August 22, 2010
It’s next time again.
Don’t you love it when an idea just sort of grabs you and will not let go? I suppose, if you know me, the attraction of the following idea is sort of a no-brainer. Of course I would love this concept to death. It is in my nature to glom onto the seduction of visual paradox.
The idea comes simply stated. An innocent little phrase masquerading as not much. It comes from Andy Grundberg who is the chair of Photography at the Corcoran College of Art and Design, and also a columnist for the New York Times. He has a new book out, Crisis of the Real, and this quote was slipped into a review of it in the Weekend Arts section of the Financial Times (which is a newly found highly recommended love).
“The most intriguing contemporary photographs are those where everything is ‘simultaneously true and false, authentic and artificial’.“
So what’s the big deal? We’ve all sort of heard this before, haven’t we? We are blase to the miracles of Photoshop. No one believes centerfold skin is real. Avatar in 3D is yesterday’s news. With enough time and money you can pretty much do anything you want. The Lord of the Rings on film comes to mind. Special Effects have become so perfect who knows anymore what is “special” and what is real?
The paradox Andy Grundberg states so clearly cuts deeply into the core of art itself and I found myself thinking about it for most of the summer.
I know you love this idea as much as I do. When you think about the photographs you really love you undoubtedly find Truth in them. Photography can be a billboard for deception and it can also be a preserved moment of reality. But we know there is Art lurking back there behind the shutter in the genius of the photographer or behind the gaussian blur of the skillfully applied Photoshop layer. If all Art is magic, surely photography is the trickiest art form of them all. Does the seductive clutch of this idea go beyond Photography?
The adventure, for me, started in an incredible time machine of a 16th century palazzo near the church of Santa Maria Formosa in Venice. The Grimani Palace, after being closed for 25 years, is newly restored and open only by appointment. I was lucky enough to tour it with a hugely impressive Venetian decorative arts specialist and although most of the discussion with one of the tour guides happened in Italian so far above my linguistic clearance that it made my head swim; just seeing their excitement and feeling their focus made the tour unforgettable.
In one of the many splendid rooms, the discussion turned to the precious nature of marble. This room was a treasure vault but all the treasure was stuck on the walls in roundels and mantles and figureheads. This marble was from all over the world and it was treated architecturally like a holy relic.
Venice is home to some of the most significant marble in the world. The interior and exterior walls of the church of San Marco are festooned with Byzantine marble brought back from many Crusades. The most valuable marble, I think, is a deep purple and is called porphyry. Once you start to see this, you see it everywhere in Venice and it is so valuable they build (usually round) frames for it and work it into the architecture of the building.
You know how when something finally gets on to your radar screen and you suddenly see it all over the place? Well, marble on this trip was like that for me. Later in the summer we went to Germany and toured many churches and palaces of the German high Baroque and Rococo. Marble is everywhere in this and the exotic colors and their splashy, over the top use of marble pretty much blows your mind.
I was jaded by the splendors of Venetian marble in Grimani palace, and then the legendary Rococo splendor of the Bishop’s palace in Wurtzburg and the masterpiece of the Weiskirche south of Munich so when my jaw hit the floor in the Wiblingen Abby library outside the city of Ulm, I thought I had finally gone to heaven and it was not paved in streets of gold but in old books and exotically colored marbles.
I was photographing like a mad man with this huge grin on my face and finally put the camera down. Since we were in this incredible room totally by ourselves I just could not help it. I know you’re not supposed to but I reached out to feel the cold marble of a particularly gorgeous round piece of porphyry and as my fingertips caressed the surface, the dream I had been living was suddenly shattered. It was completely fake! It was just painted wood! Was everything in this room phony? Yes it was. It was all painted wood and only because we were in there alone and could get so intimately close did we realize the deception. I was duped. Or was I?
We’ve all seen faux marble. I have some in my living room and I thought the guy who painted it was never going to leave. But this marble painting was on another level. It was outrageously risky. There was nothing tentative about it. It carried off its illusory mission with a bravado that left you gasping.
I remember the uproar about Oliver Stone’s movie JFK. People were screaming, “But young people are going to think this is what actually happened!” Well, guess what? It’s a movie. It’s not a history book. What also comes to mind is that great quote of perhaps Gertrude Stein? When someone complained that a newly painted modern painting didn’t even look like a woman, she said something pithy like, “Well, it’s not a woman – it’s a painting.”
Where does this leave the search for Truth in art? Where is that positive core that seems timeless and reaches for something universally authentic? I can’t wait to hear your thoughts about this. I prefer the real marble in the Grimani Palace to the fake marble in the intricately painted Wiblingen library. I like the real Venice – which everyone complains is a “stage set” to the modern replica Las Vegas. But one of the most fascinating things about Art is after all the artifice. The cubist painter George Braque maybe said it best: “Art is made to disturb. Science reassures. There is only one valuable thing in art: the thing you cannot explain.”
Until next time with much love,