With Edinburgh’s Arusha Gallery currently showing an exhibition of painting on glass by Ilona Szalay (Until 23 June 2019), perhaps this is a good time to examine the place the artist’s work occupies in its wider historical context, for painting on glass has a long and much-celebrated history. Szalay is known, it is said, for deploying a range of media (canvas, tracing paper, LED light, and glass) all of which allow her scope to engage with the multitudinous dichotomies that make up both collective and individual subjective experience in a restrained, poetic visual language: ‘The contrast between the subject she paints and how it is painted is never sharp or demanding; the heavy, looping strokes and soft lines made by her brush point towards something much more ingenious and intuitive. These are contrasts that are gestured at, never insisted upon, and allow for a kind of dialectic with the viewer: a set of techniques more native to the literary arts than to the visual medium in which she works.’
When asked what springs to mind when the subject of artists working on glass is raised, among many examples from the twentieth century, undoubtedly Picasso painting on large glass plates in Paul Haesaerts’ 1949 documentary Visit to Picasso (Bezoek aan Picasso) will likely spring to mind, but the use of glass as a support for painting stretches further back than the mid-twentieth century. Haesaerts’ documentary, nominated for a BAFTA award in 1951, may capture the artist painting on the fast surface of the glass plates that the director provided for him, but glass was not Picasso’s favoured support – rather a device used by the filmmaker seeking to document the process of Picasso’s art, and so it is something quite other than what I’m addressing here. Painting on glass as a chosen support goes back much further, in fact, to Thomas Gainsborough, and well beyond that.
Some of the earliest examples of painting on glass (lustre work) originate from ancient Egypt and Syria, where glass was used as a support for painting in gold and yellow pigments. In the middle-ages gold leaf was adhered to glass to embellish the paintings on windows and ornaments, but it was much later that Gainsborough emerged as one of many who, at the height of his career, saw the real potential for painting on a glass surface. Known examples of painted glass from the British Isles date from around the latter part of the sixteenth century, when glaziers began painting glass either as an alternative to, or as an enhancement of, glass windows. Louis XIII of France unwittingly contributed to the application of paint on glass, too, when during the war of 1633-6 he ordered the destruction of the glass furnaces of Lorraine. Glaziers all over Europe began using white glass and decorating it with colours by enamelling, and as architectural historian Michael Quinton Smith has observed, ‘designers, no longer restrained by the need to lead together irregularly shaped pieces of coloured glass, felt themselves free to imitate pictorial styles current in contemporary easel painting of the time.’
By the mid-seventeenth century, many examples of painted glass within Oxford’s colleges were already renowned for their high quality and innovatory style, and by the 1700s, windows throughout the British Isles were being installed and admired. In 1782, for example, Sir Joshua Reynolds designed the west window of New College Chapel, a window that was constructed by Thomas Jervais. It is Gainsborough, however, who might be seen as one of the first artists to have realised the real potential for glass to be used as a true support for painting in its own right. While Reynolds’ design for New College Chapel did function as both painting and window, it is first and foremost decorative and conceived as such. Gainsborough was approaching glass from quite a different angle altogether, having witnessed an exhibition of work on glass by Jervais (mostly scenes depicting the effects of candlelight and moonlight), held in London in the early 1780s.
Both Reynolds and Gainsborough had been suitably impressed around the same time by Philip James de Loutherbourg’s Eidophusikon, too, which was on display c.1781-2. As John Sunderland has explained, the Eidophusikon, described at the time as Moving Pictures, Representing Phenomena of Nature, was a small-scale animated stage-set with sound and lighting effects used to present literary stories and sublime landscape scenes. de Loutherbourg’s first engagements in London had been a result of his friendship with David Garrick who assisted in him becoming a scenic designer for the theatre, but he never realised the true potential of glass as a support for painting (a key feature of the Eidophusikon), and in later life he moved away from painting altogether to embrace alchemy and more esoteric interests.
Gainsborough, on the other hand, saw the unique potential of the medium and set about designing his own ‘exhibition box’, or show box as it has come to be known. The show box, held in the collection of the Victoria and Albert Museum, London (above), is a closed wooden construction with a lens that can be animated to suggest distance with painted glass transparencies, each of which were lit by candlelight diffused behind a fine silk screen. While Gainsborough is celebrated as the inventor of such a construction there had, nevertheless, been many experiments by those researching the potential of such apparatus. The earliest may have been Alberti, in fifteenth century Italy. Most celebrated for his theoretical writings and work as an architect, poet, priest, linguist, and philosopher, for the most part historians have passed over his experiment, some mistaking it for a camera obscura, although Alberti describes his construction of an ‘intersector’' (the precursor of a ‘camera lucida’), in De pictura (his Treatise on Painting) published in 1450.
Gainsborough’s show box in the V&A has with it seven glass paintings which reveal a variety of experiments with lighting techniques; a River Scene with a Boat; a Woodland Scene with Tree Stump; a Downland Scene with River and Bridge; and probably the most revealing of the show box’s ability to enhance an image, slides such as A Cottage in Moonlight and a Woodland Scene with Pond and Cattle. These paintings on glass serve as an example of Gainsborough’s real joy in painting, too. Removed from any patronly pressure they are clearly relaxed, freestyle sketches and, as Jonathan Mayne has written of them: ‘All the evidence suggests that when Gainsborough’s friends called upon him and sat and sipped their tea, they were, perhaps without knowing it, assisting at the birth of some of the most original and attractive inventions. The show box, for all its air of being little more than an amusing toy, was in reality an important tool in the forging of Gainsborough’s late style in landscape painting.’
The specific method that Gainsborough used in painting his glass plates was fairly simple, and not unlike the method of painting in oil on any other support. The oil paint was thinned with a hard resin varnish, albeit applied in perhaps a more reticent manner than upon canvas for the reason that glass offers an incredibly fast surface. Artists across Europe during this period were experimenting with a variety of new methods brought about by a wide range of new industrial processes, too, however. Enamel on glass was another method that found renewed favour following the design and manufacture of purpose-built kilns. Constance-Anne Parker has surmised as to why Stubbs chose to experiment with enamel paint in the 1760s. He may have felt, she claims, ‘that enamels are less changed by darkening and cracking than oils,’ and Stubbs continued to experiment with a set of pigments that would guarantee permanence and durability. Though he experimented with painting on copper plates, another fast surface that seems to have held some attraction, he abandoned glass as just too fast a surface. Nonetheless, Parker advances the view that he was still pursuing what she terms ‘a glassy quality.’
Glass painting as window decoration continued unbroken through the remaining years of the eighteenth century and well into the nineteenth, whereupon the various workshops of the arts and crafts movement revived many methods of production that had either been abandoned or simply forgotten. Nevertheless, one of the most astonishing examples of glass painting from the nineteenth century is not from the latter part of that century but conceived and executed in 1831. When Isaac Alexander Gibbs completed a pair of glass door panels, each with six scenes of classical ruins and gothic arcades, the wider European industrial revolution was still in its infancy, and artists travelling abroad on the Grand Tour still had to negotiate fatiguing journeys by coach or on foot. What Gibbs was to achieve in his window paintings was the depiction of a literary ideal, likely conceived for the purpose of decorating the house of a family well-versed in the writings of the romantic poets and the European travel itineraries of their day.
Some years ago, now, Jane Holdsworth, manager of Asprey’s antique glass department, revealed to me her research regarding the two windows by Gibbs that were then held by Asprey’s of London. Gibbs, she noted, was advertised in the catalogue of the Great Exhibition of 1851 (where he exhibited windows in the Gothic style) as a Designer and Producer of Windows at Camden Town, and he is still best-known for his ecclesiastical windows of the period. Of his fourteen children, three continued in the profession that he provided for them, with Isaac Alexander junior continuing until the turn of the century. Little is known of Gibbs’ technique used in the pair of glass door panels, though it is likely that his methods differed little from his traditional ecclesiastical glass painting methods. The result, much to the taste of the day, appears now laboured and tight, as though he is fighting the very support on which he paints, seeking to achieve a mere backlit equivalent of classical scenes realised more often on canvas. One thing is for sure, however; Gibbs’s method was a complete departure from Gainsborough’s freestyle approach for those images conceived to be backlit by candlelight.
While Ilona Szalay’s work may seem an extreme departure from the history here, I think that that view might be worthy of reconsideration, for it certainly shares much in common with Gainsborough’s work on glass, at least in terms of application. The fastness of glass almost encourages the freestyle approach, just as was seen when Picasso painted on the surface for Haesaerts during filming. In particular, Szalay’s handling on glass is not dissimilar, in some ways, to the handling of another artist recently shown by Arusha; Casper White. Like White the fast surface is clearly seductive, although in White’s case the favoured support is a range of metal surfaces such as zinc and steel (Ilona Szalay has also used metals as a support in past works too).
The handling of paint on a glass surface probably differs more than painting on any other, though. It calls for an immediacy of eye and hand coordination and a quick mind to achieve the desired result. It is slick (in the true sense of the word) and though Haesaerts’s 1949 documentary of Picasso at work may hint at the fluidity of mark making that is a feature of painting on such a surface, there is something more going on in Szalay’s work, I believe.
Part of the reason for that is the nature of her subject matter, of course. As the exhibition literature from Arusha states, ‘Ilona's paintings in this exhibition play with the idea of […] fragmented, incomplete “truth”. The more I tell you, the less you know, a series of oils on glass, explores this notion most explicitly, as we are given glimpses of a tantalising narrative which swoops in and out of focus. [Her] decision to produce all the exhibition's new works on glass stems from a desire to embody the paradox of transparency and mystery, and to 'argue' that mystery, secrecy and unknowability are as visible and unhidden as glass itself.’
Then there is the title of the exhibition to take into account: Oracle. ‘The oracle is a gatekeeper, straddling the divine and the mortal – a whisperer of secrets and a deliverer of riddles. Sphinx-like, she remains impassive and composed, her face often masked with an apparent neutrality or even indifference. She is sought for her guidance, her wisdom and her prophecies.’ Is it far fetched to consider similar allusions to glass as a medium through which ideas pass or are reflected? Obvious examples, though perhaps crass on some levels, already exist in stories such as Snow White, or Lewis Carroll’s Through the Looking-Glass, and What Alice Found There. In both, the mirror, in those examples, serves as a portal through which access to truth or lie, fact or fiction may be found. When Alice enters the world beyond the glass, it is a fantastical world in which everything, including logic, is reversed.
On (and within) the glass works of Ilona Szalay, we negotiate a different world however, not reversed but nonetheless just as disconcerting and disarming at times. In several of her paintings from Szalay’s series currently on show, we also encounter a number of erotic motifs that she has become known for over recent years, as ethereal and as apparently impermanent as any image glimpsed in a dream – the slick surface of the glass and the oil paint applied to it with a liquidity that is hard to grasp does that; as though always about to slip out of hand; out of mind; out of view.
In some of the works on show, we encounter touchingly personal images of an apparently benign nature – in the case of the portrait pictured below, intimate too and sensitively handled – but is it a portrait, or the fading memory of such, imagined or otherwise? The craquelure (from the French ‘craquelé’, denoting the pattern of dense cracking on the surface, induced by the drying of the paint), seems to speak of the physical world, while the fluidity of stroke and wash is again ethereal and other worldly, at the same time appearing to speak of corporeality and decay. While glass, once a fluid, becomes fixed, it still carries a sense of its former fluid, mercurial self, while the marks painted upon it speak of a permanence and future.
Viewing some of these works I’m particularly aware of those with feint washes that have dried upon the surface, and certain of Yves Klein’s work come to mind: works that refer, as Klein explained, to “the shadows of Hiroshima in the desert of the atomic catastrophe, terrible evidence, without a doubt, but evidence of hope all the same, hope for the survival and permanence, albeit immaterial, of the flesh." What Klein was referring to were the shadows, mere stains of the dead, that were left against walls and surfaces of Hiroshima after the detonation of the nuclear bomb. Klein’s Untitled Anthropometry, ca.1960 may be relevant here too.
There are, in short, so many levels on which these paintings work. They possess an erotic quality, for sure, and that too may be associated with the medium on her chosen support, perhaps. Though far removed from it in terms of media and handling, her nudes have all the erotic qualities that one expects from French Salon painting of the early to mid-nineteenth century. Though short on the detailing of Ingres, say, these icily erotic paintings have every bit the touch of Ingres’s imaginative forays into the harem to paint his odalisque, or concubines. His The Source of 1856 (Musée d'Orsay, Paris) might feature here as an example. As images wanting of the modelling of flesh, it would be all too easy to align Szalay’s work with that of Julian Opie, I’m sure, but that would be a mistake, for Opie reduces the female form to a banal sexualised caricature, and these are far from that! The name Sickert also features in the literature in relation to Szalay, I see, and this seems far more apt. While we are not in the same murky realm of Sickert’s darksome Camden interiors (for by their very nature these are light and spacious pictures for the most part), there is still the darksome subject matter.
When Arusha showed works by Szalay in 2016, Angie Kordic of the Swiss website Widewalls commented: ‘Her skill of a storyteller is particularly emphasised in her smaller works, which have been compared to the narratives of Sickert, because of their intimate and intriguing interpersonal dramas. Reminisc[ent] of fairy tales, they also evoke visual forms of a diary, with their indicators, props and clues to the confidential stories of magic and wonder. The curious interiors and miniature performances seem to be just behind Ilona Szalay’s clever curtain.’ Its a slightly clumsy description, but Sickert of course gave us this in spades, and the comparison still seems appropriate. The sexual (mortal/documentary/quasi-pornographic) seems to be presented on a level equal to the divine (immortal, even).
Seen together, however, as a body of work, collectively these paintings work on a whole different level. Like rifling through a drawer in an already ransacked apartment where everything has been disturbed, it is hard to piece together a coherent narrative or complete picture of what we are seeing. Innocent, though vaguely erotic images, hang adjacent to portraits – some more heavily worked that others – yet we also encounter sinister images, too, and some near-pornographically sinister, some disconcerting, and others disturbing. Grid 7 (2019) is just such a work. Over a fluid wash are wider, heavier, darker marks, delineating a women with braided hair (clothed), pulling the head of another backwards as she sits naked on a chair.
Here the references are more readily available, from possible allusions to Lady Chatterley-ban-era pornographic photographs that once would change hands for a few shillings in backstreet Britain, to the the questionable narratives that unfold in the work of artists such as Balthus (paintings that later seem to have provided for equivalents in the work of artists such as Paula Rego, too, whose work is currently on display at the Milton Keynes Gallery until September 2019). Like Balthus, cruelty and sexuality become overlaid in Rego’s work in ways that are clearly meant to disturb and arouse in equal measure. Like Alexander Gibbs’s classical scenes on glass, though, Balthus’s work is laboured, tight, and clearly as controlled as the controlling of those being abused in his paintings (paintings such as The Guitar Lesson being an obvious example here). Szalay’s work is much looser though, which is where the comparison to Sickert no doubt comes in, but when juxtaposed with Sickert’s Camden Town Murder paintings and studies, I’m not entirely sure that the comparison holds up for long. The building up, the construction of Sickert’s imagery in swift dawbs, flecks, and stabs of the brush are quite other (again on canvas mainly) to Szalay’s washes and fluid strokes.
Earlier works by Szalay offer other comparisons, no less erotic in subject matter but disturbing nonetheless. Take, for example her painting Angry Octopus (2014) in which a woman stands, uncertain, naked, hesitant perhaps, and frozen in that moment, while in the upper left quarter of the painting an octopus, or something resembling a creature of the octopoda order of species (we only have the title to go on here) threatens from above. Title aside, there is nothing that is comfortable in that image from 2014. Sexual pleasure and death are one, as is so often the case in the common tropes of the erotic arts, and as is evidenced by a comparison with Hokusai’s The Dream of the Fisherman’s Wife of 1814 painted almost precisely 200 years previously.
What then becomes of paintings such as Grid 1 (below) that hangs in the same collection of images as Grid 7, referred to above? A near detail-less face (an everyman for our age) appears no longer as just a sketch on glass with rudimentary features blocked in with fast strokes and a single zig-zagging wash of slicked hair. It becomes sinister, and as unknowable as any identikit portrait, assembled to resemble, but unable to pin down in one’s memory entirely, surely, or with any sense of certainty.
Should one even try to attempt to consult the Oracle here – to try to discern some answer here, that is – or the answers to prove ultimately elusive, designed to elude, intentionally painted to appear beyond our grasp or understanding? The disquiet they cause in the gallery space is of course a ‘safe disquiet’, for we are under no real threat here, yet they seem to speak of threat and one that increasingly builds, comparatively, across several of the works on display. The nudes, such as Seeker and Bystander, offer much less a threat by comparison, but are we not all either seekers or bystanders when approaching the work of Ilona Szalay? There are unspoken truths here, and crimes of passion I am guessing, too, but in seeking any answer to what those crimes might actually entail, in the safety of the gallery space we become bystanders to our own curiosity and, thus, our own complicity in whatever it is we are looking for.
Oracle: Ilona Szalay
Until 23 June 2019
13A Dundas Street
Monday-Saturday, 10am – 5pm
Sunday, 1 – 5pm