Inventory Number: POM009
Size: 57.28h x 57.28w in
Material: Oil on Canvas
Year Made: 1970
Objekteum is an example of Pol Mara’s abstraction grounded in concrete imagery. Its status as an object, subject to the world outside of the boundaries of its frame, is emphasized by Mara’s choice to rotate the square canvas forty-five degrees, a strategy similar to that used by Mondrian in the 1920s. The vertical line which bisects the work and hangs in the immaterial space just behind the figure shifts off- center as the eye follows it down, landing just left of the painting’s lower corner. Most of the quasi-figural, sketched, stenciled, and silkscreened forms crowd the darkened right side of the image, yielding to a sense of spaciousness on the left, since light spaces some forward while darkness recedes.
Born Leopold Leysen, Pol Mara was an acronym which stood for “Pour Oublier Laideur. Métamorphoses, Amour, Rêve, Amitié.” (To forget ugliness. Metamorphosis, love, dreams, friendship).
The artist grew up and worked for most of his life in Antwerp, where he studied at the Royal Academy of Fine Arts. He continued at the National Higher Institute for Fine Arts and thereafter became a graphic designer at Janssen Pharmaceutica. In 1958, Pol Mara founded an avant-garde group, G-58 Hessenhuis, which consisted of André Bogaert, Pol Bury, René Guiette, and Paul Van Hoeydonck. By 1962 the Hessenhuis closed its doors and Pol Mara subsequently began his career abroad, traveling to Mexico, Japan, Israel, India, and the United States. He had a major exhibition in New York in 1965.
After his forays into figurative symbolism and lyrical abstraction in the late 1940s and throughout the 1950s, the 1960s saw the emergence of photo-image in the visual vocabulary of Pol Mara’s paintings. This gave his mature work its particular look, which lasted through the end of his career in the 1990s. His work in Pop painting featured numerous references to his abstract period: bright, bold fields of color, expressive textures, and monumental scale. In Pol Mara’s mature work he invokes youth, vigor, and a will to experience life. The physicality of the bodies of the subjects within his work is emphasized by their impossible positioning, nudity, and scale. Pol Mara decried sterility, apathy, and the supposed obsolescence of beauty, pleasure, and sensuality− a voice calling out in the wilderness.
Pol Mara (1920-98) was a painter, illustrator, printmaker, and--first and foremost--a Belgian, who developed a distinctive style of Pop Art for which he is best remembered. It was after a brief stint in lyrical abstraction that he found himself among the vanguard world of experimental painters, with whom he later founded G-58 Hessenhuis, an avant-garde collective. Born Leopold Leysen, in Antwerp, his moniker was an acronym which stood for “Pour Oublier Laideur. Métamorphoses, Amour, Rêve, Amitié.” To forget ugliness. Metamorphosis, love, dreams, friendship.[i]
Mara declined to consider the visual environment in terms of the sacred and profane, and hence was able to harness the potential for explicit expression of beauty through a commonly commodified typology: the photo-image. This aesthetic and formal shift occurred in the 1960s, following his experimentation with figurative symbolism and lyrical abstraction in the late 1940s and gave his mature work its particular look, which he carried through to the end of his career in the 1990s. Less a divorce from his past than a development of it, Mara’s later work featured numerous references to his abstract period: bright, bold fields of color, deliberate layering, and, almost invariably, monumental scale.
Objekteum is an example of such a call back to abstraction grounded in concrete imagery. Its status as an object, subject to the world outside of the boundaries of its frame, is emphasized by Mara’s choice to rotate the square canvas forty-five degrees, a strategy similar to that used by Mondrian in the 1920s. This was not an unusual choice for Mara, who was known to play with the orientation, shape, and even the symmetry of his canvases, but the resultant work hangs inherently off-kilter. The vertical line which bisects the work and hangs in the immaterial space just behind the figure shifts off- center as the eye follows it down, landing just left of the painting’s lower corner. Most of the quasi-figural, sketched, stenciled, and silkscreened forms crowd the darkened right side of the image, yielding to a sense of spaciousness on the left, since light spaces some forward while darkness recedes. And, in spite of the angularity of the forms within the work, there are no sympathetic edges nor exits via which the eye might escape the non-perspectival space captured within the image, of which one seems able to catch only a glimpse.
The figure at center, amidst a background of seafoam and hunting green, projects forward from the canvas, going so far as to cast shadows while remaining resolutely flat. The languor in her limbs belies her abstract affectation; she sits still, obscuring and obscured by curious forms suspended in space, while her own gaze rests not within but beyond the boundaries of the image, itself a diaphanous field of color. The figure’s dualistic nature as both a product of the photo-image and that of Mara’s own painterly hand is amplified by the semi-abstract appearance. Mara revisits the aesthetics of the photo-montage, as glimpsed in the work of both the historical and neo avant-garde, an aesthetic that seems to capture a moment of reckoning between image-as-art and the image-saturated media landscape that generates such cultural forms.[ii]
Mara’s choice to root an aesthetic mutiny against the ugliness, injustice, and mundanity of the everyday in a manner that evoked eroticism, print-images, and television invariably ties his work to discourse surrounding mechanical reproduction, a term explored and developed by early twentieth-century philosopher and critic Walter Benjamin.[iii] In contrast with Andy Warhol, Mara has no interest in the grotesque or the ironic and he rejects the practice and idolization of the mechanized production. In the context of post-modernism, this constitutes a radical refusal.
Yet, Mara’s Objekteum stands as a rather successful attempt to reassert creative agency by re-appropriating mechanical means of reproduction into the role of production, a testament to the notion that the history of art is one of endless reappropriation. In spite of--and certainly in concert with-- the gregarious use of silkscreen in his work, the role of Mara’s own hand is emphasized in the production of these paintings. Indeed, for all its duality, in formal and interpretive terms, Objekteum is a work about boundaries, thresholds, exchange, and the permeability of visual space. The meeting of abstraction and figuration, the split colors of the canvas, of the simultaneous realization of flatness and rendered volume raise many questions about the purgatorial limbo into which the ever-expansive concept of “media” has delegated the rendered image.
[i] The standard work on Mara is: Vergil Hammock, Jan Foncé, Marcel Van Jole, and Gérard Xuriguera, Pol Mara (Lannoo Uitgeverij: 1990).
[ii] Hal Foster, “What’s Neo About the Neo-Avant-Garde?” October 70 (Fall 1994): 5-32.
[iii] Walter Benjamin, Hannah Arendt (ed.), and Henry Zohn (trans.). “The Work of Art in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction. New York.” Illuminations: Essays and Reflections (Schocken Books, 1979).