Iconography

solo exhibition at Wetterling Gallery, Stockholm, 2009

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The Painterly Dialectics of Marjolein Rothman

by David Galloway, 2009

 

"In a few short years, Marjolein Rothman has developed an eloquent painterly idiom in which form and content are not simply wedded but engaged in a vigorous, ongoing dialectic. Furthermore, the intellectual resonance of these works is achieved not by freighting them with subtexts but through a process of systematic reduction. At the purely formal level, the process seems to question just how much can be eliminated from an image before its mimetic function is subverted entirely. In most of these paintings, essential details are rendered in near-monochrome tones of grey, providing the retina with just enough information to “fill in the blanks.” The effect has a certain affinity to unfinished paint-by-numbers compositions that some viewers will remember from their own childhoods, or to abandoned coloring books. There are also echoes of the tradition of silhouettes made by cutting figures (effectively, their shadows) from black card - a popular form of portraiture in the 18th and 19th centuries that was largely supplanted by the revolutionary new medium of photography. The reminiscence is particularly strong in the case of conspicuously historic subjects like “Uniform” or the architectural “Big Mouth” or the works in the series based on relics and ceremonial paraphernalia. Admittedly, Rothman’s differentiated brushstrokes lend nuances largely unavailable in the classic silhouette, but it is the principle of reduction that is at issue here – as well as the link to popular culture. The artist’s use of historic photographs and postcards – as opposed to “life studies” - furthers such associations. The faded, grey-in-grey hues of the paintings might also suggest bleached-out photographs, interpreted differently with the passage of years and generations. Some works – like the delightfully Proustian composition entitled “History II” – seem literally on the verge of vanishing into the white background.

 

Rothman herself has spoken of these works as “shadows of shadows,” and an earlier publication on her work was entitled Shadow Boxing. Metaphorically, at least, the boxer who engages in such warm-up exercises is “fighting” with himself, taking jabs at his own shadow, without which there would be no combat. The light-dark metaphor not only applies to the aesthetic strategies of these paintings but also to their content. The aim – indeed, the mission - of Rothman’s work is to look behind the images she employs in order to reveal their defining dark side. Again the parallel to the black-and-white sorcery of traditional silhouettes is not irrelevant, save that in this case the contrasts shape not just the visual image itself but also our perception of its meaning. This may take the form of questioning, even of debunking the hollow glory of monuments and imperial trappings. The theme is also pursued in series revolving around the Romanoffs, including a tender mother-and-child study entitled “The Last Tsar” and two portraits of the chronically ailing Aleksej. Rothman almost always works in series, sometimes exploring another detail from the original photograph or using another entirely. This cumulative effect causes each individual work to responate with a larger contextual meaning."Aleksej II," for example, has an instructive (if perhaps unintentional parallel in a study of Lenin as a young man. Like so many of Rothman’s arresting works, these deal with the long shadows cast by historic events and personages. Or to be more specific: they deal with our perception of those historic shadows. Just as we must decode the fragmentary compositions themselves in purely pictorial terms, so do we ponder the messages encoded here, much as we might ponder the destinies and relationships revealed in an old family album and try to decipher the shadows they cast on our own existence.

 

The shadow on the face of “Gudrun,” Heinrich Himmler’s daughter, is both a compositional element and a reference to the notorious father not pictured here. “Youth” isolates a detail from a photograph in which Hitler, likewise not visible in Rothman’s composition, places his hand on the shoulder of a boy dressed in the uniform of the Hitlerjugend. Equally remarkable is “Disappearance,” the multiple portrait of Anne Frank in which the face is almost totally blank. Interestingly enough, the faceless “sitter,” who would die of typhus at the Bergen-Belsen concentration camp in 1943, is almost instantly recognizable, for we have seen images of the celebrated young diarist so often that the hair and the angle of the head tell everything. Such details have become part of a shared memory bank, of a collective subconscious. In absence itself we encounter a painterly as well as a thematic presence here – a presence that casts its shadow into our own time. In shrouding her historic figures in a certain anonymity, Marjolein Rothman frees the work of both idolatry and polemic. The young Lenin has not yet acquired the beard and the starkly chiseled features that would become the pathetic subject of countless monuments throughout the Soviet Union. Hitler and Himmler are invisible, Anne Frank faceless, and a “portrait” of Napoleon consists in a rendering of his tomb at the Invalides in Paris. In “Hashomer,” which shows a group of young girls from a Jewish youth organization before World War II, a void underscores the loss implicit in the subject itself. It also leaches away the faces of several members of the group. Again we are in the presence of a reductive methodology that attempts to focus our consciousness and sensitize us to the codes, often subliminal, that affect our reception of images and hence our understanding of history.

 

Are these political paintings? Yes, in the best possible sense: unencumbered by ideology but unflaggingly attentive to the iconography – and the essential facelessness - of power. They are also reflective, even philosophical works whose strategies recall the allegory of the cave from Plato’s Republic. There, in a fictional dialogue, Socrates asks his brother Glaucon to imagine people chained and held immobile since childhood in a darkened cave, their eyes focused solely on shadows cast on the opposite wall. These are made by puppet-handlers parading across a walkway before a great fire behind the prisoners’ backs. They carry all sorts of “vessels and statues and figures of animals made of wood and stone and various materials,” whose shadows the viewers comprehend as reality. Indeed, in this tightly controlled environment, they are the sole accessible, perceivable reality. But what happens if a prisoner is freed from his chains, turned around and made to look toward the light? Socrates asks his listener, “Will he not fancy that the shadows which he formerly saw are truer than the objects which are now shown to him?” Then Socrates expands the experiment, sending his guinea-pig into the bright world above ground. At first, of course, he perceives the shadows best of all, then the reflections in water, and only then the objects themselves.

 

For an appreciation of Marjolein Rothman’s oeuvre, the following steps in Socrates’ allegory of perception are of lesser relevance. But one of his later questions to Glaucon is of central importance: whether there is no some art that will aid the eye in turning from darkness to light. “Not implanting the faculty of sight,” Socrates adds, “for that exists already, but has been turned in the wrong direction, and is looking away from the truth.” The attentive Glaucon replies, “Yes, such an art may be presumed.” Indeed, the anomalies of appearance and reality have provided inexhaustible stuff for writers and visual artists throughout the ages, even if they would be disinclined to agree on a common definition of “truth.” In her paintings of the saints Bernadette de Soubirous and Therese de Lisieux, Marjolein adds a further dimension to her own visual researches. First of all, she chose not just the popular and thus readily identifiable representations of these figures, immortalized by the postcard industry, but also lesser-known images – hence preventing “aura” from immediately clouding our view of the figures. In addition to this dialectic between myth and reality, seen in numerous other works depicting heroes and villains, these add a further layer of ambiguity in terms of the apparitions that guided the two women to ultimate sanctification.

 

Furthermore, both were children when their sanctified experiences began. Bernadette de Soubirous was only 14 years of age when she had the first of 18 visions of the Virgin Mary in a grotto on the outskirts of Lourdes. Therese de Lisieux was 15 when she submitted herself to the stringent life of a Carmelite monastery. If the child is indeed father to the (wo)man, what is foreshadowed in the faces of these two women as children? What, for that matter, is foreshadowed in the face of the young Lenin or in that of a starry-eyed member of the Hitler Youth? And is there a categorical difference between the myth of Saint Bernadette and the legends that surround the hemophiliac Romanoff heir, Tsarevich Aleksij, who allegedly came under the diabolical influence of Rasputin? (The “Mad Monk,” as he was sometimes known, first exhibited magical powers in his own childhood.) The work of Marjolein Rothman is not an attempt to answer such questions. It is an attempt – subtle, tentative, sometimes provocative, often oddly moving – to ask such questions."

 

 

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