The Persistence of Coloured Mud, or the multiple and much exaggerated deaths of painting (NVA, 2012)
In debates about art, it often seems as though the only thing to be reported more regularly than the death of painting is its miraculous recovery and re-emergence from its latest grave. Despite the many technological, political and aesthetic challenges to its centrality and relevance, the expressive form once described by Robert Hughes as “the act of pushing coloured mud around on a piece of cloth or board, using a stick with hairs on the end” is yet to be dislodged from its central place in the art markets or working artists’ own studios.
The regular complaint that painting has been displaced by performance, installation, video and photography in art schools and galleries omits to note that painters like Peter Doig and Elizabeth Peyton are among the biggest names around, while few exhibitions are without a substantial gathering of stretched canvases smeared with that ‘coloured mud’ it seems nothing can quite erase. Even in Sensation, the 1997 Royal Academy exhibition that consolidated Damien Hirst’s superstar status and anointed him as the emblematic artist of the YBA generation, around half the works were variously traditional easel paintings by Jenny Saville, Fiona Rae, Chris Ofili, Glenn Brown, Marcus Harvey and Gary Hume.
The stars of Sensation have fairly continuously found themselves drawn to painting. Tracey Emin’s intimately pale slathers showing nudes on beds were well represented at her Hayward Gallery retrospective in 2011, while Hirst’s decision to show No Love Lost: Blue Paintings at the Wallace Collection in 2010 was a notable example of one of the world’s most financially successful artists feeling a desperate need to prove himself in the very medium his own career might have suggested was now irrelevant. Hirst’s insistence on making the paintings himself and his obvious infatuation with Francis Bacon and Ross Bleckner exposed the great market manipulator as a besotted, slightly clumsy student at heart.
But perhaps it’s precisely because painting is antiquated that it possesses this degree of resilience. Quite apart from the immediate – even primal – gratification of handling and manipulating paint, with only a minimal distance between the artist’s hand and the end result, painting retains the kind of magic inherent in any act that generates concrete results from almost nothing: the instinctive thrill we experience when making brightly coloured splurges on paper as children. There’s also the fact that simply by picking up a brush and a pot of paint an artist stands, consciously or otherwise, in a direct line of descent from the first human to smudge out a bison’s outline on a Lascaux cave wall.
“From today, painting is dead!” The artist Paul Delaroche is supposed to have exclaimed these words on seeing a Daguerreotype for the first time in the 1830s, but while it’s been suggested that he was being sarcastic, whether he saw in the infant technology of photography an augury of his own profession’s demise or an object of bemusement is almost irrelevant given the resonance of the question his response addressed. The contrast between the tiny grey image he was almost certainly looking at and the great traditions of Titian, David and Delacroix must have seemed comically stark, so perhaps an ironic inflection and a dismissive wave of the hand could well have accompanied his famous pronouncement.
The emergence of a method for transcribing images from nature using lenses and chemicals didn’t spell the end for painting, then, but it had thrown down a serious challenge to its traditional role and function. For Gustave Courbet, the textures of stone and imperfections of skin would now take on a grandeur previously reserved for religious, mythological and historical subjects, as though casting his own gauntlet at the feet of this upstart medium. In The Origin of the World (1866), commissioned by the Turkish Egyptian diplomat Kahlil-Bey, Courbet painted a female torso with parted thighs, the genitalia and pubic hair precisely delineated: an image of intimacy and raw psychological power that photography would not match for decades.
At a time when photographers still required long exposures and studio lighting to create legible images, the Impressionists had begun to develop interests in fleeting light effects and scenes from contemporary life, often rendered in a manner akin to snapshots. Manet and the Impressionists consolidated a shift to the artist working en plein air, transforming the Salon’s posed theatrical scenes, full of carefully frozen implied movement, into the ‘painting of modern life’, quick-handed observation of city streets, nightclub interiors and the factory-studded suburbs of an emergent modernity. Perhaps it’s no accident that when photography did catch up, camera tripods had come to bear a more than passing resemblance to easels.
Parallel to these responses was the widespread adoption of subjects that defied photography simply by not existing in the world in the first place: the domain of what would become Symbolism. Artists like Gustave Moreau, Odilon Redon and James Ensor conjured phantasmagorias, chimeras, dream-like, grotesque and fantastical scenes, sometimes grounded in shared mythologies – the Cyclops and Medusa, the universal Death-symbol of the animated skeleton – at others, conjurations of hermetically personal subjectivities in anticipation of the Freudian and Surrealist tendencies that would grow in centrality during the first half of the twentieth century.
Another source of reinvention was Thought Forms (1901), a publication by the English Theosophists Annie Besant and Charles W. Leadbeater that unwittingly provided a template for abstraction in its watercolour illustrations. These claimed to show the shapes and colours generated by subjective emotions on the astral level, as perceived by spirit mediums. Thought Forms also visualised music in space, echoing the painted sonatas of the Lithuanian composer M.K. Ciurlionis, whose works, while clearly emerging from a Symbolist context, seem to offer an anticipation of stylistic approaches that would become more commonplace in the twenty-first century than they seemed in his own time.
Theosophy’s desire for scientific credibility led to experiments with photography to catch the phenomena described by Thought Forms on film. The best known photographs to emerge from this territory remain those developed using a high voltage process discovered by Semyon and Valentine Kirilian in the Soviet Union during the 1930s and 40s. Yet even before Kirilian’s earliest experiments with electrical discharge photography, themselves sparked by attendance at lectures and demonstrations given by Nicholas Tesla just before the 1917 Revolution, painters like Wasily Kandinsky and Piet Mondrian were using Thought Forms as the founding vocabulary of a new visual language with hermetic but, to initiates, precisely legible meanings: abstraction enters the twentieth century intent on the transformation of human consciousness.
Walter Benjamin wrote his short Marxist treatise on the replication of images, The Work of Art in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction, in 1936 when the possibility of making unlimited numbers of copies of previously unique artworks was already a reality. Benjamin himself proposed that the availability of reproductions would only increase the value of their originals, concentrating rather than dissipating the ‘aura’ that came to surround them, but while his hypothesis proved largely correct, the mass distribution of images was also the cause of another widespread shift in the perception of what the role of painting might be.
On one level, the celebrity of artists like Picasso, Dali and Matisse was clearly enhanced after the 1940s by the availability of posters, books and magazines where paintings, otherwise widely dispersed, could be viewed together, and even tangentially owned, for the price of a paperback. Andre Malraux had suggested that such reproductions comprised a new kind of ‘museum without walls’ where the entire history of art and all its artefacts would be easily available to all. Malraux saw Benjamin’s Age of Mechanical Reproduction as the opportunity for an unprecedented humanist democratisation of access to art.
Picasso had begun to exploit the potential for addressing wider audiences than those inside the venues where his works were displayed when he conceived Guernica for the Spanish Pavilion at the Paris World’s Fair in 1937. By using monochrome tones to echo the feel of the print media and news-reel footage he’d taken his subject matter from, he also ensured that Guernica itself would reproduce clearly when it inevitably reappeared in those same media. It was only ever a short step from Picasso’s consideration of reproduction in his working process to arrive at Andy Warhol’s detachment from making the work that carried his name.
Warhol had announced in a 1963 interview: “Paintings are too hard. The things I want to show are mechanical. Machines have less problems. I’d like to be a machine…” But as Benjamin had noted in 1936: “Even the most perfect reproduction of a work of art is lacking in one element: its presence in time and space, its unique existence at the place where it happens to be.” However impersonal the process involved in making his paintings became, Warhol’s works had the status of originals. His legacy suggests that the unique status of the painting overrides the stated intentions of even an artist intent on erasing all distinction between a real work and its reproduction.
Udo Kultermann’s The New Painting (1969) is an international survey of new directions in painting that spans Abstract Expressionism, Colour Field, Op Art, Pop, Minimalism, the beginnings of Conceptualism and many other forgotten eruptions and groupings: Arte Nucleare, Nouvelle Narrative and Monochromism. Kultermann argues, traditionally enough, that “painting is the conversion of reality into pictorial form” but notes that “the artist of today is influenced by every aspect of contemporary life – be it science, technology, fashion, publicity, the history of art, traffic in the streets or between planets. These widely ranging impressions find expression, often in newly-combined and transformed graphic media”.
The 400 illustrations, mainly dating from the 1960s, are instructive in showing how the infiltration of these themes, mediated through mass communications, had reshaped the medium and its chosen subjects at this point. There are few betrayals of the artist’s hand among Kultermann’s chosen examples and in place of personal visions are endlessly inventive variations on photographic, cinematic and advertising imagery, diverse arrays of hard-edged abstraction, optical illusion, minimalist surface and day-glo patterning. From Oyvind Fahlstrom’s ESSO-LSD (1967) to Carla Accardi’s Pittura (1963), a kind of freewheeling impersonality dominates. The New Painting of 1969 still feels like familiar territory in the galleries of 2012.
This impersonality would be spectacularly, though temporarily, reversed with the next wave, as various forms of Neo-Expressionism, painterly abstraction and mythic figuration made their impacts during the years of recession a decade later. Economists have long tracked a correlation between hemlines and financial conditions, as skirts and coats lengthen during downturns and shorten in periods of prosperity. There seems to be a comparable correlation between recession and resurgences of painterliness, as though the swagger required to confront the public with bold statements of the capitalised ‘New’ requires affluence and is replaced by an assertion of the unique hand of the artist and a restatement of first principles whenever the climate cools.
The 1980s had begun with shows like Norman Rosenthal’s Zeitgeist and A New Spirit In Painting, the mainstreaming of Georg Baselitz and Anselm Kiefer, the hype surrounding Jean Michel Basquiat and Julian Schnabel, the emergence of the ‘New Glasgow Boys’ grouped around Stephen Campbell, Peter Howson and Adrian Wisniewski. Alongside reassessments of older generation one-offs like Cecil Collins, Ken Kiff and Winifred Nicholson, painting’s resurgence seemed briefly to erase much that had been cited in Kultermann’s survey. It’s striking to look at Kultermann’s 1980s equivalent, Klaus Honnef’s Contemporary Art (1988), and note how the two books show so little overlap in personnel or stylistic interests across even a relatively brief time-span.
Since the financial crisis of 2008 another return to painting seems to be quietly underway. Digital evangelists might consider the original work of little relevance when mechanical reproduction now extends to the near infinite full-colour catalogue of the internet, but this has, paradoxically, driven a resurgence of the hand-made and limited, clearly a signal that painting may have found its digital niche. It’s also likely that the relatively low cost of paint and canvas, compared to the advance finance required for installations, video projects or long-term relational interventions, will itself nudge artists back to the studio, where the hand can test itself once more against the technically obsolete – but evidently indestructible – materials of painting.