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Today’s take on memento mori

03 October 2014

Nicholas Cranfield sees contemporary art in a new gallery, and calls in on some exquisite medieval manuscripts


Crucifixion: Your Hope, 2013, by Hynek Martinec, in his exhibition at the new Parafin gallery in London

Crucifixion: Your Hope, 2013, by Hynek Martinec, in his exhibition at the new Parafin gallery in London

ON MY way towards New Bond Street - the exciting new gallery space Parafin lies just behind Bonhams, the auctioneers - I called in at the press view for Anselm Kiefer's large retrospective at the Royal Academy, in Piccadilly, and then at Sam Fogg, in Clifford Street, which is showing an outstandingly beautiful range of medieval manuscripts.

The walk offered an interesting excursion into both colour and monochromatic techniques, and may have affected how I saw the inaugural London show of the Czech-born hyperrealist artist Hynek Martinec (born 1980).

The Kiefers are rightly celebrated, in part, for their sheer scale, and for the textured use of not very much colour; three pictures from the Attic series (1973) are all brown wood, and are hung together like an extension to the Academy's parquet floor. Elsewhere, he makes use of coal and lead. Think monochrome; think texture.

Medieval manuscripts tend, by the nature of their production, to be smaller in scale, although there is a larger-than-folio volume of Lewis of Caerleon's collected scientific works which is reckoned to be the author's presentation copy (of 1495), alongside diminutive Books of Hours and minutely illuminated title deeds.

They are also intensely coloured, the rich-blue hues or reds often leaping off the parchment between margins of interlaced gold. The open page of the Northumberland Bible (c.1250-60), formerly at Alnwick Castle, holds a surprisingly graceful drawing of the seated Madonna and Child, picked out in the softest of greens.

By contrast, Martinec, who has been taking part in the John Moores Painting Prize at the Liverpool Biennal, uses both large-scale and smaller-format canvases (from 50 × 50cm to 224 × 184cm) to offer a series of fairly random reflections on life as a thirty-something feels it. He has played with ideas deriving from the memento mori archetypes of death's heads, damaged statuary, decaying flowers, and still-lifes to pass modern comment on ways of living. Vanitas, vanitas, all is vanitas, this prophet says.

Does he say anything more? Martinec is a painter who enjoys his programmatic titles (and upper-case letters): You Will Become As My God, Speak The Truth Even Your Voice Shakes, and Six Years of Tabula Rasa, for instance.

I found the technique by which he suggests slightly foggy or out-of-focus images, which seemingly derive from photographs, beguiling, as each oil painting is artfully made to look as if it is an Ektachrome print or sepia from the last century.

The indebtedness is sometimes rather more transparent: The Whisper of the Candle recalls a first-communion photograph of a turn-of-the-century girl in white, holding a candle in her right hand. In her left she dangles a lion face-mask. In the picture next to it, the lion's face becomes a detail on a masonry balustrade by which another innocent girl stands impassively, clutching her piccolo (Fairytale for Little Horn). Her bonnet terminates in a single horn. Is she a deflowered Rhinemaiden?

Speak The Truth is more conventionally a vanitas image of a skull next to an ice-cream cone (!); and a PAL digital radio is set next to a crab on a table, on which is a towering wicker basket with a squid pouring down the side of it, in the larger-than-life Experience of Being Alive.

Martinec was not listed as a prizewinner at the Walker Art Gallery competition, but this London debut is impressive in its playfulness, and a good start for a new Mayfair gallery.

"Hynek Martinec: Every Minute You Are Closer to Death" is at Parafin, 18 Woodstock Street, London W1, until 11 October. Phone 020 7495 1969.


"Art and Ownership: An Exhibition of Medieval and Renaissance Manuscripts" is at Sam Fogg, 15D Clifford Street, London W1, until 24 October. Phone 0207 534 2100. www.samfogg.com

"Anselm Kiefer" continues at the Royal Academy of Arts, Burlington House, Piccadilly, London W1, until 14 December. Phone 020 7300 8000.



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