Unreal Nature

January 31, 2017

Some Sort of Reverie

Filed under: Uncategorized — unrealnature @ 5:45 am

… without lapsing into illustration (the result of the painter taking his eyes off the characters in the story in order to concentrate on making them tell it, and so having to use clichés to represent them).

This is from ‘Andrews’ (1958) in About Modern Art: Critical Essays 1948-96 by David Sylvester (1996). Please note that only one of the Andrews pictures I’ve chosen was painted before 1958 when this piece was published:

andrews_manwhofell
Michael Andrews, A Man Who Suddenly Fell Over, 1952

… The pictures are sparely hung, for all that they are a selection from the work of seven years. The paint has been put on diffidently: even where it has become physically thick through prolonged overworking, it does not give an impression of thickness. And the overall impact, so far from being one of blazing certitude, is of works that are unsure of themselves.

Their tentativeness, all the same, is very far from giving them a tenuousness. On the contrary, every one of them has a substance and a presence, the substance and presence of a necessary utterance. Each seems the result of a particular obsession, nothing seems painted for the sake of painting another canvas. We suspect that many a talented painter would produce an exhibition out of the thought Andrews puts into one picture, for we sense that each of his pictures embodies a period of life, an accumulation of experience.

But in spite of all that has gone into them — or more likely because of it — these paintings all look unresolved, with that endearingly unprofessional uneasy look that is so common in English paintings of figure-subjects: it is most frequently found in the work of minor artists of the eighteenth century, but even at the highest level, most Stubbses have it, as do Turner’s portraits. It is as if the artist had had to learn the language of his painting as he painted it, learn it more or less from scratch.

andrews_colonyroom
Michael Andrews, Colony Room, 1962

But Andrew’s awkwardness is not only an aspect of his pronounced Englishness. It is also the awkwardness of almost every modern painter who has not been content to solve his problems by simplifying them. Modern art, since Monet, has been a series of extreme statements, which is to say partial statements: its glory has been its demonstration of how much can be eliminated of the traditional apparatus of art without eliminating art. The modern artist who aims at the inclusiveness of traditional European art runs up against the difficulty of recovering that inclusiveness without embracing what have become the clichés of the tradition, and the awkwardness arises from trying to have one without the other.

Andrews, in his delicately bungling fashion, has in some ways gone remarkably far towards surmounting this dilemma. In the first place, he has succeeded in making every picture tell a story, as pictures used to do, without employing expressionistic deformations to drive home the point and without lapsing into illustration (the result of the painter taking his eyes off the characters in the story in order to concentrate on making them tell it, and so having to use clichés to represent them). The story is always some sort of reverie about life in our time, rather as early Bonnards are reveries about contemporary life.

andrews_melanieandme
Michael Andrews, Melanie and Me Swimming, 1978-79

My most recent previous post from Sylvester’s book is here.

-Julie

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