Victor Man

Untitled (Connaissez-vous des Esseintes?)


Not on display

Victor Man born 1974
Oil paint on canvas
Support: 1011 × 709 mm
frame: 1033 × 728 × 40 mm
Presented by Abrishamchi Family Collection 2016


Untitled (Connaissez-vous des Esseintes?) is a portrait-orientation oil painting on canvas. A seated female figure is depicted in the centre of the work framed against a background of bright green foliage and clusters of delicate white flowers. What appears to be a triangular veil of semi-transparent fabric hangs from the top centre of the painting, transforming the colour of the foliage that it partially obscures into subdued yellows and browns. The background of the lower-half of the work is loosely painted, with a horizontal band of mottled blue paint and an area to the lower left-hand corner which is brown in hue. Wearing a purplish-black, long-sleeved lace dress, revealing a salmon-pink underlining, the sitter is positioned turning towards her right. Her head is tilted and she smiles enigmatically while gazing directly towards the viewer, her fingers linked awkwardly around a long metal object, a cryptic prop. The sitter’s dark hair is scraped back, accentuating her delicate features. Her face and neck are painted in hues of green, yellow and pink, and the right side of her head is partly hidden in shadow. The painting has a phosphorescent quality as light seems to glow from behind the figure, enhancing the mysterious and ethereal nature of the work.

The question Connaissez-vous des Esseintes? (French for ‘Do you know des Esseintes?’), which forms part of the painting’s title, is a reference to Jean des Esseintes, the main character of the French novel À rebours (Against Nature). Written in 1884 by Joris-Karl Huysmans in a style which experimented with a symbolist approach, the book epitomises the decadence of late nineteenth-century French elite culture. Focusing on the inner life of its eccentric aristocrat protagonist, des Esseintes, the narrative charts his withdrawal from Parisian bourgeois society to an isolated countryside retreat where he surrounds himself with art and literature and immerses himself in obsessive sensual experiments. His is a self-imposed isolation from the world, a withdrawal from nature into a hyper-aesthetic universe in an attempt to create a new reality. Man seems to trace a connection between the woman in his painting and the character of des Esseintes, alluding to the latter’s psychological inability to adapt to his present state of living and attempt to attain a better and more beautiful inner world. The work plays ambiguously with the sense of ennui and desire for isolation referred to in Huysman’s novel.

Man frequently touches upon existential themes in his work, embracing ambiguity and opaqueness in his paintings, drawings, installations and site-specific assemblages. He has commented:

What you try to do is locate what is fiction and what is fact … I think it’s something the work can provoke … the work is more like a mirror; it can only continue as long as you look into it … it’s more of an attempt to fill a gap left open between truth and falsity. A sort of Jabberwocky.
(Quoted in Wakefield 2009, accessed 15 April 2016.)

The notion of transformation, from human to animal, organic to artificial, face to mask, is a thread that runs through his work. Fusing the occult, folklore, literature and religion, the artist returns to the recurrent theme of identity in perpetual movement. The images that he uses in his works are often derived from pre-existing sources, including photographs, historical works of art, illustrations and books, while others are of his own invention or drawn from his memories and experience of growing up in Romania during the final years of Ceau¿escu’s regime in the 1970s and 1980s. The artist has commented about his range of sources:

They are images derived more from what’s out there in the back of your head. There is nothing glamorous about them, from the modesty of scale to the very greyish colors they contain to black and white, the classic dream material. This has to do with something like the fading away of identity, as well as collective memory. They are works simultaneously traditional and concerned with the process of their own production. I operate with images that are essentially documentation, which are most of the time fashion-less, so they embody prevailing conditions of past and present.
(Quoted in Gianni Romano, ‘Interview: Victor Man & Gianni Romano’, Contemporary Magazine, no.82, 2006.)

In many of Man’s paintings, images are connected with a literary source. As in Untitled (Connaissez-vous des Esseintes?), literary references are indicated through sub-titles, which allude to the narrative and parable-like character of otherwise, dark, almost impenetrable paintings. For example, Man has made reference to Shakespearean characters (an androgynous Hamlet presenting a miniature skull in Untitled [Portrait with Skull] 2012) and, more recently, to the works of James Joyce. Art critic and curator Alessandro Rabottini has commented: ‘This relationship between painting and literature should thus be understood as an open space, a horizon where it is possible to expand not just the relationship between different symbolic forms, but also, and above all, the exchange between autobiography and invention, between the concreteness of the experience and the analogy.’ (In GAMeC – Galleria d’Arte Moderna e Contemporanea di Bergamo 2008, p.65.)

Untitled (Connaissez-vous des Esseintes?) is one of a number of portraits that Man has created since 2011 that depict solitary female subjects or present feminine or androgynous physiological traits. In Untitled (S.D. as Judith and Holofernes) 2011, a woman cloaked in shadowy darkness is portrayed holding what appears to be a wooden African mask, the sculpted mask and impassive expression of the woman seemingly sharing the same physical matter. The same figure appears in Untitled (Portrait with Skull) 2012. Many of the images that the artist has produced refer to moments of transition and metamorphosis, as can be seen in Untitled (A.D.) 2001 and Untitled (Sirens) 2012 in which the stony aspect of the women depicted implies their transition from human to sculptural form.

Man’s conceptually charged oil-paintings are the result of a slow and methodical process and he produces few paintings over a relatively long period of time. The act of painting itself becomes a central theme, as he plays with colour values, modulating his subject’s features, shading their faces and building up veils of colour. Often his paintings are cloaked in distinctive sombre darkness. Man quotes from Old Master paintings, references Baroque techniques and naïve art, and in particular cites Piero della Francesca (c.1415/20–1492), Paul Cézanne (1839–1906) and Balthus (1908–2001) as significant influences on his practice. Since the beginning of his career he has defined his own particular way of combining painting with found or manipulated objects, sometimes associating painting with appropriated images or with those that appear to be relics, and installing assemblages alongside his paintings in his exhibitions.

Untitled (Connaissez-vous des Esseintes?) is typical of Man’s use of a distinct pictorial image that has its roots in the atmosphere and language of the late nineteenth century. He has a strategic interest in the still ambivalent modernity of the nineteenth century, in which technical-industrial inventiveness goes hand-in-hand with spiritualism and occultism. Man refers to a line of enquiry, preserved in the communist east, which continued western atelier traditions and the practice of figurative painting. Rabottini has commented:

‘[the] obscurity in which Man’s paintings are immersed, is a place of extreme osmosis, where images and abstraction cohabit, in which the everyday and the fantastic blend together, and the autobiographical experience of the artist communicates with art history, while the feminine and masculine, the human and the animal intermingle … It is a kind of withholding that takes a long time to open up and calls forth a time that is equally distant. There is an archaic quality to Victor Man’s painting that is not limited to the nearly total absence of references to contemporariness, but absorbs in a more radical manner a sentiment and desire for distance from our time.
(In GAMeC – Galleria d’Arte Moderna e Contemporanea di Bergamo 2008, p.55.)

Further reading
Alessandro Rabottini, Yilmaz Dziewior, Tom Morton and Hans Ulrich Obrist, Victor Man, exhibition catalogue, GAMeC – Galleria d’Arte Moderna e Contemporanea di Bergamo 2008.
Neville Wakefield, ‘Victor Man: Ring of Fire’, Flash Art, October 2009,, accessed 15 April 2016.
Bogdan Ghiu, Alessandro Rabottini and Alexandru Monciu-Sudinski, Victor Man. Szindbád, exhibition catalogue, Deutsche Bank KunstHalle, Berlin 2014.

Juliet Bingham
April 2016

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