Agony in the Garden

Baptiste Brun

"Alors, le voile du Sanctuaire se déchira de haut en bas. La terre trembla. Les pierres se fendirent. »
Évangile selon Matthieu, chapitre 27, verset 51
in the introduction of solo show of "Agony in the Garden" presented at the Krupic Kersting Gallery of Cologne in Germany.

"And behold, the curtain of the temple was torn in two, from top to bottom, and the earth shook, and the rocks were split.” Matthew, 27: 51

Debombourg is a brave man !

With this work, a crucifixion composed after a woodcut by Albrecht Dürer, he takes on a double challenge, pitting himself against the master of the German Renaissance and tackling one of the major iconographic themes of the history of western art. It is no small undertaking. This is not a trial run. Looking through the collections of engravings by the originator of Melancolia, he selects entire scenes, isolating and picking out certain details. Then he alters them, after a long period of maturation. Reframing, blanking out, adding details, objects or characters, contemporary or otherwise, Debombourg reappropriates the graphic artist’s legacy. He makes it his own, going beyond mere reinterpretation. Following in the master’s footsteps, he demonstrates inventio. His work is then measured against the yardstick of tradition, while at the same time putting itself at the very heart of contemporary art. He thus goes beyond a certain embarrassment that artists of his generation feel with regard to older art. Aggravure provides the means for this transition. A subtle tactician, he has developed a technique capable of responding to that tension, not without a wry smile. The method is the reverse of Dürer’s. Where the German engraver takes away, he adds. As is often the case, he proceeds via inversion. The effect lingers on, the power of the drawing is reactivated. What is more, aggravure is extremely pictorial. The artist who defines himself primarily as a sculptor – a sculptor of the plane surface, we may add – puts himself at the intersection of old disciplines. The bikers who had taken the place of the horsemen of the Apocalypse in the Revelation of John, after Dürer (2011), demonstrated this with the visual radicalism and caustic humor that characterize the artist’s work.

Today the choices of the triptych in wood and of monumentality respond to the image selected for adaptation, and increase its visual impact tenfold. As for the caustic aspect, it is left aside, if not displaced. For here the second challenge taken on by Debombourg comes into play: that of the iconography. Entering into dialogue with Dürer is one thing. Tackling the crucifixion is quite another. A brave choice – cheeky, as we said – to take it on, at the risk of sinking into the triteness of pastiche, or worse still into facile provocativeness. The artist has successfully negotiated both reefs. He has opened something up, by tearing it.

The starting point is a woodcut made by Albrecht Dürer in 1516. Its execution is a topos of the genre: Christ undergoes his ordeal on Mount Golgotha. On either side of the Cross are John and Mary. Suffering permeates the original image. But the bodies, the clothes, the drapery are beautiful, made perfect by the graphic artist’s line. The Son of Man, in the image of God the Father, is physically perfect, echoing the humanism of the artist and his era.

Well then, what are these Siamese twins nailed to the Cross, rent from top to bottom, a prey to suffering? To be sure the body is that of a superman, massive, powerful, sculptural. But the ideal beauty of Dürer’s crucified figure has been impaired. A monstrosity comes into being. This two-headed Christ splits in two like a fig. And the image, if it does not split the mind, has a negative impact on it. It opens up a vertiginous path for thought. Where the curtain is torn, duality comes to light: that of the Father and the Son, of God and man to be sure, but perhaps also that of man towards himself. It is the ambivalence of the human being that is pinpointed, his/her supposed power shattered. He is the means of his advent and of his destruction. Schizo means split. Not cleanly and flawlessly. There is something grating about this image. The artist’s raw material has implications. The staple assaults the wood, as the nail does the Cross. A strange mimetism. And in addition, the tactile impression produced by this technique is like a file on skin. It rubs us up the wrong way: The faces of John and Mary are not turned away, and do not look at us. They disappear. The degradation is brought to a climax. Doubt acquires knowledge. Doubt of the bond between men, religere of course. But above all that of man within man. This present-day crucified figure in a world that doubts has resonance.
Through this updating, more than the duality of Christ, it is the duality of the human being – and of all humanism in general – that is here put in the dock. 

Baptiste Brun
23 août 2012
Baptiste Brun is an historian of art (Phd) and professor at the University Rennes 2.