TABLEAUX VIVANTS IN WAX

Gisela Hack-Molitor

 

The works of Marlis Albrecht, brought to life in lengthy creative processes, are multi-layered in the truest sense of the word. This matches the artist’s complex and multifaceted central motif: man and especially his “engagement in relationships”, making eye contact and initiating a relationship. Just as the artist is constantly expanding her technical range, she encircles, stalks, and pursues this motif, always imbuing her figures with multiple meanings in relation to the beholder. The transformation in style of this productive artist since her early days is clearly evident: whereas her earlier pictures depict people by a mere suggestion of facial features posing amidst brightly coloured ornaments, her more recent works often use more muted colours and yet breathe life into finely differentiated and wonderfully expressive figures.

Each of her pictures presents very diversely staged portrayals of people – either alone, as pairs, or together in groups. One might describe the wax paintings as modern “tableaux vivants”, living pictures in the form of scenic depictions, only with imagined figures instead of living people. The tableau vivants of the 19th century and early 20th century, frequently group depictions, captivated and enthralled visitors to the theatre, courtly festivities, or folk fests; sometimes carefully arranged by painters, they emulated historical or genre paintings. In photography such descriptions survive to the present day in particularly symbolic compositions. They are likewise to be found in the Walking Acts or Living Mannequins who perform as street artists or at festivals, posing motionless for long periods and sometimes establishing contact with their audience by surprising people with small gestures (the wink of an eye or the raising of a hat) or sparing actions.

Both these aspects, freezing a characteristic and meaningful moment and making contact with the beholder, are also ever present in Marlis Albrecht’s paintings. For example, the “Perlendreher” (Pearl Turner) captures the moment in which the tip of the man’s tongue touches the woman’s pearl earring; an erotic pose whose intimacy is counteracted by both figures holding direct eye contact with the beholder. The man’s look is concentrated and furtive, the woman’s oscillates ambiguously between melancholy and submissiveness with a touch of muted pleasure. The title of the picture also adds a dynamic component to this scene depicting a tender play of the tongue, simultaneously opening up a little leeway for interpretation as regards the asymmetric constellation of the two figures formed by the contrast between the active man and the passive woman. Another such living tableau is the painting entitled “Stabile Driftungen” (Stable Drifts), a group portrait with women: three women and two men pose before and behind a separating wall which, by virtue of the long curtain on the right, can also be interpreted as a stage. Two couples are turned towards each other while one woman is positioned in the foreground and to the side of them, together forming a group which – as the oxymoronic title suggests – is “stably drifting” along; a description that encapsulates both the figures in the room and their mysterious interrelationships. Again in this case there is that meaningful yet impenetrable eye contact with the beholder, at least in four of the five figures.

What is so striking about this look is that in most of Marlis Albrecht’s paintings the figures fix their gaze on the beholder, drawing us into the tableau; yet this look mostly seems to come from somewhere far away, from an alternative world, while remaining somehow familiar and hence exerting a magnetic force upon us. It is as if one were looking into a funfair mirror where, instead of one’s own distorted body contours, one sees surprisingly familiar yet never fully formulated thoughts and intimate images of the soul. The figures are imbued with a floating ambivalence: positioned in indistinct spaces, they take on a clear physical presence and show certain characteristics. Whether pensive or capricious, lascivious or timid, provocative, well-behaved or cheekily playful, they are always multifaceted and replete with ulterior meaning, coming across as unfathomable intermediaries who, alone or together, fill imaginary spaces between illusion and reality, while only seemingly revealing their true nature.

The staged posing of Albrecht’s tableaux vivants is emphasised by the very particular titles she gives her pictures. Paintings with names such as “Euphorbia” (a botanical term for spurge, known as “wolf’s milk” in German), “Halbmundnacht” (Half Mouth Night, a play on the German word for half moon night), or “Schiefer Hausstrauß” (Lop-Sided House Bouquet) give her works a larger semantic context, leaving the beholder’s imagination to playfully explore various associations, amalgamating and simultaneously alienating various proverbial cliches, magical worlds, or suggestive and witty poses. Some of the many other examples are “Hängt ihr Blümchen in den Wind” (Hang Her Flowers in the Wind), “Herdzogin” (a play on the German words for duchess and oven, suggesting Duchess of the Oven), “Allerleiblau” (All Kinds of Blue), and “Rukedikuh” (suggesting Ruke the Cow). And here we are witness to a considerable, almost exuberant, poetic playfulness and expressiveness of language that forms an artistic unity with the wax paintings, lending to an emotionally charged interplay of language and images.

 

HOW THE WAX IS APPLIED TO THE PAINTING

Marlis Albrecht experimented with many artistic forms of expression and materials until she made her personal discovery of beeswax in 1994, thereafter turning to figurative painting. As of this time she has been working constantly and almost exclusively with this natural product. In concentrating on wax as a flexible medium, the artist has developed a highly sophisticated and unique mixing technique for warm and cold wax that has neither a direct role model nor any parallels with contemporary artists. When it comes to painting using wax, nationally speaking only the artist Martin Assig (Berlin) springs to mind, and internationally only Jasper Johns deserves a mention; yet both these artists also use, or predominantly use, different techniques.

Empowered by her long-practised technical know-how, Marlis Albrecht applies her wax painting technique to both delineate precise details as well as to render blurred, vague, and imaginary shapes and images. She layers the melted beeswax, coloured with various pigments, by pouring, brushing, and lovingly applying it with a palette knife onto the painting’s wooden or canvas surface. The term encaustic is too limited a word to describe this process: Marlis Albrecht has made a solemn pact with the medium wax to generate own worlds. Her complex creations, their waxen surfaces partially moulded in relief, are brought to life by the artist caringly scratching, scraping, and carving her chosen material, adding cold wax tempera and then reapplying hot wax, creating overlaps and then removing individual layers again. The formability of the medium permits smooth and rough surfaces as well as impastos, venturing from the two-dimensional view of a panel painting into the third dimension. This technique also enables a particular kind of colourfulness, since the pigment density in the molten wax determines the colour intensity. Faces and skin are typically composed of shimmering layers of wax with depth and three dimensions. The transition between expansively worked areas and the detailed ornamentation of the figures’ clothing is occasionally supported by collaging with fabrics, papers, or other materials. And yet the key material is always wax, which for Marlis Albrecht epitomises the multifacetedness of life and is especially well-suited as a medium for depicting the diverse dimensions of the human soul. For her wax is much more than a mere material – it communicates content.