Recently, painter Marc Burckhardt has been in a deep “visual conversation” with literature—specifically, with Petrarch’s Triumphs, a sequence of poems from the Italian Renaissance in which Love, Chastity, Death, Fame, Time, and Eternity each overcomes the other. Burckhardt first came across Triumphs nearly a year ago, while working on a series based on Dante’s Inferno. As he often does with literary works, he looked into their visual history, and in doing so found “a deep well of imagery—stuff I recognized through a kind of peripheral appreciation.” Since then, working between studios in Austin, Texas, and Bremen, Germany, he’s has been studying, sketching, crumpling sketches, starting over, and taking notes for a series of allegorical paintings that reflect his personal connection to Petrarch’s themes, to be included in an October show at Gallery Shoal Creek, in Austin, Texas.
Plenty of artists have interpreted Triumphs before—a couple dozen, at least, between the fourteenth and eighteenth centuries alone. Theirs is an illustrative, symbolic tradition—steeds pulling chariots bearing Cupids, grim reapers, and Moses-like patriarchs standing in for Time. Animals are there, but as the supporting cast.
In Burckhardt’s interpretation, animals are the subject, and they are the means by which his paintings achieve both their allegorical and deeply personal qualities. “I’m trying to break from tradition by not simply illustrating Triumphs,” he says. “I want to bring something to it that hasn’t been there before. I often start with a clear sense of where I want to go and how to express that concept symbolically, but my process usually moves from structure to chaos to reorganized structure, with a fair amount of divine inspiration somewhere in the middle. But in the end, I’m trying to return to how a personal experience becomes a universal experience, which is what I think Petrarch’s writing is about.”
As to why he prefers animals as subjects, Burckhardt says that, “With animals, there is a kind of directness. They are what they are without the appearance of any self-consciousness. Painting lends itself to speaking with the language of animals.”