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Poltern Newsletter 013
17 December 2021
Welcome to the thirteenth Poltern Newsletter.
This month’s issue includes a reflection on time and place prompted by Titian’s Transfiguration written by Henry Woodland; an excerpt of an article on the category-bending work of Kalighat and Modern Indian artist Jamini Roy written by Sana Waqar; an interview between NYC-based visual artist Dawei Wang and Anna Ghadar on home studios, old home dreams, and why Prismacolor pencils are the artist’s medium of choice.
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Thank you for being here.
The Poltern Team
Dead Venetians: Venice Diary, December 2021
by Henry Woodland
There’s this young boy in Titian’s Transfiguration, in the San Salvador, who stretches a hand out from the right of the canvas in a way that makes it seem like he rests above the picture, rather than being contained within it. I stood very quietly in the dark and tried to receive the image as if the hand were above the finished representation of Christ, the boy reaching out as if it to confirm he wasn’t actually there.
I don’t mind admitting here that to see this Titian; I had broken into a church in the Dorsoduro, it being closed to the public due to a small funeral which was occurring in one of the side chapels. Having pushed open a back door, I strolled quietly through the shadows of the eastern wing and stood viewing the Titian from the side.
I justify my choice on a few grounds: it was late, I was tired, hungover, and I had visited all of the other churches in the area, including the Scuola di San Giorgio Degli, where a kind man at the door had taken pity on me and let me enter without paying a fee. The more established galleries were too expensive or too crowded, and Italy had recently restricted them to those with a European ‘Green Pass’ which, being a visitor, I had no means to obtain. The funeral also meant the church was empty, lending the experience an intensity which it would not have otherwise achieved.
I held up my own hand and blocked out all but the right third of the painting, which centred on three hands. In that part, Elijah reaches out in surprise at Christ’s arrival, and James seems to cover his eyes in the same manner I did, perhaps trying to block out some aspect of Christ’s image.
I looked over at the funeral, where the Catholics surrounded the propped coffin of an old man. It is unclear to me whether the open casket is meant to bring home the lifelessness of the figure or to remind us of the ultimate irrelevance of what we can see and feel in favour of spirit. Outside, a Vaporetto blew its horn. A young girl in the funeral party began to cry. The BBC News app informed me that an atrocity had been committed in Brazil.
As I was reflecting on these events, a young priest in a cassock walked up to me and gestured lightly behind him. ‘Sir, there is a funeral here,’ he reproached. ‘I am one of the family,’ I replied in perfect Italian. He seemed confused and appeared not to understand me. I repeated the sentence in English and was met with a look of disapproval, as if, somehow, he knew I was being untruthful. Vigilant, I explained in perfect Italian, my theory regarding the touch of the man with the lower hand and how it had made me reflect on the inherent absence of my grandfather or godfather (I couldn’t be sure of the precise word) to whom I gestured lying prone in the other chapel. For some reason, the priest pretended not the understand my story but gazed up at the Titian as if looking at it for the first time.
Afterward, he spoke for a while, still in English, about the ‘religious significance of the picture’. He said the painting exemplified the Venetian emphasis on colorito as opposed to the Florentine emphasis on disegno in pictures (two words I did not know), but more importantly, that the robes of the apostles at the bottom of the painting were no less incandescent, just less lit. He said this last word, almost concerned, fingering the cross around his neck. Yes, I repeated. Less lit.
Henry Woodland is currently a master’s candidate at the University of Cambridge. He recently completed a master’s in English at the University of Oxford.
Excerpt | Comparing the two: what elevates Jamini Roy’s paintings from Kalighat paintings to be recognized as ‘Modern Indian Art’?
by Sana Waqar
Jamini Roy (1887-1972) was born in April 1887 in a small estate at Baliatore, a village in the Bankura District of West Bengal. He was the younger son of middle-class landowning parents and took a keen interest in the work of the village craftsmen. At 16, his father sent him to Calcutta to study at the Government School of Art, where he was trained in the European academic-realist style. He established himself as a professional portrait painter in oils before he even finished his course at the school, earning popularity in the Calcutta Art world. At 34, he felt dissatisfied with his art practice and decided to unlearn and experiment with new themes and techniques.
Roy had a keen interest in popular theatre, which gave him a sense of reality and illusion along with the folk culture of Bengal. He mainly sought inspiration from terracotta temple panels of Bishnupur and Kalighat paintings to develop his new style, which had a vision and genuine feeling as he approached folk art, not as an outsider but someone who had intimate knowledge and understanding of folk culture and life. Folk painting is all about simplicity, symbolic quality, and non-representational purity of form and color, which attracted Jamini Roy. He felt the same urge as folk artists to convey the feeling and vision of a mind rather than imitating nature and to communicate in a world of universals, e.g., reducing all trees to a single conceptual image of 1 tree which becomes the universal tree with no individual identity. He believed that Hindu myths formed the basis of a culture where abstractions of form could lead to symbols; hence he returned to his Karigar (artisan) tradition instead of Western or Nationalist Art. (Chatterjee 1990; Dey 1944). […]
“As a consequence of the colonial experience, the emerging modern in Indian Painting was strongly motivated by an urge to define a national identity.” (Sinha 2003: 81) It is because of this quest for identity that Indian artists went back to the historical and mythical themes looking at traditions of manuscript painting and even Ajanta wall paintings. Jamini Roy, on the other hand, was the only artist who opted for Bengali folk culture as inspiration, particularly Kalighat paintings, to build up his new style of pictorial language.
Some biographers have criticized Jamini Roy for his art being static and merely decorative designs. Still, I think he achieved excellence in his simplification of forms in a way that captured the essence of myths and folk culture. His iconic style of strong, swift lines and pure colors, though lacking the dramatic movements, violent gestures, and satirical themes of Kalighat paintings, provided comfort and strength to the viewers and nostalgia for the past. His rejection of the European academic-realist training that could earn him much recognition and wealth, in favor of experimenting with creating a distinct personal style, indicates his modernist aspiration. (Sinha 2003) His efforts to unlearn and start fresh looking within his origin for inspiration is truly commendable.
Looking at Roy’s paintings, I do see a lack of body movements, facial expressions, and social commentary compared to Kalighat paintings, but I still disagree with people who think he merely applied Modern Western aesthetics of simplification and balanced arrangement to folk themes, making his work static. For me, his constantly evolving as an artist and ability to create a world of universals like the Bengali woman and Byzantine themes make him a true genius who was one of the pioneers of Modern Art in India and the world over.
This text is adapted from a longer article by Waqar. To read the complete text, please reach out to the author here.
Sana Waqar is a UAE-based visual artist and textile designer from Pakistan. She recently completed her Masters of Art and Design Studies from Beaconhouse National University.
Artist Interview | Dawei Wang
By Anna Ghadar
I spoke with Dawei Wang, a visual artist based in NYC (Specifically, Greenpoint, Brooklyn—where I used to live!), about art school, moving, traveling for work, and the like. Dawei recounted traveling to England (where I just moved from) around ten years ago to meet with a collector of his work. We compared experiences within UK museums and galleries and shared opinions on English historical architecture. Then, we got into his love of Prismacolor and draftsmanship…
AG: How are you?
DW: I’m good!
AG: I love your work; I’m so excited to speak with you about it.
DW: Thank you.
AG: So, Dawei, I was wondering if you could give me a little background on your practice?
DW: I’m from Shanghai, China. When I was a child I liked to draw everything on the walls so, when I was 14 years old, my parents sent me to art school. Then, I graduated from Shanghai Normal University with an MFA in oil painting. And I’m still creating today.
AG: You’ve had a very specialized arts education.
DW: Yeah, professional.
AG: How long have you been in the States?
DW: Six years. At first, my wife and I lived in Baltimore [Maryland] because she was studying for her MFA in Illustration at the Maryland Institute of Art.
AG: I’m from Washington, DC, so I’m familiar with the school–it’s great. Did you live in Baltimore for a while after she finished her studies?
DW: We stayed in Baltimore for about two years and then moved to New York.
AG: So you were here [in NYC] throughout the pandemic? How was that?
DW: Yeah. It was okay because I could stay home and completely concentrate on my studio practice. So it worked well for me.
AG: You have a home studio?
DW: Yes! I can just stay at home and work.
AG: What are you working on now?
DW: I’m working on new works on paper, following the tiny-sized works you see on my Instagram. But I’m now creating large-sized work from those [drafts]. I usually base these on my life experiences.
AG: Do you feel like your subjects have changed since the pandemic? Has your practice changed at all working from home?
DW: Totally. Since the pandemic, everything has changed. I’ve stayed at home a lot. I tended to turn to my new stuff.
AG: And you said your wife is an illustrator. Do you two bounce ideas off each other while working at home?
DW: Yes, we definitely do. She does children’s books usually.
AG: I see you have a work in progress behind you now. What are you currently working on?
DW: This is the sketch *holds up to the camera* — this is just the draft. I’ll show you the formal work, but it’s still pending right now. I’m still working on it.
AG: You can tell it’s Greenpoint! Which street is it?
DW: On Green Street, where I live.
AG: It has that distinctly Greenpoint architecture.
DW: This piece is called 7pm in Green Street. During the pandemic, people would applaud and shout at 7pm daily, and I wanted to draw that.
AG: So sweet. You know, when you first told me the name of your previous work, 7pm in Green Street, before you noted it was when people clap for service workers, I thought of Monet’s Rouen Cathedral series, where he paints the cathedral at different times of day to capture the shifts in the daylight.
How long does this draft process take before you go onto the larger works?
DW: Oh, yes, right. I do play with daylight and time. It usually takes me two or three months to complete the larger pieces.
AG: You have so much attention to detail. Since you formally studied oil painting, how does that impact your use of colored pencil now?
DW: In China, we practiced drawing for a long time. So boring. But it’s not all bad. Now, I draw with colored pencils, and it all depends on my techniques. I’m very aware because of this, which is good for me. I can control pencil very well, too. My favorite pencils are Prismacolor because there are so many different kinds of colors I can choose from, and I prefer the moderate hardness.
AG: I love the softer, almost pastel colors you have with colored pencils. Harder to obtain with oils, which come across as heavier.
DW: Yes, I like that pencil is so light.
AG: Has your practice changed at all since moving from Shanghai to New York? Or from China to the US more generally?
DW: For me, it’s totally the same. Wherever I’m staying, I just concentrate on my work. I fully depend on my intuition to find something I like, like at a museum. I’m still learning English, too, and integrating socially, too.
AG: Have you been to any museum shows you liked recently?
DW: My favorite show recently was about three years ago at MoMA. The Congolese artist who built architectural structures with paper. Here, I have the book. *Holds up Bodys Izsek Kingelez: City Dreams exhibition catalog*
AG: That was a really great show. I can tell how much you like architecture based on its role in your work and how architectural Bodys’s show was.
DW: Yeah, exactly. I like to draw things based on what I’m familiar with, and I’m always out walking the streets.
AG: How many pieces do you work on at a time? I see you have a couple up right now.
DW: I usually work on three or four at a time. I get stuck on one piece, then go on to work on another. It’s painful and boring to be stuck on a piece; I don’t like to waste any time.
AG: Have you gotten stuck on this 7pm drawing?
DW: Yes, definitely. Sometimes, if the color is too light, I have to make it stronger or exchange the color. It’s hard to explain—it just depends on personal intuition.
AG: Is it difficult to jump between pieces since you work on multiple at a time?
DW: No, it’s fine for me because I’m usually working on pieces in the same series: about family or life experiences. I usually get stuck on compositional issues or color-related issues.
AG: You mention your life experiences a lot. Are there any ‘experiences’ in particular you’re thinking about?
DW: During the pandemic, people had to stay at home. It made me depressed. But I tried to express some relaxed feeling to my viewers and myself. A lot of people moved during the pandemic, too, right. So, I created this work about a family moving: In and Out.
AG: Did you imagine this scene, or did you actually see someone moving with all their stuff out?
DW: Almost all from my mind. Some details are from real life, though, like this wing armchair, ottomans, or clothes racks. The composition and color are from my imagination.
AG: It’s funny, seeing your recent work, I’m trying to gauge where in Greenpoint these buildings are. Is this one in Greenpoint? I don’t recognize it.
DW: No, this isn’t in Greenpoint. I love historic houses, and sometimes I look online and use those old houses in the background. Do you know the website ‘Old House Dreams’? I use it every day.
AG: Okay, I’m going to scroll through it after this call.
DW: I’ll spend an hour or two on it at a time.
AG: Any other major influences?
DW: I really like the American artist Edward Hopper. His works look very simple and planned, but it feels powerful when I stand in front of his work. It touches your soul. I really like his work.
AG: I see his influence. It’s interesting, my master’s thesis advisor organized a lecture around how Hopper’s work has resonated so much during the pandemic because he paints a lot of people alone, inside, in isolation.
AG: So, before we go, do you have any recent or upcoming projects you’re excited about?
DW: I just closed a solo show in China a few months ago at KeYi Gallery in Hefei city, Anhui Provence.
AG: Were you able to go back for it? You have to do a fourteen-day quarantine or something, right?
DW: Yeah, we stayed here [in NYC]. You have to take a lot of Covid tests to travel into China. We just stayed here.
AG: Of course. Congrats, though. That is amazing. Was it a particular series you’d been working on?
DW: It was a collection of my colored pencil works on paper. You can see the show here.
AG: That’s so cool. Congrats, and I can’t wait to see what shows you’ll be working on in the future.
DW: Thank you.
Anna Ghadar is a writer currently based in Washington, DC. She recently completed her MSt in the History of Art and Visual Culture at the University of Oxford.