The kind of paintings I like

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?

Paul Gauguin: “The Night Café, Arles”, oil on jute, 1888. Pushkin Museum, Moscow.

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).

W.-A. Bouguereau: “Sewing”, oil on can­vas, 1898. Private col­lec­tion. There is no “paint­ing” to speak of, really. All traces of how it was made have been hid­den, and you can zoom in as much as you like without reveal­ing any­thing new. There is no reward for look­ing closer or longer.

– 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.

Jacques-Louis David: The Death of Socrates, oil on can­vas, 1787. The Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York. A paint­ing like a col­lage, fig­ures just pas­ted in show­ing an array of arti­fi­cial poses next to one anoth­er instead of actu­ally interacting.

– 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.

Giovanni Bellini: “Allegoria sac­ra”, oil on wood, ca. 1490. Uffizie, Florence. While cer­tain char­ac­ters can be iden­ti­fied, their rela­tion and the nar­rat­ive around them has been lost to his­tory. The paint­ing remains.

– 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.

Kazimir Malevič: Black Square, oil on can­vas, 1915. Tretyakov Gallery, Moscow. The fam­ous black is painted on top of pre­vi­ous lay­ers, not on vir­gin can­vas. Much like the Mona Lisa or Duchamp’s readymades, the piece itself took on so much of a life of its own that nowadays its cre­at­or’s inten­tions hardly mat­ter anymore.

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.

Franz von Stuck: “The Sin”, oil on can­vas, 1893. Neue Pinakothek, München.

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.

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