By DANIEL MAIDMAN August, 2023
I was initially attracted to the work of Croatian artist Magdalena Modrić out of sheer delight. It is full of whimsy and drama, life and fascination.
She often makes functional objects: pipes and pens and knives, hairpins and necklaces and weapons. There is a sense about these utilitarian items that her art does not work down from idea to matter, but rather reflects the primal human impulse to decorate and beautify necessary implements.
She also makes “pure art” – pictures and sculptures. She produces vivid animal and plant studies and eccentric master copies. She has a medieval sensibility. She repeatedly makes or draws crowns and swords. Her characters are kings and witches and sea monsters. At other times, she turns to the classical world for her warrior heroes and heroines. Her figures are stereotypes, not individuals: furrow-browed mustachioed men with little heads and barrel chests, serene women with little Michelangelo breasts and big hips. Narrative spins effortlessly from her work. She draws deeply and with equal sincerity on the three roots of Europe: the Greco-Roman heritage, Christianity, and the magic-tinged paganism of the Slavic and Germanic tribes.
She works in ink, metal, paint, 3D modeling software, and above all, clay. She is a queen of clay. I know of nobody to whom clay more completely reveals its protean quality. For her, it can and does turn into anything. It contains multitudes of images desperate to become manifest. Modrić opens the gate to her clay, and it blossoms into a cosmic menagerie.
Like most of the artists I write about, I have been studying Modrić’s work for years now. I had an obscure sense that it was important in some analytic way I wasn’t quite grasping. Lately, that sense has clarified and I recognize what I was thinking about. It has to do with the relationship of art to the prima materia.
I always thought the doctrine of the prima materia – the prime matter – came from Aristotle. The doctrine is as follows:
Consider the concepts of actuality – what something is – and potentiality – what something could be.
Use these concepts to reason backward regarding what we observe – that the table represents an actualization of the potential of the wood – but the wood, in itself, represents the actualization of certain earlier potentials, such as that matter should have hardness or grain.
Reasoning thus backward, we ultimately reach the prime matter. Prime matter has no actualities. It is pure potential. It has no essence, no identifiable qualities. It has no qualities, but can take on any quality. It is without form, but is capable of taking on any form.
I thought I remembered that from the Metaphysics, but apparently I was thinking about Augustine discussing Aristotle.
Wherever it originated, the prima materia made its way down through time into the theories of the alchemists. Obsessed as they were with the transformation of matter, they had a lot to say about the prima materia – that it is water, that it is black earth, that it is a sphere.
Alchemists are not the only practitioners who have fancied themselves demiurges of the transformation of matter. Alongside them are the artists. This has always been true, but it came to the fore in post-1945 20th century art. A great many artists chose alchemical reasoning to justify a then-current crisis of faith in the validity of image-making. That is, they proclaimed the material origins of their work: that the image is made of paint, and the paint is made of oil and dirt.
One faction attempted a synthesis of material and image, producing representational paintings in which the physical character of the paint was emphasized. A contrary faction argued that the material substratum of painting delegitimized the image entirely, resorting to abstract paintings built up from thick paint application.
I dislike both the art and the artists involved in this modern-alchemical movement. The whole exercise seemed to me to be based on a fake problem. Everybody has always known that images were made of paint and paint was made of oil and dirt. This is not a revelation. It does not demand a crisis of faith.
If the crisis was a put-on, however, the assault on imagery was utterly sincere. Its fraudulent origin in the enigmatic relationship of image and matter masked its real and unstated motives.
Because I found the work inimical and its ideology unconvincing, I conflated the work and the stated idea. Dismissing one, I dismissed the other.
This was a mistake.
It turned out that the claimed phenomenon – the means of emergence of image from matter – is indeed fruitful terrain for art. The modern-alchemicals just approached it wrong. Their method faithfully followed their surface ideology, but they were reading philosophy first and making art second. Art does not proceed from idea. Idea proceeds from art. If not idea, what is the source of art? Inspiration. The true artist is not a thinker or even primarily a maker. The true artist is a conduit, through whom the image, with electrifying force, descends into the world.
Each true artist is accompanied by a unique and specific inspiration. Modrić’s genius, it turns out, is in drawing the image from the prima materia. Her clay, so capable in her hands of becoming anything – indeed, of becoming everything – never loses its character as clay.
The modern-alchemical representationalists, with their images destabilized by their materials, always came at it from the wrong angle. The images they instinctively deployed emerged from late-stage academicism, expressible only in the nearly immaterial technical perfection of the late 19th century. The images fought the foregrounding of materiality without persuading anyone that they arose from materiality, that they had anything to do with it.
For Modrić, there is no fight to be fought. Her work has an organic unity. She naturally sees the inner life of her materials and releases it, and her art retains the prime material quality of its origin. Its beauty is leavened by a crude quality, a savagery of execution. One cannot look at her work and fail to see what it is made of. It is raw and imperfect. Her men and women are clay. Her beasts and plants are clay. Her tools are clay.
As with all true art, in beholding it, our vision of the world is transformed. Stepping away from Modrić’s art, we find that the world has become her art. Her men and women are clay? We are clay. Her skies and lands, rivers and seas are clay, imbued by the passion of their demiurge with specific and recognizable forms; so too, we recognize after encountering her, is the world.
1. I know that I am conflating the problems of form and matter, and not treating form in a consistent or complete way.
2. My source for the apparent origin of Aristotle’s prima materia in Augustine is: https://plato.stanford.edu/entries/form-matter/#PrimMatt
3. The best source for Modrić’s work is her Instagram:
https://www.instagram.com/magdalenamod/. I can only reproduce a few of her works here. I have given short shrift to her incredible drawings. To get a sense of the torrential quality of her output, I do recommend a visit to her Instagram.
Daniel Maidman is best known for his vivid depiction of the figure. Maidman’s drawings and paintings are included in the permanent collections of the Library of Congress, the New Britain Museum of American Art, the Wausau Museum of Contemporary Art, the Long Beach Museum of Art, the Bozeman Art Museum, and the Marietta Cobb Museum of Art. His work is included in numerous private collections, including those of Brooke Shields, China Miéville, and Jerry Saltz. His art and writing on art have been featured in The Huffington Post, Poets/Artists, ARTnews, Forbes, W, and many others. He has been shown in solo shows in New York City and in group shows across the United States and Europe. In 2021 it will be included in the first digital archive of art stored on the surface of the Moon. His books, Daniel Maidman: Nudes and Theseus: Vincent Desiderio on Art, are available from Griffith Moon Publishing. He works in Brooklyn, New York.
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