Three writings on Jannis Marwitz
An analysis of Jannis Marwitz’s art practice carried out from three diffrerent perspectives, taken by three different artwriters, including the artist himself.
Writing about artists can sometimes take the form of a collection of variegated texts. For example, catalogues and monographs often include writings of different natures and origins to give an overview on the artist’s practice, just like in the case of the catalogue of the recent exhibition of James Lee Byars at MuHKA Antwerp, which contains interviews, original reviews, historical texts, etc. This article about Brussels-based Jannis Marwitz and the paintings he recently exhibited at Damien & The Love Guru gallery takes a similar approach.
It will attempt to provide an alternative and fruitful look at Marwitz’s painting by showcasing three writings by three different authors in relation to the above mentioned exhibition. Comprising a historical contextualisation, a short essay, and a more poetic writing by the artist himself, this collection will keep together three different approaches to the practice of coupling text and visual art, which will somewhat become a side topic of the article.
The first text titled The Rebirth of Venus is a historical contextualisation by art historian Koen Bulckens. It sheds light on references that are important in Marwitz’s artwork, both in terms of iconography and techniques.
The Rebirth of Venus
When the Roman god Uranus was castrated by his son, his blood gushed into the seas of the earth. The event, violent and tragic as it was, gave way to beauty nonetheless. Uranus’ seed mixed with the ocean’s foam, and in this union Venus was born. The legend of the goddess of love’s origins inspired a rich array of images and texts, a tradition of poems and paintings which spanned centuries.
Venus is born again in the work of Jannis Marwitz, be it in an alternative version of the facts. She stands in a teacup, awakening as a liquid mixture is poured over her. Some of Marwitz’s shapes and figures are inspired by Italian traditions, from antique reliefs to renaissance paintings. However, his painting technique has its origins in Northern Europe. Marwitz studiously applies thin translucent layers, creating volume in a manner reminiscent of Jan Van Eyck and Hans Memling. The result is both familiar and estranging – like the memory of an event that never happened.
Marwitz synthesizes a variety of European traditions. He delves through books in search of recipes for paints. He studies the canon of European art and literature looking for stories and protagonists. Still, the artist’s engagement with the past and respect for craftsmanship never overpower his urge to innovate. Marwitz takes parts from art’s history and cuts them off, mixing them into his world to give birth to something new. In this endeavour, he is very much like Uranus’ son.
— Koen Bulckens
The second text is by the person writing this introduction, and it consists of a short essay about the relation between craftsmanship and contemporary art. In this piece, the work of Marwitz is used as an example of a contemporary practice in visual art that has a focus on manual skills.
A 14th century text by artist Cennino Cennini contains an interesting passage about painting and skills. Paraphrasing, Cennini claims that painting derives from science and depends on the operations of the hand. Within this art, imagination and skills are necessary to discover unseen things concealed beneath the obscurity of natural objects, presenting to the sight that which did not appear to exist before, and for this reason, painting becomes worthy. In short, for Cennini, technical skills are a necessary condition to make painting—and possibly art in general—worthwhile.
Seven centuries later, nothing sounds more out of fashion than this statement about contemporary art, a field in which relevant artworks can be product of no physical craft whatsoever, and beautifully crafted ones can be the most irrelevant artworks. Since the beginning of the 20th century, the avant-guards have rejected typical skills and crafts as representation of conservatism. Today, the term virtuoso is a synonym of kitschy instead of the flattering remark it once was. In this context, the decision of making with technical skills, especially if not through outsourced production, must have rather specific reasons, and the skilfully painted pictures of Jannis Marwitz seem a good instance to delve into some of these reasons.
As Seth Price rather ironically writes in his novel Fuck Seth Price, craft-oriented artists just “like to make stuff, and explicitly want to make things with their hands.” As simple as this might sound, the joy coming from the experience of skilfully creating crafty objects with one’s own body—which is what Price is implicitly referring to—can be a good reason as to why some contemporary artists just do so. For that matter, this might be one of Marwitz’s reasons. However, delving into this very subjective reason would just transform the analysis into a kind of psychological investigation, a direction not so worth pursuing in the context of this essay.
On the other hand, some artists use their skills in crafting artworks for less hedonistic reasons. For example, one could be reminded of hyperrealism and photorealism, two artistic currents from the second half of the 20th century, for which the medium of skilful painting was a way to counterbalance the minimalism and conceptualism popular at that time. In a way, skilled hyperrealist and photorealist painters became as conceptual in their use of skills as the conceptual artists they were trying to distance themselves from. Although Marwitz’s paintings are far away from hyperrealism and photorealism, his use of technique seems as conscious as theirs.
To understand this, one might look at one of his pictures titled Birth of Venus (domestic) from 2018, a revisited version of a known theme from classic iconography. The subject is the known myth of the goddess Venus or Aphrodite coming into life from water, except that in Marwitz’s depiction, the aquatic uterus is made of jugs and tea cups instead of the typical ocean and shells found in historical paintings. Moreover, there is nothing of the godly set up of old pictures, as the generation of Venus in Marwitz’s painting is activated by a rather banal looking person pouring some liquid instead of a god. Similarly, the landscape is nothing but idillic, instead resembling a small interior of a house with a rustic wooden table.
Coming back to the issue of painterly skills, the craftsmanship of Birth of Venus (domestic) seems to precisely highlight this revision of the classical iconography. In other words, using classic techniques and skills in order to re-depict the known subject from the past creates an interesting short circuit between form and content in the painting. Such powerful result seems to justify the use of old fashion craftsmanship in a context that would otherwise deem such choice as conservative, hence artistically suspect.
In conclusion, contemporary art calls for a certain “aboutness”, that is, it requires a meaningful justification for the choices made by the artist, whether provided by the artists themselves or by the theorists speculating about it. Any diversion from this attitude of “aboutness” would make contemporary art fall into the category of design or decoration. If for medieval thinkers such as Cennini there was no art but skilfully crafted art, skills today are just one among many tools in the box of conceptually loaded options the artist can pick up from.
— Piero Bisello
The third and final text is by Jannis Marwitz’s himself, and it was specifically written in relation to the paintings in the mentioned exhibition at Damien & the Love Guru. Perhaps unsurprisingly, the tone is less scientific or academic, pointing to the idea that artists writing about their work take up a different role than theorists writing about someone’s practice.
Besides the fields, close to a little pond, a pair of trees are casting shadows, stretched from the mid September sun. Summer is offering a pair of buttons to Autumn. Autumn, still hesitating, whether he should agree to this deal, is already counting his inherited golden animal statues, which he might want to give in return. His hesitation is well appropriate, since there is something he has missed… The buttons do not have the same size!
Button Venus. The button could be seen as an undefined amount of goods and money, or these 1, 2 and 5 cent coins which no one picks up from the street. To consider it therefore a fountain (only because there is a shell in the background), is the wrong path though. All water would spill out of the upright shell.
Two paintings of the birth of Venus. As we are moving on, the shell is not a shell anymore but a porcelain cup resting on something like a table. One is the interior, the other one the domestic, but besides of small changes they appear the same.
There is a portrait crowned with a simple wreath of rucola leaves.
And a red study of draperies and heads, one of them is playing the flute.
Why build skyscrapers as if they were the Himalayas,
if you cannot topple them –
so that there is a little laughter.
What is even – must be bent!
and what stretches to the sky –
must be turned to dust!
We don’t need any Hurricane –
We don’t need any Typhoon!
Then the havoc which those can wreak –
That, we can do… That, we can do…
That, we can do ourselves!
The Hurricane is awful.
Even worse is the Typhoon!
But the worst of all – is man!
Rise and Fall of the City of Mahagonny, K. Weill, B. Brecht, first performed March 1930 Neues Theater Leipzig; Sea Thiasos, Paris, Louvre, 220 – 230 AD; Triumph of Dionysos and the Seasons, Kassel, Schloss Wilhelmshöhe Antikensammlung, 240 – 250 AD; Venus in Shell, detail of roman sarcophagus, Paris, Louvre, after E. Wind, Pagan Mysteries in the Renaissance Bonaventura Joseph Mutschele.
— Jannis Marwitz