Marta Klonowska coaxes the dogs of the old masters out into the light.
They are life-sized and three dimensional. Some sit, immobile and alert, some lie on the floor in boredom, some spring up to vivaciously on their hind legs, each as though frozen in movement, these dogs made of colored glass. They glitter seductively like precious stones: ruby red, cobalt blue, emerald green. Yet their edges are razor sharp. It is not necessary to actually touch Marta Klonowska’s sculptures in order to sense their ambivalence, joining danger and beauty – not to mention irony and humor. The artist, born in Warsaw in 1964, is active – and without fear of contact – along the border zone separating figurative sculpture, art historical reflection, a fondness for stagecraft, and conceptual rigor. Her glass dogs are products of art through and through. Yet for just a moment, they can seem astonishingly lifelike, so naturalistically have their poses and movements been captured. Yet this impression of lifelikeness shatters against the cold, tinkling material from which they were made, namely translucent and luminous colored glass. These dogs have not emerged from reality, but instead from art. Or more precisely: from the paintings of the old masters.
“Las Meninas” by Diego Velázquez is among the best-known works of art history. But who really notices the large dog reclining in the right hand foreground? He waits, bored but good-natured, the very image of repose. A perfect watchdog and playmate for the delicate blonde Infanta, seen at the composition’s center. This Spanish Mastino is a marginal figure in the history of art. Just like the slender hound found in Velázquez’s “Portrait of Philippe IV as a Hunter.” The king holds his long musket casually in his gloved right hand, the left placed on his hip: every inch a ruler, even during the leisurely pursuit of hunting. In Marta Klonowska’s work, just a single element remains of his consummately regal pose, his self-consciously staged entrance. That element is his dog along with a pair of boots belonging to the dog’s master. Klonowska shifts him into the light, which is refracted hundreds of times on his vitreous form. These dogs are formed by the artist from networks of wire mesh and steel braces, a metallic superstructure that is overlaid by a “pelt” of closely fitting green bottle shards.
Klonowska began working with glass as a material already during her studies, when she was an advanced student of the A. R. Penck’s act of the Düsseldorf Art Academy. She constructed installations of glass shards, including a child which plays with glittering stones. She brought an entire world into being from fragments, and now continues to do the same. The canines of the old masters are transferred by Klonowska back into three-dimensional reality. Despite their bodily presence, these animals make a more artificial impression than their painted prototypes. Shimmering like icy jewels, they allude to the fact that dogs are not only living creatures, but also always prestige objects for their owners, accessories like clothing, jewelry and shoes. In these courtly portraits, dogs are elements of an entirely conscious stage management, of a highly differentiated cosmos of meanings, role-playing, and courtly conventions.
Precisely this interests Klonowska: the theatricality of these portraits, so seemingly natural, yet wholly the products of artifice. Her wide-ranging “dogwalk” series, begun in 2003, is devoted to the traces of such painterly scenarios. That she makes dogs and shoes her themes endows her work with wit, irony and lightness. Together, her art historical prototypes and the sculptures developed from them always constitute a unity. Klonowska emphasizes this by reproducing each painting (usually displayed in its original dimensions) in a monochrome coloration that matches its accompanying glass sculpture.
During her journey through the history of art, she has turned up a wide variety of types: alert hounds, frisky family pets, perfectly styled lap dogs. Since the Renaissance, portrait and genre painting have been unthinkable without dogs. They enliven the somewhat immobile portrait genre, narrating ancillary stories (as Idefix would do much later in Asterix Comics), and bring symbolic allusions into play. Lucas Cranach accompanies his life-sized 1514 depiction of the Saxon Duke Heinrich the Pious with a snarling hunting dog – a presence no more to be trifled with playful than his master. At the time, such Salukis, imported from Turkey, were pricey status symbols. Hounds embodied power, strength, courage and cunning: virtues appropriate to rulers, and traits to which the Duke laid claim. Near his wife Catharine of Mecklenburg, on the other hand, crouches a dainty little lapdog. Different virtues were expected of women. Here, the dog symbolizes fidelity and love, as in Jan van Eyck’s celebrated doubleportrait of Giovanni Arnolfini and his wife. Their dog has been endowed with sculptural form by Marta Klonowska’s in cobalt blue.
But the lapdog may also stand for unchastity and vice: bestial appetites, sinful temptations. Who can say what Francisco de Goya was thinking when he portrayed the prideful Duchess of Alba with her tiny dog? Love – of whatever variety – certainly plays a role here. Reason enough for Marta Klonowska to translate the snowwhite dog of the beautiful duchess into red glass, and to immerse her reproduction of the painting in the same color. In the process, the prickly, opacified pelt of this glassy dog exposes the motif’s aggressive potential.
Anyone contemplating Marta Klonowska’s glittering sculptures will be distantly reminded of the fairy tale of the Snow Queen. Everything has been frozen into shimmering beauty: seductively, enticing, but fatally cold. One false move, and the viewer cuts into his or her own flesh.