SO WHY ISN’T PAINT DEAD YET?

© Grant, I, “So Why Isn’t Paint Dead yet?”, Artist Profile, Issue 11, 2011, pp 98-99.

In 1622 Constantijn Huygens wrote a letter to his parents. Huygens was 26, a young, ambitious Dutch diplomat visiting England and the letter was written from there. He had recently purchased a camera obscura and was overwhelmed with its possibilities.  So much so that he enthused in his letter that ‘it is not possible to describe to you the beauty of it in words: all painting is dead by comparison’. Huygens went on to build a formidable diplomatic career, develop as a respected poet, begin a family that included the secretary to William of Orange and the inventor of the pendulum clock– and champion the camera obscura. He remained, however, also a champion and entrepreneurial patron of Dutch painting and his pronouncement of the death, or impending death, of painting may have been, by his own actions, premature. But it was one of the earliest of many similar pronouncements as new imaging technologies arrived.

The first Daguerrotypes of 1838 brought the pronouncement less than a year later from Paul Delaroche, himself a history painter, that ‘from today painting is dead’ – and the death of painting has been frequently announced with absolute certainty throughout the twentieth century. In the seventies Donald Brook often called it moribund, it was said to undergo a rebirth in the eighties, the Guardian newspaper certified it dead, definitely this time, after the Venice Biennale of 1997 – and all the time the ‘stupid as a painter’ axiom from the late nineteenth century has been smouldering away. Yet Gary Hume represented England with paintings in the 1999 Venice Biennale, Ed Ruscha did the same for America in 2005 and Damian Hurst has turned to painting in 2009. So painting seems to survive. Why?

Perhaps because of its low technology it is relatively inexpensive and, particularly since de-skilling, everyone can do it. Perhaps it’s also the directness of the media process, the personal touch inherent in every gesture and mark and the intimacies this brings – as well as the potential reading of both image and process for understanding and even therapy.  Perhaps paintings are easily marketable commodities, units of trade with a history to support them and a niche already cultivated. Perhaps they fit in well with period furniture and can also offer a look of hand-made wildness that nicely counterpoints clinical modernist interiors. All these may be parts of a rationale for the continuance of painting and each may offer some insights but there is more that can be suggested.

The transformation of inert materials such as pigment and binder into an entity which has the capacity to image, however abstracted this image may be, has long been seen as one of painting’s unique properties. This process has sometimes been likened to metamorphosis, even to alchemy, and the capacity for the forming of an image of a subject which need have no prior existence has been seen as an important distinction between painting and photo-based imaging. Even when a photograph is used as a strict reference for painting this transformation results in an image which evidences both material difference and an understood difference of required process between the painting and the photograph. Even when photo-based media is interworked with painting the interaction between the two is based on assumptions relative to the inherent characteristics of both mediums. There need be no claim for the superiority of either medium, simply an understood difference.

Painting also comes with baggage.  This baggage has often been seen as a burdensome weight or yoke that has slowly strangled the creative potential of both the painter and  painting itself. The baggage is a combination of understood conventions and hierarchies within both the process of painting itself and within its vast and intimidating historical context. It has been often argued that creative progress cannot be made whilst carrying this dead weight and, besides, painting has explored all of its possibilities. It is dead. It can offer nothing more. But what if all of this baggage was not baggage? What if it was a platform, a context for the boundary-pushing so valued in contemporary thinking? How can boundaries be pushed if, since Fluxus, there are no boundaries? It could be argued that these very boundaries can act as both taking-off points for creative development in the strictest sense and as clear criteria for qualitative judgment. Painting can be seen as an immense conglomerate of convention and precedent which can be intimidating but not shackling – and where both convention and precedent can act as reference points, starting points, for real inquiry and ultimately for creative problem-solving.

‘Stupid as a painter’ had its origins in late Impressionism when painters said they painted what they saw. The phrase was sometimes used as a lever to elevate newer art forms beyond the ‘retinal’ – the essentially sensory experience that was seen as the major component in both the act of painting and the response to painting. To examine and question this assumption of stupidity it may be interesting to look at the nature of intelligence in current thinking. The separation of mind and body, with mind as the superior, goes back to Socrates and Plato and had formed the basis for most Western thinking about intellect and intelligence. Left-brained, language-based, logical and dialectical thinking had been seen as superior to the intuitive and sensory thinking usually associated with right-brain operation and often perceived as dominantly present in ‘physical’ activities such as painting. The twentieth century has offered much to contradict this. Significant neurological and psychological inquiry has been made into brain function, mind and body inter-relationship and the nature of both intellect and intelligence.

From John Dewey’s notion of intelligence as a verb, to the neurosurgeon Richard Bergland’s assertions of the glandular interaction between brain, mind and body and on to the psychologist Howard Gardner‘s premise of now eight kinds of intelligence, there has been a massive shift away from the simplistic Socratic division of mind and body. High intelligence may be evidenced in ‘the capacity to solve problems or to fashion products that are valued in one or more cultural setting’, as Gardner has put it. Thus painting, along with other activities, may be demanding of high intellect in the formative problem-solving essential to its ‘fashioning’ – and painters are not inherently stupid, even painters who paint what they see. The real, observed world doesn’t exist on a flat surface. It isn’t defined by outline, nor does it present nice clear shapes and readily articulated colour relationships. These are what even the most traditional of painters have to analyse, transpose to a flat surface and manipulate in order to simply form an image of what they see. If they want to communicate a more expressive or abstracted response they have to go into an understood menu of processes and imaginatively deploy what they select. That’s where the problem-solving and its outcomes become demanding – because the audience is very familiar with this menu and is not easily impressed.   

Contemporary painting is much more diverse than it was in Huygen’s time. For almost 390 years since his letter the practice has ridden constant technological developments in imaging, absorbed what it wanted from these technologies and amalgamated this with its own intrinsic characteristics. Huygens possibly promoted the camera obscura to Vermeer, perhaps through Antony van Leeuwenhoek, the lens-maker who was executor of Vermeer’s estate, and Vermeer certainly would have used the projected image – but only to a certain point. Even in one of his most literal representations, ‘View of Delft’, he subtly moved buildings and distorted water reflections for intensity, symbolism or compositional considerations. His painting was never totally reliant on the image projected through the camera obscura. He did, though, take from it what he must have liked – halation and tonal sharpness in particular. Similarities could be drawn with snapshot-based cropping in Impressionist painting, blurring in photo-realism and even pixilated patterning in grid-based abstraction – but these adopted qualities work in partnership with the qualities already understood in painting. The conceptualising of outcome, the manipulation of visual elements, the role of brush-marking in both process and product, even the choice of materials and support, are all considerations to be negotiated. They are factors in the problem-solving that is central to the requirements for the practice.

Of course painting is no longer as it was in the seventeenth century. It has been very much a part of the lateral expansion of art in the last century, seen as quantitative progress, as art practice reaches out to encompass new and different media within its umbrella. Painting has done its share of adapting, combining, absorbing, morphing and referencing as it interacts with other media. It has long been freed from expectations of literal referencing, or even from imaging, but its expanded identity has been founded on understandings of its inherent nature and its cultural context. Perhaps what remains attractive about painting is that it presents many options and many possibilities without dictating any.

Painting is self-evidently very much alive. It isn’t even on life-support. It remains the dominant choice of major for students in tertiary study, it is the backbone of the art-dealing world, it is a major focus for publishing and a major focus for curatorial work. It may be under-represented at biennales amongst the clamour for the new, the different and the ‘confronting’ – but plus ca change…. Painting’s intrinsic flexibility, its cultural positioning, its intellectual demands and even its basic simplicity will mean the next announcement of its death may be just a bit wide of the mark, and just a bit premature. Again.