Originality and the Presence of the Artist

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This is a lecture I was asked to do about Modernism and ‘Genius’ for George Watson’s college. I include here my notes in full, including expressive phrases and a good dose of typos.

  1. Today were going to look at the relationship between the concept of Genius and visual art. Our specific focus is going to a series of shared beliefs and approaches to making art that are described by the term Modernism, which roughly corresponds to a period of time between the middle of the 19th Century to the middle of the 20th Century.
    1.  Now it’s my understanding that you we looking last week at the Romantic period. You’ll have seen then that by that time the term genius was being closely connected to the imagination. Art has throughout its history been connected to the imagination and so it gives us a lot of pick up on and talk about this week – and at the same time a lot to beware of.
    2. What I mean by that is that still today there are a lot of myths about what art is and what artists actually do. If you think about the way artists are portrayed in popular culture they often have traits that we might associate with being a genius, but exaggerated and kind of without substance.
    3. In the film ‘Art School Confidential’ for example you have on one hand John Malcovich, the failing art school teacher who has spent his life obsessed with drawing … a triangle, or on the other hand you have, Jim Broadbent playing an artist who is permanently drunk, hates everything and is so misanthropic that he undertakes burning the art school down because he finds normal life so unbearable.
    4. In the Big Lebowski Julian Moore plays Maude Lebowski, an artist you see in one scene suspended, naked, from a sliding, ceiling mounted track in order to produce paintings about the female body. Maude seems unable to emotionally relate to people around her, so abstract and convoluted are her motivations and desires. She constantly speaks in a robotic fashion as if being an artist, and presumably pursuing it rigorously in order to be ‘genius’, is somewhat operating at a level beyond regular comprehension.
    5. Artist’s in these films com across as being people who are outside the norm, people who don’t care about the things that most of us might think are normal. I’m sure you can all think of similar examples of artists appearing in popular culture. Today, in looking at modernism we’re really going to get to the roots of some of these ideas, and I hope give some substance to them. Given all the myths there are about artists were going to have to tread carefully and be critical.
    6. Looking at artwork critically, means looking at it from multiple perspectives, not taking it just at face value – thinking it’s worth something because it’s insured for £8 Million or because people say it is – but thinking about why it was created when it was. It’s about thinking about the values and beliefs that led to it looking the way it did.
  2. In this spirit I’m going to introduce most of the key themes of today’s lecture, ‘Originality and Presense’ being the other key terms, through a close reading of this particular painting.
    1. So, it is a painting French artist Paul Gauguin made of himself in 1889.
    2. Looking, we can see that it is highly coloured. Unrealistically so – the sky or distant hills being flaming red colour.
    3. The forms as well, don’t add up to what we might call a realistic image. Although there is a slight suggestion of a shoulder, the head otherwise floats in mid air. The hand at the front seems almost unfinished. Where the head has a kind of chiselled feeling about it, with strong shadows, the hand seems oddly flat. The tree is stylised so much that the branches have almost become fonts, the leaves little yellow cards.
    4. Then there’s the subject matter. The Snake and the apples seem to evoke the story of Adam and Eve in the garden of Eden. In this story God warns Adam and Eve not to eat the apples from the tree of knowledge of good and evil. A snake however speaks to Eve and tricks her into trying an apple. After eating this prohibited fruit – the original sin – Adam and Eve feel guilt and fear god and are kicked out of the Garden of Eden.
    5. In this painting Gauguin seems to be gently holding the snake while smiling towards the viewer of the painting. It’s an image that doesn’t seem to be telling us the story of Adam and Eve so much as giving us a sense of a particular moment, a moment before the ‘original sin’, Gauguin kind of cheekily smiling at us from Eden.
    6. Not least, maybe even the first thing you noticed, is that Gauguin has painted himself with a halo. Now if you did a panting class with other people and someone painted themselves with a halo, you’d probably give them a sideways smile and leave the room, because they’d obviously be a complete maniac. What was Gauguin getting at here in comparing himself to a saint of even to Jesus? As I don’t think we’re quite ready to answer this question yet, let’s try to find other ways of looking at this image.
  3. It’s really it’s only in the modern period where self-portraits take off.  This is partly because of a continuing romantic elevation of the individual, as someone worthy of depiction. Gauguin painted a lot of self portraits, as he spent his life in and out of poverty. By having a mirror in your studio you’ve obvious got a cheap figure to paint in yourself. Through painting yourself, numerous times, you spend a lot of time thinking about your image. And I don’t just mean image in a kind of contemporary, superfitial sense, hairstyle, trending facial hair etc. But, you get to think about how deep images can go – how much do they reflect of your inner life, you thoughts, your ‘presense’. What can your own image really mean?
  4. As you head back through Gauguin’s work you can see a development in the way he portrayed himself. The first image we looked at was painted just 4 years after this, but you see the dramatic change. This image seems quite earnest and humble, it’s technique it pretty dull and not much to speak about. In the first image we looked at there were those chiselled featured, a pronounced kind of profile – even though he was looking at us – like a caricature.
  5. Comparing a painting to a photograph from which it was taken it’s easy to see how Gauguin was kind of molding himself into something. A contemporary take on ‘Genius’ is often that it is a kind of role you can get in to, a  state of mind, a belief, a confidence in ones own ability to transcend the world around you. Here we can see Gauguin transforming his own image into a symbol of something seeming more potent than reality.
    1. Outside of these portraits Gauguin was also finding different ways to live and different ways to describe himself. Most frequently he would refer to himself as a ‘savage’. That is some uncontrollable being, somehow untamed by civilization and unrestricted in his movements. In saying this, Gauguin was feeding a belief in his genius, a belief that he was beyond the normal boundaries of this world. And this is of course the kind of belief that writers of the heroic legends would really big up.
    2. Here’s a bit more of the legend, which obviously carries some truth, but is definitely simplified for dramatic effect. For ten years Gauguin was a Stokebroker working in Paris, he was earning a fairly good living and had a wife and children. But inside him there brewed a restless desire, a desire that one writer called an all-devouring demon. It’s not possible to easily summarise what this was exactly – as is often the way with Genius it is something nameless – but it led this ostensibly stable, middle class man to take up painting, leave his wife and children, lived frequently in poverty and end up living in Tahiti, the furthest French colony, where he lived with a young Tahitian woman, was imprisoned for aiding the natives, suffered from syphilis and would die at 54 years old.
  6. The legend spins this in to a tail of the mad eccentric ‘savage’ sending back his profound works from some natural haven beyond the Western world. A more historic account reflect more on Gauguin’s upbringing
    1.  Until he was six he lived a rich and happy life with powerful relatives in Puru. A beginning that he would fantasise about for much of his life. When his mum – a single parent at that stage – moved back to Paris the young Gauguin had difficultly picking up French, having learnt Spanish, struggled in school and undoubtedly felt, as he would continue to feel for much of his life, like he didn’t belong. He was a selfish, egotistical man, who it was probably difficult to get on with. And many of his decisions were actually driven by either financial imperatives – trying to find somewhere cheap to live – or in the case of Tahiti, almost through a build up of the pressure of his own boasting and bragging about moving. In his lifetime he would say, “I’m off to Martinique”, “I’m off to Madagascar”. Although he bragged to other artists, he was actual said to have wept when he finally committed to going so far way because he recognised it as such a hardship.
  7. So Gauguin pushed himself almost in to self exile. But we must ask I think, why? Why did he feel compelled to remove himself from his family, his life, Western civilization? (Although you should know that Tahiti was a french colony and had as such been transformed). To answer these questions I want to back track a bit. Before going to Tahiti, in fact just before he painted most of those iconic self portraits we looked at, he went to Pont Aven, in 1886 to be precise.
    1. A lot of artists went to Pont-Aven. It was seen as somewhere quite special and besides, you could stay in lodgings for next to nothing. It was seen as special because the Breton people who lived there continued to practice ancient customs and lived simple ‘honest’ lives. Though again, it wouldn’t be quite right to think it was an unspoiled paradise: trains had opened up the region to tourism and like I said the place was crawling with artists. Artists who, for want of a better word, were aiming to be genius.
    2. Here’s a description by an art historian (Wayne Anderson) about the lengths these young men, for they were predominantly young men, were going to try to stand out and be different, trying to find a new perspective with which to see the world:

i.      The artists sported long unkempt hair and beards, wore old paint-stained suits of corduroy, battered wide-brimmed hats, loose flannel shirts, and coarse wooden shoes stuffed with straw. They were as eccentric in their doctrines as in their dress […] Cults proliferated, and the conflict generated far outshone all effort expended in the service of art. One group called the stripists painted stripes with vivid colour, as nearly prismatic as possible, there were also the dottists, who painted in a series of dots, and the spottists, a sect of dottists, whose differentiation from the mother group was too subtle … to understand. [There were] men who held the theory that in order to create a masterpiece one must ruin one’s digestion – no physically healthy person, these zealots declared, could hope to do fine work. Many of them fostered an addition to absinthe and painted only when drunk; one painter, who specialised in pure saints in blue dresses, bathed his face in ether to bring on the essential spiritual state…” It was insane. But, were these people really insane? Genius and madness are often thought to be bedfellows. But, I don’t think this is the case of all these people who were already suffering some kind of mental illness coming together in this kind of group.

ii.      It struck me that the situation in Pont-Aven coincided nicely with something a century psychiatrist observed, “[It has been said] that men of genius and madmen are very close to one another. It is means that men who have a very active or a very disordered imagination, who have very exalted of very mercurial ideas, present analogies with madmen, the it is correct; but if it is meant that great intelligence predisposes to madness, then it is wrong. The great geniuses… have retained their sanity into extreme old age. When one has seen painters, poets, musicians or artists become mentally ill what has occurred is that on top of a very active imagination these men have, in their lives gone from extreme to extreme.” Esquirol (about 1830).

  1. In some ways you might think we’re kind of back to the beginning, with the stereotypes of artist portrayed in today’s popular culture. But I don’t think that would really do justice to what we’re really talking about here. It was mad, bizarre – and no doubt a lot of the odd ideas we might have today about art came from this fervent period – but, I think it meant something else at the time.
  2. [Quote]
    1. Behind this surface of drunkenness and stupidity was I think a genuine belief that there was something profound happening. These alternative lifestyles were part and parcel of some kind of believe that it was possible to get at something universally important, something both immediate and timeless. To be original, in this crazy ‘modernist’ environment (of course at the time they didn’t necessarily think hemselves modernists as such we do), meant having the individual ability to pick up on and express some kind of ‘essence’, and ‘essence’ lost in the mundanety of normal middle class life in Europe.
  3. Gauguin met a young painter in Pont-Aven called Emile Bernhard, who effectively taught him that painting didn’t need to be tied to trying to represent the world. And this was an absolute revelation to Gauguin. Not being tied to trying to paint the world as you see it, meant you could paint about something beyong and in excess of it. You could include wild evocative colours, symbols that spoke of biblical consequences, and most importantly for Gauguin you could paint in a kind of mystery. Beyond the ability of words to describe the world, beyond something logical and rational, you could capture something unspeakable, so thought Gauguin.
  4. Here we see the difference between what Gauguin and Emile Berhard were doing and what the grand Academies suggested you should do. Up until the middle of the 19th Century Acadamies had really laid down the rules for how you should paint. Artists were taught specific compositional rules. If you were a good academic painter you should be able to paint a window for people to look through, without any evidence of brush marks or even of effort. Academies also imposed a hierarchy of subject matter, where at the top of the tree was History painting, where epic scenes from Greek drama would be laid out in all it’s glory. In other words important people prancing around in togas. So when Modern artists came along, like Gustave Courbet who painted –belive it not – labourers, our Eduard Manet who painted men in modern clothes and a naked lady sitting on the grass – it caused a scandal.
    1. There’s only 3 years separate these painting. Yet, you can see that the painter on the left is sticking to a good lot of Academic rules. His painting is pretty serious, it seems to be about the Sombre processions the people of Pont-Aven would undertake. It’s ‘realistic’, care has been taken to depict fabrics and faces and textures.
    2. Gauguin’s on the other hand is full of bright colour. The hats of the women of pont aven have been made more like symbols than realistic images. The composition is odd as well, with the tree cutting across the centre, effectively splitting the image in two. The work, features Jacob wrestling an Angel, a biblical story. And I guess we’re left to speculate about the connection between the bottom half – it that reality? – and the top. Is the top an hallucination? Are the women so pious as to be surrounded by religious figures? The scale is odd and disorientating – it’s got a mystery about it.
    3. It’s worth mentioning that these too styles of painting generally require quite different methods. While Pascal Dagnan-Bouveret would have had to spend a long time at his easel in a studio perfecting his work, the work of the modern artist could often be done much more quickly. This idea of speed is really important.
    4. If you think I have to offer a definition of modernism, then let this be the first. A visual definition. I think you can see modernism in art better than you can describe it. Modernism in art became about the surface of the painting, it became more about how the artist deviated from a depiction of the world than about what was effectively painted. And, as I said, the sense of speed was also important – I’ll say more about this shortly.
  5. If we are today talking about tings in excess of a tradition or discipline, which seems to be one of the most consistent characteristic of genius, then this clearly illustrates the kind of euphoric opening up of possibilities.
  6. Ok. So far we’ve got a head full of images of modernism and genius. Images of colour and a sense of liberation in the way you could express things in art. We’ve got a sense of what originality meant – it meant being kind of alternative, true to a kind of bohemian lifestyle, living in a way that was outside the norm. And this norm we might presume is the norm of living a middle class or working class life. The norm of being polite and having particular manners. The norm of dressing a certain way and acting a certain way in public, and worst of course the norm of painting in a conventional way. The modern genius severs many of these ties. But still I think there’s a bigger sense of what it is all these madcap groups were fighting against, or running away from.
    1. We’ve been looking at Tahiti and Pont-Aven. When you think about the 19th Century, what do you think is conspicuously absent?
  7. Yes, industry. Cities, crammed full of people. Smells, factories, noise. And other aspects of the modern world too, science, enlightenment. Science and Enlightenment we often think of as things with a lot of benefits, but scientists didn’t always get things right, particularly back then, and philosophers didn’t always get things right either – for some these rational disciplines could seem very controlling and dominating.
    1. Living in a city means living in a fast relatively small region with thousands and sometimes millions of people, all living to particular timetable, a timetable increasingly set by machines and industry, having to deal with horrible conditions. We take it for granted now, although of course conditions have changed, but still in the 19th Century there was very much a sense of this being a new situation that people had to get their heads around. There were all kinds of new disciplines coming into being to understand this new social structure, Sociology, or to deal with the pyche of model citizens, psychoanalysis and psychology. In fact there were endless ‘ologies. (Given that genius has often been connected to madness if we had more time i’m sure it would be an interesting area to think about by itself: If for the first time clinics were being established to discuss and diagnose different mental conditions, how did that change people’s perceptions of Genius?) But let’s stick to our task.
    2. One of the first sociologists, one you may not be as familiar with as say Marx, was a German called Georg Simmel (1858 – 1918). Some of his work is somewhere was kind of between sociology and phychology. He was interested in how cities were effecting people mentally. He opened a famous work called ‘The Metropolis and Mental Life’ by saying:

i.      “The deepest problems of modern life flow from the attempt of the individual to maintain the independence and individuality of his existence against the sovereign powers of society, against the weight of the historical heritage and the external culture and technique of life.”

  1. Now if it seems like it’s becoming difficult for most people to essentially remember who they are and what makes them unique when faced with these new urban melting pots, think of the incredible effort required of someone afflicted with the hope of ‘Genius’. You’d have run off somewhere and bathe you face in ether or cut part of your ear off or something.
  2. But, more specifically, listen to how Simmel describes the effects of busy city living on the mind.
  3. Read Quote.
  4. In other words, the city make you hard. It makes you loose your touch with you more intuitive, sensitive side. ‘Genius’ is a term bound up with these arguments, because with still a lot of romantic roots it is tied up with the culture of theindividual and it this that Simmel says, in the city, is being challenged by the rise of something impersonal and objective. So looking at this helps us understand the need for someone like Gauguin and the many many other hopefuls to be alternative, to assert the quirks and solidarity. But lets not misunderstand Simmel, he not simply saying that cities and modern life are all impersonal and the country side is personal, but rather the city is a site of a new conflict.
  5. This discussion brings us nicely on the artists, people we’d often think had retained their sensitivity, working in the cities. Pissaro, a friend of Gauguin, is a great example of probably the most famous movements in painting, namely impressionism.
    1. If modern life is indeed fast, then it becomes even more apparent that the slow, laborious work of academic artists had become redundant.
    2. Impressionism, perhaps even more than Gauguin’s work has suffered from it’s polularity. It’s the source of endless spin offs and is too often taken to be a kind chocolate box decoration. But, this notion of the city of a site of individual struggle helps highlight it’s gritty past. What impressionism offers is quite an intense visual sense of the static, objective world of the academies being disturbed, distorted, blurred. Up to a point a  number of impressionists, particularly Pisssaro, were socialist, fighting for France to become a republic. This work, with it’s rejection of past conventions and it’s pursuit of the individual’s experiential vision became part of a political repertoire, or renewal. [Marx “All that is solid]. Here again in visual form, we see a definition of Modernism. Modernists were not just artists who lived and worked at this time, but were those who took a stance within the modern world, who entered in to the battle field of a threatened individuality.
    3. Photography is often mentioned in this context too. With the invention of photograph, quick ‘realistic’ images could be made. But, impressionist sweren’t against photography, they didn’t think, hang on, haven’t painters been replaced by this new technology, we better change what we do. They saw photography as something that was in some ways part of a mutual cause to capture a fleeting reality. The speed of modern life means that it often passes in a blur. Interestingly a common use of the word impression in the 19th century was to describe the image left on a photographic negative.
  6. In the work of Gauguin and Pissaro, and indeed most impressionist artist’s work you can see a clear move away from a straight forward depiction of what’s out there. This turns into a much more self-conscious activity of attending to the surface of the canvas. It also means that individual artist’s stlye becomes more prominent with artists essentially battling to be the most innovative.
    1. Picasso may we now get  many people’s vote for being the great genius of modernism. But at the time, when he revealed this work to his friends, including other radical artists like Matisse, they felt he had had gone too far, that the work was grotesque.
  7. Picasso, I don’t think would have felt so upset by this reaction. A strong reaction’s probably what you want if you’re striving to to innovative, right? But, also, Picasso seemed to intentionally make this work grotesque. He would later refer to it as his exorcism painting. In other words, for him it summed up a lot of intangible fears.
    1. I don’t have too much time to go in to these fears here, but let me point out at least two key things. Firstly, while impressionist like Pissaro were trying to deal with the fleeting nature of the city, a young Picasso was exploring the forgotten or excluded parts of society in what would be known as his blue period. Blue because of the colour he used yes. But blue also because of the melancholy subjects of his pictures: prostitutes, drunks, beggars. Somehow these outsiders were intriguing in a similar way to the Breton women were intriguing to Gauguin. They represented something different and alternative. By the turn of the century it’s likely that Picasso would have seen some pretty horrible things, some of the most frightening perhaps being the results of syphilis, which absolutely terrified him. The relatively new photography technologies revealed the hideous deformity the sexually transmitted disease caused at this time, with brain damage and long suffering. Bothels, like the one in Avignon, would therefore seem like terrifying places. In his sketches leading up to this painting he included sailors – notorious for spreading STDs – and skulls, a conventional symbol of death.
    2. Secondly, we might also call the fear a fear of ‘Otherness’. Otherness is a term that critics now use now to describe the way that past societies decribed things that were other: not me not us, something marked by a profound difference. Because Europe was a male dominated white society, one based on colonial exploitation of other contries – like Africa and the slave trade – it’s sense of normality centred around the rich powerful white man. Modernism, in our eyes was damn sexist and racist – though really that’s a crude way of putting it. Women, like the women in Gauguins work, were often seen to be closer to nature. And in representations were often either pure, virginal or married on one hand or prostitutes on the other, treated with suspicion. Picasso would have been familiar at this time with ‘primitive’ artefacts coming in to French museums and markers from places like Africa. He reported seeing some in an ethnographic museum in Trocadero and being terrified by the primitive forms there. This painting was a way he thought of bringing out these fears, neutralising them and making them less of a threat.
  1. Le Demoiselles d’Avignon would go to be considered the first Cubist work. The surface of Picasso’s painting would fragment and distort. Objects would be painted from different angles and positions within a single image. An artistic version I guess of the theory of relativity, not one view privileged over another. Abstraction, moving away from representation of real world objects to abstract shapes and forms was central to modernism and really loaded with a spiritual kind of weight. It was like abstract shapes could reveal a realm, like deep meditation that was somehow special and universal.
    1. Kandinsky, like many of these artists, followed Theosophy. Theosophy’s a kind of mixture of philosophy and religion and it concerns itself with uncovering deep mysteries and the nature of divinity. For Kandinsky, who would later go and teach at the famous design school the Bauhaus, every shape and colour had a particular resonance. And he would shift and move these ‘resonances’ until they kind of clicked and he felt he had discovered something deep.
    2. For Modernists though, I think this difficulty was an accepted and even valorised part of it, like Gauguin’s mystery. Kandinsky was happy to just state that there are some things words just can’t capture.
    3. Today, it’s difficult I think it’s difficult to really know what he was on about when he spoke about ‘vibration in the sole’. Where people try their best to understand a work of art as objectively as possible a phrase like ‘vibration of the sole’ sound pretty offbeat as does his idea of creating ‘absolute painting’, paintings resolved in a way that was somehow eternal or timeless.
  2. Kandinsky’s ideas would influence other artists and designers, including a Dutch Group called De Stijl. In dutch a stijl is a little elements used to connect other elements, when making something like a cabinet. This group including Piet Mondrian would see the kind of spiritual value’s Kandinsky was discussing in these small geometric elements. From a design view, these shapes seems quite rational. They move away from theclutter of Victorian design. They are mathematical. Them can be machine manufactured much more quicky than organic kind of shapes. So, for a lot of practical as well as spiritual reasons they were seen as underlying a new vision for how the world could look and function. (Theo Van Doesburg).
  3. Modernist architecture would then see a striping back of ornamentation. In the world of the architect Le Corbusier the house would become a machine for living in. “Form follows function” was the modernist designer and architects credo. And generally materials shouldn’t be disguised or look like something they are not. If any other colour than white was used then it was often a primary colour, like in mondrian’s paintings. The underlying ideology was that striping back the world in which we live was also stripping back the delusion of the past, is was proposing a crisp, brutal new world.
    1. This ideology was taken particularly far by this Austro Hungarian Architect who in 1910 published an essay called Ornament and Crime.
    2. “…the man of our time who daubs the walls with erotic symbols to satisfy an inner urge is a criminal or a degenerate. It is obvious that this urge overcomes man; such symptoms of degeneration most forcefully express themselves in public conveniences. One can measure the culture of a country by the degree to which its lavatory walls are daubed […] what is natural to the Papuan and the child is a symptom of degeneration in the modern man.”
  1. Bauhaus.
  2.  [Back to Gauguin] Returning back to the start, and we face this work I hope with quite a different understanding. This is work that stands in the middle of a great transformation in art and more broadly speaking, in society. Gauguin, already by this stage thinking of himself as a savage, was painting himself with a halo, perhaps not really to say that he was god-like, but maybe to say that he felt that like Jesus in that he was a kind of martyr. His pursuit of artistic He Genuis had lead him to a great personal sacrifice.
    1. In the garden of eden, before Adam and Eve take the apple of knowledge of good and evil they can walk around innocent, naked. You might say they were at their closest to being themselves, in touch with their intuition and sensitive side. And yet of course, without wisdom, they cannot really ‘know’ things, master things like god. We’ve talked about the modern world, it’s effect on people’s sense of self. The way that society, with it’s growing studies, and sciences and knowledge was somehow in conflict with people’s understanding at that time of what it meant to be an individual and to be free. Gauguin isn’t trying to paint complete innocence here, or knowledge in a rational sense, but I think his work reflects what he would describe as mystery, and what I see as being the unresolved and complex mid ground, purgatory somewhere inbetween. It’s this tension that seems to give it it’s energy.
  3. Originality is a key term when it comes to being a modernist, because more than anything modernists didn’t want to be seen to be repeating things that had gone before. They were trying to glimpse new worlds and ancient forgotten ones, and espcape from middle class, ‘civilized’ life. Originality is of course central to the concept of ‘genius’ – someone who kind of does something and you maybe can’t explain how or where it came from.
    1. What I hope I’ve shown in various ways however is that what originality means in the period we’ve been studying is often closely related to the idea of orgins. The genius artist can look beyond the confines of their own culture to see something apparently outside the cloudiness of modern life, were we’ve been down and become dull. This was certainly Gauguins aim, it was certainly Kandinsky’s – he wrote that he felt we were too far gone from our origins to suddenly find them again but that through art a spark of a connection could at least start to be formed.
  4. Pause. Any thoughts.
  5. Slide
  6. Slide
  7. Slide
    1. Ok, so one of the terms from the title still eludes us. Presence. “Originality and the presence of the artist”. But the thing is, of course, that usually, unless it’s performance art, the artist isn’t around while you’re looking at their work. They could well be dead. As we saw from our detailed look at one work buy Gauguin, it’s not so simple as looking at a painting and just being able to get what the artist was ‘on about’. In fact, if they are some kind of genius you might say that could well be about something almost ungraspable.
  8. Painting were the predominant medium in modernism? But how do they work? What do they convey? Do they carry a message like a telephone from the artist to us? Do they somehow allow us to see through the artist’s eyes? How do paintings make us feel the ‘presence’ of something important.
    1. We here, I’m pleased we studied a self-portrait. Because, although I told you a bit about Gauguins life along the way I hope you’ll all agree that what seems interesting about the self portrait is not Gauguin himself, but the bigger message it was trying to convey. Even when the important thing seemed to be Gauguin, it was Gauguin the symbolic artist/ matyr rather than Gauguin, the selfish man. In an essay called “The Emptiness of Genius” a writer called Drummond Bone suggests that the idea of genius developed along with a conception of something quite anti-personal. Something absolute that is somehow bigger than you, or me or any one of us that the genius just taps in to. ‘Absolute’ was Kandinsky’s term and if I’m not careful I guess I’m going to end up using dodgy language and claiming it was all about vibrations in the soul … so …
    2. Lets look instead at how later modernists tried to deep with these difficult questions.
  9. Here’s Jackson Pollock making one of his famous drip paintings. This is probably the early fifties. Here’s a few things that panting like this – dipping brushes, sticks or whatever in to the paint and dripping around a large canvas – might have helped this artist to do and helped others claim he did:
    1. Firstly, it’s quick and direct, it’s almost subliminal. We’ve talked a little bit about speed today, about artists like Pissaro trying to capture a fleeting world. But even impressionists used brushes conventionally. They used a very learned action to apply the paint in a relatively deliberated way. If the genius can sense something profound, absolute, then in using that very controlled tecqunique – you might loose it. Sensations are key and you need to act on them quick. Pollock cut this tradtition out, he developed something it could be argued gave him a better shot being absolute.
    2. Working like this meant that Pollock was also (at least in his later work) seemingly as far as you could get from representing to world in a traditional sense. Even Picasso was dealing with perspective and objects and composition, Pollock … he was composing, but composing an overall kind of field. If work could offer vibrations, then this would be all over the canvas – not static bits and still bits to take away the viewer’s attention.
    3. Presence, it seems, benifits from the process in various ways. And here I’m really echoing some of the ideas of Clement Greenberg who was one of the major critics to champion modernism, and particularly Abstract Expressionism and Pollock’s and a numbers of others artist’s work would be called.
  10. For Greenberg, if painters focuse on ‘arts for arts sake’ i.e. making art that has no other function other than being art, and contemplate only their own medium, then they could get to something sublime. Sublime is a word from the romantics describing the points at which language and ideas get stuck and the imagination has to take over to give the sensations of something beyond reasoning.
    1. What I’m showing here is the type of gallery, the ‘white cube’ that sprouted up precisely to support the type of theory Greenberg had. Notice the similarity to the Bauhaus and Adolf Loos.

i.      Timeless

ii.      No distractions

iii.      Impersional.

  1. Give the notion of something universal, complete, pure.
  2. This is if you like the culmination of Modernism. I don’t mean by that that this was as good as it got. Because for some this really was just the point at which modern art became institutionalised. The mystery Gauguin had seemingly fought so hard for, you might argue, was here somewhat replaced by academic theory, that seemed at best kind of dry and at worst downright elitist. What I’ll offer now is a quick snap shot of things that happened after modernism, to give a bit more perspective on the things we’ve discussed.
  3. Art Workers Coalition in Moma (Included Carl Andre, Jon Hendricks, Lucy Lippard, Hans Hackke) 1969. In front of Guernica.
    1. Fighting for inclusion… of people from other ethnic backgrounds and for women artists. (Geurilla Girls)
  4. For subsequent generations, modernist values would be something to be critical of. Barbara Krugar was an artist who often used bill-board displays, and large printed texts. Immediately that tells you that artists in the eighties weren’t at all restricted to medium. Rather the point was to move outside galleries and try to put art to politic effect, often criticising the media or consumerism.
    1. I chose this one specifically because it seemed quite provocative in the context of our discussions. Kruger often touched upon the subject domestic violence in her work. Here we’re show two children, young people learning how to act and behave in the world. For postmodern artists, artists of the late sixties onwards, the world was NOT a natural environment but rather one that was always in some ways predisposers people towards certain kinds of beliefs. The girl is made pretty, gentle and to be looked at, the boy aggressive. “We don’t need another hero” seems to target the assumptions behind masculinity – are valour and courage more important that being loving or caring or intelligent.
    2. There was certainly something ‘heroic’ about the modernist genius, the man prepared to sacrifice all for their art. But, as mentioned, Gauguin did essentially abandon his family to do this. Women in his paintings were often passive and ‘close to nature’, in Picasso’s art women were treated with suspicion and even fear and loathing. I think the work is asking us whether or not Heroism is just a cover up for violence and inequality, heroism in art just being the looking few indulging themselves at the expese of others.
  5. Bringing us in to the present and artists approach these subjects both in a more humorous kind of way, but also with a sense of mischief and the absurd – maybe because some of the stuff from the eighties essentially starting to feel  quite dry and theoretical.
    1. This is Oxford born artist Mel Brimfeld and a still from an exhition she did called “Between Genius and Desire”. She’s obviously poking fun here at a number of things, but particularly the story of Vincent Van Gogh. But, she’s not directly dealing with modernism of the art but rather as the title ‘after Kirk Douglas’ suggests, its subsequent portrayal. The further you are from a point in time the more you rely on representations of it. Kirk Douglas played Vincent in the film ‘Lust for Life’. If Kirk Douglas’s performance was over the top then Brimfeld’s is even more so, so there’s no way you can be mistaking in to thinking the story of Vincent in either case is necessarily true. It’s a kind of story people can  take up an play out, but it doesn’t have to play out in the same way, always with the same emphasis on the isolated suffering individual male artist.
  6. Here again, she takes on Ed Harris who particularly wooden as Jackson Pollock.
  7. The German Artist Anton Henning’s work also reworks a lot of the forms of Modernism often exaggerating them and making them seem kind of kitch. Yet Henning is quite an ambiguious character who doesn’t resolve the essential problems he faces you with, is this serious, is it ironic? Is it good, is it crap? And in leaving these dialiemma’s open I guess he kind of opens modernism up to re-examination too. Just as we’ve inherited a legacy of bad films about modern artists – stereotyping them and making the situations quite one dimensional, we also inherited a lot of theory that tries to tie it down, objectively. Maybe it deserves to be looked at again.
  8. Lastly, I wanted to also suggest that although I think the idea of genius has gone on a big roller coaster ride in this period and not really come out of the mix in tact at the other end, certainly not in art, there are still artists who pursue a work that is difficult and complex. Artists who in other words have the kind of ambition and vision that might deserve the accolade of genius.
  9. One, and I guess this is something of a personal choice, is 2002 Turner prize winner Keither Tyson. His work borrow a lot of metaphors from sciences, he’s often seen as the boffin of art. His contention is that everything is always connected to everything else.
    1. I was lucky enough, if that’s the right word, to meet Tyson and get a trip around his studio. He came across as someone who probably did suffer from depression and maybe even schizophrenia – I pass this one because he is open about it and it’s public knowledge. I’m not trying to herocise him in any way here. But here’s some interesting things he said while we walked around his work.
    2. If a fat man jumps in to a swimming pool at one end and at the other end a fly is struggling on the surface of the water, both the giant ripples the man creates and the tiny ripples of the fly continue and intersect. If you watched it from the side you’d see the mini waves of the fly wobbling almost imperceptibly on top of the waves of the fat man.
    3. If your driving down the street and there’s a volkwagen beatle behind you, let’s say the original one, and in front of you a Ford fiesta, then you’re in between two ripples from history. In 1933 Adolf Hitler asked for a car for the people to cheaply service the citizens of the third Reich, resulting in the practical car that had great success. The fiesta embodies an American car manufacturing giants attempt to meet a European marker, as in fact it has done for decades. It relates back to a company that were responsible for the mass production system and scientific management.
    4. So sitting between the Beetle and the Fiesta, you’re kind of part of this chain reaction of actions and events that happened to bring those cars in to being.
    5. But in effect, in that scenario, we’ve only just begun to look at the wave of the fat man, the obvious ones. What about other components of the car, the road, the things people do while driving, the way we’ve learnt to drive, the pathways, the things people in this country might do on the path. This is how Tyson sees art too, it comes in to being as the result of innumerable intersecting energies and forces. You can probably tell why people say he questions the role of the artist.
    6. It is an infinitely complex world that no easy explanation could ever get close to. It’s kind of revealing and mysterious at the same time.
  10. This is large Field Array, Tyson’s attempt to leave people feeling the connection between everything. It includes representations of the planets, chocolate bars, sculptures, science, technology, cast iron spirals staircases, silent movies, Indian rope tricks, birds, a magazine rack, gothic representations of hell, playing cards, Hollywood, particle models, fruit, battleships. To offer a short sum. Tyson’s contention is that none of these could exist without the others, they are all part of the same complex situation. Althought there are individual things of interest here, Tyson is interested in what happens between.
    1. Phew. That’s a lot to think about. But that’s really what great art does. It reasserts a sense of awe at the world around us, moves us away from thinking that ever thing is stable and static, or taking it for granted.

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