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Oriel Davies Gallery
The Park, Newtown
Powys SY16 2NZ
Telephone: +44 (0) 1686 625041
Fax: +44 (0) 1686 623633
Email: desk@orieldavies.org

 

Monday-Friday 10am-5pm
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Essays

The Space Between: Historical Misrecognition and the Truth in Painting

Exhibition: Becoming Modern
Date: February 2008
Writer: Chris Townsend
Publication: Becoming Modern
Publisher: Oriel Davies Publications

Perhaps the most telling feature of Simon Grennan and Christopher Sperandio’s paintings is the gap between the images that are seemingly combined on each panel. Within the flat plane of representation are gaps as unfathomable, as incomprehensible as the void between the imagination, and the historic world, of their subjects and their imagination, and the modern world, of the artists, of the Chinese painters who carried out these works to the artists’ specifications, and of ourselves as spectators. These voids are held in suspension by two utterly depthless surfaces – one, the surface of classical painting, self-consciously promoting profundity, depth, as an aspect of the human condition, the other, in its reproduction of that surface, and its confusion, representing interiority, profundity, depth of experience, as nothing more than façade. If we might interpret Grennan & Sperandio’s work as a critique of ‘meaning’, not least in their strategies of intercalation and over-painting on ‘classic’ works, I’d suggest that their ‘true’ subject – their proposal of ‘meaning’ in a world in which art has no meaning, only the spurious proposal of significance that it has always maintained – is this gap. Rather than suppressing the content of the images they obscure, or simply contradicting as illusory the truths we imagine that these older works propose (primarily through a presentation of ‘beauty’) in the complexity of their construction these works both emphasise and comment on a gap between the present and the past. That gap is at once compressed - the themes of past and present in a palimpsest that suggests the ‘meaning’ understood to be inherent in art is inherently chimerical - and expanded, emphasised through a disjunction of both forms and modes of representation.

What Grennan & Sperandio create, therefore, are not the depthless pastiches that are so often understood to characterise the art of post-modernity; neither are these paintings simple exposures of a fraudulent claim to significance by ‘painting’ as a tradition of representation and profundity. ‘Meaning’ in this work is something altogether more complex than either the straightforward offer to the viewing subject of external and superior truth, or the annihilation of meaning provided by some modernist and post-modern artists. (The Chapman brothers’ infamous defacements of Goya would be both a point of
comparison and of departure here.) Rather, meaning here is something strategically silent, covert, perhaps even inadvertent, that exists in the process of its own dissolution. It is also something far more difficult: it makes demands of us in interpretation, in ‘reading’ the painting – though to imagine the painting as text in some way is to unjustly privilege writing over the image. In consequence the truth in painting becomes something that proceeds from our own effort, and which may, if it resides anywhere, be a product of that work rather than a content of the artwork. That ‘truth’ also becomes historically contingent rather than a universal, transcendent property of the artwork. Meaning is, therefore, sufficiently unstable to be the kind of entity to which we might attach a verb rather than a noun; it is a property of our engagement with the artwork’s, and our, place in the world; it does not come to us ready-made, portion controlled, a property of superior perception by artists. Meaning does not reside; it migrates.

Grennan & Sperandio’s ostensible subject is Gwendoline and Margaret Davies’ travels in Italy in 1909. But we might say that the bigger subject of these paintings is history itself, and in particular the problematic history of the problematic assumption that there is stable truth in art. The trip to Italy – the sisters’ second - might be seen as continuing an education in art history that had earlier taken Margaret to study in Dresden. Although Gwendoline and Margaret were already collectors, these tours were very much concerned with learning. The Davies sisters were both the embodiment and the enactment of a significant historical shift. If the pillaging of Italian art treasures by Northern European margraves and baronets during the Enlightenment was, if tangentially, implicated in the founding of a philosophy of aesthetic judgement (in the writing of Emmanuel Kant) and a history of the production of images (developed in the eighteenth century through the work of Winkelmann) by the early twentieth century the discourses associated with philosophy and history had displaced the discourses of acquisition. Indeed, the haphazard gathering of objects that characterised eighteenth century ‘acquisition’ had been supplanted in the late nineteenth century by ‘collecting’, where historic and contemporary art was purchased on the basis of an already acquired knowledge and taste, instilled through formal tuition, and undertaken with the counsel of skilled advisors. Gwendoline and Margaret Davies, then, are part of that sea-change in human identity in the nineteenth century identified by Michel Foucault, where one’s identity is understood, by the self, and measured out, by others, in the quasi-scientific terms of ‘knowledge’. They belong to, indeed they help define, a culture in which knowledge of things may make a moral shift: exposure to, understanding of, culture will make you a ‘better’ human being. One collected truth the way one might collect paintings.

We need to supplement this historical difference with a further shift, one that profoundly defines the Davies sisters in their social relations. It is also a shift that demands the schism between representation and history that characterises Grennan & Sperandio’s paintings. Where the image and the subjectivity with which it should be intimately associated – if the claims for meaning and truth in ‘high art’ are valid – they seem here to float free of each other. Image and represented experience, the subject and historical experience, are remote from each other, even as they make endless claims for their unity. I’d suggest that this, in part, stems from the origins of the Davies sisters’ wealth in the mercantilist and industrial capitalism of the nineteenth century rather than in the agrarian and resource-based ownership systems of the aristocracy. This is not to make the crude argument that because they were the granddaughters of a self-made millionaire of otherwise humble origins Gwendoline and Margaret felt compelled to acquire knowledge and art in compensation for an inadequate social heritage. Rather, I’d argue that ‘culture’ (as both knowledge and art) assumes a different role within the industrial capitalism of the nineteenth century, and what the sisters do, both in acquiring it and then in disseminating it, is symptomatic of this. What is at stake through your visible acculturation is not your social status per se, but rather the kind of human being that you are, and your relations to other human beings. The possibility of subjective transformation by experience or knowledge is irrelevant in the era of the aristocracy, since there can be no movement between classes. In an age where such movement is rendered possible, either through entrepreneurial skill or pure chance, rather than necessarily established at birth, the capacity to improve the self, indeed for anyone to be a ‘self’, becomes an epistemological guarantee of stability in what would otherwise be a prescription for social chaos, with the world and its wealth in the hands of parvenus, arrivistes and chancers. Part of the ‘getting’ of culture involves the getting of ‘truth’ as a palpable condition, and the return of that ‘truth’ in art by giving back into the public sphere of what would, previously, have remained a wholly private collection. Underpinning this is an assumption of subjective potential not reflected in the historically real domains of accumulated wealth and status, that there is no difference between donors and recipients in terms of their social and intellectual capacities. Rather than ‘meaning’, ‘truth’ and ‘beauty’ being limited to persons of ‘quality’ as it was in the eighteenth century, all may recognise it – as an external effect - when they see it and be affected by it in ways that, apparently, ignore those influences of social situation and psychology that might most affect its reading.

The collecting of art is, then, an undertaking associated both with the improvement of the self and the improvement of the public sphere. This may seem a little hard to credit, given that you are reading this whilst, or shortly after, walking around a public art gallery to view both publicly commissioned contemporary art and some quite beautiful works from the collection gifted to the Welsh people by the Davies sisters, but the gap between those works and Grennan & Sperandio’s paintings is a reflection of the impossibility of our recognising this notion. That ‘impossibility’ is not, however, a consequence of historical decline. The artworks gifted by the Davies sisters are not relics of a superior age when art could be redolent with truth and beauty that goes unappreciated, or is even mocked, in our own debased, post-modern, post-meaning times. The void between historical works and modern interventions is, if it is anything, a consequence of the false promises made by, and on behalf of, art in general. A work like What do I know about it? (p.40) suggests, perhaps, this relation of incomprehension as modern teenagers, taken from a photograph, isolate and flow around a central figure that appears to be from a Pre-Raphaelite painting. However, what looks like a historical residue of a finer time is itself taken from a contemporary stock image catalogue; the teenagers, who might be the still smartly dressed pop fans of the early 1960s are, probably, taking part in a Catholic ceremony. The central figure, if it offers us a truth, tells us that the romantic conception that truth is beauty and beauty truth has been appropriated to a general condition of image production in which presence is more significant than symbolic content. (The ‘iconic’ is thus referenced through the mass-produced and mass-consumed – a painting like Van Gogh’s Sunflowers becomes nothing more than an image of flowers; Waterhouse’s Lady of Shallot loses any sense of historical specificity that accompanied its production – for example its romanticised resistance to industrial modernity - to become a romantically charged image produced by industrial modernity.)

However, if we then turn to Paris Grande Palais (p.32), we see Grennan & Sperandio, perhaps, hinting that an image was always just an image, produced as ‘beautiful’ picture rather than as pictorial ‘truth’. There is no moment of historic loss, when the iconic becomes the postcard. The status accorded painting, even in its moment of production, was always as mythic as its content, and that myth obscured. Paris Grand Palais has, as its basis, a distorted and reversed reproduction of Adolphe-William Bouguereau’s L’éveil du Coeur (1892), partly obscured by brightly coloured digital renderings of what might be molecular structures (in other words a rendering visible of something equally as intangible and imaginary as the heart’s awakening as it is rendered in the story of Cupid and Psyche...). Bouguereau’s ghastly sentimentalising of Greek myth was the kind of painting that the sisters could easily have seen in the Paris Salon on their way back from Italy. (I do not think it is the kind of image that they could easily have bought...) It is now a picture that you can buy, as anything from an “art print” to a “museum standard oil painting” via some 500 sites on the internet. It was an image that you could buy, within a decade of its first exhibition, mass-produced on porcelain plaques, by the Berlin company KPM (Königliche Porzellan Manufaktur). This history of reproduction and dissemination suggests that what ‘auratic’ value the original of the painting might ever have had was soon disseminated. The painting existed more as an image to be copied and to form a suitable background to life, rather than to be a work of art whose content might change a spectator’s life. Yet that, precisely, is what we want the work of art to do with its truths and meanings. (I’m thinking here of Theodor Adorno’s argument in his essay Commitment about the transcendent power of abstraction in Kafka, Beckett or Beethoven against the political specificity of Brecht, but we might want to make the same argument for a painting – perhaps Guernica or Manet’s Death of Maximillian - that after the encounter we will never be the same again.) Yet the point of one of those works, the Manet, at least as Georges Bataille has it, is that after the work we can only be the same again, such is its representation of our indifference. Perhaps the mark of the artwork, rather than the image, is that it makes no false promises.

The Davies sisters’ pursuit of culture - and our own, perhaps – rests, seemingly, on a fundamental, general misprision of the work of art. Art’s attempt to represent, truthfully, the human condition – perhaps the very notion that there is such a thing as ‘the human condition’ – is essentially self-annihilating, delivering the subject to personal aggrandisement on one hand (in the elevation of the artist as romantic genius and pathfinder for ‘meaning’ in a culture) and the art market on the other. (And in the figures of Picasso or Jackson Pollock, for example, delivering both.) Within a few years of the sisters’ Italian tour, modernist art, as its ‘meaning’, would first question and then wholly devalue the notion of ‘meaning’ in art: we see this most obviously in Duchamp’s work, but it’s also apparent in Picabia’s paintings, and finds a particularly clear expression in Richard Huelsenbeck’s proposal in the 1920 Dada Almanac, that a painter could order the production of pictures, by others, over the telephone. In 1922 the Hungarian artist Lásló Moholy Nagy would claim to have done precisely this, dictating his requirements to the foreman of a Berlin sign-writing factory for five paintings in different sizes on porcelain enamel. It is this move that Grennan & Sperandio emulate in their commissioning of their paintings from Chinese craftsmen through the media of remote communication of our own time, but it is a move already made, in an era that would make grand claims for the singular presence and truth of painting, by Bouguereau’s copiers at KPM, or by the transformation of history painting, and even Ingres’ sexual fantasies, into widely disseminated engravings in the 1820s and 1830s.

The impossibility of closure with history that Grennan & Sperandio’s works seem to embody might be ‘impossible’ because the gap between past and present, between ‘meaning’, back then, and the absence of meaning, now, is itself illusory. The problem here is the constitution of the self, historically, through its reflection on authentic experience, an authenticity of relation to one’s life that culture, and here, specifically, painting, is understood to represent – both as collected object and in its subject matter. Painting, to Gwendoline and Margaret Davies, was understood as redolent with superior, externally derived truths, even if they did not know what these were unless guided towards them by teachers and advisors. The encounter with ‘meaning’ was what made you a better person and what might make a better society through ‘improvement’. What Grennan & Sperandio are suggesting, in their palimpsests of contemporary imagery, removed from the domain of artistic production through their industrial rendering within a global economy, is that this promise of meaning, as external production, is always already spurious. The claim to ‘authenticity’ of experience and meaning in Turner and Monet is as much a claim in bad faith as the phoney, market-driven use of affect in some contemporary art. Indeed, the problem may not be that this false claim is a sign of a failed art and that there is, somewhere else, historically or in the present, an art that is authentic in its communication of experience, in its ‘meaning’, but that this is, necessarily, what art does. It’s only ever imagery, but we, perhaps necessarily, want it to be something more; we want a ‘truth in painting’ because we can’t find a truth in life. Perhaps more interesting for us is the promise of art that it might do something in that domain. Art does not participate in some predictable future once we remove the limits to its construction and framing of experience. Grennan & Sperandio’s apparent nihilism actually produces its own gaps in which the future, your future, might happen, precisely because it does not allow the artwork to give us vacuous answers like ‘truth’ and ‘beauty’ to the hard questions of history.