Reading a contemporary artwork through the lenses of Erwin Panofsky. Text written in 2019.
Miguel Martin, Haemophobia, 2014, Indian ink on watercolour paper, 59×84 cm.
In 1939 was published the first edition of Studies in Iconology written by the art historian Erwin Panofsky (1892-1968). The iconology is defined by the author as “the branch of art history that deals with the subject or the meaning of artworks as opposed to their formal values”. Panofsky, like Aby Warburg (1866-1929), was in opposition to the pure formalists of that time and he considered essential, in the correct reading of an artwork, to examine also those elements that could recall the cultural substratum of a society as well as the Seele (“psyche”).
In the Introduction of Studies of Iconology, Panofsky defines and explains the three levels for a real proper analysis of an artwork: the primary subject (pre-iconographical level); the conventional subject (iconographical level); the content (iconological level).
At that time this approach was mainly applied to Italian Renaissance. I believe that it could be a useful guide to have a proper understanding of a contemporary artwork.
I have decided, so, to apply this method to a specific artwork, a drawing done in 2014 by Miguel Martin (b. 1985 Belfast, UK), titled Haemophobia, and realized using Indian ink on a watercolour paper sized 59×84 cm.
Contemporary art critics are fortunate enough to be able to get in touch with the artists, to visit their studios, to be explained about their techniques, to know facts and “behind the scenes” anecdotes.
The direct dialogue with the artists offers us a unique and privileged vision of their production but, I might say, it has taken us away from a “virgin” and pure eye that allows the imagination to go far beyond reality.
The reason why certain art could be defined as ‘magic’ it is because it holds something hidden. The best artworks are those that do not disclose entirely; those that aren’t too didactic. No one wants to learn passively, but everyone wants to be always amazed and touched. The first connection with a work of art can begin with pure empathy and from this our curiosity awakens and we begin to wonder why and, in doing so, probably going deeper into understanding. The knowledge gained through that very first original connection is not something easily forgettable as it is linked to an emotion, whatever it is.
This is why I will write about this specific drawing of Miguel Martin not immediately revealing what I know thanks to him, but slowly guiding you in a hopefully useful reading in which the elements will be unveiled as in a Russian doll where the last doll is deliberately left half-closed, because you have to keep your curiosity active even after reading this text.
The primary subject (pre-iconographical level)
In this drawing we see 5 shoes. One, left alone by its left companion, at the centre. The other 4 are disposed, in pairs, around and over it. With ‘in pairs’ I mean that the left one of a pair is on the left side of the main character-shoe at the centre and the right one on its right side. The same happens for the other pair. The shoes are all black; they seem worn-out and carry almost a sentiment of tiredness. They are disposed in a specific order and on a very clean white fabric which function as a background and as a tablecloth of the piece of furniture, partially visible. The style and the technique reveal an attentive, long and meticulous process that says to us that the artist spent quite a lot of time to produce this drawing.
The conventional subject (iconographical level)
The way the various objects are disposed by Martin in this composition recalls some sort of sacrality that reminds something we all have seen on art history books or in museums and churches. There is a central part with some lateral elements that bring us to think of paintings with Madonna and child with Saints and Patrons all around.
The white fabric, arranged with cure as a conduct to present this objects to us, reminds clearly the tradition of still-life paintings, particularly the sixteenth-century ones by Flanders and the Netherlands masters. And a sort of memento mori is evidently included, as those sadden and over-used shoes very well declare.
The content (iconological level)
The title gives the first clue about the real content.
Haemophobia is the phobia of blood. We can wonder why Martin used this title but without any answer. My personal experience and knowledge could give me some insights on it but are, in this case (and just because I spoke with the artist) totally wrong.
I have a bit of familiarity with the History of Northern Ireland and this heamophobia lead me to some strange fantasies about some biographical and horrible fact happened to the artist himself or to his family; and because the main “lonely” shoe at the centre has a vintage style, I am driven immediately to think that once belonged to his father or grandfather, to whom some really bad thing happened.
This story fascinates me so much that I could stop here.
But my job does not allow me to do so and the artist himself provided me with useful material, including an article written by him, published on the “Visual Artists’ News Sheet” (September-October 2015) and titled Obscuring & Reveiling.
Reading the article we find out about the technique. It is an artwork realized after having selected the objects and arranged them carefully in a composition done in his bedroom. The fabric is the curtain of Martin’s bedroom and this means that in all the time in which he was realizing the drawing he lived in semi-darkness – as he choose deliberately to represent the still life by a real observation and not through a photograph of it. It took him almost three months to complete it as using Indian ink requires a lot of carefulness because it is a permanent black ink.
We discover that this drawing once was titled Dead Shoes and it is part of a series started in 2012 and having its origins in an event called Household held in Belfast by a group of 5 young curators and it has been inspired by the Freud’s essay The Uncanny (1919).
We also get to know that all the shoes belong to Martin and that it is essential to him to hide the main element he is representing. Now we have knowledge that there is something hidden.
I learned from his words today what it is: there is the other shoe of the lonely one under all the others.
And I know the reason why he changed the title. The previous title was, in my opinion, more open to imagination and this one is a bit intellectual and insert the element of blood in a strong way.
And, yes, there is a biographical story behind the artwork but it doesn’t regard at all any battle on the ground of a civil war, just something related to a more basic level, to an episode happened when he was younger and in a place where getting drunk until losing conscience is normal but, no, he wasn’t the one who got drunk and, yes, he has a phobia of blood.
I stop here because nothing is more important to just sit in front of this drawing, trying to observe it from the same point of view of the artist while he was doing it and admire the incredible quality, the references to art history, the wish to give back to us the factual result of drawing sitting in front of the composition.