Evgeni Dybsky, Splitting time / Jeanette Zwingenberger
Processes of perception, remembrance, creation
Dybsky’s work is like an old mirror that reflects past, present and future times. The cracks and stains testify to the shad- ing and dilation of time. Whereas the picture of Wilde’s Dorian Gray (1) is a portrait that acts as the alter ego of a character, Dybsky is not concerned with depicting a subject but rather immerses us in processes of perception and remembering, in a dialogue with the work of Giotto.
In the beginning was Dybsky’s 1988 voyage to Padua, where he first encountered the fresco cycle of Giotto (1266–1337) in the Cappella degli Scrovegni. During a subsequent visit in 2005 he was confronted with the restored works. The frescos had been heavily painted over, the original seemingly obliterated. Dybsky’s project addresses the questions: what remains of Giotto’s work? What was the experience of those who originally saw it? How is it received today?
This loss is the starting point for Dybsky’s anachronological procedure. It takes him from the search for the original colours to a new creative process. The “Splitting time” of the title is an allusion to Gilles Deleuze’s distinction between two aspects of time. If we apply this concept to Dybsky’s work, Giotto represents the preserved series of past times within our transient series of presents (2). This is a simultaneous union of present and past that corresponds to Deleuze’s concept of the “crystal image”. For Deleuze, if you follow memory on its own terms, then the images stop organizing themselves according to spatial criteria in favour of purely temporal ones. The emancipation of time from space means that the different images no longer follow each other in a sequence; instead, the real co-exists with the virtual. (3)
At a time when we are deluged with data and images, and digitally-enabled reproduction has made photography and its dissemination on the Internet into a mass phenomenon, Dybsky’s work reconsiders the material basis of painting. Unlike today’s appropriation art, Dybsky’s work lets us join him in his artistic confrontation with Giotto.
The figurative and the abstract
In Dybsky’s painting Translation of Time XVI #12
(270 x 200 x 5 cm, 2009) two tree groups frame a blue surface under a white sky. The smooth purple-gray texture of the two figures striding into the picture from the left contrasts with the flat fresco technique, characterized by an impasto surface in blue and white. The crowns of the trees in turn are reminiscent of palettes of purple-brown, pink and white points of colour. The colour impressions are echoed in the foreground of the painting, but this time the paint has been poured and splashed onto the canvas, giving a different texture.
The scene seems vaguely familiar, but the allusion to St Francis Preaching to the Birds (Basilica di San Francesco, Assisi) does not register until later. In Giotto’s painting the slightly inclined tree on the right takes up the entire right half of the painting, gaining a stature from which it seems to be in dialogue with the holy. In this way Dybsky takes over the interaction of landscape elements and figures in Giotto’s painting.
For Giotto, that interaction relates to the concept of responsibility for creation that St Francis developed in his Canticle of Brother Sun. Thus, humankind is no longer the master of nature but rather a part of it. The sun, the moon, the wind, the earth and the animals are kith and kin to the itinerant preacher, who discourses with them. This turn towards nature in its material reality is a harbinger of the Italian Renaissance. For Giotto, the mountains visible in outline are just as much players in the drama of the painting as are the human figures.
A dark mass looms across from a vertical white surface in Dybsky’s Translation of Time XVI #21 (190 x 200 x 5 cm, 2012), a pattern already found in Giotto’s The Baptism of Christ. Like Giotto, Dybsky allows the green expanse of the Jordan river under a blue sky to dominate the centre of the painting. However, the sky itself is rendered as a weathered surface that invokes the ravages of time. The halo of John the Baptist has become a white indentation marked off by an arc of yellow. A further, window-like incision reveals the cross-shaped canvas stretcher and serves as the origin for a shimmering pink tail that evokes the saint’s robe; a reddish-white brushstroke accentuates the flowing movement. The nearly abstract mountain formations that frame and seem to accompany the human figures in Giotto’s Flight into Egypt (Padua, Scrovegni Chapel) have been accentuated in Dybsky’s Translation of Time XVI #8 (190 x 200 x 5 cm, 2008) and given a rhythmic motion. Mary with the child is a gray silhouette, a counterweight to Joseph’s earth-tone surface. Only the three halos betray the sacred nature of the coloured forms and the angel. In contrast to the calm, broad spatial continuum of these fields of colour, the group of figures on the left is depicted in an agitated impasto of polychrome painting.
Canvas: front and back
Seen from a distance, Translation of Time XVI #20 (190 x 200 x 5 cm, 2012) displays typical Renaissance arcades, executed in white and gray. These provide the background with perspective and act as a reminder of Giotto’s three-dimensional phenomenal world, against which Dybsky has placed his flat shapes. The shapes make one think of early photographic images, incapable of fixing moving figures and therefore recording only the landscape.
Under Dybsky’s hands, the depicted scene has been transformed into energy-laden fields of colour that take on a life of their own in space, like the nuanced orange and umbra surfaces. The stark reddish-brown and purple brushstrokes, on the other hand, are hemmed in by a fence-like pattern. Dybsky has turned Giotto’s subject, The Cleansing of the temple (Padua, Scrovegni Chapel), into a mysterious event in colour. A contrasting note is given by the horizontal green stripe that borders the bottom of the painting.
Closer observation reveals two thick brush strokes in bold red and green, which catapult the structure of the image into the instant of painting. This is the point at which the two levels—that of composition and that of painting—collide. It also accomplishes the reversal of the chronology of the process of painting, as the upper and lower layers trade places.
Dybsky’s Translation of Time XVI #14 (190 x 200 x 5 cm, 2011) depicts Christ as a white, cylindrical shape with a white spherical head, standing at the tomb of Lazarus; the sky in the background is likewise white. In the shade of the burial hill stands an upright Lazarus, a dark spindle-like figure still swaddled in shimmering gray burial cloth. Earth-coloured silhouettes cluster behind him. In front of the hill, which looms over the various figures, a mysterious fluid red shape stands out. This kind of chance image is an important component in Dybsky’s work: he frequently lays his paintings on the floor while working. A counter-movement is given by the dark-green mass that has swallowed up the group of people in Giotto’s painting. One of them, of whom only a foot remains visible, appears to be trying to disappear into the expanse of paint as well. Dybsky surprises the viewer with unconventional views that alternately emerge from or plunge into the picture.
The canvas has become a three-dimensional body. Dybsky’s work process often begins with the unprimed reverse side of the canvas, to which he applies paint that will seep through to the front. On occasion he cuts through the front of the canvas, exposing a portion of the stretcher frame. Dybsky uses these incisions in counterpoint, as a deliberately irritating foreign element in the picture’s context.
Translation of Time XVI #18 (190 x 200 x 5 cm, 2011): Emerging from the city gates, a procession strides behind Christ in the direction of Calvary. The cross beam forms a symbolic whole with the body of Jesus, which has been reduced to a geometric element. The white circle representing his head echoes a white halo, which corresponds to Giotto’s Mary. Dybsky has replaced Giotto’s halo motif with an indentation that breaks through the two-dimensionality of the image. These abstract relief structures are “mnemosigns” that recall not only Giotto’s Road to Calvary (Padua, Scrovegni Chapel) but also earlier icon painting. The abstract white surface counterbalances the action of the colours erupting in the picture. Alexei Parshchikov remarked on the “matte, luminescent orb that contains all colours, not a Black Square, not a White Square, but a white sphere”. (4) The brilliantly faceted palette has been reduced here to a white zero point, as have the expanses of colour that have a habit of absorbing Giotto’s figures.
Dybsky’s abstract round tondos are an allusion to Giotto’s apocryphal “O”. In Vasari’s account (5), the artist, in response to an emissary of the pope, who wanted him to produce a sample of his work, merely drew a circle, freehand, that was as perfect as if it had been constructed with a compass. In Dybsky’s picture the circle stands in stark contrast to the breaks, signs of aging, and the peeling layers of white paint. The almost organic corporality of the painting is further enhanced by the blood-like trail of colour that originates with the person standing in Christ’s way and flows across the bottom of the picture.
Giotto’s work is concentrated on a storia. In Dybsky’s work the storia is still there, but the different materials of the picture lead the observer to a physical, haptic level of perception. Oil, tempera, aquarelle, emulsions; surface structures that are as smooth as a mirror and others that are rough or chapped; sharp colour contours and shape outlines and gradual transitions: it is clear that the development is oriented towards a process.
The Miracle of the Spring (in the San Francesco church in Assisi) shows the mountain formations that are typical for Giotto. The light-flooded mountain with the saint praying at its foot and its sombre counterpart are to be found also in Dybsky’s Translation of time XVI #11 (270 x 200 x 5, 2009). There is a surrealistic note in the silhouette and shadow of the prone man drinking at the spring, set off against an oil impasto in green. What at first sight appears to be a face peering through the windowlike cavity just above is in fact a potentional image created by chance, from the movement of the emulsion.
Outlines versus surfaces, the superficial versus the deep, the striking versus the subtle, open versus hermetic aspects: all of these co-exist in Dybsky’s works. Their synchronous linkage breaks up the narrative-depictive unity and weaves an intricate nexus of structure and drift.
The body of the painting: a living interface
Giotto has been credited with the invention of a mixed technique of true (buon) fresco und secco work. (6) In the former, lime-resistant pigments are mixed into limewater and applied to fresh, moist plaster. As it dries and sets, the pigment becomes integrated into the plaster surface, forming a homogeneous crust. In secco work, the paint is applied to dry plaster, giving a less durable result.
The need for speed that characterizes fresco painting and the range of aging processes are themselves an important subject of Dybsky’s paintings. The layer-wise construction of plaster using limestone, fine sand or ground stone, and the possibility of accidents, constitute the physical reality of painting for Dybsky.
Another painting, f-Translation of Time XVI #48 (95 x 150 x 5 cm, 2012), makes this manner of working even clearer: two clearly contoured figures, one dark, the other green, with plaster thrown on, giving them a plastic presence. Between them, the picture’s centre is a radiant red, crystallizing the field of energy between the figures: a constellation of forces, a living substance evolving on its own terms, giving the picture its fourth dimension.
In the drawings, too, Dybsky uses a variety of materials: graphite, charcoal, sanguine, cooking oil. The aging process is invoked with oil that yellows on paper, waxy and dry textures. In these drawings Dybsky develops Giotto’s schematic simplification of the lines and his contour approach to composition further into a nearly abstract landscape. Dybsky’s aquarelles are a phenomenological take on Giotto’s world of colours and its light fields.
The fourth dimension: the process of coming-to-be
Leonardo da Vinci famously commended stains on walls as a source of inspiration. (7) Dybsky’s craquelures are a reflection of the aging process that imbues the body of his painting with a very corporal transience. Cracking and fissuring lends the picture its unfinished, in-process character, a reflection of coming into being but also decay.
This willingness to embrace unpredictability contrasts sharply with the varnished aesthetic of museum exhibits. The craquelure brings out what is hidden below the surface. Like Saint Thomas, who assuages his disbelief by putting his hand into Christ’s wound, Dybsky explores the folds of painting by cutting into the canvas and adding his signature ‘craters’ and relief features. Fissures cover the entire canvas in a network. The body of the painting thus becomes a living, dynamically evolving material. The material reality of the painting, the crust of applied paint, is reminiscent of a weathered wall from which the top layers of paint are starting to flake off, exposing earlier layers.
Paul Valéry wrote that the skin is the most profound thing about a person. (8) While the skin is commonly understood as the partition that separates the interior from the exterior world, its function as a membrane makes it an active influence in Dybsky’s work. The painting gains a tactile dimension. Beyond description and hermeneutics, he takes the observer to a place where colour is experienced directly, as a movement of the senses and as a disruption. His work echoes not only the composition of Giotto’s frescos but also the process of decay in the fresco method, which he takes to a further level.
The accidental elements and chance images that characterize aquarelle painting—paint blotting, splashing and diffusion—are all grist for his mill, as are the formations typical of a fresco’s lime crust. In an almost biological manner, he guides the different states of matter into a dynamic, flowing process of creation.
Dybsky’s encounter with Giotto’s work extends to the Italian master’s choice of subjects, touching not only on the interaction between humans and nature but also on the themes of numerous other works, including The Stigmata of St. Francis, The Kiss of Judas, Joachim and Anna, and the Noli me tangere. The closeness or distance between individuals takes the form of a layering of varied perspectives. Figures swallowed up in a flood of colour persist through tell-tale traces of paint. Textured paint sinking out of sight or coming into being becomes a “crystal image”, reflecting the memory of Giotto.
(1) Oscar Wilde, The Picture of Dorian Gray, Oxford World’s Classics, 2006.
(2) Gilles Deleuze, Das Zeit-Bild. Kino 2, Suhrkamp Verlag, Frankfurt am Main, 1985, p. 103 and p. 112.
(3) Oliver Fahle, “Zeitspaltungen. Gedächtnis und Erinnerung bei Gilles Deleuze”, in: montage AV 11/1/2002, Berlin 2002, pp. 97–112.
(4) On Alchemy, Love, and Scale. Evgeni Dybsky talks with Alexei Parshchikov. Evgeni Dybsky. Exhibition Catalogue Moscow Museum of Modern Art, 2005, p. 74–77.
(5) “Giotto’s ‘tondo’ is not only a sign of Giotto’s artistic virtuosity but, as image and letter, is also intended as a kind of condensed emblem.” Paul Barolsky, Why Mona Lisa Smiles and Other Tales by Vasari, The Pennsylvania State University, University Park, 1991, pp. 11–12. (6) Francesca Bertini, Affresco e Pittura Murale. Tecnica e Materiali, Edizioni Polistampa, Florence, 2011.
(7) Martin Kemp, Leonardo: Leben und Werk, Beck, Munich, 2005, p. 19.
(8) Paul Valéry, “L’idée fixe ou deux hommes à la mer”, in: Œuvres, La Pléiade, 2 (ed. Jean Hytier), Paris, 1960.
Published in: Dybsky, Evgeni (ed.): Evgeni Dybsky. Giotto Project. Exhibition Catalogue Moscow Museum of Modern Art, 29.10.-01.12.2013. Kerber Verlag, Bielefeld / Berlin 2013, pp. 5-8.