Paloma Varga Weisz: Bumped Body
Henry Moore Institute, Leeds
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Discover Paloma Varga Weisz’s enchanting figurative sculpture, made using traditional techniques, including woodcarving and ceramics.
Spanning over twenty years, work from throughout her career is on display. The exhibition features a diverse cast of characters; from early works such as Wilde Leute (Wild Bunch), a series of ceramics that take the form of fantastical creatures, to later pieces such as Beulenmann (Bumpman) and the fragmented body of Waldfrau (Women of the Forest).
The exhibition also includes over forty of her watercolours and drawings which present a world of masquerades, disguises and role reversals. Paloma Varga Weisz’s starting point for this poetic and narrative work is often her own life experiences, yet it also reflects wider themes of identity, societal ‘norms’ and historical stereotyping.
Explore the exhibition
About the artist
Born in 1966 in Mannheim, Germany, Varga Weisz first trained at a school for traditional woodcarving in the Bavarian Alps. The craft gave her a language through which to make, yet it was not until she absorbed the influences of Renaissance painting, European Modernism and the art of more recent decades during her time at the Düsseldorf Academy that her own voice began to emerge.
Varga Weisz’s figures are often simplified to capture an essence of the human form, and to this end her approach draws especially upon painting. The work of Piero della Francesca (c. 1415-92) of the Early Renaissance, Cranach the Elder (1472-1553) of the later German Renaissance and the Surrealists, are important touchstones.
Despite this framework of reference and expansive art historical allusion, Varga Weisz’s characters live in the present, eschewing nostalgia. They have an innate fragility and stillness, and yet at the same time an inherent strength, and feel as though they could ‘snap to’ at any moment.
Among the earliest works in the exhibition is the series Wilde Leute (Wild Bunch), made in 1998. These moulded ceramics take the form of fantastical creatures, arranged in groups the artist refers to as ‘families’. Fluid in being and action, they morph between human and animal.
The figures draw not upon myth or fairytale, but rather on the endless possibilities of childhood imagination that – at least for a time – knows no bounds. It is significant that, all through her work, her forms are not pre-planned: Varga Weisz always works intuitively, waiting to see who or what ultimately emerges from her chosen material.
Varga Weisz’s concern for surface is such that a tension exists between illusion and the real in her carved forms. A state of in-between-ness ensues, resonating with Sigmund Freud’s (1856-1939) notion of the uncanny, a feeling-based response he attributed to the realm of aesthetics rather than psychology.
Her figures have a lightness retained from the limewood of their making, and yet possess the full sense of the weight of a resting body. Perfectly smooth skin resonates against areas left rough with markings from the artist’s chisels – perhaps another painterly influence – recalling more gestural mark making.
Figures such as Beulenmann (Bumpman) hover on the edge of reality; his forlorn face gazes skywards, away from and yet clearly still content with the fleshy undulations that define his skin. Clearly he’s a representation, and yet is his potential to turn and look at us really so far away…?
The starting point for many of the figures is familial – the artist’s mother, father, sons – or sometimes a friend, enriching the forms with a sense of intimacy. The haunting figure of Still Life carries an element of family history, as he rests beneath glass vials used by Varga Weisz’s wine chemist mother.
The reversal of roles or undermining of tropes is a further strategy, as seen in Waldfrau (Woman of the Forest). Compositionally, the work draws upon a tradition of pastoral and Romantic painting: a female figure sits upon a tree trunk appearing, perhaps, to nurture a child. On closer inspection this is a fragmented being, bodiless and ghostly under her costume. Rather than a child or a lover, the figure on her lap is the reduced form of a man, now elf-like and subservient.
Autobiography and narrative
There is a strong thread of autobiography in Varga Weisz’s work. Architectural in its proportions, Magazin occupies an entire wall of Gallery 2, the fragmented sounds of family life it emits echoing memories of her childhood home in Germany. Though at the opposite end of the spectrum in terms of scale, the doll’s house sized Haus (’31.71) (House (’31.71)), has similar formative associations.
The life of her father, also an artist, brings a particular narrative complexity. Born in Hungary in 1906, he lived through two world wars and fled the Nazis after moving to Paris to continue his career. Growing up, Varga Weisz navigated the stories he told ‘like fairytales’ of his past, with a closeness that few her age have had to bear without the mediation of a generation between.
The first portrait a young Varga Weisz ever made was of her father, and can be found nestled inside Schrank (Cabinet) alongside a multitude of other things – a maquette for the Bumpman sculpture seated outside the Institute, a pipe, a pine cone, a wicker basket – objects both made and found.
The result of a compulsion to collect, her cabinet could be seen as a further principle of Freud’s uncanny – that of ‘repetition compassion’. Each article rests upon a shelf, like a word in the line of a poem, awaiting association. Finite meaning is in flux, and the symbolism of each object is rewritten both according to the viewer, and to each time the work is reordered for presentation.
Above all, Varga Weisz begins with a fascination for the body and all that it can represent beyond its physical form. An unusual oscillation is at play: on the one hand a rare technical proficiency and reference to the art history of many centuries, on the other a concern for the body as a vehicle of expression more commonly associated with conceptual practice since the 1960s.
Varga Weisz has acknowledged Bruce Nauman’s significance, and his studio films (1967-69) offer an intriguing counterpoint. Using nothing but the space of his studio and a set of instructions, Walking in an Exaggerated Manner Around the Perimeter of a Square and Slow Angle Walk (Beckett Walk), for example, Nauman’s pared down performances encapsulate much of what it is to be human – the lone figure in space showing all our fallibilities.
As they move between history and the present, between different societal roles and alternative identities, Varga Weisz’s figures convey trauma, hope, fragility, comedy, peace, naivety, innocence, limitation and possibility. Just like Nauman’s solitary, pacing form, her sculpture is a stand-in for the human condition throughout time and with all its contradictions.
Paloma Varga Weisz in conversation with Laurence Sillars
While our galleries were closed during the Covid-19 pandemic, we filmed a series of video conversations between artist Paloma Varga Weisz and curator Laurence Sillars (Head of the Henry Moore Institute) from their homes in Germany and England.
Watch the full series of six episodes here to discover Paloma’s feelings about lockdown, how she approaches making, and the stories and ideas behind her work.
Women Who Run with the Wolves
This event brought together a diverse range of speakers to discuss the exhibition Paloma Varga Weisz: Bumped Body, in dialogue with Clarissa Pinkola Estés’ renowned cult classic and revisionary feminist study, Women Who Run with the Wolves: Contacting the Power of the Wild Woman (1992).
The presentations consider the place of feminism in contemporary art, through diverse topics such as psychoanalysis, metamorphosis, embodied storytelling, fairy tales and gender, followed up by a live discussion with speakers Dr Catriona McAra, Rachel Goodyear and Hannah Buckley.
“Dr Estes defined wildness as not uncontrolled behavior but a kind of savage creativity, the instinctual ability to know what tool to use and when to use it.”
Introduction: The Fur of the Fairy Tale: Dorothea Tanning and Samantha Sweeting
Dr Catriona McAra (Curator, Leeds Arts University)
Clothed (in) Animals: Contemporary Women Artists Reimagining Fairy-Tale Creatures
Dr Mayako Murai (Writer, Kanagawa University)
Beneath the Surface, A Vibration Through the Bones
Rachel Goodyear (Artist, Manchester)
The Shapeshifting Woman and Other Tales of Becoming
Hannah Buckley (Choreographer, Leeds)
Women Who Run with the Wolves – in conversation
Wednesday 18 November 2020
Dr Catriona McAra (Curator, Leeds Arts University)
Rachel Goodyear (Artist, Manchester)
Hannah Buckley (Choreographer, Leeds)
Dr Clare O’Dowd (Research Curator, the Henry Moore Institute)
About the speakers
Dr Catriona McAra is University Curator at Leeds Arts University. She has published extensively on the art and literature of Dorothea Tanning and Leonora Carrington with a particular interest in feminist aesthetics and surrealist legacies in contemporary practice.
Dr Mayako Murai looks at fairy-tale animals in works by contemporary women artists from different cultures, and how these works pose a challenge to our perceptions of animals and human-animal relations. She contends that the fairy tale – a genre of narrative that has long told stories about animals as main characters, about human-animal interactions, and about interspecific transformations – can offer a useful framework to re-examine our perceptions of animals and to renegotiate our relationships with them.
In this talk, she reflects on the materiality of animal skins used in installation works, especially those by contemporary Japanese artist Tomoko Konoike, and consider how these works cast a new light on the themes of desire, difference, and empathy raised in traditional fairy tales about women clothed in animal skins. She examines the motif of clothes made of animal skins that are worn by heroines desperate to escape from their fathers’ incestuous advances; “Thousandfurs”, “The Donkeyskin” and “Catskin” are among the best-known examples of this tale type in Europe. She also discusses how contemporary artworks using animal skins evoke this motif in such a way that the materiality of animal skins ‘speaks’ to us on its own terms, inviting us to revisit familiar stories from a more creaturely perspective and to imagine a new form of society founded on differences.
Dr Mayako Murai is a professor at Kanagawa University, Japan. She is the author of From Dog Bridegroom to Wolf Girl: Contemporary Japanese Fairy-Tale Adaptations in Conversation with the West (Wayne State University Press, 2015) and co-editor of Re-Orienting the Fairy Tale: Contemporary Adaptations across Cultures (Wayne State University Press, 2020). She curated the exhibition Tomoko Konoike: Fur Story at the Blenheim Walk Gallery, Leeds Arts University in 2018. She is currently writing a book tentatively titled Re-Storying the World for Multispecies Survival: Fairy-Tale Animals in Contemporary Art and Picturebook Illustrations.
Within her presentation, ‘Beneath the Surface, a vibration through the bones’ Rachel Goodyear explores a dialogue between Women who Run with the Wolves and the relevance and influence this has within her own art practice. She draws particular reference to the moment when La Loba begins to sing and imagines a vibration, an awakening, a significant moment before flesh and fur begin to grow. The ‘Wild Woman’ in Goodyear’s current work is poised at that very moment – a point of contemplation, a state before emergence. Goodyear has a particular interest in the ‘veil’ between the conscious and the subconscious and within this presentation she will discuss metaphors for longing and the human psyche found within folklore and mythology and their connections with her own visual language.
Rachel Goodyear lives and works in Manchester. Select solo exhibitions include Catching Sight, The New Art Gallery Walsall; Restless Guests, The Drawing Center, New York; Approaching the Surface, Pippy Houldsworth Gallery, London; and Modifications of the Host, Yorkshire Sculpture Park. Select group exhibitions include The Freud Museum, London; Museum für Moderne Kunst, Weserburg; Folkwang Museum, Essen; Nassauischer Kunstverein, Wiesbaden; Innsbruck Biennial, Austria; The Curitiba Biennial, Brazil; and Liverpool Biennial, Tate Liverpool. Works held in international collections include Victoria & Albert Museum, London; Olbricht Collection, Essen; Walker Art Gallery, Liverpool; The New Art Gallery Walsall; Whitworth Art Gallery, Manchester; and Robert Devereux Collection. She is represented by Pippy Houldsworth Gallery, London.
Hannah Buckley is a dancer and choreographer whose practice is research driven, often with long processes. She is interested in, gender, intergenerational exchange, and personal relationships as material for art, nature and fairytales. Buckley’s work has been supported by organisations such as Arts Council England, Yorkshire Dance, Dance4, The Place. In 2019 she was awarded the Leeds Dance Partnership Fellowship at The Northern School of Contemporary Dance. She has worked nationally and internationally as part of festivals such as Manchester International Festival, the Venice Biennale and Transform Festival, Leeds International Festival and Gender Bender.
Wild (Wo)men, Commodified Forests: Matter and Myth in German Sculpture
Wednesday 2 December 2020
Trace the history of limewood carving in southern Germany in this talk by Dr Ruth Ezra.
Early in her career, Paloma Varga Weisz spent three years training as a limewood carver in Bavaria. Learning this traditional craft opened up new possibilities in her sculptural practice. It also connected her – and her work – to the celebrated history of limewood carving in southern German art.
This talk begins by looking back half a millennium at limewood sculpture produced north of the Alps, c.1500. As we journey into the forested hinterlands of Franconia in search of trunks to carve, we will encounter other traditional materials that feature in Weisz’s art.
But the forests of southern Germany provided sculptors with more than just matter. They were the stuff of myth: in their shadows lurked hairy wild men. It is against this background of a natural world at once commodified and mythologised that we will consider the formation and deformation of sculpted bodies such as Weisz’s Woman of the Forest, Wild Bunch, Bumpman, and Deer, Standing, among others.
Dr Ruth Ezra is currently a Postdoctoral Fellow at University of Southern California. She has received research grants from The British Museum, Villa I Tatti, Gerda Henkel Stiftung and Zentralinstitut für Kunstgeschichte, among others. In 2017, she held a Visiting Research Fellowship at the Henry Moore Institute.
Sculpture, History, Curve: Paloma Varga Weisz
Wednesday 16 December 2020
Explore the history of the aesthetic, cultural and religious use of limewood in sculpture in this talk by Professor Patricia Allmer.
Curvature is a key motif in Paloma Varga Weisz’s sculpture. It constitutes a distorting and deviating movement – that the artist has called a ‘swerve’. She works in the easy malleable linden (limewood), which was also used by medieval sculptors.
Form and its materiality are intimately linked to Paloma Varga Weisz’s exploration of sculpture’s ‘curvature of space’ (Jean-Luc Nancy). Her work is full of historical resonance that connects to a long tradition of aesthetic, cultural, and religious transformations of linden wood. This tradition was interrupted and rerouted by the events of the Third Reich, and redirected again in Varga Weisz’s sculptures.
Professor Patricia Allmer will explore the various functions of the linden tree in Germanic and Hungarian folklore (traditions in which it is especially prominent), while also tracing the historical contours of Varga Weisz’s use of the material.
Patricia Allmer is Professor of Modern and Contemporary Art History at the University of Edinburgh. She is a leading scholar and curator of surrealism, its modern traditions, and contemporary legacies. Her books include René Magritte (Reaktion Press, 2019) and Lee Miller: Photography, Surrealism, and Beyond (MUP, 2016), and her curatorial projects include Taking Shots: The Photography of William S. Burroughs (2014, The Photographers’ Gallery/Prestel), and Angels of Anarchy: Women Artists and Surrealism (Manchester Art Gallery, 2009, Prestel).