The Marie Rosen effect

Marie Rosen occupies an important role in the whirlwind of contemporary painting. It is as if Luc Tuymans’ “school of gray paintings”, Borremans’ dark figures, and thriving post post-expressionism all come to an end. Silent scenes, with or without characters, are carefully painted on small and large wooden boards, with round edges, and lately with less and less rounded edges. Enigmatic rituals, strange fairy tales or symbolic scenes of our everyday world? Things are setup in seemingly clear simplicity. Popular art has become a source of inspiration for contemporary art, but mostly as motifs. Marie Rosen uses instances of the aura of popular art. Moreover, she dares to conceal aspects of naïve and self-taught painting. At the same time, it is a balanced perfection, with small imperfections in the smooth wood and in the layers of sanded paint, which give an aged-look.

Marie Rosen likes to remain descrete. To work from a humble position is beautiful in art. Artists like Nedko Solakov come to mind. Her paintings recall Frida Kahlo, herself influenced by Mexican popular art and the ex-voto paintings. And again, the cycle of small works: “Le temps du sommeil” by Francis Alÿs, from which the ‘Project Fabiola’ of found paintings also testifies a love for the popular. On the other hand, references to the Masters seem to emerge: Jan van Eyck or Johannes Vermeer’s tiled floors, Magritte’s confusion between inside and outside, the gothic anatomy of bodies in Hieronymus Bosch’s “Jardin des Délices”, or again the sophisticated elegance of Lucas Cranach.

A large array of historical and artistic associations whirlwind in the mind of the viewer. But history does not repeat itself. Each scene is born from her imagination and the mise-en-scène is not devised in advance. In her Brussels atelier, wooden panels with drafted backgrounds announce the initial point of new work. This work grows in painting and sanding: “I continue until the painting releases the emotion that I am looking for, an emotion that does not exclude other sentiments and that raises questions. Intellectual art does not interest me. I want to do something simple and beautiful.”

When she begins, Marie Rosen does not know what the final results will be. Not that there aren’t iconographic sources. The hand gesture in a recent ‘portrait’, a woman wearing a pastel green sweater, seems drawn from the mannerism of Parmigianino or the Fontainebleau school. But no, the gesture comes from a cut-out fashion photograph. Marie Rosen adapts, in her own way, elements from the images. She also uses motifs from the typical tiled floors of Brussels mansions. If she applies such motif on a wall, the wallpaper reminds of Escher or of Op art. It is a trompe-l’oeil of geometric volumes. She also likes mural decorations, geometric and in relief, like those of the Café Central in Brussels. “My imagination has its own roots, and these are Belgian”, she explains.

Previously, Marie Rosen used to look at the aesthetic of the ex-voto paintings. The Flemish Primitives were one of her greatest source of inspiration. The materials’ renderings, the details, the depth: despite their imperfect knowledge of perspective, these painters of the 15th century delivered everything faithfully, from their observations, and sometimes quite naively. Their work is national heritage, like the work of Magritte. Artists from around the world consciously or unconsciously attach themselves to the visual language and to the ideas of the Belgian surrealist. It is almost inevitable that something would slip indirectly in the work of Marie Rosen. Magritte suggested to replace the question “What represents the painting?” by “Who presents the painting?”. Because it is the spectator that completes the performance with his sentiments and his thoughts.

Adam and Eve after the fall, together, but alone in the world: this comes to my mind from an early 20 x 17 cm painting made in 2007, year in which Marie Rosen graduated from the art school La Cambre in Brussels. There is no title - there are never titles - and it is just a nude man and woman in a landscape under a sky grey of clouds. Yes, just that. The man holds his arm on the seated woman’s shoulder, but the chair is invisible. The body in relation to surrounding objects, the body that ends where begins the objects; Marie Rosen used to investigate these questions. In fact, leaving the chair aside… she still does investigate. The couple seems a bit clumsy. Maybe this is due to the simple realism, and to the gesture. They stand there as if posing motionless. The rigid stances become an essential character of her painting, and this adds to the peculiarity. As always, small details attract the viewer. In this painting, tufts of grass are meticulously painted, a little bit like in the work of the so-called naïve painter Henri Rousseau. And also in the works of the Flemish Primitives.

See how Jan van Eyck painted the lawn with plants in 1439 in his "Madonna at the Fountain", a small panel of just 19 x 12 cm. Behind Mary, two angels hold a sheet of brocade. In 2012, Marie Rosen painted a pale fabric, supported by two arms, in front of a red wallpaper with a pattern of repetitive rows that reminds of French fleur-de-lis. Van Eyck's painting was not a source material, but Marie Rosen examined the rendering of textiles among Flemish primitives. It may be a moment of domestic life: an elegant tablecloth that is taken out of the wardrobe and inspected before use. The transparency and folds of the open fabric are painted virtuously. Yes, it is really a question of perception. It is about painting, point blank, without indulging in theory.

Fabrics, curtains and all kinds of textiles are common in Marie Rosen's iconographic repertoire. In a room is a mysterious object under a blue cloth, from which two legs come out. In another painting, a set of similar objects are beneath a green cloth, like many conifers in a landscape with a somewhat sinister pink air. The objects evolve and transform. In addition, plants or items are basically like characters. The cardboard box appeared early. It is universal. Children play with it, and there are many associations. Hmm, maybe it is not infinitely far from Michael Borremans. His 2004 painting 'The Performance' is a box covered with a white canvas. Of course, hiding something or someone under a cloth is always enigmatic. Magritte did it, among others, in a painting from his beginnings: 'The Lovers' (1928).

Borremans is a deeply Belgian painter. The absurdity of existence appears in his work, the characters can be in uncomfortable positions and, minuscule, they appear as figurines. Some affinity can be found in these zones with Marie Rosen's painting. She points out that the characters in Bosch's "Garden of Delights" remind her of the miniature world of a game. Borremans once said that what happens in a painting often refers, to him, to emptiness in the human condition, an emptiness in which we live. What is happening, we do not know, just like in Neo Rauch's Leipzig painting. His enormous scenes were qualified as "not fashionable". To stay in the same regions: in terms of atmosphere, Rosen joins the lonely people in the landscapes and the empty interiors of Tim Eitel, who was a pupil of Rauch and who also relates to Edward Hopper.

What's going on in Marie Rosen's paintings? We never truly know. We feel that it is about us, the human condition, our environment. In a worn-out room with wallpaper, two identical women stand side-by-side, on their tiptoes. A rather uncomfortable attitude. Oh, she removed their shoes. We begin to think that, she erases the whole interior, as if she wanted to paint only the essential. In an older painting, a quartet of four naked women is sitting rather rebelliously on the feet of an upturned table, an uncomfortable position. Nudes are not portrayed anymore, and neither are couples. Because she is concerned about the relationship between the characters and their environment, not the relationship between the characters. They seem to be archetype of the human being. A bit like with the German sculptor Stephan Balkenhol, although his visual language is different. Most of the time, Marie Rosen imagines different characters. But they are consistently very thin, not very young and not very old, neither joyous nor desperate. Man or woman, sometimes even that remains unclear. They are always white like her. Little people. When a child draws little people, he reproduces only what he knows.

They are often twins or triplets. Or are they look-alikes? Whole libraries have been written on the theme of the double. According to the famous Viennese psychoanalyst Sigmund Freud, it is daunting to meet our double; it has to do with primordial fears. He classifies the double in the "Unheimliche": something strange and alarming that is hidden in something that seems comfortably familiar. Marie Rosen has nothing to do with psychoanalysis or other such theories. This does not preclude the fact that it can be fascinating to leave a psychiatrist with her paintings. With or without characters, these small scenes are both light and dark. "Unheimlich", you say.

The duplication of identity is mysterious and psychologically charged. Doubling and multiplying a character also draws attention to the art of painting. Involuntarily, the viewer begins to look for differences. Is it possible to paint exactly the same thing twice? It is not inconceivable that Magritte wanted to test this by painting the portrait of the poet Paul Nougé in 1927, the same character standing twice, with a door in between. Marie Rosen probably did not think of Magritte when she painted a double close-up portrait in 2015: twice the same face and the same light blue shirt, with a plant in between. The type of face changes regularly. A frontal face with large eyes, a small painting of the same year, recalls Fayum portraits of Egyptian antiquity. The skin of her characters is smooth. They look vaguely like digital avatars, like in Second Life or computer-generated animated films by British artist Ed Atkins. Marie Rosen also creates artificial characters, only it happens without computer technology. These are not avatars nor are they dolls, we can feel it. They are hybrid people, motionless, but not lifeless.

A plant painstakingly painted in a landscape of boxwood and yew drums says something about the individual and the mass, the individual in society. If you take a closer look, you will see that the plant is projecting a shadow. It is not a houseplant, but it has grown indoors. Inside and outside are not mistaken. Yet, it is a confusing illusionist game. The shadow subtly indicates that it is painted. The landscape is a mural, a fresco. In an earlier painting, the rounded plants have evolved into elongated green forms, are they still plants? They are seen on a cut-out plaque that stands against a wall like a painted panel. A representation in a representation.

Painting-within-painting is not a subject matter. But it occurs, or Marie Rosen makes it occur. She began with a red space that filled the entire picture: a succession of walls, each with a large rectangular passage and a floor red-stained. The mise-en-scène, alike a decor, ends up as a representation on a sheet of paper that is fixed with pins on a green wallpaper with an old motif. Sometimes, one sees an erased figure. Now, this red space is the character. It is a look through. Not to infinity but enclosed by a wall. Strictly speaking, it is not a Droste effect, but a repeated effect like on the famous cocoa box of the chocolate manufacturer Droste: a virtually infinite repetition of the same image, smaller and smaller as it goes. The French term is ‘mise en abyme’. However it is called,  it appears in Marie Rosen painting. Sometimes we see ourselves literally placed in front of the precipice, as if in the painting of pipes that disappear in the openings of the ground like the firemen's fire boom, or in the painting of a tiled platform with the handrails of a pool-ladder descending into a coniferous landscape in the distance.

Back to the game of representation and reality. Painting within painting is an important motif in the work of René Magritte. He drew it from the Metaphysical painting of De Chirico and it gradually became an instrument of his ‘philosophy’ on the conflict between representation and reality. Magritte has always wanted to "invoke the mystery". Not the familiar mystery of what is dark and mysterious, but the unknown mystery of the mundane and of the familiar. Because mystery is in ordinary reality, mystery is reality. According to him, we can never know reality. We see the world as a screen, a representation. He pushed to the extreme this confusion, for example by mixing with reality a painting within painting.

Marie Rosen does not proceed this way, it is not surrealism. Everything remains at the same level of reality, but in her own way, she plays with the shifts, with the inside and the outside, with the visible and the invisible, with illusion and reality. Time and again, she says that her painting is neither intellectual nor conceptual. I think this is not completely true. "I'm trying to rely on some kind of instinct, not on the intellect. By trusting instinct when feelings and situations please me, a kind of intellectual logic can be hidden in the picture. But it is not something conceptual." she explains in her calm way.

Finally, this again: The spaces are often remarkably compartmentalized. They are subdivided into pieces of walls, niches, curtains, steps and other level differences. The plants grow in the compartments of a construction resembling a building that looks like a shelf and there is even a landscape of almost geometric volumes. Add all these patterns of tiles and you will soon ask yourself the following question: why this geometry, what is its role? "To paint, I have a rather Cartesian mind, a mathematical mind, I'm not a poet, I'm more prosaic, I'm down to earth, maybe it comes from there," Marie Rosen suggests.

At the same time, there is something labyrinthine. The wallpaper with the geometric pattern of a tiled floor, a trompe-l'oeil because it seems to be three-dimensional, looks like an architectural view from above an infinite labyrinth. In such a construction, we do not want to get stuck. What sometimes reminds of a labyrinth, are paintings with anti-crush barriers on which a towel may be suspended. The towel then recalls her "pool paintings". Before, it was a pool shaped pond in a landscape. Then, the feeling of a pool is evoked by tiles, a springboard in a tiled room, pool ladders. "Pool ladders, anti-crush barriers, tubular queuing structures: they show us how to move, and we do it automatically. Ladders and stairs also help the body move, and the idea of ​​the labyrinth, yes, a labyrinth is also a space that guides the way forward,” explains Marie Rosen.

Is her painting a commentary on how we structure our environment and how we furnish our homes? "It interests me how we organize things, decorate, classify, and how we give a place; it's not a criticism, I love them, our little habits," smiles Marie Rosen. She emphasizes that objects become more and more hybrid. A recent painting represents a sober room with three very thin tubular structures, like tubes in an entrance, a counter or a control post. They are very short and push us to crash against the wall. No idea what they serve, if they even serve anything. It is an absurd situation. Painted with sensuality, and still almost flat and mathematical. The tubes project a shadow. Thus, three rectangular trapeziums are drawn in space, making a geometrical figure. Whether a strong purification and simplification is in motion or whether it is more and more about painting, in this same movement Marie Rosen lets us go even deeper into the enigma, the absurdity, and the complexity of our existence.


Christine Vuegen