Wim van der Beek – Elysian yearning

English / Nederlands

Elysian yearning

Whoever is in quest of the artistic roots of Marianne Benkö will indisputably arrive at the fairy-tale recollections that are incident to her Hungarian youth. The childhood years spent in the unspoiled surrounding countryside, at a sheltered distance from Budapest, were drenched with mysterious discoveries, concealed hiding-places, secretive experiences of nature, encounters and intrigues with flowers, plants and animals, dialogues with streaming creeks and pebble stones. Although it would be rather lopsided to visualise that stage in her life as being excessively idealistic, it is irrefutable that the magical flora and fauna accorded colour to the life of a little girl who was receptive and sensitive to beauty and mystic.

It still holds true that Marianne Benkö, with perceptible gratification, creates secret spaces in which the eye may completely disappear or zigzag astray. Without being guilty of false romanticism, the artist, who currently lives and works in The Hague, embeds special fading moments in her paintings. Apart from that, she conceives moments of supreme bliss and the potential to contemplate. Although the euphoric experiences and discoveries sometimes approach the phase of ecstasy, they are never magnified, theatrical or artificial. By placing emphasis on the splendour of nature, Benkö attains a form of balance and harmony that comes across credibly and authentically. As a child, she already realised that she could dodge the harsh reality through the reality she dreamt about.

At home in Hungary, the fantasy was kindled by old stories. Passion for music and curiosity for distinctive fabrics and eccentric clothing were a part of daily life. Her father worked for an Italian studio that made shoes. Later on, he became a teacher at the art academy. Her mother was an art painter. Thanks to this artistic environment, the life of Marianne Benkö is inconceivable without elegant decorations, fantasised panoramic views, impenetrable mysteries and melodious composition. She grew up between brocade and velvet and at an early age she already mastered the competence to appraise the beauty of matters at its true value.

The French magazine ‘Vogue’ and other magazines contributed to her sense of taste. The acquaintance with various expressions of western culture and fashion stood in sharp contract to the dreary reality in her communist native country. Through the enchanted reality exposed in the glossy magazines the Elysian yearning was nourished and inspired. Without flashes of dreams, life would be tedious and colourless. From that perspective and the world of her experience, she composes paintings in which the summer or spring seasons are always discernible and in which the rapture of unexpected sensations of beauty that manifest themselves in nature, are embraced and cherished. In spite of the discernability and closeness, the imaginary world of her paintings, however, remains indefinable and unapproachable.

In every respect, the paintings of Marianne Benkö are contemporary. Nevertheless, all sorts of gossamer lines run from the present to the past. In this light, she, as a painter, has mastered the technique of encaustics. That special method of the art of wax painting was already unfolded in the mists of antiquity to ensure that the paintings retain their colours. In the paintings of Benkö, the burning-in of the colours contributes to an optimal intensity of the disposition. Thus the compositions acquire more depth. The artist relishes experimenting. Empirical experimentation is an inalienable ingredient of the creative process. She favours painting with self-made paint. A mixture of acrylic and wax, but also oil colours and distemper constitute the ingredients which she has examined experimentally as regards their exceptional properties and qualities. For that matter, experiments with materials were already stimulated during her training period at the art academy in Budapest.

Flower and leaf patterns are a favoured discipline of the stratified and interlaced images that, at times, appear to be in a primary state of decay. This has everything to do with the artist’s craving to insinuate transience and deterioration. After all, in nature the cycle of blooming and mortification is an inevitable fact. Fungous growth, disintegration, oxidation and other natural processes appear to be infiltrated in the paintings unnoticeably. Fallen leaves and polished pebble stones, freakishly bent stalks and trunks, nerve structures, underground root systems and weathered creepers are exponents of a life that fades away in beauty.

Marianne Benkö not only commands the art of composition but also the ins and outs of combining and arrangement. Without losing sight of the organic aura and the natural character, she refines concrete observations. In the wake of this, the references to the countryside are elevated to another and higher level. Identifiable image fragments and harmonious colour sensations fuse into images that, in spite of their sublimated condition, have not become alienated from their natural origin. As a consequence of the fixation on the intuitive creative process and focusing on the dialogue with the subject matter, she open-heartedly strays off from the possible figurative starting points. Without any effort, her attention shifts from shallow and superficial to depth and profundity.

While the outlines and surfaces gently dance and sing, the diversified, unfathomable and evocative use of colour radiates humming warmth and intimacy. Saturated red, bright tints of yellow and mellow pink, ochre hues and earthy colours, various nuances of purple and cobalt blue underline the magic of colour. The ambience is frequently Mediterranean and high-spirited, but also minor oriental traits, Byzantine blaze and primitive prehistoric perception are frequently aroused by the puzzling, evocative language. Suggestive titles such as ‘Avallon’, ‘Sapho’s Pillow’, ‘Behind the dunes’, ‘Midsummer night’, ‘Flowers of silence’ and ‘The secret of the admiral’ not merely imply foggy references to origins, but also betray the poetic partiality of the artist.

The weathered, partially battered and tarnished crust of the painting contributes to the organic aura as well. One coat at a time, the collage-like images are shaped with paint, wax, pieces of textile and paper. Benkö not only paints, but also scratches and notches into the paint; she scours parts away and adds new coats. Painting is for her a continuously inspiring dialogue with the materials. The creative process is governed by a perpetual sequence of painting and repainting, adding and removing, nuancing and intensifying.

The paintings of Marianne Benkö incite the irrepressible desire to wander around in them. They make the eye anxious, as the paintings dispense a profusion of mysterious information. All kinds of associations emerge, emanating from the intangible and multifaceted imagery. Covetous glances are gratified by a fairy-tale imagination in which references to concrete observations and perceptions appear, besides elements stemming from classical civilisations and exotic cultures. When summarising references and affinities, however, it should never be forgotten that the artist remains extremely close to herself and extracts with affection and passion from recollections that emanate a clandestine seductiveness.

More than ever before, in her recent work the artist is in search of mysterious depth and enigmatic space. Caverns, vague openings, cracks in dark rock formations, but also curious, somewhat hazy underwater worlds stir up her fantasy, just like the swaying green strings in clear, splattering streams. In any event, the painting serves as a biotope and as a private universe: an enclosed world where everything is in balance and where all elements have found their own spot. Meandering underwater vegetation and recalcitrant lichens symbolise two sides of the same medal, just as the extremes of air, water, earth and fire as well, embrace components that self-evidently are absorbed in Benkö’s unique biotope.

Various experiments with materials and colours, structure and texture, technical solutions and alterations in stylistic approach have been a contributory factor that prompted Marianne Benkö to start thinking and working differently over the years. Apart from those particular changes, however, her paintings also reveal aspects that have always remained unchanged. In this light, innocence, astonishment and beauty still continue to go hand in hand. If and to the extent these three elements might have ever temporarily gone astray, they have been retroactively recaptured by her and they have been immortalised in her paintings. Even the ‘urban portrayals’ (as those, by all means, exist as well!) are immersed with the perception of nature. Image fragments of urban topography and its inherent indissoluble history are always embedded in the experiences of beauty and deterioration, which, quite simply, does transpire most intensely in nature.

With a medley of magic and poetry Benkö spurs the viewing public to a visual expedition. For her the pursuit of the subconscious and intuition is closely intertwined with the mystery that is called the art of painting. Furthermore, a direct relationship with music abides. Colours and shapes manifest themselves as sounds and melodies. Neither are literary vantage points lacking. All of those influences encounter each other in authentic interpretations of personal frames of mind and distinctive perceptions. All external impulses have been converted to richly varied, integrated images. However bounteous the imagery of Benkö might be, her paintings are never tempestuous. Most preferably, she lets herself drift away on waves of imagination.

Wim van der Beek, art critic