Edward Lucie- Smith


The word ‘realism’ is often very loosely used when it is applied to art, and especially when it is used in relation to painting. In the minds of many spectators, it implies something that is in some way related to photography, which has become the contemporary standard of realistic representation. No-one could describe Maya Kulenovic’s paintings as ‘photographic’, but their place in the realist tradition is nevertheless secure. Her work is realist in the way that Rembrandt and Goya are realist. They attempt to explore the essence of human existence, and often come up with uncomfortable truths. These truths are conveyed through paintings that fall into very specific categories, related to the old hierarchy of genres that was discarded by the pioneering Modernists. In Kulenovic’s work we find still life paintings, portraits [of a sort], landscapes and architectural compositions.

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RIDDLE, 2008, oil on canvas, 24″ x 22″ (56cm x 51cm)

In an odd way, the still life paintings are the easiest to come to terms with. Still life has not invariably been used for the depiction of things that would conventionally be described as beautiful. Since Rembrandt and Goya have already been mentioned, it is relevant to cite not only Rembrandt’s celebrated Flayed Ox but also some of the still lifes that Goya made at the very end of his life, when he was living in exile in Bordeaux. An example is his Plucked Turkey of ca. 1812, now in the Neue Pinakothek in Munich.

Recent paintings by Kulenovic, classified by the artist as ‘still life’, feature the body of a napalm victim and that of a woman wounded by shrapnel. One can perhaps refer these to Géricault’s terrifying compositions of severed heads and limbs, painted ca. 1818, apparently as preliminary studies for his Raft of the Medusa [1819]. An even closer parallel to Géricault is provided by Kulenovic’s painting Murder, which features a dismembered torso. Looking at these, one recalls that, though Kulenovic now lives in Canada, she was born in Sarajevo.

Géricault, and to some extent Goya too, in his final phase, were Romantic artists. More specifically, they were somewhat belated representatives of the form of Romanticism that is now called the Sturm und Drang. A more typical and immediately recognizable representative of this phase was Henry Fuseli, a Swiss-born artist who, after a period in Rome established himself in London. Fuseli’s signature work is The Nightmare, painted in 1782, and now in the Detroit Institute of Arts. An incubus – a sinister ape-like creature – has planted himself upon the torso of a sleeping girl. The ‘nightmare’ of the title – a horse with glaring eyes – pokes its head through a curtain in the background. It is impossible not to think of this when looking at Kulenovic’s 27 lbs – a severed horse’s head placed on a butcher’s scale.

It is also hard not to think of the celebrated scene in the 1972 film The Godfather, where Jack Woltz, a rich and successful Hollywood film producer who has refused to do the Mafia’s bidding, wakes up next to the severed head of his favourite race-horse. The Sturm and Drang sensibility has migrated into pop culture and is still a live force in contemporary society.

Kulenovic’s architectural compositions evoke a more complex version of the Romantic heritage. They can be thought of as owing a debt to Piranesi’s etchings of Prisons, though the spaces and constructions she depicts are never as purely irrational as those invented by Piranesi. Curiously enough, they also seem to owe something to the photographs that Georges Rodenbach used to illustrate his Symbolist novella Bruges-la-Morte, published in 1892.

The architectural paintings, however, differ from the images Rodenbach chose not only because they tend to use classical forms rather than gothic ones but because of their insistence on the fragmented, close-up view. In this respect another reference to film is relevant – this time to Nicholas Roeg’s Don’t Look Now [1973] set in the claustrophobic streets and back canals of Venice.

What these comparisons suggest is that Kulenovic is more essentially a Symbolist than she is a true realist. This perception is borne out by two groups of paintings that I have not as yet examined – the landscapes and the paintings of people. Unlike the architectural paintings, which are invariably close-ups, the landscapes tend to be wide, desolate panoramas, often seen in what seems to be the light of dusk, with heavily overcast skies. One, somewhat untypical recent landscape, Rift, can perhaps be referred to the dense woodland scenes painted by Altdorfer in the early 16th century. Others are slightly reminiscent of the great German 19th-century landscapist Caspar David Friedrich. There is also an occasional resemblance to some of the major Russian 19th-century landscape painters whose work remains little known in the West, notably to the work of Arkhip Kuinji [1842-1910]. However, these resemblances are probably coincidental. Kulenovic’s landscapes are sui generis, never more so than in a painting called Vacancy, 55 m.p.h., which represents a vast prairie, seen from a speeding car.

In fact, the more one looks at these landscapes the more clearly one understands that they represent aspects of the contemporary world – these are scenes that, for the most part, would have been physically, intellectually and emotionally inaccessible to the artists of the past. They show the world we ourselves inhabit, in all its desolation.

The paintings that Kulenovic calls Faces, rather than Portraits, are also intensely modern, while using a format that has been established in western art since as early as the beginning of the 15th century. Each presents us with a single head, usually that of a child or an adolescent, and more often that of a female subject rather than a male. In each case, the artist’s preoccupation seems to be, not the creation of a likeness but the presentation of a psychological state.

When one looks at these, one realizes that they are in fact the key to Kulenovic’s work considered as a whole. The still lifes, the architectural compositions and the landscapes are also, in their essence, attempts to identify and present a particular state of being. This quality is the thing that makes her work so haunting, and so unlike the work of any other artist of her own generation that I can immediately think of.