On the art of wax painting

 

In this age of ours, in which paintings can be reproduced in unlimited quantities, their surfaces become volatile, they are transformed into a mass of pixels on screens and on printing paper.  They have been robbed of all their tangibility, any haptic properties have slipped away.  By digitisation, the transition into the 21st century has meant that, quite literally, paintings have become immaterialised.

By standing in front of an original painting, one can reacquaint oneself with its materialness.  In art exhibitions, opportunities are made available for getting involved with a painted picture, with an original.  It is worthwhile, given such a situation, to closely observe the techniques employed and the variegated ways in which that painting can communciate effectively their situation, their message to the viewer.  By dealing with the materialness of a work of art, viewers are offered the opportunity and the occasion to re-experience, as if in a mirror, the artist’s creative process.

Wax painting presents an unconventional challenge to the viewer. It is an artistic technique known already in Greco-Roman antiquity, but, for the most part, it has been so utterly and rarely employed in the practice of art in modern times, that it might almost be called an exclusive discipline which therefore requires a brief historical explanation.

Wax painting is generally understood as synonymous with the concept of “encaustic” painting, a term from Old Greek which, with reference to art, might be translated roughly  the technique of “burning in”.  In antiquity wax was employed as a binding medium for various kinds of colour pigment and thus it was applied as coloured wax to surfaces, which at that time consisted primarily of wood, ivory or rock; heated tools, such as spatulas, were used in the application process.  A basin of glowing, hot coal was then employed, with the painted surface being held close to this fire to burn the wax firmly into the surface material.

On occasion, the term “encaustic painting” has been surrounded by an aura of magic, which may derive from the way the process of “burning in”, which amalgamates the wax with the surface medium and thereby makes possible to fashion creations which have lasted for millennia.  The mystery associated with “encaustic painting” is compounded by the fact that all details concerning this ancient art of painting have not yet been explained.  Thus, to this day it cannot be definitely verified that the use of hot wax has always been connected with the process known as the “burning into the surface” of works of art.  It is for certain, however, that beeswax was given colour first by heating and then adding a coloured pigment.  Some traditions, moreover, mention a so-called “Punic wax”, however, the recipe for this, again, remains a matter of speculation.

Wax painting received particular attention during the 19th century following archaeological discoveries.  In Egypt — particularly in the Fayum and Antinopolis regions —, mummy portraits had been found, depicting chiefly frontal bust or simply facial portraits.  As for techniques, painting found among those discoveries had either been made using tempera (in which the pigment binder is predominantly an emulsion of water and oil) or using the encaustic technique.  The wax paintings were preserved in such a state that — also due to the Egyptian climate — that they had an outright amazing freshness of colour and even the quantitative chemical composition of the beeswax had remained nearly unchanged.  Besides the discovery of painted tablets dating from antiquity, occasionally encaustic painting has been found in murals, as well — thus, examples have been found in Pompeii.  The technique of “burning in” has been discussed in the writings of authors such as Pliny and Vitruvius.  Further written sources prove that even during the European Middle Ages, encaustic painting techniques had not been forgotten.  In their enthusiasm for all of antiquity, artists from the period of 18th century Neoclassicism also applied themselves to wax paintings and its technical issues.  In painstaking experimentation, Italian, German, and French artists of that period attempted a renaissance of encaustic painting.  The 19th century, too, saw artists turning to this discipline, among them such famous painters as Arnold Böcklin, William Adolphe Bouguereau, or Edvard Munch.  On the other hand, the general public paid only scant attention to these artists’ experimental work, since artists in general engaged predominantly in employing “mainstream” painting techniques and didn’t use wax painting except as a hybrid, together with oil painting.  Exclusive use of wax painting by contemporary artists and their exploiting of the particular properties in their art that this media has to offer is also a rarity.

 

Starting in 1994, Marlis Albrecht has devoted herself to using beeswax in her art.  Through many years of effort she has developed solutions entirely her own, for working with beeswax.  After melting, the wax is coloured with pigment and applied to a wooden surface in layers with a brush or a spatula.  Scratching, scraping or carving, adding more layers, even the use of collage technique with fabric, paper or other materials all result in such a density of material that it enables the artist to create, for example, with her portraits of people and of woodland scenes, multifaceted works expressing both depth and atmosphere. Since in Marlis Albrecht’s paintings the wax rests on the surface, “alive”, so to speak, without being burnt into the surface, the term “encaustic painting” would not be an accurate description of the process she uses in her art. Rather, the manner in which she paints avails itself of the inherent properties of wax.

 

Hermann Mildenberger