Georgina Spengler                        Biography                              Paintings                                   Bibliography                                Contacts


Painterly Translation                                                                                                                                  ITALIANO                                  CLOSE     


“There is room enough for a natural painter... the great vice of the present day is bravura, an attempt to do something beyond the truth,” wrote Constable to his brother in 1802. The young painter was deeply frustrated at his failure to persuade art connoisseurs, who were accustomed to the soaring, classical landscapes of Poussin, Claude and their hordes of imitators, of the value of his own vision, intimate rather grandiloquent, down-to-earth rather than idealised.

His great rival, Turner, struggled equally hard to win approval. In many ways, the antithesis of Constable’s vision, his representation of nature was considered too strange, too melodramatic, and most of all, too abstract. As William Hazlitt, the English essayist, put it “he made pictures out of nothing, very like.” The outrage that both Constable and Turner provoked with their different, but equally revolutionary, visions of nature was indicative of a world where long- established hierarchies, both social and artistic, were breaking down. After centuries of deference to the old masters, painters were losing faith in the universal ideal of beauty. Instead, they desired to explore their own, individual vision. Where once landscape, however meticulously rendered, was no more than a backdrop against which human and sacred drama could be staged, increasingly it was seen as a subject in its own right. It is no coincidence that a newfound passion for the natural world coincided with the era of Romantic poets. “One impulse from a vernal wood//May teach you more of man//Of moral evil and of good//Than all the sages can,” wrote Wordsworth, capturing the sentiment of a generation increasingly aware that truth and beauty were as likely to be found en plein air as in a university or cathedral. Two hundred years later, we have mourned the death of painting and hailed its rebirth in the form of styles – Neo-Expressionist, Post-Pop – that all too often prefer triteness to transcendence. A vogue for iconising pickled sharks, aluminium pool toys and Manga cartoons are, according to the latest critical theory, emblems of a world which is no longer post-modern but post-human. Yet certain painters keep faith with Constable and Turner’s dream. Eschewing the empty bravura which is so ubiquitous in the contemporary art scene, they make landscapes whose lack of ‘like’ would leave Hazlitt speechless yet which obliquely express the verities for which the 18th-century English painters were striving. Place, time, love, loss, hope and memory are all inscribed in the extraordinary landscapes of Georgina Spengler and Isabel Ramoneda. As with their forebears, poetry is fundamental to their vision.
For Georgina Spengler, poetry is a conduit, a Proustian catalyst that allows her to translate past into present, imagination into image. The daughter of a Greek mother from Asia Minor and an Austrian father who grew up in North Africa, she was brought up in the United States and now lives in Rome. This experience of perpetual exile has acted to heighten her inner sense of landscape. Her latest cycle of paintings takes inspiration from the poetry of Giorgio Seferis, the Nobel prize-winner who, like Spengler’s mother, was born in Asia Minor and experienced the loss of his homeland following its reconquest by the Ottoman Turks in 1923. “Certain lines keep running through my head,” she explains. “And I try to make the same feelings in my paintings as the words on the page.” In cycles such as “Cisterns and Wells” and “The Voices Circles”, she succeeds triumphantly. Working with linseed-rich oils beloved of the old masters, the silky, fathomless deliquescence of her surfaces is intensified by veils of colour applied with infinitessimal subtlety. Although the overall impression is of a Monet-like cascade of greens – tropical, emerald, olive, bottle, turquoise – there is also a shell pink that recalls Fragonard, a Caravaggesque, bitumen-dark black, yolk-yellows, ceramic blues and chalky whites that conjure up Vermeer and Rembrandt, an ecclesiastical amethyst that calls to mind the velvet robes of Veronese. Ultimately, however, Spengler’s vision is her own. If you have ever thrown a stone into a woodland pool as the sunlight falls through the leaves, or gazed upwards through the water after diving into a river on a summer day, her limpid, depthless waterfalls will resonate. Yet they also escape such concrete metaphors. For these are landscapes not only of the natural world, but also of the mind. Shimmering palimpsests of colour that summon up both memories of exile and dreams of homecoming. Lost paradises. Elusive edens.  Like all great abstract painting, their potency is a priori ineffable. In the final instance, the words that best illuminate their power are the lines which originally inspired them.

“The life that they gave us to live, we lived.

Pity those who wait with such patience

lost in the black laurel under the heavy plane trees

and those, alone, who speak to cisterns and wells

and drown in the voice’s circles.”            Mythistorema, Giorgo Seferis.

Those mental processes evade explanation by conscious language. Instead we must turn to the vocabulary of dreams, poetry and, as in the case of artists such as Ramoneda and Spengler, paintings that translate the “vernal wood” into the equally fertile territory of the artistic imagination.

Rachel Spence