adapted to her time and place.
One cannot talk of Vigée Le Brun without referencing another great Parisian artist, Adélaïde Labille-Guiard (1749-1813), who shared her passion for "the easel" and her struggle for recognition in a male-dominated artworld. Both started on the same day at the French Royal Academy of Painting and Sculpture and, due to the similarity of their styles, were constantly compared with each other but, although Labille-Guiard never achieved the international fame her contemporary enjoyed, she did still forge a niche for herself and earn well-deserved recognition for her historical and portrait paintings, along with much success as a teacher. After working at the court of Louis XVI, she reinvented her paintbrushes, adapting them to the new revolucionary times and continued to paint for the rest of her life.
Vigée Le Brun's and Labille-Guiard’s works made a massive contribution to the promotion of Fine Art studies amongst later generations of women artists and demonstrated that the fact of being female was no barrier to expressing one's talent and creativity in a male-dominated world. Both women had presence and visibility in both private and public spheres, brilliant women whose forthright personalities, in a universe dictated by men, revealed a hitherto inconceivable and unheard of reality.
The Vigée Lebrun exhibition is the perfect opportunity to reflect on women in art and to examine the liaison between reality and painting as a mirror reflexion of our world. Her persona represents those same ideals that, many years later, Virginia Woolf would broach in A Room Of My Own, namely: personal and intellectual liberty coupled with an economic independence that could break the bonds of established convention.
- Written by Elena Cué
- Category: Guests with Art
The galleries of the Thyssen-Bornemisza Museum have recently opened an exhibition by artist Edvard Munch (1863-1944), successfully curated by Paloma Alarcó, that enables us to “listen to the dead with our eyes”. Paintings and writings come together in the museum’s galleries, divided into emotional Archetypes to communicate this artist’s obsessions from throughout his intense life.
People think that you can have a few friends, forgetting that the best, most authentic and above all, most numerous, are the dead. I intend to engage in a series of conversations with the afterlife. As the tormented spirit of the Norwegian artist has circumstantially settled in Madrid, I enthusiastically headed there to learn more.
Let’s start with your childhood.
I always felt like I was treated unfairly during my childhood. I inherited two of the worst enemies of mankind: tuberculosis and mental illness. Disease, insanity and death were black angels beside my crib. A mother who died early, planting me with the seed of tuberculosis. A hyper-nervous, pietistic father, religious to the point of being crazy, from an ancient lineage, planting me with the seeds of insanity.
When you think about those years, how did you feel?
The angels of fear, pain and death were beside me right from birth, going out to play with me, following me under the spring sun, in the splendor of summer. They were with me at night when I closed my eyes, threatening me with death, hell and eternal punishment. And I often woke at night and looked around the room with panicked eyes thinking “Am I in hell?”.
The fear of death tormented me, and this fear harassed me through all of my youth.
Heaven and hell, how do you envisage eternity?
Flowers will emerge from my rotting body, and I will be part of them. That is eternity.
And where is God?
With fanatic faith in any religion, such as Christianity, came atheism, came fanatic faith in the existence of no God. And with this non-faith in God there was content, becoming a faith itself in the end. It is generally foolish to assert anything about what comes after death.
But what is it that gives strength to the Christian faith. There are many who have difficulty in believing it. Although one cannot believe that God is a man with a big beard, that Christ is the Son of God who became a man, or in the Holy Spirit formed by a dove, there is much truth in this idea. A God as the power that must be at the origin of all, a God that governs everything. We can say that he directs the light waves, the movement of the tides, the center of energy itself. The Son, the part of this energy that is in man, the immense energy that filled Christ. Divine energy, genius energy and the Holy Spirit. The most sublime thoughts sent by the sources of divine energy to the human radio stations. In the very depths of beings. That which is provided to every human being.
But what do you think death is?
Dying is as if the eyes have been switched off and cannot see anything else. Perhaps it’s like being locked in a basement. You are abandoned by all, they closed the door and left. You see nothing and only notice the humid smell of putrefaction.
And what about life?
I have been given a unique role to play on this earth that has given me a life of illness and also my profession as an artist. It is a life that does not contain anything resembling happiness, or even the desire for happiness.
Not even love?
Human destinies are like planets. Like a star that appears in the dark and meets another star, glistening in a moment, to then return, fading into obscurity. So as well, a man and a woman meet, they slide towards each other, shining in love, blazing, and then disappear, each one for himself. Only a few end up in a great blaze in which both can fully join.
The ancient were right when they said that love was a flame, as the flame leaves behind only a pile of ashes. Love can turn to hate, compassion to cruelty.
Jealously is closely linked with love, how would you describe it?
Jealous people have a mysterious look, many reflections focus in those two sharp eyes, like in a crystal. The look is exploratory, interested, full of love and hate, an essence of what we all have in common.
Jealousy says to its rival: go away, defective; you’re going to heat up in the fire that I have lit; you’ll breathe my breath in your mouth; you’ll soak up my blood and you will be my servant because my spirit will govern you through this woman who has become your heart.
Now let’s talk about art… where does it come from?
Art generally comes from the need of one human being to communicate with another. I do not believe that art has not been inflicted by the need for a person to open his heart. All art, literature as well as music, has to be generated with the deepest feelings. The deepest feelings are art.
What is the purpose of your art?
I have tried to explain life and the meaning of life through my art. I have also tried to help others clarify life. Art is the heart of blood.
We must no longer paint people reading or women knitting. In the future we must paint people who breathe, feel, suffer or love. As Leonardo da Vinci dissected corpses and studied the internal organs of the human body, I try to dissect the soul.
My art is based on one single thought: why am I not like the others?
How do you think the audience should approach art?
The audience must become aware that the painting is sacred, so that it unfolds before them like in church.
One of your iconic paintings is The Scream, could you explain the origin of such a radical emotional expression?
I was walking along the road with two friends, the sun was setting. Suddenly the sky turned a bloody red. I stood, leaned on the fence feeling deathly tired. Over the blue-black fjord and city hung blood and tongues of fire. My friends walked on and I remained behind, shivering with anxiety. And I felt the immense infinite Scream in Nature.
Your love of photography is known, what do you think of photography as another mode of artistic expression?
The camera cannot compete with the brush and palette as long as it cannot be used in heaven and hell.
Where is the beauty in your art?
The emphasis on harmony and beauty in art is a waiver to be honest. It would be false to only look on the bright side of life.
Your writing has a strong aphoristic style. We’ll finish there…
Thought kills emotion and reinforces sensitivity. Wine kills sensitivity and reinforces emotion.
- Written by Elena Cué
- Category: Guests with Art
Martín Chirino (Las Palmas, 1925) grew up on the beach of Las Canteras, feeling the sand, the sea and the breeze whilst watching a horizon that he dreamed of moving. The earthiness, ancestry and mythology of his birth place purify the forger’s soul through fire to take a new form in material, in this case iron, arisen from the deepest interior of this wind sculptor. This particular place has rooted him to primeval and his dreams and desires have lead him to that which is universal. The spiral, the symbol of origin and formation of the universe, defines this artist in constant search of the truth.
“Look at this sculpture, I’m going to make it a tribute to Picasso. Look at the beauty that’s going to remain underneath, the beauty of the shadows. It’s easy to draw or paint shadows, but the challenge for a sculptor is to materialize them, to give them body weight.”
Why don’t you tell me about the shadows of your life?
I believe that we all have an inner character that gives us answers and questions us, a character that you converse with. I am a calm person because I look for the answers within and my surroundings have little impact on me. I realized at a very young age upon reading Demian by Herman Hesse, which struck me in both senses, that the protagonist was always talking to himself and was able to bring out a truth drawn from reality...
And when did you discover your other side?
I am number 12 of my family. I was a kid living in a very big house, on the beach of Las Canteras and from a young age I was in search of my own space, my refuge, in a lost bedroom, so things happened in there. And I think that that’s where my other personality was shaped. I used to sit with my legs either side of one of the doors in the room where we kept the sheets and I always used to hide there.
And with so many siblings, how was your relationship with your mother?
Very good because my mother was an only child, she married my father and started having children. She used to read Balzac and she loved his work because he describes very interesting things and things that reflected life itself. She had no literary judgment but a passion for reading everything. And she read it to the people who she worked in the house with. My mother was a very special person and I always got along with her really well. She was very calm, very soft, but she also had inner strength.
And what do you long for?
I think I’m missing a place where I can belong and just be. My whole life and artistic career has been conditioned by this search.
Throughout your life, what discourse do you think your work has had?
My inspiration has never been divinity, my inspiration is life itself. I’m talking about a spiral that is identity, because it is the spiral of my land and it makes me feel Canary. One day I asked myself why and, in the end, I realized that my fable ability is the same as anyone’s else but what I’ve really done is look and look in a comprehensive manner. I began to study the whole course of the spiral, not only in my town but in others, and how soon you realize that you haven’t discovered everything that you were searching for in any of them. The most that can be said is that the spiral is a cultural symbol, although no one knows why it is present in the whole of the universe.
From the Canaries you settled in Madrid, where you lived for several years, and then left for New York…
From Madrid I ended up leaving for New York, but before that, there was a final touch there: the poet John Ashbery, who had come to Franco’s Spain together with Frank Ohára. I was the translator for both of them because there were not many people who spoke English in Spain at the time. They came for a few days and had to mount an exhibition at the MoMa and as I translated for them, Juana Mordo was always getting angry with me because she thought I hadn’t said what she wanted.
You were an avid reader, what writers have really influenced you?
Many writers, but Joyce was a passion of mine, I also read it in English. I even went to Ireland, to Dublin, after reading Dubliners, to see if I could learn something from that. I didn’t find anything. I asked myself, where were the Dubliners from Dubliners? But in the most exquisite sense, I didn’t get to meet Joyce’s Dubliners. It was too late, it was not the right time in history.
You said he was the cause of your insanity...
Until I gained a little understanding of Finnegans Wake, an impossible work that I then managed to translate into my vision of a Latino man. That’s why it’s very beautiful in Ulysses, when Joyce puts himself in such a strange position, as if he was God. It was set out to achieve a whole, complete thought, it was very difficult, and he didn’t achieve it… no one achieved it.
But we try…
Perhaps our unhappiness lies here.
And apart from Joyce, what writers have affected you?
Ortega y Gasset: he taught me to find a way of expression. It was extraordinary for me and I don’t think that anyone has handled Castilian better, in such a coherent, perfect way as Ortega y Gasset. I had a passion for it, I even carried El Espectador with me as if it were a comic. Then there’s poets, like Antonio Machado, whose thoughts and metaphors I constantly follow.
And do you write?
I’ve never wanted to be a writer because it scares me, because the written word has problems, because you express thought. Rigor will not let me. I write for myself, things about me, what I know, what I feel, what I think. It’s as if I had written myself.
And what about that phrase of yours, that you don’t make a sculpture but you write a sculpture?
I mean that at the time of making them I have to develop a coherent discourse so that it’s understood, it’s as if it’s written. I write about the circumstances on pieces of paper, a beautiful phrase, what I make of it. I interrelate it all to see what’s going on, it’s a way of understanding it.
Are your values unstable as a result of living in such turbulent times as you have?
You are not born with values, but you acquire or improve them over time, enriching yourself. Obviously I, like everyone else, have had great trouble for blindly believing something that was not proven. What the church says is somehow passable, conversable, and everything that is conversable is subject to the possibility of this change. But you have to be aware and then step forward and put yourself in another situation. My mother taught me the most basic values, she taught me to be religious and I do not want to fail her so I’d rather believe than not believe, it is a choice, I do it out of respect for my mother. Because if I want to reverence things, I want to respect…
But do you really feel the faith? Or have you managed to keep it up based on desire…
No, because I think that thought is not only subject to passion, but also the brain. I mean, I said the word “reverence”, reverence is something self-imposed. But no, I have the chance to demand things of myself, like anyone else.
So we’re not talking about faith, but a rational insistence and desire…
Using my brain to keep faith in some values, out of love for my mother.
To keep it, you must practice it… do you consciously practice it?
Of course, I have great respect for others and my mother is the person who I respect most in the world because she taught me things that created great happiness when I was little. And when I grew up she continued being my friend, someone who loved me, and she said to me: you have to really respect others so that they respect you.
Apart from your mother, what other people have affected you most during your life?
One is more frivolous and the other may be more fictitious because he belongs more to the world of art. One is Donatello, someone who impresses me, who has always drove me crazy and his work leaves me shocked when I see it. The other is Greta Garbo, a symbol for me, a cold, untouchable image, I liked her so much…
And what has remained true after so long?
I think the only thing that has really mattered throughout my life is being a liberal, and therefore being liberal and understanding even what destroys me. It’s good, it’s better.
- Written by Ángeles Blanco
- Category: Artists
Author: Ángeles Blanco.
Blessed with boundless energy and eager to experiment continually, the multifaceted Miguel Barceló has been surprising us with his work for over forty years. Constantly on the move, nomad-like, he makes wherever he lays his hat his studio and the new surroundings his latest inspiration. This light, that dust, the ocean, sea caves and multidisciplinary artistic influences are what constitute the trace elements of his trajectory.
Majorca, his birthplace, was where he experimented with art for the first time, perhaps influenced by his mother who painted for a time, or perhaps because he had it coursing through his veins. What is certain is that it was here that he learnt to love the grottos and the sea and formed a friendship with Joan Miró whose heavy influence can be seen in the markedly Expressionist animal themes of his early work. In those early days of the 70's, on a visit to Paris he discovered artists such as Paul Klee and Dubuffet and found himself influenced by Art Brut that gave him the impetus to explore uncharted territory himself. Among others, Mark Rothko, Jackson Pollock, Willem De Kooning and Lucio Fontana were all artists who gave him momentum whilst Velázquez, Tintoretto and Rembrandt were his link to tradition. Baroque painting, American Abstract Expressionism, Arte Povera, Action painting and Conceptual Art have all influenced the imagination of this Neo-impressionist who, self-taught by means of voraciously reading everything he could lay his hands on, ended up forging his very own artistic path.
An incessant experimenter, taking full advantage of the Nature and organic elements around him, some of his work is on its own journey and evolves with the passage of time. He puts his paintings outdoors at the mercy of the elements, deliberately allowing them to rust or crack, using organic material whose deterioration is very much part of his artistic meaning. As in his 1986 exhibition Cadaverina 15 in Majorca, where he displayed 225 boxes containing organic and inorganic products that proceeded to decompose over time. He has also used the "dripping" technique on canvasses subsequently painted over with white. In the 80's his style moved more towards the figurative where zoological themes proliferated. Whereas with paper and card collage techniques, he created a series of self-portraits, depicting himself painting in his studio, and one of still-lifes while in Paris.
In his Nature-inspired work, the Mediterranean and Africa are his most important reference points. During his time in Mali, contact with the natives and their desert life, have impacted on his themes as much as his methodology. Concerns about the natural world, the passing of time, roots, scenes of daily life and African landscapes, small format, more detailed drawing, thick and dark pasting on of paint to give a relief effect and achieved using the mud and pigments he has to hand locally.
The sea is another of Barceló's recurring themes, The Mediterranean and Majorca having inspired many of his paintings: blue and white seascapes like waves lapping or the azure sea beds he sees for himself while diving deep down. Along with the desertscapes, they are scenes of Nature's infinity and of heightened symbolism.
Barceló, defined by Enrique Vila-Matas as having «amazing energy, a strong attachment to his 'home', happily mad», formed part of the scientific committee that carried out the reproduction of Chauvet Cave art, whereby all 400 animal paintings found in the original cave in the heart of Ardèche were replicated. He admits he accepted this challenge so as to continue visiting the place. «Discovering that cave was a major shock. It made me understand the history of art differently. Chauvet is art that we are incapable of understanding».
In 1986 began his foray into architectural art with the painting of the dome of the lobby at the Flower Market Theatre in Barcelona. Here we saw the first appearance of glazing and the superimposing and abundance of materials giving a final impression of transparency.
One of Barceló's projects of the most searing magnitude, which he himself described as «physically very intense», was his decoration for the St Pere Chapel of Palma de Majorca cathedral which, after two phases of work on it, was finally finished in 2007. Here the liturgical narrative was represented in stone, stained glass, various pieces of furniture and a 300 square metre ceramic mural showing Christ, but no cross, surrounded by vegetation and maritime motifs, bread and fishes to illustrate the Feeding Of The Five Thousand, shore fauna, urns and Roman ruins referencing the classical world. Barceló has no interest in sacred art but yes in the spirituality of the places he works.
The dome of Room XX or the Human Rights and Alliance of Civilisations Room used by the United Nations Human Rights Council, in the Palace of Nations (Geneva) was one of his most controversial and at the same time, internationally renowned sculptural installations. It is an immense 1400 square metre dome from which fall 35 tonnes of paint drops shaped like stalactites and coloured with pigments sourced worldwide. The result is evocative of a cave and the sea, with waves seemingly crashing thanks to stippling, which is why he is considered the inventor of Xtreme Gotelé or "extreme stucco". In allusion to this technique he says, «I wanted to defy gravity and take painting against it to the extreme». Explaining what inspired it, Barceló said at the time, «On a day of immense heat in the middle of the Sahel desert, I distinctly recall a mirage of an image of the world dripping towards the sky. Trees, dunes, donkeys, multi-coloured beings all flowing drop by drop» This idea occurred to him in the planning stages of the work, as his imagination ran riot, but he also enlisted the expertise of a team of architects and engineers to develop the super-strength aluminium for the dome. Barceló explains: «The cave is a metaphor for a gathering place, the first meeting place of human beings, the shady African tree to sit under and talk of the only future possible for us: dialogue and human rights» Ban Ki-Moon thanked the artist for putting unique talents to work in service of the world: «What he has created for this hall is innovative and radiant. I have no doubt whatsoever that people will come here to view it, whether they have business here or not» And the media christened it The Sistine Chapel of the XXI century. The controversy surrounding this immense work of art was due to opposition party claims in Spain that the source of its funding may have been redirected by the Spanish government away from the overseas aid budget set aside to alleviate poverty in developing countries.
Barceló was awarded an honorary doctorate by the University of The Balearic Isles in 2007. His versatility and his ability to master multiple artistic disciplines mean that sometimes all the boundaries merge, as in some of his 90's pieces, many of which had a studio look and feel to them, a good example of this being the huge "Sculpture Workshop", a perfect blend of painting and sculpture. Or some of the portraits of people close to him, paintings with a certain sculptural air and no attempt at likeness, only what the medium or the wrinkles on the paper suggest to him at any given time. Regarding the way he works, he said this about a painting from 1983: «The technique dictated the form … something that often happens. First I do something with the paint and if I think it looks somewhat like the outlines of a fish then I paint the fish». This led him to immerse himself in the world of sculpture, a logical evolution in his work if one considers the contours and reliefs that feature so heavily in his paintings. They ended up freeing themselves from the canvas and becoming sculptural. They are moulded, bronze-like creations, nothing like the workings or motifs of his paintings.
He has illustrated other authors' books and is the foremost writer of his own catalogue prologues and books of drawings in which he reflects on art and the creative processes involved in his work. He has published books on art and photography ("The Underwater Cathedral"); he has illustrated publications such as "The Book Of The Ocean", a lengthy poem by Enric Juncosa, or "Too far from home", with watercolours to accompany a Paul Bowles text; a book for the blind, "Dismantled Tents ... or the unknown world of perceptions" with a braille text by Evgen Bavcar and complete with his lithographs and embossed decoration; and more than 300 watercolour illustrations for the three volumes of Dante's Divine Comedy that were subsequently showcased in an exhibition at the Louvre in Paris.
His ceramic work began in the mid 90's in Mali with modest materials and an austere technique which resulted in unique, expressive pieces of great artistic merit. And in his eagerness to experiment in all fields, he also did set designs for opera: Manuel de Falla's "Master Peter's Puppet Show" for the National Comic-Opera theatre in Paris for which he created sets, costumes and marionettes of huge dimensions; or those for Mozart's "Abduction From The Seraglio" in 2003 for the Aix-en-Provence Festival.
Without a shadow of a doubt, who we are dealing with here is Spain's most celebrated and sought-after artist whose international recognition is wholly justified by the eclecticism and "theatricality" of his much-exhibited work: enormous canvas murals, book illustrations, ceramics, sculptures, opera staging, CD covers ("Potro de rabia y miel" by Camarón de la Isla), posters (Festival Sul Novecento, Palermo 1998), entrance tickets (Arco 2005), programmes (Tour D'Espagne 1989); and on every one of his facets, he imprints the personality, energy and aggression that are his hallmarks, along with his interest in Mother Nature, both her spaces, places and the life contained within them, all set vividly against an African or Mediterranean backdrop. His work is personal, original and complex and, although similarities with other artists might be found there, his work is still impossible to categorise within any one artistic movement.
(Translated from the Spanish by Shauna Devlin)
- Written by Clelia
- Category: Artists
Marlene Dumas, born in the Cape Town suburb of Kuilsrivier in 1953 and a native Afrikaans speaker, she graduated Cape Town University in 1975 with a degree in Visual Arts.
Awarded a two-year bursary, she then moved to Holland where she made art her living and primary form of self-expression. From 1976 to 1978, she taught at Ateliers '63, Haarlem and other Dutch institutions. She devoted herself and her time to painting people or places from her own vast collection of photographs or those in newspapers and magazines. Her works were small format, realistic portraiture of an intimacy that divested its subjects of their public persona, instead cloaking them in a criticism of their identity or politics.
Her pieces are figurative trompe l’oeils that provoke a sense of unease. Their language of movement is manifest in each figure. She draws the faces of adults and children, both alive and dead, with insistency and ambiguity. For Dumas, graphology is a subjective interpretation, her doodling somewhat unintelligible, but always carefully chosen and pronounced, each colour making perfect sense, as shown in 1988’s “Waiting”.
The work she produced over a 30 year trajectory was exhibited in a retrospective: "Intimate Relations” between 2007 and 2009. Her initial success was in Japan and next, for the first time ever, in her native South Africa, leading to exhibitions in art galleries and museums in New York, Los Angeles and Houston.
In 1998, Dumas was awarded the Sandberg prize, along with other distinctions such as the Coutts Contemporary Art and the Prince Bernhard prizes. In 2010, the Rhodes University in Grahamstown, South Africa awarded her an honorary doctorate in Humanities and in 2011 she received the Rolf Choque prize. Her creations are part of the collections of international museums and institutions such as the Centre Pompidou in Paris and the Tate Gallery in London, some of which have them on permanent display.
She started exhibiting in 1978 at the Stedelijk Museum, Amsterdam, and continued in Basil with Documenta 7 in 1982. Her first solo exhibition was in 1983 and one year later at the Central Museum of Utrecht. She presented her series of collages, creations and self-penned text entitled "Ons Tierra Licht Lager dan de Zee” but it was only in 1985 that she exhibited her paintings series: “The eyes of the creatures of the night”. Dumas talks of her pieces in “Sweet Nothings” with unexpected names, texts and commentary.
She participated in the European Art collective exhibition at the Tate in London during 1987. Her work received recognition in Europe and America in 1989 with “The Pink Human’s Question” after which came Documenta 9 in 1992.
Along with contemporaries such as Gerhard Richter, she was part of “Der Spiegel zerbrochene” in 1993, and also exhibited in London at the well-known Frith Street Gallery with Thomas Schütte and Juan Muñoz. She represented Holland at the Venice Biennial of 1995 along with two other women, María Roossen and Marijke van Warmerdam. She participated in prestigious collective picture exhibitions in Africa among other countries, with “Paintings at the Edge of the World” in 2001 and “Paintings of Modern Life” in 2007. The last decade has seen her exhibiting in cities like Chicago, Venice, Tokyo, Paris or New York to name but a few.
Dumas defines herself as a “collector of images”. Exhibits like “Models” in Salzburg and “Suspect” in Venice present us with advertising bumph, models, corpses and objects that mutate into the spectacular. Grouped into categories, her works are artificial still lifes, parodies, deconstructions or commentaries drawn and painted in watercolour or gouache. One of her pieces, "My mother before she became my mother", sold for $2,000,000 in 2011.
She is currently based in Amsterdam where she continues her artistic work. Dumas’ “The Image as Burden” exhibition was housed at the Stedelijk Museum, Amsterdam from September 2014 to January 2015.
She is one of the great painters of her generation, an artist who centres the human body and human psychological valour, painting her subjects from the cradle to the grave. The cycle of life illustrates her ideas on the social, the sexual and the racial. She keeps up appearances without conclusion, with brush strokes so faint and light of touch they are almost hidden and perhaps more dramatic for that. Dumas borrows images and expresses them “otherly”, making them confusing within the confines of a dark terrain. Her graphology and explicit language can be understood from the titles she gives her work, which generally is portraits, as well as nudes one would swear were blushing at their own exposure being contemplated. Dumas says of her art: “What is at stake and what matters is not the medium an artist uses or the subject matter but his or her motivation, which have become suspect.”
(Translated from the Spanish by Shauna Devlin)
- Written by Marina Valcárcel
- Category: Art
Author: Marina Valcárcel
This little journey begins on a wall. As dusk falls, so begins a dialogue between that wall and a window, a transparent, vertical frame that reflects in the Swiss meadows outside and surrounding the Beyeler Foundation, all fresh, serene, rose-tinted; set against the electrical charge of a horizontal canvas turned into a muted scream depicting the Wailing Wall. It’s Ernst Beyeler and Renzo Piano in the company of Marlene Dumas. One of those rare moments for meditation: architecture resting its hand on the small of the painting’s back to guide it through a perfectly synchronised, beautifully choreographed dance.
Ernst Beyeler was one of the greatest ever art dealers, In 1970, along with Trudl Bruckner and Balz Hilt, he created the Art Basel fair. He and his wife Hildy aquired a world-class collection of masterpieces and commissioned the architect Renzo Piano to design an exquisitely beautiful museum in which to house them. It opened in 1997 not only to exhibit the Beyeler’s own private collection but also to showcase the world's most important contemporary art exhibitions.
Until 6th September 2015, the Beyeler Foundation museum was the venue for Marlene Dumas’ The Image As Burden, a retrospective of 40 years worth of work comprising over a hundred pieces.
Broken White, 2006.
The Burden of Apartheid
Marlene Dumas (Cape Town, 1953) is an artist who sails deep through the swell of waves and dense, eclectic backdrop that is her work, and very much at odds with her physical appearance it is, too. She is slight of build, bubbly, with playfully expressive pale blue eyes, a booming laugh and a fresh-seeming joie de vivre
But behind that facade, Dumas is a tireless worker and avid collector of postcards since early childhood and still, even today, in her untidily tidy Amsterdam studio, she has everything filed, ordered and catalogued. Dumas, whose figurative style centres the human face and the human body, never works from a live model. She invariably works from a flat, printed, two-dimentional image. Her sources are the hundreds of thousands of photographs cut from newspapers, magazines, some of them pornographic, books on the mentally ill, the “lunatics”: a word she says she likes because of its association with the moon’s influence on our states of mind, catwalk models, “I cannot conceive of a trip without Time magazine”, pamphlets, art postcards and, most of all, her own polaroids. “One could say that South Africa is my content and Holland my form. And I think, as well, that the images I use are universal, known to everyone. I deal in second-hand images and first-hand experiences. My models have already been moulded and posed previously by somebody else. There are no virgins here.” she insists.
Mamá Roma, 2012.
Dumas paints from a place of condensed reality. Hers is painting that questions. Or targets with the precision of a dart. Expression, mystery, the connection between public and private, dreams and reality. Take that portrait in blue of Amy Winehouse. Isolated figures, usually with no background, abandoned in the solitude of a canvas and its sadness.
Dumas is fully aware of the power of the photography and films she has been addicted to her whole life. It was from celluloid, and the looks to camera of its actors, that she learned the rules of imagination. She knows she must surpass the magic of photography and magnify the power of the filmed image in order to justify painting them. This is the motive behind her characteristic focus: the zoom button here, a close-up there, chopping and cropping into strange dimensions. See her paintings of gigantic babies. “I’ve never had the first clue about the actual size of a head. Anatomy never interested me.” she says.
Her themes are extreme and recurrent: death in multiple aspects and facets. Paintings such as The Kiss (2003), Lucy, Stern and Alfa (2004) are large canvases of dead, apparently serene, women. They are oil on canvas but have a strange, aqueous, veil-like consistency, as if the contours and the colours of these heads were seen through the filter of a memory, dream or nightmare. Violent deaths: Dead Marilyn (2008) or Dead Girl (2002), the head of a young Palestinian girl falling down lifeless, killed. The death of the Dutch film director Theo van Gogh or a dead swan, its sinewy neck and unfurled wing white against a black background.
The Swan, 2005.
And then there is race, above all else, race: its message, its meaning, Dumas’ use of the colour black. Racism that stretches from Apartheid to the Wailing Wall of Jerusalem. The Wall (2009), The Widow (2013). Dumas inherited from Gerhard Richter an interest in “series” painting and also, by the same token, an interest in hanging pictures in such a way as for them to be grouped together in rooms by theme. She is able to fill whole spaces with hundreds of drawings of little tiny heads in black and white, each one unique and distinguishable if only from its expression. There have been multiple series sets since Models (1994) up to and including her latest and as yet unfinished Great Men (2014).
At a time in Madrid when the memory of Zurbarán’s Christ and Van der Weyden’s recent departure are still fresh in our minds, the two series of Crucifictions and the portraits of Christ in Dumas’ The Perfect Lover are akin to questions. Van der Weyden’s St John, desolate at the foot of the cross in the 3 metre high Calvary, was powerful but were there ever any Christs as abandoned to their solitude as Dumas’ Gravitá (2012), or Solo the year before?
Gravitá (detail) 2012.
And at the other extreme, her pornography series: strippers, nightlife, neon lights, young men in explicit poses, young girls midway between innocence and abuse, leather boots, black stockings ...
"I paint because I’m a woman” she says. “I’ve always wondered why the great themes of life and love must be conceeded to film directors, authors or pop stars. I want to paint all of that, too.” And her pictures became ever and even more intense. Peter Schjeldahl, in the New Yorker, said that Dumas’ pictures are loaded with such weight that it’s a mystery how they don’t fall from the wall and break the floor.
Leather Boots, 2000.
A farm in Africa
Like Karen Blixen, Marlene Dumas also had a farm in Africa. Of Boer descent, her roots were forged by the essence of rural Afrikaaners: a solid, conservative milieu, strong religious principles but also openness and tolerance. Her childhood in Kuilsrivier (a Cape Town suburb) was a quiet, happy one, with a close-knit extended family of three grandparents and her Dutch mother, a woman wholly devoted to flowers, her three children and her vineyard. Marlene drew in the sand and learned from illustrated books and bibles. She enjoyed open-air cinema on Saturday afternoons. She had two brothers, one a viticulturist and the other a theologian from whom she learnt what it is to have a certain moral maturity and, more importantly, what it means to have a vocation. They were a close family, appearing not to need anything from outside their insular world. In 1976 she won a scholarship to study in Amsterdam where she still lives today: "My homeland is South Africa, my maternal language is Africaans, my surname is French .. I sometimes think I’m not a true artist because my heart is too divided up. My studio is my house. I think I’m like a snail, always carrying its life and homeland on its back.
The Blindfolded Man, 2007.
Marlene Dumas’ studio has no natural light. It’s small, white-walled, cement-floored, spattered by decades of work and paint. Almost everything is on the ground, photographs, brushes on paint pot lids and a small wooden brick she only very occasionally steps on to observe the results of her work. Now 62, Dumas often paints on the floor, on all fours, on a stretch of paper much larger than she is. She paints very fast, spasmodically, like an image captured in an instant on her retina, like water coming into contact with a black paint stain. From here emerge the fine black brush strokes that trace the eyes of a young nude. The water and the paint move around the paper leaving an abstract marking somewhat reminiscent of Bacon, of rivers or of a face reflected in the water at the bottom of a well.
"I’d love my paintings to be like poems. Verse is like naked words that have undressed themselves.” she says. Everything to do with Marlene Dumas aquires a literary density. She writes with her paint and she writes without making books, essays and poetry redundant. She also sometimes writes short phrases in some of her pictures. She likes to write her own exhibit material and press releases as she doesn’t see why or how anyone else should or could define what her art is trying to say. She has always considered herself a descendant of Alexandre Dumas and, for that reason, a “musketeer”, a warrior armed with both pen and paintbrush, too.
The Widow, 2013.
It is also Dumas behind the suggestive titles of her series or exhibiitions: The Eyes of The Night Creatures, Measuring Your Own Grave or her latest, The Image as Burden, yet one more example of the sheer quantity of layers, meanings and nuances in everything Dumas does. This last title comes from one of her small oil paintings of the same name. In it a man, posed Pieta fashion, holds a woman, the image, lifeless, in his arms. He looks at her tenderly and supports the weight of her body with no small effort. Dumas explains that the origin of that pose was a scene from George Cukor’s film, Camille, in which Robert Taylor carries Greta Garbo’s white-clothed body. Dumas’ scene emerges from a black background, two outlined profiles, almost African mask-like, are painted in Dumas’ smudged, discoloured tones, as if with dirty brushes: from black and deep blue to white. Black paint in an old kitchen tin thrown onto the floor of her studio is, perhaps, what Apartheid meant for Dumas.
The Image as Burden, 1993.
- Written by Ángeles Blanco
- Category: Artists
A camera, a prop and herself were all the raw materials Cindy Sherman needed to add her name to the roll call of great photographers of the second half of the 20th century … although she considers herself a visual artist whose medium is photography rather than a photographer per se.
What's unique about this artist is that not only does she use her lens to capture staged images that are striking and highly unusual in themselves but that she uses herself in her compositions and thereby embodies her intended message.
Born in New Jersey in 1954, Cynthia Morris Sherman felt no artistic leanings until at Buffalo University where she began to paint but soon realised that this wasn’t her thing and about which she says: “ ... What can I say? There I was, knocking myself out copying other art but then it hit me that the best and only way I could realise my ideas was with a camera.” And, indeed, it was in photography that she found her calling and has since become one of the most outstanding photographers of her time.
Her earliest photographs, arguably the most representative of her work, soon captured the public’s imagination. Between 1977 y 1980 she produced the "Untitled Film Stills" series of self-portraits posing as typically female clichés from a patriarchal society (hooker, housewife, drug addict, dancer, termagant). These black and white images bring to mind film stills from the 40’s and 50’s. To see them is to recall Hitchcock, Visconti and Truffault, to think how familiar they seem and ask oneself if they might be from an old film noir or Italian Neorealism movie. Since the very beginning, Sherman has never wanted to title her works so they are known only by their inventory number and it is up to the viewer to assign a meaning to each one.
Sherman has no qualms about resorting to artifice, both of expression and in preparation, to sum up a whole narrative in one single picture, leaving it to our own imagination to invent the story behind it.
And, seemingly, it all stems from her love of fancy dress since childhood although she can't tell if that was from boredom, as therapy or simply a fascination with make-up. What happened was that she had started playing with costumes and make-up in the privacy of her own home until, encouraged by her university friend and fellow New York artist Robert Longo, she made the decision to immortalise her "performances" on camera.
Although she doesn't consider her work feminist as such, her entire oeuvre over the last 40 years does explore myriad female stereotypes. At the start of the 80’s, wanting to draw attention to the prolific use of women as sex symbols in magazines and on television, she produced the "Centerfolds" series, posing as if for a double-page spread in a man's magazine.
All of her work contains a message which sometimes means her having to resort to images that are gut-wrenching. “Disasters”, “Fairy Tales” and “Disgust Pictures” are pieces that, by the most abject means, (namely entrails, vomit, mutations and horror figures), flag up the changes that our society is undergoing, our descent into a ferocious consumerism devouring itself.
In “History Portraits”, Sherman returns to self-portraiture only this time in colour, and revisiting Renaissance and Baroque paintings, recreating both male and female characters and media darlings of the moment. Her aim is to demystify the personalities worshipped by an obsessed society whether they be masterpieces of the art world or celebrities of stage and screen.
Sherman appears in the majority of her pieces because she likes to work alone and do everything by herself, coupled with the fact that hiring models can turn out to be harder work than it's worth ... she tried it once and it was an experience she won't be repeating. She agrees that it's partly for the freedom working by herself affords her but also possibly down to shyness. Disguising oneself as someone else can be liberating and, although it's her face and body one sees, it's deliberately not the essence of her which is why, if ever an image resembles the real life her too much, she scraps it and takes another. She has also experimented with still lifes in which she doesn't appear. These, however, lack the full force of her other work in which she does. And the truth is that collectors after a work by Sherman want it with her in it and are prepared to pay exorbitant amounts for the acquisition. Her Untitled #96 sold at auction for nearly $4, 000, 000 in 2013 at Christie's in New York.
This woman of a thousand faces sees herself as a blank canvas on which to depict diverse iconographies of 'woman' and the result is, in the words of Eva Respini, the curator who organised Sherman's retrospective at the MoMA in 2013, "an encyclopaedia of female stereotypes." Her photographs are not at all autobiographical but they do, on occasion, and by way of artificiality, appear to capture reality in all its crudeness.
As her work evolves, however, so Sherman replaces herself gradually more and more with prosthetics similar to those used at medical schools. By the time she starts work on the “Sex Pictures” series, there's nothing at all left of her in them and the models appear in her place all twisted, mutilated, oozing liquids and, although we the spectators know that they're only mannequins, we're still left with a queasiness that won't quit, meaning that her aim, that of denouncing whilst depicting male violence against women, has again been achieved.
With the turn of the century, Sherman starts to incorporate digital techniques into her photography, allowing her to create garishly-coloured scenes and multi-charactered montages, as in the “Clowns” series, where it's not exactly clear whether she's parodying herself or not. Framed within opulent settings, the characters brought to life in her “Society Portraits” do not represent real people. The artist has, however, made them look somewhat familiar to us with this rallying cry against the prevailing beauty ideals of a society obsessed with youth and beauty.
Cindy Sherman, one of the most influential figures in contemporary art for some; egocentric, tacky or pretentious for others; a mockery for others still; but oozing empathy for yet more. Suffice it to say that all you have to do to get a sense of her sincerity is just watch how she holds the spectator's rapt attention in the majority of her portraits.
Or is it a challenge that she engages us with?
Only the emotional response that is triggered within each individual will have an answer and the final say on that.
(Translated from the Spanish version by Shauna Devlin)