„ And perhaps Constantin Severin’s works will indeed open that crucial dialogue – between our past – present, – and future. ”
The impact of a true work of art – a famous artist once told me – is that one is compelled to re-evaluate the very art history that preceded it. Indeed, the impact of Constantin Severin’s work is such that strands of paint thread together in an unsettled calmness, daubs of colour lace and twirl into a language I yearn to understand. “Everyone wants to understand art”, Picasso once said. “Why not try to understand the songs of a bird?Why does one love the night, flowers, everything around one, without trying to understand them? But in the case of a painting people feel they have to understand”.
An accomplished author, Severin’s works are reversed ekphrastic compositions. They are poems made from paint: it’s clear to see rhythms of composition, verses of texture, and stanzas of juxtaposed colour infiltrating each and every canvas. Like listening to birdsong, one cannot help but seek to contemplate the original paintings referenced by Severin’s undefinable works of art. Neither abstract, nor figurative, the works resist categorisation – as humans we seek to contain, to categorise, to pigeon-hole. The beauty of works that refuse categorisation such as Severin’s paintings, is that they vibrate with tension.This isn’t the tension of a pointillist painting, shimmering before our eyes – but rather the suspense of not quite knowing what is going to happen next. These works are mysterious, crammed with the hidden symbolism one might expect to see in prehistoric monuments, a tarot deck perhaps, runes carved into jagged rocks, fragments of our Greek and Roman empires that run through each and every one of our veins.
I’m reminded of the thrilling adventures of the Da Vinci Code – hidden hieroglyphs and secret codes of the deep, dark past -yet, this is a language that is all so very familiar. It is perhaps the universal language of both our ancestors, and our great-great-grandchildren. And if one tries to read a painting which is written in a language one cannot understand, we must return to reconsider the impact of the original works referenced by Severin: the head of John the Baptist fresh from the knife; Leonardo’s cradled lamb, the soft curves of the reflected reclining Venus, and the fateful tortured gaze of Vincent. And I cannot help but find myself re-evaluating the very art history that preceded Severin’s work and that which he very deliberately references.
Arguably the most important theoretical essay written to date, Roland Barthes penned ‘Death of the Author’ in 1967. Barthes vehemently opposes the view that authors consciously create masterpieces. He maintains that authors such as Racine and Balzac often reproduce emotional patterns about which they have no conscious knowledge. Perhaps Severin’s works are similarly penned – painted – coded. Barthes argues that we cannot know who speaks to us through works of art. He urges us not to view a work of art as a kind of secular version of a sacred text, where the ‘Artist’ is a God who has imbued the text with a single meaning. Instead, the work of art becomes a place where many previous works of art ‘blend and clash’, a host of influences and allusions and quotations. I am mindful of Barthes’ eponymous text as I read the lines of Severin’s painted compositions. I think about automatic writing, about subconscious agencies, about the conscious (or subconscious) intention of the painter.
Perhaps, I concede, the beauty of these works is that they will come to have even greater significance in many years to come, when the language they speak comes to be understood by new generations in the world we currently carve. As we speak, painters across the world create the art history of our future, threading together the essence of what it means to be human through the one thing that binds us together in humanity.And perhaps Constantin Severin’s works will indeed open that crucial dialogue – between our past – present, – and future.
Helen Gørrill holds a PhD in contemporary painting theory which was co-supervised by the Royal College of Art. She is currently in a three-book deal with Bloomsbury Academic Press (London & New York): firstly, Women Can’t Paint: Gender, the Glass Ceiling and Values in Contemporary Art (2020); secondly, her second monograph for Bloomsbury, War Paint: Gender Inequality in the Virtual Artworld; and thirdly, Wife, Witch, Whore: Essential Conversations about Gender, Art and Culture. Helen has also been invited to contribute to a new project with Phaidon (New York), and Routledge’s new International Handbook of Heritage and Gender. Helen’s artwork is digitally archived by the Elizabeth Sackler Center for Feminist Art at the Brooklyn Museum in New York. Helen currently lectures in Critical and Contextual Studies for contemporary art practice at Duncan of Jordanstone College of Art & Design (DJCAD), Scotland’s leading art school.