White Hot Magazine, October 2008
Joe Heaps Nelson interviews Madeline von Foerster

Looking at Madeline von Foerster's paintings is just an awesome experience. She's a master of the Northern Renaissance egg tempera/oil mixed technique, and she uses her superhero skills to make gorgeous paintings that save the world.

When I arrived at her studio, I found out that Madeline's studio mate is the artist/storyteller/musician/dollmaker Dame Darcy, who hung out throughout the interview. That's like adding a cup of sugar to a pot of honey.

Madeline was in the process of finishing up some paintings for her new show at Strychnin Gallery in Berlin.

Joe Heaps Nelson: Madeline, tell me what's going on with these marvelous paintings.

Madeline von Foerster: I'm doing a series of paintings inspired by cabinets of curiosities. They are my way of making art about deforestation and the environment.

JHN: So, what do you call the show?

MvF: The show is called Waldkammer, which translates as forest-cabinet. The cabinets of curiosities which were popular during the Enlightenment were also known as Wunderkammern, cabinets of wonder. The idea for a few of the paintings is to take a species of tree, which is carved into a cabinet, and the curiosities contained in the cabinet are actual species that depend on that tree to survive.

JHN: And these cabinets are under attack... by leaves and insects... in some of these pictures.

MvF: Yes, these two are called Invasive Species 1 and 2. They're about various assaults on trees. I tried to take a different, more symbolic approach because I have to paint paintings that are going to look good to me, so I imagined these trees being beautiful ladies from the era of Fontainbleu, and those paintings I really like that have a certain mysterious quality to them, like you can't quite get to know the subjects of the paintings, so I thought that might be good for a tree.

JHN: Yeah, they're 18th century-looking, with a Boucher or Fragonard type vibe, or German too, actually.

MvF: I was really inspired by these French portraits from the era of Henry III of France. [opening an art book]

JHN: Hey, it's the famous nipple pinching painting!

MvF: Exactly!

JHN: Which painter made this?

MvF: They don't know the name. They usually say, "School of Fontainbleu".

Dame Darcy: I like how their eyes are so dark.

MvF: I like that too. I copied that in my paintings.

DD: And they have no eyelashes, although their eyes are dark.

MvF: I was inspired by this quote, where somebody described the women in the painting as women who never did nor ever will exist. I thought that would work for my painting.

JHN: Well, some of these ladies look like real ladies... They are definitely dreamy, and paintings about painting, but you turned them into wood, too. So, this painting here, which is in the underpainting stage, I wonder, will she turn out flesh, or wood?

MvF: She is going to be fleshy, but obviously at this point you can't really tell because I use this old technique where form is separated from the color so it could go in any direction at this point. All you have is the levels of light and contrast in that form. A lot of them, though, I was painting to look like carved wood.

JHN: Yeah, the cabinets look like women, and they have drawers, so it's natural history combined with art history, and plants and animals.

MvF: Yeah. Like, this one, for instance, is a mahogany tree. There are a lot of species that live in the domain of the mahogany tree that are affected by the ruthless logging in the Amazon. I wanted to correlate two things in this painting, the cabinets of curiosities of the Enlightenment era and also the reliquaries and saint statues that were their medieval antecedents. This Amazon mahogany lady is standing on a chainsaw, because a lot of times in statues and paintings of the saints you see the emblem of their martyrdom in the image. It's a really strange juxtaposition sometimes.

JHN: If that were a real cabinet it would be really heavy, because mahogany is a very dense hardwood. It's so colorful, just bursting with color!

MvF: You can get this stained glass effect by way of the tempera underpainting.

JHN: Let's hear about your technique!

MvF: Basically it starts with a drawing, as detailed as I can make it, on a panel. Followed by an imprimatura, which is a red tempera layer. After you have the red layer all over everything, you follow with a white tempera underpainting.

JHN: The imprimatura is a semi-transparent glaze.

MvF: You don't want it too streaky, so that's actually the hardest part of the whole painting, getting it solid, but not too opaque. Then you find the forms in light and dark. It's almost like creating a black and white snapshot with white tempera, and the red serving as the black.

JHN: What makes tempera better for underpainting than using oil paint, or even acrylic?

MvF: The tempera has a lot of great qualities. It's a really opaque, highly reflective paint. So, in later layers, when you add transparent oil glazes, the light travels through the transparent oil glazes and really reflects off the tempera beautifully, and that's why the paintings have that glow. Nothing else can do that.

JHN: This is like some Van Eyck type stuff.

MvF: He's the one who invented it.

JHN: The tempera underpainting technique.

DD: It's amazing that you even know that!

JHN: I got mad knowledge.

MvF: You nailed it. It's the technique used by Van Eyck, Memling, those guys. [grabs a small painting of a baboon] This one is all oil, you can see that it doesn't have the same luminosity. Light is not coming out of the painting the way it's coming out of that one.
Then, after that, I follow with a yellow glaze. I just leave the darks as reds.

JHN: So you lay the darks on last?

MvF: I lay them on, not last, but close to the end, yeah. The thing that might confuse people when they see an underpainting like this is if there's a black piece of fabric it will look the same as a white piece of fabric. It's not about designating color, it's about creating a form. Then the yellow glaze, and then more highlights are painted in.

JHN: So, the yellow glaze is oil.

MvF: That sort of softens everything, then you really create the forms with more tempera, and then you really have something that looks three-dimensional.

JHN: So you put tempera on top of the oil? That's the mixed technique!

MvF: Yeah, you alternate oil glazes and tempera. Even though tempera is water-soluble you can mix it into oil-soluble. It's something about the egg. And you can look at a Memling and it looks like it was painted last week.

JHN: Van Eyck is that way. They have one at the Met, with everybody going to heaven and everybody going to hell, and it's about this big. [small]

MvF: I know that one very well. [She gets out a book to show Darcy].

JHN: Tell me about your teacher, who introduced you to this technique.

MvF: His name is Philip Rubinov-Jacobson. He was offering a seminar on this technique in Austria. I actually went to it twice. It was a great working vacation in Austria. I wish I could do it again.

JHN: Where are you from in the first place?

MvF: My family is Austrian and German, but I come from San Francisco.

JHN: So your trees are just super artificial. You didn't even paint any trees.

MvF: I wanted to paint cabinets that represented trees, as if a tree had been cut down and made into something. My reason for doing this, I don't want to get too crazy here, but I spent time reading Heidegger, and Die Frage nach der Technik (The Question Concerning Technology), an amazing essay. He has a whole concept of "enframing".
As humans, our relationship to nature is based on what we can do with nature and how we can use nature for our purposes. We're nature, but we're seeing nature through that framework, and we never experience nature as it really is. So you'll notice there's a wooden frame in each of these paintings. That's the enframing. I'm trying to paint nature, but not attempting an accurate portrayal of nature because I feel I'm also partial. It's through the human lens, through that framework. That's my nod to Heidegger and the concept of enframing.
I tried to bring modern times into it. There's a professor at Humboldt State University, Stephen Sillett, who has discovered some incredible things in redwood canopies. There's a whole ecosystem up there 200 feet above the ground that we don't even know about. There are salamanders, for instance, who live their whole lives in the treetops. This one's a redwood cabinet, and it has several endangered species in it, unfortunately, because that whole ecosystem is still threatened.
This is another discovery of Professor Sillett. It's a tiny microcrustacean normally found in freshwater streams. It's a microscopic crab that lives in the water that collects in this massive soil that accumulates over decades in the redwood that stays very moist in the fog and the rain. They have no idea how it got up the tree and how it came to be there. I put that there to represent the things we're still finding out about trees that might not even be here long enough for us to find out about 'em.

JHN: Well it's certainly an ecosystem that's been disturbed beyond recognition. It can never be saved how it was. The best we can do is preserve what's left.

MvF: Right, and that's kind of the poignancy of the urge to collect, in general, that we see in humanity. We have this desire to fetishistically collect and display things, take them out of their place, and somehow understand them by doing that, but in a way they are totally better understood in their own environment.

JHN: You obviously have love and respect for the old techniques and old master style. How do you feel this sort of work fits into the world of contemporary art?

MvF: I think it fits in a really interesting way. Our culture is living under a kind of tyranny of disposability. There's a resignation and cynicism that goes along with that. I feel clearly that I want to create an antidote to that. I think things that are worth saying are worth taking my time to say, so I like to spend time on paintings and make something that people will hopefully spend some time looking at.

JHN: Why do you think so much of contemporary art has almost turned its back on craft?

MvF: Well, I think that actually started for a very good reason. I think people like Marcel Duchamp really opened up the world, and with the advent of photography, artists were freed from having to represent reality. So suddenly the world was so wide open they could do anything and I think that's actually great. I embrace that freedom, yet I'm just drawn to painting old-looking paintings because I love the way old paintings make me feel when I look at them. So I want to create something like that now for the world that has relevance to the world we live in today.

[There is a pause, and then we all burst out laughing]

DD: Madeline the smartypants!

MvF: You know, I want to throw my art into the mix. I want this to be part of the conversation.

JHN: You want to feel like you have a stake in moving the culture forward.

MvF: I really do. I feel like that's the big issue for art and artists right now.

JHN: Were you inspired by your cuckoo clock?

MvF: Imagine the perversity of cutting down a tree, then carving it to look like a tree. It's so strange. I don't mean to put it down because I'm crazy about my cuckoo clock. It was the genesis of all these paintings because I was staring at it and it made me think so much about this strange urge that people have. We love nature, we kill nature, we love nature and we can't quite figure out our relationship with it.

View the Original Interview, with images, on the White Hot Website

Joe Heaps Nelson is an artist and writer in New York City.