‘People say that it is the real world, but it is only a surface of equilibrium and the place where the lowest points of I know not what corporal and spiritual system are found. The roses in the carpet spring to life again, and things, setting aside the things which they were, become again specialised beings adorned with substantives: piano, armchairs, persons speaking …’
— Simone Weil
Our studies are about to resume again in October.
It’s likely, if unfortunate, that we will be looking, more than ever before, at art on our screens. I thought it an opportune time for a reminder … things are not all the same.
A flower, and a photograph of a flower, are different from each other and from a drawing of a flower, and from the photograph of a drawing that has a flower as a motif — although they may have things in common.
Any drawing (art object) will be an object of scale and material. It will have physical properties, some of which may be unique to it; not least, possibly, its colour.
If a drawing is on exhibition there will usually be other work on either side of it, or objects in the space obstructing our view of it; sometimes influencing how we see and understand the object of our attention.
Unless otherwise designed the drawing will be experienced by the whole body, not just the eyes.
None of this will occur before the picture on a screen, in there, the drawing has been usurped by another that looks like the original, but which is missing many, or in some cases, most of its fundamental properties.
In other instances the pictures relationship to the original is scant at best. The drawing has been intentionally ‘enhanced’ … for the arid shoreline of a Pinterest mood-board or Facebook update … veracity, always, among the first of the casualties.
And I think we should remember this—our absence from the material world of the object; from time and place; from environment; from context—when we consider our responses to photographs of the drawing; form opinions about photographs of it, and shape our critique of photographs of it. The photograph is not the drawing. (1)
In early March just before Scotland went into lockdown I visited my step-daughter in Aberdeen where she studies at the University, and where, some forty years ago I studied at Gray’s School of Art. We were, on this occasion, able to visit the newly opened Aberdeen Art Gallery. (The gallery has been closed for the past three years for complete refurbishment.)
I was excited at the thought of being able to see works from the permanent collection again, works I had become familiar with as a student, and two in particular:
‘Seated Girl Holding Sewing,’ by Gwen John and a painting by Paul Nash, ‘Woods On The Down’.
Both were in an upstairs room. The John painting on the right, and the Nash on the left as I walked into the space. I went toward the John painting first. Almost forty years had passed since I’d last set eyes on it and it had lost none of its serene and calm beauty.
It was exactly as I recalled it.
And a near forty year old bridge of time—between the anonymous young model in the painting and my younger self who was then perhaps not much older—collapsed; my chest tightened with an unexpected wave of emotion and forty years of living washed me through me in an instant.
The Nash painting by contrast—a painting alongside many others by Nash that I have looked at and studied over the years—surprised me in a way that I couldn’t have expected. It was a much larger painting than I had remembered. Significantly larger. Four or five times larger. So different in fact from my memory of it that it was like seeing the painting for the first time.
Would such moments ever happen with a picture on a laptop screen? I suspect not. So where does this leave us?
I recall writing a essay a number of years ago (for COIL magazine) about a painting by Pieter Bruegel the Elder, ‘The Hunters in the Snow’. It’s in the collection of the Kunsthistorisches Museum in Vienna, Austria. At the time I was interested in it’s multiple ‘appearances’ seemingly everywhere—on postcards, in newspapers, on mirrors, and most significantly, in Andrei Tarkovsky’s film ‘Solaris’. Vadim Yusov’s film camera moves inside and through the painting making the black birds in the trees fly; brings it to a different life; directs time in a way that a painting is unable to do.
It’s fair to say that ‘I love’ the painting, and I know a great deal about it … but, I have never seen it. I have never been to Vienna. I have looked at photographs of the painting but I have never repeatedly sat with it in the gallery, quietly, studying, watching it. I have never devoted time to it as one would to a loved one; sitting with them, listening to them, watching over them … hour after hour on many different days, and different weathers.
It’s a conundrum, and one that I think can only be solved by our imagination, but for this to be possible we need to be thinking about it as we study this or that work for our studio projects.
The Gwen John painting, would in time, present a further issue.
Many institutions now have an online gallery, or viewing room, where one can go and see art works—in ways that are seldom possible before the object itself, and frequently in ways that artists themselves would have been unable to experience in their own work at the time of making.
On the 12th of May this year the Rijksmuseum in Amsterdam published what they claim to be the most detailed ever photograph of Rembrandt’s, ‘The Night Watch’. (3)
‘The Night Watch is currently being photographed in daylight. First, separate photos are taken, which are subsequently digitally assembled to form a single image. In total the robot will take more than 8400 photos at an extremely high resolution of 5 microme-tres, or five thousandths of a millimetre … Never before has such a large painting been photographed at such high resolution. In this way, features that cannot be seen with the naked eye, such as individual pigment particles, are made visible.’
On Google Arts & Culture one can ‘zoom in’ (yes, that word again) and see Albrecht Dürer’s studio window reflected in the eye of a ’Hase,’ a young hare. Prophetically perhaps, Dürer’s image, rendered in watercolour and gouache in 1502, came to be regarded as the high watermark of accuracy at the time.
Now we see things—and make things—that our eyes alone are not capable of seeing. Our vision is technologically dependent, while both the technology itself (the phones, camera’s, cars, ear buds …) and our perceptions of the world are relentlessly fetishised.
The technology that the Rijksmuseum is currently using is being used selectively—it is not by accident that it is a Rembrandt painting that is being subjected to this level of granular scrutiny and exposition. (4) Will this change? Hard to say. Technology tends to trickle down but only if there is money to be made in it doing so. Or in this case, perhaps some aesthetic reason beyond the mere gimmick. While other benefits from such innovation may be felt as the technology is picked up or migrates into other fields of knowledge—medicine for example.
But it raises I think many questions about our relationship to works of art, particularly if you believe as I do, that we need to be more innocent in our response to works of serious culture, and less interested per se in the technology of detail; more interested in talking and writing about how we feel about, and feel for, those things that we’re being attentive of.
I said earlier that the John painting raised another issue—one that in the course of writing this I see is more relevant that I’d realised at the time.
Try and find online (or in a book) a reproduction of the John painting which might be deemed as satisfactory (we won’t concern ourselves with for what purpose just now), and keeping things simple, let’s just say in formal terms of the tonality and colour of the painting.
You will be disappointed, none (to my knowledge) exist—and I have looked; approximations yes, but these are so far from the reality of the painting itself to be of little value beyond simple illustration in a text, and would, even then run dangerously close to misrepresenting the painting where it to be seen without qualifying comments.
The John painting as we see it in Aberdeen Art gallery is protected behind glass. This ensures that we are self-conscious in our looking; we are reflected back to ourselves as we look at the anonymous model in the painting; we are simultaneously outwith (her) and beside others who stand or walk behind us. We are aware of the architecture of the room, the smell of floor polish, and in this case, the smell of fresh wallpaint—The painting is a much wider reflection on human experience than John’s could have perhaps ever intended.
These ideas about the relationship between the photograph and the art work are not knew.
In an era where images are always ‘in the present,’ always emerging, always in the realm of forming, becoming, always, obstinately rooted to potentiality, they—perfectly neatly for some—circumvent critique, and remain morally and politically ambivalent. If something is unfinished or incomplete, or always on it’s way to a destination that never arrives then it is almost impossible to say whether it is good or bad because it will always be met with the rejoinder of ‘well, it’s not finished yet.’
Both the photograph of the flower and the photograph of the drawing of a flower are things that we experience at a remove, on the glass screens of technology where we have learnt to ignore our own reflection. (I nearly wrote ‘our’ technology but nothing could be further from the truth than this—we own nothing.)
Are we content to look from a distance always … some of the time … on occasion … seldom …?
And what of the making—and the destination—of our own work?
(1) Where ‘value’ is decided upon, discovered, given or placed—whether with the thing made, the original material if you like, or with the online simulacra—is in the end an individual choice. I’m not setting out a moral argument here. I believe however that unless an artist makes something specifically for reception or distribution through a screen then we ought to be going out of our way to get as close to the ‘real’ work—and I mean ‘close’ in the widest sense possible using all the tools of scholarship at our disposal—as we can, never forgetting however that the work itself is somewhere else, all but absent from us.
(2) Sergey Kozhemyakin’s photograph, ‘Presence,’ 1989–1992. ‘A man in a military uniform poses for the camera. He stands in a corner of an open terrace located somewhere high in the mountains. One of the man’s hands firmly holds the terrace’s railing; the other rests casually on his waist. Slightly off-centre, the vertical of the officer’s body is counterbalanced by the horizontal rows of bars. Far below, a sea merges with the sky. The portrait would have been a typical memento from a summer resort, except for one crucial detail: The officer has no head, for the figure is cropped tight across the shoulders. Despite this violent erasure of the subject, the photograph is disturbingly serene, and the officer, though headless, exudes confidence and even a sense of control.’
Serguei Alex, Oushakine. Presence Without Identification: Vicarious Photography and Postcolonial Figuration in Belarus. In ‘October’ NO. 164, Spring 2018 p.49-88
‘This article explores photographic works produced by key members of the Minsk School of Photography before and after the collapse of the USSR in the 1980s and 1990s. Mostly reworking found images from the Soviet past, these artists employed the visual language of that period to disassociate themselves from Soviet practices of photographic recording. Appropriating conventions of the portrait genre, the Minsk photographers used them to create a stream of obfuscated representations in which individuals are presented devoid of their originary contexts, biographies, and, frequently, faces. Through their de-facing tactics, these photographers visualized forms of indirect postcolonial presence. Erasing subjectivity and abstracting imprints of lived experience, their vicarious photography articulates a model of dealing with history that allows presence without identity or identification.’
(4) ’Student artists exhibit their final shows online – in pictures’
On the subject of selectivity is it worth noting that in a recent Guardian newspaper piece about student online degree shows:
‘Most universities and colleges have cancelled or postponed this year’s final degree shows as a result of Covid-19, to the frustration of art students who have worked toward them for years. Many have turned to virtual exhibitions instead. Here’s a selection of their work.’
It’s tagged: ‘Students, Higher Education, Art (Education), Arts, Painting, Art (Art & Design)’
all the work selected for inclusion is painting of one sort or another! There’s no design work, no sculpture, no installation art, photography, film or video, no animation, performance art documentation …
‘The future of the arts: The world is coming into visual art on a human scale’ by Laura Cumming
‘Looking for Texture in Online Viewing Rooms’ by Kyle Chayka