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Aidan Dunne


“When I felt I was coming to the end of the Megalith series, I introduced a horizontal line at the top of the vertical form, making an opening - for me an opening in my paintings as well as an exit from these canvases.29 Thus her account of how she embarked on a body of work that was, in its various permutations and lines of enquiry, to occupy her for nearly half a decade. In fact there is a relatively smooth transition, an evolutionary rather than a revolutionary progression from the charged, atmospheric space of the Megaliths to the openings and doorways that followed - though they followed after a characteristic lapse in time.

In a way the Megaliths with their atmospheric spatial effects carried the possibility of the openings within them: there was a continuously applied pressure to the nominal, right-angled framework, resulting in such “aberrations” as Pyramid, triptych, 1977 (p. 42), in which the verticals became diagonals, making a series of triangles. Conversely, Portail, 1982 (p. 46), a picture full of drama, actually offers us, in a way, an image of a megalith capped with a defining horizontal.

Fenêtre, diptych, 1980, a transitory work, is in many respects another elegy, a study in blues ribbed by a series of slightly skewed, broken vertical lines. It is airy and atmospheric, subdued and calm in its movement, its three main areas suspended like curtains of light. There are, however, two pointed intrusions in the form of two bands of raw canvas that cut in from either side, close to horizontal, one to each panel, on top at the left, at the bottom on the right. The term cut is particularly appropriate because the lines, vertical and horizontal, are like slashes in the canvas, both a token of its flatness and, ironically, almost, an insistence on a space beyond - not the space between canvas and wall but the arena of imaginative action. Despite its manifest openness Fenêtre, diptych is non-committal. The two lines that might mark off the window, the opening, occupy adjacent panels.
The grid, a vertical-horizontal scaffolding, marks a close approach to a description of the compositional rectangle, the canvas itself a map of its charged space. Over time this concern with the potential space of the painting leads to the proposal of a doorway format, as in Openings, 1982 (p. 48), a triptych which recalls the 1960s paintings in offering three juxtaposed, “democratic” variations on a theme - the theme of opening a way onto another space. We are again presented with a number of comparable views, there is no hierarchical order. The three “doorways” are framed with broken bands of red, and marked by the texture of their application. They open onto monochromatic, richly textured voids—like Tapiès’ voids, all resolutely there on the surface yet also, almost paradoxically, despite themselves, something more.

Door into the dark, 1982 (p. 47) is indeed darker, teeming with ghostly presences and also, through the use of an involved patterning of bands and planes, sets up a network of levels and depths. It leads us inexorably into the dark space at the centre of the composition. Much of Madden’s efforts at this time can be seen to be directed towards establishing, even excavating this space in the picture.

The surfaces of Door into the dark and Portail, 1982 (p. 46), present what are effectively disrupted grids, as if she is punching through the skin of the grid, opening a way into the pictures. Each is divided into an interlocking series of planes, implying several frames within frames, surrounding a darker central panel. Carrying over the methodology of the elegies, this panel straddles the join of the two canvases and the split is, furthermore, underlined by characteristic, stark, taped vertical lines of raw fabric which assert the thereness, the flatness of the picture plane in the most direct way against the depth of the void.

It is a reductive process in the sense that she is discarding every extraneous element to concentrate on the basic pictorial armature, but the object of her reductionism is not to arrive at painting as pure materiality - what you see is what you get - but to find out if there is something there, to plumb the depths. The window/door motif explicitly evokes a space beyond, whether inside looking out or outside looking in.

Window, 1985 (p. 57) is one of a series of works on paper that rehearse the rhetoric of formalist painting - flat bands of pure colour arranged in minimal, abstract patterns - but implicate it in the heretical evocation of a space. Big night window, 1985, for example, is the Matisse of Porte-Fenêtre revisited in the light of the intervening preoccupation with formalism. The cruciform arrangement of these beautiful works spans the void of night with lines of tension, and opens out the paintings: the night spills off the edges, bursting the framework of the grid. Besides which, the tau cross also hints at a human presence.

Eventually, as she had anchored her elegies to the image of the megalith, Madden found an anchor for the openings, seeing in them another doorway onto a past, a past with powerful associations with life and death - the life and abrupt death in life of Pompeii. Pompeii is an evocative and vivid subject not least because it is universally recognisable. The spectacle of a town stilled in the midst of its daily life offers a compelling intimation of mortality.

Pompeii is the darkness, the death onto which life’s doorway opens, but it is also the image of life itself, transcendence. She vividly remembers, during her teens, learning of two cataclysmic events, both of which immediately struck her as surpassing, in their different ways, the grasp of the imagination. One was Auschwitz and the terrible fact of the holocaust. Her first brush with the scale and horror of the Final Solution was in the form of newsreel footage shot by Sidney Bernstein as an officer with the Allied forces. The other was the destruction of Hiroshima by an atomic bomb in 1945. The awesome scale of this event was brought home to her in a book by John Hershey.

“To write poetry after Auschwitz is barbaric,” Theodor Adorno wrote in a much quoted remark. Adorno was acutely conscious of the guilt of the survivor, of the individual need to repudiate the sensibility that made Auschwitz possible. In a way the Openings and Madden’s subsequent work are an attempt to find a way into the space of poetry closed off by the terror of history. Pompeii was a natural calamity and is obviously not comparable with Auschwitz, but it is a powerful symbol of catastrophe on a shocking scale and bore a particular, personal association for Madden.
Besides which, the turn of the decade had of course seen an upheaval in the international art world, as a result of which painting was back in vogue, and it was possible to make representational images again. In Europe and America painters leapt at this sudden licence, but, like many artists, Madden was noticeably cautious about representation, seeing continuity where others saw disruption.

To her, as to many other observers of Neo-Expressionism, the modernist project was never just a formalist exercise of diminishing returns but a far wider activity with resonances in every area of life. And perhaps she felt something of the same anxiety as William Crozier when he remarked of his own reluctance to bring the figure back into his painting that it is “extremely difficult to paint the figure nowadays, because we really only have an old-fashioned language for doing it. If you look at Titian you know that he’s sure of where he stands...whereas...we’re actually uncertain. The result is the formal vulgarity of the Neo-Expressionist painters.”30

Nevertheless, very quickly after embarking on the Openings, and with Pompeii as her reference she plunged into her most explicitly representational painting since the 1950s. It is appropriate enough that she chose to people the pictorial space she excavated from the grid with the subject of another celebrated excavation, that of Pompeii which, buried in 79AD by an eruption of Mt Vesuvius and sealed in lava (like the Burren a world of stone), became an object of sensation late in the 18th century when archaeologists discovered that it and its unfortunate inhabitants had been held in a unique state of preservation.

A long series of works, extending from 1982 to 1985includes, in various levels and guises, imagery derived predominantly from documentary records of Pompeii, its Spaces, buildings, walls, inhabitants and art. Doorway, 1982, is a graphite and oil on paper triptych, consisting of a dark central opening skirted by two sections of “wall”- mimicking the form of the Elegies - thatsuggest the qualities of paint and plaster aged over long periods of time. The antiquity and the dark, gaping space of the central doorway make it as tomblike as the megaliths, though more explicitly representational. Still, flatness is never contradicted in purely physical terms. There is no perspective. The depth of the opening is matter-of-fact, a fait accompli and the painting, as it were, becomes the wall it describes.

Since her teens, Madden had in her possession a postcard reproduction of part of a Roman wall painting from Pompeii. The card had belonged to her father, and while she kept it for sentimental reasons it finally led her to the subject of Pompeii. Going through an unproductive period, the image on the card, the Flagellata figure, became a kind of talisman of which she made countless drawings.

This figure, a semi-nude girl draped across the knees of an older woman, is thought to represent an initiate in a Dionysian rite. The room of which it forms a part at the Villa of the Mysteries contains some of the finest examples of Roman wall painting to have survived and is thought to have been designed for the practices of a Dionysian Mystery cult, one of many such cults enthusiastically imported into Roman society from the Hellenised East: ideas of Oriental spiritualism with secret rites, mysticism, gnosis, filtering in.

They promised an entry to arcane wisdom and salvation through union with a deity, merging daily life with the realm of myth, and initiation entailed a degree of suffering - which is what is happening here, as the younger woman is being whipped by a winged figure and comforted by her older companion. For Madden, the privileged knowledge so earned became a symbol of the inspiration from which she felt excluded and she has recounted how,31 one day, when a small drawing of the Flagellata fell onto another, larger drawing, she got the idea of introducing the figure in earnest: hence the flagellata incorporated almost incidentally in Portail avec flagellata, 1982 (p. 80).

Thereafter, the initiate became a recurrent presence in the Pompeii work, together with other figures drawn from the same source, notably the winged creature scourging the flagellante and a woman who looks on, dancing. So, too, do other Pompeiian subjects: a dog frozen in its death throes, a copulating couple. The six constituent panels of Traces of Pompeii, 1984-85 (p. 55)orchestrate many disparate elements: the grid construction with its bands of colour opening onto spaces which contain the dog, the dancer, the figure with a whip. All three women appear in Opening with figures, 1984 (p. 53). Another six-panel piece, Opening with figures, 1985 (p. 42) depicts a copulating couple - sex as generative, transcendental - and underlines the dog’s role as a symbolic sacrificial presence.

Madden locates her figures against a fabulously rich red ground. There is something earthy about this ground, though it’s a hotter colour than red earth. It still seems as if the forms are moulded from it, emerge organically out of it, that there is a direct connection between figures and ground, as if they were pieces of pottery placed in a clay pit.

The figures in the Villa of the Mysteries are in fact themselves depicted against a red ground. Beautifully painted, they occupy a kind of shallow shelf of illusionistic space. Madden is necessarily treating fragments of the overall tableaux, but she further fragments her sources, sometimes almost burying her images or homing in on details that veer close to abstraction, as in Pompeiian doorway III, 1982 (p. 51). These are paintings about painting, not in the reductionist, formal sense, but in terms of exploring what is possible in painting. A space is excavated in the formalist grid, an historical, human space. But tradition is tenuously there, fragmented, scattered.

In Antigone, 1985 and Antigone and Polynices, 1985 (p. 56), Madden sets about reuniting the fragments, referring to Sophocles’ version of the story of Antigone, the mythical heroine who defied the edict of Creon that her brother Polynices’ body should lie where he had fallen in battle and not be accorded the honour of burial. Antigone, for love of her brother and because she believed it was a duty that superseded the laws of man, sprinkled earth over his mutilated body, was condemned to death and interred alive in a vault, where she hanged herself. Antigone’s gesture of defiance reaffirms the nobility and fidelity of the human protagonist in the face of overwhelming repression. Though Creon holds absolute power he cannot break her spirit, nor break the bond she enjoys with her brother and her commitment to a superior sacred duty. “There are,” Madden noted in 1987, “many Antigones in our world.”32

Madden’s Antigone is an angel, a divine being who raises Polynices’ body from the earth. She does so against a composite framework of openings, of four and then six panels. She acts in the face of the adversity of history and there is a personal dimension to Madden’s adaptation of the theme. It is also, however, used in a wider sense. In the context of the work surrounding it, it is reasonable to see Antigone’s gesture of defiance as relevant to the art of its time and to the general issue of creative endeavour. The creative act in antiquity was seen as an act of rebellion against the divine order: the merely human individual took upon his or herself the role of God, imitating God’s creative function. In the Hebraic world, creativity equalled transgression. In the Hellenic world Prometheus stole fire from the gods and is punished. Plato frowned on artists as shallow and misleading imitators of a reality which they did not understand and to which they contributed nothing.

Antigone’s action, in Madden’s painting, is a transgression of sorts as well, in that it is an insistence on meaning (as manifested in the memory of those dear to her), at a time when meaning is being eroded not by Platonically inspired strictures but by culture slipping by chance into the fruitless and remote orbit to which Plato dismissively consigned it.

Again, the argument of the work is that painting is equal to the fundamental realities of human existence, and that its true vocation is in remaining close to those realities. Madden, it should be said, is genuinely alarmed at the blandly promiscuous view of postmodernist culture, seeing it as corrosive of the possibility of meaning in creative practice, as undermining the very essence of creative endeavour.

In place of the illusory, self-referring, self-replicating space of technological reproduction, the endless maze of autonomous images posited by postmodern theorists, Madden proposes a space with depth, a referential depth sanctioned by the authenticity of individual action, exemplified in her memory of those who have disappeared. The figures of Antigone and Polynices are set within a grid framework formed by a series of openings, each skirted by bands of colour—the formalist network again breached by an insistence on a referential space, one that is here sanctioned by ethical memory, within the picture plane.


It is not too great an exaggeration to suggest that the most recent body of paintings that Madden has produced are, at heart, about regaining the charged, heightened space of the studio. What is so special about the studio? More pertinently, what is special about the studio as a symbol in this body of work? To answer such questions, we must look at the overall use of imagery and symbolism in the Sea Change and their companion paintings and drawings. Specifically, we have to follow the thread that binds head, white box, studio, gallery boat or vessel and the painting itself together, that makes each link in this chain more or less synonymous.

Chemins Eclairés, 1988 (p. 63) offers three views of the same garden path. It is another tentative exploration of the territory mapped out in Le Jardin, 1988 (p. 59) and Night garden, 1990 (p. 61), all of which employ variations on Madden’s characteristic juxtaposition of opposites: darkness and light, night and day, death and life, despair and hope, chaos and order. Tentative because the device of multiple views here slows down the painting, creating an effect of stasis, as of some action repeatedlly recalled. Light is inspiration, illumination, and the paintings chart the emblematic move from darkness to light. We follow the chemins eclairés three times, arrive at the threshold of light three times but always stop short (three denials?). Entrance to the house of the tragic poet, 1990 (p. 64) gives us some inkling of the reasons for hesitation: that “tragic” reverberates through the shadows. The path leads to the studio, the place and state of artistic endeavour, and to enter is to take on the weight of responsibility for the world outside of oneself, to take on memory, grief, loss.

It was in fact after yet another traumatic personal loss in 1984, that Madden was unable to work and, as she puts it herself, retreated “into a dark room”, a dark room of the self. During this time she literally could not get herself into the studio. The path and garden paintings are hence literal descriptions of finding her way back to the studio. And of course it is tempting to see the dark-lit paths in the night paintings as leading to the “dark room”, and the radiant passages of the daylight paintings as leading to the imaginative vitality of the studio. Doorways, openings, thresholds - as always they represent moments of decisive change, of initiation, death, metamorphosis.

The path from the “dark room”, or the Dark cube, 1989, leads to the studio, or the Box of light, 1989, the Magic box, 1989, a “box” that we can perhaps usefully compare with Louis le Brocquy’s image of the human head. “For me,” he has written, “as perhaps for our Celtic and Gallic ancestors, the human head can be regarded ambivalently as a box which holds the spirit prisoner, but which may also free it transparently within the face.”33 When Madden led him to the Musée de l’Homme in 1964, he found, in a group of Polynesian heads, “ancestral skulls re-formed with clay and paint”,34 inspiration for the image that has largely dominated his work since.

Madden’s cube is an elegantly simple but metaphorically rich motif, the potential meanings of which she proceeds to explore on a number of levels. She treats object itself literally but archetypically, using the standard illusionistic device of a drawing of a transparent cube, rendered as in an outline axonometric projection, which demands that we see one of its faces as being in front, and one at the rear, though our view of which advances and which recedes can alternate continually – an elementary, flexible pictorial symbol to visualise the mind’s box of tricks. In a series of studies on paper, freely handled oil pigment is applied to the linear armature of the cube. Light flares through around the outlines in irregular, liquid blocks, making dense, cloudy, amorphous patterns, like Rorschach tests.

The bravura chiaroscuro effects of these pieces relate them to a series of light-and-shade studies of paintings by Velasquez, Caravaggio, Giordano and others, in which the compositions are broken down into contrasting chequer boards or broadly defined areas of light and dark. It is hardly incidental that, in relation to these largely preparatory works, made perhaps as a means of finding a way into a workable imaginative space, openings of various kinds, doorways, windows, parted curtains, stone, feature in the majority of the source images. Most of them, as well, hinge on crucial narrative moments.

In painting the box, Madden underlines its actual flatness, its strict linearity, by implicating it in a more widespread grid structure, or, as it might also be interpreted, by repeating and extending its pattern to create a grid, a scheme of order, but she then reinforces its three-dimensional reality by selectively respecting its lines of demarcation with areas of paintwork, lending it existence in depth. Depth is the operative word given that the major series of paintings she made based on this idea are collectively entitled the Sea Changes, and are indeed submarine in atmosphere, shot through with brilliant, watery light.

Light on water and light through water are the dominant elements of this phase of her work, marking the completion of an elemental quartet. If the Co. Clare landscapes of the 1960s are characterised by their concern for rock or the earth itself the Elegies, those megalithic skies, belong to the air, while Pompeii is certainly fire and, finally, the Sea Changes return us to the water where everything begins: earth, air, fire and water.

Another set of paintings comes between the gardens and the Sea Changes, however: the Sources, quest allegories about this return to basics, an inner journey to the source of life and light, the sea. Le Bateau, 1989 (p. 60) offers a twin image reminiscent of the structural landscapes of the 1960s, and it includes waves breaking against a shore, lit with a phosphorescent glow, and a view of a boat negotiating dark waters. The boat suggests not only the voyage of discovery or rediscovery but a view of the painting itself as “a kind of vessel of magic”, as Hilton Kramer termed Rothko’s conception of his work.35 For Rothko, colour and light became the vessels of magic and in Madden’s Sea Changes, light, always important as both a symbol and a primary physical constituent of her paintings, is paramount.Source 1, 1989 (pp. 66-67) and Source II, 1989 (cat no. 57, p. 95) are like submerged night gardens - sea gardens, as, indeed, the later Sea garden, 1990, suggests - bathed in aqueous light, their surfaces seething with the flow of watery currents. They are meditative, formative works in which the all-important boxes of light seem to constitute themselves out of the flux. Something similar happens in Mirror Image, 1989 (p. 70). Here, far from the simple reflection the title implies, the cube seems to generate itself to come into being, in a way that again recalls the ambiguous reflections of the structural landscapes of the 1960s.

These works clear the decks, so to speak, for the Sea Changes themselves, luminously affirmative paintings. In Sea-Change I (p. 71) and II, 1989 (p. 72), In Deep Water, 1989 (p. 73), Sea Box, 1990 (p.74), Vessels of light II, 1990 (p. 69) and other works of the series, the light box is progressively opened out until it becomes the grid-pattern underlying the amorphous surface flow, stirred, like the sea, by tidal forces and winds. Schematic boxes sit against free-form, vigorously brushed planes, suffused with a radiant, mobile light, rendered with verve. The geometric boundaries of the boxes relate to the flexible, organic brushwork in a casual way, with much give and take: that is to say, the energies sweep through the boundaries and divisions, now affirming, now negating them.

The primary source to which the painter returns is of course the sea itself, and it is the Sea Changes that definitively confirm the transition from darkness to light. The sea is the depth evoked in the Elegies, the Openings, pictorial depth, a space, an arena of action, while the box-grid is the organising impulse at work on the picture plane. But the pictures accommodate the duality of flatness and depth. The cube is both three and two dimensional, depending on how we choose to see it, it jumps back and forth against the surface, or it becomes a flat pattern on the surface: we have the freedom to read it whichever way we like, the freedom to choose depth or flatness, the freedom to make our own space.
For Frank Stella, the painter who first gave significance to the studio, who decisively located the imaginative dramatic arena in the studio, was Caravaggio. “In order to be able to do what he did, Caravaggio had to change the way things were done in painting in the late sixteenth century. The biggest change was made by giving painting its own space. He freed painting from architecture and decoration, and pointed out what painting’s proper relationship to patronage, both clerical and private, should be. But most important he changed the way artists would have to think about themselves and their work; he made the studio into a place of magic and mystery, a cathedral of the self. In the studio Caravaggio created his own space.”36 Michael Fried is a theorist whose championing of the Modernist enterprise in painting parallels Greenberg’s to some extent, in that he broadly concurs with Greenberg’s view of painting as being successful and progressive to the extent that it becomes more fully itself, the way it defines itself against other representational forms.”37 Fried’s analysis is predicated on the opposing tendencies of absorption, that is the oblivious self-absorption of the art form, and theatricality, a knowing playing to the audience.

Significantly, he sees a positive moral dimension to the concentration of the modernist imagination on the aesthetic, at the presumed expense of the social and political. Painting, he argues, may seem increasingly divorced in obvious referential terms from the workaday social and economic realities and concerns of the society from which it springs, but in fact “the actual dialectic by which it is made has taken on more and more of the denseness, structure and complexity of moral experience - that is, of life itself, but life lived as few are inclined to live it: in a state of continuous intellectual and moral a1ertness.”38

More tentatively, Robert Hughes argues that “the chief tradition within which a modernist art of pleasurable sensation has been made—an art which is rigorous and intelligent, rather then the mere evocation of agreeable feelings—is that of Symbolism; a tradition of equivalents, whereby the word (in poetry) or the colour patch and linear edge (in painting) achieve, without necessarily describing it, a harmony and exactness parallel to the satisfactions of the world... In front of a Diebenkorn like Ocean Park No 66, one hears...one measured voice, quietly and tersely explaining why this light, this colour, this intrusion of a 30 degree angle into a glazed and modulated field might be valuable in the life of the mind and of feeling.”39 (Diebenkorn, he goes on to relate, was transformed by seeing Matisse’s Porte-Fenêtre a Collioure). In restricting the scope of his subject to the field of “pleasurable sensation”, he stops well short of Fried’s assertion of a moral dimension, and the moral dimension is without doubt a vital element in Madden’s work.

The Sea Change paintings are particularly inward looking. There is a certain loneliness about them. Madden’s work of the 1970s and much of the 1980s was coloured by the memory of others, people close to her - memorials to her family and friends, acknowledgements of their existence. This sense of duty, of duty to the other, the immediate, known other and the anonymous, historical other, represents the adoption of an ethical position. In The Wake of Imagination Richard Kearney posits a model of an ethical imagination that, against a background of postmodernism’s depthless space, its endless play of signifiers cut adrift from referents, a world of substitutes for a presence perpetually deferred, takes as its starting point a recognition of “the ethical existence of the other as an other - the inalienable right to be recognised as a particular person whose very otherness refuses to be reduced to a mimicry of sameness.”40

In Antigone Madden adapts an allegory of this sense of ethical responsibility to the other, and in her treatment of the painting she recognises that the discharge of that responsibility is a means of making one’s own space in the midst of the “technological sublime”.41 We can also see in Antigone an allegory of modernism embracing its other - the realm of referentiality excluded by high formalism. Yet in a way, whereas the Elegies and the Openings invoke the past in suggesting the importance of keeping the faith, of maintaining a will to transcendence, linking her own feelings and responsibilities with historical models, and by association arguing for the maintenance and evolution of a high cultural tradition, the Sea Changes, oddly enough, see her thrown back on her own resources, pointing to an individual responsibility to oneself. They eschew the contemporary clutter of imagery and are spare, formal and precise. Yet even as they might seem to incline towards Greenbergian purity, they flout its terms, insisting on depth in flatness, on the creation of a viable imaginative space, a world of individual possibility. It is this quality that makes them finally, affirmative, emblematic paintings of their time.


29 The artist quoted by Dorothy Walker in the Irish Arts Review, Vol , No , Autumn 1986.
30 William Crozier interviewed by the author, Sunday Tribune, August 5th, 1990.
31 Irish Arts Review, Autumn 1986.
32 Statement by the artist in the catalogue for an exhibition of her work at the Taylor Galleries, Dublin, 1987.
33 Louis le Brocquy, ‘Notes on Painting and Awareness’, reprinted in Louis le Brocquy by Dorothy Walker (Dublin, Ward River, 1981), p.147.
34 An experience related by Dorothy Walker in Louis le Brocquy, p.44.
35 Hilton Kramer, The Revenge of the Philistines: Art and Culture, 1972-1984 (New York, Free Press, 1985) p.149.
36 Frank Stella, ‘Working Space’, p.12.
37 Steven Connor, Postmodernist Culture, p.8.
38 Fried quoted by Steven Connor, Ibid., p.8 4.
39 Robert Hughes, The Shock of the New (London, BBC, 1980), p.143.
40 Richard Kearney, The Wake of Imagination, p.361.
41 Ibid., p.379.