Exploring the techniques and imagery of the great masters of religious painting such as Caravaggio, Zubaran and Jusepe de Ribera, Andrew Haslett, who hails from Newtownards, is reinventing baroque art with a new exhibition of paintings and sketches at Cregagh Library depicting St Peter, Mary Magdalene, Judas Iscariot and figures from classical mythology.
Haslett, 31, who graduated in fine and applied art from the University of Ulster in 2005, has held numerous exhibitions of his work in Lisburn and Belfast, moving from a practice that was concentrated on space and stillness before shifting to a focus on the depiction of religious figures and characters from classical myth.
In his new exhibition we see St Peter in a moment of denial, Mary Magdalene in contemplation and Judas Iscariot in deep remorse; here too we see a powerfully understated painting of Medusa, the fearsome female figure in Greek myth who was said to turn men to stone by the power of her gaze; elsewhere here is, Perseus, who was responsible for Medusa’s downfall, updated for 2013 with a nose piercing and shaved head.
Haslett paints in oil on canvas and is particularly interested in capturing the sharp contrasts between light and darkness or ‘chiaroscuro’ that is prominent in Caravaggio’s work – where dramatically lit, visceral narrative paintings sought to draw out the power of the biblical story in its passion and physicality.
“I asked friends to pose for me as characters from the Bible such as Mary Magdalene and Judas in order to underline the humanity of the timeless story,” said the artist. “But I’m not being didactic about how people interpret these paintings or respond to these figures.
“I’m intrigued by the stories and characters we meet in the Bible. Similarly, classical mythology has provided me with rich material for narrative painting.
“I love to use baroque techniques and I try to build lightness in my paintings out of a dark background.”
On some interpretations, the baroque period in art was concerned with dramatic, even sensationalist religious painting that could bring the biblical story to a wide audience, emphasising at once its spiritual and emotional import. This style of painting was endorsed by the Catholic Church at the Council of Trent (1545-63) as a reaction to the Protestant reformation: the movement attempted to communicate religious themes through a direct approach capturing intense emotions - from the agony to the ecstasy -in bold, swaggering painterly gestures.
Inspired by come of these ideas and techniques, Haslett uses a bold and naturalistic visual vocabulary that avails of ‘tenebrist’ or ‘shadowist’ techniques. The stark tensions between illumination and darkness in these paintings hold the viewer rapt, each figure emerging from shadow to be held in intense spotlight.
Haslett explains that he has included depictions of both biblical and classical figures in his exhibition in part because the Italian masters were usually interested in both spheres, but also because he envisages a connection between them; frality and heroism - the full spectrum of human experience - is contained therein.
“It might seem controversial to put paintings of Mary Magdalene and Medusa in the same exhibition but for me there’s an interesting tension here between the biblical and the classical and what they represent to us,” says Andrew.
“I see Mary Magdalene and Medusa as strong women who both embody different ideas about virtue and transgression.”
Here Medusa is painted in all her wild snake-haired glory, but with a sensitive attention to her beauty, a beauty that belies the monster of femininity suggested in the myth. Here she has her eyes closed in the still repose of death, no longer a figure of terror. This painting, and his atonishing vision of Mary Magdalene above - the use of light suggesting an ethereal and yet wholly human figure against the pitch backdrop - suggest that Haslett is a major new painting talent on the Northern Irish art scene.
This is an artist boldly reinventing Caravaggio-style techniques, a painstaking commitment to immaculate draughtsmanship and narrative-led composition in an increasingly disposable and faddish art world that often seems to have forgotten the beauty of tradition and engagment with high themes such as virtue and ancient myth.
Andrew Haslett’s paintings and sketches go on display at Cregagh Library on October 7 and the exhibition continues until October 26 – a rare opportunity for the public to view these exquisitely-rendered paintings that wouldn’t seem out of place in the Uffizi.
‘In Darkness and Secure’: Paintings and Sketches by Andrew Haslett, Cregagh Library, Belfast, October 7-26.