David Austen

Apollo and Marsyas 26.4.11


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Not on display

David Austen born 1960
Watercolour on paper
Support: 254 × 254 mm
Purchased with funds provided by The Ampersand Foundation in memory of Michael Stanley 2013


This is one of a group of four figurative watercolours by David Austen in Tate’s collection that date from 2011; each has the date of its making as part of its title (see Tate T13908T13911). The figures are set against the background of the paper and appear to be floating. Drawn from memory, these intimate compositions represent naked human figures that emerge from a single brushstroke, utterly dependent on the assuredness of the artist’s hand and on the impossibility of corrections or second thoughts. Austen’s subject matter is taken from many different sources that mixes religious allegory and mythology with images from the circus.

Expulsion 26.4.11 2011 (Tate T13908) depicts the Biblical characters of Adam and Eve being expelled from the Garden of Eden. Their striding figures lean forwards in a composition similar to that of The Expulsion from the Garden of Eden circa 1425, a fresco by the early Renaissance painter Masaccio (1401–1428/9?) on the walls of the Brancacci Chapel in the Church of Santa Maria del Carmine in Florence. Austen depicts Eve following Adam, instead of the other way around as in the original iconography, but the very characteristic gesture of both figures covering their faces in shame carries an intense sense of pathos. Apollo and Marsyas 26.4.11 2011 (Tate T13910) depicts the rage of the Greek god Apollo who pinned the audacious satyr Marsyas to a tree and flayed him alive after the satyr had dared to enter a competition claiming that the sound of the aulos (a double reed-blown flute) was superior to the cithara, Apollo’s preferred instrument. Austen depicts a blonde Apollo digging his knife through Marsyas’ body as he hangs upside down. Another mythological reference lies behind Cronus 1.3.11 2011 (Tate T13911) which depicts the Titan Cronus who, in fear of a prophecy that he would be overthrown by his own son, swallowed each of his children as soon as they were born. Austen depicts two male figures in profile, one sat on the shoulders of another who is standing, as they disturbingly merge into one another. Woman Standing on Man’s Shoulders (Circus Act) 11.5.11 2011 (Tate T13909) depicts two naked figures in profile, one male the other female. As the title indicates, the woman is standing on the shoulders of the man, her arms extended and her right knee slightly bent as if she were preparing herself to jump forward. Through this breadth of themes and cultural references, Austen’s watercolours explore the space between people, as well as their relationships to one another and to the world. Love, sex, death, revenge and the ache of human impulse and emotion are some of the drives that surface in such works.

Austen combines a sense of alienation and bleak, existential despair with a visual language that carries a strongly hand-crafted and elemental sense concerned with the mechanics and dynamics of expression, representation and the way images are read. Much of the artist’s source material is derived from observations of the everyday world around him: a chance remark, a book cover, crime thrillers or a newspaper headline that, removed from its original context, is invested with new meaning. Austen often changes from one media to another and his approaches to his subject matter vary accordingly. However, these common concerns run through different strands of his practice, establishing a strong relationship between the themes and forms explored in his works on paper and his large-scale oil paintings as well as his photographs and films.

Further reading
David Austen: Paintings and Works on Paper, exhibition catalogue, Mead Gallery, Warwick Art Centre, Coventry, September–October 1997.
David Austen, exhibition catalogue, Milton Keynes Gallery, February–March 2007.
David Austen: End of Love, exhibition catalogue, Modern Art Oxford, December 2010–February 2011.

Carmen Juliá
August 2013

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