Ποιειν Και Πραττειν - create and do

Paintings in-between reality and dreams

It is a legend that Vincent Van Gogh cut off his entire ear, when in fact it was the lobe of the ear, a small detail, but significant in terms of a truthful account of what really happened. Usually story tellers like to exaggerate rather than let the bitter truth speak up for itself. Out of this difference in possible accounts, conflicts in man become understandable, and if too many untruthful accounts are repeated at the level of mere legend, man takes on a mask. Thus painters who observe man carefully know that a good portrait with a historical meaning is able to remove that mask once more.

Picasso is quoted by André Malraux in having said, that

“Man had made those masks and other objects for a sacred purpose, a magic purpose, as a kind of mediation between themselves and the unknown hostile forces that surround them, in order to overcome their fear and horror by giving it a form and an image. At that moment I realized that this what painting was all about. Painting isn't an aesthetic operation; it's a form of magic designed as a mediator between this strange, hostile world and us, a way of seizing power by giving form to our terrors as well as our desires. When I came to that realization, I knew I had found my way.”

Here the positive interpretation of the mask as a safeguard makes way for the Cubinistic imitation of African wood carvings which show man's face as a feature of lines and shadows, deeper edges and elevated surfaces. Picasso points out an even deeper conflict in man, one having to do with his fears due to the unknown: a strange, hostile world and death. And indeed, ever since the beginning of mankind, paintings have been interpreted as expressions of the 'dream of man', dreams of solutions not so easily found in real life. Already the cave paintings of early man show how he hoped to overcome his fears so as to enable him to hunt those huge animals. The message of getting images, their proportions, under control, seems to be clear: “we shall overcome!”

Picasso mentions 'our terrors and our desires'. If fear of failure can make people panic and run away, then the desire for love can make them stay and face the truth. Whenever a new challenge presents itself, this means a conflict only resolved according to Freud, when possible to perceive how powerful the enemy appears to be. If too powerful, the love bondage to other people tears and panic will be the result. Many configurations of this have become subjects of paintings, Rembrandt's Moses with the laws just one of them. And if this is true that man's agony is due to this conflict whether it is wise to flee or to stay, then Freud would indeed be correct by identifying the conflicting drives in man as being that of desire and death.

It makes no sense, however, to identify this level of conflicts and their impact upon human relationships directly with history. Birth, friendship, marriage and death are all attributes of daily life. The art works we relate to, they are, however, part of a different order, a transcendental one.

Salvatore Settis mentions in his excellent account of 'Iconography in Italian art, 1100 – 1500, as one line', that pictures exist to bridge the gap between daily life and transcendence. In terms of real power the latter was represented by the church during that time mentioned by Settis. Thus there were paintings that showed only that power, for ever remote from the people. As fitting this is even for modern paintings which refuse to bridge the gap between the concrete and the abstract, it implies some critical distance meant more to the painter than what an interpretation of the painting could make out as a kind of poetry of reality. Michelangelo knew about this dilemma; his last works were made free of the influence of money and always a dialogue with the material out of which the work would emerge. He did so to give the incomplete and therefore also the not complete the possibility of bridging all gaps by creating a common space of articulation. Naturally he was an outstanding example of the Renaissance approach to art and to man's history.

In order to understand and even more to appreciate paintings as indeed valuable when bridging this gap, two other dimensions have to be considered. For one, it was not only a matter of bridging the plight between the poor people and the richness of the church, but also the very power of the church meant a certain relationship between the visible and what should be kept invisible had to be preserved. It meant a scope of expression was only possible when the visible was used as a means to show reverence to the invisible, for something else then matter had to exist as absolute entity during the Middle Ages, namely God! Hence paintings as all acts of deity had to be related to him. A special typological order evolved out of this understanding. The language became in those periods of the Renaissance and Baroque a fortified desire to communicate something to people within these well established and accepted boundaries as drawn by the church. The first painter who bridged, however, the gap was Giotto. Like Titian he let the people as viewer of his paintings see the power of the church and how they as people were kept outside of any scope of vision that would enable them to question that power. In his painting about the birth of Jesus inside the church, people outside could not see directly Jesus, but Giotto showed also that the cross they saw hanging above the entrance was from the behind but a piece of wood hanging from a wire. Hollywood was to make later use of this make-belief world; if the belief is too strong, this prevents indeed the bridge of communication from reaching the other side. From there to the failure of the Enlightenment, as Adorno and Horkheimer have described it in their 'Dialectics of Enlightenment', is not very far.

The other dimension includes explanations that satisfy the desire to know something more about the world beyond the well established borders. If these borders have not been drawn by the people themselves, then their trespassing meant always consequences. If a woman escaped marriage, she usually ended up in death; any other story would mean the writer or painter would soon have conflicts with the official morality of the society of his times. Good bridges would leave still the unknown open, as a man without doubt and only in belief of having absolute truths would soon end up doing foolish things. The entire satire series of Hogarth come close to that kind of venture into the unknown while criticism of established power, its poor taste, was not in any way justification to get off the virtuous path. The latter safeguarded one's successes in society.

We thus come to a typical concept of history, for once borders are crossed, this can cause war. We seem also to acknowledge that with time borders change, so that events thereafter follow quite a different organisational form. This requires in turn the establishment of new principles. All principles are usually set up for some purpose and even sustained by some force or other, in order to maintain the newly imposed order.

In terms of painting, Foucault points out in his book 'les mots et les choses' ('The order of things') how Velasque paints a portrait group around the king and the queen, but he shows himself as well in the painting while the royal couple can only be seen through the mirror at the back as they are just entering the room for the portrait session. Foucault interprets this historical moment as a shift of power away from the king, for otherwise a painter would never have dared to include himself in the painting.

Historical paintings depict thus the division of power. In terms of political history, the question of the Oder-Neisse border, the question of its recognition through the West German government in the present context of many changes in Eastern Europe, reveals how many historical memories are invoked at the mere mentioning a lack of clarity about this hard border still exists. It is not easy to imagine right now a painting which will predict in real terms the historical outcome of these enormous changes sweeping presently throughout Eastern Europe evoked by the fall of the Berlin wall and the collapse of the Soviet Union. But certainly a knowledge of historical paintings can help in anticipating lines of conflict in man's mind with regards to even simplified notions about European history.

Ever since European history was seen through literature, fore mostly Tolstoy's 'War and Peace', and later on Solzhenitsyn 'August 1914', a critical approach as to the folly of high officers and their inability to bridge the gaps of education and knowledge among themselves and the common soldier has become a social endeavour to change society. In the West 'war and peace' has been broken down by contrast to the Eastern version into the plights of the individual and the various religious categories dominating at a time. More specifically it has become a dispute between the Old and the New Testament, the latter being apparently closer to the people with Jesus being claimed as a child of the people rather than being a son of God. This turn towards a more humane language, that is, less abstract, beholds no answer for the question whether in fact Jesus was the true saviour or not. The whole matter of doubt in this affair has become secondary to the wish to speak in an entire new, that is human language. Paintings which form bridges are thus those that speak this language. They cannot be forgotten and indeed, in historical moments, their existence accounts for many not to give up life, but to turn around and face the facts rather than flee into death. Paintings that ensure this can be called historical, Picasso's Guernica is one of them.

If the language of paintings becomes meaningful in terms of history, Settis, already mentioned above, made clear that there one important gap and this one could only be bridged if artists stayed within a certain schemata. For throughout history they would have to be able to mediate between the learned people and the illiterate ones. They must paint so that words would become flesh in the minds of every onlookers, for those who can read, they must be able to enjoy the paintings, whereas those who cannot, they must at least be able to partake in the reading of the bible through these pictures. Here the Renaissance opened up very much the cultural horizon since not only the Italian language was used even before Martin Luther to express artistic and religious sentiment in another than the Latin form. It wads during this time that the Republican idea was born and the citizens free to make a choice as to which art work they seemed to be the best.

Nevertheless, while this mediation was going on, borders were drawn and redrawn in a constant turmoil of conquest, defeat and survival. The Renaissance itself lived only for short periods of time in various cities, that is as long as a benevolent count prevailed. After that the entire Europe was engulfed in many kinds of divisions. Weak economies added their constraints for every kind of artistic expression. This state of affairs lasted even until the terrible two World Wars of the 20th century. Europe, so it seemed, did not abide to any other kind of solution than to gain soemthing out of conflicts through new wars with different borders and alliances as outcome. The title of the film 'What a lovely game war is', expresses best the common ignorance of Europe's upper class and its leaders for what was always clear from the outset: in war it is the people, men, women, children who suffer and nothing can justify the wish for more power at their expense. There was an ineptitude, thus also a missing imagination of what it would be like when there would be no war, indeed if all things could be resolved peacefully. By the same token, few historical paintings reach that level of reflection for many artists succumbed to the notion of war as another means of international politics. Although they all knew each other, nevertheless that did not prevent them from entering WWI in the ranks of their own national armies. It was only the experience of the two World Wars that sobered up many and opened up new possibilities, but only on the basis of newly, tightly drawn borders especially between the East and the West by means of an 'iron curtain'.

The kind of history that enters pictures and makes them become historical has often been considered as a different form of perception of history. For there it is not far to a moment of captivation in history. It makes people forget everything else. That may explain in part irrationality as demonstrated best by people entering with great enthusiasm WWI, or other wars as if making history is a greater driving force than sound human reason. Even Achilles entered the war against Troy once a friend suggested then his name shall never be forgotten.

When the French painter Watteau made for the first time sketches of the French soldiers returning with Napoleon from Moscow, he was shocked by what they revealed in their faces and became as realistic as Goya. For he saw pain, the traces of war, in the faces of those soldiers bitten by hunger and cold and who had forgotten all about the thrills and fancy dress-ups when attending aristocratic balls. Watteau could no longer retain his earlier optimistic touch of colours when painting.

There was one way to escape this captivating moment, and that is the attempt to look beyond the immediate events. Thus Altdörfer in his truly historical painting, 'The Alexanderbattle' points out that things are still decided in heaven, for the outcome of the battle between Darius of the Far East and Alexander of Europe is already announced by a tableau hanging down from heaven. It hangs above both the battle field and the landscape in which it takes place, and announces that the victory shall belong to Alexander. It is a vague reminder of how Greek Gods mixed things up when they would see the Greeks fight it out at Troy. The look away from the battle scene up to the tableau implies also something more. It is a recognition that fate is no longer a decisive force in history, but rather proclaims the far greater superiority of the Western over the Eastern world. This proclamation underlines thus an Euro-Centric position as much as it reduces individuals to mere ants following the language of symbols, that is, flags of their troop units. And even more important, no one directly involved can really see the outcome, because as a part he cannot see the whole. Only the painter as much as God has the ability to see everything and hence the role of the parts with regards to the whole change. This maxim of the whole being the truth, first expressed philosophically by Hegel, is to last until the Second World War. Matisse held still onto this notion, but after 1945 the maxim was considered to be false for much damage had been created through the denial of the individual as having any truth, perception thereof. It took even longer Eastern Europe under Communist rule to get rid of that totalitarian notion of truth and it had also an impact upon painting, but a negative, known as Social Realism.

Interestingly enough some painters or schools of painters tried to avoid these pitfalls by 'painting what they see', fore mostly the German Expressionists. Forerunner for this kind of developments were the Impressionists, even more precisely Vincent Van Gogh. The Impressionists decided to step out of the confines of any schemata, as mentioned by Settis, in not only breaking with the norms of the academy, but also by stepping out of the atelier with artificial since constant light, into the outdoors, they embraced the fleeing moment in what day light does offer at that time. Their paintings had to be made fast, in order to capture the light upon trees and the water, that is, before the next cloud would break the sunlight, cast shadows and change the entire light composure. By turning towards these details, they seemed to be preoccupied so much that they hardly saw the worrying clouds on the horizon: the coming of World War I. However, Vincent Van Gogh in his letters to his brother Theo wrote shortly before his death, that he feels something terrible will soon happen unless people make a choice for the sake of humanity.

In other words, these painters believed like Sartre believed later as well, that there exists a freedom of choice. Nothing is pre-determined. Still, when weighing the various options, a choice for the one or the other side, Vincent Van Gogh admitted himself that even then, when having made the right choice, that one has to ask oneself, “but what's the use?” This is to say conflict in man's history became one of choice and after the disillusionment that Sartre went through himself, that is once he decided not to become a martyr but a common soldier fighting at the front of WWII, it turned out to be a difference between those who allow themselves through conflicts to be dragged into history and those who sought to stay outside of it as did Albert Camus.

These different kinds of perception, reactions to history, lead the discussion on to the meaning of history itself. Does a painting or something else, like a new thought or a different border (e.g. how they were redrawn after 1945 between Poland and Russia, and Poland and Germany), come only after defeat or once this defeat seems immanent, so that efforts are made in the last moment, in order to record the events for the future, for remembrance itself? Surely to this belongs Rodin's sculpture of the citizens of Calais which sacrifice themselves to save the city from total destruction by the approaching conqueror. The very selection of such a presentation reflects what counted then as a historical subject. It touches upon that, what has been excluded and yet still belongs to history. But if the focus has been narrowed down to one-sided viewpoints, making it ever more doubtful to have a real grasp of history, let alone a glimpse of the entire truth, then it is important to admit that Western civilization based upon Greek philosophy came about only once the philosophers fled into the Polis only to discover there that their realms of immediate interactions with other citizens had either been destroyed by themselves or else they were sent into exile (or else forced to drink the Hemlock as was the case with Socrates). Under self destruction can be understood Plato's denial of democracy and giving up on poetry while he fled into a cave to make there with the help of drugs transcendental experiences. All that made Gorki say philosophy is nothing but an attempt to console oneself over this loss of a humane life in freedom.

In painting, the victim's breath is to be felt on the canvas when it is almost too late. Yet not all paints or paintbrush strokes can manifest that. John Berger would always argue that there is this huge discrepancy between what the eyes see and which cannot be communicated nevertheless so easily to others. One crucial barrier is due to people being already captivated by what they believe to see as if reality. Seeing is a highly ethical matter since many a times people look in the other direction when something terrible is happening to others. Many Germans claimed after 1945 not to have seen the Jews disappear.

In other words, if people want to believe in something constant, something unchanging, they will cling onto something like a Medusa raft even if it means many will drown while only few will survive. They will cling onto the raft with all their strengths which persons at risk to drown can muster. It means a hope to survive and to live on drives them on. Once that is the case, the nature of conflict within the painting changes into a conflict about seeing habits and what artists can do to alter that mode of perception. If painters cannot go through that conflict, they will succumb to public pressure and censorship and offer only paintings which allow the viewer to escape mere transitory feelings. The latter relate to ongoing changes in body and mind. Often they are deeply disturbing as they are a part of the rhythm of life forced to face death as final end. The latter reinforces the feeling of existence being only transitory and nothing can take on a permanent nature. André Malraux would say that these paintings are not necessarily historical in meaning, but they do help in this conflict with death, the fear thereof, by allowing to forget for a moment about human existence not being eternal. This positive forgetting lasts as long as the viewer stays within the realms of the painting. They help one to live, yet Malraux would qualify his statement, by admitting that they also form our mental prisons.

If there is no consolation possible, if everything else but the language of pictures is finite, then the world has to have a binary order. Something resembling an infinite order must hold together the finite things. In a historical painting this can be seen most easily in how the cohesion of the whole is achieved. It is also indicated by what is breaking apart. For example, the montage method of the German Expressionists allows the showing how a piece of the whole is being dragged into the affairs of some part and consequently is lost. And painters even closer to this difference between the real and a reasonable life, they show only possible solutions by indicating a need to step out of stiff customs and to return to something more natural, a more proportionate life. Immediately there comes to one's mind paintings by Watteau. For he shows what is sustainable in life: not the false mask of the aristocrats, but the masks which actors wear in theatre in order to be close to the people on the market place. The latter express themselves with much more vitality. Hence he left the city to see the more natural facial expressions of farmers. He was in search of those emotional expressions that people need if they are to enjoy both love and live together peacefully. Watteau upheld marriage as an institution of reason since capable of safeguarding these emotions. His clown stands as much as Picasso's Harlekin at the edge of their respective societies. For the clown conveys the last meanings of laughter and sadness in a society in which the breaking apart is becoming more and more visible by the day. In such a case the life of the ruling class has lost all authentic forms of expression, the erotic tension has ceased to move and to bring together people and without love there is nothing with which reason could be sustained. This, it must be remembered, is the heritage of the eighteenth century for the present search in what aesthetical frame of references painters can still give their support to what would sustain life. The mere fact of not really know an answer makes pictures to be less a signature of conflicts and more a sign of historical interpretation as to what can be considered to be still meaningful. Duchamp's 'bottle rack' marks the beginning of a negative interpretation in modern art.

The search for reason has thus really underlined European history in different ways. As a focus on perception of those forced making history, there can be taken the Greek historian Thucydides and his remarks about discussions in Sparta prior to the beginning of the Peloponnesian war: “seldom do people recognise reason when someone stands up and speaks up against entering the war, and does so out of fear that the losses will by far outweigh the gains.” Since fear is but something irrational, reason has a much more difficult time to find a voice, let alone be heard. It is up to painters to reverse that false focus, best done by avoiding the glorification of heroes. It is also done by showing that man is determined not by a single, but by different forces so that he has to work out the conflict between all of them before he finds himself in the middle of all conflicts.

A painting about the choice of Paris is already an indication of where responsibility lies. In terms of historical paintings, they need to show what influences man's destiny and what zones of conflicts will have to be lived through. The tendency had been, however, to safeguard somehow this knowledge as a secret of life itself and only with time and development became it more and more a subject of accessible knowledge for everyone. And by that time, painters had to abide to two different forces themselves. One force was religion, and this prevails in such paintings considering it to be necessary that the evil is driven out of the world, in order to save it. Here can be observed that a vast difference exists between paintings of the Italian Renaissance and that of say Dürer's times, the latter filled with apocalyptical visions. The latter are much more akin to how war was driving people out of their natural settlements. The other force was the degree to which the schemata offered to the painter any degree of freedom for personal expressions or not. Quite often tradition, painting schools (e.g. Raphael), norms of the academy of arts, church or of the court made it easy to keep painters within the desired constraint. The outcome of both was the replacement of historical through religious paintings, in order to resolve conflicts with political authorities and hence possible censorship, as much as a movement away from simplified explanations and forms of perception.

An escape into symbols not easily to be decoded as much as into mysticism started, but others, like Picasso, stayed in tune with what people can understand. Every painting of his offers some access in the form of an object easily recognisable even at street level e.g. in the abstract phase of Cubism he includes a newspaper. There are no preconditions posed, in order to perceive and to understand the painting. His Guernica painting (see Guernica 1937 and Picasso's Guernica ) became a reminder that man at the outset of a deadly conflict will not succumb to any kind of reduced or over simplified perception. And indeed all historical paintings confront this notion that man is without reason, life but a mystery, in support of some resistance against this.

In following the different arguments on the canvas, one great difference between painters becomes apparent. For the ones who cling to symbols repeat but legends about the end of the world, about the folly of man. Their statements are denials of those emotions which make possible the expression of reason. By upholding a legend, they support the negative, that is, a suppressive view of man. In short, in their world nothing changes, things are done over and again in the same way, and everything appears to be just an endless variation. Quite different are those painters that address the imagination even if only in a subversive manner. They allow the senses to perceive, indeed to taste a bit of the real world while being universal enough to be understood by everyone.

A painting which overcomes the conflict merely with the suggestive power of the oversimplified, reproduces at the same time the mystified legend and will prevent that a story is truly told. Authentic experiences can only be revealed when the painter stands with his life behind his work. Vincent Van Gogh's perception of the potato pickers is one example of this kind of painting.

In all of these paintings with empathy for mankind a historical moment becomes apparent, and may it be the loneliness in a night café as painted by Vincent Van Gogh. The unemployed sit close to the pool table as if awaiting not the waiter, but a butcher of time, their agony being a time which has no longer any relevance to them. They must wait and see what happens next. Van Gogh uses simple colours to underline this plight, but he does not reduce man to the mere level of despair. There is always noticeable in his paintings a search for an exist, for a path which passes the houses on the way towards heaven.

The conflict inside of Vincent Van Gogh, of whether or not he could really knock on the closed doors and windows he passes by, reflects that he felt being completely shut out of society. It can be compared to a remark by Kafka when observing a sparrow on the balcony: there lies a breadcrumb but a few hops away but due to the presence of a human being this sparrow stays afraid and does not pick up that crumb. Trust in the lines which we see on canvas often express this hesitation, or for that matter, this dilemma between desire and inability. It is understandable that man and his conflicts take on different forms of expression over time, but they are all akin to what painting has already shown over the course of history.


Hatto Fischer

Athens 1990





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