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~ Repoussoir

15 MAY - 01 JUN 2019

Trocadero Artspace - Suite 1, Level 1/119 Hopkins St, Footscray VIC 3011

Inspired by drapery used as a compositional element in classical painting, to lead the eye of add drama; the framing has now become the subject. Explored in rich detail and lush colour, the tension of the suspended object leaves no room for narrative outside the title. Instead, viewer is left wanting for the tale to unfold.

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by Caroline Esbenshade

(Essay taken from catalogue - it’s reccommend to view within the catalogue becuase the referenced painting are included to illustrate the points discussed. )

                1. Painting. An object in the foreground of a composition (typically to one side), which serves to lead the viewer's eye into the principal scene or towards the principal figure, emphasizing this and increasing the sense of depth.1

The use of repoussoir as a compositional element is so common that it’s even included in Vermeer’s The Allegory of Painting. In the painting we see a heavy brocade fabric lifted to reveal the artist in his studio painting directly from life. Not only does the drapery frame the subject matter, echoing the model both in line and colour, but it helps create a sense of intimacy, inviting us into the space and creating depth2.

As a common element, repoussoir is hard to tie to a specific time period or arts movement. It shows up in a variety of forms across the years. It has especial presence in the Mannerist and Baroque periods, but it’s also evident prior to these times, and even found in today’s contemporary picture making. It’s easier to link repoussoir to artists as a recurring stylistic choice; for example, Claude Lorrain3 with his trees, and Caravaggio4, Champaigne5 and Rigaud6 with their red drapery.

In Claude Lorrain’s Landscape with Piping Shepherd, the tree on the right hand edge of the picture leads the eye down from the sky to the shepherd and sheep. The tree adds depth to the work by adding an additional reference point as the landscape vanishes into the beyond while keeping the eye from wandering out of picture plane. The viewer’s eyes are like a ping pong ball bouncing through the frame, and when they come against the tree they’re shepherded back into the central, vanishing point of the composition. The tree acts as a bracket, helping to provide the context that we’re in a forest, while simultaneously directing the eyes of the audience7.

The other common repoussoir is drapery, which in many ways is the more interesting of the two because it’s incongruent; it’s not a tree in a forest, but rather a lush swathe of cloth showing up everywhere from above the corpse of the Virgin to hanging behind Omer Talon. Sure it could be part of some elaborate bed clothes, or a curtain, but more often than not it’s entirely contrived, and at times peculiar, but definitely adds drama to a scene. Additionally, it can add to the narrative of the work, such as in Rigaud’s portrait of Louis XIV. In the portrait, Louis XIV8, known for his opulence, is framed by lush red fabric with gold trim and tassels. The ostentatious set-up of the portrait adds in illustration of the sitter’s over-the-top nature.

Framing is interesting, not only visually, but also as a concept. The act of framing creates a context in a very deliberate way. Even in non-visual expressions, framing exists. Every child knows a bedtime story because it starts ‘Once upon a time…’ and ends with ‘The End.’ Children also infer from the phrasing that there is no point in interrupting the storyteller with skepticism should magic beans make an appearance in the plot, and that the intention of ‘The End’ is that it’s a signal to go to sleep. This type of verbal framing is seen outside of fairy tales, such as in the epic poems of Homer. The Odyssey opens with an invocation of the muses:

O Divine poesy,
Goddess-daughter of Zeus,
Sustain for me
This song of the various-minded man,
Who after he had plundered
The innermost citadel of hallowed Troy
Was made to stray grievously
About the coasts of men,
The sport of their customs good or bad,
While his heart
Through all the seafaring
Ached in an agony to redeem himself
And bring his company safe home.

Vain hope - for them!
For his fellows he strove in vain,
Their own witlessness cast them away;
The fools,
To destroy for meat
The oxen of the most exalted sun!
Wherefore the sun-god blotted out
The day of their return.
Make the tale live for us
In all its many bearings,
O Muse.9

The invocation summons the creative juices, provides a brief re-cap of the Iliad, but also it directs the listener’s focus. Framing transforms words or objects. It says ‘Look at me, I am Art!’ Opening a movie with "A long time ago in a galaxy far, far away….”,10 displaying a urinal in a gallery space11, or putting a gold frame on a picture signals its significance and captures an audience’s attention.

However, as much as the framing is present to direct the gaze of the viewer, the audience may instead become distracted by the compositional elements in the painting. Rather than looking at baby Jesus, their eye could instead be caught by the lush red fabric of the lap he’s sitting in . The viewer might even be so distracted by the repoussoir as to fall out of the mood being evoked. For example, rather than feeling the gravitas of Mary’s death in Caravaggio’s Death of the Virgin,one might rather wonder who’s red tent is hanging from the rafters above her.

Once the eye is no longer looking at the narrative, but begins instead to pick out individual elements of the mise-en-scene 12, the odder they can seem. No longer part of a whole, but seen as discrete entities, it’s hard to not see them. It’s like meeting a chorus girl prior to a theatre show. After that interaction, she’s no longer a faceless member of the back line; now, she stands out, and, at least in our regard, upstages the main performer.

Switch the focus from the painting’s subjects to the compositional elements. Instead of considering the experience of the person in the portrait, consider what that piece of red fabric’s experience has been. What did it witness? What scenarios have occurred beneath their folds? A lover’s tryst? The assassination of a general? By removing the subject from the frame, and rather contemplating the frame itself, the work opens up to the audience not only the opportunity to bring their own narrative to the work, but also themselves. Instead of feeling like the spectator looking at the stage, they now can feel that they are on the stage. It’s a step further then Vermeer’s Allegory; the works in ‘Repoussoir’ invite you not to push aside the curtain to see into the studio, but rather it is you in the studio who is looking out.

In this series, all the works featured are of various shades of red; not only for cohesion, but also to further the effort of evoking drama or passion. Red is an intense colour, not only as a pigment, but also in its associations. Affiliated with both God and the devil, it’s a hue of contradictions, but always of passion; whether it is manifested as violence, lust, love, sin, courage or even a caution against danger13. In this series of works, the use of red ensures that the mood elicited will be intense - but leaves it open for interpretation by the viewer.

Should the viewer need a prompt to visualise what dramas could be unfolding in the presence of these arranged fabrics, they can look to the titles; all of which infer a theatrical setting or allude to a painting in which red drapery features as a repoussoir. An example would be the small work Holofernes tent, which references Caravaggio’s Judith Beheading Holofernes. The corner of red material could easily be the tent flap that flutters in the wake of Judith exiting Holofernes’ tent, his severed head in tow.

Ratcheting up the tension of the works is the inclusion of ropes, ribbons or nails that bind or tether the drapery. Hanging in space, being pulled and bound by these restraints, the fabric is contorted into complex folds, sharp corners and dark crevasses. However, we never see what the ropes, ribbon, or nails are actually moored to. What the drapery is tied to is left open for the audience to reflect on; and, perhaps, to reflect on how they themselves are bound.

Every person has their own ‘ties that bind’; familial expectations, perhaps, or societal pressures, but they can also be what holds a person up. Rope typically isn’t used as a symbolic device; it has a rather obvious meaning of conjoining, but it does have weight in the form of a powerful symbol. This is the fouled anchor, one that is entwined and caught on it’s own line and is difficult to raise, something that is actually used by navies around the world as a positive symbol for steadfastness in the face of tribulation 14. Contradictory (just like the colour red), the ropes are both a positive and a negative symbol. To be bound is not always a bad thing. To survive the temptation of the sirens, Odysseus had his men lash him to the mast of their ship so he could hear their song, but not risk throwing himself overboard to their mercy. A taste of temptation, but not enough to be totally consumed by it.15

Like the ropes give form to the fabric in the paintings, a person’s ties and obligations enact a structure within their life. The paintings are not just a stage for life to unfold, but a metaphor for lived experience. The things that hold us give our lives form. Look at the paintings and imagine what histrionics could transpire around them, or see within them the fabric of your life. Meditate on what is anchoring you, what is holding you back, and decide how wrinkled and entwined you want your experience to be.

1 Defnition of Repoussoir, Oxford Dictionary.  https://en.
2 Alejandro Vergara - Vermeer and the Dutch interior 2003, pp. 256-257. Critical Assessments: The Art of Painting essential Vermeer. Jonathan Janson, 2019. http://www.essentialvermeer.com/cat_about/
3 Claude Lorrain, b.1600, Chamagne, France. Claude Lorrain was a French painter, draughtsman and etcher of the Baroque era. Kitson, Michael. The Age of Baroque. London: Paul Hamlyn,1966.
4 Michelangelo Merisi or Amerighi da Caravaggio, b.1571, Milan, Duchy of Milan, Spanish Empire. Italian painter who’s paintings combined a realistic observation of the human state, both physical and emotional, with a dramatic use of lighting, which had a formative influence on Baroque painting.Kitson, Michael. The Age of Baroque. London: Paul Hamlyn,1966.
5 Philippe de Champaigne, b.1602, Brussels, Southern Netherlands. French Baroque era painter, a founding member of the Académie de peinture et de sculpture in Paris, the premier art institution in France in the eighteenth century. Allen, Christopher. French Painting in the Golden Age. London: Thames & Hudson: World of Art, 2003.
6 Hyacinthe Rigaud, b.1659, Perpignan, France. was a French baroque painter most famous for his portraits of Louis XIV and other members of the French nobility. Allen, Christopher. French Painting in the Golden Age. London: Thames & Hudson: World of Art, 2003.
7 Nicoal Price - Photography Composition, Framing. PhotographyVox http://www.photographyvox.com/a/photography-composition-framing/
8 Louis XIV is associated with the image of an absolute monarch and a strong ,centralised state. In 1682 he moved the royal Court to the Palace of Versailles. Louis XIV: 1638 - 1715, Chateau de Versailles http://en.chateauversaillesfr/discover/history/great-characters/
9 Homer, and T. E. Lawrence.TheOdyssey. New York: Oxford University Press, 1932. Reprint, London: Macmillan Collector’s Library, 2016. p 11.
10 This line appears as a static blue font prior to the Star Wars logo and opening crawl of every numbered film of George Lucas’ Star Wars series. www.starwars.com
11 Henri-Robert-Marcel Duchamp’s readymade Dadaist artwork Fountain was a made of a urinal set on it’s side with “R.Mutt 1917” written on it. Duchamp submitted the readymade for an exhibition of the Society of Independent Artists. Tate: Art & Artists, Marcel Duchamp - Fountain 1917, replica 1964 https://www.tate.org.uk/art/artworks/duchamp-fountain-t07573
12 film term that originated from french theatre, mise-en-scène refers to everything that appears within the frame - props, actors, lighting, decor and even the camera movement. Moura, Gabe. The Elements of Cinema Blog & Podcast: A student’s guide to the fundamentals of filmmaking: Mise-en-scène. July 1, 2014
13 Red: Symbolic And Cultural Associations https://www.ucl.ac.uk/museums-static/objectretrieval/node/277
14 What is a Fouled Anchor? - http://lasalleyachtclub.com/what-is-a-fouled-anchor/
15 Homer, and T. E. Lawrence, The Odyssey. p 217-218.