Sunday, 5 July 2009

Five Meditations on the Metaphor of the Altarpiece


Why the Metaphor?

The term Metaphor derives from the Greek (metaphora) or transference. As paper absorbs the pigment from a pen, static on its surface - so too does the Isenheim Altarpiece absorb from the static viewer something metaphorically linked to the ink, bearing, carrying and transferring constantly in its ability to absorb into itself, and to reverse this action, to act as the pen seeping its fluidity into the paper, with us becoming the sheets of paper, absorbing its seepage, forming new possibilities that are not scribed by the pen nib but that ooze organically as new creative images full of possibility. A symbiotic relationship that harnesses the past and present, form and content, the paper and the ink inseparable. We stain it as it stains us. The Isemheim Altarpiece as Metaphor for biblical narrative and sociopolitical circumstances of its time of creation, is paralllled by its positioning to guide as Metaphor for the sociopolitical circumstances of its union or contact with those who have and do view and use it or its reproduction.


Living with its Stain

Waiting with anticipation for the next parcel to arrive, during the long hours of winter darkness, I had no idea that I was about to be sucked into a life long relationship with a work of art that, no matter how hard I've tried since to avoid its clenching fascination, has kept me engaged ever since. It was the latest publication of the Time Life books, The Lives of the Great Artists. My parents had ordered the whole series. Leonardo da Vinci, Michaelangelo, Rubens, Bellini... each book full of potential and past that highlighted my fascination with Giles cartoons, Disney imagery and artists in general. That was the day I was stained by the Isenheim Altar Piece. It was in the book on Durer (Mathias Grunewald who painted it around 1512 was a contemporary of Durers). At first the pages made no sense, fragments of image sat juxtaposed alongside images that seemed to have no relationship to each other, then I noticed a fold line and a diagram instructing the reader to fold the pages back on themselves. I started folding, until, there in the centre of the book sat an image of crucifixion the like of which I had never seen before. The pain and terror of the image was overwhelming, I had just constructed this and it confused me, at that moment it stained my being. As I folded open the folded pages of this reproduction of the polyptych, which is the Isenheim Altar piece, I was unfolded. While uncovering the inner body of this piece the turned to revealing behind the Death of the frontispiece, the Resurrection of Christ, the Annunciation, The Madonna and Child mused by an orchestra of Angels. The polar bedfellows of Thanatos and Eros rushed through an adolescent as I absorbed the imagery. That moment was the height of the wonderous experiences those books gave me. I think as I open the pages of books now which so often fail to excite, its that model of experiencing I'm comparing each new books content with. Unfair and unfulfillable, but still a desire. Maybe its that moment I am trying to understand or share as I exchange time with Grunewald, spending thousands of hours making the hundreds of studies as drawings and paintings from his altarpiece, living with it's stain.


The Day I Stained it

When ever we had a new artist book, I'd show it to my friend Howard. We spent hours tracing from comics and from art books, merging Superman and Catwoman with Renaissance classic figures into Giles Cartoon interiors. Sometimes we'd strip them bare other times we'd leave them clothed. The stripped ones often found their way onto lamp posts in the area. Now looking back these were my (our) first transcriptions and first public exhibitions of work. Soon, after these collaborations, Howard Cave was killed, his bike was nudged by a bus and he fell under the wheels. The next time I looked at the folded pages of the altarpiece in the book, it felt different. I poured some of my grief into it. It seemed to absorb some of my confusion. At that moment I think I stained it with something of myself. The day I stained it, we entered into a private dialogue.


Echoes of Folding, a Proustian Moment

On one of those occasions when I was in search, leafing through the pages of art books in book shops, I turned the pages of a survey book called Modern Art 1890-1918 by Jean Clay. A sublime moment transformed the bookshop into the moment I returned to the Durer book after Howards death, I was seduced into the pages of this book as the seam, that split the image , off centre, knocked me off centre.

The madelein cake and lime tea transported Proust back to his childhood experience, for me it was the image of Arnold Bocklins Island of the Dead painting, the Leipzig version. Those pages that have a reproduction on its surface, a skin of echoing image, from Bocklin's paint, from paint into photographs onto the pages of a book that stirred me deeply. This book held an image that transformed itself beyond its aesthetic appearence. The image held parallels with Roland Barthes describing of the search for the Poetic Image and the ability for the truly successful poetic image to unfold in the viewer not just that folded in by the poet / artist, but deeper seated personal sentimental memories of the viewer.

I recently found out that Arnold Bocklin was one of the first artists to travel to see the Grunewalds Isenheim Altarpiece in Colmar over and over again, Bocklin spoke of Grunewald as his Teacher. A tutorial across the centuries of time. I imagine Bocklin standing in front of the Isenheim Altarpiece now, when I view the Island of the Dead. The pathos and fecundity oozes out of the darkness. Its beauty overcomes its tragedy. It is a transcription of the Isenheim Altarpiece, Grunewalds mentoring had begun.


Colmar for the First Time

"Homage to Bocklins Rock", the series of works I'd made, as transcriptions from Arnold Bocklins Island of the Dead paintings, were being shown at a second venue in Basel. Part of the journey to Basel included a stop over in Colmar. Driving through the vast forests of the Vosge Mountains on a darkening evening, accompanied by the burning glows of hot air balloons drifting through the shadowed valleys, we descended into Colmar to a dark town that we knew held the building that held the Isenheim Altarpiece.

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