The depiction of coins and medals has a long tradition in the fine arts. One of the best known examples is The Tribute Money, a work by Titian (1477-1576) in the collection of the Old Masters Picture Gallery in Dresden. The painting by the Italian master dates from around 1516 and is celebrating its 500th anniversary this year.
On the occasion of this anniversary, the artist Slawomir Elsner (*1976 in Wodzisław Slaski, Poland, who lives and works in Berlin) has dedicated himself to Titian’s biblical depiction, creating a new perception of this work of the High Italian Renaissance by using a different technical as well as contextual approach to painting. As part of his engagement with Titian’s work, the artist is looking at the works of other Old Masters as well.
Whereas the selected originals come from different epochs, there is one detail that unites all of the works: they all feature depictions of coins or medals, whose material is referred to in the title of the exhibition.
The various paintings, whether Domenico Fetti’s Allegory of the lost drachme (around 1619/21), Hans Baldung Grien’s Unequal lovers (1528), Hans Holbein the Younger’s depiction of Lais of Corinth (1526), Hans Memling’s Portrait of a young man with a Roman coin (around 1480) or Jan Vermeer’s The Procuress (1656) all feature a small detail of money or medals. In most cases, these motifs have negative connotations, as for example in the paintings by Grien and Vermeer, which thematize voluptuousness, sinful behaviour, and greed. In contrast, The Tribute Money is an allegory of the art of diplomacy in which Christ responds calmly yet confidently to the Pharisee who hassles him, skilfully answering the trick question posed in reference to the coin and tax money.
Slawomir Elsner adopts the motifs in a schematic fashion, creating a distinct approach with his technique of colored pencil drawing. With sharply set, accurate, almost exactly drawn lines, the artist makes forms that, when seen in close-up, appear as whirling, colored masses, whose lightness also contain a glowing depth. It is only when they are seen from the distance that it is possible to recognize the contour-less forms and figural depictions. Under close examination, they break apart, but from afar, the colored lines build a certain structure, which is characterized by the precision of an engraving needle and condensation at the places from which form emerges.
In all of this, the topic (coins and medals) remains invisible in Elsner’s designs. Just as the imprint of old, well-handled coins can get worn down and disappear, so Elsner’s appropriation of pieces of money appear rubbed out. Yet even concealed, the nature of the depictions is nevertheless immanent.
For Elsner, proximity and distance are two important components in the viewing of drawings that portray a symbiosis. This is why the pictorial content is dispersed into many details in close exploration and deeper examination, while it emerges more clearly with some distance. However, our attempts to fathom the images remain simply schematic approximations. We are looking at the past through opaque glass, which does not permit clear perception.
Yet, the veil of fog, which is present before the artwork, is not gray and hazy in Elsner’s works but light and shining, revealing the magic of those Old Masters, who still capture us today.