Majesty is one of a group of works based on photographs of ancient trees in the South East of England created by the artist for her exhibition Analogue at the Schaulager, Basel, in spring 2006. It was made from a black and white photograph that Dean took of one of the largest and oldest complete oak trees in England, massively enlarged and printed on four overlapping sections of fibre-based paper. All the area surrounding the tree’s leafless branches and trunk has been overpainted with white gouache, isolating its structure and form. The title is derived from the name of the tree, which is also known as the Fredville Oak, after the estate in Nonington, Kent where it has been growing for centuries with two smaller giant oaks, known as Beauty and Stately. The first of these was also photographed by Dean; it and others in the series are similarly titled or named after the place where they grow: Monkey Puzzle, Crowhurst (reproduced Vischer and Friedli, pp.108 and 110) and Molash.
Dean’s methodology is a combination of idea-driven research with an openness to chance, accident, coincidence and poetic associations which she allows to direct her processes. She has explained what drew her to ‘old and deformed trees’ in an interview with the novelist Jeffrey Eugenides:
I made a photograph for an edition for October magazine recently called Fontainebleau Postcard, and I had to phone them up to check the title, and it reminded me that I had found all these old postcards of The Forest of Fontainebleau when I was in Kitakyushu in Japan, and I remember thinking that’s so strange, why would they have so many postcards of Fontainebleau? And then I went onto the internet and I looked up the Forest of Fontainebleau, which lead me to the famous oak of Fontainebleau, which in turn led me to look up old oak trees and then the oldest of trees in England, the yew tree. Before I knew it, the tiny village where I grew up came up as the place where there once was a 1400-year old yew tree. I always need that tiny thread to get myself going.
(Quoted in Jeffrey Eugenides, ‘Tacita Dean’, Bomb 95, spring 2006, http://www.bombsite.com/issues/95/articles/2801
, accessed 15 July 2009.)
In 2005, Dean created a series of Deformed Trees (reproduced Vischer and Friedli, pp.101–3), painting over the background, and sometimes also the foreground, of old black and white postcards depicting trees. The postcards came from a collection she had been acquiring from fleamarkets all over the world since the mid 1990s. The application of white onto a darker ground has its origin in Dean’s work with a series of drawings on blackboards initiated while she was a student at the Slade School of Fine Art in London (MA 1990–2). Her work Sixteen Blackboards – a grid of sixteen square photographs documenting the progression of imagery, including drawing, writing, collage and rubbing out on a single black panel (reproduced Vischer and Friedli, pp.56–65) – featured in the Slade’s 1992 postgraduate exhibition. Elements of this, developed further by such works as The Roaring Forties: Seven Boards in Seven Days 1997 (T07613) – a series of drawings in white chalk on seven actual blackboards – are the precursors of Majesty and the group of photographs to which it belongs. The large areas of white overpainting on the photographs echo the patches of white left on the blackboards after rubbing out the drawings and text inscribed with chalk.
Dean continued to make work on paper during the following ten years, including the portfolio of photogravures The Russian Ending 2002 (P20246–P20265) based on found postcards of disasters that she wrote on in white, and The Alabaster Drawings (begun 2002, reproduced Vischer and Friedli, pp.87–91), fine white lines following the veins on slabs of Italian marble. However, picking up the postcards of trees enabled her to rediscover a specific aspect of drawing that she felt she had lost (Vischer and Friedli, p.26). Although she trained in the painting department at the Slade, she quickly became involved in making films that have a painterly appearance but are structurally related to sculpture and space. Her film Baobab 2002 (Kadist Art Foundation, Paris) contemplates a group of baobab trees in Madagascar in black and white 16mm film, creating a series of anthropomorphising portraits while meditating on tensions between darkness and light.
Theodora Vischer and Isabel Friedli, Tacita Dean: Analogue: Drawings 1991–2006, exhibition catalogue, Schaulager Basel 2006, pp.26 and 109.
The Hugo Boss Prize 2006, exhibition catalogue, Solomon R Guggenheim Museum, New York 2006.