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The Joseph C. and Joan T. Burke Gallery
Channeling Ghosts: Marion Wagschal Paints the Figure
October 1 through November 13, 2005
Open Daily noon to 4pm, except Holidays
Monograph by James D. Campbell
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Elegy After Manet, 2002
acrylic on canvas, 48" x 84"
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against itself, a foot slips,
a bone breaks.
When my grandmother was dying,
my mother fell, fracturing two ribs.
I have been that lonely.
But often after another sorrow
the body falls another way—
into bliss.

—Lucinda Grey, “The Woman Who has Eaten the Moon” (1)

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Marion Wagschal’s talent and tenacity are legendary in Montreal, where she has painted the human figure for over four decades on an arclike trajectory towards truth. Few artists have offered such intimate and often harrowing glimpses into the raw truths of our embodiment. Fewer have assessed human damage and the possibility of exaltation so well. Fewer still have dilated with such rigor and eloquence on the darkness in our nature—and the indissoluble wedding of art and our woundedness.

Often depicted naked in her painting, and with no cosmetic allure whatsoever, the body’s postural feints and parries in time and circumstance are her enduring subject. She has explored with rare ardor, insistence and perspicacity the body’s lesser-seen (but subjectively far better known) nightside: attrition, dissolution and still higher orders of damage. Unlike the cold air of the morgue that infiltrates Lucian Freud’s paintings of the figure, Wagschal’s work is suffused with inflammatory warmth. This warmth is so enveloping, it is difficult to turn away. Her figuration has volume, vigor and tremendous formal charisma. Internal geometry in her paintings is rigorous and the handling of figural volumetrics is sculpturally pristine. Consider a painting like Attachment (1998) in which the treatment of the figures is as suggestively heartrending as it is overarching in radiance.

If we accept the invitation with alacrity and step over its threshold into the humid warmth of this portraiture, the hegemony of its flesh tones, it is not long before the work proceeds to unsettle and haunt—and exact its price. A feeling of strangeness prevails, but it is never estranging for those who are prepared to see. Indeed, looking at these paintings with patience and intensity yields something like – bliss. There is a lyricism and clarity that stem from deconstructing and reconstituting the human figure and its timelines with such Socratic honesty.

Make no mistake: these are visionary paintings. They are also painterly instruments of interrogation, duress, restless darkness— and epiphany. Like the wonderful optical instruments of the 19th century, they reveal another order of reality: one magnified, dismantled, meticulously reassembled, and made sea-change strange. While trading in darkness, the paintings possess an unexpected and luminous beauty.

Wagschal paints the figure but central to her portraiture is the evocation of ‘duende’. Originating in the south of Spain, the word “Duende” has only recently been imported into the English language. Dictionaries list several related meanings, which are relevant here, such as charm, ghost, evil spirit, inspiration, magic, fire, goblin, demon, and magnetic force. In Wagschal’s often harrowing art of portraiture, all of these meanings are pertinent. Her work possesses a palpable magic, a magnetic pull. It is fraught with all manner of hungry ghosts that assail us at her will. However, I use the word ‘duende’ more specifically still; as the great Spanish poet Federico Garcia Lorca meant it, as that dark inexorable power of earth an artist wrestles with and births in creative work. Paintings such as Woman with Still Life (1998), Cyclops (1972), Burning Spoons (1994) and Ur (2005) are all masterful duende paintings.

The idea of duende was a leitmotif of Lorca’s poetry and thought throughout his lifetime and I will argue here that it is a leitmotif of Wagschal’s figurative art as well, though seldom considered in the extant commentary on that work. Lorca once delivered a famous lecture, Play and Theory of the Duende, in which he interpreted the duende as a demon of the earth itself whose voice speaks definitively of our finitude, our waywardness, of fevers in the blood and damnation felt viscerally in the gut. He argued that it manifests readily in the three art forms most susceptible to it: dance, music, and the bullfight. He also allowed that it could manifest itself in paint on canvas ground as was the case, for him, with Goya. (2)

Duende is truly a hypnotic and magnetic attraction that grabs us by the cojones. It is said in Andalusia that some flamenco artists possess a charismatic magnetism so great the listener is held captive under its spell. As we gaze upon Wagschal’s paintings, they send cascading waves of emotion through us like an electric current. When I say that Wagschal’s figuration adumbrates duende; I take my inspiration from Lorca’s definition in the sense of the infusion of real live form with chthonic power, with dark creative earthforce, and the channeling of it. I think of a small painting like Meditation as a true duende icon, so redolent of this earth-force. Her sitters are possessed by the duende she uncovers in their very being, in their subconscious, bone marrow deep but also latent in every time-bound fold of flesh. Her figuration raises duende from the floorboards of their being to the ceiling of their spirit. To call Wagschal a tremendous savant of an observer, would be an understatement. Her work never loses touch with our own lived reality, and its attempt to channel the ‘dark sounds’ of the duende in terms of the seasons of the body and the slow disintegration of the flesh leaves us inordinately sensitive to the pitch and tenor of those sounds. The arrival of duende marks the annunciation of outer darkness at the inner core of her subjects, promising wholesale psychological transformation for them and, by extension, for us. This is no cheap exorcism but a profound celebration of darkness in the blood. If we are at all attuned to her remarkable project, we come to understand what it means to bear witness to our embodied state.

If duende is organically found in music and dance, and enjoys primacy therein, it is only because of the touchstone of the body. So it is with Wagschal’s art wherein the depiction of the body, both living and dying, incarnates duende. Her paradigms of embodiment stake their claim upon us—our lived and living bodies – and take fertile root in our imagination.

I chose Lucinda Grey’s poem as epigraph to this essay because she articulates with wonderful clarity in her short lyric poems the ways of duende through her portrayal of another artist – and one who is, incidentally, an avatar for Marion Wagschal, namely, Frida Kahlo. Her life—her damage, her restless search for transcendence, and the quintessence of her own duende-fed artistic vision – matches Wagschal’s own. (3)

What Claire Bateman wrote of Grey’s poetry is an equally fitting description of Wagschal’s work: “She immerses the reader in duende...Much of the book deals with paradox: Everything that promises transcendence and transformation—the body, romance and even language itself—eventually fails due to distortion, breakdown, catastrophe, or simple insufficiency. Grey portrays glory as inseparable from damage…” (4) (My emphasis.) Here is the hard, unassailable truth at the core of Marion Wagschal’s portraiture. A close observer of contemporary life, she understands that glory is inseparable from damage. In her portraits, as previously noted, the two are irremediably married. Her once-noble heads are glorious even in their bruised abandon; caught in the deliquescence of their dissolution, they remind us of our own mortality. Of course, in doing so, they also remind us what it is to be alive.

There is underlying technical virtuosity in these paintings so profound that it never advertises itself as such. She can sweep us away with a brushstroke, and her rendering of ravaged expanses of human flesh, so achingly true and microscopically precise, is marked by flawless craftsmanship. In this respect, I think of Suzanne Valadon (1865-1938). Valadon was a remarkable woman, personage, and artist. She was depicted in Renoir’s Les Baigneuses (1887). Early on, she was a street waif in Paris who morphed into a circus artiste who was in demand. Suffering a fall from a horse’s back, she became by necessity an artist’s model and then a very accomplished painter. Interesting to remark here on Wagschal’s most recent work, Ur (2005), a pure History Painting executed with breathtaking élan, in which a male figure has been catapulted from a horse’s back and ends up crushed beneath the horse, his eyes open, mouth wide in agony, blood spilled, amidst an anarchy of earth tones, small fires, rampant red tapestry, the hectic conflation all about sounding the death-knell for both horse and rider.

There was a psychological complexity in Valadon’s paintings that should be mentioned here because it echoes Wagschal’s own. In The Abandoned Doll (1921), a painting she particularly admires, the subject matter—the mother telling her daughter about pubescence, the doll abandoned on the floor signaling the putting away of childish things – has a definite edge. And, in other Valadon paintings, the appearance of heavy-set women comfortable in their own corporeality reminds us what a commanding feminocentric figurative painter Valadon was, and perhaps role model for Wagschal.

Human labor and situational angst have taken their toll on Wagschal’s subjects. They register the full weight of their own histories. The labor in question is well matched by the artist’s own labor in executing the work. Never very prolific, and by necessity (she labors exactingly over each and every work for months at a time), she completes only a handful of paintings in any given year. But those she does execute pull no punches. They dissect the psychological and physiological factuality of their subjects without flinching, without blinking or anything like sentimentality.

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Last Updated: September 28, 2005