Collapsing The Distance

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Édouard Manet – Olympia (1863)

Looking with 21st Century eyes, it’s difficult to believe that the paintings of Eduard Manet once provoked such an outcry. To contemporary eyes Olympia looks hardly radical or provocative; a reclining nude painted in a realistic fashion. The walls of national collections of Western art the world over are crowded with such paintings. Even at the Salon des Refuses in 1865, at which Olympia was exhibited, the female nude was a perfectly acceptable subject and in previous years works like Alexandre Cabanel’s Birth of Venus had been exhibited without an eyebrow being raised.

Yet when Olympia was first exhibited in Paris, the popular press raged and stormed in a way that would make today’s tabloid hysteria over a priapic golfer seem measured by comparison. The painting, and by implication the artist, was, according to the journalists, both incompetent and immoral. The fury was not just limited to writers and critics, the exhibition visitors were also so enraged that the organisers were forced to put guards on the painting to stop it being torn to shreds.

As far as Manet’s incompetence was concerned, the writers drew attention to the apparent slapdash application of paint; great splodgy sweeps of paint appeared to have been smeared onto the canvas. The brush strokes were visible on the surface rather than being disguised by the repetitive and meticulous painting and under-painting of heavily diluted paint that was prescribed by the state-sponsored Art Academies and studios in which all painters learnt their crafts.

The case for ‘immorality’ is slightly more complex. Unlike Cabenel’s Venus, Olympia wasn’t a mythological fantasy, she was a contemporary woman, but not just a contemporary woman. Her shoes, bangle and choker identified her to the critics as a prostitute probably from the Batignolles suburb of Paris – a well known destination for gentleman of the middle classes looking for entertainment. In fact the model was Victorine Meurent a close friend of Manet’s who went on to become a painter herself, but it’s clear that the critics’ interpretation was what Manet had intended. For the establishment of late 19th Century Paris such a woman was not a suitable subject for a large scale work of art, which were normally reserved for noble themes from mythology, history or the Bible.

The offence of the subject matter was compounded by the fact that the clear source for the composition of Olympia was Titian’s Venus of Urbino. The nude was posed in a similar way and the picture space was divided by a screen. Manet’s alterations to the orginal subject piled offence upon offence in the eyes of the critics, the dog that lies curled up at Venus’s feet, representing loyalty, was replaced by black cat, recognized as a symbol of licentiousness, back arched and hackles raised, staring beadily at the viewer. While Venus’s left hand rests, almost beckoning, on her groin, Olympia’s is taut, protective and entirely in control.

It was this assertion of Olympia’s self determination and control of the depicted situation which caused most problems for the critics. The classical and academic nudes that were a staple of the Salon never made direct eye-contact with the viewers, they stared into the middle distance or looked up coyly through their eyelashes offering their bodies as art objects to be admired in a morally uplifting way. Any suggestion that the enjoyment that might be gained by the frock-coated and top-hatted men who attended the Salon and perused the nudes of Cabanel might have been more sexual than spiritual were easily dismissed by appeals to the noble subject matter at hand. But a modern woman, a prostitute at that, staring directly at the viewer with a questioning expression on her face allowed no room for such ethical dodging. It’s entirely possible that the men who expressed their outrage at Olympia may well have been leaving the Salon to attend an assignation with one of the many barmaids or laundresses of Batignolles a comfortable distance from the high society of Paris and their homes. Olympia collapsed that distance.

Manet had painted a modern woman in a modern way. He’d brought real life into the unreal world of the art gallery, showing up the hypocrisy of the great and good of Paris’s fashionable set and ruling classes in the process. He paved the way for the Impressionists who followed hot on his heels and all of those modern artists who came in their wake. It’s perhaps a bit of stretch to call him the father of Modern Art, there are too many other precedents to take into account, but the father of Modern Art as Outrage? I’m prepared to give him that one.

Zips

Barnett Newman – Onement I (1948)

I’d loved Barnett Newman’s paintings since adolescence, the simplicity and effrontery of painting a stripe of one colour flanked by another and calling it art appealed to the same bloody-minded bit of teenage rebellion in me that worshipped Joy Division, it was sparse and stripped down, making noise by what was left out rather than what was put in.

I’d studied his paintings in reproduction, but apart from three relatively small canvases in the Tate collection, I’d never seen any of his work in the flesh until a major retrospective at Tate Modern in 2002.

The exhibition was arranged chronologically, as you passed from room to room, you passed through the years of the artist’s work, starting at the beginning and ending at the end. This might seem obvious, but since the sixties other ways of arranging exhibitions, or ‘hangs’, have come into fashion. Sometimes a hang may be arranged by subject or medium; it all depends on the story that the curators want to tell. In group shows or retrospectives of art movements, these thematic hangs can set up new and exciting relationships between artworks, it’s something we take for granted, but a good hang can breathe new life in to a work that has almost faded into the background because of its familiarity.

For an abstract artist though, I tend to think the chronological hang works best, particularly for those of the first half of the twentieth century for whom abstract art was a matter of stretching the possibilities of painting. Abstract art is now so ubiquitous in homes, boardrooms, shopping malls and restaurants that it’s hard to imagine a time when it simply wasn’t considered a possibility. Viewing these artists’ works in chronological order helps us reconstruct some idea of just how revolutionary their project was.

For the European pioneers of Abstract Art there’s an excitement in seeing their works slowly creep towards a complete rejection of images from the real world. For example, viewing Piet Mondrian’s series of paintings of trees from the 1910s (Red Tree, Grey Tree,Tree,Apple Tree) is an exciting experience, you see an artist reaching and grasping for the abstract yet still tied by the conventions and culture of his time to the image of a tree. It’s like watching a piece of elastic being stretched and stretched and stretched, you’re just waiting for that connection between painting and the real world to snap.

For the American abstract painters of the 1940s and 50s, the situation is slightly different, the ‘Abstract Expressionists’ as they’re awkwardly named, all developed a ‘signature style’ that anyone with even a passing interest in Modern Art is familiar with. If we see splashes we know it’s a Pollock, if we see monolithic blurry rectangles we know it’s a Rothko and if we see stripes, or ‘zips’ as he called them, it’s a Newman.

The excitement and tension in an exhibition of these artists is seeing their work creeping towards the discovery of this signature style. The first few rooms of the Newman exhibition were filled with intricate organic doodles that recall the ‘automatic drawing’ experiments of the Surrealist Andre Masson. Occasional zips made cameo appearances, but only as background elements. These were followed by a tantalising series of monochrome works in ink where a series of ‘almost’ zips made their first starring roles – sometimes they didn’t quite make their way all the way down the page, sometimes they were subtly angled, like the blade of a stiletto stabbing its way through a mess of ink. Finally in the third room the first true zip made its appearance, in Onement I, a great untidy streak of orange cut across a loosely painted background of maroon.

It’s hard to get across how exciting I found this experience, even as I write now the rational, cynical part of my mind is saying “It’s just a stripe for God’s sake” but it was like seeing a film all the way through for the first time that you’d only previously seen the last five minutes of. You know the hero will defuse the bomb; you just don’t know how he going to do it and as the story unfolds you’re bouncing up and down in your seat screaming “The disarming code’s tattooed on the dog’s ear!” or in this case “Paint a bloody stripe!”

So are Newman’s zips ’just stripes’. On the face of it does seem rather simple. There’s a story that the artist Franz Kline found himself in conversation with an American collector who had just returned from one of Newman’s shows. The work was, the collector complained, empty and repetitive, there was he asserted ‘nothing to see’. Kline asked him to describe the canvases on show, their dimensions, their colours, whether the zips were horizontal or vertical, what colour they were, were they painting over the background colour or next to them, were they darker or lighter than the backgrounds. After a lengthy inquisition during which the collector was made to detail the many variations on the theme, Kline remarked “Well I don’t know, it all sounds darned complicated to me.”

I think that’s what I love about Newman’s work , it’s the single-minded pursuit of a simple idea and exploring its many variations, taking something as simple as a stripe and pushing it as far as it can go. It has something in common with minimalist music, take Sigur Ros’s Samskeyti which repeats a simple piano arpeggio over and over lulling you into familiarity, slowly introducing and building up different background atmospherics that subtly change the nature of the melody, then when you’re least expecting it, the arpeggio leaps up an octave and it’s a surprising and sublime experience hearing it for the first time. Newman’s paintings work like that for me – familiarity with a theme making its variations so surprising.

Anyone can make the simple look complicated, what’s really difficult is making the complicated look simple.

What’s The Story?

Edward Hopper – Automat (1927)

It’s the ‘story’ bit of art history that really fires me up. Happily works of art are surrounded by stories. Stories of how they were made, of who made them, of who has owned them…I could go on (it would be a nice easy way of filling up a blog post), but the point is that art is like an anchor for a whole web of stories that spreads out from it backwards and forwards in time, sometimes parallel, sometimes crossing over and sometimes directly contradicting each other.

Sometimes this web of stories can become so dense and knotted that it’s almost impossible to see through it. Over the years many friends have made the trip to Paris to see the Mona Lisa and their reaction invariably contains the words ‘disappointing’, ‘small’ and ‘brown’. I think the problem is that Leonardo’s painting is just too well known, it has so many stories floating around it, it’s weighed down with myths and legends, it’s been parodied and reproduced, it’s made cameo appearances in films and television series and been printed on T-shirts, mouse mats and shopping bags. In fact, if you can stamp an image on it, the chances are that La Giaconda’s been on it at some point. Because of this fog of stories and ideas that gather around the painting our expectations of it are so high that even if it was a hundred metres tall and made of platinum we’d still find the experience of a face-to-face encounter sadly anticlimactic.

But it’s also the absence of a story that can fascinate us and draw us in, Brozino’s Allegory, intrigues precisely because although the story has been lost it’s so clearly dripping with narrative intent that we have to fill in the blanks.

This natural reaction to fill in the blanks has been used by modern and contemporary artist to great effect – the installations of Mike Nelson and Ilya Kabakov both play with narrative instinct, offering us enough clues to know there’s a story there, but not enough for us to be absolutely certain of the strange characters that once inhabited their strange ghostly spaces and stage sets or the encounters that took place there and it’s then that our own stories, our memories and experiences, come into play, meshing and tangling with the artwork’s as we try to make sense of what’s in front of us.

For me though, the master of the uncertain narrative in art is Edward Hopper. His paintings of modern life in rural and urban America in the first half of the 20th century drip with intrigue. Hopper’s world is one where every figure or building has a secret and where every gas station lies on a road that could lead to adventure or disaster. He gives us enough tantalising detail to draw us in, setting up situations like the first chapter of a book or first scene of a film and letting us run with it wherever our minds take us.

The cinematic quality of Hopper’s work is almost a cliché now but it bears repeating, so strong and familiar is his use of the visual grammar of starkly lit and almost deserted urban spaces that we associate with film noir that it’s the first thing that strikes us when we see his work. It should be noted however that the relationship between Hoppers work and the look of Hollywood films isn’t a one-way street. Hopper influenced as much as he was influenced – Alfred Hitchcock for example used Hopper’s 1925 painting House by the Railroad as the basis for the design of the Bate’s Motel in Psycho, and his paintings continue to make their presence felt in the world of cinema – Terence Malik, Ridley Scott, David Lynch and Sam Mendes have all acknowledged the debt they owe to Hopper.

Automat sets up one of these ‘first scenes’ brilliantly. It’s night, a girl sits alone in an automated fast food restaurant. She’s removed one of her gloves. Outside the street may or may not be deserted, we can’t tell since the reflection of the sterile and brightly lit interior has obliterated our view of the outside world. It’s difficult to tell whether her blank gaze rests on the table in front of her or the empty chair opposite. The restaurant itself seems deserted, and here the title of the work comes into play, by making it clear this is an automat, we know that there are no waiting staff present merely morgue-like rows of mass produced food in glass-fronted, coin-operated pigeonholes. Her only company seems to be the bowl of fruit that sits on the windowsill behind her.

This last detail reminds me of Manet’s Bar at the Folies Bergere – is there an implication that the girl, like Manet’s barmaid, is as much a commodity on display as the fruit bowl? Unlike Manet’s painting however, Hopper leaves us, the viewer, out of the equation, at the Folie begere, we’re clearly meant to identify with the top-hatted dandy we can see in the reflection to the left, but here in the Automat we seem to be absent rather than present – we have no reflection and the girl does not acknowledge us – we’re a ghost, a voyeur, like a film goer we can only watch, we can’t interact.

So what’s the story?

The great thing about Hopper’s work is that the gaps he leaves in the narratives are so flexible that no two people are likely to come up with the same story. Pete, my mum and I all stood in front of Automat when it was shown as part of Hopper’s retrospective at Tate Modern in 2003, and all of us came up with different stories – for me (morose as ever) the girl had been stood up by a blind date, for Pete she was a spy waiting for another agent to arrive so she could hand over the microfilm and for mum she was taking a break from a shopping trip, enjoying a moments quiet away from the busy city outside. Of course none of us were right, but none of us were wrong, we brought our own perspectives to the painting and as a result the encounter probably said more about us than it did about the painting.

So after all that what have learnt? I’m a miserable git, my mum’s a shopaholic and Pete’s a spy. Hmmmm. Must look into that. Might explain why he never lets me drive the car – worried I’d set of the ejector seat probably…

Between Comfort and Horror: Dorothea Tanning (1910-2012)

Dorothea Tanning - Nue couchée 1969-70 (The Dorothea Tanning Collection and Archive)

I’ve spent the day writing an article on Surrealism generally and in particular the work of the male artists of the movement. I should point out that since the subject of the piece is my old friend the Minotaur, the gender bias involved was driven by the subject rather than a sin of omission. In fact if I was to write a more generalised piece on the movement  I think the balance would definitely be tilted in the other direction, as it’s the work of artists such as Lee Miller, Louise Bourgeoise, Meret Openheim and Leonora Carrington that really fascinates me. It’s not that I find the work of the male artists uninteresting, just that, perhaps as a function of my own gender I find them easier to pin down, less challenging.

It’s therefore a touch ironic that it was only when I called it a day today and pulled my head out of the books on Man Ray, Dali, Picasso and Masson that I learned of the death of Dorothea Tanning, and it seemed only right to put down a few words of appreciation for this often overlooked artist.

I vividly remember seeing  Eine Kleine Nachtmusik at the age of about 13. Then as now themes of dreams and fantasy fascinated me and it pulled me in far more than Dali’s Metamorphosis of Narcissus that was hanging nearby. Looking at it now with hindsight I think I can see why  – of the two dream images it is Tanning’s image of a girl venturing out onto a landing to be confronted by an apparently animated giant sunflower that speaks honestly of childhood nocturnal fears. The sparse composition, the empty corridor disappearing into the distance, the multiple doors and the apparently innocent object made threatening by its monstrous scale all come together to create a landscape that seem genuinely dream-like, by comparison Dali’s painting seems like a junk-shop arrangement of ideas – one painting looks like a child’s nightmare, the other seems like a painting of an adult thinking about what a nightmare should look like.

However, as much as her paintings continue to intrigue me , it is the series of soft sculptures that Tanning produced in the 1970s that really pull me in. These strange fabric constructions of female bodies merging, stretching, grasping, bulging out of items of furniture and climbing up walls occupy a space between comfort and horror. Like the work of her contemporary Louise Bourgeoise, these works are simultaneously attractive and repellant, speaking of both the joys and fears of the relationship between mother and child; when confronted by them in a gallery you’re not quite sure whether you want to hug them or run away very quickly to avoid being swallowed up and smothered by the plush folds.

Both her paintings and sculptures have clearly been an influence on more recent generations of artists,  Helen Chadwick, Sarah Lucas and Cathy De Monchaux all spring to mind and perhaps less obviously, comic artist Jill Thompson (her work on Neil Gaiman’s Sandman series in particular.)

It is sad that her work is not as widely known as most of her male counterparts from the movement, and that contemporary surveys and exhibitions still tend to focus on her position within the movement as one of a number of romantic partners to the male artists. (Apart from one boxed out text discussing the 1942 painting Birthday, the catalogue of the 2001 Tate show Surrealism: Desire Unbound spills as much ink on the subject of Tanning’s marriage to Max Ernst as it does to her work).  Hopefully her death will lead to a long overdue reappraisal of her work.

(To learn more about Tanning’s life and work, please visit the Dorothea Tanning Collection and Archive.)