Thursday, October 3, 2013

Stories in painting (I)

The next question in our "All you want to know about painting" series comes from +Alexander M Zoltai

"How do you incorporate a "story" (meaning some sort of "plot") into one painting?" 
A short answer would be "I don't", but it would be a bit like playing Shakespeare's gravedigger ("Upon what grounds? Why, here in Denmark"): as straightforward and honest as it is meaningless

The thing is, when I say "I don't", I am referring to a certain tradition of visualizing stories in paintings, the tradition hinted at by the universally recognizable detail above, from Michelangelo's Creation of Adam, the tradition that used to be the highest expression of this art form and which still constitutes, arguably, the unsurpassed pinnacle of painting within the history of Western civilization.  

Here is another famous instance of this tradition, Leonardo's "The Last Supper":

I have chosen this painting for this post because it highlights two key aspects, two opposing sides of this tradition:

  • First, the viewer is supposed to know the story (at least to some extent) -- it's not the painter's job to tell it, it's already told. The painter choses a single moment in the story and composes the painting around it. There was a lot of variation over time in how the moment is chosen, and how the painting is composed (and, in particular, in how much freedom an individual painter has in these choices), but it's always a single moment, a climax of the narrative. 
  • The compositions are usually complex, multi-figure ones, with some less obvious sub-stories going on all over the picture plane. These, however, aren't known stories: they invite the viewer to figure out these subplots for themselves -- and sometimes, like in this case, the controversies about them go on for centuries, including the question of whether the painter had indeed wanted to make these surrounding events clear and straightforward, or the message, possibly subversive, was intentionally "hidden".  
The source of this tradition is, I believe, the quest to make archetypal, culture-defining stories more "public", external, accessible, to endow the culture with shared ways to visualize, imagine these stories. Risking some oversimplification, here is also the fundamental split between two branches of Western Christianity and between their associated national cultures: Reformation choses to make the stories more accessible with language (translating them into vernaculars), Catholicism invests into their public, shared visualizations.         

Mark Rothko. No. 1 Royal read
and blue. 1954.
This tradition, with all its glory, had been, in effect, abandoned by the art of painting some time ago (even though its remnants still survive at its periphery). The change is painfully palpable if you visit museums featuring different periods of art history; just recently, during our trip to London, I had the chance to feel this contrast again, between the National Gallery and Tate Modern collections. 

In the former, your eyesight is overwhelmed with stories, movements, fights, battles, passions, gods and goddesses, bodies, faces, gestures, interactions, complexities, fascinating minute details of human condition. The latter, by contrast, feels empty (even if often quite colourful), devoid of any narratives, almost as though not only gods, but humans, too, have already forsaken this planet. 

I am illustrating this here with one of Mark Rothko's paintings on the left, but it's obviously not only about abstraction: stories, narratives have disappeared from representational paintings, too (just recall Cezanne's "apples and mountains"). In a sense, the fate of Michelangelo's unsurpassed feat in visualizing the Book of Genesis on the ceiling of Sistine Chapel shows the same phenomenon: although the Chapel is still crowded by tourists (their arms outstretched to the ceiling with smartphones in their hands), the modern culture has reduced its complexities to the single climatic "two-hands" detail, effectively making a minimalistic modern painting out of the enormous whole. We (kind of) don't need or want more nowadays...      

What happened, then? Why did stories disappear from painting? Or are they still there, just in a different form? These questions feel personally urgent to me, and I don't really know the answers (to be more precise, I know too many different answers, but neither of them rings true enough to be convincing). So, I will continue to explore this topic in a couple of more posts of this series (so stay tuned if you are interested). 

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