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Dexter Dalwood: Fictional History

Part 1: Death in a wood

JPS: We’re here to talk about Bellini’s Assassination of St. Peter Martyr in the Courtauld Institute Galleries. You’re currently working on a series of paintings that are based on elements in Bellini’s painting. What attracted you in the first place to this painting?

DD: There were three reasons. First, I was interested in the fact that there are two versions of the same painting in London, one in the National Gallery and one in the Courtauld. I was interested in an artist from a different period who worked in series, how they would treat the same subject in a slightly different way. It becomes much more about painting than picture making. Second, I was interested in the subject, because it shows an atrocity, a disaster painting, not unlike Warhol’s images of disasters, and I was interested in the nature of that event, the fact that it was a European atrocity, an execution in a wood - which seemed to be somehow universal. Executions continue to occur in woods, and there are plenty of other associations: mass graves found in woods for example.. In terms of continuing themes in my own work, I had been thinking for a while about how I might treat the subject of Milosevic, and the trial at the Hague which seems to be carrying on for the foreseeable future... what sort of image I could make about that contemporary historical event, what sort of revamped history painting I could make for a new audience. That leads me to the third reason for my interest in the Bellini: because it was a ‘fictional’ history painting, an imaginary reconstruction of an event not from the bible or a mythological source, but something that really happened.

JPS: Did you start with the Bellini, or did you have an idea and then remember the painting and think, this can set the scene for the picture I want to paint?

DD: I think it was seeing the Bellini in the National Gallery, and thinking that I had never done a painting with a European wood in it... I started thinking about woods and landscapes, and it made me a think of a Robert Gober installation I saw years ago where the walls are all wall papered to look like a kind of Arcadia. I also started thinking about Anselm Kiefer and those paintings of Germanic woods, and then of course from Kiefer back to Caspar David Friedrich. And then I started thinking about what kind of subject I could place in these words, and that brought me back to Milosevic... Bosnia is a part of recent history, but also recently forgotten history - there’s now another genocide, another situation. How that conflict was resolved seemed to me to be slightly better than other conflicts we have seen recently, in as much as the main perpetuator of the crime of (conceptual) genocide is now being tried for what he did. Going back to the painting in the National Gallery, I’m thinking about how to bring a historical painting, and a similar moment in past history, into this contemporary situation. By using the Bellini I’m saying that the European arcadia, the forest becomes a symbol not of beauty and continuing regrowth and life but as a dystopian location, a witness to human cruelty.

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