The Afterall editorial team was in Chicago last month for our first meeting there since Stephanie Smith and the University of Chicago Open Practice Committee and the Smart Museum formally joined the journal as editorial partners. We enjoyed three days of intensive meetings and discussions about art and writing and slowly put together the contents for an upcoming issue. Our debates culminated in a quite animated moment when we met for a final time at the Arts Club of Chicago. The discussion came down to the question of whether or not depictive forms were receiving proper attention, not only in our journal but also in the (art) world more generally. My own opinion is that we are sometimes compelled by the excitement of works with strong backstory and context; and that depictive works struggle with backstory and context because as works of pure composition they have to leave these ‘behind’, often unwillingly, and can sometimes be resistant to strong curatorial ideas. The question of composition is central to thinking about and discussing pictures, and perhaps that can be a secondary consideration when we discuss works where it is necessary to think about contextual elements. A picture is an extraordinarily modest thing and in that regard good pictures can only really speak for themselves — if they are not good pictures there is nothing else for them to be good at. Clearly all of this is a little caricatured, but it’s an argument around which two sides might naturally want to disagree, and we did.
In his extraordinary new novel Canada (2012), Richard Ford, in the middle of a description of a dramatic event, quotes Ruskin defining composition as the bringing together of unequal things. This nod to art history and criticism can certainly be read as a moment of authorial self-reflection. Indeed in a recent interview Ford describes how his novels begin with the accumulation of data and notes, kept piled high on his desk or arranged on index cards as in a catalogue, and that slowly, through a kind of montage familiar to artists, are assembled, edited and sewn together to make the story that you eventually read. In other words, Ford’s novel, like picture-making, is the result of a material process, a forming via addition, subtraction, substitution and erasure until the composition feels right. But re-composition (and indeed decomposition) is also what happens when a reader reads a text or when a viewer looks at a picture: he or she begins the very same process all over again, of addition, subtraction and so on in order that he or she may remake the work as if he or she were the author or the artist. Composition then is not just the way a picture or text is made; it is also something that the reader or viewer feels — the apparent seamlessness of a work rubs up against the fact of its having been made, of having been put together out of unequal things. And obviously this double force of composition is embodied and felt differently depending on the kind of work, or the type of materials from which the latter is formed. Essentially, though, the beauty of an image’s composition is achieved in how it manages and conjures the estrangement and absence of context, backstory and intentionality, as much as through its ostensible attempts to use these very same things as opportunities for pictorial forms. Composition, then, is what can make a depiction feel as if it were hovering on the abyss of decomposition, doubt or incoherence.
If modern painters recognised and re-inscribed this formal condition as a defining subject for depiction, the historical avant-garde was readying itself for an almost centurylong iconoclastic tradition and for an expansive artistic surrogacy. These developments radically opened up the idea of art to new practices and forms, defined in relationship and opposition to depiction, that were not necessarily pictures. Certainly the avant-garde knocked the complacent stuffing out of picture-making, but the latter carried on, learning and discovering much from its critics and the new practices and genres, emerging as strong today as ever. One of the most important things it did learn is that all pictures are complex compositions, regardless of their intentionality, subject matter or genre, and it often matters little, in this respect, whether one is looking at a snapshot, a history painting or even an exquisite corpse. What pictures also understand is that quotation and the circulation of pictorial reference are systemic and defining: pictures quote other pictures, not because those who make them might impose a reference, but simply because pictures have no other choice but to do this. They are compelled to. Even the most indexical scene, even the most spontaneous picture taken on an iPhone, somehow references and exchanges meaning with the history of pictures. Sometimes this can be quite stunning and sophisticated, and perhaps especially when the artist is unaware of the exchange until it begins to emerge.
After our final discussion at the Arts Club, our editorial meeting broke up and I headed off to the Art Institute and wandered around for a few hours looking at the collection. I wanted to see the Edward Hoppers, which I had seen the last time I was there, and I looked for them where they are normally to be found. This time there was not one Hopper painting to be seen, as they had all been sent to Paris for a large survey show there. But in the vicinity of where the Hoppers should have been I came across two John Singer Sargent paintings, both of which I had never seen before. They are extraordinary in very different ways and they made me think a lot about the question of composition. In particular they compellingly exemplify how things that we cannot see nor fully understand can appear in pictorial form as provocative questions about what we can’t see or don’t know (they accept that these are not necessarily things that can be seen or revealed); and also of how things that pictures are unable to literally reproduce (for instance, movement and sound) are transformed and brought to pictorial life by other means.
The first of the two pictures by Sargent is Rehearsal of the Pasdeloup Orchestra at the Cirque d’Hiver (1876/78; the other version is in the collection of the Museum of Fine Arts in Boston). It’s a small painting and it depicts in quite Impressionist form members of the orchestra rehearsing their instruments while sitting in the seats normally occupied by the audience. The viewpoint is from above; we look down towards the pit over the shoulders and the instruments of the practising orchestra. The painting is a small homage to both the conductor Jules Pasdeloup (who shared Sargent’s love of modern and progressive music) and to the beautiful and extremely compact Cirque d’Hiver, with its steep, almost vertiginous sweep of circular seating. Sargent has placed several clowns in the foreground (the Cirque d’Hiver to this day is a wonderfully popular venue for the circus in Paris and I have taken my children there several times to see performances), relaxing before taking to the stage perhaps, but just as likely to be, along with Sargent himself, simply listening and watching as the orchestra prepares and experiments for a future performance. Merging symphonic sound with false starts, hesitancy, broken syncopation and the hard rapping of the conductor’s baton bringing things to order, orchestral rehearsals sometimes produce a kind of natural dissonance — a random interruption and transformation of an ideal delivery of a perfect musical score, a reminder and palpable manifestation of the fact of the work’s composition. A swirl of centrifugal energy characterises the canvas, as if the sound of both symphony and dissonance were living on the very surface of the paint, a modernist composition that is formed in part from the sound itself. Standing in front of Sargent’s painting, I could almost hear Pasdeloup’s orchestral rehearsal — I could imagine, for instance, the fury and energy of the timpani in full percussive force, and feel the shifting of notes and timings as careful recalibration took place. I know almost nothing about musical theory, but looking carefully at this painting I perceived a strong connection between the way the composition has been rendered and the complicated aesthetic value of its subject (an orchestral rehearsal) for modern music. The reference for me is rich and suggests that, just as with picture-making, modern compositional music has understood that there is much to be learned and discovered in rehearsal, in accidental musical forms and montage, and therefore in the abyss of decomposition. Sargent’s painting manages to depict the sound of music, but it equally depicts the complicated and increasingly important relationship between sound and music.
The second painting by Sargent is a full-length, life-size portrait of a beautiful young naked woman as she braids her hair. Titled Study from Life (1891), and sometimes known as Nude Egyptian Girl, it is the only female nude that Sargent painted and with it he leaves behind the Impressionist style and hesitancy of the Pasdeloup painting. There is still, however, something quite dissonant about this work, and it took me some time to locate what this was and to understand its effect. Look how the lower half of the portrait is more or less from the back, whereas the upper half is in three-quarters profile, achieved by a half-twist in the woman’s upper body through to her waist, with ramifications to how the rest of her body is imagined and rendered. Perhaps this twist was requested (of the model) to allow Sargent and us to see her face and her breast, and to see her distraction. But more likely it was required by the painting to allow both views. The twist does something strange to the middle zone of the painting, to the woman’s buttocks or bottom, so that the latter seems to belong to both the back view and the three-quarters view and also to neither. It’s the nature of her behind that makes her gait seem a little unworldly, and the force of error continues, affecting the rendering of the model’s right leg and foot too.
Buttocks, bottom, behind — the nomenclature seems awkward and the words risk invoking memories of adolescent humor and remind us of the continued embarrassment that can accompany discussions of the nude body. But paradoxically and more importantly these words just seem a little too polite, inadequate for what emerges there in its painted form — as if they were deliberately missing (disavowing) what they were trying to describe. I think what I am attempting to grasp in this painting is the extent to which, by deciding to impose the twist in the woman’s body so that two different views of her could be combined in a single painting, Sargent has painted the young woman’s bottom as belonging to two different registers, one significantly eroticised, the other less so. The model’s gait, her difficult, perhaps even impossible stance, has produced a portmanteau. Everything is further problematised, or brought down to earth, by the right foot, strangely oversize (like the leg), and over-grounding both model and painting. I think that the beauty of the depiction here is conjured via a difficult and contradictory orbit of eroticisation and something else, not exactly de-eroticisation, more a kind of grounding of the body in its material form, inside the form of painting. We can see this in the gentle but strange shaping of the young woman’s behind; and this contortion, if you like, is achieved seemingly naturally because of the depictive (for depiction) twist of the body — the combination of its two views. One cannot say for sure whether this is an error, an example of the artist failing ‘to get it right’ — that Sargent like many a painter before him struggled to properly render the gentle poise of limbs and of a subject in distraction. In the end it’s just a painting thing: in the process of mark and removal, addition and subtraction as he worked to get it ‘right’, something overtook the painting and Sargent himself became witness to a problem of depiction, as much as subsequent viewers would became active in the production and discovery of the same enigma. Neither photography nor film, for instance, could produce this precise strangeness. What emerges here does so unexpectedly and out of a difficulty. Certainly photography and film have their own difficulties, but this is not one of them. But like all difficulties of depiction, it has an enigmatic relationship to ideas (about the nude, about eroticisation, objectification, etc.) and descriptions can sometimes seem inadequate.
If as a male viewer you are looking at an historical painting of a nude woman in a museum or gallery, and you look at it for what seems like a particularly long time, and if in addition you find yourself getting very close to said painting, studying for a moment a detail — well, at a certain point you cannot help but become aware of what you are doing, and how it might seem. This way of looking seems natural and normal for painting per se. Yet in order for this to be so, in the conetxt of this particular painting, certain contemporary considerations about the representation of the female body in relationship to power and objectification have to be qualified. Because of the work’s historical distance from what it now means to look intensely in public at a picture of a naked young woman, particularly one that has a relationship to an Orientalist fantasy, the (male) viewer’s gaze appears relatively neutral. And, if this is the case, is there a cut-off date, so to speak, after which pictures of female nudes become more complicated to look at? Certainly there is a relative absence of depictions of female nudes in contemporary art. Are such depictions difficult today because of an iconophobia, produced from feminist and other critiques of images? Or is it just as likely, as Roland Barthes says somewhere, that we have just become exhausted by the image of the female nude, more or less — exhausted with a genre that has circulated endlessly and repetitively through art history and popular culture and sometimes skirted too closely to crudeness and objectification? Sargent’s painting made me think about all these questions, not only because it’s a picture of a nude woman, but also because of the way it produced an almost impossible image of her. The awkwardness of a turn of the body somehow produced a painting with two different forms that can neither be affirmed nor denied as essential to the woman’s meaning. It is a picture to look at and think about, and it helps us to understand what a nude body means, what we see there when we are not looking at such pictures. In the end, I think this is what makes it a modern painting. It seems already to make reference to the pictures that will come after it and pursue the idea of how one can depict different views in the same picture plane, a montage that suggests our ideas of what a body is are always complicated, insufficient and indeed impossible.
After looking at the Sargents, I joined my colleagues for a lunch upstairs at the Art Institute restaurant. There was a little more discussion about the issues raised at the beginning of this foreword. We all affirmed that we should continue to publish and present different kinds of work in the journal. I also added the thought that maybe the fate of pictorial art in our journal, but again also elsewhere, is affected by its potentially high value (comparative to other kinds of work) for collecting and investment. Perhaps, perhaps not. What we all agree on, however, is that conservative patronage has no natural relationship to conservative forms in art. And this would assume that we knew, a priori, what a conservative form looked like. What we don’t always agree on is what art can do, and how it does it well and uniquely. My friend and colleague Charles Esche calls this evidence of a healthy agonism, invoking nothing less than the ambitions of ancient Greece in order to give our disagreements some creative gravitas. I think Charles is more or less right, even if I think that from time to time we get things wrong. But sometimes a position when cast hard and fast can make of its advocate a connoisseur of disappointment. And that seems like a good point with which to finish. But I actually want to end it with a note of thanks to Stephanie and everyone else in Chicago who made our visit there so productive and pleasant. It goes without saying that we are thrilled that they have now joined the journal and its fierce and agonistic debate about art.