Today, another interview with American artist Michael Bell in his MBELLART weekly section on Yareah: The Death and The Maiden. By Isabel del Rio.
I.R.- Hi Michael. One of the main subjects for authors and artists has been the time and of course, the death or end-time. We know that some tragic events affected your childhood. Are they still influencing your artwork?
M.B.- As an artist I believe it’s important to draw a line from your life to your art that is straight and clear, so of course those events still influence my work. And, as always Isabel, I’m always fascinated by what you pick up on in my work. Our interviews always seem to be in perfect flow with whatever is currently going on in my life. This weekend opened the solo exhibit of my “Ticket to Ride” paintings at Lycoming College President Trachte’s mansion in Williamsport, PA. Violence certainly comes into play as a narrative motif in these paintings, from one painting to the next. Here’s a small glimpse of the paintings hanging in their home, and some photos from the private showing.
I.R.- The Death and The Maiden, face to face, as in a too sincere mirror. What do you see when you look at yourself in a too sincere mirror?
M.B.- What do I see when I look at myself and my tragedies in a too sincere mirror? Here you go Isabel…two works from my new 31 Nights series never before seen before by the public.
I.R.- Do you think we are living the death of a certain way of thinking that started in the Renaissance. Are we seeing the death of that Italian maiden?
M.B.- Death and the Maiden is a common motif in Renaissance art, especially in painting, literature and music. I think it’s evolving, but certainly far from dead. If you examine the famous Dance of Death and early woodcuts by artists like Hans Holbein, in etchings by Max Klinger, and in prints and paintings by my longtime hero Edvard Munch you can visually see its evolution.
Let’s start with Holbein’s works. They’re a great example of the way death works as individual scenes in a series, in which the lessons of mortality are brought home to people of every station. Holbein’s series shows the figure of “Death” in many disguises, confronting individuals from all walks of life. In “the Plowman” the man earns his bread by the sweat of his brow only to have his horses speed him to his end by Death. The Latin from the 1549 Italian edition pictured here reads: “In sudore vultus tui, vesceris pane tuo.” (“Through the sweat of thy brow you shall eat your bread”), quoting Genesis 3.19. The Italian verses below the original translate: (“Miserable in the sweat of your brow, it is necessary that you acquire the bread you need eat, but, may it not displease you to come with me, if you are desirous of rest.”).
In literature, Death and the Maiden once took the form of a play by Ariel Dorfman that tells the story of a woman who awaited a constantly delayed justice is being torn by the question of what you do with the trauma of the past, how to live side by side with your enemies, how to judge those who had abused power without destroying the fabric of a reconciliation necessary to move forward. My Ticket to Ride painting series and Carnevale Italiano prequel series that’s currently in progress certainly pose some of those same questions about mortality and vengeance to the viewer.
This raises another question: Is it the obligation of the artist to force the world to look at itself? Eric Fischl certainly tried after 9/11 with his “Tumbling Woman Sculpture contraversy” which was first covered up and then completely removed from Rockefeller Center in New York City shortly after its debut. Chilean playwright Ariel Dorfman raised important questions in his play in regards to: “Are we going to perpetuate the cycle of terror? What’s the ultimate cost for redemption? And how can you forgive if the price they are demanding is that you forget?” And now, we move on to Edvard Munch…
Edvard Munch’s “The Dance of Life” belongs as one of the centerpieces to a series called “the Frieze of Life”, which is essentially a visual poem about life, love and death. The painting itself can be interpreted from various viewpoints and on various levels. The transition of the female figures from adolescence to sexual maturity to old age gives argument that the painting deals with the everlasting cycle of life. In this “bright summer night”, Munch writes, “life and death, day and night go hand in hand”. Indeed, death is the birth of life, and Munch realizes this.
M.B.- In the end, I believe art gives us all a constructive as opposed to a destructive way to deal with what life throws our way. For me, I also think this theme will always be prevalent and am glad I’m one of the artists out there on the cutting edge of what’s exciting and new in the ever changing art world. Nice week, Isabel, and as always, it’s a great pleasure to speak with you about art and life.
I.R.- Nice week, Michael.