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Exhibition catalogue Anne Madden. A Retrospective, Irish Museum of Modern Art
27 June 2007 - 30 September
For the last couple of years, Anne Madden has been making paintings about the Northern Lights, which seems to be an appropriately northern subject, now that she has returned to Ireland after spending many years in the South of France. These paintings are ambitious in scale, spectacular in their depiction of chromatic contrasts and highly accomplished in their technique, but they are also Romantic in their conception and resonant with symbolic potential. During one of my several visits to her studio to see how they were developing, Madden described them as paintings about different layers of light, implying that they were merely an analysis of physical phenomena; they are much more than this, however. Madden paints deep and ambiguous spaces – a constant feature in her work, as we shall later see – which invite us nonetheless to explore metaphysical ideas when looking at them.
Certainly, this group of paintings remind me of ‘The Auroras of Autumn’ (1947), possibly one of the most accomplished poems by Wallace Stevens. He wrote this long Romantic poem about crisis and death in his late 60s. The sky, for both Madden and Stevens, becomes a sort of terrible mirror in which a descending night is ripe with unsettling revelations. And consequently by noting this, both eloquently explore the realm of the sublime. I shall come back to this, but beforehand, I would like to go back in time to the beginnings of Madden’s
career and to briefly describe some of her early works, in order to define her artistic practice.
Anne Madden has now been painting for over half a century, and even if it is clear that she is enjoying an especially strong creative outburst at the moment, the final outcome of which is still unknown, it is possible to make a clear assessment of her work to date. The earliest painting in this exhibition, a beautiful and confident sculptural self-portrait, was made as far back as 1950. As in other works from that period, the image in the painting is somehow formalized, and, rather than attempting to be a realistic depiction or to suggest her personality, it seems to document the process by which volume and shape are created. It is not that big, but it has a clear monumental quality which one could associate with some sculptures and drawings by Henry Moore.
The most relevant works of this period, however, would be her visions of the Burren landscape in County Clare, which, as Aidan Dunne put it, became ‘the model for a kind of archetypal, personal space’.2 In her career, this conceptual space would be a constant feature, but under different guises. Madden spent time during her adolescence in the Burren, often riding around on a pony. It is an imposing and desert-like place, with peculiar rock formations, which could easily become a mythical realm in which a young artist could project her imagination and, later, her memory. It seems like a perfect environment in which to become aware of the possibilities of space as a material for visual and metaphorical investigation. In the 1950s, Madden had a serious back injury which involved a long period of convalescence during which she could not paint. She recovered in the second half of the decade; by then, landscape – ideal or conceptual – was central in her work.
Her paintings at the end of the 1950s explore several directions. The patterning of ochres and earth tones in Aran Field (1957), for example, suggests the work of Gustav Klimt; here, however, it helps to deliver a mythical depiction of landscape. The style of brushstrokes and the way the composition is built or created is also somehow similar to the work of the Canadian painter Jean-Paul Riopelle. Blue Landscape (1958), on the other hand, is close to the Expressionist abstractions of American painters like Sam Francis or Joan Mitchell. In the 1950s, Madden had seen and liked some of their works in London.3 Mitchell and Riopelle, who were a couple, lived in Paris, where Madden would meet them later in the 1960s.
Anne Madden’s paintings were about an emotional experience of landscape and the effect of memory on this experience. The image in these works was constructed through the application of muscular and rhythmic strokes, using both brush and palette-knife. The artist was obviously aware of new developments in international art, but this knowledge had been filtered through her individual perspective. The emphasis on process suggests an interest in finding an autonomous possibility for painting, liberating it from subject matter. Madden, however, never turned completely to abstraction.
During the 1960s, Madden made an impressive body of experimental works, which are normally referred to as the ‘poured paintings’. These works were made by pouring paint, sometimes mixed with sand, over horizontal wetted canvases. The images in them were obtained by physical processes: as paint flowed and settled, the artist manipulated the paint and moved the canvas. The result includes a strong chance element, although at the end, the artist could obviously select which ones to keep. Many of these works are diptychs, triptychs or other multiple-panel formats, and the artist could have, again, control over the composition, choosing, for example, shapes that would mirror each other.
The titles of the works still refer to landscape, like Mountain (1962), Land Formation (1963) or Field Stones (1964), but more than trying to copy these forms from nature, the artist seems to explore how they were formed, understanding the capricious nature of geological formations, and considering the effect of light, time or experience on them. Landscapes are always varying, even if slowly – something which is suggested in titles such as Transformations (1964). In other titles of this period, Madden uses the word ‘sequence’, which has mathematical or musical connotations. Ultimately, the artist is portraying a space, while becoming aware of the chance elements in nature and the hidden structure of things. She is not merely depicting landscape (or her memory of it), but rather imitating the way it becomes itself, making this process also mythical and autobiographical.
In the 1970s, Madden would look upon human interventions in landscape by referring to megalithic sculpture and architecture. Her new paintings appear abstract, but have titles like Megalith (1971), Alignment (1972), Pyramid (1977) or Menhir (1978). They are related somehow to the spaces of the colour-field paintings by artists like Mark Rothko or Barnett Newman, but without losing reference to experience or actual space. This group of paintings was also made by pouring paint over wetted canvas; normally diptychs or triptychs, we often find straight architectural lines on them, some created by using masking tape that was removed after the poured paint had settled. The dark colours of these works – including reds, browns and blues – are not naturalistic, and their spaces are deep and ambiguous, though segmented or conceptualized by the vertical lines. If the first poured paintings were about process, material and the origination of images that echoed geological events, this new series of works clearly has tragic resonances. Rather than echoing the idea of the sublime as seen in American Abstract Expressionist painting of the 1950s and 1960s, here was work that reflected a series of personal losses and also the disturbing violent events in Northern Ireland, explicitly referred to in Menhir (Bloody Sunday) (1976). In this work, the paint on its surface was poured as if to imitate a bloodstain.
It would seem that, for Anne Madden, formal questions are very important but not enough – becoming, rather, a means towards an end. Even Barnett Newman and Mark Rothko, whose work was championed by the influential American critic Clement Greenberg because of its formal novelty and, for him, autonomy, saw themselves as belonging to the Romantic tradition. If Rothko decided to give a title to his works, it was only a numerical one or an enumeration of its colours – not standard Romantic practice. On the other hand, Newman, whose works are much less Expressionistic than Rothko’s, used many names from history, religion or classical mythology to entitle his ones.
Like Newman, Madden directs our interpretation of her paintings through her titles. Take, for example, her Megalith series. The word ‘megalith’ derives from the Ancient Greek for ‘big stone’. These stones are another feature of the landscape of the Burren (as well of many other parts of Ireland and Europe, North Africa and the Middle East). They are often described as burial sites, but this remains a matter of speculation. Their visual impact in the landscape suggests that they were used as a focal point too. This aspect obviously interests Madden, and while we see her paintings full of these vertical irregular lines, separating areas and establishing tensions among dark colour fields, we somehow get the experience of moving around these huge, flat, vertical and wedge-like rocks, noting the changes in light and shade as we do so.
One could say that the paintings of Anne Madden function as an entrance to a symbolic realm, and, indeed, some of her works from the beginning of the 1980s have titles of architectural features, such as Portail (1982) or Door into the Dark (1982). In the latter case, the title comes from an early book of poems by Seamus Heaney, which includes lines about the bottomlessness of the Bogland, thus transforming it into a symbolic space. In Door into the Dark, Madden presents a dynamic play of planes by painting frames within frames; she further develops the idea of a painting as a mysterious and metaphorical doorway to a limitless and gloomy void. The use of darker tones also underlines tragic or Romantic qualities.
During these years, Madden met the influential French Structuralist art critic Marcelin Pleynet, who championed the French version of Minimalism, peinture-peinture, and spoke of the qualities of pure painting. There is no doubt that Madden’s work considers the inherent qualities of the medium, creating space with matter, light and colour. It seems clear, however, that Madden has been interested in symbolic potential throughout. One could say that these paintings, like most of her work, are about how meaning is conveyed through paint and also a reflection of which kind of meaning – ranging from pure matter to different kinds of symbolism.
The subject of windows and doorways is continued with an especially strong series of works that was made in response to the incredibly beautiful frescoes of the Villa of the Mysteries in Pompeii, which portray some Dionysian rites. Madden had kept a photograph of these frescoes which had belonged to her father. Pompeii, as everybody knows, was abruptly destroyed by the eruption of Vesuvius, and stands as a monument of life frozen in time as a result of a terrible natural disaster. It is a place loaded with meaning – one can easily understand Madden’s interest in it. Pompeii is a sort of memorial, but what we see there is not symbolical but real. Life in the city disappeared, but we can easily reconstruct how people had gone about their everyday business in the years leading up to the eruption. The cultic frescoes in one particular house in the city, on the other hand, refer to secret knowledge, something closer to the realm of art.
There are other narratives at play in works from this period: for example, Antigone and Polynices (1985) refers to the story of Antigone defying the law because of her love and respect for her dead brother. Aidan Dunne sees these works as being in the wake of the return to figuration in the 1980s, although realizing that Madden has always favoured anchoring her images in something specific.4
Immediately after the Pompeii paintings, at the end of the 1980s, Madden made a series of paintings about the sea and another about nocturnal gardens, both evidently Romantic subjects. The gardens – including Le Jardin (The garden, 1988) and Night Garden (1990) – are figurative paintings, although the use of non-naturalistic blue implies that atmosphere is more important than verisimilitude. In these paintings, Madden paints spaces within spaces, nature and architecture intertwined, presenting somehow some kind of theatrical stage. In Chemins éclairés (Lit paths, 1988), some areas of the garden are illuminated, as if waiting for someone to arrive, if it is not the light itself that was being expected. The subject of the presence of light is repeated in paintings like Sea Change (1989) or Sea Box (1990), where light creates geometrical or cubical shapes on a blue background that stands for the sea as a symbolic realm. These paintings are again abstract, or very ambiguous, compared to her other 1980s paintings. The light is somehow an element of order, or an emblem of reason and organization, over a beautiful gestural blue field. Order and chaos, however, do not establish a hierarchical relationship, but live in a mysterious (but comfortable) symbiosis.
With her series of paintings about Odysseus and Icarus in the 1990s, Madden pursued the theme of classical mythology that she had first explored in Antigone and Polynices. These works have been referred to as Trajectories. The Odysseus series presents a small boat navigating over a boundless ocean of beautifully applied paint. This ocean is not necessarily blue: it can also be red, gold or nearly black (Meridian, Transposition and De Profundis respectively; all 1995). Anne Madden herself has spoken about the sea as ‘an image of the unconscious, the unpredictable, with its layered depths, demons and symbols’.5 And the sea, of course, has been a favourite subject for Romantic and Symbolist artists, from Caspar David Friedrich to James Ensor. The American critic Harold Rosenberg, who became influential in the years of Pop Art, just at the time that Clement Greenberg’s power was waning, said that the paintings of the Abstract Expressionists were not flat, as Greenberg had claimed. His point was that one could not walk in their space but could easily penetrate them using a spacecraft!6
It is something which Anne Madden had understood in her own way from
In the Icarus paintings, we see a bird floating over a deep space of luminous and sumptuous paint. Water changes into Air. There is a sun in paintings like Sun (1998) or Immolation (2000), or the whole background is luminous as if standing for pure light. This is the case with the painting in twelve parts entitled A Space of Time (1998–2003). In some cases, the bird (or Icarus) is already in flames and falling, for example in Flagration (1996–7) and Plummet (1997). Tragedy is presented in these later paintings in almost a literal way. In a lecture delivered in Dublin in 2001, Madden said: ‘I imagine that most artists, whatever their medium, are trying to uncover and discover a reality beyond actuality, trying to make visible invisible aspects of the world… This is the quest.’7 And this quest is a tragic odyssey, as there is no obvious model for perfection.
A new body of work, entitled The Garden of Love, was made in 2001–2. These paintings originated from some lines by the poet William Blake – ‘I went to the garden of love… and I saw it was filled with graves’ – which Madden read while leaving France to move back to Ireland. Again, these paintings portray shimmering, dynamic and sumptuous spaces, filled with gold, silver, violet or red. Their surfaces are built through the accumulation of dynamic brushstrokes, and also by altering the wet paint with the pressure of a crumpled cloth repeating different patterns. The final images resemble somehow Byzantine mosaics, the Futurist analysis of light in the earlier work of Giacomo Balla or Umberto Boccioni and even the vibrant pointillist paintings of Georges Seurat. These similarities, however, are more conceptual than formal. The appearance of crosses in the middle of this sea of paint marks the threshold into the, by now, familiar symbolic realm. It is also the appearance of loss and pain, as death is unavoidable. One of the larger works in this group was specifically titled In Memoriam, J-P R, in homage to her mentor and friend Jean-Paul Riopelle, who had died recently. Painting is seen as a garden, well-kept with love, but also filled with the memory of those already gone.
In recent years, Madden has worked on an even more ambitious scale. A Space of Time can be seen as an announcement of what was to come. There is also the spectacular 54m2 ceiling Madden painted in the Château de Carros in France (Empyrius, 1999), which suggests a sacred and ritualistic space. Afterwards, Madden painted the monumental Winged Figure (2004–5), which shows an angel-like winged figure over a flaming sea or sky. This figure could equally be, however, an apocalyptical and menacing presence. And finally, we arrive at the Aurora borealis paintings, her most recent series, and which obviously refer to one of the most spectacular natural phenomena. The paintings do not try to describe the Northern Lights in a realistic fashion, but rather imitate their overwhelming effect, translating it onto a flat surface.
In the 1970s, Sam Francis poured paint from aeroplanes in Japan, to make a painting in the sky. Madden is not after this kind of spectacular statement, but concentrates on the possibility of creating an image that has the intensity of night, dawn, light or fire. She has described seeing for the first time The Baptism of Christ by the Renaissance master Piero della Francesca at the National Gallery in London. She was then 17, and her hair ‘stood on end’.8 She still remembers the aura or radiance that seemed to emanate from that work, and this is what she tries to achieve with her own. Madden probably understood, already then, that the painter can only deal with pure pictorial space but must lean emotionally on his or her images in order to achieve something else.
The pronounced intensity of the colours in these last works is reminiscent of some of the paintings of Henri Matisse, who painted interiors as the memory of sensual experiences. The paintings of Anne Madden have, though, very strong material qualities. After she has applied the paint with the brush, she dries it with pieces of cloth, which alters something that probably appeared to be more liquid originally. If one looks at the surface of the paintings close-up, one can appreciate some kind of mineral effect: there are clear traces of dry pigment. From a distance, the effect is different, suggesting the power of changing nocturnal lights and its subjective potential. The mood becomes characteristically elegiac. Watching the auroras, Madden re-enacts the Romantic confrontation between the artist’s mind and the world, where death reigns. The effect of the auroras has been described by some as a kind of snake of light. This beautiful snake stands, however, for constant flux and, ultimately, death. Madden resolves the paintings as problems of composition, pictorial process, texture, colour and light, but remains constantly aware of what can be achieved through this beyond mere abstraction. Her approach to painting could be described as material, as opposed to formal, but Madden is fully committed to (and wholly engaged with) the transformative powers of her medium.
1 Wallace Stevens, ‘The Auroras of Autumn’, in The Auroras of Autumn (New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 1950), 2.
2 Aidan Dunne, ‘An ethical space: The paintings of Anne Madden’, in the exh. cat.,
Anne Madden A Retrospective Exhibition, RHA Gallagher Gallery (Dublin: Arts Council/An Chomhairle Ealaíon, 1991), 9.
3 Brian Kennedy, Introduction, exh. cat., Anne Madden: Trajectories (Oaxaca: Museo
de Arte Contemporáneo de Oaxaca, 2000).
4 Aidan Dunne, ‘An ethical space’, 15.
5 Anne Madden, ‘Odyssey’, exh. cat., Trajectories, 1995–1997, The Hugh Lane Municipal Gallery, Dublin, 1997, 17.
6 I quote here from memory. This was explained by Tom Wolfe in The Painted Word, New York, 1975.
7 Anne Madden, ‘A quest: Some reflections on my experience of being a painter’, lecture delivered at Alexandra College, Dublin 2001, published by The Recorder,
The Journal of the American Irish Historical Society, 14/1 (Summer 2001), 37, and republished herein.
8 Ibid. 40–41.