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  • Writer's pictureHaydn Dickenson


Updated: Nov 26, 2022

You'll not be surprised to learn that one of my favourite haunts is the Tate Modern on Bankside in London.

With so many incredible galleries in London as well as further afield from where I live in Hertfordshire, I am spoilt for choice.

The Tate Modern however, is a particular magnet for me. There, I soak up energy from a host of artists, of genres both similar to and divergent from my own. Twombly, Ben Nicholson, Malevich, Picasso, and so many more.

Last week, I found myself wandering into the Blavatnik Wing at the Tate Modern, a part of the gallery into which I tend to venture more rarely than that adjoining the main Turbine Hall.

I'm very glad that I broke my habit – not least because I found they'd stashed away there a favourite painting of mine by Shozo Shimamoto of the Gutai group, 'HOLES' (1954). I'd wondered where it had gone!

While I was in the Blavatnik Wing I discovered the work of a magnificent German artist, Silke Otto-Knapp, in the form of a multi-panel painting, 'EINE AUFEINANDER FOLGENDE REIHE VON BILDERN' ('A SERIES OF IMAGES FOLLOWING ONE FROM THE OTHER'), painted in 2018.

This piece took my breath away.

Firstly the figures, in motion but also strangely static as if part of an animation project, reminded me strongly of another magnificent though little-known German artist, Elisabeth Schettler (1913-2003). Schettler was active for many years as part of the famous artistic community in Ahrenshoop on the Baltic Sea coast. Otto-Knapp hails from Osnabrueck, a city with a similar artistic heritage.

I am proud to say that I have a family connection to Elisabeth Schettler. The painting of hers that you see below hung in my home, to my great delight, for many years. It now resides in Southern France.

Elisabeth Schettler was known for her characterful depictions of workers – she lived and worked in Karl-Marx-Stadt (now Chemnitz), Germany, in the beautiful area of Schoenau. Her sister was a dancer, a disciple of the notable expressionist dancer Mary Wigman. I have always felt that Elisabeth's work embodies a sense of the dance; perhaps in the way that, in modern dance, gravity is embraced whereas in ballet it seems to be defied!

The image below is an example of Elisabeth Schettler's Batik work. I was struck by a similarity in Silke Otto-Knapp's simple, flowing figures, to Schettler's more rustic evocations.

I feel a particular connection to Schettler in that my favourite painting tool, that I use in almost all of my oil paintings, belonged to her. It is small, delicate and, like many other German items of the years between the two World Wars, has been made to last. I guard it with my life. It is my talisman!

To return to Silke Otto-Knapp:

Apart from the beauty of the imagery, I was struck by what I read of the techniques this artist employs. The multi-panel painting pictured at the start of this article has been made using, exclusively, lampblack watercolour. Otto-Knapp's method is to apply layers of watercolour to the canvas, then to wash them away. The separated pigment, floating on the surface, is then moved by the artist to settle in other areas of the canvas. The process is repeated, building up layers and, thereby, a dark background. The outlines of the erased images gradually emerge and brushes, sponges or the artist's fingers are used to control the gradations between light and dark.

In my own work, I often 'scratch back' surface paint, releasing layers of colour below. Seen through, and surrounded by, the brush and knife strokes on the surface, they develop new significance and energy.

Again, reading about Silke Otto-Knapp's creative process, I was reminded of much earlier experiments of my own. In oil painting nearly twenty years ago, I used the paint excessively thinned-down with turpentine, allowing drips to sculpt and simultaneously erode forms. Like Otto-Knapp, I would rub away areas of paint to create highlights.

In the act of painting or drawing, any mark produced must necessarily overlay something else, whether earlier marks, or just that famous 'blank canvas'. Something always gets hidden.

Furthermore, we can create by removing, build up by breaking down, and reveal what is below by stripping away the surface.

Text and images copyright Haydn Dickenson 2022.


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