Tuesday, 6 September 2011

The Portrait and the Camera

With the advent of the camera, of course, the function of Art as a recorder and presenter of actuality started to fade away. At first there were matters of format to sort out. Which photographic system should be used? How could the size of the equipment be reduced to make it a practical proposition for anywhere other than the studio? It was, perhaps, the first example of this process which is now so familiar to us in the early 21st Century. Just as video recorders, computers, televisions, mobile phones and personal stereos have developed and altered, so the camera. True democratisation of the photographic image arrived with the invention of roll film from the 1880s, and the subsequent development of the Kodak Eastman Box Brownie introduced in 1900, a simple to use basic camera which sold for one dollar. Now anyone could take a “snap” and, if a good result was obtained, have it enlarged, framed, and hung on the wall.

So what happened to the portrait? The simple answer is that it thrived. Which is odd, when you come to think about it. You'd imagine that the one discipline which would be rendered obsolete by the camera would be the simple representation of someone's face or, indeed, thewhole person. But this was not so, and one example may show why. Ellen Terry was the leading English Actress of her day. Although not considered an absolute Beauty, she was a handsome, strong, confident woman who had decades of success in Europe and in the United States. Here is a photograph of her from about 1890:

And here is John Singer Sargent's portrait of her as Lady Macbeth from the same period:

The portrait (a great example of what came to be known as the “Swagger Portrait” for obvious reasons does what the photography of the time could not. It records the feel of the moment as well as the actuality. In fact, the actuality has already become less important. Just look Lady Macbeth's robes; look at the brushwork.

The swirls and streaks create a marvellous impression of what that robe looked like, almost what it must have felt like to wear. It tells us more about Ellen Terry, her person, and her interpretation of that role than a mere photograph could have done – certainly given the constraints of the equipment at that time. And so – slightly late in the day – I've used the word “Impression”.

The Hare With Amber Eyes

Here's the review I wrote on Amazon about Edmund de Waal's book on his family history.  Certainly caused a fuss.  Follow the link at the end if you want to see the posts it engendered on Amazon.  I've reproduced it here because it addresses some interesting issues about patronage and ownership of Art.

The Hare with Amber Eyes: A Hidden Inheritance (Hardcover)
I really wanted to like this book and, as far as literary craftsmanship is concerned, I do. It is beautifully written. But I can't help feeling that there is something important missing. We read about the fabulous wealth (and it was really fabulous) of the Author's forebears (the Ephrussis) going back five generations. These were men - and a few women - who commissioned works of Art from such as Renoir and Manet; who lived in huge palaces in the centre of Paris or Vienna; who owned huge estates in the Czech countryside and homes in many different cities; and who assembled their massive wealth, not through invention or production, but through banking and brokerage in foodstuffs. In living as the Author describes none of them, I am certain, meant any harm to anyone. They saw themselves, surely, as model employers, as philanthropists. They floated above normal Viennese (and Parisian) society; they were hardly affected by the First World War; the slump and depression of the early 1930s didn't affect their standard of living much; only the Nazis were able to bring down their world of privilege after the Austrian Anschluss of late 1937. And, unforgiveably, this happened because they were Jewish, as it happened to so many at the time. But the consequences for this particular very rich family were not as serious as for many of their fellow Jews, since they were able to buy their exits from Nazi Austria, albeit at the expense of almost their entire fortune, and with a huge amount of very stressful anxiety (which circumstance, the Author indicates, sadly killed his Great Grandmother). But those members of the Family who ended up in England for the duration of the Second World War lived in more comfort than many of the English, in a villa in Tunbridge Wells. Distant connections and some friends had their lives ended, tragically, in Nazi death camps, but these cultivated, educated, privileged people survived, although in very reduced circumstances.

The account of events immediately after Anschluss are very interesting. At first the local Austrian Brownshirts trashed the Ephrussi Palace in what seems, from the descriptions in the book, as much like undirected class resentment as political violence and sequestration. Only when the Germans arrived did the systematic theft of the family's treasures take place. The poor (or poorer) people of Vienna wrought a sort of violent anti-capitalist vengeance before the serious work of the German SS commenced. All this was and is deplorable, of course. But, rather like the Bankers in our present society, I wonder if the Author's forebears had any idea of the resentment that they had stoked up against themselves with their fabulous and unreal standard of living.

So I read this book with great interest and enjoyed it for the most part. But from fairly early on I had an unworthy feeling that "they had it coming". Not the anti-Jewish persecutions - which, it surely goes without saying, were utterly barbaric and inexcusable - but a reckoning with and by the poor and the dispossessed, even if their poverty and dispossession was only relative. (I sincerely hope that no-one reads this as any sort of apology for or justification of, the atrocities of the Nazis' vile regime; I have simply tried to be scrupulous in my explanation of the uneasiness I felt at the story told in this book.)

And I was left with an interesting question. Just how civilised are (were) the very rich? Of course, they have all the hallmarks of civilisation - appreciation of high Art and Culture, a code of behaviour which appears to be the epitome of politeness, often a great philanthropy, a facility with languages, a wide reading, cleanliness, reliability, and (that elusive quality) character. But - you have to accept - the very rich are very rich because they are able to make a profit from the labour and from the needs of their fellow men. At what point on the sliding scale does "a fair profit" become rank exploitation?

It is always fruitless to say "this would have been a better book if . . ." but a little more empathy from the Author for the poor and the dispossessed who formed the foundations of the society in which the Ephrussis flourished so remarkably would have been welcome.

The review and the posts it engendered.

And then?

I've reached the point where the function of Art changed, and it changed because of two technologies: photography and printing.  A photographer, even in the mid-19th Century, could record an accurate image in a fracton of the time it would take an artist to do the job less accurately.  Using the new print technologies the image - or any image - could be reproduced as amny times as required, and very cheaply.  Of course these are both monochromatic technologies at this point, but the writing's on the wall for painting.  Just as Art came to terms with how things really look, just as the skills of the painter reached a zenith of maturalism, so those skills - as far as strict reportage is concerned - were becoming redundant.

What I'd like to carry forward is the idea that a painting has different meanings to different people right from the beginning, even before it is completed in some respects.  The Artist will have a view: s/he may be obsessed with the conception and execution of the artwork as a pure work of art; s/he may have a mercenary attitude, concerned to please the commissoning patron; whatever, s/he will be concerned about achieving the desired outcome, either in artistic terms, or in terms of fulfilling the commission, or (most likely) both.  The patron will have a view.  How prescriptive was the commission?  How well is the artist fulfilling the brief?  Is it value for money?  Will it enhance the patron's prestige?  The casual viewer - perhaps in a saleroom or a gallery, will have a view too.  What is it?  Do I like it?  Is it well executed?  Is it any good?  Does it move me?

All this is not unimportant.  Consensus is harder to reach with so many different viewpoints.  To take a simple example, here are some of the comments I've heard about J M W Turner's work:

* he couldn't paint people at all accurately

* he is the forerunner of the Impressionists

* he is better than the Impressionists

* his eyesight was wonky

* he is the greatest British artist of all time

* he was a hack, only in it for the money

And so on.  Obviously these views are not all mutually exclusive; some people like one part of Turner's opus, some another.  But there is no complete consensus, despite the historical perspective we have.  Generally, what there is is a canon of work regarded as being worth looking at.  And that applies to all Art up to, say, the 1900s.  And then, and then . . . 

 Snow Storm - Steam-Boat off a Harbour's Mouth - J M W Turner . . . painted in 1842, remember!

(Originally published 10/10/2010)

Painting's functions in the 18th and 19th Centuries

And then there's landscape; views; the picturesque.  Here is one of Canaletto's views of the Thames, painted in 1747 and showing the Lord Mayor's Day Regatta.  It speaks of London's importance and grandeur.  It exaggerates the width of the Thames and the scale of St Pauls, but remains an astounding panorama of perhaps the most important city in the world at this time.  It makes you want to be there, as does this famous painting by John Constable from 1826:

"The Cornfield" is in the long tradition of the English pastoral.  We know that it subtly improved on the actual view at the time, but this doesn't matter.  It's an ideal English rural view, and actually affects the way we see the countryside.  It conditions us to look for the picturesque in our own countryside.  It doesn't matter that we know that the lives of those working in the picture were far from idyllic; that they died young from preventable diseases; that they lived in poverty in an unequal society.  It captures a moment on a hot summer's day when any of us would be happy to be in the shade and to take a drink from the same stream as the boy in the red waistcoat.  It's a landscape which we can navigate in our imagination, through the gateway into the cornfield, and on to the church in the distance.

And then, from four years later there's this:

Samuel Palmer's "Magic Apple Tree" is further removed from reality, drawing on a different tradition which takes in William Blake and the Christian symbolism of the New Jerusalem.  You couldn't navigate anywhere from the information in this canvas.  This is a mystical picture of a strange and idealised landscape.  It speaks of the spirit of place rather than topography, and as such is one of the most famous landscape pictures of the 19th Century, despite having languished in the office of the Director of the Fitzwilliam Museum in Cambridge for a number of years, kept there presumably for his private delectation.  This is far removed from Thomas Gainsborough's famous double portrait and landscape of Mr and Mrs Andrews:

This has been called the ultimate 18th Century Capitalist portrait.  Painted after the Andrews' wedding in 1750, it shows the happy couple in front of the landscape which they own.  I detect a slightly smug air about them.  Someone once said (tell me who, please?) that Mr Andrews is saying "This is my dog, this is my gun, this is my land, this is my Wife" - with the emphasis on the possessive pronoun.  But there is another view which takes into account Gainsborough's recorded dislike of the "Landed Gentry" - he has painted them as being at odds with the idyllic landscape, him with his gun, she with her inappropriate dress.  It's worth recording that he painted this a year after the wedding, when Mr Andrews was 23 and his Wife 17.

And now another strand which grows in importance as we enter the 19th century: animal portraiture.

This is "Whistlejacket", painted for his owner, the Marquess of Rockingham in the early 1760s, when the horse was about 12 years old.  By definition racehorses have a short useful life, and rather than rely on memories of  Whistlejacket's great victory over a four mile course at York in 1759 (which netted him 2,000 guineas), the noble owner commissioned Stubbs to record him.  This huge canvas - almost 10 feet high - shows the animal and nothing else, a real departure in this sort of picture.  While we can read this as a statement of pride in the ownership of such an animal, the sheer presence of the horse and the accuracy of the depiction, transcends such a view.  This is a horse for everyone, the essence of racehorse.  Unfortunately this magnificent portrait leads us on to the cloying sentimentality of the Victorian animal picture. 

(Originally published 22/09/2010)

Painting's functions in the 18th Century

In 1735 William Hogarth painted this last of eight pictures in his great series "The Rake's Progress".  The Rake has wasted his fortune on gambling, whoring, drinking, and false friends; he has jilted his pregnant fiancee, been thrown into the Fleet Prison for debt, and ends up in this picture on the floor, sans everything, pox-ridden and mad, in Bedlam - The Bethlehem Hospital for the Insane, in London.  It's a morality picture; it shows the wages of sin and debauchery.  Hogarth was genuinely disgusted by the excesses of the metropolitan beau monde of the early 18th century and painted his series of images as a warning about the results of those excesses.

So in some ways this picture is not too different in intention from the devotional works of earlier centuries, although it's unlikely that it would ever find a home in a church.  Like the paintings in my last post this shows how to live a good life - or rather, in this case, what to avoid in order to live a good life.  It is, for most of us in the 21st Century, a more powerful image than a picture of the Holy Family, or a saint or two, no matter how much gold-leaf the latter may display.  But this is still a "morality picture" in a tradition which stretches from mediaeval church wall paintings through both Breugels, Goya, and such 20th century painters as C R W Nevinson, Paul Nash ("We Are Making A New World"), and even Picasso ("Guernica").

Another form of painting which changeded over the three hundred years between 1450 and 1750 is portraiture.  Always slightly questionable as a display of wealth and egoism, the only portraits with which the mediaeval peasant would have been familiar were those of the patrons of their local church who paid the artist to insert them into a corner of the altarpiece, perhaps next to an obscure saint or martyr, possibly in the belief that the painting would predict their stature in the afterlife.  But now, look at this fine portrait by Thomas Gainsborough from around 1786:

This is Mrs Richard Brinsley Sheridan.  As the famous soprano Elizabeth Linley, and a lifelong friend of Gainsborough, she had eloped with Sheridan, the playwright and politician twelve years before this portrait was painted.  It is a "speaking likeness" - she was instantly identifiable.  But Gainsborough has taken her out of the studio in which he painted her, and given her an invented rural setting.  It is an utterly romantic portrait, and the wild brush-strokes with which the Artist has built up the almost impressonistic background and the details of the costume give way to a careful and masterly rendering of Mrs Sheridan's face.  It is a wonderfully tender portrait.  But who was it for?  Only for family and friends, not for continuous public display.  This is private Art, not public.  You could say it is still devotional Art, but only in so far as it expresses the devotion of her husband - and of her friend the artist. The great shame is that this painting in the Mellon Collection in the USA is not on display.

Of course some portraits become famous over time, and have been adopted into the public consciousness.  But there is a distinction between the portrait for public consumption (think Queen Elizabeth, Horatio Nelson, T E Lawrence) and the portrait for private satisfaction, the "this is me, this is my Wife, this is my child" sort of likeness - of no great personal interest to anyone outside the sitter's circle.  Here are those public images:

The "Armada Portrait" attributed to George Gower is absolute Elizabethan propaganda.

The 1800 portrait of Nelson by Lemuel Abbott, already a National hero five years before Trafalgar.

The Augustus John portrait of T E Lawrence from 1919; taken up by a nation desperately in need of heroes who hadn't drowned in the mud of the Ypres Salient.

In contrast here's my favourite private portrait, William Chalmers-Bethune and Family painted by David Wilkie in 1804.

As a "warts and all" depicton this can hardly be beaten.  And yet such tenderness is in this family portrait; I see it as a triumphant artefact of the Enlightenment in Scotland, brilliant in its unflinching honesty.  Initially its appeal must have been limited to the family and friends of the Chalmers-Bethunes.  Now, we see it as a window on its period, fascinating precisely because of its humanity. 

(Originally published 21/09/2010)

Starting to rethink

In a 1906 edition of "Punch" there's a cartoon of an old man with an injured foot sitting in a chair.  He explains to the vicar's wife how he passes the time: "Sometimes I sits and thinks, and sometimes I just sits."  Thinking is like that.  If you set out to have a "thinking" session the chances are you won't come up with anything,  Of course, if you're trying to solve a particular problem you may well be able to concentrate and find a particular, peculiar solution.  But to think - in the abstract, unfettered - you'll probably end up wondering whether you should have that coffee yet, or where that list of things to do (that you wrote yesterday) has got to.

So most times when I set out to think about what Art is (and isn't) I either end up with a couple of trite truisms before drifting off to think about something else, or I find myself thinking how much I despise Tracey Emin, or Nick Serota, or . . . . insert your own pet hate; you know what I'm getting at.

Recently I've tried to change tack and go back to basics; to work forwards from a basic, incontravertible position.  What was Art for in the millenia before Fox-Talbot, the Daguereotype, and photography generally?  What did the artists think they were doing?  What did the patrons think they were paying for?  And what do we think those Artists achieved?  On the surface these are easy questions to answer.  But when you try to put together what they felt then, and what we feel now, you run up against a problem.  To illustrate what I mean, consider a piece of devotional Art.  This is Fra Angelico's "Annunciation" from around 1440:

What's happening here?  Well, the Angel of the Lord has appeared to tell the virgin Mary that she's going to bear a baby who is the son of God.  Mary is struck dumb, apparently, as who wouldn't be?  Apart from everything else, the Angel is in awe of her, and is bending the knee . . . to a humble carpenter's wife!  Amazing.  The poor people who saw this painting would never have seen anything so lifelike.   

These days we are struck by the painter's astounding competence and ability given the context of the times.  The painting doesn't carry the spiritual, emotional weight it did five and a half centuies ago.  We admire the technical skill of the Artist; his contemporaries wouldn't think like that.  They were having the story of the Annunciation made flesh in their own village church - or as near as could be.  Think high definition 3D for us.  Or hyper-reality.  That's what they saw.  And it confirmed what they were told every Sunday and feast day of their lives.

I remember going round a gallery of religious images from the 12th Century through to the beginnings of the Renaissance, in Sienna a few years ago (the Pinacoteca Nazionale).  After the first two rooms it left me cold.  Wall after wall of religious pictures.  Nativity after nativity, miracle after miracle, saint after saint.  Boring.  It was utter overkill.  But, of course, this was a collection from the whole of Tuscany and beyond - from little churches in tiny communities.  Each church might have had just one or two images.  The people who worshipped in each church might be familiar with three or four other churches in similar communities - and that would be the limit of their experience of Art, and of the accurate representation of life - of simulacra.

Here's a lesser known painting from Sienna:

This is The Mystic Marriage of Saint Catherine and St John the Baptist by Michelino da Besozza in about 1420, now in the Sienna Gallery I visitedWe cannot understand this image now unless we see it as an elaborate allegory.  We cannot understand the idea of a spiritual union between a humble but saintly virginal woman, and characters who had been dead for over a millenium, or who were local dignitaries who paid for the image.  But to humble "parishioners" who saw this every week in their church - and who saw no other accurate images - it was a deep reality; in some ways a deeper reality than that of their own daily existence, since it spoke of their own imminent eternity, which was going to be so much better than their earthly life.

It's taken me more than twenty years to understand the significance of those rooms and rooms of devotional Art I saw in Sienna.  The paintings still do not really move me as objects in themselves.  But their significance to the men and women who saw them when the paint was fresh - well, if I can respond to any work of Art in such a sincere way, I would count it a good day.  No, a great day. 

So now I need to think about how a more secular, less naive society looked at its Art.  I'm going to move forward 300 years and think about the 18th Century.
(Originally published 20/09/2010)

Birmingham Art Gallery

I visited this gallery last Friday and was amazed at the quality of the 19th Century painting which they have.  There's a fine version of Ford Madox Brown's "The Last of England", almost identical to that held by the Fitzwilliam in Cambridge:

There's what must be almost a full size water-colour study for Burne Jones' "King Cophetua and the Beggar Maid":

There's Millais's "The Blind Girl:

There's a half size copy by Ford Madox brown of his "Work", the original of which hangs in Manchester:

This is Rossetti's final version of "Beata Beatrix", left unfinished at his death in 1882:

All these and many other fine Pre-Raphaelite paintings.  Birmingham's modern collection is much sparser, and the very recent stuff is mostly the usual rubbish that will probably be in a skip within 20 years (we can but hope), but there is a reconstruction of Epstein's amazing "Rock Drill" from 1913 - twelve feet high and very imposing:

Finally a couple of works from about the same period.  First is C R W Nevinson's "Column on the March" from about 1915 - stunning, and I've never seen it before:

And from a few years later, Munnings' "Arrival at Epsom Downs for Derby Day":

(Originally published 22/08/2010)