Behind Still Life

by Jenny Johnson

“…and men go to contemplate the mountain tops, the vast waves of the sea, the ample currents of rivers, the vastness of the ocean, the paths of the cosmos…”

The suggestions, the spells and the emotions, so many are the words that language puts into shapes leading one towards those paths that only the artists know how to distinguish, way beyond the habitual foggy curtain, to sing as the great ones once did; of our past, the lyrical poetry and tragedies of the world.

If art is suggestion, then Mathias Brandes possesses the rare gift of knowing how to put on stage, emotions.

The need to prevail the imagination over the imitation of reality, opens the arena to deliberations about the meaning of his works and more generally, about the interpretation of the world as only art can translate with it’s own means. In the education of Brandes, one needs to look at the roots of his journey, that is decisively presented in an unconventional way, often veined or marked with a profound interior sensibility of the soul derived from an approach to nature through sacred forms, even mystic.

This is not a religious reference; these are typical signs of a traditional Nordic art, tied since medieval times to a perception redundant with images and symbols of nature,

rather than concreteness and realistic yield. The visionary aspect is at times surreal, a painting style that has resolved into arcane forms, the research of the most obscure and mysterious parts of the world or more simply, that he is not satisfied with the presence of the visible perception, establishing the spirit in large part, of the artistic production from the Nordic countries and in particular, those places where the Flemish and German languages flourish, the origins of this artist.

It is easy to imagine how this formation compares itself with the suggestions born from a profound Mediterranean fascination, from an emotional fascination derived from contact with those places of southern Europe where the artists search for the soul in nature; so alive and palpable, so terribly concrete and yet undefined, in the saturated light of colors as well as, metaphysical. In this land, one meets art born out of the discovery of perfection, belonging to the world of the classics and made out of geometry and size, together a synthesis of a sensitive and intellectual knowledge. Here one learns the decadent beauty of ancient cities suspended in the shadow of the canals, the protective curtain of fog, sprawled across the water like the city of Venice.

The City of the Lagoon and the Venetian countryside become for Brandes the chosen place to confront who he is against history and the suggested Italian mystery. Venice is the dream, it is the meeting of two worlds, the Mediterranean one and the Nordic world; color, heat and sidereal shadows of the Venetian canals and alleys, the arabesque and obscure symbols carved on the facades of the palazzos immersed in the quiet and tranquil sunset.

The lagoon with it’s rarefied colors represent a turning point, the moment in which the artist understands the value of red and ochre, characterized by Venetian architecture; the same colors that we find in the Venetian grand masters such as, Tintoretto and Tiziano.

Brandes has discovered, while on these roads, the meaning when the substance of the material becomes palpable with color. He was transported as far as Italy by the desire to find the origins of a painting technique of warm tones and at the same time, the effect of that particular green-blue spot in the lagoon, that cold azure belonging to the landscape of his land that was so loved by Elsheimer or Bril; that fusion requiring art to be many arms together that make the surface of the painting where expressions meet and collide, unite in an efficient and completely original style.

It would be easy to imagine an artist so polyhedral, depleting all his painting in this experience, even though fundamental; an acute and critical look similar to his desire to arrive at the essence beyond nature.

An artist does not settle for one goal, he must push himself to the limit, gaze at the netherworld, and play all to the point of risking to destroy that which he has learned to love, in order to start all over again.

The author climbs this road towards a “foot-hewn path” surely and decidedly involved in the experience of metaphysical art and surrealistic art without surrendering until being sucked up again, taking with it new seeds of a personal poetry to combine with different elements that do not have a relationship with the traditional ways of reading reality and, for this reason, produce a sense of surprise and esthetic shock.

This shock has nothing terrible about it. It is rather the rhythm of the spell that animates the subjects: few, thin, images made with precise and meticulous means, houses, ships, people, still life, or better said, “stilebe” meaning, “the silent life of things.”

In his paintings, the perceived reality and space are all one. The objects seem immobile yet alive, full of their own life as if any second they will animate and fly off, which is something one would expect to happen at the very tips of Brandes’ pine trees. “Woody” 1 slopes like the bark they are made of or, in the houses or bell towers as if one is on the verge of discovering another world inside where one could exist and live. These focal points of the artist suggest meditative moments: art is not evanescent from a vision, but a sweet or endearing gaze on things.

Penetrating the shell or armor of the living world without revealing the mystery, inventing a work in which new structures of a visual language intervene and conserve their original meaning, is imperative. To go beyond the realism, after having painted nature so well so many times, one must reach not only a logical consciousness of reality, and in particular, the elements composing the work, but above all, being able to transform those elements into fiction while maintaining the concrete essence and true substance.

The light is an explicit omission by Brandes, and does not strike the objects as with, impressionistic painting styles, which break up into multiple luminous effects. Contrarily, the light condenses inside the objects themselves and determines, together with the color, the substance. It is not by chance that all the objects and figures appear solid, achieved using highly tactile brush strokes that make you “feel” the material of which these objects are made.

The textures and the surfaces display a thickness that steals color from the realistic illusion, reveal

ing a determined architecture of geometric solids. Over here is a rough, coarse wall of a house, over there, is a fabric of a dress from which one can sense the weave defining the figure. One can understand why Brandes does not resort to an oniric dream-like vision, but the opposite, giving recognition to nature and her substantial intrinsic truth, a reality the artist allows us to discover as something more real than not; determined or defined by a creative process that is rational yet emotional at the same time. It is the object that speaks along with the painting technique where theory has no role. The art is pure pictorial fact unconditioned by theorem or labels.

Obstinately and slow, Brandes has tried to overcome what is temporary. In the vision, he has attained a concrete painting style, so solid, it becomes eternal just as Cezanne established. The persistent search for a block form cannot be considered as the purest natural beauty, but rather a way to find something lasting and to establish a certainty. In fact, for Brandes, the representation is the theater of an inescapable reality that he would like to preserve in a very rigorous form, conceived as an anchor of salvation from the apprehension of the emotions. But, we ask what control is he trying to impose on these emotions? Who can say that the water just touching the houses and bell towers represents a threat or not? Everything is in doubt and only art can represent, even with its contradictions, a boulder to grab on to, implied as a system capable of bringing internal order to a confused perception; “those confusing sensations we carry with us since birth,” 2 like a structured field inside a chaotic and accidental reality of the world.

Painting the subject with material that is coagulating as he works gives density to the objects. The opacity and transparency is the challenge the art embraces, making it almost similar to prose or a spoken silence. The things of Brandes last, “like an indefinite continuation of existence,” 3 without losing any suggestion and regenerate itself in an acquired and enduring reality by who observes the works.

Representing the objects from different points of view contribute to accentuate their volumetric consistency as if we could go around it without having to move from our frontal position of observation; a non-naïve viewpoint on our part, unable to not be aware that we know these objects, we are familiar with their faces and above all, their internal mechanisms. Through the distortion of the image, the artist embraces the vital energy of things without resorting to any visible movement. The lure of this painting is precisely in that distorted vision imposed as one and only one.

The object of art is to obtain something important and lasting just as our great and grand masters of the past. The aim consists in achieving that monumental effect that the “classic” painters reached while maintaining the intensity of the visual approach; in other words, without renouncing or rejecting reality or nature. Thus, landscapes and human figures stand out in the space encompassing them with the absolute strength of a totem pole, universal elements sending us back to an idea of art that “constructs” a parallel reality as concrete as the one we live in.

The still life as well as, the human figure and the steamships show a composite cut that brings the objects into the foreground, presenting them at very close range so much so, that the intense colors and profound depth create a contrast. The artist’s goal is to touch and caress those figures more than paint them, turning the gaze into something that is “atypical;” 4 a look capable of perceiving the connection between hands and eyes through the flat surface of the painting, transforming itself almost into a bas-relief. The eye moves along with the vision as if tactile, assuring the synthesis between two senses. The result is an atmosphere, rendered in the correspondence of the living, which is determined by the color uniting each and every single element to everything around it as if a luxurious fabric of interactions.

Brandes has understood that the structure of art moves between opposite fields searching for order and, yields to the emotional and intimate charm that gazing at the world can suggest. “The innocent earthly ones” 5 that the artist composes, communicates to the observer a sense of being at peace so much so, that they do not seem to regret the fugacity of the objects in reality. All together, one cannot miss the value of the metaphor of Brandes’ works. In the image of the island, appearing repeatedly in his works, as an extreme point of a cliff or mountaintop. The painter narrates about this push towards an ideal of undefined perfection, of a different journey, uphill, in need of creative solitude, a voluntary exile and a commitment to a daily exercise to overcome the limits imposed by existential conditions; towards the tips and peaks of an ideal mountain, similar to a tireless art-ascent giving voice to the soul.

Jenny Johnson

1 J. Borges, Afterglows in Fervore di Buenos Aires – 1923

2 P. Cézanne: letter to his collector friend, J Gaschet

3 CFR V.Woolf in R.Fry; Paul Cézanne London 1910

4 Gilles Deleuze: The Logic of Sensations Paris 1981

5 P.Handke: In the Colors of the Day 1985