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Painting, the Way Forward, 

Every time a change in painting occurs the ripples are felt. These changes are usually recognised through publicity and promotion. Sometimes the government of a country will make a conscious decision to promote artists as a way of exporting not just their cultural ideology, but also as a form of propaganda, exporting ideas such as liberalism, tolerance, etc. See Adam Curtis’s film “Bitter Lake”, BBC I-Player. In the film a woman is teaching a group of Afghan women about the importance of Marcel Duchamp’s “Urinal”. In this case America has annexed Duchamp for their own purposes. Why? Because Duchamp represents freedom from authority and this is an unthreatening shorthand for “Come over to our side and be free”.

Claiming a Duchamp pedigree has enabled many latter day Dada influenced artists to ply their trade. Art has become utilitarian, a part of free market enterprise. It serves a useful social purpose and there seems to be a huge audience for it today. What Walter Benjamin predicted in his essay “The Work of Art in the age of Mechanical Reproduction” has come true, except the mass audience for art isn’t Marxist but Capitalist. It has become a form of Consumerism. Benjamin felt art needed to free itself from the clutches of the leisured classes. The modern viewer of art would be someone who didn’t have time to study a work of art. He or she, was a worker in a classless society with a busy life. A distracted viewer rather than one who is able to spend time concentrating on a work of art. The ideal medium would be photography because it is infinitely reproducible, inexpensive and accessible to everyone. And as Barthes said: “…Photographic connotation is an institutional activity; in relation to society. Overall, its function is to integrate man, to reassure him.” (“The Photographic Message”, Roland Barthes).The photographic language is understood by everyone and it can be used in many different ways and still be understood. Photography is a neutral medium, it simply shows what’s there. But is that true? Surely, reality, what we see and feel about it, is many-layered and complex?

In the latter part of the 19th century a number of artists rebelled against this easily understood depiction of reality and Modernism was born. Its main purpose was to make viewers question their habitual responses by creating a disjunction from the previously familiar and reassuring, to something unrecognisable and hard to decipher. The difficulty of Modernist art wasn’t due to wilful obfuscation. It came about because new pictorial languages were being created. Painters were questioning the mainstream of painting which was highly popular with the public, but fake. Salon painting wasn’t really like Raphael or Poussin, it was pseudo-classical art. Highly polished, slick forms, but poorly constructed with a literalness that lacked proper relationships of form, colour and space. Also,things were made to look nicer than reality, very like the hyperbolic images of advertising today. The rebel artists were of many different kinds, all seemingly hostile to each other.


Even work by those who knew each other and shared some basic ideas could still be alarmingly at odds when confronted directly. Gauguin and Van Gogh knew and respected each other, but when it came to beliefs in painting their differences were more pronounced than what united them. They had fierce discussions about painting, sometimes ending with murderous feelings. For these artists originality and independence were worth fighting for.

There are instances of Modernism before the 19th century. Titian’s later paintings are different in structure and form from the earlier ones. The late paintings aren’t as detailed, the forms less particular, but the interaction between the various elements is greater. There are losses and gains when something like this happens. Losing the detailed, descriptive and richer surfaces of his earlier paintings would have been difficult and risky for Titian. (His artistic reputation would have been at stake.)

Most people today feel the later work is more interesting. This is partly due to our own conditioned cultural view. The taste of our time is for painting that looks naive and childish. We are living in an age of Global Capitalism and the Art establishment reassures us by showing art that is unskilled and unthreatening. “It’s Capitalism, but it’s harmless. Even a child could do this, why not discover your inner child and express yourself?” This seems to be the message. Photographic depiction and childishly painted depictions of the world are two sides of the same coin: both unthreatening and easily understood. This is very important in an age of consumerism, where the buyer must always be reassured and allowed to “buy” into the art.

In recent years, the photographic view of the world which was rejected by the Impressionists and others has come into it’s own, not just as a way of recording visual information, but also as an art form to rival painting. Some photographs are very large, thereby insisting on their equal status to painting. There are things a photograph can do better than the human eye. It can scan crowds of people and identify what the eye fails to recognise; it can depict microscopic elements very precisely; it can see things without bias. And it can do this with ease, just by pressing a button the image is produced.Why should we have to spend time and effort painting pictures when it can so easily be done by a camera? Perhaps the question to ask is what can painting do no other medium can?

To answer this is difficult because there are a multitude of different paint languages, each one saying something different. Sometimes a small difference in a particular convention can make a big difference to the resulting image. Picasso’s monochrome analytical cubism ended when he started to introduce colour into his paintings. The two languages had much in common, but coloured surfaces acted as camouflage for articulated forms and destroyed their legibility. At that time, many artists felt if you wanted form you had to sacrifice colour and vice versa. Picasso wanted to challenge this notion even if it meant losing the buyers who loved analytical cubism.


Cubism is about creating a delay on the picture surface. What does this mean? The slumbering surface of a painting has the potential to be both temporal and instantaneous. We see the image in a second but we can continue looking if our attention is sufficiently engaged. By comparison a photographic surface is inert. It can be scanned or looked at closely in minute detail, but the component parts of the image remain unaltered. The element of time is episodic, unlike the time in some paintings. (Most paintings are over very quickly, but there are exceptions.) In Cubism (I’m speaking about Picasso, Braque and Juan Gris), the viewer’s eye explores relationships of colour, line, space, transparency etc. As the eye moves across the surface, forms appear and change. These are induced forms, not seen at first, they appear as you try to “read” the painting, along with the obvious depicted forms. They appear like an after image.

Imagine a magnet drawing patterns with iron filings, except the “patterns” formed in Cubism are of several different kinds, all working together, equally and simultaneously. Each element, line, shape, colour, space makes its own pattern and is at odds with the others. A common denominator has to be found linking them for a few seconds. Then this breaks up and a new set of relationships is made. (What I am trying to describe in words belongs to the visual world and consequently, I can only skirt around the subject.)

This activity I have tried to describe can also be seen in the paintings of some earlier painters.(Cubism rediscovered what already existed, but made it in a different form.) Late Titian has it, so does late Rembrandt. Then jump forward two hundred years to Cézanne of 1870s and onwards.(Manet’s paintings are contrapuntal, a new and different development.)

There is great compression of form in their work due to interaction of the various component parts. Things are never painted separately or photographically (copied literally). Shapes, colours, forms etc., have dual or multiple roles. Sometimes this results in an apparently clumsy look, with particular forms appearing battered and chewed up. (This has nothing to do with expressionism.) Unfortunately, this aspect has been misunderstood by many, including historians, museum directors and artists. There is a notion that painting has been de-skilled and that from Cézanne onwards, painters have become childlike in their practice. Nothing could be further from the truth. The “maximum interaction” painters were all as skilled and sophisticated as Renaissance painters. But the taste of our time for childish painting has come from this misunderstanding.

This line of artists, there are a few more, going back to Giotto, represent the high point of European art. It was Cézanne who helped clarify and intensify this new understanding of pictorial form. He is the turning point and hinge between the past and the future. And it was Cézanne who said he wanted to strangle the neck of painting. What he meant was he wanted to get hold of the ingredients of painting and squeeze them to get the fullest, most intense relation between every element in the painting. In this kind of painting narrative and anecdote don’t really play a part. Different interpretations substitute the linear narrative line. Meanings can be dream-like or absurdist.


This significant development hasn’t been written about partly because it doesn’t relate to American painting. Early on, in the 1950s, there was a connection. De Kooning, Pollock and others were struggling to understand Picasso and they became aware of the ingredients of painting in this struggle. They could see Picasso doing extraordinary things with line, shape and colour, making the picture surface twist and turn in almost impossible ways. A colour could be on the surface, then appear behind it, then the same colour could change from hard opacity to an almost translucent softness. And this would be happening not with one colour, but all the colours and the implications for shapes and lines were equally extraordinary. It seemed impossible to find a unifying link. At least with abstraction you could focus on a smaller number of elements and have a better chance of controlling them.

Matisse belongs in the group. His development of colour derives essentially from Cézanne, but unlike Cézanne Matisse was willing to sacrifice volumetric form in his pursuit of colour. Matisse wrote to Bonnard describing his “method” as the “Defining touch”. This way of looking and making colour equivalents is similar to Cézanne’s but alien to Bonnard. (Bonnard’s painting was also profoundly concerned with the way colour, line, volume and space interact and produce new pictorial forms.)

American colour-field painting looked to Matisse and late Monet for its pedigree. The American painters paid great attention to the shapes, colours, surfaces, colour densities and scale of their paintings, but the new element they introduced was size. Size in this case equates with volume in music. If you turn up the level of sound you don’t hear melody or notes, just a wall of deafening sound. In visual terms this is how American abstract expressionist painting looked when it was first seen. It stunned you into submission. At last, the Americans had broken free of the European tradition. But the price paid was much higher than anyone anticipated or realised.

With the advent of Pop Art, the European tradition was completely lost and replaced with design derived from advertising. The large size of paintings was kept and used to amplify the images. Paintings as big as billboards started to appear. America ruled the world of painting and they were letting everyone know.

My point is not that America has lead us astray. I greatly admire the way they challenged European painting. In many ways they understood what they were up against better than the Europeans. Late Matisse and Picasso weren’t the force they once were. They too were trying to get beyond what they had already achieved, but everyone was in the dark. Matisse thought his late cut-outs were the future; Picasso who accused De Kooning of doing “Melted Picassos”, started doing something similar himself. It was time for a change.


That was sixty years ago.


Paul Gopal-Chowdhury, 7th July 2015









Rembrandt, The Jewish Bride, c. 1665-69


Cézanne, Madame Cézanne in Red Armchair, 1877














Pablo Picasso, Bottle of Vieux Marc, Glass, Guitar and Newspaper, 1913

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