Unreal Nature

March 21, 2017

Opposite Ends of a Line

Filed under: Uncategorized — unrealnature @ 5:37 am

… the presence of someone in one’s space can be disturbing at many levels.

This is from ‘Daumier’ (1961) in About Modern Art: Critical Essays 1948-96 by David Sylvester (1996):

… [The] sense of a particular relation between the thing seen and an implied beholder, a beholder with whom we are made to identify ourselves, first occurs in European art around 1600. Caravaggio’s moments of sudden drama are visualized as if seen by someone on the spot — seen, perhaps, or so both the angle of vision and the peculiar sense of amazement suggest, by a wondering or terrified small boy, mirroring the evident emotion of the boy actually present in each of the pair of facing pictures in San Luigi dei Francesi.

… In the nineteenth century, ideas about seeing became the general motive for implying the eyes of a beholder. The very meaning of a Degas resides in the implication that the beholder is a sort of peeping Tom, that of an Ingres in the implication that the women under survey are aware of being looked over, that of a Monet in the implication that the beholder feels as if enveloped by what he is contemplating, that of a Cézanne in the implication that the beholder is compulsively measuring his distance from each successive plane in the scene before him, and so on.

But in Daumier’s paintings there is no implied beholder. Our efforts to re-establish the artist’s attitude with regard to the subject out there in front of him always end in failure. As we bring our concentration to bear on the forms confronting us, we suddenly find that we are no longer looking at them but have been as it were spun round so that we have become them. What was out there is all that is there, contained within itself and accessible to us only through our total identification with its actions and in no other way. The artist has not looked at these figures, he has drawn them as if he were inside them.

Honoré Daumier, Crispin and Scapin, 1958-1960

Daumier has not asked what his subjects look like when behaving in a given way, but what they feel like, within themselves.

Honoré Daumier, The Imaginary Invalid, before 1979

Next is from ‘Caro‘ (1986):

… What has been happening since 1973 is typified by one simple technical specification — that usually the steel has no longer been painted but has been allowed to rust and then been varnished. To make a steel sculpture and paint it with an overall flat color is to confirm that it is an artificial construction made out of industrial material, is to affirm that it is an entity in opposition to nature, is to ensure that it will resist the depredations of natural forces;

[line break added] to make a steel sculpture and let it rust is to modify its man-made look by inviting nature to play a part in its making, is to ensure that something other than human choices and human unconscious needs will determine what it is, is to affirm that art and nature are not opposite sides of a coin but opposite ends of a line. And all this is not just a question of method or ideology: its consequences are very concrete and crudely palpable. Put a painted sculpture in a field and it stands out like a pillar box; put a rusted sculpture in a field and it harmonizes like a lizard with its surroundings.

Anthony Caro, National Gallery Ledge Piece, 1978

And this is from ‘Kossoff’ (1995):

Kossoff has a Rembrantesque acceptance of the human clay. And it is an acceptance: his nudes often have a superficial resemblance to certain German Expressionist nudes, but these are there to play roles which the artist has assigned to them; Kossoff’s nudes are not characters, they are beings who are there to be looked at. The paintings are not about the meaning of these women in the artist’s mind, they are about the presence of these women in the artist’s space.

Added to that Kossoff piece is a section called ‘Afterthoughts’:

… Kossoff’s nude women — no, naked women — have a marked and curious unease. They convey to an unusual degree some of the tensions that can exist between a sitter and the artist who is making his relentless demands on her endurance. They also seem to me to convey curious anxieties in the painter. I said in the catalog text that these paintings are not about the meaning of these women in the artist’s mind but about the presence of these women in the artist’s space.

[line break added] That is too glib. It underestimated the degree to which the presence of someone in one’s space can be disturbing at many levels. There is something in the atmosphere of these paintings that calls to my mind the unease that filled the room from which exit was impossible in Sartre’s Huis Clos. As the play put it: ‘Hell is other people.’ Kossoff the man is something of a soul in torment.

Leon Kossoff, Cathy, 1998

Tension and disquiet between artist and model are mere overtones in these recent nudes; they are absolutely central to the Two Seated Figures of 1962 and the Nude on a Red Bed of November-December 1972, the large paintings which represent Kossoff in the Biennale’s anthological exhibition compiled by Jean Clair, Identitàe Alterità. With the extreme drama of their mood and the extreme violence of their facture, these have the look of expressionist pictures.

Leon Kossoff, Nude on a Red Bed, 1972 [there are several pictures with this title and date]

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




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