June 23, 2006

The Lost Path of Another Century

It's hard to argue with Gustav Klimpt, or the fact that this painting, at the end of a dispute over from the Nazi theft of Jewish work just sold for 135 mil. The portrait is of Adele Bloch Bauer, wife of a Jewish sugar industrialist, and she was possibly, if you, oh I don't know, look at the painting, Klimpt's little love crumpet. The painting took three years. Understandable.

Paintings like this are hugely overvalued, and enormously underappreciated. This painting was radical without abandoning any of its classical power; it shamelessly revels in visual beauty, and like the related The Kiss, has no doubt lead thousands of female freshman art history majors to their doom.

(Please note: I wrote the above bon mot before Steven Colbert made a similiar wisecrack last night. )

What is so extraordinary is not only the power of the portrait, but the smoothness and clarity transition between decoration and description, geometric pattern and mimetic space, portraiture and abstract pattern transformation, color structure, material surface, the extremely subtle indication of real light and space (using GOLD - which is an amazing degree of control) all without losing the livelyness of Adele.

I bring this up because I am wondering if any artist living today is allowed to love the world enough to paint like this. People frothing over with sentiment can't paint like this, nor can cynical post-modernists, or careerist poseurs. To learn to do this now would require an almost impossible pedagogy: becoming an absolute master classical painting without falling into reactionary neo-renaissance spit-wadding (ala Odd Nerdrum); you would have to be on the cutting edge of what is possible to do with art, let alone paint, yet not be ossified. This painting could not have resulted from revivalism or what I like to call the fetish of oils, which utterly misses the point of painting. Painting as the substantive, exploratory poetry of fine art is not crafty exhibitionism in an arty space, as many half-vast urban weekly appletini -besotted art critics seem to think.

To paint like this you would not only master observational drawing and anatomy but highly advanced decorative patterning, and then simply using that as a source for a far freer integration of complex, abstract compositional design into the pictural space. Jackasses cannot paint like this.

There is no monkey-mimesis here at all; Klimpt's visual intellect is totally active in all areas, and much, much more ambitiously, in their integration. It's something like putting the remorseless accuracy of Thomas Eakins into the compositional world of Matisse, adding the portait and surface ablities of Sargent. His brilliant student, Egon Schiele, (caution: a bit naughty) refined the anatomical darkness pushing at the edges here, suggesting the fragility of the soft skin on bones, a little whiff of death wrapping around the sex, femininity in delicacy, time eating at the moment. But in Klimpt, the whole scene radiates life, brightly and darkly.

You have to get far beyond it's initial dazzle and prettiness to see what it really is: a confident apex of faith in painting's essential sophistication and power. Executing this visual approach (as opposed to simply copying it or aping its style) with a new sitter and scene would humble me; and like I say, I'm not at all sure it is in the capability of anyone living now. We're too skittish, too fast, trained either to squirrelish uncertainty or unearned confidence, the latter from too much trend and market, the former from the maddening blizzard of disconnected greedy images we call a visual culture. Klimpt could trust his painting methodology in a way I'm not sure is still possible, and that changes what it is possible to paint.

But what would I know? I spent the last two weeks trying to paint imaginary clouds.

This painting is tremendously valuable - not $135 million, nothing is, although it occurs to me it might take a million or twa to train and educate someone from the age of 10 to learn how to paint in this style. But the darker point is that while this gooey painting subtly incorporates the lessons of what I'm going to go ahead and call early modernism (a Cezanne-like space, unleashed expressive content,active negotiation with abstract design that pushes against its visual illusions, and allusions, for that matter), contemporary artists don't really see like this anymore, and when they come close, relearning illusionistic painting, they tend to become either reactionary, or redefine their work as an advanced kind of conceptual art, lots of fairly thin symbols standing in for intellectual concepts that are essentially literary, linguistic, or even mathematical rather than visual, as if vision, to which the majority of our brain is devoted, is anti-intellectual. After Marcel Duchamp over-famously denigrated "mere retinal experience" as a way of liberating himself from the constraints of painting, I'm not sure art ever recovered fully.

Few complain about beautiful language in service of intellectual ideas, but the bitching over visual beauty toward the same end never stops, because of the unsupportable and somewhat unexamined dominance of the word within the visual arts. Strange that in the midst of unprecendented artistic production, to sit down and examine a beloved person with inexhaustible visual intelligence may be the lost path of another century.


Blogger Latouche at Large said...

I like it because it is shiny.

June 23, 2006 at 12:39 PM  

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