A Dilettante's Guide to Art
1001 Paintings You Should See Before You Die acknowledges the question "What is Painting?" The answer: "Who cares?"
Sometime in the middle of the 19th century painting started to get a little screwed up. It began to worry. Painters stopped simply doing what they were doing and started spending more and more time trying to figure out what they were doing and why. They got into the "What Is?" question. "What is Painting?", "What is Art?" "What Is…?"
It’s hard to blame them for it. The "What Is?" question was in the air. Chalk it up to the vast and traumatic transformations that ushered in modern times. Everybody was trying to figure out what was different and what was still the same. In painting, the biggest change was in the abandonment of representation as the central task. Nobody was interested in problems of perspective anymore, in figuring out how best to make the world of three dimensions look vaguely like itself on the canvas of two dimensions. And yet, for some reason, people still felt the desire to paint. Who knows why? Maybe it was just the need to hold on to a little tradition even as so much else was being swept away. Maybe it was the hope that an old practice could remake itself in a new world. Whatever the explanation, painting managed to remake itself and painters rushed into the 20th century with purpose. They had discovered a new subject matter, painting itself, and they were hot to show off its possibilities. Painting took on a double task, not just to do what it was doing, but also to make a claim about what it should be doing. Painters started talking about painting within their own paintings.
Malevich’s famous White on White comes to mind. It was, basically, one white square painted on top of another white square. It is a lovely painting in its own right, but it is also a manifesto in pigment. When Malevich painted those white squares he was also asking what painting could be, what it was about, what it should and shouldn’t be. Malevich was obsessed with the idea that art had to be freed from its relationship to the object. He thought that art should go after something more pure, perhaps touching on the realm of purity itself, wherever that is. That, presumably, was why he wrote a book called The World as Non-Objectivity. His paintings thus asked the “What Is?” question and proposed to answer it simultaneously. His answer was that painting ought to be about truth and that truth is a simple and geometrical thing.
Malevich’s White on White cannot be found in the recently published volume 1001 Paintings You Must See Before You Die. You can see Malevich's Black Circle, which conveys essentially the same painterly ideas as White on White, if in reverse. But it doesn't get the final word. In fact, Black Circle sits opposite the open page from Portrait of Countess Mathieu de Noailles by Ignacio Zuloaga. Zuloaga’s painting is certainly powerful, though in a different way. You’d like to have known this countess. She has a look on her face that says, “Bring me a glass of wine, asshole, and then say something smart. I’m waiting.” The text beneath the countess states, “There is a pleasing symmetry to the picture: the peonies on the curtains alongside those in the vase, the pattern of the vase which emulates the folds of the bedcovers, the dark, patterned stockings match her dark hair, all in sharp contrast to the demure color of her dress.” And then when your eye strays over to the verso side of the book you can learn of Malevich that, “All references to figurative elements are abandoned in favor of a total abstract composition.” That’s a hell of a contrast. You’d expect at least a little scuffle between the two paintings. The “adventurous” countess struggling for some space within the frame as the pure blackness of Malevich’s circle/abyss emerges out of the dark mass of her hair and threatens to obliterate every fold and crease, every representational aspect of the countess’ painterly world. The “rich colors of traditional costume and Andalusian life” versus the silent ideal realm of Suprematism. But it doesn’t happen. The roll of paintings simply marches on into the next pages where we get Composition VII by Wassily Kandinsky facing Swifts: Paths of Movement + Dynamic Sequences by Giacomo Balla, two stunning works of early 20th century abstract painting that look nothing like the works of Suprematism. So much for Malevich's attempt at a final gesture. Abstraction itself is fluid and on the move with Kandinsky and Balla. By the time you turn the page again and get to Ernst Ludwig Kirchner's Berlin Street Scene it is hard to remember that Malevich even existed. There is something new to be delighted by.
The amazing thing about 1001 Paintings is thus the breeziness of it all. It is a dilettante’s book. Its intended reader is surely someone like the woman pictured on the cover, standing with her back to us, wearing a tasteful black dress and expensive, though not gaudy, earrings. She went to Brown, I think, where she studied English literature and wrote a thesis on Wordsworth. She still loves reading Keats when she gets the chance but her career in financial services and her role as board member for several non-profits prevents her from dedicating as much time to art and literature as she would like.
Yet, mock her as we might, our woman in black from Brown is right, because the dilettantes are always right, because paintings are for looking at, and because every claim about what painting “should be” gets shriveled and old and academic even before the canvas does. The dilettante doesn’t care much about what painting “should be,” only about what it is and has been. And the thing that keeps this standpoint from being utterly trivial is the hint of melancholy in it. The dilettante is interested in all things equally because in the long eye of time all things are equally transient. Looking can become delightful again from that perspective, but it is tinged with the mark of death. The dilettante acknowledges this mark, and then goes about the business of living.
Thus the title, 1001 Paintings You Must See Before You Die. Acknowledge death, move on. The answer that the book thus gives to the question “What is Painting?” is simple and clear. The answer is “Who cares?” More pertinent to this book is the question “What’s the next painting I should see?” I want to stress again that this is a remarkable question and, I think, an inherently good one. It is a question that completely ignores the “What Is?” style of inquiry and gets right to the looking. And that is a bold and liberating thing to do.
In fact, the whole question of what makes a painting good is tactfully brushed to the side by 1001 Paintings You Must See Before You Die. In his introduction, Stephen Farthing, the artist and professor at the University of the Arts in London who chose the paintings, notes that every work in the book can't live up to the "premier league," as he puts it, of a painting like Velázquez's Las Meninas. But he assures us that, "Each painting that made it into the final cut did so because it was important or interesting, or both. Interesting because of its subject matter or the way it was painted, important because of its relationship with other paintings." The absurd circularity of saying that paintings are good because they are interesting or important doesn't bother Stephen much, and God bless him for it. No one else knows why good paintings are good either. A little later in the introduction he suggests that the "technical" approach to painting would force us to conclude that the goodness of a painting rests in the perfect balance between form and content, form being "the shape of the thing," and content being "not simply the subject matter, but what the artist is saying with the paint and the subject matter." Helpful. Somewhere Clement Greenberg is chuckling in his grave, though he's chuckling in some sympathy with Farthing. Greenberg knew that taste can't be proven or deduced in a set of axioms; it simply is. In a sense, the empty definitions in the introduction serve to strengthen the overall point of the book, which is to stop talking and start looking. 1001 Paintings You Must See Before You Die is about showing and not telling.
Even Malevich might have appreciated the therapeutic potential of the book. He had painted himself into a corner with the all-white and all-black paintings. And for a time he simply took to other matters, recognizing that there wasn’t really anyplace else to go from there. Later, he backtracked, taking up the brush again and allowing at least a few shapes and colors to get together and back onto the canvass. Indeed, the book pays homage to this moment by reproducing one of Malevich’s later works, Suprematist Painting. It’s a nice painting that manages to do a lot with a few geometric shapes.
I can only conclude that the editors were having a bit of fun with Malevich when they decided to pair Suprematist Painting with Henri Matisse’s The Piano Lesson. The text for Malevich notes that after he gained some international recognition, “Malevich was then persecuted by the Stalinist regime in Russia, which considered his art Modernist and ‘bourgeois’ in conception.” That’s what you get for having the balls to try to paint the last painting. Matisse’s Piano Lesson, by contrast, is as ambitiously Modernist and comfortably “bourgeois” (is the word “bourgeois” to be spoken and written with scare quotes forever more?) as a painting can be. The text for Matisse states that, “Henri Matisse painted pretty pictures during one of history’s ugliest eras.” As far as we know, he died contented and reasonably assured of his place in the history of art.
The guiding intuition of 1001 Paintings You Must See Before You Die is that painting is a history of small problems, internal problems that move it along from era to era, movement to movement. But painting itself is not a problem. There is no definitive answer to the question “What is Painting?” and, moreover, it is a bad question to pose in the first place. Stick to the little and internal problems.
Be like Matisse — paint pretty pictures even in the face of one of history’s ugliest eras. Matisse didn't accomplish anything less than any other great painter by adopting this approach. But he did so without the fireworks of the “painting-as-manifesto-about-art” that has been a prerequisite for “seriousness” in painting so often in the last century.
The fruits of dilettantism may be most obvious when it comes to the paintings of the modern era, but they extend backward as well. Going back to the 1460s, for instance, we find the painting Journey of the Magi to Bethlehem by Benozzo Gozzoli. This is an odd painting, but the mid-15th century was odd. I've always found it particularly difficult to penetrate the mental landscape of Europe from the early Middle Ages through the Early Renaissance. There were different rules. God still existed. Life was interpreted through a complex network of symbols and allegories that are faded and impenetrable for us. But one can appreciate, at least, the richness in color and the beauty of the design in Gozzoli's painting. It moves across a dreamy space. As the text below the painting notes, "Spatially, the composition appears rather unresolved and the perspective unconvincing." That's true. Painting is in the process here of working out various difficulties in composition and perspective.
Indeed, the verso for Gozzoli's painting is Piero della Francesca's The Flagellation of Christ, also from 1460. The text for this painting notes, "Christ's flaying is displaced to the left background, and takes place in a tiled gallery which is depicted with complete mastery of perspective and foreshortening." It seems almost as if Francesca painted The Flagellation just to play around with perspective and see what he could cook up. I don't think I've ever seen a painting about the Flagellation that is less religious, that is less in awe of the content. But, then again, there is an awe there. The awe is, as the editors write, displaced. Francesca took the awe from one thing and put it into another. He took an intense, fully loaded subject matter and redirected its energy into the questions of space, foreground and background, relations on a field. Gozzoli goes the opposite route. He's content to let the painting look like a tapestry. He throws out as much color and texture as he possibly can in order to make up for the deficiencies in the depiction of space. He isn't up to the challenge of perspective in the way that Francesca is, but his love of detail is its own kind of triumph. Gozzoli creates something remarkable from within the set of rules and techniques available to him, Francesca is at work creating new options altogether. Such are the revelations of pages 94 and 95.
And if you want to see how it all turned out, just keep turning the pages. Flipping ahead to pages 304 and 305 and the 18th century, it's clear that the problems of perspective are no longer problems so much as opportunities. Exhibition of a Rhinoceros at Venice by Pietro Longhi and Reclining Girl by François Boucher are show-off paintings. They revel in their mastery of techniques that were just being grasped in the 15th century. Exhibition of a Rhinoceros at Venice is an utterly frivolous painting. What’s the point of it? It seems, if nothing else, to exult in the fact that a rhinoceros has been rendered in a way that looks both natural and simultaneously absurd. The rhinoceros stands below what almost looks like a jury box. A group of masked revelers are arranged in a pyramid above. Longhi says, "I can make it all work out no matter the seeming incongruity. Press me, I respond."
Reclining Girl is a different kind of study in frivolity. It is a “screw you” to the challenges posed by the human form to the two-dimensional space. The Reclining Girl is nothing and she means nothing. But that's why she is great. She really is reclining. You feel her reclining. Boucher knows that he has captured the shape and texture and posture of reclining and that to do so is a triumph, because the nonchalance of reclining does not give itself up so easily. It is the easiest of things that most resist representation.
Longhi and Boucher together say something loud and clear. They say, "We can do this, it's no big deal." That's an accomplishment. That kind of painterly braggadocio is impossible to imagine in the 15h century and Longhi and Boucher know it. At least, that is the impression you get when you can flip back and forth between them so easily. Longhi and Boucher are suddenly breathing free after centuries of hard-won labors.
A painting like St. Donation of Rheims by Jan Gossaert from the early 16th century is a case in point. Gossaert achieved something remarkable in rendering his Saint but it was heavy work. The painting is almost physically weighted down by the effort it took to get that face right, to capture the weird puffy serious humanism of St. Donation as Gossaert portrays him. In a way, it is probably appropriate that the painting of the Saint feels so laborious. It was hard work to be saint and in the end, Gossaert reminds us, it was the work that human beings were doing, human beings with all their flaws and baggy eyelids.
As the text below Gossaert's paintings also notes, the painting can't keep up the energy when it comes to the hand in the foreground. The face is alive, the hand is a dead thing seemingly connected to someone or something else. Gossaert got tired. Or maybe he just wasn't good at hands. One imagines that if Longhi or Boucher could step back a few hundred pages they could easily fix the problem in one lazy morning of cheap wine, idle gossip, and a few flicks of the wrist. But our woman in black from Brown wouldn't want them to. She likes the little problems as they are. She revels in the failures and frustrations of each era. She delights in the tricks of perspective that Gossaert attempts with the candle wheel held by St. Donation. The trick doesn't work. It is laborious, almost childlike. But it brings out the greatness of that face all the more by being so. You wouldn't change anything in that painting.
Nor, for that matter, would you change anything in Hans Holbein the Younger's The Ambassadors, which is the verso complement to St. Donation of Rheims. I'm not sure I've ever seen such a crazy non sequitur in what is otherwise a restrained and crafted masterwork. But at the bottom of the painting is a wildly skewed rendition of a skull that can only be recognized as a skull when one stands way off to the left side of the painting at an angle. Looked at straight on, it appears to be an accidental smear across the bottom of the painting. Above the skull are the figures of Jean de Dinteville and the Bishop of Lavour, who visited London in 1533 in order to try and prevent the Protestant split from the Church of Rome. I can't prove this, but the impression conveyed by Gossaert and Holbein's paintings when looked at together is the impression of a special tension between form and content unique to the era. The serious religious and political symbolism that paintings were supposed to convey on one hand versus the more quotidian interest in the human face as something that these painters are finally finding themselves able to get into and pull genuine emotion from on the other. The wheel of candles in St. Donation and the crazy skull in The Ambassadors are a bit of Freudian excess in these paintings, a little bit of “blowing off steam” for painters overburdened in their tasks. A bit of speculation I admit, but there is a tension in those paintings and we're glad for the early 16th century as a place for working this particular set of tensions out. The Ambassadors and St. Donation fit exactly and beautifully just where they are.
It will take Titian, two pages and a couple of years later, to paint Venus of Urbino, thrust the allegory and symbolism into the background, literally, and give us a human being, no apologies. When Titian painted Venus of Urbino it was only a matter of time before somebody was going to follow up on the possibilities and take a crack at Reclining Girl. The text below Titian’s painting quotes Mark Twain, who wrote in A Tramp Abroad that the painting was "the foulest, the vilest, the most obscene picture the world possesses." You can see the twinkle in Twain's eye as he said it, just as you can see the little smile curling at the edges of Titian's lip as he painted his Venus. I find myself hoping, at least, that Gossaert and Holbein might have found a moment of release for themselves if they ever got to see it.
The final lesson of 1001 Paintings You Must See Before You Die is, basically, that you never know what you’re going to get. It is a dilettante's lesson and an anti-Hegelian insight. For Hegel, it was always logically possible to deduce later moments of history from earlier ones. Logic and history were, from his perspective, two versions of the same thing. Give him Athens in the fifth century BC and he will eventually give you the French Revolution. The one follows inexorably from the other.
Nothing follows anything inexorably in 1001 Paintings Before You Must See Before You Die. The only thing inexorable is that, in fact, you must die and, therefore, must also go out and see some paintings before you do. But, as the woman in black from Brown is aware, you never know how painting is going to work itself out until it does. You always have to look ahead and then look back again and go a few other places in between. Once you do, there are things you can say. You can tease out the problems and see where they go. But do that. Look, actually look. Because it will never turn out even remotely how you guessed it might. There is a way that Hans Holbein the Younger leads to Titian and his Venus, and there is a way that his Venus looks forward to Boucher's Reclining Girl.
But there is nothing in that story to prepare you for Poussin erupting into the mid-17th century with unique accomplishments in contemporary classicism like The Ashes of Phocion Collected by His Widow. Plutarch writes that Phocion, an Athenian general who was reluctant in the pursuit of war, once addressed an Athenian crowd bent for war with these lines: "You may say whatever you like, but I refuse to be brave. And whatever I say, you will not be cowards now. Nevertheless, in our hearts, each of us knows what we really are." Phocion, in short, had the moderation and dignity of the classical man. The Ashes of Phocion Collected by His Widow is an uptight and wonderful painting that aims at the bigness of nature and the seriousness of theme without, somehow, drowning in its pretentiousness. There is a hierarchy to the painting. Nature surrounds and encompasses and sets the stage. The Greek temple in the center of the painting is a human creation that can only exist within the embrace of nature. But at the same time, the temple ekes out some space for human affairs. The widow in the foreground completes the composition. She is both magnificent in her task and mundane in the reality of her task: a woman cleaning up some ashes. The fact that these ashes are the ashes of a man, her husband, makes this the saddest of paintings, the most terrible. But then the eye is drawn up to the temple again, and beyond the temple to the billowing trees and the cloudy sky above. The things of this world matter more than anything, and don’t matter at all.
Poussin learned a great deal from what got worked out in previous centuries no doubt, but The Ashes of Phocion Collected by His Widow is also sui generis — it establishes a new trajectory. There is no way that you are going to deduce Poussin from Hans Holbein the Younger.
A weird thing happened to painting during the 20th century. In the eyes of many painters and critics, the little problems of painting became the big problem of “Painting” itself. People suddenly became motivated to paint by asking themselves, “What Is Painting?” The attitude of 1001 Paintings You Must See Before You Die is to collapse this problem back into the history of little problems, to flatten out 20th century artistic practice and put it back into the ongoing history of “things painters do.” The way our woman in black from Brown looks at it, Malevich is a worthy painter and we want to include his paintings in our book. But in doing so we are also implicitly if not explicitly punching a hole in the metaphysics that motivated him to paint as he painted. We're implicitly denying that there could have been a definitive final act in painting or that painting could ever have achieved its own end. We are rejecting the idea that painting was ever really in crisis at all. We are disproving Malevich even as we laud him.
It might be objected that this is to ignore the very concerns and anxieties that created some of the most important paintings and artistic movements of the last hundred or so years. But even here the dilettante has an answer. The answer is not to answer. There is no answer. For a few fascinating and fiery generations painting asked bad questions and produced brilliant work in asking bad questions. It is to our overall aesthetic advantage, as dilettantes, that Suprematism existed. It is exciting that paintings like Ad Reinhardt's Abstract Painting Diptych exist (page 783), and that he tried to create an art that is "breathless, timeless, styleless, lifeless, deathless, endless." But Reinhardt's prescription for art, that it all be lifeless and deathless, etc., is refuted, again, simply by turning the page. There, one finds Second Story Sunlight by Mister Edward Hopper, whose eerie compositions are every bit about life, and death. An untenable metaphysics that asked the “What is Painting?” question and tried to answer it with an absurd essentialism did great things, wonderful things. There is nothing more to be said, because that movement and that ideology is dying or already dead. The great Modernists are mostly dead. Long live the great Modernists. And long live painting. • 22 August 2007
Morgan Meis is a founding member of Flux Factory, an arts collective in New York. He is the author of a novel, Angelus Novus (Soft Skull Press), and has written for The Believer, Harper’s, and The Virginia Quarterly Review. Morgan is also an editor at 3 Quarks Daily. His column Idle Chatter appears in The Smart Set weekly. Morgan can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Photos via Wikipedia.