Virtual tour of Paloma Varga Weisz: Bumped Body

Our galleries are now open once, more, but you can still take a virtual tour of Paloma Varga Weisz: Bumped Body with insights from the exhibition's curator, Laurence Sillars (Head of the Henry Moore Institute).

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Introduction

 

Bumped Body introduces the enchanting figurative sculpture of Paloma Varga Weisz. Through woodcarving, ceramics and watercolour painting, she fashions a symbolic universe with a cast of characters rooted in both the fantastical and autobiographical.

Born in 1966 in Mannheim, Germany, Varga Weisz first trained at a school for traditional woodcarving in the Bavarian Alps. The craft gave her a language through which to make, yet it was not until she absorbed the influences of Renaissance painting, European Modernism and the art of more recent decades during her time at the Düsseldorf Academy that her own voice began to emerge.

Varga Weisz’s figures are often simplified to capture an essence of the human form, and to this end her approach draws especially upon painting. The work of Piero della Francesca (c. 1415-92) of the Early Renaissance, Cranach the Elder (1472-1553) of the later German Renaissance and the Surrealists, are important touchstones.

Despite this framework of reference and expansive art historical allusion, Varga Weisz’s characters live in the present, eschewing nostalgia. They have an innate fragility and stillness, and yet at the same time an inherent strength, and feel as though they could ‘snap to’ at any moment.

Wild Bunch

 

Among the earliest works in the exhibition is the series Wilde Leute (Wild Bunch), made in 1998. These moulded ceramics take the form of fantastical creatures, arranged in groups the artist refers to as ‘families’. Fluid in being and action, they morph between human and animal.

The figures draw not upon myth or fairytale, but rather on the endless possibilities of childhood imagination that – at least for a time – knows no bounds. It is significant that, all through her work, her forms are not pre-planned: Varga Weisz always works intuitively, waiting to see who or what ultimately emerges from her chosen material.

Limewood carvings

 

Varga Weisz’s concern for surface is such that a tension exists between illusion and the real in her carved forms. A state of in-between-ness ensues, resonating with Sigmund Freud’s (1856-1939) notion of the uncanny, a feeling-based response he attributed to the realm of aesthetics rather than psychology.

Her figures have a lightness retained from the limewood of their making, and yet possess the full sense of the weight of a resting body. Perfectly smooth skin resonates against areas left rough with markings from the artist’s chisels – perhaps another painterly influence – recalling more gestural mark making.

Figures such as Beulenmann (Bumpman) hover on the edge of reality; his forlorn face gazes skywards, away from and yet clearly still content with the fleshy undulations that define his skin. Clearly he’s a representation, and yet is his potential to turn and look at us really so far away…?

The starting point for many of the figures is familial – the artist’s mother, father, sons – or sometimes a friend, enriching the forms with a sense of intimacy. The haunting figure of Still Life carries an element of family history, as he rests beneath glass vials used by Varga Weisz’s wine chemist mother.

The reversal of roles or undermining of tropes is a further strategy, as seen in Waldfrau (Woman of the Forest). Compositionally, the work draws upon a tradition of pastoral and Romantic painting: a female figure sits upon a tree trunk appearing, perhaps, to nurture a child. On closer inspection this is a fragmented being, bodiless and ghostly under her costume. Rather than a child or a lover, the figure on her lap is the reduced form of a man, now elf-like and subservient.

Autobiography and narrative

 

There is a strong thread of autobiography in Varga Weisz’s work. Architectural in its proportions, Magazin occupies an entire wall of Gallery 2, the fragmented sounds of family life it emits echoing memories of her childhood home in Germany. Though at the opposite end of the spectrum in terms of scale, the doll’s house sized Haus (’31.71) (House (’31.71)), has similar formative associations.

The life of her father, also an artist, brings a particular narrative complexity. Born in Hungary in 1906, he lived through two world wars and fled the Nazis after moving to Paris to continue his career. Growing up, Varga Weisz navigated the stories he told ‘like fairytales’ of his past, with a closeness that few her age have had to bear without the mediation of a generation between.

The first portrait a young Varga Weisz ever made was of her father, and can be found nestled inside Schrank (Cabinet) alongside a multitude of other things – a maquette for the Bumpman sculpture seated outside the Institute, a pipe, a pine cone, a wicker basket – objects both made and found.

The result of a compulsion to collect, her cabinet could be seen as a further principle of Freud’s uncanny – that of ‘repetition compassion’. Each article rests upon a shelf, like a word in the line of a poem, awaiting association. Finite meaning is in flux, and the symbolism of each object is rewritten both according to the viewer, and to each time the work is reordered for presentation.

The Body

 

Above all, Varga Weisz begins with a fascination for the body and all that it can represent beyond its physical form. An unusual oscillation is at play: on the one hand a rare technical proficiency and reference to the art history of many centuries, on the other a concern for the body as a vehicle of expression more commonly associated with conceptual practice since the 1960s.

Varga Weisz has acknowledged Bruce Nauman’s significance, and his studio films (1967-69) offer an intriguing counterpoint. Using nothing but the space of his studio and a set of instructions, Walking in an Exaggerated Manner Around the Perimeter of a Square and Slow Angle Walk (Beckett Walk), for example, Nauman’s pared down performances encapsulate much of what it is to be human – the lone figure in space showing all our fallibilities.

As they move between history and the present, between different societal roles and alternative identities, Varga Weisz’s figures convey trauma, hope, fragility, comedy, peace, naivety, innocence, limitation and possibility. Just like Nauman’s solitary, pacing form, her sculpture is a stand-in for the human condition throughout time and with all its contradictions.

Venue details


Venue address

Henry Moore Institute
The Headrow
Leeds
LS1 3AH
United Kingdom
T: 0113 246 7467

Opening times

Now open: Tuesday to Sunday, 10am-5pm

Entry is free. As we are limiting visitor numbers, we advise booking tickets in advance:

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