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Dulce Et Decorum Est, 1992, monotype

Archive: Alan Magee Monotypes

by Maureen Mullarkey, Berliner Philharmonie, 2000

What is it that makes this singular body of work so moving?

To understand its hold on us one has to go off alone with it. Only apart and undistracted can we begin to grasp the significance of these enigmatic faces. Like funerary masks, they suggest at once both the living and the dead. Bearing the look of something unearthed from archeological rubble, they document the perfect fitness of Shakespeare’s term, “the tooth of time.”

The motive impelling these monotypes is a keen impulse to evoke the sting of memory and its prompter, time: individual time, historical time, the time it takes to wipe ink from a metal plate, the time between one war and the next, between one recollection and another. Real time.

Temporal reality impresses itself on all our faculties. The urgency of it is universal and ineluctable. Yet we have no credible image for it, no shared way of evoking it. That old bald cheater Time, vaguely comic nowadays with his scythe and hourglass, is an exhausted bit of cultural residue. Artists no longer draw from a common inventory of iconographic devices. The pantry is empty, shelves scrubbed clean by modern unease with any formal recognition of what Fernand Braudel once termed “the unity of the time span.” The Mad Hatter’s demented cry, “Clean cup! Clean cup!” has entered contemporary discourse as an educated and progressive precept.

This manic disinfection of the transmitters of cultural memory poses unique dilemmas for an artist deeply conscious of the continuities of past and present. Alan Magee brings to his craft an uncommon understanding that art shares a plate with history. It does so not by depicting circumstances, tracing alliances or trade routes but by giving expression to the creative yearning to embrace the passage of time so as to know it from within. Working with his own materials, his own tools, his particular affinities and quests, Magee sets his bench close to the workshops of history.

Certainly, the artist’s problems are not those of the historian; nevertheless, Magee, working outside the confines of events, seeks what the scholar seeks: a clearer image of the passage of time. What better vehicle for this search than a silent repertory of faces. The face is the common denominator of our creatureliness. Primal, irreducible and immediately accessible, the face provides an index of our subjection to time.

Semantic habit survives the destruction of artistic languages and continues to pay tribute to faces as enduring tools for communication. English speakers are heirs to a wealth of phrases using “face” as an active verb to convey behaviors and character traits. We speak of putting a face on abstractions of every kind: the face of poverty or hope, of innocence or madness. Reading faces is a universal ritual spanning centuries and cultural borders. We scan them instinctively, as our ancestors did, for confirmation or betrayal of the spoken word. What we see in a face, in a pair of eyes, is testimony of a kind not easily verified but never lightly discounted. Acknowledging them as vectors of the soul, we cover faces in death, hide them in shame.As faces bear witness, so also do they mask. Even in the worst of times, we understand the importance of presenting a good face to the world. Saving face is as crucial to nations as to individuals.

Robert Kee, an RAF flier in the Second World War, despaired of communicating the reality of war even in his own diaries. Rereading them in 1971, he commented in Liberty: “No wonder it is those artists who re-create life rather than try to recapture it who, in one way, prove the good historians in the end.” Kee’s point was not to diminish the primacy of historical evidence. He simply aimed at giving due weight to a parallel truth: that memorable testimony about those facts requires a power of empathy that is often found more vividly through the images and metaphors of art.

Such is the testimony of these scarred, divided and sutured faces. Technically distressed in the process of creation—the inked plate scored, blotted, abraded, each manipulation leaving behind its own record of disturbance—both surface and intention join to convey simultaneously the physical shambles of war and the psychic wounds that linger in its wake. Significance is not something added here, like a sauce, but organically bound to the means of creation. Each image becomes its own archive, a visible memoir retaining on its surface the memory of a moving hand and the gradual unfolding of the artist’s purpose.

The sheer inventiveness of these images lies in Magee’s ability to take what is culturally available to him and, with spare means, extend its significance. The economical eloquence of Tumultus is a good entry point. Here is a map of Calvary for modern sensibilities. Rich in symbolic suggestion, it calls to mind “the topography of Golgotha,” Wilfred Owen’s description of a World War I battlefield. The face is a field of suffering. It gazes out at us from within the remains of a burnt offering, the sum of immolations past. The cosmic necessity of sacrifice stalks us down the ages. The trek began beforethe sacrifice of Abel and will endure long past the trenches and mass graves of modern war.Dulce Et Decorum Est, its title taken from Wilfred Owen’s poem of that name, leaves no doubt that intimations of war are part of the fabric of this work. The “old lie”, that it is sweet and fitting to die for one’s country, is implicit in the shock conveyed by a face partially erased, undone, as if overexposed in the white–hot glare of a rocket. The stunning surprise of disintegration is conveyed with consummate tact.

Over millennia, the sacrifice of the firstborn has taken many forms yet is ever the same. Only the gods change. On the altars of Hebron or the banks of the Somme, in the fields of Gettysburg or the streets of Berlin, each death is personal. All suffering is individual. How appropriate, then, that each of these monotypes should be so believable as a living face.

But what of resurrection, of those things that easter in the heart when agony is spent? Wounds heal over. Sutures suggest more than violence done. They also serve as cues of recovery, promises of restoration. Magee’s variations on the Man of Sorrows give way to The Lamb, the pure and unspotted oblation of biblical times, an image of redemption, retrieval and renewal. The Calling and Dialogue of Comfort tell only of calm and the wonder of it after everything. Here is an image of serenity earned, the stillness of Meister Eckhart.

I was touched by these monotypes when I first saw them. In the course of writing this—in the time it takes to find words that might keep faith with what is wordless—I have come to love them. I cherish the profound pity in them. The tenderness with which they have been caressed into being is more than technical. It is the work of a contemplative sensibility, with a delicate hand, in the cultural recesses of its age.

Maureen Mullarkey is an artist who writes on art and culture.

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