Deborah Poynton: Arcadia

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Deborah Poynton Arcadia




Arcadia 2010 Oil on canvas 11 panels 300 x 200cm each










Diorama 1 2010 Oil on canvas 75 x 250cm



Diorama 2 2010 Oil on canvas 75 x 250cm



Diorama 3 2010 Oil on canvas 75 x 250cm



Diorama 4 2010 Oil on canvas 75 x 250cm



Diorama 5 2011 Oil on canvas 75 x 250cm



Diorama 6 2011 Oil on canvas 75 x 250cm



Small Diorama 1 2011 Oil on canvas 30 x 50cm

Small Diorama 2 2011 Oil on canvas 30 x 50cm


Small Diorama 3 2011 Oil on canvas 30 x 50cm

Small Diorama 4 2011 Oil on canvas 30 x 50cm

Small Diorama 5 2011 Oil on canvas 30 x 50cm


Still Life 1 2010 Oil on canvas 50 x 30cm

Still Life 2 2011 Oil on canvas 50 x 30cm


Still Life 3 2011 Oil on canvas 50 x 30cm

Still Life 4 2011 Oil on canvas 50 x 30cm

Still Life 5 2011 Oil on canvas 50 x 30cm


Transcript of a talk by Deborah Poynton at Stevenson, Cape Town, on 4 March 2011

I would like to talk first about northern European paintings of Arcadia, and 17th-century landscape in general, because I am drawn to the philosophy and practice of that time in terms of my own work. Later on I’ll talk a bit about how I came to construct this particular Arcadia. The late 16th and early 17th centuries marked the end of the High Renaissance, and in Rome a new sensibility emerged as ancient Roman art was rediscovered, and painters came from northern Europe to learn from the new masters. Initially influenced by Caravaggio’s naturalism, artists like Claude Lorrain and Nicolas Poussin turned to the myths and architecture of antiquity to evoke a seemingly more noble time. The compositions became simpler, less flamboyant, focusing more on expression in the human figure, and the light and entirety of composition in landscape. The new century was still very religious but the church’s waning control of patronage and art-making allowed a space to open up for new kinds of philosophical expression. Landscape became a subject in its own right, no longer merely the background of religious painting. Landscape depicts the world outside the self, and inevitably places us in relation to that world in some way or another. Landscape is essentially metaphysical.


I recently saw a wonderful exhibition called Tivoli in Paris, just after I had finished painting this series. It consisted of many painters’ responses to the ruined temple of Sibyl which stands on some cliffs above Tivoli, near Rome. The exhibition clearly

charted the development of landscape in the 17th and 18th centuries, using just this one subject, one of the most popular subjects of the day. The earliest paintings were purely imagined. The artists probably hadn’t been there, but had made something up from hearsay and other people’s drawings. These paintings are exotic and inaccurate, saying perhaps more about the place the artist came from than the subject, rather like early colonial representations of Africa. They are entirely constructed. Towards the end of the period, along with scientific advancement, there was a move towards literal representations worked up from sketches on site and aspiring towards an accurate depiction of the actual place. But it is the middle period of this evolution that interests me most. A combination of constructed and literal, these paintings demonstrate a particular 17th-century concept called ‘invention’. Artists would study nature, plants, anatomy, the play of light, particular buildings, even geometry and optics. They would then arrange these things in an entirely constructed way. They invented landscapes that were not real, but that felt more profound than a simple depiction of an existing place. Towards the end of his life Lorrain was so masterful at this that he could paint perfect landscapes out of his imagination. This is what drives me in my own painting. I feel that ‘invention’ of this kind, which is an abstraction of reality long before the modernists dreamed of it, is a way in which we can see the world as if for real. We cannot just grasp reality – it remains outside of

ourselves. But ‘invention’ is an internalised reality, a safe place for the imagination. William Hazlitt wrote about Poussin’s paintings in 1824:

To give us nature, such as we see it, is well and deserving of praise; to give us nature, such as we have never seen, but have often wished to see it, is better, and deserving of higher praise. He who can show the world in its first naked glory, with the hues of fancy spread over it, or in its high and palmy state, with the gravity of history stamped on the proud monuments of vanished empire, – who, by his ‘so potent art,’ can recall time past, transport us to distant places, and join the regions of imagination (a new conquest) to those of reality, – who shows us not only what nature is, but what she has been, and is capable of, – he who does this, and does it with simplicity, with truth, and grandeur, is lord of nature and her powers; and his mind is universal, and his art the master-art! Artists such as Poussin and Lorrain, even Brueghel, reflected the philosophy of stoicism in their work. Once again taken from antiquity, Hellenic Greece in this case, the stoics believed in a determined world, and said that acting virtuously, which meant in accordance with nature, was the correct, moral way to live. In order to act virtuously it was necessary to follow the dictates of reason, or Logos, which is contained in everything in the world, a kind of animating fire that penetrates matter to give it life. They thought that all evil and suffering came from ignorance of our


true place in the order of things. In the paintings of Poussin, Logos seems to be shown through the light of the sun, sometimes no longer visible but pervading every part of the scene with heavenly beauty. We need to strive towards a better understanding and practice of Logos in every moment of our waking lives, but if we get too close to it we will be assimilated into a universal oneness. My own interpretation of this is that although we must always seek it, a true perception of Logos, the nature of the world, will lead to the annihilation of the self, because it is only our constructed view of the world that gives us our sense of self. We are by nature mythmakers. These 17th-century landscapes invite contemplation. If there are figures, they are humble and small in scale. Nature predominates. Light enfolds the scenes, plants push through cracks in the masonry, sometimes wild storms whip the trees as the shepherd struggles to bring his flock home. Poussin’s painting Et in Arcadia Ego depicts three shepherds and a shepherdess, also thought to be the figure of Reason. They are reading the inscription on a grave, in an Arcadian setting of trees, hills and sky. It is a memento mori, a reminder that Arcadia contains the annihilation of all living things. Poussin’s landscapes were beautiful, like the Dutch 17thcentury still lifes which suggest that life is transitory and that it is in vain to hold tightly to something which will simply rot away in your hands.


The exquisite beauty of Arcadian landscapes and Dutch still lifes only serves to emphasise the intangibility of existence.

In the next part of my talk I want to tell you about how I constructed this work, but first a word about my relationship to photography. Somehow there’s a myth out there that photography is reality. For me photography is a tool at the beginning of a long process. I take photographs with a particular feeling in mind or heart. The photo or photos of a plant, or person, have to contain enough information for my purposes. I take several exposures to ferret out this information. I used hundreds of photos from scores of locations for this work. I will change the light, the colours, the very structure of the plant to make it fit the place I am creating for it, but here I have tried to retain the order, the Logos within the natural scene I have created. I need photography but I don’t like my photographs. It’s more like I am going out and snipping off little bits of the world with my scissors. Then I take them home and make imaginary theatres with them. This Arcadia is composed somewhat differently from the conventional structure of the 17th-century Arcadia. Instead of seeing the temple or folly from the perspective of a pastoral foreground, we are standing inside it. The only way out of the gallery space is through the mind’s eye. Poussin once painted himself with a third eye in the middle of his forehead – the eye of the imagination. An art gallery is a contemporary temple to the mysterious, the unknowable; but also to aspiration and the desire to possess.

The panels are breaks in the exhibition space, windows onto a cloistered walkway made of cracked, ageing concrete. Pillars frame a wild park beyond, perhaps a metaphor for the limits we impose on our perception in order to see anything at all. To see completely would be annihilation of the self. We need to box in and tame nature with an aesthetic. And indeed, the park is not all wilderness but also shows signs of the human hand. There is a sense of a past long gone, an intention that has lost its purpose. There are a few distinctive elements which invite questions but do not dictate a particular story. Everyone who sees this work asks me what the car represents. I don’t really know myself but people have suggested all kind of things: it could be about a lack of connection in our technological age, or form part of a crime scene. I’ve been asked if it carries an environmental message, or refers to Victorian ideas of progress. In 17th-century landscapes the power of nature reminds us that death is ever present: lightning storms, torrents, even accidents are portrayed. In the 21st century the threat is sadly man-made: a chronic mistake, a severe lack of comprehension of Logos. All I know is that I felt the car to be a necessary intrusion into this Arcadia. Facing the car is a round pool which invites both literal and figurative reflection. Poussin often painted ponds and lakes which are thought to be metaphors for the inner peace gained from acceptance. So the scene is framed at one end by a sense of threat and at the other by a nostalgic stillness.

The middle ground offers welcoming glades and soft patches of grass, but unlike the endless vistas in Lorrain’s paintings, the background is closed in by trees. It’s impossible to situate this place in a greater topography, which limits its narrative potential. The half-light is the compositional key to the ‘invention’. It could be dawn, or dusk, or even moonlight in places; it allows a sense of the infinite in spite of the enclosing trees. The only figures are the two children. The younger one is immersed in the landscape, while the older already seems to be emerging into self-consciousness, as he walks through the cloister and looks towards us. In childhood we all experienced a magical reality, but as adults we have lost that playful freedom, that immediate paradise. As adults we can sit and try to absorb what is around us, but our tragedy is that we are always aware that we are doing it. Self-consciousness is our shame: it is only after eating the apple of knowledge and discovering that we are distinct from the world around us, only when we suddenly see ourselves, that we are expelled from Eden.

Arcadia is a beautiful place where the imagination can freely wander. It is a place we can never be, and a metaphor for the place we occupy at any given moment in our lives. I have really loved painting it. It has been an exercise in obsession and restraint at the same time. It is an ‘invention’, and probably even a folly – because it took a long, long time to make it. 35

STEVENSON CAPE TOWN Buchanan Building 160 Sir Lowry Road Woodstock 7925 PO Box 616 Green Point 8051 T +27 (0)21 462 1500 F +27 (0)21 462 1501


Deborah Poynton was born in 1970 in Durban, and lives and works in Cape Town. Her youth was spent between South Africa, Britain, Swaziland and the United States. She studied at the Rhode Island School of Design in Providence, USA, from 1987 to 1989. Solo exhibitions have taken place at the KZNSA Gallery, Durban, in 2010; the Savannah College of Art and Design’s galleries in Savannah and Atlanta, Georgia, USA, in 2009 (with accompanying monograph); Michael Stevenson, Cape Town, in 2009, 2006, 2004 and 2003; and Warren Siebrits, Johannesburg, in 2007. Group exhibitions include Von Liebeslust und Lebenslast - der inszenierte Alltag at Corvey Castle, near HÜxter, Germany (2009); Family Relation at Warren Siebrits (2007); New Painting (KZNSA Gallery, Durban; Unisa Art Gallery, Pretoria; Johannesburg Art Gallery, Johannesburg; 2006) and What Lies Beneath at Galerie Mikael Andersen, Copenhagen (2006).

JOHANNESBURG 62 Juta Street Braamfontein 2001 Postnet Suite 281 Private Bag x9 Melville 2109 T +27 (0)11 326 0034/41 F +27 (0)86 275 1918 Catalogue no 55 March 2011 Cover image Arcadia, 2010 (detail) Editor Sophie Perryer Design Gabrielle Guy Photography Mario Todeschini Printing Hansa Print, Cape Town



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