Image: Martha Jungwirth: Le Grand Entretien
Featured in Numéro Art

Martha Jungwirth: Le Grand Entretien Studio visit by Anaël Pigeat

May 2024

Since the 1960s, Austrian artist Martha Jungwirth has been patiently developing her highly expressive abstract painting, triggering emotion in splashes of red, pink, and violet. Since her 2010 Essl Museum appearance, Jungwirth’s star has been steadily on the rise, and she is now represented by Thaddaeus Ropac. As she prepares for a personal show at Venice’s Palazzo Cini and a Guggenheim Bilbao retrospective, Numéro art went to meet the artist in her Viennese studio

Martha Jungwirth works in a vast studio a short way outside central Vienna. On the walls, there are unfinished paintings on large sheets of brown paper, while stacked on big tables are old paintings whose backs will be used for new, small-format works. A friend brought them to her as gifts – some are so beautiful, with their traces of past lives, that she would like to keep them just as they are. On another table, a pink, orange, and purple carpet, a loan from a collector, may serve as inspiration for future works.

Born in Vienna, in 1940, Jungwirth studied at what was then the Academy of Applied Arts, training in textile design before she turned to painting. A history-of-art buff, she is also very knowledgeable about the contemporary scene. Jungwirth found her way alone, outside of groups and movements, achieving late international recognition with appearances in major institutions such as the Essl Museum (2010) and the Kunsthalle Düsseldorf (2022). She is currently preparing a solo show at the Palazzo Cini, which will open during the Biennale in Venice, a city she has often visited to see works by Tintoretto. An avid reader, particularly of Russian novels, she borrowed

the title of her exhibition – Herz der Finsternis in German – from Joseph Conrad’s celebrated novel Heart of Darkness.

What are those images pinned to the wall, next to unfinished paintings?

MJ: It’s an inspiration wall, a collage of things that interested me recently. There’s a photograph of Lucio Fontana in a fur coat, others of Marcel Duchamp and Nijinsky, as well as a tyrannosaurus from the Natural History Museum, cut out from a newspaper. Then there are sprinters who look like paintings from Greek vases, football players who move like ballet dancers, Picasso’s Acrobate bleu, and Guido Reni’s Atalanta and Hippomenes, which is part of the collections in the Museo di Capodimonte in Naples.

How did you develop your exhibition in Venice?

MJ:  When I start thinking about works, several elements combine like in a mosaic. I read an article about Albert Londres’s book on the construction of the Congo railway under Leopold II, which I associated with my memories of the Musée du Quai Branly and the Cité de l’Immigration at Paris’s Palais de la Porte Dorée, with its relief sculptures from the 1931 Exposition Coloniale. These migration flows have been going on since the 16th century. And then I added the memory of Joseph Conrad’s novel Heart of Darkness. I thought it was a wonderful title, and decided to keep it in German, because it touches me far more in my native language.

How did your recent large-format paintings come to be, with their colours clustered at the centre of the composition?

MJ: They came out of emotion! I’m very sensitive to current affairs, to images of migrants trying to cross the Mediterranean with just a small bundle of belongings. What do you take with you when you leave? A little later I read an article in the Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung about an exhibition in Brussels, at the AfricaMuseum, which included a wooden statue from the Congo dating back to the 19th century, which also helped me come up with these forms. 

These paintings, and the violence they express, remind me a lot of Jean Fautrier’s Hostages series. Is he one of your artistic references?

MJ: Yes, of course, Fautrier is a great painter. I was very impressed by his nudes, which I saw at a big exhibition in Paris.

And this painting on the wall next to us is by Eugène Leroy?

MJ: Leroy is an artist who means a lot to me. Not long ago, I tried to buy one of his works, but it slipped through my fingers, which I still regret. I also saw his exhibition at the Musée d’art moderne in Paris, which was so beautiful. I travel a lot, but only to look at paintings. When I’m abroad, I see things from a new perspective, eat things that are different from what I usually eat, and see different people. It’s like a flux running through me. And then I paint with my memories.

The emptiness that you use – is it the immensity of the world?

MJ: I always use emptiness, because I hate it when it’s filled up. For these paintings, I thought of human figures that were compressed and tied up, of confined bodies and the emotion of departure. I seek the tension required to make a strong piece. When the tension drops, I stop, I don’t fill the canvas. AP You always learn a lot from other painters. For example, I learned the use of emptiness from the latitude that Cy Twombly allowed himself.

You almost always paint on paper, a legacy of your watercolour practice. And for your small formats, you employ previously used paper that has a past.

MJ: In these small formats, there’s something that precedes the painting. I look for how the painting might react to what’s already there; the existent pushes me into an encounter. It’s a pictorial process, nothing to do with performance art.

Sometimes you use both large and small formats. Are the smaller formats a form of experimentation?

MJ: I often begin with small formats, then move on to larger ones. Obviously they’re connected, but they are not preparatory studies. My state of mind governs what happens: if I’m not in good enough shape to do a large format, then I work on a small one.


You showed me some large paintings on the walls of your studio and told me that they had been waiting for some time, that you were seeking inspiration for your new series, and that this small and very successful green painting was hanging there to encourage you. Do you work fast?

MJ I work very fast. It just flies. When I start painting, everything is fluid. And when that fluidity stops, I stop. There’s always a risk. I hate formulas, I don’t have a method. I need to constantly challenge my limits. The paintings for the Venice exhibition were all done in one go.


In (your essay) Der Affe in mir, you say “keine Philosophie” [“no philosophy”]. Presumably that means no pyschoanalysis either?

MJ: My painting is my analysis!


Martha Jungwirth, exhibition from 7 June to 22 September at the Guggenheim Museum Bilbao, Bilbao.

Martha Jungwirth. Herz der Finsternis, exhibition from 17 April to 29 September at the Palazzo Cini, Venice.


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