Without much of an introduction, I’d like to write a few words about what I consider good painting. I’ve wondered for some minutes now whether to segue into the topic via some masterpieces that have impressed me recently, or via some of the ghastly shit I’ve seen as well. Now, just relying on positive examples is like advertising, it might give you some insight into that one “product” but leaves you no comparison, no context, and I really wouldn’t let you enough space to make up your own judgement.
Going along negative examples is fraught with some difficulties as well, but they’re of the more productive sort. It’s easy to look at pictures that are just terribly made, low-hanging fruit, but that’d hardly tell you a lot beyond trivialities. So let’s instead (mostly) look at some acclaimed historical examples that I think took a horribly wrong turn somewhere. When you see me walking by this painting or that drawing and not ever giving it a chance, the reasons would likely be amongst the following.
Some of these points contradict each other. You’ll see me arguing in favour of narration and against it, praising and denouncing figuration, embracing and rejecting the importance of context. I’m fine with that, being a painter and not an art historian I don’t see the need to construct a coherent theoretical edifice. Each of these points is valid in the contexts of many examples, and where they contradict each other, it’s necessary to make choices between them. The more conscious this choice on part of the creator, the more it’ll convince in the finished picture.
– 1 –
The room I stayed in as a child (imagine five, six, seven years old) when visiting my father and grandparents had two reproductions hanging on its wall: Gauguin’s Café de Nuit, and I’m not sure about the other, it might have been van Gogh’s painting of the same name; something similar in any case. To the five-year-old who didn’t have much experience with night cafés of that sort they were inexplicable scenes, not without a certain gloominess, but I remember not having been too occupied with the place or a narration (or absence thereof), rather with all these little puzzles: Did Gauguin paint a man or a woman there? Had the billard balls or the smoke moved since yesterday? This or that shape, is it an artifact of painthandling or an actual object?
At that point I’ve been almost twenty years away from painting myself and probably my ideas of what constitutes good painting haven’t substantially changed since then; at most they’ve become a bit more articulate. Number one: It mustn’t be boring. You have to able to look at it for years and years and still discover something new.
– 2 –
Few stories are that interesting on their own. Just like a novel changes its quality when retold or translated, just like the way a story is told matters possibly more than the content of the story itself, just like a great writer can, maybe should make a simple or dull incident interesting (and a bad writer can make an exciting adventure drag on in the dullest way); no great painting depends on what’s depicted alone, but just as much, if not more, on how it’s shown. In short, painting should be painted.
I’ve got plenty of prejudice and contempt for the greatest part of photorealistic painting for this reason (there may be this or that odd exception that plays this card in a convincing conceptual way), and the difference between on the one hand a painting whose precision or light effects makes us think of a photo but whose vocabulary is that of a painting – marks and brushstrokes that when viewed up close or from a distance remove you into entirely distinct worlds – and on the other hand a rendering of a picture that aims to erase all traces of the tools employed, this difference couldn’t be greater in spirit, in spite of all superficial similarity. So here’s my first negative example, inevitably by Bouguereau (for an excellent write-up on his qualities and shortcomings, see here).
– 3 –
Closely related to the previous point, so closely that I’m really only separating them to stress the generality of this principle: Each great representational painting needs to be a great abstract painting, too.
In my eyes (but I agree that this is highly subjective) there is hardly any difference between truly abstract and truly representational paintings, not even considering all the gradual middle ground. One could argue about either being more difficult to pull off convincingly. While the making of articulated space, objects, figures can be an additional difficulty; their presence can also fool the spectator into overlooking a great deal of weaknesses. And by far the easiest way to guide their gaze through an image is to include faces, specifically eyes, and lines of vision (we’re so profoundly hard-wired to look out for these things that two dots next to each other in an otherwise abstract painting are already enough to arouse suspicion of a hidden figure). The special difficulty in making an exclusively abstract image is to establish and follow its intrinsic rules, the special difficulty in showing the result is to communicate these rules to the spectator, not relying on any outside explanations.
– 4 –
Certain aspects hardly contribute to a painting’s lasting quality, while they’re not harmful on their own. I’m tempted to view narrative and concept as opposite features: narrative being a story told within the frame of the painting; concept being a story of which the painting is part. The former often serves to make a picture more accessible. It’s not even necessary to know or understand the story that the painter intended, as soon as there’s something resembling figures we immediately jump to recognise interactions or to make them up. Today we’re inclined to believe that focus on a concrete, unenciphered story might rather take away from the picture per se; historical precedent doesn’t seem to contradict that suspicion, as pictures whose original narratives aren’t known anymore continue to attract us visually.
Concept, in contrast, references an outside context in a way that ignorance of that context impedes appreciation of a picture. If you don’t “get” a painting because you’re missing a political (or literary or scientific or gossipy) allusion, because the interest lies in how it was made (and no-one told you), because of a language barrier or because you’re just missing a punchline, then that doesn’t necessarily say anything about its quality as an artwork – it does, however, say something rather unflattering about its quality as a painting.
– 5 –
I’m willing to defend the previous point as a dogmatic argument, but here follows another, more empiricistic take on it. In my experience (here we go), any sort of cunning plan before the first brushstroke to make a painting this or that way either gets in the way pretty quickly or has to be dropped altogether. Painting is research, and painting is slow. All sorts of discovery turn up during the process and it’s vital to react to them. No-one has ever had an idea so great and profound and rich in detail that they knew exactly what the final painting would look beforehand and it did turn out that way and it was good. Every decision during the process needs to be open to questioning even if it means backtracking on 90% of the yet-finished work – and having a rigid concept beforehand tends to get into the way with that, unless it’s sufficiently fuzzy and malleable (like narratives tend to be, whose translation into the visual medium offers the painter a great amount of choice).
I’ve recently heard an esteemed contemporary painter (here, around 44:00) describe that issue pretty well: “Painting, to a large degree, is intuitive. But I think it’s a very hard-to-describe mixture (at least for people who don’t paint themselves) between intuition and very clear thinking.”
– 6 –
A lot of technically able painters fall into the trap of wanting to convey a specific message in their work. This road can only lead to failure. If that work ends up beyond rescue as a painting, little use will it be to whatever message contained within it. The confusion might stem from an idea that different media are roughly equivalent to one another under the umbrella of the arts, which they’re absolutely not. Media based on language, like literature, are comparatively suited to communicate specific ideas, to answer specific questions (or, because as a writer you get to choose, to do just the opposite). Almost all other arts are thoroughly rubbish for answers and messages and clarity the further they stray from letter and word, but for some reason that doesn’t seem widely appreciated in the case of painting (compared to, say, instrumental music, where to say that a piece doesn’t have a specific meaning will be a lot less controversial). Worse: In some circles it’s almost seen as a given that visual art, in particular painting, should have an agenda for this or that or really any cause. In reality, if painting (and given more space one might extend that point to all art) has any such purpose, it’d be the opposite: to create mystery rather than solve it. Answering questions is a task for the sciences, not for art. Instead: To make us connect that which we already know in new and surprising and perhaps shocking ways, so that we cannot help but to question it. To introduce fresh irrationality into previously pacified domains. It’s no coincidence that historically it was organised religion rather than science and philosophy that commissioned paintings. Even if you think of the most rational flavours of painting – let’s say, high renaissance or classicism –, they’re are really completely at odds with the then-contemporary realities. At their most rational, they’re a utopia, that is, no-where.
Of course there’s plenty of painting that ignores these limits and tries hard to sell a specific point above everything else. It comes with an even shorter half-life than violations of most other points above. If it does survive it’s in spite of that and because of its overwhelming other qualities.
Another kind of wrong here below, typical for some entire generations of painters.
Back when I had little exposure to symbolism, I was mighty impressed by Franz von Stuck and colleagues. The novelty quickly weared off, though. All of his most celebrated paintings are alike: Just the simplest image of woman imaginable.
– 7 –
So it’s not that content doesn’t matter, either – quite the opposite, it is fundamental and necessary for a painting to have substance. Lack of content is a very typical shortcoming of first-year students (been there …), but also something that many people overcome rather quickly. It’s the essential step from imitating models to creating something original. Perhaps, though, it’s the most elusive quality, the hardest to appraise critically in a reliable manner. It’s the content consciously and intentionally crammed into a visual picture that’s likely to do more harm than good; while content that flows organically through the painter’s hand without them even noticing can have a far greater positive impact than all skill and effort. It’s whatever occupies and interests the painter; and in an indifferent state of mind, as someone who’s not curious in principle or who doesn’t view their own life as remarkable it’s close to impossible to start creating a compelling picture (or, now, any work of art). Caspar David Friedrich was absolutely right:
“The artist should not only paint what he sees before him, but also what he sees in himself. If, however, he sees nothing within him, then he should also refrain from painting what he sees before him.“
Pictures that lack content often – subconsciously or on purpose – try to cover these failures with gratuitous stylistic choices layered on top. Some become exercises in graphic design. Now good graphic design is a precious good and should be deserving of its proper own picture, but as a mere cover it’s how Friedrich continues the above quote:
“Otherwise his pictures will be like those folding screens behind which one expects to find only the sick or the dead.”