Ποιειν Και Πραττειν - create and do

Man's conflict reflected in European art

Every historical painting speaks in the language of a specific time. It reflects prevailing constraints, specific norms and even criteria otherwise known to be outright censorship. Thus a painting is best understood when seen not only in terms of the specific historical context prevailing at that time, but also as an effort to ensure continuity of life while having to overcome often multiple conflicts, the one with the free conscience surely the most crucial one. For continuity presupposes being able to uphold an ethical vision of the future of mankind rather than succumbing to a kind of rationalisation as to why a loss of morality has been incurred. The latter is brought about by a slave like adaptation to often whimsical demands by those in power.

To take up a dialogue on these terms, an imagination is required to enable an enrichment of the analytical interpretation thereof. The latter is not enough to do justice to any painting, especially not if it denies what sense perception entails, and which brings about another kind of unity of apperception as Kant had conceived it. For sense perception begins with an associative thinking and can best be described when entering a painting and noticing ever more details like the writing of a poem.

The problematic side of any appeal to the senses prevails ever since the picture dispute erupted in the 5th century and which culminated in the demand not to make any concrete image of God. Painters have been obedient to that canon over centuries. It affirms a kind of cult called elegantly in philosophy transcendence. The logic thereof is difficult to grasp since it is mainly metaphysical speculation and which denies any form of mediation between reality and concept. Consequently there have not only been some very wrong interpretations as was the case of Heidegger when he attributed to Vincent Van Gogh's shoes many false attributes, but some interpretations were kept even for centuries with no one really noticing that this is the case of everyone believing what they see and not what was really there to be seen.

Paintings stand so to speak in-between viewer and subject of the painting. The interesting question is in this case how can something be mediated when a historical painting tends towards the metaphysical as if history is governed by laws which act independently from any individual. Here then exists the crucial question but what can then still be made concrete so that the painting does still act as a sort of mediator between individual and history. For that shall determine what lessons are drawn out of history and what does contribute to individuals subjegating themselves over and again to historical laws as if nothing can be done at individual level to alter the course of events. A closer look at this negation of mediation shows, therefore, how a conflict of conscience is being in effect neutralized. An extension thereof will form the so-called historical lie which takes a hold of many minds due to a tendency towards over-simplication as a method to reduce complexity to simple explanations. It is done to create an illusion as if man is still in control of the situation or at the very least capable of grasping the historical content in the making. After all the present is a fermatation process of many things, the outcome by all means not certain as of yet. Still, there is a tendency in society to close down the past by establishing historical facts cemented by the official narrative.

As someone pointed out, such an approach to both historical paintings and to history itself excuses apparently why important details which would contradict the overall assumption can be ignored. For example, it is repeatedly said Hitler had all the power, when historical studies show that he acted as a sort of clearing desk for competing powers of the superrich and therefore was by no means the sole power holder. Likewise the saying that the German people elected him in 1933 is a false but simple explanation of a disasterous culmination of how facts are established till in retrospect such a legend covers up all the dirty details which made possible such an outcome. Hitler's forces did use in one swing city terrorist methods to coerce people to make possible that this city went in his favour. Ernst Bloch pointed out that those Germans who attended the exhibition organised by Hitler and the Fascists to denouce modern art as being degenerated, that they did not support this, but were "ashamed." To notice such details is important if not only historical, but all paintings are to avoid affirming false generalizations.

Whether or not artists have grasped the role they supposed to play in society, depends upon so many factors that it is nearly impossible to say just because he lived under such conditions, therefore he had to paint the way he did. That would be denying even in retrospect any freedom of expression any painter has at any specific moment in history.

When standing in front of a historical painting, the viewer needs the imagination, in order to bridge the time between the present and the past. As historical paintings allow for a special perception, it can contribute to a study of man's conflicts over time. Such an imaginative perception is more than mere empathy. It will make the thinking what people went through back then become so real, that a dialogue with the past in the present becomes conceivable. Yet that will require finding a language which does combine thoughts and feelings intuitively expressed, and thus a language which can enrich man's self understanding even if that is not according to Adorno at all self-understood.

Since history stands for changes in man's thinking and expressions with regards to the basic questions of life, the search for a language to grasp these changes continues. Poetry is one these 'other' language which helps this imaginative dialogue, paintings with their colours and figures of speech on canvas another way to make something become real and tangible. Once such attempts are made to articulate a way to perceive things and therefore as well a logic for approaching things, paintings begin to reveal deeper human dimensions underlying all conflicts in history.

In the first part was mentioned the painting by Titian called 'Il Bravo' because it involves the viewer in a moral question. As in a Shakespeare drama, the audience or viewer knows more than the participants in conflict as shown by the painting. This means more knowledge was made available to the spectator in those days that what may be nowadays the case. The respect for a knowledgeable audience meant also a sensitivity towards what people think and say. Indirectly it continues the awe for the chorus which appeared in Greek tragedy plays. Linked with such a sensitivity as to what should be known by the public is a deeply moral question: when is it no longer sufficient to stand aloof as a mere passive spectator but enter the happenings, in order to intervene so as not to let a murder happen?

As a first consideration of European art, there needs to be taken into account the developments and changes in the arts. In reference to Picasso's Guernica, the term 'historical painting' can be made truly explicit. Picasso does allow the viewer to partake in a deep moral conflict when viewing the Guernica mural. For how to view technological development when it is linked to the killing of innocent citizens no longer at horizontal level by a standing army, but from the air, thereby altering war into a vertical assault upon humanity? Since gains made in technology result in an abuse of power, how to position oneself, if unresolved conflicts lead only to still further hunger, war and torture. When compared to what has happened already in the past, a person may shudder when becoming fully conscious of all the implications of the three different bombardments of Guernica in 1937. (For a full report thereof, see News Report by George Steer for The Times about Guernica 1937.)

The Guernica painting of Picasso is truly historical since its theme is not really limited only to experiences of the Spanish civil war. Today many families gather in front of this painting and discuss the different dangers facing mankind. They notice how painful it must be for the eyes to look constantly into a naked light bulb hanging from the ceiling. This symbol of torture is set by Picasso in relationship to a mother trying to console her crying child. The painting expresses human agony for everyone to see and out of which can be deduced the danger of a 'fragmented soul' having lost any connection to other human beings.

As a second consideration, there shall be attempted to develop the theme a bit further on how involvement of the viewer through a painting can take on this historical dimension. Involvement is more basic than just participation. It is best revealed when people sense changes in history precisely because it affects them in their daily lives. In European history this centred around a struggle for what is called nowadays 'freedom of expression'. It is contingent with how conflicts are resolved by sticking no longer to dogmatic viewpoints which simply brand the other as negative. It reflects as well a moving away from a basic schemata which allowed only certain things and towards a free expression of things in the belief that this serves best all interests.

General interests are best served by speaking a language which everyone can understand whether now of the poor folk or one of the power holders. But while that disposition to a certain language will change over time, painters in Europe continued to resort to historical paintings by serving both the interest of those who had the power and to underline claims of superiority of the Western culture. If a painter complied, he would be given a limited freedom of expression for the sake of upholding such historical laws as if the key determinants of everything. On the side of the painters, it lead mostly to a deep seated resignation as if nothing could be done to alter the order of things, and even worse what was in the making.

Out of that follow many things, including all the turmoils and wars which left Europe no longer united, but rather divided and weak. This is reflected already in paintings of especially the times after the Renaissance and lasts really until 1945 – the end of Second World War. Since then, many things have happened and yet even these latest attempts at new or different expressions cannot be really appreciated without looking back, into the past, in order to see what moved artists. As Vincent Van Gogh said, there is only future in one's own expression when it is not based upon the denial of those artists on whose shoulders the artists of today stand. The denial of that past reveals something.

One more thing needs to be said right at the outset of such a discussion about paintings in relationship to European history. Paintings involve not only the eyes, but also address the 'ethic of seeing', for only once one partakes in the event because of being involved, things are perceived quite differently when compared with remaining outside and apart. It does mean assuming more responsibilities, but it entails also more dangers, namely to get involved in something over which man can easily lose control like WWI.

The problem of seeing as an ethical challenge can be taken literally, for how many people would claim that they have never seen other people disappear suddenly, may that be in Germany during the period 1933 – 1945, or in Chile after the putsch by Pinochet in 1973 or even in Israel in how conflicts with Palestinians is being handled. For to react to something strange going on and to inquire, does presuppose civic involvement. It means the readiness to undertake actions with unforeseeable consequences, including the possible arrest and deportation of oneself to an unknown place.

The almost all prevailing longing for harmony is nothing but a wish to avoid conflicts which are immediately there to be confronted once the level of impartial viewer or even neutral spectator is left behind. But how to resolve the many deeper conflicts, when there is missing a humane language to which Karl Marx referred as having to include categories of both productivity and creativity, if the human self consciousness is to be addressed successfully? In many cases only a language pre-set to humiliate the other is used. That goes then in the direction of creating artificial conflicts as pretext to start a fight or even a war (as did postulate Heidegger in 'Time and Being'). Short of a humane language, such language is needed which allows for clear thoughts without playing reason out against feelings and vice versa. Here the arts can help to find that language and in turn make artistic education into a part of the political programme with the aim to understand much better the deeper nature of man. Certainly help and solidarity is given only under certain conditions; however, idealization of human relationships in this direction do not help, as revealed most recently by all Eastern European countries turning away from Communist ideology and its over emphasis upon solidarity.

Something else is needed to govern people's lives in this modern age of information technology. For any idealization distorts the practical fact that human relationships are complex and are intricately related to history, that is, to relate to man's experiences over time. That requires much trust before becoming truly open and responsive to the needs of other fellow men, women, children and old people. Orientation in this direction can only be reached over a realistic differentiation of society and daily life. And paintings can help to attain just that, for at their very core they tell in a subtle way the conditions of human relationships of the times during which they were created. When soldiers are moved at the sight of Jesus in pain at the cross, then this differs to when a painter shows them being completely unmoved by what is happening around them and are just absorbed in playing dice. They are, so it seems, completely unaware of the enormous bearing this event will have on man's life to come.

Freedom of Expression

At the outset, one thing has to be said: the language of painting is as telling as what Sartre would call honesty when someone speaks or relates to the other. If a woman places her hand upon that of the man vis a vis and she tells him that she loves him, but he does not remove his hand if he does not love her, then thereafter will be always between the two a discrepancy in their language between inner thoughts and feelings revealed. The outcome is uncertainty as to what has been said and needs to be done to respond to the other's needs. No new note of being present will carry their voices. Forever their time in terms of the present would be off set by being not only split but in not allowing for any spontaneous coincidence, no mutual confirmation of what truth shall uphold their relationship shall be possible. Instead a lie will hold them so long together till it is impossible to keep going against that inner self knowing the difference between a true and a false love.

A painter being really honest would spot this and show consequentially their faces as being slightly distorted. Their eyes would no longer be truly open as people show immediately when they are unable to respond to the challenge of love. Hence the search for a language to express what one feels and sees despite suppressing one's real feelings all the time becomes a plight for both people and artists as they depend upon each other to find true expressions of human nature. The plight will continue as long as they do not really know how to deal with a strange world being constantly distorted by power and therefore burdened by many unresolved conflicts. Most of them are carried on from one generation to the next.

The critical question may be asked whether or not the dishonesty of man should be shown in stark and clear terms, or if it would not be preferable and even wiser to avoid any confrontation, just in order to uphold some illusion of the self and of one's status both in society and in private life. This choice applies equally to all citizens as to all artists! In other words, the freedom of expression is a challenge to the honesty of everyone and the outcome of this conflict shall determine finally the choice of language with which things are named and opinions are expressed.

Tadeusz Breza in his book about the Vatican under the title 'The Bronze Gate' describes how the painter Veronese was cited in front of the inquisition court for having included in his scenes of the Last Supper with Jesus Christ such figures that have bleeding noses, are either drunk or sick, or look like fools, if not like lunatics. Veronese defended himself by pointing out that he was merely doing that, what other artists had always done before him, namely to take the liberty to express themselves. However, the church was afraid that such figures once included in religious paintings would only lend support of critics of the church, in particular the Protestant movement in Northern Europe. Showing sick and poor people besides Jesus, this could be taken as a sign of decay of the Church. In brief, the conflict with the freedom of expression is none other than what images can, should or should not be created by artists, in order to uphold an illusion or indeed even a reputation. Scientists from Newton onwards face similar conflicts: should they publish their research findings even if damaging to the company they work for or rather dress up so to speak like a painter the figures so as not to be any longer plain facts, just to make the result not appear to be so threatening to the company after all?

What is called 'artificial' evidence used to gloss over things, that is in the German sense of 'künstlich', can mean just upholding an image. It implies that an art expression cannot be only something authentic, but equally something artificial, not real. The latter meaning allows the viewer to lessen his need to respond to things being shown. This kind of arbitration between seeing and action takes place as long as mankind has resorted to the arts to resolve conflicts outside the direct realms of political thought and arena. There is a need to keep the mind open to moral questions without imposing them on anyone. Hence the language of the arts is always more subtle and subversive, than what the eyes can perceive immediately or even after a long time. This is especially the case when the painter created his pictures in times of great power struggles and massive threats to the existence of every artist. It explains why at times paintings are difficult to understand and why even Michelangelo tried to express himself at the end of his life works completely free from the influence of money. Veronese himself had painted one crucial picture which got him into serious trouble. He was saved from certain death when standing trial due to the more liberal interpretation which prevailed at that time only in Venice. A Jesuit offered the court reference to a passage in the bible which corresponded with the contents in the picture Veronese had painted and which has become known as the “House of Levi”. The impact of the trial was, however, negative, for Veronese ceased to paint thereafter any further Last Supper scenes. In having come into such a serious conflict with the authorities at the time, something happened to his creative abilities to express himself. As a result the world lost a human voice and a testimony as to what was happening really around that time.

The schemata of expression

Many artists know that danger Veronese went through. They attempt to avoid such conflicts with authorities by choosing to speak only indirectly about man's problems and conflicts. Out of this evolves a schemata underlying almost every expression, in order to be protected against arbitrary changes in especially taste, something they would usually experience in the forms of whimsical wishes by those having the power and who provide them with the money to do the work. Often it is thought that these schemata allow for no individual expression, hence it amounts to following a stiff tradition which would not allow for any deviation. But artists will not follow suit blindly especially if they can discover some freedom of expression, in order to ascertain their creative personality. Yet it is only when greater artists dare to upset the prevailing schemata for narrating and showing things, then true historical paintings come about. They will be no longer endless variations of the same theme but through new forms of expression allow the viewer of the arts to perceive important changes in man's life.

One schemata prevailed for many centuries in both the Eastern and Western worlds, and that is the Byzantine one. This was partly due to the financial strength of Constantinople but it had also something to do with the picture dispute about what role paintings should play in churches. It was a subject of many controversies ever since icons were used for a double purpose: for worship and for collecting money. Only with the beginning of the Gothic style did Western Europe start to find a way out of the predetermined schemata and to develop its own autonomous artistic tradition linked to the free architects, stone masons and other craftsmen who were constructing the Gothic cathedrals. However, it was not until Giotto that this basic schemata prevailing over centuries was changed into a truly modern language of painting.

Giotto recognised that the Byzantine schemata was a secret carrier of important information about the past of Ancient Greece. Thus, at the outset of the Renaissance in Italy, there stands a rediscovery of ancient Greek times or as Gombrich in his 'Story of Art' would say, it prompted a merger of sculpture and painting. Salvatore Settis in his analysis of “the icon-graphical tradition in Italian art, 1100 – 1500 A.D.: one line”, he points out that Giotto was the most sovereign master because he not only translated figures out of the Greek into a popular Italian language long before Martin Luther made his famous bible translation, but he created in doing so a new language which will be spoken by the arts thereafter.

In the painting 'Mourning about Jesus' created by Giotto 1301-1305 for the chapel in Padua everything comes under the sway of gestures, in order to reveal pain as a human dimension which is shared by all. Here the ancient tradition can be felt in the manner pathos was reintroduced to express certain feelings with the aim not to reduce man, but to reveal a humble greatness despite the dominating feature in man's life being pain. The 'language of gestures' includes all: women, soldiers, even the angels in the sky. Everyone is being shown as moved by the event. Indeed, a gesture can already be the mourning eyes of someone unable to say a word out of grief. Silence hovers around these figures like clean air holding together the bodies like volumes in suspension. Giotto makes possible with this language the telling of many stories in one and the same picture. It explains the tremendous impact Giotto had even at his time upon people for they felt that what he said through his paintings was real.

The language of mediation

Since Giotto, and even before him, it has always been a conflict for artists how much pain must they show before their paintings were considered to be real. Some felt it to be sufficient to show gestures as a sign up to heaven, others let blood run out of the wounds. Over time different 'formulas of pain' (Settis) were demanded of artists. They were searching always for a language of mediation so that their paintings would mean equally something to learned scholars as well as to illiterate people. As long as they painted for the church, they had to paint so that words would become flesh in the minds of the onlookers; for those who could read, they must be able to enjoy the paintings, whereas those who cannot, they must be able to participate at the very least in the reading of the Bible through these paintings. Here the Renaissance in Italy opened up a new cultural horizon.

European history and tradition of painting

Nevertheless, while this mediation was going on, borders were drawn and redrawn due to a constant turmoil of conquest, defeat and survival. Most apt for that can be considered the 'Apocalyptical Rider' of Albrecht Dürer. The Renaissance itself lived only for short periods in various Italian cities, after that the entire Europe was engulfed in many kinds of divisions and disputes. Weak economies added their constraints to every kind of artistic expression. These state of affairs have lasted right up to the present and the scars of the two World Wars still remain for everyone to see despite all of the changes in Western Europe and now after the fall of the Berlin Wall in 1989 in Eastern Europe.

Only the eighteenth century saw some autonomous revival of the arts; it was the time for the Enlightenment and the creation of Academies of Art, hence a new 'dialogue about the arts' started to redefine the norms for artistic expressions. Raphael became a sort of dividing line with Reynolds in England favour this classical approach to the arts whereas his counterpart Hogarth feared academies would only be used by artists to upgrade their social status at the expense of good taste and local abilities.

This state of uneasy affairs was accelerated through the developments of both science and technology. And Europe, so it seemed, never did abide to any other kind of solution than to try to gain something out of conflicts by starting new wars with different borders and alliances as outcome.

Until the Impressionists challenged the norms of the Academy, painters had to stick to historical paintings and tell stories. Many Impressionists did not sell any of their paintings because they started to recognise the importance of different subject matters such as Van Gogh's shoes or chair, something till then unheard of but now taken serious as motive for the arts. However Watteau had started already at the beginning of the eighteenth century to challenge the stiff conventions of artistic expression. He no longer felt the imitation of the masks to be seen in aristocratic circles were sufficient to express man's emotions and hence turned towards the market place to find new facial expressions which had a closer correspondence with the inner movements of man's soul. For this reason, Van Gogh criticized his fellow Impressionist painters for thinking what they were doing was completely new when in fact they were indebted to a tradition of many important ideas which were developed in the past. But with the increasing speed of changes, the new became a longing in itself. Artists felt only then do they have a chance to compete on the art market which was slowly emerging. This credo of the new led, however, many into fatalistic positions. Among many others, Franc Marc went convinced into First World War, that only the destruction of the old will bring about the possibility of the new. He did not survive that war. After WWII, Adorno would warn that a new seeking the new will fail and therefore shall be forced to flee back into the old structures which have denied the artists the 'freedom of expression'.

More than World War II sending many artists into exile, WWI changed the tradition of painting. If Van Gogh had anticipated a bit this terrible event, painters like Paul Klee could no longer respond directly to the present for it had become an unbearable reality. As Paul Klee put it, beauty could only be attained by remembering some experience made in the past and then any attempt to bring this into the present by artistic means, it would make that expression be by necessity 'abstract'. Since then 'abstract expressionism' has become the dominant language of the twentieth century despite Picasso and many others who attempted to find and to continue different schools of paintings, including the Surrealist movement with Andre Breton. But over and again one thing became clear: artists no longer believed that they could continue to paint in the same manner as they had before these major historical events which had a tremendous impact upon people's daily lives and changed the map of Europe.

Historical paintings as expression of Eurocentricity

People tried to flee from history once they saw that they had no other chance but to succumb, although there was always as well the other side: the fascination of these events. Instead of a 'language of gesture' human pain was subordinated to war as a game which included the glorification of generals and children holding tools of war in their hands as if toys. This can be found in many traditional historical paintings. One painter who went even beyond that and showed history as a predictable outcome was Altdörfer in his 'The Alexanderbattle'. This approach cannot be regarded as being open to the future, as Van Gogh would understand it, for the outcome was finite due to certain key factors. In Altdörfer's 'The Alexanderbattle' the outcome is proclaimed by a tableau hanging down from heaven above the battle ground and which gives Alexander the Great the victory over Darius from the Far East – a vague reminder of how Greek gods would mix in when the Greeks were fighting each other outside the gates of Troy. But Altdörfer departs very much from that ancient concept of man's destiny for he attributes history to being a law by necessity and which is based in turn on a blunt truth of the far greater superiority of the Western world. This proclamation underlines the Eurocentricity which prevailed already back then while at the same time it proclaims the fact that individuals do not really count in history. Rather they are reduced, as the painting shows, through history to a level of mere ants which follow the language of symbols: the flags of their respective troop units. No single person can really see the whole, only God and the painter.

Such a painting leaves the viewer speechless, because it is suggested that even raising one's moral voice is futile. It no longer matters how the viewer responds. History becomes something independent and the perception of the masses is changed into people as not being free, but there to be led. This cynical viewpoint with all its political implications affected very much the course of events in Europe thereafter. It comes to one's mind when political rallies are seen in the Piazzas of Italian cities or when German reunification is celebrated in forms of football crowds waving the national flag as if the nation is their own team. Partly, the German Expressionists tried to bring back the human being as a topic into the middle of the painting, but due to the events of WWI, they revealed a human being having been torn up in bits and pieces, and once dead, not blood but money rolled out of the corpse. It was a futile fight against urban lies in which man had become entangled in like the fly in the spider's net. Long cigarettes, red eyes and intense screams as shown, for example, by Otto Dix, revealed man's conflict had become with himself. And with all the pressure culminating in WWII, it was impossible to keep up any longer a positive interpretation of man. Duchamp's bottle rack started the real departure from what Giotto had formulated a long time ago. It meant no longer human empathy, that is human understanding determining the focus upon man, but rather functional values and aesthetical theories which converted art into a model of communication with the rest of the world.

Brother, listen to the old stories: Vincent Van Gogh

One painter stands, however, apart from all of that: Vincent Van Gogh. Many consider him to be a painter of the twentieth century when in fact he died in 1890. His perception of man, including those who left the country side in order to work in factories in the city, was more religious, more human, that what Marx attempted to state with his theory of alienation. In one of his many wonderful letters to his brother Theo, Van Gogh wrote that he was amazed when in London to discover in all those people who had become estranged from their places of origin that in their hearts, there was still a kindle of the good, old stories. They can be taken as remainders of those biblical imprints of paintings artists had created over many centuries, so that people could face their hardships, and still understand intuitively things despite the fact that they could neither read or write.

Van Gogh has thus a softer touch than perhaps any other painter. He still tried to understand his subject that he was about to paint. His 'Potato Eaters' is such a good example. It is based on Millet and hence Van Gogh felt he was standing within the tradition of painting. But shortly before his death he wrote still in another letter to Theo, that “he feels something terrible will happen unless people make a choice for the sake of humanity.” He believed as did later Sartre as well, that mankind has a choice, and that there is not just a simple freedom of expression which challenges the honesty of not only every artist. For given that freedom of choice, Van Gogh admitted that even if one has made the choice for the sake of humanity, there remains the hard question in need to be answered: “But what's the use?” That was bitter for someone confined to a life without recognition despite of what he tried to do and to paint. And it is even more bitter for those who have given up completely the notion that there is a choice to be made throughout history. In this sense, it may be important to remember that despite of this, Vincent Van Gogh never lost his optimism for he had hoped always that his art is not in vain and that someone else may come along and paint something with the help of his language something truly beautiful for everyone there to enjoy. He did not realise that his paintings contained already that empathy making it possible to rediscover all these human and philosophical questions pertaining to painting in history.


Hatto Fischer


November 1990

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