In La carte et le territoire (Prix Goncourt 2010), Michel Houellebec portrays a fictive artist Jed Martin who made a painting of him – he staged himself as one of the main characters of the novel. In the book, Houellebec says that out of all the numerous photographs taken of himself, only one portraits will remain over the years and decades and it will be the one painted by Jed Martin. That same portrait which eventually – fictively – will cost him his life. But I’ll stop here in case you still want to read that book. So again the same question comes up, what is it that makes people nowadays engage with painting as a medium when there are so many exciting other media out there such as photography or video? I read recently interesting articles that clarified my thoughts on the articulation between painting and photography and video making. Again, I must repeat it is not about ranking one medium above another but to question the choice of contemporary artists for such medium in comparison to others.
Upon the invention of photography, few gave much about painting being able to capture with so much precision and accuracy the subject-matter. Photography was seen as having a causal effect from the reality to the image and benefitted from “indexical quality”.
Painting was thus seen as threatened by photography which “withdrew from it the task of representation” and which thereby fully allowed the development of abstract painting (this is however of course contested in art history – things are never so simple – if you consider for example the Impressionists who already made a substantial move away from pure representation). Malevitch, Rothko, Mondrian, to quote only but a few of the grand abstractionists, have shown that painting could have quite some other function than being a form of representation. “No, as Yves-Alain Blois jokes in his well-known essay Painting as Model, there is no solar eclipse in Malevitch’s Black Square or New York subway map in Mondrian’s Broadway Boogie Woogie…” (Barry Schwabsky).
But to come back to the relationship of painting with photography, after a generation showing a limited realm of chosen images, such as Gerhard Richter accurately reproducing the seamlessness of the photographic image, painters started to capitalised over the insufficiency of photography.
With the overabundance of photography and moving images in this world, photography and video have quickly shown their limits and lost their value. “Not being remembered at all: this has, in the end, been the fate the subjects of most photographs” argues Geoffrey Batchen, photography historian, for whom ‘straight’ photograph has always been an insufficient vehicle for memory.
Contemporary painters use paintings’ almost unlimited abilities to add “material sensuality, tactility and atmospheric possibilities” (Alison M. Gingeras). If in the old times, painters were trained to reconstruct pictorially what they saw with their eyes, whereas contemporary painters “work a reality that is already image” (Barry Schwabsky).
The imprecision of the painting brush actually corresponds to inaccuracy of the brain’s mnemonic functions. If a photograph is rather very faithful to what one sees, painting plays a better role in triggering free play of association and reminiscences through its subjectivity and its lack of “pictorial authority and truth-telling capacity (which pertains to) photography”.
In a world over-saturated with “camera-made images, hyperrealistic forms such as photography and film have become banal and ineffective. Painting has regained a privileged status”, argues Alison M. Gingeras. “The medium’s tactility, uniqueness, mythology and inherent ambiguities has allowed painting to become an open-ended vehicle for both artist and viewer to evoke personal recollections, to embody collective experience and reflect upon its own history in the age of mechanical reproduction.”
Go to Jan de Lauré on Ponyhof Gallery
Go to Greet van Autgaerden on Ponyhof Gallery
“Painting as Model” by Yves-Alain Blois