In addition to the format, the composition also stands out by the dynamics of its lines and colors.
It is centered on the character of the young girl and the dog standing next to her. The two obliques formed by their bodies cross at the level of the animals head which looks at her as if to console her. Her slightly tilted posture, the elbow resting on the back of the bench on which she is almost slouched are giving a feeling of depth. The feet crossed forward and pointed like a ballerina’s give the impression of a suspended dance. Her gaze follows the oblique of her body, underlined too by her hair, to get lost in the void. The dog’s fur is enhanced with bluish collages and seems almost sculptural. It might be trying to understand her thoughts or even comfort her. Rather than greet it with a friendly caress the young girl’s hand melts into her dress, draping and folding with it. Her face betrays her youth but the touches of red add uneasiness to the dark gaze tilted downwards.
The collages in the background do not only serve as ornament or abstract environment. They juxtapose, overlap black and white drawings or color photos, without clear delineation or hierarchy. A story within a story, a « mise-en-abîme ». Scraps of paper, organized tears, which evoke a fountain of ideas, thoughts … as much visions of the outside world as interior memories … The autopsy of a head in a state of reflection or spleen… a box of pandora.
Gushing light or exterior attack, we also note that an upper layer of colored collage forms sharp lines which radiate around the young girl and structures the underlying fragmentation.
With Prometheus the artist references the iconographic tradition to conjure the notion of punishment for stealing forbidden knowledge. The persons face pours out of the center, in three-quarter, almost shattering the canvas like glass. It is stoic and unflinching, even though injured at the forehead and rent by two birds. The eyesockets are empty, the cheeks sore to the point where we can suspect muscles but without a single drop of blood and without a single cry.
Neither of the birds is the usual caucasian eagle devouring the titan’s liver, but they are nonetheless very present. A raven and – symmetrically – a dove in flight, contrasting black and white endow the scene with movement. Is it the struggle between good and evil or the simple rivalry about the same prize? Their feathers carry blood, but we don’t know whose.
The commotion is only accentuated by the collages that are scattered around the background like shards, around the head, like a stained-glass window going from shades of blue and black to bordeaux.
Titan of the mythos or tortured artist, difficult to say, as the person holds a brush in his right hand, the attribute of a martyr. He looks upon his tool with a disfigured tranquility like an instrument of power.
As Platon wrote about Prometheus in his Protagoras, he had stolen from the gods together with the knowledge of fire, the knowledge of the arts. Without fire, the knowledge of the arts had been impossible and useless -… a man without vision.
Reflecting on the impact of this portrait starts by considering its format. A visage, two meters high and painted in a reduced color palette of strong contrast (in the style of “Harcourt” photographies) imposes a natural presence. Light and shadow confront each other as much as they compound in a variation of gray and beige.
The head-on position and symmetry together with the light coming from the right create long shadows that sculpt or burrow into the face such that it almost dissolves into them. It expresses a strong duality, mysterious and sensual, attraction and menace… a modern incarnation of a « femme fatale ».
In addition to the format, the effect is also accentuated by the choice of a very low viewpoint looking up to and a haughty air on the face. Black eyes direct their gaze along the diagonal like a chilling ray to us. The cigarette lodged between half-open lips commands to ascend physical and psychological axis.
Splatters and scratches undoubtedly suffered by the still fresh paint don’t alter or mutilate the beauty but add movement and a certain volatile energy to this apparition, like cigarette fumes or an errant gust of wind.
The composition is colorful and appears positive at first sight with tones of blue and rose.
The background, maybe evoking a wall, is lined with blue and white but the lines end in a sudden blackness, maybe a ceiling, and seem to trickle onto the person below.
In reality they find themselves checkmate. On their face we can see the tension and concentration of a relentless game. Their slanting look onto their playing hand is draped in a frown in search of the next move. The skin is blueish, a color cold like the gesture and the chilling feeling of losing control, or life. The arm slightly raised creases (brown) the immaculate costume (blue tones). The opposition of warm and cold colors suggest seizure by either fever or a shudder at the behest of adrenaline, the game makes one dizzy, to the point of losing oneself.
The look is indirect and evokes empathy for the king threatened to be unescapeably captured with the next move, unless the game is interrupted. This situation can be interpreted literally but above all, as so often, metaphorically and even more fatalistically, because we do not see a chessboard but rather a collage of rags and debris in front of this man. Rather than challenging the viewer in a game of chess the man seems to be searching a way out of his own existential dread.
The man’s face is cold, showing the same lines as the background… a reflexion or his gradual disappearance, while his clothes remain perfectly opaque. The incisive blackness gives a feeling of a shrinking room about to crush the person, the vertical lines become the bars of a prison cell locking them into a state of cabin fever, claustrophobic of themselves, restricted to their own body.
The work is intense and of a particular relentlessness by nature of the depicted scene but also the organisation of colors and the technique employed.
From the central figure at the point of convergence to the cracks that seem like incandescent lava under crystallized rock, everything just screams darkness and engulfment.
The figure seems equally naked and clad in collages, a second skin almost like chunks of cloth down to the representation of the stockings, kneeling in what could be a pool of blood, feet uncomfortably contorted resting on but the tips of the toes. The arms evoke crucifixion or quartering while a stake pushes into the lower-abdomen, forming a new line that cuts those formed by the body.
All over the body specks of color stand out like mutilations of a martyr. Both arms dissolve into obscurity. At these points of dissolution the collages form capillaries at the surface that could be veines or signs of surface friction caused by some supernatural force.
In the bottom left corner of the canvas a sectioned forearm appears without blood or distortion. It is floating and liveless could be perceived as made of wood. The palm turned upward doesn’t betray any pain but could suggest some interaction with the stake positioned on the same axis: a sacrifice or autogenesis (historically the cult of Mithras had associated blood and fertility of the soil and associated with this time of the year).
As for the face, it does not express suffering or resignation but rather determined inner rage or even vengeance. The high forehead and jaw pressed shut strengthen the line from the cheekbones and underline the look. The head snapped back, blond hair flowing over the face while its eyes are turned upward so violently as to show only the white of the eyeballs, give it an inquisitive look. The viewer is witness or culprit.
Behind it all we see a ray of blue cutting into the darkness. The winter solstice transforms into a plea when the oppression of day by night is at its apex. The sun stays still (“sol stat”) and day seems to start pushing back the darkness… the blue color is an agent of hope, a flare of hope amidst chaos. The dynamic of the day and night cycle, of life and death will go on. The invincible sun (“sol invictus”) and the birthing sun (“sol natalis”) are one and the same.
This work may seem more innocuous than the ones we have discussed so far but it has some particularities and is well suited for introspection.
The colors are very tender on a light rosé background that is covering collages and almostappears like velvet… the feeling of making a blank slate, liberating oneself from the past and writing a new page. The background is mostly monolithic but we can spot hints of transparent abstract forms.
We see the bust of a woman in frontal perspective organizing the canvas into a symmetrical composition. The tone of her skin, hues of beige and rose, is in elegant correspondence to the background, while her swirling brown hair and slightly dipping head bestow contrast and movement without impacting the harmony of lines.
Her face seems relaxed and contemplative. Brown eyes aren’t directly looking at the viewer but staring emptily… this moment of mental bluescreen or searching for connection (or spleen if you prefer), where the mind ceases to analyse the exterior world to concentrate on inner thoughts beyond space and time.
The observer is naturally gripped by empathy and would like to know her thoughts at once!
The image of a “Thinker” is only strengthened by the slightly gaping mouth and her face resting on her right hand, that leans lightly on a table. The hand is stylized, equally hiding and unmasking her face… a possible ambiguity of the moment. As for the other hand, it rests on the table in an inclined parallel to her collarbone, balancing her body slightly to the front and suggesting the arms movement beyond the confines of the canvas.
The canvas is treated with a peculiar method of scratching the surface of the paint, where figurative and abstract expressionism meet. The curves intersect delicately like graffiti or calligraphy. Despite the depth made apparent in this way, one doesn’t perceive these cuts as lesions or wounds and they do not detract from the girl’s beauty. They even add to the movement and well-rounded composition while accentuating an atmosphere of confusion… thoughts whirling and mingling in an interior storm.
The title suggests, with some ambiguity, an interpretation of the scene as showing “good friends”. Both figures carry a skull without jaws on their shoulders, one blue the other red, a warm and a cold color of maximal contrast that could mean a difference of temperament, personality or destiny (more or less negative).
Just by looking at these two young men side by side (one crouching, the other sitting on something like a table) casually jovial, one looking at the other and their hands resting on eachother’s shoulder, we get the sense of complicity and trust, of simple longstanding friendship.
However, following their lines of sight challenges this interpretation. Their respective heads are so close to the colored skulls, that they could just as well be looking at the latter. Likewise, the hand resting on the right shoulder of the figure to the left does not necessarily belong to the other man and could just as well be the embrace of death itself.
Rather than a scene of camaraderie of two people, it becomes one of man (life) and death (like a double portrait)… or even the camaraderie of both men with their respective destinies as one inseparable and universal whole. Would it then be, that we wander around with our destiny riding on our shoulders like a tamed monkey that retained some of its wild and imprevisible, uncontrollable nature? Destiny, our best and most loyal companion?
Meanwhile, the background is composed of various printed text, drawings and engravings like an archive of knowledge and memories, while the collages forming the table are more geometric and abstract and could signify a still unexplored future, uncertain and to be written up to the final period dictated by destiny.
A double vanitas in all its splendour!
This work is an oil painting on paper, not a canvas. This gives the impression of thicker layers of color (because the base is thin) and a very “dry” look.
The smaller format and reduced color palette also contribute to the particularly vivid and spontaneous form of the lines… a more intimate and direct approach to the subject… even more so as the chosen composition is a perfectly symmetrical frontal view.
Rusalka is a reference to slavic mythology that became an important figure during romanticism in literature (Erben, Němcová) as well as music (Dvořák) and painting.
One is naturally tempted to associate the face of Rusalka with Dvořák’s opera… in which case it would be a non idealized portrait of this water creature who left her home to enter the realm of man. Rejected by her love, she is condemned to err as a fantom (Bludička) who in the end returns to her lake to ask for a kiss of forgiveness, that will kill him.
Following this musical parallel, that invites us to look at Rusalka like we would listen to her voice… the pale face, the brown, undulating hair (maybe even wet), the dark and gloomy look as well as the hollow cheeks all suggest to situate this beautiful and terrifying apparition in the third act… at that tragic moment of Jarosav Kvapils libretto where Rusalka, cursed but still smitten with love exclaims to the Prince who had come to ask her forgiveness:
„Neither alive nor dead, neither women nor nymph,
accursed, I wander as a phantom.
In vain, for a moment in your arms
I dreamed of my pitiful love.
Your lover I was,
but now I’m only your death!« .
( Živa ni mrtva, žena ni víla,
prokleta bloudím mátohou,
marně jsem chvíli v loktech tvých snila
ubohou lásku, lásku svou.
Milenkou tvojí kdysi jsem byla,
ale teď jsem jen smrtí tvou! )