Monday, 4 November 2019

Late Derain: a door impercepitbly ajar (part 1)

This article originally appeared on SunnyBlinking as one long text. Due to significant protest, it has now been chopped into more easily digestible chunks. The Derainian irony of this play of parts and wholes will not be lost on those who make it through part 1.

Art is always the same
                                    - André Derain, De Picturae Rerum

You can have your cake and eat it too 
                                                         -Bob Dylan, Lay Lady Lay 

The picture is called Trees and Villages (1.). Hard to say who actually gave it this title, but interesting that it’s ‘villages’, plural, while it shows what must surely be one singular settlement on the hill. It suggests that the subject of this apparently nondescript picture is not simply the combination of trees and village depicted, but rather the notion of trees and villages (and paintings of trees and villages) generally. Generically


It’s possible to read title and picture as being about each subject in turn, about Trees and about Villages, or about this specific combination, this distinct hybrid-subject, Trees-Village. The picture- as part of a larger group of similar pictures by the artist from around the same period, but also from across his career, and also from across the history of the artform (with specific reference to Corot) - explores the weight given to each element, how they interact with one another, the many ways they might do so, and the change in register this can generate (just as it explores ‘the way sky and earth come together’, the infinite permutations of which were where the ‘drama of the countryside’ lay for the artist). It’s a painting of the essential condition of Trees and Villages. An essential condition which is nevertheless infinitely changeable- and changeability in turn part of that essential condition. (I shouldn't have to stress that this extends to the 'essential condition' of painting.)




It’s not just the title which places viewer and artist at a slight remove here. The self-identity of each tree, the perhaps virtually indistinguishable identity of one of these small provincial towns to the next (for the uninitiated, or for the careless traveler), is measured against the relative specificity and genericism of one painting to another (2.-4.), whether they’re landscapes, still lifes, portraits...etc. (5.-11.). Derain constantly measures the generic or generalized against the strikingly singular or singularized. It’s the balance on which his art bobs (and it’s a very ‘art-like’ balance at that). 









Various painterly approaches sit side by side. Compare one tree here to the next- each one different to the last, or existing as an undifferentiated mass, with schematic indications of trunks and branches. They are part of a coherent whole, and yet detachable, isolatable. These detachable parts of wholes are where their modernity, not to say post-modernity, lies. One could see the story of modernism as the abandonment of air-tight objects, hermetic worlds, constancy and consistency for contingency, for works which leave punctures, gaps, blanks, leave the seams showing (which is to say that the picture is also formally and thematically simpatico). Though to some extent, the practice of painting has always forced one to to generalize or specify, to consider the visual continuity or discontinuity of the world; the individual or composite identities of branch, tree, forest, the relationship of building to neighbourhood to town, mark to illusion to referent, picture to picture to oeuvre...etc., a practice which amounts to something like a partial physical philosophy. Writing on Hinduism in a notebook dated 1909 Derain mused, 'plurality to unity, isn't this the very problem of painting...?'.

Within a Derain picture such as Trees and Villages, specific image meets generic subject. The picture, and the picture as part of a wider oeuvre, is a complex, primitive computation system, one impossible to exhaustively explain or comprehend; more like an ecology. Or: the systems of expansion, consolidation and re-organization that determined the specific composition of village and forest, tree and architecture, as seen in the picture titled Trees and Villages. (Derain deals with this kind of recursion throughout his work in ways more subtle and charged than in the more widely acknowledged Escher, for example.) 
Indeed ‘trees and villages’ would be an apt metaphor with which to begin a critical understanding of Derain’s particular body of work, with its rational and irrational organization, building consciously on the past but also running with the eccentric growth of old woods, vines and creepers, a labyrinthine network of excavation, ruination and rebuilding...



But Trees and Villages is more than a dry essay in painting’s complexity and contingency. Crucially the picture is also charged with feeling, or at least the possibility of feeling. There’s a loaded cloud waiting to pour down, or to pass overhead.

The sky seems heavy, yet the top of the picture seems to evaporate. The weather changes, or the image runs out- we might not register at first whether this top portion is cloud or canvas, is image or periphery. This also occurs at the bottom of the picture, where the signature sits on the edge of the illusion, land and trees a band in the middle, like a memory or a quotation. The signature is a mini-version of the rudimentary tree trunks that swipe flatly in the bushy paintwork, while the clouds are almost inept, barely even cloud-shaped, yet they have a sense of specific weight, motion, illumination. The trees and grass are full, yet appear dry and craggy, sometimes bone-like, aching for the rain.


The sun marks the bare tree on the left with a convincing highlight (12.) - but that highlight can also detach itself into a floating letter-form, part of the ground level’s particular alphabet of shapes, pointing, yonder, to the village on the hill in the distance, as does a wilfully uncoupled squiggle on the far right (13.). Part burning bush, part Belshazzar's Feast, it's a kind of revelatory apparition, a more emphatic version of the kind of 'underwriting' or overwriting that goes on in many Derains, marks that suddenly pull themselves loose, with a sense perhaps in this instance of mystery forces showing their hand. Maybe. Maybe we are just extra-receptive, primed by Derain's complexification/simplification of mark and and tone, just as our senses would be heightened by light and motion in the environment.The branch resembles a slightly a-typical work, Up/Down (1) (14.), by Raoul de Keyser- part glyph or pictogram and close in shape and quasi-mystical register. Similarly the bare tree makes a kind of crutch for a passing cloud, which perches on top like an old nest (almost on the same visual level as the topmost tower of the distant village): it recalls a similarly curious alignment in Poussin's Man Pursued by a Snake (15.), the spindly branches propping up the sky, the portentous cloud a kind of ghostly treetop (a 'Bush of Ghosts'). 



Near and yet still impossibly far away, the village is momentarily revealed, but we sense that it will be obscured as we walk on, the trees moving to block it from view like a fairy tale forest. In memory, the picture exists as a country lane or county road. The actual image contains no such road, at least, not a definitive one- only the illusion of a narrow pathway conspired by the trees and the sun, which could disappear should a cloud pass over or the wind change. In any case, the world of the picture is impenetrable, we can go no further. 
With its conditions and coincidences of light and shade, in which we are given to read some signs and significance, this is Derain’s treatment of landscape-as-picture-as-life. Chasing down vague pathways, chasing ideals, the acceptance or realization of our particular position or perspective, destinations and journeys, revelation and reticence, calm and turbulence:  these things are the evergreen territory of landscape painting which Derain is exploring in Trees and Villages, 20 odd years after the initial modernist period, and which he’d continue to explore for the next 20 odd years. And while all this may seem far too laden for such a modest picture, it is a small piece in a larger body of works which doggedly pursue such things, that explore variation upon variation of painted images and their potential to mean or not. 


The ‘late’ paintings of André Derain are still overwhelmingly seen as reactionary at worst, or as exhibits in a slightly dubious narrative of a post-war ‘return to order’ at best. Even the ‘late’ designation is applied to the artist’s work prematurely, pretty much anything post-fauve (three-quarters of his oeuvre at least) routinely considered past-its-prime. These are careless readings. For the ‘late’ paintings are frequently as radical as anything else being done at the time: the pictures are less a ‘return to order’ than they are part of an expansive and concerted exploration of different kinds of disorder (certainly different kinds of disorder to those of the succeeding schools of the avant-garde). The paintings carry multiple ‘disorders’, maladies, perhaps so subtle as to be easily miss-diagnosed, put down to unintentional inconsistency. 

As early as c.1910 Derain cast aside immediately obvious formal links to the avant-garde- though he remained a close associate of many key players (particularly Picasso, whose eclecticism and frequent tastelessness are not a million miles from Derain, yet somehow not a problem), and an idolatry figure for many aspiring artists, albeit from the distance of his country mansion from the 30’s onwards. His reputation remained above water well into that decade (the paintings’ retroactive ‘classicism’ ultimately deemed ‘ultra-modern’ after much critical humming and hawing), but by the 1940’s had begun to sink alarmingly. By then there was a suspicion as to whether there was simply too much intellectualized ‘referencing’ going on for his own good. This criticism snowballed to such an extent that Alfred Werner, only two years after the artist’s death in 1954, could write that-

As strong as Derain was intellectually- his contemporaries describe him as having had a superior wit, and an encyclopaedic erudition- so weak was his character. He wanted power, he craved money. The dealers were always importunate, and he knew that a picture was sold for thousands of dollars before it was dry…He no longer imitated the Old Masters, to pour into them his own spirit; he imitated, he repeated himself ad nauseum…kept on producing one piece after another, some of them still fairly good, some very shallow, but all painted with a stupendous technique that convinced those who loved to be convinced by a famous name. (Alfred Werner, ‘The Fauve Who Was No Beast’, The Antioch Review, vol.16, no.2, 1956). 

Werner had escaped to the US after a year in Dachau, and his distaste may in part have been consciously or unconsciously magnified by the unfortunate speculation at the time that Derain had been a collaborator. (Along with several other artists he had travelled to Nazi Germany to give lectures, idealistically claiming in his defence that such things were above and beyond nationalistic ideologies, were in fact necessarily and actively so. It's also worth noting that he was encouraged to make the trip after several visits from a persistent Gestapo officer, who finally suggested it would be a good idea to pack a bag.) But Werner’s verdict on Derain is by no means extreme- a general reek of isolated, old-bourgeoisie conservatism, politically suspect at worst, commercially driven at best, has tended to cling to the late work, exacerbated by apologists’ frequent defence that we should value Derain as he is ‘the most French of French painters’ (in life Derain disparaged such absurdly petty designations). 
If we take Werner’s position to be the prosecution, and if we don't wish to be 'convinced by a famous name' alone, then perhaps a case for the defence should start from the above charges: the emptiness of intellectualized, ‘smart’ referencing, and the indiscriminately prolific nature of the artist’s output. 


The task of art is to level time…A Chinese philosopher said: ‘I do not innovate. I transmit’. He was a wise man.   -  Derain, notebook 1943

The notion of overly intellectualized, aesthetically bankrupt ‘referencing’ would have been quite alien to Derain. His copious notebooks, however consciously self-contradictory, are absolutely clear on his mistrust of the notions of ‘originality’ which had become prevalent in the early years of the 20th century. For Derain, art was not a paranoid field of aesthetic brinkmanship, of theories and styles submitted to some kind of critical patent office, but rather a continuum of ideas and images, a vast resource one could plug into; an open-source software to be used and adapted. His belief in the eternal friction between the fundamental, essential nature of an artform and the virtually infinite variation of specific artworks is totally aligned with the preoccupation with ‘type’ and ‘example’ discussed above. It's the motor that drives his work.

Derain’s perceived conservatism was due in part to his apparently taking refuge within the traditionalism of genre, like a hermit crab inhabiting past idioms, holed up as he was in his country estate. Yet the very traditionalism of genre (landscape, portrait, still life etc., and the sub-categories within these) provided him with a firm base on which to recombine form and content in ways which would not implode or impede their potential for meaning (not to say re-meaning), allowed for his radical (visual) re-tellings and debunkings of painting's old stories. (Artists with a strong and inbuilt, intuitive sense of genre were the ones who preoccupied him the most, as we shall see.) While the notebooks can slip into homilies about the ‘universal’, eternal truths and so on, in practice Derain’s focused immersion within the genres and subgenres of western oil painting prevent the work from falling into trite, brotherhood of man cultural evisceration. Though he had a keen interest in and collected art from many non-western cultures, his natural habitat was the European tradition, through which he swam like a fish in water.  

Running with the notion of detachment and cohesion so central to his project, the individual picture was for Derain a break with the tradition only in so far as it was also a break within his own oeuvre, in so far as the isolated 'subject' was a break with the continuous world, in so far as elements within the picture were building-block breaks with the picture’s own unity. As if shuffling letters within a word within a lexicon, Derain was a radical re-configurer for whom art was less the writing of an unending dictionary than an ever expanding thesaurus: a collection of ‘words’ gathered around the same general meaning, yet that meaning shifting infinitesimally with every unit of expression, a concerted effort across generations to approach the condition of the world from every possible angle, to reach not single definitions but a network of relationships. Art is still and was always the memory of generations, he wrote.To flick through his catalogue raisonne, with double-spead after double-spread of row upon row of heads, still life, landscape etc., is to observe a magnetic push and pull between a constantly reconfiguring set of subjects and images in a kind of dynamic taxonomy or topography. 

For Derain, painting was a world of distinct territories- without walls but with misty, mysterious borders, the exploration of which preoccupied him for at least three decades. And he doesn't just explore genre or subject in the conventional sense, but even nebulous 'types' of image within whichever given sub-genre: a certain 'type' of tree-by-road picture, a 'type' of head-turn and shoulder picture, a big-table to the left window-to-the-right still life. A type of elevated coastal/harbour picture (16.), a type of beach-level boat scene (17.) (themselves great subjects for elaborating these notions, hazy borders and horizons vs. robust vessels of venture, exchange and exploration, individual subjects and pictures boats to the artform's ocean). 'Genres' (one could say 'tropes') of composition, lighting, even 'genres' of mark-making, are explored much more comprehensively and in ways which are much more super-conscious than in any of his contemporaries (even in the extant that he seems to think of these things as more or less distinct categories- which are also options - at all). Again, the eclecticism of Picasso, say, pales in comparison to the subtlety with which Derain shifts between registers, the sheer variety of his illusionism (merging slapdash handling with sophisticated tones and hues here, letting highly achieved lighting conditions fall on impossibly 'wooden' trees or figures there), the variety of ways in which he slips between old and new idioms. 



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