Vercingetorix Surrendering to Caesar by Henri-Paul Motte 1886
It’s next time again.
It’s almost impossible not to empathize with Vercingetorix. Standing in front of this huge painting, you gaze up at him with that wild hair and his noble savage bearing and you just ache for him.You imagine what must be going through his mind as he must dismount in front of all those lined up troops with the judgmental eyes beneath those dented helmets and take that long walk through the gauntlet to hand his sword to Julius Caesar, seated on a red dais way in the background of the painting. The artist, a French painter few have ever heard of, one Henri-Paul Motte, grabs your heartstrings in a carefully constructed moment of intense drama. He plucks the sympathy from you with a pizzicato poignancy laden with cliché – but he has created something beguiling none the less.
This painting is not “high art.” The chic French aristocrat I later spoke with said it was in her old-fashioned schoolbooks. This painting begs for smug smiles. It is naïve, kitsch; a comic book of a canvas. I don’t care. I really liked it because it was one of the few things in the exhibition in Venice at the Palazzo Grassi of Roma: I Barbari (“Rome: The Barbarians”) that reached out in a friendly way to grab my attention.
I’ve seen some really great exhibitions at the Palazzo Grassi. Exhibitions in which I really learned something. This, alas, was not one of them. I had made a valiant effort. It was not my fault the handy guide was available only in Italian and French. I read every one of the exhibition descriptors that was in English but most of them were disappointing. Don’t get me wrong, there were a ton of great objects. Tribal jewelry, primitive yet elegant barbarian crowns, lots of little golden charms and semi precious stoned buttons and funky talismans and richly corroded swords and mysterious tools and wonderful helmets. But for the most part, due to a lack of descriptors, the many beautiful objects remained mute and inscrutable behind the glass. There were some exceptions. Hannibal’s spectacularly huge round shield, which shone the color of reflected zinc, needed no explanation. It was so highly charged with battlefield charisma it practically blinded you. But I was grateful to Henri-Paul Motte’s Vercingetorix painting for its bell-clear emotional beauty. The highly narrative canvas captivated me for one simple reason. Unlike the rest of the exhibition – it told a story.
So what is wrong with this sort of art? The art history professor would tell you it is simple and clichéd. It has all the subtlety and depth of a chocolate croissant. What is right with this sort of art? The same thing. It reveals itself all at once and draws you in. It has abundant guileless charm. Sort of like a Sherlock Holmes mystery; perfect non-think entertainment. So why am I writing about this? What can I say? The painting grabbed me. It told a story and it got me thinking about how enjoyable a good story really is and how discovering “the narrative” in art is a great way to learn.
Concentrating upon the narrative is a great first step in looking at a painting. I suppose in “reading” a painting, you must logically begin with a story. It is a way for the artist to attract your attention. The narrative becomes an on-ramp for a more subtle experience. The art history professor would encourage us to pay attention to more sophisticated painters. Guys like Poussin, and Caravaggio. Wow! They pack real artistic force behind the narrative punch. They can knock you flat. And the best thing is, every time you look at them you see something more, something profound, something life changing. The narrative sucks you in but the mastery and command of their artistic craft delivers so much more than a simple story.
Caravaggio, David & Goliath, Kunsthistoriches Museum, Vienna
The narrative however, provides the foundation. It is the super model inside the designer dress. One enhances the other. The libretto in opera, the plot in a novel, the “itinerary” in a building. If these are intriguing, or spectacular, then all the other gifts of the artist, musician, designer, and architect are truly able to flourish.
The movie poster is a great example. The good billboard is another. Every ad you liked in the super bowl hooked you with a good story or a clever idea. The TV commercial has destroyed our attention span, we now want our stories in 30 second “blink” spots. Forget the four hour opera, who has the time? I envy the attention span in a rapt opera audience, it is a rare and wonderful thing.
In Filmmaking we all think of ourselves as storytellers. Only the truly cool transcend the story. The TV commercial formula trains us to expect that quick fix, known as “Beginning” (what are you hungry for when you don’t know what you’re hungry for?) “Middle” (side effects may include . . .) and “End” (your mileage may vary). Antonioni hated that idea. He just liked the middle, no beginning, certainly no end. Just gorgeous, redolent middle please. David Lynch, on the other hand, just likes to take the narrative and tease you with it. He tosses in a dwarf, a funhouse hallway and a few floating Olphelia-like corpses and laughs his ass off as you try in vain to figure it out.
In modern art the narrative is sometimes equally hard to find. In some cases it has deliberately been removed or obscured. The narrative rules of engagement are mostly broken in abstract painting. This art becomes harder or sometimes impossible to read. I think this is why many of us feel intimidated about contemporary art. We say, “I just don’t get it.” As if it were an obscure joke. Well, it is pretty hard not to “get” the Vercingetorix painting. On the other hand, a white on white painting by Robert Rauschenburg, (who died last week) initially comes off as a bad joke – easy to make fun of because the narrative is almost impossible to find.
I think you could easily argue a lack of a narrative, or a deliberately obscured one, is a form of it’s own “anti-story.” Consider this exchange from William Gibson’s new book, Spook Country:
“She was looking at the crazily elaborated black-letter work down the outside of both his forearms. She could make absolutely no sense of it. “Alberto, what does that actually say, on your arms?”
“It was designed by an artist in Tokyo. He does these alphabets, abstracts them till they’re completely unreadable. The actual sequence was generated randomly.”
Later on in the novel Gibson says, “Secrets are the very root of cool.”
He should know all about such things, he coined the term Cyberspace. Spook Country is a really good read and his descriptions of a new kind of “locative” art (you need goggles and a cyber helmet to see it) are truly fascinating. One NYT critic says Gibson is “like Raymond Chandler . . . an intoxicating stylist.” An apt comparison, but expect this hypercool Raymond Chandler to be slightly whacked on psychotropics chased with Ativan instead of good old fashioned private dick hipflask bourbon.
Photograph of Robert Rauschenberg seated on Untitled (Elemental Sculpture) with White Painting (seven panel) behind him at the basement of Stable Gallery, New York (1953). © Photograph: Allan Grant, Life Magazine © Time Warner Inc/Robert Rauschenberg/VAGA, New York and DACS, London 2006
The Rauschenberg White on White paintings referenced above are too old to be a shocker anymore. The Guggenheim Museum said of these paintings,
“In the summer of 1951 Robert Rauschenberg created his revolutionary White Paintings at Black Mountain College, near Asheville, North Carolina. At a time when Abstract Expressionism was ascendant in New York, Rauschenberg’s uninflected all-white surfaces eliminated gesture and denied all possibility of narrative or external reference.
The White Paintings shocked the artistic community at Black Mountain, and word of the “scandal” spread to the New York art world . . . While generally misunderstood at the time, the works were highly influential for Rauschenberg’s frequent collaborator, the composer John Cage. Under the sway of the Buddhist aesthetics of Zen, Cage interpreted the blank surfaces as “landing strips” or receptors for light and shadow, and was inspired to pursue the corresponding notion of silence and ambient sound in music.”
Cage’s silent piece composition is a conceptual friend to me. I listen to it every time the concert is about to start. That, as you probably know, was the piece. He began the concert, nothing was played, and you listened to the sound of the hall, the coughing, the restlessness of the audience. Brilliant. Cage said,
“To whom it may concern, the white paintings came first, my silent piece came later . . . Beauty is now underfoot wherever we take the trouble to look, this is an American discovery. Is when Rauschenberg looks an idea? Rather it is an entertainment in which to celebrate unfixity . . . Ideas are not necessary; it is better not to have one.”
I’ve seen enough Contemporary Art to relax a bit if I can’t understand the narrative. It’s sort of like an at first difficult book (like Spook Country or David Foster Wallace’s Infinite Jest). Sometimes if you relax a bit and just keep reading, it grows on you and then it becomes your favorite thing. Sometimes just wondering where the heck your disgust, or your bafflement, or your queasy gut reaction is coming from is enough to send off a warning bell that something interesting is going on. But finding the narrative, or trying to find it, is a great way to increase your attention span.
Rauschenberg played with this idea years ago when he literally erased a drawing by one of his heroes, Willem de Kooning. The painting was a watershed in Conceptual Art, the narrative contained not so much in the painting but in the audacious idea. The concept makes you curious. What the heck is this thing about? What is going on here? And then, of course, my favorite thing to do is to find a smart person and ask. (Which is pretty much what I get to do for a living.)
For a fabulous video interview with Rauschenberg which touches on the White Paintings and tells the story of his (in)famous painting of the “erased” deKooning look here (I wish I had done this! I think it was done by Chris Granlund of the BBC, in 1997) :
For a podcast about Rauschenberg with the truly genius art critic Dave Hickey check out
When you stop and consider all the time and money you spend on entertainment in all its forms (just take a look sometime at what you bought last year on Amazon) how much of that entertainment depended upon “the narrative?” All of it? I’m curious. And, if “the narrative” is so important, what is its role? You could make the case that the better your ability to recognize, interpret, decode, and “read” the narrative the more you are able to appreciate an art form.
Or, is it just a vehicle for some other combined package of craft or experience? Can a good narrative carry the day or is it just a hook to hang the art upon? I long for your thoughts on this.
Until next time, I remain your,
All For One, the Telos film on the history of the Cleveland Clinic, narrated by Edward Herrmann, just won a Silver Telly Award, the highest honor from this contest which recieves over 14,000 entries.