Martin Wittfooth Interview—The Passions

Brooklyn fine artist, Martin Wittfooth presents a provocative body of work at the Lyons Wier Gallery entitled, “The Passions.” Martin’s latest is a contemporary exploration of sainthood, martyrdom and religious tokens that decorate the modern landscape. (Above, The Baptism, 56x56," oil on canvas, 2011).

Martin Wittfooth continues on an artistic journey that evokes intersections between industry and nature, often displaying them in a clash of exorbitant proportions. Fire burns brightly in his latest assemblage of large-scaled oil paintings and I caught up with Martin to learn more while providing comparison to a significant group of historical works. (Above, Sebastian, 48" x 72," oil on canvas 2011).

mM : Your new exhibition Passions presents Biblical Allegory to convey a very active, often times, violent approach to the narrative. What passages, stories or historic periods inspired your paintings featured in “Passions?”

MARTIN : The Passions is an exploration of sainthood, martyrdom, and holiness idolized in the religious traditions that still dominate the ideological landscape of the modern world, and the prerequisite acts most often performed to attain such states of reverence: violence, self-sacrifice, and suffering. (Above, Ecstasy, 36x36," oil on canvas, 2011).

In Western philosophy “the passions” refer to biologically-driven strong emotional states that would seduce one away from reason, yet the term’s origin is to be found in the Latin word “passio,” which translates to “suffering.”

Above left, Salvador Dali “The Face of War’ (c. 1940-1941), Oil on canvas was painted during his brief stay in California. The central face presents Dali’s feelings of war—the 3 year long Second Spanish Civil War that ended in 1939 and becoming a repressive fascist dictatorship lead by Francisco Franco and the commencement of World War II. Dali described, “Spain would serve as a holocaust to that post-war Europe tortured by ideological dramas, by moral and artistic anxieties—at one fell swoop, from the middle of the Spanish cadaver springs hatred.”

Above right, Salvador Dali, “Crucifiction (Corpus Hypercubus ou Crucifixion)” (c. 1954), oil on canvas, Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York. “The number nine is identifiable and becomes especially consubstantial with the body of Christ…” described Dali as he was thought to have been using mathematical symbols and equations to define the fourth dimension. Thomas Banchoff, pioneer of computer graphics to illustrate geometry beyond the third dimension would later defend Dali’s mathematic and science measures used in his paintings.

Consequently, it is connected to the most famous act of martyrdom: the crucifixion of Christ. Devotional paintings and sculptures from the last millennia have presented us with multitudes of examples in which the passions, in both their original and more carnal manifestations make a simultaneous appearance. One example of this is Bernini’s famous sculpture of 1652, The Ecstasy of Saint Theresa - which also served as the inspiration for my own painting, The Ecstasy. In Bernini's sculpture, we witness both lustful –one daresay orgasmic – abandon of all senses coupled with laceration-borne anguish. Furthermore, a reflection on such beliefs as the Rapture or Islamic jihad will compel one to admit that this archaic combination is yet alive and well in our modern age. By exploring the double meaning of intellectual desertion and fatal suffering that continues to be upheld and glorified by faith-based systems, The Passions is a criticism of blind, destructive piety.

Above left, The Ecstasy of St. Teresa was designed and completed by Gian Lorenzo Bernini (c. 1647-1652) at the Cornaro Chapel, (named after the family who commissioned the piece), in Santa Maria dell Vittoria, Rome. Bernini depicts, “In his hands I saw a great golden spear, and at the iron tip there appeared to be a point of fire. This he plunged into my heart several times so that it penetrated to my entrails. When he pulled it out I felt that he took them with it, and left me utterly consumed by the great love of God. The pain was so severe that it made me utter several moans.”

Above right, Baroque Italian painter, Giuseppe Bazzani, “The Ectasy of St. Therese,” Oil on canvas, (c. 1745-1750), Museum of Fine Arts, Budapest, Hungary. Characterized by dark emotionalism and tortured poses, his loose brushstrokes evoke theatrical references to Rubens and Veronese.

mM : “The Sacrifice,” “Sebastian,” “Pieta” and “The Coronation” paintings seem to all provide human interaction without representing humankind. Are humans void in your painted world? Or are they living, and influencing the animal life protagonists?

MARTIN : I often portray my animals as symbolic stand-ins for ourselves, or as allegorical mirrors of certain facets of the human condition. I remove the human figure from my work, and instead portray nature in man-made or manufactured settings. (Above, Pieta and Pieta study).

We are, however, present but unable to affect or change the outcome, and collectively accountable for the scenes that unfold, as the relics and architecture that litter my landscapes are familiar to us all. The animals are the main players on a stage set by human hands. (Above, The Sacrifice, 50x64," oil on canvas, 2011).

mM : “The Rapture” seems to indicate a sense of hope and spiritual force. It is interesting of the presentation of the force of good on the left while something diabolical is taking place on the right with the large shadow in the foreground. How did this painting evolve and what visual language are you inspired by?

MARTIN : "The Rapture" is actually taking a stab at the archaic -but still very alive-and-well - notion that for "holiness" or "salvation" to occur, there needs to be a sacrifice. What this painting is playing with is the idea that the burnt offering that is taking place on the right hand side is the act that precipitates the "rapturous" moment that occurs on the left. The flowers suggest the beauty and bliss of this moment, yet the manner of their appearance is one also of violence: the dog being "saved" is also being ripped apart by this surrender. In exploring this imagery, I’m making a commentary about the morbid absurdity underlying such beliefs as that which the title references: The Rapture. For this "holy" event to occur, all must be sacrificed: at the heart of it, such a belief is the celebration of death. (Above left, Rapture (2011) in contrast with the painting, New Suns (2010) featured on right).

Check out more of Martin Wittfooth’s work on his website and feel free to learn more in a series of interviews archived in this blog—Tempest Exhibition, Gardens Exhibition, Martin Wittfooth at Aqua, Miami, Survey Select featuring Sanctuary. Kind thanks to Martin for taking out the time and providing the opportunity to look up so many amazing pieces of fine art in parallel to this article. More soon.

Above left,
“Taking of Christ’ by Italian Baroque master Michelangelo Merisi da Caravaggio (c. 1602), originally commissioned by nobleman Ciriaco Mattei. It is housed in the National Gallery of Ireland. By the late 18th century, the painting was thought to have disappeared, and its whereabouts remained unknown for about 200 years before being rediscovered in the hands of the Dublin Jesuits’ Society in the early 1990s.

Above right, “The Entombment of Christ” painted by Michelangelo Merisi da Caravaggio (c. 1602-1603), originally painted for Santa Maria in Vallicella, a church built for the Oratory of Saint Philip Neri and commissioned by Alessandro Vittrice in 1601. The Virgin Mary is partially obscured and painted much older than accepted during Caravaggio’s time. Mary Magdalene with arms raised to the heavens as this is not a representational moment of transfiguration, but of mourning.

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