Susannah Martin

The alienation of man from nature

Susannah Martin is a figurative painter dedicated to a classical subject, nude figures in nature. As traditional as this positioning sounds, her works are surprising, fresh and unseen. Brilliant craftsmanship, at first glance never quiet, at second glance they have unexpected depth.

by Felix Brosius, October 11, 2021
Die Künstlerin Susannah Martin im Atelier
Susannah Martin in the studio

Unspoilt nature is seen by many as a place of longing; far from civilisation, it promises individual freedom, allows people to leave behind all artificiality, to return to their natural being, reduced to their very being. In paintings, this romantic notion has given rise to its own subject in the form of nude figures in nature, which has been reinterpreted again and again in countless variations from cave paintings to the present day. This is clearly a theme that has endured through the ages, and yet the question arises as to whether the idyllic idea of a human being in harmony with nature still has a place in the 21st century. Can man still become one with nature, still survive in nature at all or is it now completely alien to him as a living environment? Susannah Martin explores this question in her often large-format, figurative, sometimes hyper-realistic oil paintings, and she seems to be on the path to finding an answer.

»Fragile seems to me the right word to describe our relationship with nature, fragile and uncertain.«

Nature, the "un-home" of man

Martin's paintings also show the classical subject of nude figures in nature, but in an as yet unseen way, interpreted in a contemporary way in a style all her own. In her paintings, one looks in vain for the romantic merging of man and nature or the romanticised charm of a secluded tryst. Rather, the people, predominantly women, have an enormous presence, pushed into the foreground, they stand out from the landscape. Sometimes they seem like foreign elements in nature, at best curiously exploring unknown terrain, but they then also seem like intruders who, despite all their nakedness, seem to cling not only to their civilisational habitus but also to their props from the hedonistic consumer age.

Susannah Martin, Schmetterling, 100 x 150cm, 2019
Schmetterling (Butterfly), 2019

Man, reduced to the essentials, seems lost in nature. This is the impression Susannah Martin got early on when she first engaged with the subject: "While working on my first pictures of nude figures in the landscape, I very quickly realised how strange the present man seems outdoors in the nature. He just didn't seem to fit in anymore, and so this aspect slowly became my theme: Nature as theun-home (anti-home) of man. Then came the day when I incorporated the first plastic toy into a painting. Suddenly, I felt, man no longer seemed alienated. And it wasn't just me, viewers also felt a stronger connection with the images.” Man's relationship with nature is not yet completely lost; brightly coloured balloons, plastic guns and sticky-sweet candy snakes can still save it.

Bavaria, Susannah Martin-170cm x 240cm
Bavaria, 2016

Opulent visual worlds in an augmented reality

Martin's compositions are always impressively opulent, with an intensity tending towards the surreal, man's souvenirs from civilisation generally portrayed in a hyper-realistic way, almost collage-like in the overall impression. A single image is often based on numerous templates, which are created when Martin allows her models to playfully act freely in nature while she captures the resulting scenes photographically. Several thousand photos have now been taken, some of which always seem to tell a very special story and are predestined to form the starting point for the next artistic arrangement.

Martin often picks out individual elements from an image, combines them with the setting of another photograph, adds further pictorial elements creating her pictorial worlds, which are more intense and more voluminous than a real motif could ever be. Nevertheless, they do not appear alien or even artificial, because our visual understanding is anticipatory and expanded after exposure to years of digital retouching. The scope of what we are prepared to accept as an image of reality has shifted significantly. Martin's works thus also very deliberately depict an expanded realism, with which she comes closer to the perceived character of a situation than a pure representation of what is seen would allow.

»I see absolutely no reason why art should stick to old rules. For me, it's always more important how reality feels and not so much what it looks like exactly.«

Bowing to the old masters

When Susannah Martin breaks with the traditional rules of realism, she does so in deep deference to the old masters, as is hardly otherwise possible for a serious artist. After all, anyone who wants to break rules must first master them, and Martin does this with impressive craftsmanship and thus probably inevitably in intellectual complicity with the great craftsmen of the Renaissance. She therefore ultimately engages seamlessly with the discourse in terms of content - after all, the time of scientific awakening was determined by the endeavour to understand the cosmos and to master nature, which mankind succeeded in doing with such success that today questions of a dominance and alienation bordering on hubris are discussed.

Kopernikanisches Zwielicht, 120 x 150cm, Susannah Martin
Kopernikanisches Zwielicht (Copernican Twilight), 2013

Man, then, in Copernican twilight, with the owl of Minerva looking over his shoulder, is on the trail of the great correlations of the universe with a Copernican planetary system, which, however, on closer inspection still circles the earth. In the dialogue with a “Düreresque" hare, the symbol for the systematic cartography of nature, there seems to be a negotiation as to whether expulsion from paradise must be the price paid for knowledge. Perhaps there is a trick to it, we can get away with a reinterpretation, the mythical creature protects us amulet-like from too much trouble, not for nothing it is just as popular today as it was in pre-Enlightenment times, only no longer made by the medieval goldsmith, but in modern industrial mass production.

New gender roles at a picnic in the countryside

Martin also quotes an almost iconic classic of art history in "Le Déjeuner sur l'herbe est fini", thus following a long tradition, for the motif of the picnic in the countryside has been taken up again and again in artworks and reinterpreted in the view of the times; in Monet's Déjeuner sur l'herbe, for example, the gentlemen were dressed in suits and top hats, the ladies in loose-fitting, floor-length dresses, while Manet's Déjeuner sur l'herbe, to which Monet referred, a few years earlier depicted only the gentlemen in suits, while the ladies took part in the picnic half or completely undressed - a veritable scandal in the mid-19th century. The painting was thus also rejected by the Paris Salon in 1863, admittedly not because of the unequal gender roles that would presumably lead to the artist's “cancelling" today, but simply because of the bluntly depicted nudity, which had neither religious nor mythological connotations. To this day, this is one of the most discussed works in art history, and it is hardly surprising that extensive feminist discussions are also found in the conglomerate of art historical classifications. Martin now responds with an alternative concept and puts the subject into the 21st century of the hedonistic Western world. In her work, both the men and the women are undressed and the picnic, which according to the title is already over, seems to have proceeded in a much less civilised manner than in the Impressionists' work. Everything points to an intoxicating feast, with the woman as the central figure, at best subjugated to nature, which for its part is about to capture the artefacts of the consumer age for itself, at least as long as people surrender to their state of surfeit. A modern, feminist version of the picnic in the countryside.

Le Déjeuner Sur L´herbe est Fini, Susannah Martin
Le Déjeuner sur l‘herbe est fini, 2015

»I had a gigantic need to paint people«

Painting seemed to come naturally to Susannah Martin. Born in New York in 1964, she grew up in a family of artists; her father and mother were both figurative realist painters. Nevertheless, she herself initially aspired to a different path, wanting to avoid the life of a freelance artist and initially considered studying medicine in her youth. However, she could not escape her destiny, choosing a classical art education in the end, which she began in 1982 at New York University. This where she met the next figurative painter who was to have a lasting influence on her, photorealist John Kacere, as one of her teachers. After completing her studies, she first worked as a scenery painter creating backgrounds for film and photo shoots - in the time before Photoshop and digital image montage, a profession that was in high demand and which, in addition to extensive practice, gave Martin a love of large-format painting. Later she devoted herself to mural painting for private and public spaces, first in New York, then in Frankfurt am Main and Berlin, where she lives today. Throughout this time she also pursued free painting, but kept the paintings under lock and key, showing them to no one and not seeking exhibition opportunities.

It was only after the birth of her daughter in 2000 that she decided to devote herself entirely to free painting. Not only was it clear to her from the beginning that her style was realistic figuration, she also had a great longing to paint people - always her favourite subject, but one that was never in demand in her former profession, after all, as a scenery painter she was only responsible for the background - people came into the picture in the flesh as actors. Thus, at the beginning of the 21st century, she came to the - as she says today, very naïve - intention of painting nude figures in nature in a contemporary, less romantic, but all the more realistic depiction. As is so often the case, a certain amount of naivety seems to have helped launch a seemingly presumptuous undertaking to ultimately create something new and unseen.Art.Salon

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