T04908 Cabaret Valhalla 1983
Oil on canvas 2130 × 2132 (83 7/8 × 83 7/8) Inscribed ‘MARIO DUBSKY | “CABARET VALHALLA” | 1983 84" × 84"’ on back of canvas t.l.
Presented by Barbara Dubsky, the artist's sister 1987
Exh: Camberwell Painting Staff Exhibition, South London Art Gallery, Jan. 1984 (no number); Mario Dubsky: Paintings and Drawings 1973–84. X Factor 1984, South London Art Gallery, May–June 1984 (no number, repr. front cover in col. and p.43); John Moores Liverpool Exhibition 14, Walker Art Gallery, Liverpool, March–June 1985 (31, repr.)
Lit: Mario Dubsky, untitled text in Mario Dubsky: Paintings and Drawings 1973–84. X Factor 1984, exh. cat., South London Art Gallery 1984, p.43; Peter de Francia, ‘Introduction’, ibid., pp.4–5; Mario Dubsky, untitled text in John Moores Liverpool Exhibition 14, exh. cat., Walker Art Gallery, Liverpool 1985, [p.66], repr. [p.67]; ‘Mario Dubsky’ (obituary), Times, 14 Sept. 1985, p.10
‘Cabaret Valhalla’ depicts six biomorphic figures in different coloured long robes set on a stage in a claustrophobic, ambiguous space against a red background. The figures have bird-like or animal-like heads. In his untitled essay in the 1984 South London Art Gallery catalogue Dubsky revealed that the characters were based on chess pieces and from left to right are Bishop, Knight, Queen, King, with two soldier pawns set further back. The artist described the mood of the painting:
The King will checkmate with the missile, the Bishop, or Pope endures the phallic interference of the errant Knight, and the Queen, shrouded and masked, is armed with a serpent. Vermillion had to be the colour of the Götterdammerung, and informs the entire space. All the eyes, in part derived from the eye-slots of the black paintings and in part typical of the eyes in the paintings I did in the early 50s, stare out at the spectator.
It is the only known painting by Dubsky to feature chess imagery.
T04908 was painted in the ground floor studio of the artist's North London home between 12 November and 18 December 1983, in the hours left over from a weekly teaching post in life drawing at Camberwell School of Art. It is square in format, Dubsky's preferred proportion for his paintings. During the summer and autumn of 1983 Dubsky had been in poor mental and physical health. He was concerned that he did not have enough recent work for a large retrospective of the last ten years, planned for the South London Art Gallery for May 1984. He was equally troubled by the many repairs that needed to be made to his studio and home before the coming winter. Finally, he was also suffering from, and being regularly treated for, a bacterial infection which left him with aches and pains in his joints and muscles, and a low level of energy. This illness, which was Aids-related, dogged him until his early death in August 1985. On 11 November 1983, Dubsky sought help with a block that was preventing him painting by enrolling himself on a course of psychoanalysis. On 12 November he began work on ‘Cabaret Valhalla’.
Dubsky's work from the early 1970s was overtly concerned with myths and symbols. Peter de Francia, reviewing Dubsky's work from 1973 to 1984, stated:
the recurrent content of Dubsky's work seems to me to be permeated with concepts intrinsically embedded in Greek mythology. It is this which I find so interesting. For what was specific to the Greeks ... was a notion of time in which the present was seen as actual and all else preceding it conceived as mythological. Within Greek myth action is conditioned by irrevocable and pre-ordained decisions. Choices made are vital but are all too often useless ones. The whims and ferocious anger of the Gods, the fickleness of Deities annul the most carefully contrived plans and serve to define the utter precariousness of the human condition. Lives lie outside the realm of reason or justice.
(de Francia 1984, p.5)
Although de Francia refers to Greek myths as the touchstone for much of the content of Dubsky's work, it is obvious from the title of T04908 that Scandinavian mythology has a part to play. The ‘Valhalla’ in the title refers to a hall built by the giants Fasolt and Fafner on a mountain top in Gladsheim. This was the residence of Odin, also known as Wotan, and other gods. The Valkyrie, the nine wild horsewomen of the air, brought back to Valhalla the bodies of dead warriors slain in battle, and there they were revived in order to help the gods in their incessant battle with the tribe of the Nibelung. Richard Wagner took these myths as the basis for his cycle of four operas known as The Ring of the Nibelung. The last of the four was titled Götterdämmerung, which means the twilight of the gods. This opera, like the myth, ends with the destruction of Valhalla by flames. All things come to an end and the gods are doomed to live in eternal night. Dubsky states that he chose vermillion as the background for T04908 to represent the fire of Götterdammerung which will destroy Valhalla and the six god-like characters there. Peter de Francia felt that Dubsky's view of the world was essentially tragic:
‘Our credit is run out with neither recognition nor revolt’ and ‘our history and our legends do not smile’, lines from one of Dubsky's poems written in 1973, hammer home, as in a requiem, the structure of some cyclical misfortune. His recent paintings, like the ‘Cabaret Valhalla’ contain similar overtones and reflect the same particular inevitability. The zoomorphic protagonists of the picture, whose relationships and roles appear both purposeful yet at the same time aimless, are driven by compulsions of which they can give no clear account. Behind them lie obscure fatalities and misjudgements.
When explaining the title of T04908 in his South London Art Gallery text, Dubsky stated that it was ‘an affirmation of the theatre, of the cabaret stage in its widest sense as a form of agit-prop’. Dubsky believed that his pictures could be read as theatre stages on which dramas were enacted. From the early 1970s he had been involved in forms of political agitation, particularly with regard to the status of homosexual men and their treatment by society (he himself was homosexual). With fellow artist John Button, Dubsky created an Agit-Prop Photomontage Mural, eight feet by forty feet in size, for the front of the Gay Activists Alliance Firehouse, which was situated in Wooster Street, New York, and which opened in June 1971. The Firehouse burnt down in 1974 and the mural was destroyed, but photographs of it remain. Dubsky published a book of his life drawings in 1981 which was called Tom Pilgrim's Progress among the Consequences of Christianity and Other Drawings. This included a short preface by the artist, which informed readers of the importance of the centrality of the human figure in art and equally the need for art to convey a contemporary message (p.14):
Art adrift from the essentially humanist core that is the fundamental of western art tends to concern itself with art alone. In our time art is already precariously too far removed from any necessary dynamic or transcendent role in the world. The maker of art is human, hopefully, and his/her audience is equally so. The attempt to bring art back into some sort of meaningful discourse would need to address itself primarily to the human figure - still the principal actor on the cosmic stage - without whom allied formal props gather dust as fashions fade. All art offers readings of how we see the world, and without us in the picture the image is poverty stricken.
Dubsky here alludes to the theatre as a metaphor for life, an allusion which may be seen as echoed in ‘Cabaret Valhalla’ where the chess figures are like actors on a stage.
Dubsky's teaching role at Camberwell gave him much opportunity to produce life drawings, usually in charcoal, and he often planned a large canvas from such drawings. Equally, he produced small imaginative charcoal sketches as studies for paintings. ‘Cabaret Valhalla’ was conceived via the latter path: ‘The imagery for it arrives through small drawings the equivalent to what in scientific research is called “Vomit Ups”. In these drawings the basic idea is disclosed and is crystallised by drawing the whole thing out freely on the canvas in charcoal.’ (Dubsky 1984, pp.41, 43.) A charcoal sketch titled ‘Study for Cabaret Valhalla’ is reproduced in the 1984 catalogue (p.44, dimensions not given) and although close to the final painting in most respects, it lacks one detail. In the sketch the King, whose torso is naked, holds up his right hand as if to grasp the missile but it is absent.
The compiler was allowed access to Dubsky's diaries for 1983 and 1984 (private collection) which contain information about his work and state of mind. What follows is a series of entries for November and December 1983 focused upon T04908. Dubsky wrote on 16 November: ‘It is in some sense better since I started the big painting - the test will come when I get the paint out and really attack it - instead of being so ginger about it, tentative.’
On 20 November:
... with the Cabaret Valhalla I have started, a very provisional title really, I do feel something very strong in it - it seems to have a sort of power and force that hold me and that does give me some confidence. Or is all my work so derivative (culled from many & various sources even without my knowing it) that it is just a huge cry for attention?
On 21 November:
One thing is clear, and that is really, really good, is that the new painting works - it's not branching off in the wrong direction at all, rather the reverse. It's a sort of synthesis - a coming together of many threads in my work over many years. In that sense it gives me good feeling and pleasure. A sort of excitement from it that I haven't felt from a painting for a long, long time. All that I really have to do now is get into the business of painting it and making it come to life. I hope the buzz from it now, being mostly red and black, will not disappear as other colours (help!) find their way to it.
On 22 November:
The most important thing is for me to really be involved in the painting and not hold back on it, which I know that I do do. Even though it is going well, I have only 3 weeks to try and get it really together-it's come on well in just 10 days - but it's a test to try and get it much, much further, especially as regards to paint. But what is good, and I do have to keep reminding myself of it is that the image is established, that I am really good at composition - call it design - and that that is a real step forward.
On 23 November:
I've broken the ice with the painting of it, in so far as its covered, in the main areas; what I would call blocked in! Actually my choice of the red is very difficult to realize or actually see - but gradually it will build up, and the thing that excites me is that the construction, the design of the whole thing is so strong... I don't think about anything else... If Cab. V. goes well (as it should) it will... be the right thing for the staff show at Cam[berwell] - a good way to begin 1984.
On 26 November, after showing T04908 to Steve Smith, a painter friend, Dubsky wrote:
Steve Smith's response to the painting was very good - positive and excited; different to what he had expected but a lot more interesting in that each of the figures was individual and had a character. It was marvellously reassuring because no one else has really seen it and some sort of reaction was necessary to me, in order to gauge where I am going. What was good was that all the things that I had intended really seem to come across: the Ecclesiastical figure he saw as the Pope etc, and the title too he felt filled the nature of it. It's now a question of really painting it, and in some way I ought to enjoy that because the imagery is all there and the process of making the forms stronger, richer and orchestrating the colour is something that I really enjoy - or at least will have to enjoy... I can at least see that I have a totally individual and very personal iconography, my own colour sense, and it's ME, not anyone else, even though there are many references or influences at work. I am into something, as John Golding [the artist and art historian] said, and I have to prove it in 1984, 9 years after he said it.
On 27 November:
There are only 3 more weeks of term - and to get Cabaret V. finished, (which I am sure I can do), and no doubt I will learn a lot from doing it about how one does use willpower to achieve things. That may be a major lesson for me, willpower - I just have to do it - there is no other way. It will mean another 2 or 3 paintings... I was in the studio yesterday nearly all day and all evening until 11.30; a lot of time I just stand and look at the thing and goof off on the sense of the whole thing - the room full of images.
On 28 November:
Almost the end of the month - and just 2 weeks left to get Cab. V. finished; it's going well though somewhat tentatively because I don't want to overdo it and I do want to keep it quite simple and stark. What was odd about the day was that although I've been in the studio more or less non-stop, I find that I'm not elated or actually excited (as I would have been), and that I feel a curious distance, a kind of objective sense... In the evening Paul [surname unknown] came by... and the responses and reactions were very much what I would have thought... He thought it magnificant, the best thing I've done, it's very theatrical, but has a strong element of humour (satire!) and the colour is getting better and better. I've used a sort of mauve/pink and with the pale blue and deep reds it is just right... I have made a real step forward, an accessible painting that will stand well for me in the Staff show and as a prelude to May. Paul thought it very mature - well it's more so than before and it is a synthesis of almost everything that I have ever done - although the pervasive influence or marker might well be Beckmann.
On 29 November:
Cabaret V. moves slowly forward... I seem to be doing it but find all of the painting of it awkward; oddly the more ‘decorative’ parts I handle better - but at least it exists - and the most important thing will be to do it and then to really move onto others so that there is a flow to the work, and a build up of a sort of fluency in paint that has often (always?) eluded me... I find the distance between me and the painting very odd indeed - what does it mean?
On 30 November:
I spent 8–10 hours in the studio and did make a lot of progress on the painting - the stage in metal grey, out of ferrous black, with orange-brown shadows! ... I didn't paint out the m[...]es in the orange sky which I really should do, so that it dries and can be redone.
On 2 December:
I can't tell if the Cab. V. is really going well or not; it looks far better in electric light and there isn't much time to get it really together. But I will, I am sure of that. I am spending all my time on it
On 6 December, after showing T04908 the evening before to the painters Steve Smith and David Hepher:
His [DH] attitude was that it was very good, not to worry and do anything I liked to it, because it's there in some form and can always be modified after. S thought the grey floor was not necessary and perhaps too literal and D thought the King figure could be blacker... I am very pleased with it, pleased I have got this far. It's difficult because it all happened so fast... I was very touched by D's willingness to come up and see it, and his support is of course very helpful. He was very reassuring, and was perhaps surprised by the picture - but does it work? - that is what I am desperate to know... I certainly have a very strong vocabulary, and now that the paint is a real factor again, the colour gives it a new dimension and energy.
On 7 December:
I have to finish the picture - it's totally different in day light - brown, all the red goes - and very frustrating and I realize I have used the wrong lighting for far too long.
On 8 December:
I get so little done, even when I am working, I am achieving so little, taking so few risks - the paint is too thin.
On 10 December:
Felt low and unhappy. I keep on with the painting but I don't somehow get a real buzz from it anymore - is it getting too glazed and sluggish - the vitality going out of it? I spend hours down here, but smoke and look at it for far too long, then feel tired and eat and go to bed, so isolated and self-punishing, sort of happy with my prison... the only good thing that I have felt recently was a sense that if I could really get back to the way I painted in the 60s I could actually work quite freely again so that the images had a ‘body’, without the thinness and flatness that I do find means constant reworking.
On 13 December:
... with Steve Smith, we talked for most of the morning, so that we started the frame in the afternoon, and of course having to make that sort of an effort, I do find very difficult. But it did get done, and in the end it went well and the frame looks good and is right - a dark grey stained, and only 3/4" wide, 2" deep, perhaps 1" inside including the black strip. The result is that it ties in all the orange/red so that the negative shapes are really anchored and well tied in. It makes the space read better and the whole thing feels good.
On 16 December:
I seem to have broken through a real barrier recently, and all of it is to do with painting. I know I have a very long way to go as yet... and it's only one picture so far, but a very very important one really. Because in that painting I have reconnected, I have re-established a kind of authoritative voice in paint, as well as come up with an image that is vital and metaphorical and not overtly ‘explicit’...
On 21 December:
I don't know why I am at this standstill, no inspiration, and an awful feeling of death ... Those five weeks on Cab. V. were magical by comparison, so I have to start something, even if it will only be getting another canvas ready.
In T04908 the King grasps a dome-headed missile with four fins in his right hand, a prop that could be read as alluding to both the myth of Götterdammerung and recent world events. During the months of November and December 1983 when Dubsky was working on T04908, much that was pessimistic about the human condition appeared in the world news. He had noted in his diary for 6 September 1983 that he watched a BBC1 ‘Panorama’ programme on the ‘arms build-up’ around the world. In Britain much press coverage was given both to the arrival on 15 November of American nuclear cruise missiles at Greenham Common air base, and the resultant protests against the missiles by a group of over a hundred women. There were also bombings and retalliations in the Middle East, and a car bomb outside Harrods store in Knightsbridge on 17 December killed five and seriously wounded ninety-one people. However, Dubsky's diaries for November and December show no specific evidence to link the missile in ‘Cabaret Valhalla’ to these events. Furthermore, the King's gesture is very close to that of Pan in a large drawing made earlier in 1983. The charcoal drawing is titled ‘Pan by Moonlight’ and measures 60 × 40 in (repr. South London Art Gallery exh. cat., 1984, p.42). It depicts a nude youth kneeling behind a herm of the God Pan with a large erection. The youth reaches around the herm and holds Pan's erect penis with both his hands, but the gesture of the right hand echoes that of the King in T04908.
On 9 January 1984 the entry in Dubsky's diary revealed his thoughts on first showing T04908 at the exhibition of Camberwell staff work at the South London Art Gallery:
... going to SLAG yesterday was depressing ... The Gallery looked dead and depressing by electric light, and my painting being in the middle of the Gallery is almost killed by it. It had none of its life and vitality I thought, and although it's centred through the doorway, it doesn't invite further looking, it's too isolated. And with no lighting it's awful. At least that's how I saw it and being and feeling so low didn't help at all
By March 1984 Dubsky was heavily involved in producing the text for the catalogue of his retrospective exhibition at the South London Art Gallery and working on the two canvases, ‘The Laities of Orpheus’ and ‘In the Circle of Smoke and Fire’, which followed T04908. No work was sold at Dubsky's 1984 exhibition and early in 1985 he entered T04908 for the fourteenth John Moores Liverpool exhibition. He wrote a brief text to accompany the painting in the catalogue, and it is virtually identical to the paragraph on the work which appeared in the 1984 catalogue. Only the last line is different: ‘The picture is intended as a direct, accessible and obvious morality.’
Tate Gallery: Illustrated Catalogue of Acquisitions 1986-88, London 1996