In-Between Worlds or the Alienated Gaze

Kräftemessen, 2016, Öl auf Leinwand, 60x80cm

In the work Kräftemessen [Test of Strength], we see children at play, looking at the viewer as if caught in the act. Two girls all frilled up and with ribbons in their hair on the beach, playing horsy, one leading the other by the reins. Is it just a game? Or perhaps a premonition? A family on a Sunday afternoon in the garden, posing for a photographer. The situation seems strangely familiar: It could be a scene from your own family photo album. The image gives the impression of being excessively idyllic, in part due to the intense pink and blue in which it is immersed, yet it leaves a somewhat strange aftertaste. A glance at the title transforms the subtly disconcerting situation into a dire premonition. Is the idyll merely an illusion? What is hidden behind the perfect façade, behind the pleasant appearance? Chantal Maquet’s images pose questions — a large number of them, and all of them with an unmistakable sense of the problem zones of interpersonal relationships. Contemplative and provocative, socially critical and with a little wink of the eye, these vividly colored paintings open up in-between worlds.

Der Täter ist einer von uns, 2, 2017. 110x150cm. Öl auf Leinwand

Chantal Maquet doesn’t frame the world in black and white, good and evil. Instead, she crafts studies of our social environment, inventing her own particular kind of genre painting. It is characteristic of her work that the motifs often appear strangely familiar to the viewer. This aspect is rooted in the artist’s working methods. The starting point for the images are photos from her own family album or things found at flea markets. Based on this rich archive of materials, which primarily consists of photos from the 1950’s and 1960’s, Chantal Maquet intuitively selects images that appeal to something inside of her. She translates these motifs into vividly colorful paintings, giving the black & white photos a second life as chromatic snapshots of the collective consciousness of a society. The transformation into extreme color-compositions helps emphasize certain aspects of the content. By using specific color tones that are intrinsic to the image based on a systematic selection of hues from the color wheel, harmony and disharmony are produced. These lend each image a specific atmosphere and an individual character. At the same time, they set the process of abstraction into motion, making us aware of the two temporal planes that we are dealing with here. This generates a certain sense of distance that enables us to observe the content of the image impartially. It is reminiscent of the phenomenological imperative, which states that one must approach something on one’s own in order to be able to describe it. Chantal Maquet takes this step by penetrating to the core of the situation, which she renders in a new form, yet still barely changed at all. She then succeeds in doing what Maurice Merleau-Ponty, the French phenomenological philosopher, recognized in the work of Paul Cézanne as an analogy to the endeavor of his philosophy.1 “This painter is consumed by a single thing only: by the foreignness of things, he knows only a single feeling: that of existence constantly beginning anew.” 2 The only essential change that these things experience, both in the case of Cézanne and Chantal Maquet, is that they have been observed. However, whereas Cézanne’s work is mainly concerned with the questions of representation and form, approaching a style of painting that increasingly distances itself from realism, Chantal Maquet’s work is focused on the observation of societal phenomena.

The common thread in the work of Chantal Maquet, born in Luxembourg and living in Germany, is that she consistently deals with role models and clichés, with the tension between the individual and society, with equality and self-determination. She concluded her studies with a book project about her grandmother, in which she took an in-depth look at perceptions of femininity. The impetus for the project was provided when she came across a folder with letters that her grandmother had written over the course of decades, as well as old photo albums and a few hours of film material.3 With this touching family history at hand, the artist saw herself confronted with emotions that she had never felt this intensely before. The expectations and the aspirations with which the grandmother had been confronted at the beginning of the 20th century were completely different than those placed on the granddaughter — the path toward identity within society, which was substantially rockier and characterized by having fewer freedoms. Or perhaps not? How much has the role of women really changed throughout the generations?

There was a young Frenchwoman, living at a similar time as the artist’s grandmother, who completely refused to accept the roles that society assigned her. Around 1948 she began to write about how it is to grow up as a girl in a society that maintains very specific ideas about how a girl should behave,4 building a golden cage in which girls may dress up and look pretty, but independence is not asked for. The young Frenchwoman, Simone de Beauvoir, one of the pioneers of the women’s movement, radically challenged the beautiful appearance of this societal ideal and the concept of the woman as the housewife and mother. Her book, The Second Sex was published in 1949 and its effects amounted to a shock. The central theme of this book is that a person’s life is decisively shaped by whether the person grows up as a boy or a girl. De Beauvoir spoke of the “myth of the eternal feminine” and discussed the preconceptions and societal expectations that restricted a woman’s freedom as an individual.5 Another book by Simone de Beauvoir, Les Belles Images, published in 1966, provided the inspiration for the title of a 2014 exhibition by Chantal Maquet at the Frappant Galerie in Hamburg. On the one hand, the exhibition Les Belles Images is a play on the expectations of the viewer. Yet these “beautiful pictures” cannot simply be reduced to their painterly aspects. On the contrary, the exhibition picks up on the subject matter of the novel, which paints a picture of the affluent Parisian society of the 1960‘s, along with all of their clichés and misconduct.6

Nachmittag in Gesellschaft. 2013. Öl auf Leinwand. 160x110cm

The images shown in this catalogue also deal with relations between the sexes, the Biedermeier atmosphere of a seemingly modern society, and a critically distanced view of the theoretically emancipated woman. Yet the thematic spectrum progressively expands towards the concept of being together and beside one another. The works described at the outset deal with themes such as finding identity and the dynamics behind the family idyll, which acts as a microcosm reflecting societal tensions.

The installation verwandt und verschwägert [related and intermarried] presents a sensory-spatial image of one’s own identity and our existence as part of a large network of relationships. As a three-dimensional family tree, it visualizes the idea that one’s own identity doesn’t come out of nowhere, but rather we are part of a much larger interwoven fabric. There is a before and an after, a juxtaposition, and with each wedding, a potential duplication of the family tree. Visually powerful installations, objects, and video works constitute a substantial portion of Chantal Maquet’s total work and cannot be underestimated. When working with these media as well, she uses surprisingly innovative forms to create in-between worlds, which leave a lasting impression in your memory with their thoughtfulness and humor.

On the other hand, in the field of painting, the intense moments and subliminal tensions contained within the image are what captivate the viewer in front of her artwork. Kräftemessen shows two children pulling on a bungee cord, literally testing their strength. At first glance, it would be easy to interpret this scene as a moment of sibling love. However, their facial expressions, looking as if caught in the act, indicate to the viewer that there is something fishy about the situation. Will the older child let go, intentionally allowing the younger one to fall? Was it only the presence of the photographer and consequently the presence of the viewer that prevented the child from carrying through with her intentions? And is this childlike “test of strength” perhaps even an emulation of the societal inter-actions that will await both of them as adults?

Kinderspiel 3, 2012, 135x200cm, Öl auf Leinwand

The painting Kinderspiel 3 [Children’s Game 3] also plays with this moment of subtle alienation. Both of the girls on the beach, wearing cute little dresses and with ribbons in their hair, may seem like the quintessential family idyll. Yet in this case as well, although the beach might appear to offer freedom, there is a subtle premonition fluttering through the image. The younger girl’s movement is restrained by the reins of their horse game. Is this a vision of the role that is intended for her later in life? However, it is not only this girl who has a path before her that is shaped by external expectations. The pairs of brothers portrayed in Brüder (mit Krawatte und kurzer Hose) [Brothers — With Tie and Shorts] or Brüder (auf dem Sofa) [Brothers — On the Sofa] also find themselves confronted at an early age with societal norms and the search for one’s own identity. In a gesture that appears to be protective, the taller boy puts his arm around the shorter one. He has him firmly in his grip — is it love or competition? In this case as well, there is an in-between world of interpretations resulting from the distance between then and now. How did we experience our own childhood? And how do we treat each other nowadays? What identity have we taken on for ourselves and how much freedom did we have in choosing this identity? Are we truly living with one another? Or simply adjacent to one another?

Zehn vor eins, ein leerer Stuhl. 110 x 170cm, 2015, Öl auf Leinwand

The work Zehn vor eins, ein leerer Stuhl [Ten to One, an Empty Chair] is an impressive example of the alienation and distance that generate an “in-between” space, a gap that seems almost impossible for the protagonists to bridge. The radical colors, the vibrant orange, the intense yellow, the gaudy pink, and the radiant light blue submerge the situation depicted here in the light of a surreal dream. The behavior of the people is surreal as well. They seem like draped accessories, there is no interaction. Instead, it seems like the prevailing sentiment is alienation caused by the presence of the others. The title does its part to contribute to the confusion. It directs the viewer’s focus to the empty chair that is centrally located in the composition. This pulls the viewer into the image in the sense that we have to ask ourselves whether or not this spot has been reserved for us. Do we really want to be a part of this society?

Verweile doch, du bist so schön. 2015, 110x150cm, Öl auf Leinwand

The game with the titles is a significant feature in all of Chantal Maquet’s work. At times they put the content of the image in an entirely different light; other times they expand the horizon of interpretation and provide humorous punch lines. The title Verweile doch, du bist so schön [Linger a While, Thou Art so Fair] could, on the one hand, refer to the female beach beauties. On the other hand, this is one of the most famous quotes from Goethe’s Faust: “When I say to the Moment flying; ‚Linger a while — thou art so fair!‘ Then bind me in thy bonds undying, And my final ruin I will bear!” Faust speaks to Mephistopheles, thereby sealing his own fate. Will the women on the beach be subject to the same fate as soon as they here this phrase? Will they be bound down as well? Or is the title a play on the ephemerality of the moment and the problems that are associated with aging for many women? The magic of the moment, a dull pick-up line, or the obsession with beauty? The horizon of potential interpretations is broad and expansive, and as is often the case in Chantal Maquet’s art, even encompasses opposing poles.

Yet it is precisely this multiplicity of interpretations that contributes to the creation of these in-between worlds where the situations depicted in Chantal Maquet’s images are situated. They oscillate between then and now. Particularly as a result of the alienated gaze, an effect that is greatly facilitated by the color palette, Chantal Maquet’s work inspires the viewers to reflect on what they are seeing and to place it in the context of their own individual realities.

Anne Simone Krüger

1. Vgl. Sarah Bakewell: Das Café der Existentialisten. Aus dem Englischen von Rita Seuß. München 2016, S.268.

2. Maurice Merleau-Ponty: Der Zweifel Cézannes, In: Das Auge und der Geist, Philosophische Essays, Hamburg 2003, S.3-27, S.16.

3. Vgl. Künstlergespräch am 12. Januar 2014 mit Ricarda Bross von Bräuning Contemporary. In: Chantal Maquet: Les Belles Images. Katalog zur gleichnamigen Ausstellung in der Frappant Galerie, Hamburg, vom 4. Januar bis 12. Januar 2014, Hamburg 2014.

4. Vgl. Sarah Bakewell: Das Café der Existentialisten. Aus dem Englischen von Rita Seuß. München 2016, S.237f.

5. Vgl. Ebd.

6. Details hierzu finden sich in: Chantal Maquet: Les Belles Images. Katalog zur gleichnamigen Ausstellung in der Frappant Galerie, Hamburg, vom 4. Januar bis 12. Januar 2014, Hamburg 2014.

Translation: Theodore Kuttner