/Dagmar Dahle — Weaving Van Gogh
In Weaving van Gogh, I reconsider the work of nineteenth century Dutch painter Vincent Van Gogh through his documented interest in weaving. Repositioning the work of this iconic artist through a feminist view of painting’s history, I re-painted van Gogh’s paintings using gouache, latex, thread, postcards and photographs. With an interest in exploring the sites of van Gogh’s life and work, I traveled to Holland and France. But closer to home, while visiting Saskatchewan, I encountered van Gogh’s work through my own biography and relationship to the Canadian prairie landscape.
/DAGMAR DAHLE artwork has focused on painting’s history, on animals, nature and ecology, and on autobiography in relation to social history. A professor in the Faculty of Fine Arts at the University of Lethbridge since 1997, she has recently exhibited at the Moose Jaw Museum and Art Gallery (2008), the Southern Alberta Art Gallery (2006), and akau (2006).
/THE TEXTURE OF MEMORY:
Driving across the Canadian prairies, a painter gazes at a Saskatchewan field and wonders, how does van Gogh get that particular green? For Lethbridge artist Dagmar Dahle, place is filtered through the lens of memory: memories of childhood summer days in Saskatchewan, and memories of art. Dahle’s ongoing project began with an investigation of van Gogh’s palette, but has become a reclamation that transforms our understanding of the original. Informed by the mythology surrounding van Gogh, the layers of historical memory, and Dahle’s own history, this project weaves many threads into a new whole that is at once visually intriguing, breathtakingly beautiful, and immersed in a rigorous criticality.
Dahle’s explorations of van Gogh’s work result in a series of reconfigurations that are sensuous, sensual even. They make us reconceptualize everything from memories of place to desire. “He was my first,” Dahle explains, the first artist she loved, whose work she has repeatedly engaged with in a variety of ways. Some of these encounters are visible in this show, and others—such as her videos that seem to channel the artist—are still too intimate to be shared.
Dahle began to see the artist anew through scholar Debora Silverman’s revealing study, which argued that van Gogh saw his artistic project as deeply spiritual. Van Gogh compared his art to the humble practice of weaving by Dutch peasants, which he saw as worthy of God, even redemptive. This re-reading enabled Dahle to move past the powerful myth of the tortured genius. She is now able to question the mythology of the artist and to embrace other aspects of his work, for example, its ordinary, humble subjects and its raw sensuality. But Dahle goes further. She builds on feminist scholarship’s critique of ‘genius,’ of work that supposedly transcends time and culture. Unwilling to accept the seemingly natural association of genius and masculinity, Dahle reweaves the master’s work and resituates it in a feminist lineage.
Adopting the color palette of specific van Gogh paintings, Dahle’s initial explorations were small-scale gouaches. Like the larger latex-on-canvas drip paintings which followed, they seem to remake the originals in some sort of post-modernist grid. But what a grid! In glorious technicolor, Dahle’s grids are anything but models of Cartesian sterility. They are at once rigorous and luscious, as if van Gogh himself envisioned a collision of Jackson Pollock and Agnes Martin. But, of course, it is Dahle who imagines this disruptive history, claiming a space of her own in the lacunae she has created. Her refusal of standard histories requires an unknowing of our presuppositions.
As a drawing together of diverse strands to create a new whole, weaving is a particularly apt means of reclaiming the history of modernism from a feminist point of view. Long associated with ‘women’s work,’ weaving seems at first to be a metaphor for the feminization of the supposedly masculine domain of painting. Yet Dahle’s gender play is considerably more complex. Such sumptuous color has long been coded feminine, yet this color palette is drawn from works by van Gogh. Grids were perennially associated with masculinity, yet Dahle’s grids invoke that other prairie ‘woman’ artist, Agnes Martin, rather than some male counterpart more traditionally associated with the form. Dahle drips housepaint from a brush handle, invoking that most masculine of painters, Jackson Pollock. Yet the resulting sinuous, flowing forms embody the texture of memory and the lived experience of the artist, consistent with feminist practice. To cap it off, the weavers who inspired van Gogh were male, not female as we might have expected. Thus, Dahle playfully refutes gender expectations, destabilizing seemingly fixed associations. The instability of gender, in turn, destabilizes other ways of knowing: it requires us to refuse the linear notion of modernist progress and assume a more complex point of view.
The woven paintings, though, were just the beginning. As the project gained momentum, it became an obsessive pilgrimage in an impossible quest to know van Gogh. The path to van Gogh is, by now, well trodden ground: torn pages from innumerable books, postcards, even eponymous cafés accumulate to reveal that Dahle is not alone in her quest. Her annotated illustrations and postcards reveal that his works are never seen without the mediating lens of already-known images. She sought out the originals, traveling through European museums, and her notes reveal her increasing knowledge (“a lighter green, more orange here”). Yet the postcards that survive as traces of her museum encounters—what would normally be mere souvenirs—are so thickly worked that they point to the depth of her obsession, and to our collective obsessions. Her numerous reworkings read almost as maps of her search, a kind of abstract representation (as with any map) of the paths she has taken. Tracing Vincent’s movements through Holland, Paris, Arles, and Auvers, Dahle records the sites he painted. A confusion of originals – landscapes, paintings, reproductions and photographs meld into one another. What seemed a simple tribute slides into a never-ending search for the authentic van Gogh. Her obsession conjures with unanswerable questions: what is it about these works and this artist? Her various strategies enthrall us with the promise of revealing the magic behind the transformations van Gogh wrought. But it cannot be revealed; the magic is the art. In revealing this, though, Dahle’s work has accrued a magic of its own.
In the thread bundles, the extent of Dahle’s obsession is fully revealed. The weaving threads are wound and bound into tortured, sexualized, sensual, childish, and beguiling objects. They evolve out of Dahle’s research at the van Gogh Museum in Amsterdam, where Vincent’s collection of yarn, a traditional tool for developing color palettes, is held. Still referencing specific paintings, these objects embody both the mythology of the tortured artist-genius and the obsessive fan. The seeming order of the grids is undone and rewound, exposing the immensity of her quest. Fetishized into something equally repulsive and beautiful, Dahle’s bundles reveal the fundamental impossibility of knowing another, but the absolute necessity of searching.
/ANNE DYMOND, Ph.D., is Associate Professor of Art History and Museum Studies at the University of Lethbridge. Her essays on contemporary art have appeared in Border Crossings and Canadian Art; her historical work examines the politics of space, gender and hierarchies of art, and is published in The Art Bulletin.