Klankbeeld / sound image: Debussy’s 12 préludes in paint

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Klankbeeld / sound image
Liebrecht Art Gallery
Somerset West
The exhibition ends 8 June 2012.

Klankbeeld / sound image is inspired by impressionist composer Claude Debussy’s (1862–1918) 12 préludes in his Premier Livre (1910) and consists of 12 works each by Clare Menck and Anthea Delmotte. 

The following works by Clare Menck form part of the exhibition and is accompanied by an introductory comments by the artist.

“Dancers of Delphi/
Sandra on her wedding-day” 2012

Debussy's Prelude No 1: Danseuses de Delphes (Dancers of Delphi)

Delphi is the name of a city in Ancient Greece and is located at the foot of Mount Parnassus, the site of the Temple of Apollo (God of Oracles, Poetry and Art). Although we doubt that there were female dancers in Delphi proper, the dance evokes dignified religious and languid motions. In ancient sculpture and on decorated vases, one may see the images of young maidens dancing and playing musical instruments.

Here I have depicted two women deeply involved in an intimate conversation, unaware of being observed.  The pair are fitted with spectacular evening wear, and in an interior stripped bare to the essence (sans paintings or mirrors on the wall) to emphasize the symbolic power of the open doorway and the delicate decorative table laden with a see-through gauze tablecloth. The actual incident was a moment captured by camera during the aftermath of the wedding of a close friend (and colleague, namely Sandra Hanekom), in a private audience with her newly-acquired sister-in-law, and eventually distilled in painterly terms in the studio. As in some of my other paintings, coming-of-age rituals and rites of passage (particularly of women, as in this case) receive a heightened personal significance by the intimate and off-beat treatment of the subjects.  The body language says it all (it is a ‘dance’, as it were, of two minds intertwined in conversation).

“Veils or sails/
The artist's children, swimming” 2012

Debussy's Prelude No 2: Voiles (Veils or sails)

Ascribed diversely as suggesting “sailing boats anchored to a fixed pedal-point” and “mysterious veils enveloping feminine forms, hiding forms, hiding eyes which fan desire by their devious glances”, this prelude according to E. Robert Schmitz was given both connotations by Debussy (veils or sails).

I have depicted my daughter and son immersed in water, one partly above, and one almost entirely below the surface of the water, enveloped by the green and blue sparkling hues and veiling qualities of ripples formed by the movement of their play.  The little girl is holding an antique toy yacht with bright red sails to liven the palette with an undeniable complimentary focal point in the form of a vivid visual 'trophy' around which all this movement pivots. 

 “The wind in the plain/
Naked self-portrait, Albertinia” 2012

Debussy's Prelude No 3: Le vent dans la plaine (The wind in the plain)

Here I am seen walking away from the viewer-voyeur, not nude, but naked, emphasized by my wearing slip-on shoes.  I also carry a kappie in one hand, an antique piece of head-wear known to have been used for practical reasons all over the Western world by pioneer women in the last two centuries, but also a particular symbol of my Afrikaner heritage.  It is a piece of headgear I like to sport in self-portraits that deal with gender and identity issues.  The 'plain' is a farm in Albertinia, where I have both family and close friends, and the meaning of the wind blowing through my hair is similarly potent to that of water encompassing the flow of my lone being as I experience the elements at first hand, and then interpret the experience thereof in terms of brushwork and colour.  The plain is meant to be desolate, windswept, save a few lone bushes and the line of hills on the horizon, heightening the sense of this as an 'alone-with-oneself' existential experience (a concept simply explained by the following idea: no-one can take a bath on your behalf;  likewise, no one can take a walk in the wind on your behalf).

 “The sounds and fragrances swirl through the evening air/
The artist’s family near Redelinghuys” 2012

Debussy's Prelude No 4: Les sons et les parfums tournent dans l'air du soir (The sounds and fragrances swirl through the evening air)

A hauntingly soft and melancholy melody forms the counterpart to the poem by Baudelaire, which inspired it.

I am the voyeur-observer here; the odd-one-out; the painter that records what she sees (a gentle moment in the life of a family) for posterity.  The fleetingness of time is unbelievably marked considering that the incident I render took place several years ago, when my children were ever so little as yet. They display very pert personality differences, clear from their body language towards each other and their father.  (Family dynamics is a favourite and subtle theme running through my oeuvre over twenty years).  Their father (painter Johann Louw) is demonstrating subtle protective favouritism (even if unintentional) towards the daughter who seeks his attention by her trustingly deep lean against his body, and the son is at this young age already perched to rebel against the father and the sister in a typical, playfully aggressive boxing position – an acute visual summary of the differences between his overall nature and hers.

The entire human drama is set against the backdrop of an almost tree-less landscape  (somewhere along the South African West Coast) with a desolate farm house and hill (a koppie) marking the horizon-line.  The irony is that the Debussy title seems to imply foliage (“fragrances”), and I ended up with a painting sans plants.  But the idea is that the silence of the evening and the incident is audible, that the human drama rings loud and clear, and that the fragrances are of emotions – as much as of colours – of the falling light and the transience of family life and experience.

“The hills of Anacapri/
Site of, and view from, the Noon gun (Cape Town)” 2012

Debussy's Prelude No 5: Les collines d'Anacapri (The hills of Anacapri)

Anacapri is one of two small cities on the island of Capri. It hangs 1600 feet up on one of the many abrupt hills of this island and can be approached by a stairway of 552 steps or small coiled roads. Debussy uses – in this prelude – one of his gayest, most brightly palettes of colour. In the distance, bells and snatches of the tarantella are wafted lightly on the breeze. The dancers come closer and the full melody is now heard.

This is a depiction of the site of and view from the Noon gun, just above the Bo-Kaap (where my son was born) which is a popular tourist destination but somehow a lesser known jewel of the Cape amongst locals, I gathered by enquiry.  It is the site where the navy operates several cannons, particularly the one known as the famous “Noon gun” which has been signalling the clock time arrival of the moment of noon, 12 o'clock, for at least a century, and its “boom” can be heard daily over the entire city except Sundays. Visitors are treated to spectacular views over Table Bay and Sea Point.  It is therefore such an angle, including the steep slant of the hill on the left, as well as the sweeping dip deep down to the sea (with a few high-rise buildings representing Cape Town in the right-hand corner), and the expansive view down to a trawler on the turquoise ocean, barely visible, with which I intended to draw the link with the figment of my imagination: the island of Capri and the bird’s eye view from the city of Anacapri.  ‘Windswept’ also comes to mind. (Ironically, and perhaps a part of my association with Debussy's “Minstrels”, the Kaapse Klopse could be heard far below in the Bo-Kaap practicing with their brass band on this particularly clear Cape Town day).

“What the West wind has seen/
View from the Noon gun over Table Bay” 2012

Debussy's Prelude No 7: Ce qu'a vu le vent d'ouest (What the West wind has seen)

The West wind is to Debussy that fearsome, tragically destructive, magnificently powerful element gathering force over the expanse of the Atlantic, lashing the coasts, sweeping icebergs, battering cliffs, destroying houses and liners, playing havoc with human lives.

Yet again, the scene is set as a view from the site of the Noon gun (also see “The hills of Anacapri / Site of, and view from, the Noon gun (Cape Town)” 2012 in this series).  This time the expanse of Table Bay is fully present, from left to right, including the mountainous profile of the other side of the bay. The wind is represented as lashing about in the tumultuous movement of the palm-tree leaves, and in the sideways-lean of the famous alien pines on the slopes of Lion's Hill.  The coffin-like  shape in the foreground, reminiscent of a sarkofagus from ancient times on the one hand, and on the other of the bow of a floating vessel, is in actual fact the representation of a military structure built for defence purposes during the Second World War, and takes centre stage in this pictorial representation of the destructive abrasiveness of wind, as of human endeavour (particularly war).

“The girl with the flaxen hair/
Double-portrait of Anthea and Mika” 2012

Debussy's Prelude No 8: La fille aux cheveux de lin (The girl with the flaxen hair)

This calmly lyrical and short prelude is in contrast to the preceding turmoil of the western wind. Inspired by a poem by Leconte de Lisle.

This is the location (on Piket-bo-berg) of a joint family-holiday spent last X-mas, to which Anthea generously invited me for a working holiday (to paint for pleasure) and included my family as well as my pets on the guest list.  My friend, the painter Anthea Delmotte, is seen here posing for me in the presence of my pets, one of which is portrayed on the left in the shadow of the wall (Mika is my Boston terrier).  Anthea (a great animal-lover) is seen by me interacting with both them and me, the observer she looks in the eye.  Here also, the mood is set by the fading light of falling day, and the layers of paint peeling off the wall are symbolic of the layers and evolution of our friendship and professional affiliation set against the passing of time.

“The interrupted serenade/
Self-portrait in an empty plaasdam” 2012

Debussy's Prelude No 9: La sérénade interrompue (Interrupted serenade)

This is the story of the frustrated serenader.  Our hero is persistent and would not give up despite the interruptions that beset him and test his temper. This prelude has a strong Spanish flavour.

The moment in time captured here is the culmination of a series of co-incidences (which I would like to see as a flow of energy converging).  I had been driving home alone along the R62 after a tour of the little Karoo, and a visiting photographer hosting a photographic workshop at Kruisriver, where I had over-nighted, happened to pass me on the same way home after our paths had split earlier that day.  He recognised me from the unmistakable kappie I was sporting at the side of the road.  I was on a mission at the time to take photographic sources of myself in a kappie in as many as possible different South African landscape settings, for an ongoing visual investigation into identity I am currently involved in.  It was a stroke of luck:  I, the self-portraying painter (with countless self-portraits throughout my oeuvre of twenty years of painting) that loves to pose, generally for unwilling volunteers and family members wielding my camera for me, now actually having a professional photographer that could take the ‘intentionally unposed’ shots I needed for potential paintings, was a gamble worth wagering.  Hence I asked him to climb over the hakkiesdraad (barbed wire) fence with me to the empty plaasdam beyond that was to become the stage of my personal drama, and I then enacted the “dance” of someone entranced in a ritual of self-discovery through movement (the scarf reminds me of the Spanish reference in the above written interpretation of this prelude by Debussy), and momentarily interrupted – in looking up from self-involvement – by the onlooker-voyeur-photographer.  Who is the serenader?  Who is being serenaded?  And plaasdams are in themselves a symbol of my continuous process of self-discovery through the medium of water and oil paint (I often portray myself and others in the water of plaasdams).  Perhaps getting into a plaasdam and repeatedly translating this experience into paint (in the studio), is to me the ultimate rite of passage and the on-going story of my life as a painter.

“Submerged cathedral I/
Selfportrait with my children under a bridge” 2012

Debussy's Prelude No 10: La cathédrale engloutie (The submerged cathedral)

This prelude is one of the most mystic of Debussy's piano works. Based on a legend of Brittany, it described the cathedral of Ys, engulfed in the fourth or fifth century “because of the impiety of the inhabitants” but allowed to rise again and to be seen (as an example to others) at sunrise.

On a road trip to see Verlorenvlei again, where planned (and opposed) tungsten open mining threatens the ecological and social fabric of my home town Piketberg and environs (i.e. my kontrei), my family and I came across this shallow stream, and, as always, I had to get into the water.  It became the only picnic sojourn we enjoyed before turning back, and symbolic of the paradise that will potentially be lost with human intervention-gone-wrong.  The majestic strength of the overhead bridge and the magic of family interaction in the water made this a holy afternoon.  The naked bodies of the three figures floating in peaceful interaction with Nature (water), completely oblivious of the 'good or evil' of nakedness imposed by man's (sometimes very misplaced) interpretation of ethics in terms of societal norms of ‘acceptable’ dress code.  Here the ‘shame’ of nakedness is a non-issue and totally besides the point.  The bodies, half-submerged under water, half rising out of it, and untainted by self-consciousness or guilt, are my interpretation – in the humble realm of personal experience – of Debussy’s musical transcription of the more momentous symbolic happening of a sunken – and risen – cathedral.  Naturally, water is symbolic of the subconscious, and so also here, the realm of the deep-down of the human psyche is explored in visual terms.

“Submerged cathedral II/
Ophelia II (the artist's daughter)” 2012

Debussy's Prelude No 10: La cathédrale engloutie (The submerged cathedral)

This prelude is one of the most mystic of Debussy's piano works. Based on a legend of Brittany, it described the cathedral of Ys, engulfed in the fourth or fifth century “because of the impiety of the inhabitants” but allowed to rise again and to be seen (as an example to others) at sunrise.

In a significant revisitation of an earlier take of the same subject, this work intensifies my exploration of the mystic theme of a young girl floating in dark water. New  connotations are brought to it via the Debussy's prelude, Submerged cathedral, on which it is partly based this time, which in turn brings new complexity and symbolic insight into the Ophelia-theme of the original work. (The earlier version of this painting is reproduced in the catalogue Clare Menck: Hidden Life – Twenty Years of Painting on page 74).  Although the doubling-up of titles may seem somewhat convoluted, the original title-association is with the character from Shakespeare's Hamlet that drowns herself.  I recently received insightful feedback from an admirer in the social media realm on this very work of mine: the person in question doubted that the girl was dead, and guessed her age to be around 12, 13 years (and went on to verbalise her interpretation quite eloquently).  Although technically my real ‘model’ (my daughter) is somewhat younger, this feedback was indicative of my striking a cord with a sensitive female viewer over the issues encompassed by the representation: again a rite of passage; a coming-of-age drama ‘enacted’ by my painting a young, fragile and pale girl floating on her back in the most serene yet invariably sinister environment of a black mountain pool.  Besides furthering the investigation of being immersed in water as expression of getting more in touch with one’s subconscious being, the Ophelia-connection also implies that she becomes a vision of my own death, as it were, and in that sense she is the little girl I was in my youth and will symbolically become again at the point of dying.

“Puck’s dance/
The artist’s sister and her toddler, Piket-bo-berg” 2012

Debussy's Prelude No 11: La danse de Puck (Puck's dance)

A charming caricature of a favourite mischief-maker, impish but not really bad, and whose lightness of touch and fleetness in this prelude is one moment a little serious and then capriciously teasing.

I have portrayed my sister, Ilse, as the mother in the background with her ‘dancing’ and naked toddler in the foreground waddling in a shallow mountain stream.  He becomes the focal figure, and she is balancing delicately just behind his head, symbolising the mother-figure as being ever-present in a son’s life.  And just as she is allowing him to explore his own sensory world, she is still protectively close, and by reaching up to pick something, in a sense also exploring her own sensory realm as separate from his, and yet undeniably interdependent at the same time.

Circus tent with threatening thunderstorm, Saron” 2012

Debussy's Prelude No 12: Minstrels

This is not the medieval scene with troubadours and their menestrels. This is the American scene and one of its rich Negro heritages, born around 1828 in the plantations, where household servants put on minstrel shows with cake walks, cornet solos, scratchy banjos and drums, a sentimental song, a few corny jokes and catlike dances were the main features of minstrel groups which started appearing in Europe around 1900 in fairs.

Rather than attempt to ‘illustrate’ my interpretation of Debussy’s associations with American minstrels by painting the South African derivative of the Coons, namely the Kaapse Klopse (who traditionally dress up brightly, singing and dancing with band members in the Bo-Kaap and on the Parade in Cape Town on the second day of January to celebrate a rich Cape Coloured tradition and the abolition of slavery in the Cape), I decided to represent a circus tent during ‘off hours’.  Such circus tents are known to travel the South African countryside from fair to fair, or just simply, as in this case, pitched next to a Coloured community near Saron.  The threatening thunderstorm here gives the traditionally playful and joyful associations with circus artistes and their entertaining antics a dark and disturbing undertone. Things are not always what they seem, and the entertainers also have their mood swings and human problems and a side of themselves and their lives that they do not share with the audience.

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