Interesting Artworks: Interwoven by Daniel Bilmes
Interwoven is one of nine paintings Daniel Bilmes has shown with Arcadia Contemporary, who choose their artists, in part, based on technical mastery and the ‘ability to paint and draw well in concert with unique, signature styles.’ Bilmes most certainly fits the bill. Having studied under his father since the age of eight, his work shows an astonishing technical virtuosity, demonstrating the ‘timeless painting and drawing skills’ Arcadia aims to celebrate.
But, what truly makes a painting timeless? It certainly lies in more than the medium. Bilmes’ work has been dubbed reminiscent of Repin and Rembrandt, both artists whose popularity has survived for centuries. What about their work appeals to the modern viewer, and is it possible for a contemporary artist to replicate their success?
The nation’s most popular older paintings, often originally functioned to celebrate the wealth, education, and social status of an individual. Yet, this purpose and the significance of the painting to the patron are obscured over time. In some ways, the loss of specific details of an artwork can help to make its meaning universal. Thus, old master paintings have a lasting charm that is arguably because of, rather than in spite of, the loss of their original context.
The women in Rembrandt’s depictions of biblical tales are famously modelled on his wife and mistress, but it is not the salacious biography or biblical narrative that draws people to the images. Instead, paintings like Bathsheba at her Bath, seem to capture emotions the modern viewer can recognise. Much of the poignancy of the work comes from an empathy with the sitter and an interest in the relationships within the painting. Whether it is between figures, the sitter and the viewer, or the perceived relationship between sitter and artist, all of these interactions work to interest the viewer and draw us in. While some gestures and facial expressions change over time, during the relatively small span of a few hundred years and within a European context, modern audiences can still empathise with the recognisable human emotion and relationships in old master paintings. It is this that lends the paintings a timeless quality and a lasting appeal that outlives their original function.
Daniel Bilmes’ paintings contain many of the hallmarks of timelessness. His work shares both aesthetic similarities and the emotional intimacy of great painters of the past. The painting Interwoven depicts a young woman, eyes closed and neck exposed. Drawn with obvious technical skill, the tight details of her face for a focal point that contrast the more abstract areas of the ground characterised by broader brushstrokes. Though the subject is undoubtedly beautiful, the focus is not on the individual but her expression; she appears somewhat generalised. Much like the Rembrandt, whose depiction is less important to the viewer than the emotional state in which they appear. Her expression engages the viewer, inviting us to empathise with the emotion we perceive there.
However, how the emotion is read will differ from viewer to viewer. Both her face and hand on her shoulder are modelled in detail, and these focal points form the emotional substance and interaction of the painting. How we read the context of the shapes behind the woman dictates how we read her expression. The shape itself is unclear; it is one part hair, part cloud, possibly even rope. The viewer’s own thoughts and experiences dictate whether this shape is a comforting hand, looming presence or restraining force. It is this ambiguity that forms the basis of the painting’s brilliance.
Whether this painting and the series to which it belongs will become ‘timeless’ is yet to be seen. In style, colour choices and even the type of beautiful women depicted, there is something undeniably contemporary about Bilmes’ work. In many ways, they are easy to recognise as works of our particular moment. Yet, undeniably, Bilmes has mastered the ability to portray emotions, rather than narratives in his paintings. In a similar manner to the old masters, the viewer is free to project their own emotional experiences onto the image. Bilmes’ work evidently has a large contemporary audience, and in an age of photography it is heartening to see a painter create works that speak to so many by utilising the most effective lessons of the past.