Interview with Marianna Gartner by Silvia Bottani

I met Marianna Gartner two years ago during her solo exhibition entitled ‘An Eye for an Eye” which took place at the magnificent Belvedere Palace in Vienna. I had discovered her works by chance, strolling through the halls of the Basel fair, while admiring Bacon’s and Rauch ‘s paintings. Among the thousands of canvases and three-dimensional works, I bumped into the portrait of a spooky young girl staring at me, in silent astonishment, her still face, her naked chest only covered by a fine dress. All of a sudden I was captured by this vision and could not but stop in front of it. And it still happens the same to me every time I look at Gartner’ s works: this magnetism emanating from her canvases continues to catch my eye.

Canadian artist Marianna Gartner is an acute and sensitive painter who also has a “liaison dangereuse” with photography. Her works are strictly connected with photography as she makes use of the iconography of early photography to create a subtly neo-surrealistic poetry lying on the border between reality and fiction.

I interviewed her on the occasion of the exhibition, which marked the final point after some months spent living and working at the Belvedere Museum, studying the Museum’s collection. This smart and refined artist solo show included, among the others, some unprecedented pieces of art hanging near the masterpieces of the Museum’s permanent collection from which Gartner had drawn inspiration.

Martin Tadman with Pet Squirrel oil on canvas 110x200 cm, 2007

Martin Tadman with Pet Squirrel oil on canvas 110×200 cm, 2007

Your work is been always inspired by the early photography. This is more evident with this show, where the direct reference is the tradition of the great West Painting instead, specially the Modern one. May you tell us about this relation?

Yes, my work has most often been inspired by old photographs, especially the Carte de visit and Cabinet cards from the late 19th and early 20th centuries.  For my exhibition at the Belvedere Museum I chose to create works which would have a dialogue with pieces from the permanent collection of the museum, but most often I still looked to early photographs for references to use as the main figures in the paintings.  For example my paintings “Zwei Brüder”, “Dog Walker”, “I wear my fur inside out” and the “Portrait of Istvan Kertesz” all contain figures from old photographs.  In other works such as “Europa” and the small sculptural piece “Sleeping Satyr” I used photographs which I had made myself for the works.

The photography originally take the painting’s estetical language and then emancipated itself. Conversely the last decade painting has realized a camouflage process, looking like the photography. What do you think about this virtuous or vicious circle?

It is interesting to examine why some artists choose to paint in such a realistic manner that the image itself looks like a photograph, and what is the virtue in that.  For myself, I don’t consider myself an extreme “realist” who attempts to copy a photograph through painting, rather I try to capture the feeling of these characters that seem caught in time and space, and then resurrect them into another world, if not our immediate one.  So for me it is the essence of a particular face and figure that I wish to capture and recreate through paint, but not for the purpose of trying to demonstrate the virtuosity of replicating a photograph exactly, as I’ve never really seen the point of that.

Marianna Gartner selection

Girl with Bear oil on canvas 200×110 cm, 2007 e White horses with tattooed lady oil on canvas 214×152 cm, 2009

I’m am impressed by the “Unheimlich”, the disquiet that permeate your paintings. The iconography you choose, anatomical details, animals, the clothes that do not match the historical period, the gap between the black and white subject and the colors of the scene: these elements seems only the most obvious things that make this estrangement. I think that contributes significantly also the specific pictorial quality, the static nature of the subjects and their relation with the environment.

I like how you recognized the “disquiet” in my works, although it is not something I set out to do but rather something that just happens over the course of creating these pieces.  It is the juxtaposition of these different elements that you mention which is what interests me and has contributed to my “vocabulary” when I am painting.

Regarding your painting, the writer Alberto Manguel talks about an “haunting quality” who you are interested into, which come from the early photography. I guess this idea is significant because I see a kind of overlap between your painting and the photographic language, as if one were the ghostly reflection of the other one…

Yes, there is something about old photographs:  the neutrality of tone in the image, the static figures caught in time and usually looking directly at the viewer with a fixed stare,  the use of animals as props or as subjects in their own right….all of which I find immensely fascinating.  It seems contrived to say so but it really is the eyes which capture me most often and make me want to use a particular face or figure from an old photograph.  Also, they function as anonymous models for an artist such as myself, and just as in early photography when artists were hired to alter the negatives in order to change facial features and deformities, I too feel free to replace one figure’s head with another or do any number of manipulations through paint or other mediums in order to create my own version of these people without restrictions.  So there is most definitely an overlap between my works and photographs.

Little Birds oil on canvas 200x347 cm, 2011

Little Birds oil on canvas 200×347 cm, 2011

Talking about photography and portrait, they also had the dual role of historical-cultural witness and individual memory. Your works are, however, a curious evolution of these two currents. Although they seem like evidences of the artistic tradition of the past and lives, people now lost, in fact they are pure creations unrelated to a desire to transmit real memories. I can call them fictional memories. They are testimony of existences not-existent if you grant me the pun. What is the role of memory in the development of your poetry?

“Fictional memories” is a perfect way to describe what I do, because although I do use figures as archives from another time and place, my intention is not to create a historical record that recalls past experiences but rather to create scenes which can challenge a contemporary viewer.  At the same time, the role of memory is still very important to my work, as without memories the viewer may not recognize the iconography in my works.  So while the figures represented seem to have lack of emotion, the disparity between the different elements and the nostalgic atmosphere may lead a viewer to think they know what the painting is about, or what the figures are experiencing, but in reality they can never be sure of what is the true story behind the image.

Photo credits: Marianna Gartner

Marianna Gartner selection 2

I Wear My Fur Inside Out oil on canvas 148×88.5 cm, 2011 e Shy Guy oil on canvas 129×89 cm, 2010

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