In Focus

Sigmar Polke's Clouds

In Clouds, Sigmar Polke has created an atmosphere of time, myth, and transfiguration based on a beguiling allegory of the power of art to transform reality, and even to save one's life. As in much of Polke's art, the starting point is literary: a tale by the Belgian-born French author Marguerite Yourcenar (1903-1987) of a court artist in dynastic China whose ability to turn the prosaic materials of paint on a flat surface into an impossibly real landscape prevents his death at the hands of a bitterly disillusioned emperor.

Polke's work conducts a dialogue between the visible and the imaginary and takes for granted the role of the artist as master manipulator of image, symbol, and matter in the creation of an alternate reality; and the link to Asian art and literature in_ Clouds_ is an allusion to the fusion of cultures characteristic of the postmodern era. In rendering the clouds themselves, Polke looked to examples of traditional Chinese painting. The cloud formations also suggest Chinese scholars' rocks, objects prized for their eccentric shapes which were used as contemplative tools by men of learning and power.

Powdered pigment, and perhaps silver shavings, apparently blown into the wet resin float in the painting's mist, granting the work a meteorological cast. In further reference to China, Polke quotes Chinese artists' ability to evanescently register architecture, mountains, and trees with his subtle depiction, via a delicate spraying technique, of these same subjects. It has been suggested that the powder here is actually intergalactic matter. Even if not true, the mere hint of such material accords perfectly with the painting's allusion to transformative otherworldliness.

Adapted from

  • Charles Wylie, "Sigmar Polke's Clouds," in Dallas Museum of Art, 100 Years , ed. Dorothy M. Kosinski (Dallas, TX: Dallas Museum of Art, 2003), Pamphlet number 85.

  • Charles Wylie, DMA unpublished material, 2000.