Monday, October 14, 2013

Stories in painting -- II: of gods and humans

This post continues my story of stories in painting, my answer to +Alexander M Zoltai's question in my "All you want to know about painting" series. Here is the first part of this answer, in case you have missed it.

I have approached +Alexander M Zoltai's question ("how do you incorporate a story into one painting") indirectly, by addressing another one: why have stories disappeared from paintings? I will return to the original question, I promise (insofar as it applies to me, at least), but for now, I want to take yet another huge step back in the history of painting (or even, more generally, image-making), and see how stories first appeared there.   

The original question makes an implicit assumption (quite natural at this particular juncture in time and space) that one painting represents but one moment in time; one stage in a story: a momentary scene you could conceivably see as a whole (or take a photo of) had you eye-witnessed the story unfolding. This had been, indeed, the general convention of historical paintings, "genre" paintings, illustrations, for a long, long time. Yet not always. Paintings, after all, aren't photos: apart from conventions, there is nothing to prevent a painter from composing a single painting which would combine many different moments from the same story, thus incorporating multiple points of its plot.  

The photo above is from a carving on the front of Tukulti altar (made around 1230 B.C. in Assyria). It shows Tukulti-Ninurta I, tyrant of Assyria, twice: he first approaches an empty throne of his god, and then kneels before it: two stages in his (apparently futile) attempt to call his god back to his throne, but the throne is the same, so it's essentially one image, not a sequence of two. My attention was recently drawn to this image by Julian Jaynes' book, "The origin of consciousness in the breakdown of the bicameral mind". According to Jaynes, this carving illustrates the event of gods disappearing from the world of humans (don't mistake this formulation: for him, gods are, essentially, neural -- or psychological -- phenomena, which didn't make them any less real for people who communicated with them and received instructions from them; nor any less tragic when they gradually disappeared). It is, of course, by no means the only image of this ("multiple-moments") type in the history of art, but I chose it for this post, because I feel the disappearance of stories from painting might be, in some sense, related to the disappearance of gods (hence, to the origin and evolution of consciousness). 

In any event, this type of story telling within a single image had gradually disappeared from the art of painting, just as the single-moment representation of stories did, later on. In the second part of this post, I want to invite you to contemplate the difference between two much more recent paintings, separated by about a century from one another. Here is the first one, "The last day of Pompeii", by Karl Briullov (1830-1833, 465.5 cm × 651 cm):  

A classical example from the tradition of historical painting: the painter imagines a single crucial moment in a story known (more or less) to his viewers, and composes a multifigure scene around it. You can stand in front of this painting forever examining different little sub-scenes, emotions, expressions, movements; or you can let the overall composition impress you with the horror experienced by these people in this last day.  

And here is the second one, "Guernica" by Pablo Picasso (1937, 349 cm × 776 cm):

Just a bit more than a hundred years separates these paintings, and they both react to terrible stories of human sufferings, pain, and death, but they come as though from different worlds. 

Could Picasso do something akin to a traditional historical painting on this occasion? Technically, he could: there is no doubt in my mind that he had all the requisite skills, both in drawing and in composition. Conceptually? I don't believe so. I don't believe that the horror of Guernica (as well as other horrors of the last century) could be conceivably conveyed within the conventional academic-historical genre to the contemporary viewers.  

There is, you see, one most fundamental difference between the horror of Pompeii and the horror of Guernica: one is about what nature (or gods) can do to humans, the other is about the seemingly inconceivable things humans can do to each other. Humans are no longer just victims, they now stand accused.

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