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Matthias Schaller, Palette of Wassily Kandinsky (2007), 190 x 156 cm (Lenbachhaus, München)

A gradient blur of colors accumulated on the palette of Camille Pissarro, while orderly dark streaks of paint still echo the short expressionist career of Paula Modersohn-Becker on her wooden board. Since 2007, German photographer Matthias Schaller has sought out these artist palettes as unintentional portraits of artist lives. Tomorrow, at the Palladian Refectory on the Island of San Giorgio in Venice, Schaller is exhibiting around 20 selections from the over 180 palettes he’s photographed, each printed at over six feet tall to transform the creation byproduct into its own work of art.

Matthias Schaller, Palette of Francis Bacon (2007), 190 x 156 cm (Dublin City Gallery The Hugh Lane, Dublin) (click to enlarge)

The exhibition, called Das Meisterstückor The Masterpiece, is organized by the Fondazione Giorgio Cini, headquartered in the Refectory, and opening alongside the Venice Biennale. According to the Financial Times, Schaller got started when he came across Cy Twombly’s palette while visiting the late artist’s Gaeta, Italy, studio. He was struck by how similar it was to Twombly’s art, and soon he was traveling to museums like the Louvre, Metropolitan Museum of Art, Musée d’Orsay, Tate, Centre Pompidou, private collections, and artist relatives to document as many as possible related to the history of art in Europe from the 19th to 20th centuries. He discovered dusky hues on the palette of John Singer Sargent, the synthetic vibrancy on that of Vincent van Gogh, the mottled splotches left by Paul Gaugin, the dense color field accumulated by Pierre Bonnard, and the overlapping disorder of rich colors left by Frida Kahlo.

The photographs of the worn wooden palettes are similar to John Cyr’s Developer Trays project, where he took portraits of the darkroom trays of photographers to explore what these artist materials represented about their process and habits. Schaller has an ongoing interest in the accidental marks people leave behind, and what they can say about that absent presence. His Disportraits focused on early astronaut suits, Leiermann on Venetian mirrors, Purple Desk on the vacant workspaces of Cardinals at the Vatican, and Werkbildnis on the empty studios of architects and photographers. As he puts it, the palettes represent the “paint before the painting.” On them are the phantoms of brush movement and mixed colors reflecting the hand of the artist, poised right before touching color to canvas.

Matthias Schaller, Palette of Vincent van Gogh (2007), 190 x 156 cm (Musée d’Orsay, Paris)

Matthias Schaller, Palette of J. M. W. Turner (2013), 190 x 156 cm (The Royal Academy of Arts, London)

Matthias Schaller, Palette of Cy Twombly (2007), 190 x 156 cm (Collezione Nicola del Roscio, Gaeta)

Matthias Schaller: Das Meisterstück is on view from May 8 to June 7 with the Fondazione Giorgio Cini in the Palladian Refectory on the Island of San Giorgio (Venice, Italy). 

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Allison Meier

Allison C. Meier is a former staff writer for Hyperallergic. Originally from Oklahoma, she has been covering visual culture and overlooked history for print...

2 replies on “Portraits of the Palettes of Famous Dead Artists”

  1. Well just had to take opportunity to upload shot of mine. Thanks for allowing images since lot comment sections lack that feature. Too bad article didn’t include mentioned Twombly palette. Early on 1970s I was asked if I knew Twombly’s work. Bit later I was on to lyrical realism hence mixing of paint & lunch.

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