Thursday, 25 March 2021

Guy Davenport's Balthus Note #27

 

 

 

 

 

Note 27 in Guy Davenport's A Balthus Notebook (1989) runs as follows:

 

A work of art, like a foreign language, is closed to us until we learn how to read it. Meaning is latent, seemingly hidden. There is also the illusion that the meaning is concealed. A work of art is a structure of signs, each meaningful. It follows that a work of art has one meaning only. For an explicator to blur an artist’s meaning, or to be blind to his achievement, is a kind of treason, a betrayal. The arrogance of insisting that a work of art means what you think it means is a mistake that closes off curiosity, perception, the adventure of discovery. 

 

 

Broken down into its seven sentences, the note becomes more like a series of Tractatus style propositions:

 


 

1. A work of art, like a foreign language, is closed to us until we learn how to read it.

2.Meaning is latent, seemingly hidden.

3.There is also the illusion that the meaning is concealed.

4.A work of art is a structure of signs, each meaningful.

5.It follows that a work of art has one meaning only.

6.For an explicator to blur an artist’s meaning, or to be blind to his achievement, is a kind of treason, a betrayal.

7.The arrogance of insisting that a work of art means what you think it means is a mistake that closes off curiosity, perception, the adventure of discovery. 

 

 

Davenport's train of thought was never intended to be laid out like this, probably. But each sentence is a world of complexity. Even sentence 1, which at first seems pretty standard, contains a certain ambiguity in its structure. And once ambiguities like these are teased out, the dam really bursts. The paragraph seems to be giving so many answers, but what it's really doing is raising almost too many questions. 

 

At some point along the way it's also about Balthus, but we'll get there. 













1. A work of art, like a foreign language, is closed to us until we learn how to read it.

 

This could mean ‘a’ work, we learn how to read ‘a’ work which is a language almost in itself, which we have to learn every time we encounter a work of art. Or it could mean that we learn how to read ‘a’ work of art by first learning how to read works of art. We learn how to read the work by learning to read the form, the exception by the rule. We learn the basic verbs and grammar then apply them accordingly. The communicative barrier presented by the individual work in the this case is more like that of a dialect than a foreign language, and the interpretive process would seem to be a lot less exhausting than starting each time from scratch. But I think Davenport means both these things. And I think he wants interpretation to be as difficult and exhausting as it is easy and pleasurable.


 These parallel meanings are important. They suggest that deep immersion and initiation in the art form, and due and precise attentiveness to the singular work, are equally vital in determining meaning. How the work relates to or deviates from the general grammar of the art form is an essential aspect of its meaning, even before we get into its specifics of form and content. And while we might get caught up in how the work relates to or distances itself from certain conventions of the form, we should be wary of neglecting the work’s specifics on its own terms. Put simply, there's an ambiguity here, at sentence number one, over meaning as it resides in and is findable in a work, and meaning as we collectively agree to play along with it. Or more simply again, there's no clarity of where exactly meaning resides. At least, not as it might reside in any one place.

 

 

 

 

 

 







 

 

 

 

 

Like a foreign language. Davenport was a gifted linguist who studied under Tolkien. It’s a metaphor which makes a lot of sense, especially for him. But I wonder if it also over-plays the ‘foreign-ness’, the obscurity of works of art. We have to be very attentive to the thousands of small cues and tells we take in at the famous first glance, which we shouldn't necessarily discount. There's a large shot of information already processed in the first go. We're told not to judge a book by its cover. But in painting the cover remains stubbornly in place the whole time. The first impression is always available, retrievable. In fact, it's almost a strategy. How many reviews start, 'at first...'? The first glance is a painting trope in itself. A painting tool. Something it uses. It's something the painting wants you to remember after you've learned how to read it.


You may find yourself back at square one. Before a work of art, we’re like the unfit companion of an able scrambler, already hallway up the first hill. To interpret is to play catch-up, indefinitely.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Whether these initial cues and tells are actually misleading only becomes apparent after learning to read though. You might have certain ideas about how French sounds, and you might even catch the odd word or phrase, but that’s not going to help you with the latest Hachette Madame Bovary unless you can actually read French, any more than Painting with Bob Ross is going to help you crack Poussin. But then it would also be a shame to lose the sense of aural beauty in French while it was still a mystery to you. It might also be wise to hold onto the look and feel of art before you were immersed in it, because I think artists often do. Daumier said he couldn’t really get along with how Manet painted, but that he found a wonderful quality in his pictures that took him back to the figures on playing cards. I don’t know what he meant. I think this is what he meant.

 

Partly. It’s also to do with Daumier's predisposition towards the archetype/type, the visual allegory, the strong image, a fascination for the characters who inhabit the 'realm' of pictures. But I said I don’t know what he meant and I don’t. I do know that Manet's Tama, the Japanese Dog (1875) is a faintly absurd picture that trades in its own absurdity, and that this absurdity is inseparable from its visual recollection of the bull-ring in Mademoiselle V. . . in the Costume of an Espada (1862) and the foreshortened corpse of The Dead Man (1865). The little pug-faced dog leads these other pictures into the realm of the absurd, if they weren't there already.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Another thing– how do we learn how to read it? The wider terms and conditions of the art form help. But Davenport is also suggesting that the work itself is something we learn to read: as if the individual work comes with its own syllabus. A syllabus which we also have to partly come up with ourselves. Does the work carry its own set of instructions? Or is the work its own instruction for use? Is the work the work, or is the work an indication toward a program of thought, experience, unfolding attention? The learning to read would then seem to be a major part of the work, the work in some way creating its own reason for being: its reason for being the unique learning to read it presents, and the learning to read necessitated by its presentation in the first place. This is a straightforward loop which you can make as complex as you like. It's the simple loop which asserts itself when a work of art meets a public of strangers

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 







2. Meaning is latent, seemingly hidden.

 

Where is the meaning located then? What I’ve said so far indicates that it can partly be found at the crossroads of all the – similar – works the work isn’t, the work itself, and, on the third fork, its rendezvous with a/the viewer.

 

Latent suggests it’s something inactive, dormant. Like a wasp’s nest in winter. What reactivates it? Not just the being looked at, though that stirs something, inevitably. Revelation of meaning requires attentive attention. Ordinary attention wont quite cut it. 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

But then there’s another junction at our crossroads, several more. There’s the road where the work meets the artist’s other works, for one. Then there’s the little station house where exhibitions are held, accommodating temporary congregations of certain of the artist's works; function rooms hosting panels and conferences between various other artists, either more or less lively. All these other routes and rooms are marked and numbered by signs and plaques, more or less worn by time, which lead or divert the work toward a certain meaning. Surely they’re meant to? Chardin was a big fan of pendants: two paintings intended, or seemingly intended, to be hung together, multiplying or dividing their meaning/s. Often this was an interchangeable setup down the line, with pictures mixed and matched and then further shuffled by collectors, engravers and public museums. Meaning and meanings, this would suggest, can be added or subtracted by proximity to others.

 

If meaning is what we so often seem to be looking for in a work, why then should it be practically hidden? Why do we object when it is annoyingly clear and straightforwardly findable? And why do we wish works to mean in the first place? Why should we enjoy frustratingly unclear or ambiguous or unwieldy expressions of meaning? How is this different from a cryptic crossword puzzle, say? If art’s merely a game, there are far better ones. Duchamp went for chess. Games, or rather individual gameplay, can be difficult and not mean. Art can be difficult and mean. Why do we play difficult games that can mean? Put another way, why do we play difficult games with meaning? 

 

And again, where does meaning reside? Is it in the form, the content? Between the form and content? The work and the viewer? In the making or the viewing? De Kooning said it’s a very tiny thing, very tiny content. Susan Sontag quotes him saying that in Against Interpretation. In Against Interpretation, Sontag argues that we've become far too caught up in this whole meaning racket. She says that instead of a hermeneutics of art we need an 'erotics of art'. That we should be far more concerned with form and feeling than content and meaning. Which is to say, form and feeling cannot be the meaning I guess? (Or, if you're Duchamp, that 'meaning' cannot in itself be erotic?). Is the feel the same as the meaning? Is it just another form meaning takes? Davenport died the same week as Sontag. Does that mean something?


Then again, artists also like to upset the meaning cart. I think of Louise Hopkins' painted-over maps, catalogues and comics. Painting can be an act of subtraction in the mathematics of meaning. But you'll notice the subtraction quickly becomes its own kind of additive alteration. Meaning, like energy, can't be created or destroyed, only transferred or transformed. Perhaps.

  














3.There is also the illusion that the meaning is concealed.

 

 

So seemingly hidden, the meaning is not actually concealed, but likes to act as though it were. It’s staring us in the face, hidden in plain sight.

 

Is part of a work’s meaning also somehow this concealment, or the illusion of this concealment? Before getting into specifics, is part of a work’s inherent meaning something about meaning? About the lack of it, the look for it, the inevitability or impossibility of it? Are all artworks then just expressions of our difficult relationship with ‘meaning’? Can they only mean to mean? Can they help but mean? Is 'meaning' actually the active action of a work? (Meaning: the verb to mean?)

 

Meaning to mean, like poetry about poetry or painting about painting, is perhaps not much fun if that's all that's going on. Yes, the work reflects on the form. But surely it also has to be about more than that. There’s a world of stuff that it can be about, a world of experience it can reflect.

 

Then again, there are great works, a hell of a lot of great works, that can’t help but seem to be in part or in whole about the state and status of meaning. The quality and character of meaning. Uccello’s Hunt in the Ashmolean for one. ‘Meaning’ is a bit like the stag or whatever game it is they’re hunting through the dark wood. There is no game in the picture, we can’t see the stag or the snark they’re after. The picture occurs around its absence, frames it. Is an occasion put on to capture it.

 

 

 

 

 


 

 

 

 

 

They sought it with thimbles, they sought it with care;
They pursued it with forks and hope;
They threatened its life with a railway-share;
They charmed it with smiles and soap

-Lewis Carroll, The Hunting of the Snark 











4.A work of art is a structure of signs, each meaningful.

 

Too little credence is generally given to the material qualities and characteristics of a work. And far less than that to their role in generating an overall meaning. Each meaningful. Everything counts. Every square inch of a work plays a part. Leading and supporting, speaking and non-speaking. Background and chorus line. The little bow at the end which is the signature. And the little bow, formal but affective, reminds us that all we’ve seen is make-believe, put-on and put-together; floats the idea of all conflicts reconciled or reconcilable. That all the parts we saw in harmony and discord were acting out a sequence of directions toward a whole. Either more or less consciously instructed, either more or less improvisatory, but all condoned by the author. This is what was presented. This and nothing or something else.


So we could sit around analyzing every square inch of a painting. The colour, tone, facture, this mark, that, endlessly across every micro-detail. We could do that, with our magnifying glasses and raincoats, and still the meaning would elude us. Every meaningful sign, every clue, is nothing without a gumshoe gut. Somehow we have to react to the overall accumulation of those signs. We have to have a feeling. A hunch. That hunch, that feeling, is partly the meaning. Work backwards from whatever's been committed. Use the clues to figure out where the hunch came from. Use the details to explain the feeling.

 

In making our case we should use the best signs. Because the best evidence makes the best case. What you’ll find in a good work is that most of the signs do confirm the theory: in the best works, all the signs confirm the theory. In the best works, the signs are the theory, the feeling. There’s no intermediary build up or accumulation. They just are what they are and they mean what they are.

 

 

 

They hunted till darkness came on, but they found
   Not a button, or feather, or mark,
By which they could tell that they stood on the ground
   Where the Baker had met with the Snark.

In the midst of the word he was trying to say,
   In the midst of his laughter and glee,
He had softly and suddenly vanished away— 
   For the Snark was a Boojum, you see.

 

 

 Carroll reportedly woke up with the last line in his head. He had to work backwards to figure out just how and why and in what way a Snark was a Boojum, you see. 


In school we had a lesson called 'Oracy'. We'd listen to a tape about this or that subject, then answer multiple choice questions. A voice from the hefty cassette machine would intone, Choose the best answer. Remebemer: the best answer...





5.It follows that a work of art has one meaning only.

 

But this sounds pretty limiting, no? Aren’t they supposed to be rich with potential meanings and open to interpretation? How can a great work especially be only about one thing? Does this mean that works of art have only one meaning to the exclusion of all others? Or does it mean that they're a pyramid of meanings, with the real McCoy sitting at the top? 

 

 It follows: does it? If each sign structured into the work is meaningful, does this have to result in a single meaning? Is there an aggregate meaning, despite the push and tug of all the signs?

We'll return to this in sentence 7. 

 


 

 

6.For an explicator to blur an artist’s meaning, or to be blind to his achievement, is a kind of treason, a betrayal.

 

Often the worst people to write about paintings are novelists. 


I get that all writing has to tell a story or something. But – snobbery about narrative in painting aside – novelists are often just too quick to jump in, project a three act drama on the picture, whipping up elements of the artist’s life and cultural milieu into a frothy souffle. I can see why it's tempting. But it often distorts things. It’s more about the writer than the work. It makes the work something to be played with rather than something that plays with us. They’re inattentive critics, I'd argue. They get too excited too quickly by their own train of thought.

 

This ultimately damages our idea of paintings. At least, when presented as criticism and not as fiction. It suggests we need skilled prose to explain pictures, activate them, diverts attention from the material facts, distorts the painter’s achievement. It's a shame that novelists are often having a limited experience of the picture while they think they’re having a great time. Its also bad for painting’s PR while seeming good. It doesn’t make it easier to engage with painting. Just makes it differently engaged-with. It equips the reader – of the London Review of Books, say – with the ability towards a literary-imaginative engagement with paintings, not with the tools for imaginative painterly engagement. 

 

Often the writer is also too busy being clever to make any kind of evaluative judgement on the picture. Many, many vacuous second or third rate paintings have been eagerly filled up or filled in by imaginative writers. We have to trust that a good or a great work will need no filling in, will write its own review. Perhaps critics should be less like writers and more like mediums.

 

There's a humility involved in really looking at paintings. You have to be a curious mixture of both open and attentive in making yourself available to them. Vernon Lee, in what's today known as The Psychology of an Art Writer (originally published in a French journal in 1903, published in 2018 along with Davenport's Balthus Notes as part of David Zwirner's Ekphrasis series) was unprecedented in dealing with the problems of responding to works of art: mitigated as they are by everything from what you had for lunch to your childhood to the weather. Not that she was advocating the kind of gonzo criticism that's popular among many writers, who might begin their review at the airport, check into the hotel, and ironically suss-out the gift shop before getting to the exhibition.  


We follow Lee as she tries to truly see the picture, to get beyond her tiredness, or the distracting tune stuck in her head, or the other tourists. She's looking at the pictures and willing herself to see them like someone might will themselves to see the spirits in a haunted house. But she's also a skeptic, lugging in her scientific equipment just to make sure she's not seeing things. She was a writer of supernatural fiction and essays on travel, aside from aesthetics. Crucially she placed a fundamental distinction between literary fiction and criticism:

 

The writer will naturally seek out elements that lend themselves to literary transformation; he will unconsciously be driven to give himself over more and more to associations tied to the painting's subject (and by subject I mean everything one could learn from a catalogue), to the detriment of the specific effect that a work's form can have on a viewer, an effect that differentiates each work of art from every other representing the same thing. 

 

Preach. She goes on to describe her deference to the specific emotion of each work, each work's 'affective halo'. Paradoxically, it was her almost scientific, formal-investigative approach to works of art, looking with 'every last scrap' of her attention, which ultimately allowed her the fullest emotional-affective relationship with them:  


Visual beauty and ugliness were now real for me, because my attention had to latch onto the form of which they are qualities. I lived intimately with art. 

 

Then a statement pretty far ahead of its time, anticipating the 'Death of the Author' but transcending that notion's easy free-for-all in nuance and complex simplicity: The work of art is the joint product, the point of intersection of the process of the attention of the artist who makes it...and of the process of attention of those who look at it. 

 

 

 

 

 

 
 
 
 


 


 

And again, it's not simple or straightforward, this process of attention.  


 We must not be misled (and we are) by the fact that an artist can give all his attention to the picture he is painting...for the artist is doing a dozen things besides merely contemplating his work; and the critic is examining, comparing, measuring, judging. Both are living a very complex life in reference to the work of art. This is the reverse of what the enjoying person is supposed to do, expecting to empty out his consciousness of everything save that seen or heard thing, and then perhaps a little bitterly surprised, almost humiliated, at not being let alone by his habitual thoughts and observations....The action of art is not hypnotic, not mono-ideistic: it is synthetic; it excludes, but by making a little walled garden of the soul of all manner of cognate things, a maze in which the attention runs to and fro, goes round and round, something extremely complex and complete, taking all our faculties. This is the basis of a theory of art (this and not a theory of Einfuhling or anything else), this: the observed phenomenon of aesthetic attention. 

 

Meaning is a work in progress, perhaps. But observable in making progress. Related inextricably to attention is Lee's 'aesthetics of empathy': namely that the work of art requires for its enjoyment to be met halfway by the active collaboration of the beholder. Attention keeps the empathetic collaboration in check, makes sure it's a collaboration. If a work is the confluence of the attentions of maker and viewer, then criticism is the confluence of attention and empathy. Novelists are inattentive to attention. And ego gets in the way of empathy. They are bad collaborators.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

This is not a hard and fast rule. And there are great examples of novelists using painting. Proust use of Vermeer’s View of Delft is great: but then it's more about someone looking at Vermeer’s View of Delft than Vermeer’s View of Delft. Or Vermeer’s view of Delft for that matter. And he also makes up a petit pan de mur jaune, a 'little patch of yellow wall' in the painting which is impossible to locate with any certainty, is either totally misremembered or invented, depending on who you believe. In the novel, funnily enough, it's a review which describes this patch of yellow wall and which brings an old man, who cannot recall it in the picture he thinks he knows so well, out of his bed and over to the exhibition. Finally he sees the yellow patch, regrets not having lived and wrote with more colour and promptly dies, presumably from the exertion. 

 

 

 

 

 




 

 

 

 

 

Worse are the ramblings of ramblin' Robert Walser, his writing on art recently translated and collected for the first time as Looking at Pictures. Which I assume is a gesture of Walserian irony on the part of the publishers. A more accurate title would be Not Looking at Pictures, or perhaps Mentioning Pictures. Walser's inability to stay focused on the painting at hand for barely the duration of a sentence is so complete as to be totally comical. It has to be intentional. A discussion of a Cranach ends up being a discussion of a reproduction of a Cranach which his landlady has taken down. She reads Walser's defense of the picture (basically that he's very fond of it) and relations are repaired, along with his trousers A glance at a Fragonard seems like the right moment to mention that they didn't have central heating in the 18th century. Details of old jobs, travels and girlfriends fill out most of the texts, along with the usual protests that one can't possibly debase the work of art by actually talking about it. One should always refrain from making observations, don’t you agree?, he asks Manet’s Olympia. He’s only half joking. 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

It's extremely annoying, I thoroughly recommend it. Looking at Pictures is a primer for how not to talk about art. But really, it's only a more naked version of the kind of talking-around or talking-at pictures that Julian Barnes, say, gets away with. What's much more disheartening is the way these writings have been packaged, presented and received. There's the recurring sentiment across end-papers, introduction and reviews that unlike dogmatic critics who might want to help others to appreciate, to discuss, to evaluate [a work's] importance, and other such barbarous things, Walser instead helps us to see afresh with his unique eye, his delicate, intoxicating perceptiveness, his magic screwball wit. I'm not sure they got the joke though. 

 

The problem is he's presented as something like a critic, or rather a kind of antidote to criticism. He was a favourite writer of Kafka's. It's not hard to see why when we think of the absurdity of Walser's pose as a critic who'd sooner die than talk about paintings. That's if it is a pose. Doubts persist.

 

 

 

 

 

 


 

 

 

 

 

Ostensibly reviewing 'An Exhibition of Belgian Art' for The Prager Presse in 1926, he spends more time reviewing Belgium, and, now and then, the other reviewers. (As I stood before a nude reclining on a soft sofa, someone addressed me, doing his best with his criticisms to show off in front of me. I, however, found it appropriate to give him to understand that such forwardness was not to my taste.) He concludes: Pleased as I am to have had to opportunity to speak about a beautiful artistic event, I consider myself obliged to limit myself with regard to the extensiveness of my remarks. Everything I have neglected to say can be given voice to by others. In the introduction it's argued that while Walser barely has anything to say about the show, never mind the works on display (beyond remarks like now a vernal landscape, now a snowy one, now a flower painting, now a picture of a lady...), there is however a wonderful array of emotions and visual images explored. What more can one want from an exhibition?, it asks, concluding  that the implication here is that the value of art might lie in its ability to inspire viewers to rare and beautiful thoughts of their own. Reflecting this pervasive idea that critical connoisseurship is a kind of philistinism.

 

I flip back through Davenport. Lo and behold there's Walser, way back at note #3: If, as Robert Walser remarked, God is the opposite of Rodin, Balthus is the opposite of Picasso. No further comment. I'm not sure exactly what either of them mean.








 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Poets tend to be better. Ashbery writes a pretty great defense of Kitaj, unfairly judged to be ‘Mr Meaning’ and critically crucified for daring to be overly erudite. While it’s true that what often damns Kitaj is an excess of meaning, reference and significance, it’s also what sets him apart from the banalities of many of his contemporaries. His desire to communicate lets him down, but it can also be what saves him. He aims big. And he's as interested in the spare and seemingly import-free as he is in the overcrowded and portentous. The two tendencies coexist, pacing each other like a sphinx and a tabby. 

 

 

Look at his Batboy, offering us our pick of the baseball-bats like a card magician, or a draw from the tarot deck, or a set of sticks form the I Ching. Two red blots like oversized aces, or blood clots, or sealing wax. Brown clay and old newsprint. Signs and significance, choice and fate. 'Meaning' here a trading card game played between picture and viewer. It feels sunny, dusty and old, like memories of afternoons on baked playing fields; paintings being old playing fields themselves.


 


 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Kitaj's pictures often feature annotations and inscriptions. Often very neat, just as often scored through and cancelled, redacted. Often it's less that he's being an illustrative painter and more that he's making paintings which posit illustration. Graceful meaninglessness, hideous clarity. Less that he's trying to communicate and more like he's wondering and wandering about the limits and extremes of communication.

 

 

Perhaps most critics just weren't attentive enough to Kitaj's pointed ambivalence toward meaning. Kitaj himself: We lose our way in cities; we get lost in books, lost in thought; we are always looking for meaning in our lives as if we’d know what to do with it once we found it...Nothing is straightforward. Reducing complexity is a ruse.

 

 

 

 

 













 

I said Ashbery makes a great defense of Kitaj. But it's mostly through comparisons with poets and writers. He doesn't get much into the specifics of specific paintings. To create a work of art that the critic cannot even begin to talk about ought to be the artist’s chief concern, Ashbery wrote. I think this is to involve the critic too much. It also sounds too much like an excuse.

Bonnard’s pleasure is really something else: to name it would be to see it vanish. Would it? Asbery was, from time to time, among those who tend to think words explain away the delicate mysteries of painting. But those delicate mysteries are nothing but conjecture and high hopes if we're not willing to interrogate them. 

 Again: Johns is one of the few young painters of today whose work seems to defy critical analysis, and this is precisely a sign of its power — it can’t be explained in any other terms than its own, and is therefore necessary. Perhaps that was somewhat true back in the day, but Johns is entirely explicable. That it's explicable only within its own terms is much more the thing. That I can get along with. 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Ashbery preferred Edwin Dickinson to Edward Hopper:   


Coming on this show fresh from Whitney’s Hopper retrospective made me wonder once again if we really know who our greatest artists are. I would be the last to deny Hopper’s importance, but in even the smallest and most slapdash of these oil sketches, Dickinson seems to me a greater and more elevated painter, and all notions of his “cerebralism” and “decadence” — two words critics throw around when they can’t find anything bad to say about an artist — are swept away by the freshness of these pictures, in which eeriness and vivacity seem to go hand in hand, as they do in our social life. 

 

Ashbery preferred Edwin Dickinson to Edward Hopper, and I think I often prefer Ashbery's version of Dickinson to Dickinson's version of Dickinson. (I also like de Kooning's version of Dickinson, which is what the Dutchman took with him). I think Dickinson's a little too melodramatic at times, can be too un-various in mood. He always maintained he was as uncertain of the meanings of his works as anyone, but still the more 'ambitious' of them give the sense of being overthought or overstuffed, while the more seemingly modest of them allow a genuine space for the mysterious. He's a proto-Kitaj in some ways. But you can take what you want from him. He's malleable. And Hopper just as often walked the tightrope of 'illustration' as anyone.

 

 





 

 

 

 


 

 

 

Judging by his own collection, Ashbery's tastes ranged from the zippy and trashy to the apparently mundane, the abstract and the abject. Hélion, Fairfield Porter, early Alex Katz, Larry Rivers. His little Hélion still life of conkers on a bench, blandly anonymous, the nuts a bit too close to the eye to be artful, but with the potential for a wild cosmic poetics. It says, yes, this is a trifling picture of the world, frightening isn't it? Dickinson's Sunflower at Wellfleet says the same thing. Or at least, I think it might to Ashbery. Here we meet that distant cousin of the critic: the collector. Peter Schjeldahl: It helps when the specter of a particular person, who particularly loved particular things, stands at your shoulder, urging attention, inviting argument, and marveling at the shared good luck at being so entertained. 

Now when we look at a Dickinson we think, the great poet liked that. Ditto the things he owned.









 

 

 



There are multitudes of not very good reasons why Edwin Dickinson will never be a mainstream artist like his neighbor in South Truro, Massachusetts, Edward Hopper. Dickinson is unpredictable, if not downright strange, in some of his subject matter. You can’t figure out what he is trying to get at, and you suspect that perhaps he didn’t either, which isn’t very comforting. He is not modern and urban the way Hopper is. He didn’t know who his audience was and he didn’t paint for it. As contrarian as Hopper also was, I find it harder to say that about him. Perhaps it is because it is so easy to betray Hopper’s paintings by turning them into little stories that you can stick on the work, like Post-It notes.

Thank you, John Yau. As much as it can seem like Yau likes everything, perhaps it's more that he only writes about what he likes, and he writes and likes a hell of a lot. Which we shouldn't hold against him. If there's anyone with an office post-it note blanket-ban it's Yau. He's caught a little of the spirit of our Davenport here, with this talk of betrayal.

And he goes on: 

 
As the painter and printmaker Michael Mazur astutely pointed out; “Dickinson could easily destroy the coherence of a straightforward subject like the side of a house, as in his ‘Stone Tower’ (1941), with a smeared patch of paint that might stand for a tree or simply for itself. Only in the paintings and drawings of Willem de Kooning have I seen such spontaneous disregard for coherence within the struggle for coherence.

 

It's altogether strange to compare Hopper and Dickinson anyway. Hopper would never allow the dreamy wispiness of Dickinson's Villa and Allice (1941). In a Hopper, Alice would be sitting on a bench out front, or laying on a deckchair, or dozing underneath a window, or a picture frame, observed at a full-body distance. Here, it's all the same whether Alice is dreaming the house or the house is dreaming Alice, or the painter is dreaming both. Or she's the toppled bust of a statue. Or the shadow on the wall above her head is that of a cockerel about to crow-in the morning. Whether the hand on her face is her own or her waker. Whether the loop hanging from the tree is a child's tyre swing, tied up for later. Whether she's dreaming of her own childhood or her own child, not yet grown or too old for swings. Either way, the picture seems to be about its own interstitial state and space as much as it's about all these others.


And it's about these interstitial sates as much as Hopper's pictures are about dreamy interstitiality within and despite their solid shapes and spaces.


 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 


Then there’s Frank O’Hara. He may be too damn good a writer to be considered a serious critic. But he never ‘blurs’, is never ‘blind’. There’s no betrayal with O’Hara.

 

 

 

 



 

 

 

 

 

Then there are journalists. Schjeldahl has a library of dazzling sentences (sample: How I did it was to stroll nonstop through the show, finally pausing in the last room with the eerily deliberate paintings of de Kooning's dotage that lay out rudiments of his genius like silk ties on a bedspread.)  But I’m not sure they add up to much. Good on him for being so fluid, so attentive to an artist’s work though. Unfortunately it’s ‘work’, not ‘a' work. A prisoner of his profession, he seems almost duty bound not to linger too long on specific works of art. I suspect he could, and would love to. Fear of boredom or indifference from an audience all too often snuffs out sustained criticism. The need to be entertaining or academic, depending on circumstance, are just as bad. Word counts are a nightmare. O’Hara could make the most of a couple of sentences. T. J. Clark can spend a book on two pictures. But most reviews sit at a horrible median. Six hundred words. Eight hundred words. Three hundred words. Too much to be snappy, to little to really get going. Too little to get into the complexity you might want to get into, the complexity the work might demand you get into.

 

 

 

 






 

 

We have to decide what it’s important to say. But often this is qualified by a need to say what’s important and can be said well within the space set aside. Thought is limited by what’s expected. We make out like things are simpler than they are. This is true of painting more than almost any other art. Nobody has faith in its complexity. Or, if they do, it’s a faith misplaced in theory. Nobody wants to hear qualifying statement after qualifying statement about how this picture does such and such a thing, but also does the opposite, and is about such and such a thing, though equally posits its own being actually about such and such other thing, admits that possibility, while also acknowledging that it is not. Nobody wants to hear this even though it's often the case. When I first heard Merlin James say ‘there’s actually no such thing as art criticism being practiced in the world right now and there never really has been’ it was laughably true. Most books on painters start at entry level and don’t get beyond the coffee table. Ones that do are rare, and most often rarefied: more like illustrated editions on continental theory. 

 

 

 

 




But these are insoluble problems. If Clark can spend a paperback talking about just two Poussins, what are we meant to do when talking about exhibitions chock full of them? If people don’t write about the real complexities of specific paintings how are we supposed to believe in their capacity to be complex? Much less dare make complex, daring paintings.

 

Sentence Number 6 is a an outlier in some ways. It comes from left field. It was the least interesting to me, I thought, but here we are, words and words later. Blind to his [sic] achievement? Achievement in what? In the realm of meaning? Because that’s what we’ve been talking about until now. It’s a suggestion, by association, that an artist is in some proportion to be judged on the quality of their ‘meaning’. On their meaning handicap. And that to miss the meaning is a betrayal.

 

Schjeldahl’s best contribution? I retain, but suspend, my personal taste to deal with the panolply of art I see. I have a trick for doing justice to an uncongenial work: "What would I like about this if I liked it?" I may come around; I may not. Failing that, I wonder, What must the people who like this be like? Anthropology.

 

There's surely a follow-up question of ‘what would it be like if I liked this?’. Open minded criticism is to imagine a world in which works like this one before you were well-received and understood: a world in which painting looked like This. In which This was demonstrative of painting as form, activity and perspective on the world, in which works like This were more of a rule than an exception. How would it be if This was painting? If the world of meaning the work suggests checks out as being both familiar and unfamiliar, unconventional but totally viable, then it and you are on to something. The world and the art form have been remade, they've done it again!

 

Great paintings open up a world of alternative criticism, a canon of their own. 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Willem de Kooning was an artist who built a career on doing it again. De Kooning is a character who's cropped up here pretty frequently. He who said it's impossible today to paint a face, but also impossible not to. His late paintings' cool reception back in the 80s is considered these days a failure of criticism. A failure of critical imagination, of attentive attention.

Untitled XXIX is like a viaduct above a raging sea. Or an architectural sea beneath a raging viaduct. Nothing will convince me Untitled VI is not a still life, with a jug or pitcher, and perhaps the flapping ear and eyes of Disney's Goofy, about to drop it. Gorsh! In fact, these late works frequently have the unfathomable geometry of earlobes. They meet the eye and mind like sound waves meet recording studio baffles. They have the alkaline joy of wringing toothpaste from a tube, then eating a banana. 

But we have to be careful. The pictures are not these things. They are, in fact and in part, about not being these things, though they float the possibility of it. The dynamic play of volume, space and pictorial tension where they meet painted marks are things we can concretely say they are dealing with. But they are also dealing with the dynamic flow of attention and interpretation, at all levels. They also say, what if my paintings were like this? They could be. What if paintings were like so.


 

 

 



 

 

 

Fairfield Porter on de Kooning: His meaning is not that the paintings have Meaning...The vacuum they leave behind them is a vacuum in accomplishment, in significance, and in genuineness.





7.The arrogance of insisting that a work of art means what you think it means is a mistake that closes off curiosity, perception, the adventure of discovery.

 

We’re often encouraged to think of meaning as subjective and pretty much up to the viewer. Reader Response theory, death of the author, etc. And yet Davenport is advocating an overriding single and specific definitive meaning being correctly assigned to a work, as demonstrated by qualities apparent and encoded in the work. That meaningful and even daring criticism actually depends on the belief, the acceptance even, that works of art have a single definitive meaning. The apparent freedom of subjective response theories, he sees as stifling, meandering. Chasing a single meaning is much more of an ‘adventure’.

 

But there’s an ambiguity in this last sentence, especially taken out of context. He writes of the arrogance of insisting that a work of art means what you think it means. Based on what's come before, I'm fairly sure what he’s saying is it’s arrogant to claim that a work can mean whatever you might think it means, or whatever you’d like it to mean. But this could also easily be taken to mean that it's arrogant to insist you actually know what a work means at all: insisting that you’ve found the concrete and absolute meaning and cutting yourself off from the adventure of your own discovery. Which is obviously the opposite.

 

 

 

 

 

 








 

 

 

 

 The ambiguity is definitely there because I clearly remembered the first meaning in the passage, but searching the book to find it again I almost couldn't, and totally misread it when I did. I couldn't find it for misreading it. I took it to be saying the second meaning. I had it all wrong. Davenport was decrying the arrogance of insisting on single fixed meanings. So I had almost fallen into that trap of thinking it meant whatever I wanted it to mean. I had betrayed Davenport. 

 

Only on re-reading it, carefully, did I arrive back at what had seemed so clear the first time around. And I think this ambiguity is part of why it’s great. It mirrors our experience of works and their meanings, which can be at once so solid and yet so fluid, so unsubstantial. So easily misread with certainty. We have to be careful. It's easy to get caught up in the details. They're like booby traps. We have to mindful of the bigger picture. 

 

 

 

 












And I'm not alone. My misreading incident is not unique. There's another confirmed case, in the Times Literary Supplement of all places. In his 2021 review of the republished A Batlhus Notebook, Harry Strawson writes that:

 

 Davenport has no interest in explaining Balthus in a traditional art-historical sense. The “arrogance of insisting” on an artwork’s meaning “closes off curiosity, perception, the adventure of discovery”.

 

Strawson's somehow fallen into the same trap I did the second time around. He's read the sentence in isolation. Okay, it's true Davenport is not interested in traditional art history. But Strawson's missed out the crucial part about works of art having 'one meaning only', and skimmed over the ambiguous but equally crucial phrase about the arrogance of insisting that a work means what we 'think' it means: that this is actually what cancels our adventure. He's blurred Davenport. Davenport who is actually very insistant about a work's meaning. It's a case perhaps, of the critic seeing what he wants to see. That it seems like Davenport is letting him off the critical hook. That we don't have to tax ourselves by having to pin down the actual meaning. Strawson, understandably, thought it meant what he thought it meant. And he thought it meant that that was okay. 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Of course all this hand wringing could be avoided if we just admit that works of art mean hardly anything at all. Exhibit the look and feel of complexity but nothing else. Appear complex and meaningful by their nature. We can tidy our papers and push in our chairs. Case closed.

 

On the other hand, meaning isn’t necessarily a fixed unit and it’s not on a fixed scale. There’s no degrees Fahrenheit of meaning. There are totally different states and conditions of meaning in different pictures. Even, especially, necessarily even, in pictures by the same artist. Chardin’s figures obviously have more 'meaning' (or more obviously identifiable meaning) going on than the still lives; and some of the still lives seem to have more content going on than others, while some are more about form and tactility, about stuff.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 


 

 

 

 We could argue that what Chardin is actually doing is probing the informational capacity of objects and the pictures we make of them. Chardin considers them as blank receptacles here, then as reassuring totems there; then as blunt accouterments of a profession there again, then as enigmatic, numinous apparitions over here. As conjured feelings of sustenance, as portions of time set aside, moments of reflection and re-fill, objects of leisure, or of respite, or of toil. His subjects are the real and made objects of daily life and their continuity and contiguity with it.

 

Davenport's other major work with a painterly leaning, Objects on a Table: Harmony and Dissaray in Art and Literature, is a study of still life. Emphasis on literature, poor Chardin hardly gets more than a passing salute. But in the first pages, Davenport places still life as somehow the most meaningful, or meany-ready, of genres. Partly as it has the longest continuity of meanings, going back to its origins in cave art (the painting, essentially, of 'food') and in ancient Egyptian tombs:


Still life persists for four thousand years, and deserves study for that alone. The portrait rises and falls away, or is forbidden, or loses significance (as in our times). Landscape is intermittent– we rarely find it even in descriptions. Pausanias described Greece without a single view of meadow or wood, riverbank or mountain. All the genres of painting except still life are discontinuous, and only the lyric poem, or song, can claim so ancient a part of our culture among the expressive arts. 

 

I don't think this is quite right (surely still life drops out during the early medieval period?), but it's very accurate, I think, in describing how still life picks up on the idea of 'continuity', even as it has its own continuity. (Davenport continues: That the kinship of still life with still life down through history is greater than that of landscape with landscape, or portrait with portrait, lies at the centre of its mystery...a Roman mosaic of a basket of apples and pears, as in the Vatican's tessellated floor, is wonderfully like baskets of apples and pears of all ages. There is the same nakedness of presentation, the same mute hope of and confidence in the clarity of the subject, a tacitness so deep that we may never get to the bottom of it.)


There's a extent to which still lifes take their meaning from the genre's past perhaps more than any other genre: equally that they take their meaning from the continuity of objects and their roles in our lives. Cups may change in design but remain basically unchanged. Fruit may vary wildly in species and depiction but remain eternal. We still fill up and pour out vessels much as we have and have had to since antiquity. Still life's changing but changeless vessels reflect the changing put changeless vessels that are painted pictures. Paradoxically, it's the humble still life that crops up each time representational art shifts along a peg. 17th century Holland. 18th century France. France again in the 1910s. And yet, it's also the staple of the beginner, the amateur or dilettante, the humble student. It can be put together meaningfully or it can be put together to mean, apparently, nothing at all. Chardin, I think, tries his hand at both.



 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 Often he tries it with the one object. He investigates how a copper pan sitting on its base, seen from the side and showing its surface, means something different to a pan upturned on its side, showing its emptiness; means something different to the pan held by a kitchen hand staring into space, and the small hole in a wooden barrel which faces it. 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 


This selfsame copper pan crops up, looking almost copy-pasted once you notice it, in several genre scenes by David Teniers the younger (an underrated master of mini-still life paintings within paintings), a hundred years before Chardin. It toddles from Chardin to Chardin, as it does from Teniers to Chardin, and from Teniers to Teniers, carrying the journey with it. Probably humming I Got Plenty O' Nothin' as it goes. 

 

 

 

 






















 




 

 

 

 

If you scoop out a vessel's contents it still exhibits the scooping. Dutch 17th century painting, which is partly Chardin’s point of reference, is the emergence of secular, non-moralistic painting: painting which is much less apparently 'meaningful' than that which had come before (and, as  Svetlana Alpers argues in The Art of Describing: Dutch Art in the Seventeenth Century, part of an emphatically visual culture compared to the 'textual' culture of 15th-16th century Italy). 

 

But even then, Teniers reintroduces aspects of meaning and significance– or at least, questions of meaning and significance. There's a sense in which he's dealing with the spiritual void left when painting's patronage, its reason for being, moves from the dominantly ecclesiastic to the mercantile. That painting has to look for or to find 'meaning' within its own form.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

So he'll paint everyday tavern scenes: which if they have a functional meaning, then surely it's as broad satire. The foolish ways of foolish peasants. But in the way these pictures are composed they're about much more than this (just as they exceed those of his predecessor Adriaen Brouwer). They're also about the material cycles and processes of imbibing, smoking, drinking, urinating; gathering and dispersing socially, spending time, energy and money; work and leisure; inside and outside. You might say, isn't any picture of people in a tavern? Well yes, to an extent. But these pictures encourage such trains of thought in their pictorial play. Windows and hatches suddenly open, people come and go, look in, look out. Pale sunlight makes sundial triangles around the room. Time is whittled away smoking from whittled pipes. Simple drawings are pinned to the walls near the windows, the corners of which curl up from the humidity, displaying their own hinterland between two and three dimensions, flatness and volume. Hats are hung on the backs of claimed chairs, become objects of substitution. All these are dynamically measured against one another, considering how human beings occupy and inhabit spaces by considering how they occupy pictures (and how they occupy themselves). They divide the rectangle, play games with flatness and depth, light and dark, proximity and distance, which are not merely games but which question, existentially, the walls and limits of human experience. The enclosures we roam in and those we build for shelter, in the case of the landscapes.

 

The landscapes pull out for the wide shot. Games of skittles and ice skating below massive skies. Areas of pasture or construction sites. They seem to ask what does all this work and play mean? What does it amount to?

 






 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 





We haven’t talked about Balthus. This often happens. I’ve witnessed lectures about Balthus where they don’t really talk about Balthus. Certainly not the work, or its complexities, or the problems it presents, even though these are often advertised in the introduction as being what we’re about to investigate for the next two hours and then have questions about. 

 

Balthus is always a problem. But here’s the thing: I’m not so sure Davenport follows his own advice. He doesn't go doggedly after the definitive ‘meaning’ of a specific work of art by Balthus. Which is fine, it’s a notebook. But pictorial analysis is so often something people are more likely to preach than to practice. It’s always a kind of tease. So many essays, books and lectures suggest that they’re finally going to dig deep and get to the heart of the matter, but it’s a promise that goes largely unfulfilled. Many speakers conduct their lectures as extended introductions, deferring the subject till some quick comments in the last minutes. Many essays do the same. Many essays, in fact, can get several pages in before a single painting is mentioned. Interpretation, in its fullest sense, is something we're always meaning to get around to but constantly putting off. It's as if we sense the size of the job and what it's going to take to do it properly and just plain don't want to. 

 

Why waste time? Why not hit the ground running? Works of art do.

 

 

 

 





 



 

 

 

 

 

 

 

It takes Davenport till note #3 to mention Balthus by name. He says, if God is the opposite of Rodin, then Balthus is the opposite of Picasso (quoting Walser, remember him?). Then that’s it till #6: Balthus’s childhood drawings of his cat. Rilke. Hogarth. Colette. Emily Bronte. Ruskin. Then we’re on to note #8: Henry James’ The Turn of the Screw passes by, which he says now that we have Balthus seems Balthusian. All of this is involving, exciting stuff, but still no mention of a specific painting. A work is finally referenced at note #10. The Passage du Commerce Saint André (1952-54), which we’re told takes place in a neighborhood which once saw the movements of David and Diderot (and Chardin, probably, but nevermind). For the moment this passes for sufficient analysis. The next notes provide more general pictorial comment, comparing Balthus to Stanley Spencer for example, stating that Balthus is all about accuracy of detail, about never generalizing. Which ignores the amazing painting in Edinburgh's Scottish National Gallery of Modern art, Le Lever (Getting up, 1955): with its very deliberate elisions and inaccuracies, wrenched awkwardly between the conventions of the reclining nude and the crucifixion, descent and resurrection, straddling night and day, child and adult, the sacred and profane. Even the figure's gender seems yet to be definitively assigned. Some of these are, of course, themes also explored by Spencer: but ploddingly literally. Here it's all in the construction of the image, not in what the image necessarily depicts. How it is, not what it shows.    

 

 

 

 


 

 

 


 

 

 

At note #16 we get a roll call of titles– the titles of Balthus paintings which are said to be in conversation with Bonnard (The Window), Cézanne (The Farmyard), Courbet (The Living Room), Chardin (The Dream). But no further comment on the hows and whys. Which is a shame as there's plenty to explore in any one of these examples. The Living Room (1942) is cited, I suppose, for its recollection of Courbet's many sleepers. But the best thing about it is the seascape, hidden in the painterly description of the blank pages of the book.




 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 





It's this collision, perhaps, that actually summons Courbet. And starts a chain, if you want to go there, of sea associations. Of turmoil and change beneath calm waters; the rhythms and cycles of lapping waves; the figure's nose pressed to the book, the fingers gently between the spine; the proximity of this to the girl's open legs. If this sounds like far fetched leering, consider the infamous cat lapping at a bowl of milk below a young girl's exposed underwear in the so awful they petitioned to have it removed Thérèse Dreaming (1938). The jury's still out on that one. It's his most unforgivable work. 


In any case, the little book that looks like a painting that looks like the sea is a thrilling detail of The Living Room, which the rest of busy picture revolves around, once seen. It's a fun poetic turn on its own, split into three parts: pages read and known (land, the yellow beach), the page being read (the purple-blue-grey ocean), the unknown pages still to come (white horizon and grey sky). A triangle of pages, waves, and patient carnality.

 

 

 

 


 

 

 

But hang on, we're talking about meaning. Surely the debate around Thérèse Dreaming is partly the debate about what a picture means vs what a picture shows. Or rather, what it is taken to mean. Lauren Elkin in frieze:  

 

..the painting is troubling. But still I find myself wanting to defend it. There is a way to look at Thérèse that doesn’t make us complicit in the abusive sexualization of children. Yes, Balthus is a perv. But look again at the painting: Thérèse is as pervy as the artist. Look at her enraptured face, her closed eyes; you can almost feel the quickening of her breath [...] I’ve always loved this painting. It makes me feel sexy; but in an adolescent way; it restores to me, retroactively, the diffuse desire I felt at 12 or 13. I didn’t know who or what I desired, if it was sex or something more nebulous; just like boys, young girls that age are desiring machines. And as I spoke to female friends, and read what women have written about the painting, I found I wasn't alone. [...] Jen George, writing in the Paris Review last year, said she obsessively identified with Thérèse, and would spend hours in the gallery looking at her. ‘I liked that she was both in this room and not; she was dreaming, but I couldn’t see where she’d gone.’ [...] The writer Stephanie LaCava told me that ‘what’s best about [Thérèse] and most art I love is that she is knowing... as if she’s hovering above the whole thing. To me, it’s not only that she’s complicit and empowered, but that she realizes her role at large as a woman, even a mythical one – like Peitho, Pandora, Calypso even – she is not relegated to some domestic bullshit or second tier intellect. She’s greater and able. This is what frightens people more.’ LaCava is right: it’s Thérèse herself that’s unsettling. Our culture is terrified of sexually-awakened young girls. Our rush to ‘protect’ them is sometimes just a bid to protect ourselves from their monstrous nubile desire. By trying to control the way people look at this young girl, we rob her of an interior life. Female sexuality cannot be forever cloistered and footnoted and appended: sometimes we have to just let it stand (or sit, awkwardly), no matter how troubling.

 

There's something going on here. The picture, for various people, independently of one another, seems to be unshakably about a certain specific state of experience. Powerfully so. It would appear for those who have had an immediate, followed by a prolonged and intimate relationship with this painting, that this is what it is about. This is its meaning. To an extent we should take their word for it. Elkin's is the most eloquent of the picture's defenses, regardless of whether you think the picture is worth defending. Because unlike most cases for the defence, it doesn't focus solely on why art shouldn't be censored, freedom of expression, cancel culture etc., but on what the picture demonstrably 'means'. What it means rather than what it shows. What it should be allowed to mean.

Still it's a curious thing for a man in 1938 to paint. Still more curious why this picture, which is apparently so resonant and understanding of emergent female sexuality is unacceptable while Lolita, written purely from the pervert's point of view, is not. Perhaps another example of our belief in the complexity of the written word vs our skepticism about the complexity of painted pictures. What really does it I think, what crosses the line for a lot of people, perhaps even without their realizing, is that Thérèse may also be menstruating. There's a definite red-brown that could be as stain. A stain as absent from the history of art as frank, unapologetic female desire.

I wish the cat wasn't there. It's too much a cypher for Balthus himself. But it is there, like it or not.













Back to Davenport. Not until note #23 do we meet sustained analysis, returning to The Passage du Commerce. A fan of crime fiction Davenport writes: our seeing the painting is very like Maigret's learning a neighbourhood where a crime has been committed. But this is perhaps an example of Davenport’s warning about blurring meaning. What, exactly, in the picture recalls a crime scene? I’m not saying that it doesn’t. But there’s no visual evidence given here. We’ll forgive him as he ends note #24 by saying the painting insists that the eye that’s awake in all this sleep of attention is the artist’s, making a basic definition, sweetly obvious but extraordinarily important, of what a painting is in the most archaic meaning of image, the seen. Which is lovely. 

 

Then note #25: the characters in this and the related picture, The Street (1933), are like puppets, he says; we notice all the perpendicular lines above their heads, wrist, ankles, and can easily imagine the strings. But he doesn't follow this thread, which leads to Thérèse sur une banquette (1939). She was originally meant to be playing with a cat but Balthus left it out: instead she appears to pull her leg and/or skirt up, pulls herself up (the bluntly indicated bench legs are negligible). A picture of self containment, playing both puppet master and marionette, or perhaps just a dangling decoration, or bait, it's a key work in any study of Balthus's artist-model power dynamics. Just as Balthus is arguably an incredibly incisive artist on the bizarre nature of this setup in itself, which exists only in and for pictures. I'm sure Davenport mentions this painting elsewhere. Curious that he doesn't get into it here. But at least there's some sustained pictorial analysis, and so close to the 27th note, the one that concerns us.  

 

 

 

 






From there on there’s more analysis, more adventures in meaning, if not towards ‘a’ meaning. Mostly about the Passage du Commerce itself, rather than the picture of it.

 

Davenport writes in note #33 about Rilke's bees and adolescents. I wonder if the word ‘latent’ in sentence two of note #27 has a certain connotation of adolescence. Meaning is latent. That the latency of meaning and of adolescence in Balthus is somehow the same thing. That latency is the meaning. Adolescence's long afternoon of the soul. Balthus is less interested in eroticism than in emergent eroticism, latent eroticism. Which has been a problematic thing, reputation wise, for him to have been interested in. But nevertheless, perhaps an untapped aspect of the best of the pictures is this echoing of latency in adolescent sexuality against emergent meaning and revelation in painted images.

 

Note #35: he explicitly says we can imagine what kind of writer would make Balthus’s pictures. Balthus's paintings are illustrations for a writer we can imagine the style of, but who doesn't exist. This writer would have Francis Ponge's metaphysical sense of French meadows, Proust's sensuality of girls' bodies and clothes, Rilke's ripeness of fate and time. But what writer can deal with the happy fat boy and his pigeons, the Japanese woman in her Turkish room, the crones and gnomes, the daimon cats, part Cheshire, part hearth-god?

 

Wow. All through the text literary associations have generally trumped painterly ones. Davenport again blurs and breaks his rule. But it’s another amazing, dead-on paragraph. It perfectly captures Balthus's universe, stuck as it is at 4.30 on an endless Sunday. I'm just put out that it’s another example of a writer re-writing a painter into his own art form. But then, as much as Davenport's got something to say about criticism he never claims to be a critic. Perhaps he would prefer the title of 'interpreter': more language less judgement.

 

Note #40, he finally gets to Balthus's inevitable problematics, and succinctly, perhaps frustratingly succinctly, dismisses them. Understandable, as Davenport himself walked blithely past objections to pubescent sexuality in his own fiction. I think Davenport, the classicist modernist, would find only a slim difference between, say, Degas' Young Spartans and the indeterminately aged 'children' in Balthus. 

 

 

 

 

 












 

 

 

There's something in the landscape of the Degas, actually, which is very like Balthus. A certain strangely hazy-limpid light, textured-flatness. Then there's the awkward semaphore of the bodies; the boy with his stretching arms distantly recalling those of Thérèse; the boy on all-fours like so many of Balthus's carpet crawlers. It's partly about the awkwardness of adolescence within the grace of the classical setting; modernity and contemporaneity within art's classical and classicising impulses.  

 

Weirdly, if we approach the paintings as if they were painted yesterday their problematics look intentional, calculated, and are therefore somehow neutralized. Their shock value seems to be worse if they're made with sincerity, and in 1955. The 2019 Balthus show at Fondation Beyeler, sparsely hung on coloured walls, made him look a bit more like a Michaël Borremans, or a John Currin, or a Liu Ye.





 

 

 

 


 

 

 

 

But somehow a rupture has to occur in a Balthus. We have to be hit by contradictory impulses. They are specific in their indeterminacy. Explicit in their 'latency'. Modern in their classicism.  

 

'Adolescence' is partly just in the pictures. In the pictures' hinterland between classicism and modernity, (just as Degas adapted the faces and clothes of his young Spartans to look more contemporary-Parisian). And not just plain and simple 'adolescence', but all the micro-divisions of neither-here-nor-thereness within it. 










 
 
 
 
 






Indeterminate modernity is a field of study in itself. And Balthus is a key figure in that field. One of a handful of artists who wriggled around in what's often seen as a stunted halfway house modernity. Nothing of the sort, it was in reality a place from which to survey where art had been, where it might go, where it might meet the world: not an attempt to define modernity, but to let modernity be constantly emergent, various, happening work by work. Breaking, but continuous with the tradition, move by move, fraction by fraction. Less a halfway house modernism than a haunted house.

Davenport, #43: It is precisely those harmonies which have become dissonant we want to study in every way we can, for they had a harmonic origin. They changed. We changed. We need to know why.

They could've hung this short note on a banner across the The Musée d’Art Moderne de la Ville de Paris for the landmark Derain, Balthus, Giacometti show in 2017. All three were these modernist-traditionalist wrigglers, obsessed with 'dissonant' harmonies. Artists whose works seen next to the the full bloom of people like Matisse or Picasso look like slightly browned fallen petals. 

 

Jed Perl:


Some of the darkest, most beautifully saturnine dimensions of the modern imagination are explored in an extraordinary exhibition mounted in Paris this summer. “Derain, Balthus, Giacometti: Une amitié artistique,” at the Museum of Modern Art of the City of Paris, plunges visitors into the melancholy of modernism, but a melancholy so vigorous, provocative, and heartfelt that it has its own kind of exhilaration. ..These three were determined to revisit the relationship between art and reality following the revolutions of early-twentieth-century artists, who had so often rejected the naturalism that dominated Western painting and sculpture for five hundred years. They were gathering together the broken pieces of what some disparaged as the sunny old reality. They wanted to discover a new, moonlit truth. [...] Picasso and Matisse, those supreme magicians of modernism, are the easiest twentieth-century artists to love. Their dramatic shifts in style and sensibility are playful even when they're sombre; we admire them for their changeableness. Derain, Giacometti, and Balthus take a very different approach. They are the metaphysicians of modernism. They burrow into the enigmas of style; they investigate the relationship between style and truth...All these artists...embraced the fundamental modern discovery that the essence of the visual arts wasn't naturalistic truth but pictorial truth.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 




 

 

 

 

Derain, Balthus, Giacometti, allowed perhaps the best glimpse of what Balthus was getting at, even if he is always going to be the lesser of the three amigos. Each of them were engaged in the place where art, and art's past, met a real living world. A real living world that, as much as works of art, is like a foreign language, is closed to us until we learn how to read it. That is, meaningless until we learn how to encode it in words or pictures: that encoding giving it meaning. Each of these three artists, immersed in the tradition as they were, determined to read the world afresh, to begin again. To re-engage with realism as it relates to a world of meaning, via the language of 'style', genre, form. With the caveat that access to a real world is practically impossible. 

There is our world, and there is the world of pictures, and never the twain shall meet, though they may greet each other cordially. Because the tradition is not a barrier or a burden, but something active in the world: it's as if art's been around long enough to have rubbed off on it. Imbued it, in the end and despite the odds, with meaning. But at the same time we know this is a fiction. The world itself does not mean. And yet out representations of it can't help but make it mean...These are the philosophical circles which these three painters wormed around in. 















 

 

 

 

 

Derain was a big influence on Balthus. His many pictures of his niece, Geneviève,  surely influenced Balthus' 1930s pictures of his young neighbor, Thérèse. 

Derain's The Painter's Niece (1931) is very close to Baltus' 1938 Thérèse in the Met: each picture almost identically rhyming human and furniture legs, which in turn define the limits of the picture frame. Both investigate self assurance with awkwardness, fluidity with rigidity. In each picture there's also an ambiguity of anatomy, a confusion over which leg is which: each figure is apparently anchored in space but still somehow at a general disconnect. The oversized bigness of the chairs is also emphasized, while the frame crops and closes in on the figure (the wall and table surge forward to meet Thérèse, as the shadow cast by the distant table looks equally as if it could be cast by her knee). It's as if they're expanding (like Alice in Wonderland), growing disproportionately to what's perhaps expected of them (pictorially and developmentally). Geneviève is acting the dainty picture-lady for her silly uncle (the picture plays with its own formality, like an exaggerated curtsy), as if perhaps she's already outgrowing the role of passive or willing accomplice, outgrowing this picture, humoring this picture and its world of manners. Thérèse could be consciously trying on the look of a provocateur, or could have equally just arrived at this pose in her self absorption. Each picture posits itself as a staged occurrence, which doesn't negate the real complexities of the picturer or the pictured, nor the relationship of one to the other. They, we, are all in on it. 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 The sheer moodiness, neither up nor down, of this kind of art – surprisingly – reaches a kind of 'adolescent' peak with Giacometti. Jed Perl writes in Paris Without End that his pictures have about them a self consciousness, an almost adolescent cultivation of angst and sentimentality :

 

 Giacometti is all too willing to show us the agony of creation, the point where clarity breaks down and confusion reigns. But his self-pitying, expressionist side is kept in check by the force of will that measures itself against the standards of tradition– and of the most recent developments of tradition, which are to be found in modern French painting. 

 

Again we find this sense of 'adolescence'. An almost self-cancelling excess of feeling and of expression. But then, formalized, codified, the almost nulled 'expression' becomes viable again– genuine 'expression', such as it is, possible because held in check, but equally possible because 'performed', posed, framed. Given a language with which to speak. (That adolescence comes with a certain inarticulateness is a common trope). In a way, what they're also 'expressing' is modernism's sense of adolescent melancholy for the past: an acute sense of distance from that which not long ago seemed so certain and eternal. For Geneviève and Thérèse it's as if the costumes and props, the decor and the furniture, don't fit anymore. They continue to inhabit roles which they've partially outgrown; just as Balthus and Derain continue to indulge in games which art was supposed to have tidied away.

 

But Giacometti's still lives and his people in rooms play a slightly different game to those of Derain or Balthus. The staging is different, the poses 'neutral'. There's a more concerted attempt to purge 'style'. Yet this purging emerges as instantly identifiable in style. Neutral poses still posit their neutrality. There are no apples more purged of their symbolism either– apart from their being strong symbols of painterly-pictorial study. Their status as pictured objects clings to them.



















These pictures end up being about the line between art and life, appearance and its inseparable relationship with significance. Giacometti is incapable of seeing, or rather picturing, the world without tracing a wavering frame around it: the rectangle that gives portions of the seen world 'meaning'. We watch as it gets closer and closer, closing in around his subjects, or boxing them off to the side. It could contract or expand indefinitely. He has to decide where to put it. The unstable frame cordons the subject off as an area of study while admitting that this study is partly compromised: compromised, as it will always be, by being a picture. It's a transfixing mixture of the the intense and the arbitrary. Which is, I think, what Giacometti is saying paintings are. Or the world is.

Beckett spoke about painting straining to enlarge the statement of a compromise. What, if anything, is a sitter in Giacometti's studio if not a presence of matter in a space? A picture. It's the unimaginably less bawdy version of Teniers' taverns; the room to his stage; Beckett to his Shakespeare.


















People in rooms and pictures, how they inhabit one and the other. That's perhaps the endless enigma which unites these three artists. A certain – troubled – fascination for the artist and model as subject. As 'arrangement': professional, personal, aesthetic. What that arrangement means

It's an arrangement we're equally tied up in. We all agree– artist, model, viewer – to play along with its conceits. The studio portrait/nude/study acts out something which only occurs in art. Because of art. What we're seeing is staged, is put on. It's an investigation of painting masquerading as an interrogation of the real world. Or is it the other way around? We observe as Derain, Balthus and Giacometti lean this way then that.






 

 

 

 

 

 


 

 

 







Geneviève à la pomme (1937-38) finds Derain's niece a few years older again: now rolling her eyes at the apple she's been asked to hold artistically. She's visibly not giving it her all, and Derain seems totally excited by this. He grasps the chance of depicting her mind as it wanders from the setup, thereby bringing the setup almost to the point of collapse. It's the perfect Derain portrait in this sense. The elements are co-operating – highly, dazzlingly functionally – but only just. They're playing at art to see if it's still viable. And it is viable– but only if it acknowledges its own limitations, its own frozen distinction from a real, temporal world. 

 

Derain's is a kind of self-sabotaging realism. Or, if you look at it another way, it's a kind of reality affirming fantasy. She might roll her eyes at having to play Eve to the picture's apple, but it's still a picture of a 'fall' of sorts: Geneviève the child is lost to him, lost to herself, lost to time. It's hard not to see in her raised arm leaning on the table the raised calf resting on the big chair, six or seven years before. Still turning her head to the left in the hint of a shrug, but this time looking away.

 

There is a sense in which as much as Derain can play with the plasticity of paint and images, the world refuses to be captured, to let itself be known; that everything has a mysterious life of its own, including painting. Each element has a complex independent existence. Frequently his models look bored, or uncomfortable or distracted: that try as he might to get people, objects and places to play along, they are not totally ruled or understood by him, just as he himself is a medium through which the consciousness of Painting passes. Just as 'meaning' is a property  generated not by the subject before him, but by its picture-painterly transfer. 

 

 

 

 

 

 


  

 

 

 

 
















Derain's pictures fundamentally acknowledge all of this. If Derain paints a nude, it's a nude on the verge of disappearing from a world of meaning, yet just about holding on. They often signify art itself more than they signify eroticism. Or they displace the eroticism:  Nu assis à la draperie verte (1930) lets the breasts fade into discrete mid-tone with schematic lines and dots, while the left arm, coiled hair, and wedge of negative space create a lushly described frame around them. She 'frames' herself (either unconsciously or as-directed by the painter) just as her formal pose is partially framed by the 'artistic' drapery. It's a picture poised between a sense of presentation and a sense of shielding, withholding; a critique of 'artful' toplessness, pictorial revelation and display tempered by reticence, emptiness. It expresses a great sadness, perhaps, that all of this makes sense only in the picture. 

 

 

 

 


 

 

We feel the tug of a world of 'meaning', but it's a world that exists only in art. And it's a world of meaning which modernism had irrevocably changed. The painted nude was precisely one of those harmonies which Davenport says had become dissonant. They changed. We changed. We need to know why.

The formal nude is the event horizon of painterly 'meaning'. It means painting. Whatever the mythological overtones, the nude is essentially a vacuum. Paradoxically, we're very aware that when we're looking a nude we're often not seeing a person but an idea. The idea, essentially, being 'art'. Which is why they're often objectionable. It's all well and good when painting vases and flowers or empty copper pans to say that they're about the limitations of the visual, the shallowness of surfaces, while imbuing these things with at least the sense of significance. It's one thing to prop out a studio table, another to drape and arrange a human being. In paintings of nude or semi-nude models, we sense the individuals' loss and gain in the meaning stakes, just as details and anatomy are glossed over or reshaped for the sake of the picture. It's the surface life of the picture at the cost of the interior life of the model. But the nude is so woven into the DNA of painting it's something you almost just have to deal with. Like rectangles or the colour brown.   

 How it is, not what it shows... But then it would be absurd to discount what a picture depicts.





 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

The woman in Nu assis à la draperie verte is a not too distant cousin of the model in Jean Hélion's á rebours (1947). The artist (we assume he's the artist) is standing between the extremes of abstract and nude, modernity and tradition, painting and model, public gallery and private studio. It makes explicit all the implicit associations sparked by the apparently 'meaningless' nude in the Derain, while throwing in its own distinctive oppositions: the problems of representation and abstraction, form and formalism, the divide between art and life, display and objectification (of the grapefruit breasts particularly, here again framed by the arms and swimming in mid-tone); mechanical eroticism, bodies in public/private/pictorial space, openness and reticence (the painter's hands open, vaginal, the woman's clasped, like the window shutters; he like a humble, aproned artisan, or a supplicant priest; she watching the distinctive gesture of his hands and perhaps about to imitate him by flipping hers'); the cultural, the contractual and the commercial (pictures like Nu assis à la draperie verte are considered by many to be Derain's money-making pot-boilers, which doesn't account for their complexity of mood)

If the nude is a vacuum, then it's a pretty loaded one. 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Hélion's return to Paris after the war was a return to a world of meaning. And with it, an attempt to re-engage with the what it shows as much as the how it is. The problematic studio nude must've had a certain piquancy for him: one of his subjects which have very little to do with the everyday routines and rituals he loved and a whole lot more to do with the routines and rituals of art. The artificial life of painting. They're related in this respect to his pictures of people viewing paintings in exhibitions and displayed in shop windows. But they're also inseparable from his pictures of the studio, his shop window mannequins, his still lives of bread and pumpkins, which we watch being bought from vendors and brought into the studio. Painting for Hélion is like a revolving door, through which life comes and goes in both directions. It's not a one-way street.   

Paintings within paintings, paintings of paintings, and the whole notion of picture-study which the studio nude represents, are also a big part of his incredibly seductive 'study' paintings: single canvases with multiple versions of the same subject scattered seemingly at random. Sometimes outlined, sometimes with no dividing frames at all. 

 

 

 




 

 

 

 


 

 

 

 

A man leans on a ledge. He leans on it again. That same man leans on another ledge, both of them smaller this time; or perhaps this is just a picture of the leaning man, painted on the wall behind him? We hardly ever take pictures or 'study' sheets like this literally. But then why should we take any depictive image on a surface for anything other than what it 'is'? These are issues at the forefront of any Hélion. How much and what nature of attention should be given to each thing? How proportionate should our attention be? How does an image 'mean'? How much can any image or utterance be said to be partial and incomplete? How much is any picture anything more or less than a 'study'? 

 

 

 


 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

These are common enough painterly questions. But in Hélion they take on a life of their own. Each image he repeats gains something in its multiplicity. A woman in a cardigan stands, twice, on either side of her own statue, or three of her sit in a room, not looking at one another. Nothing happening in a room with a pumpkin on a table next to a window happens again and again; nothing continuing to happen but the wind agitating the curtain, slightly. Resting hands rest on resting hands, as if the person they're conjoined to has momentarily become a consciousness entirely of knotted palms and wrists (recalling the focal point of Dorelia in a Black Dress, a 1903 work by Gwen John, who more and more seems to anticipate these artists' existential preoccupation with models in rooms). A skull sits on a circular table, again and again, and refuses to speak of anything, finally, other than death as a shared fact among skulls and their owners. The top of the cranium's been sawn off and sits like a lid, as if the rest of the skulls, tables and rooms could fit inside each other, Matryoshka-style. Pretty chilling when we consider the very biggest skull which they're all now held within is our own.

The pictures are not comic book sequential but simultaneous. As if someone misheard half a definition of cubism across a crowded room.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 


 

 

 

 


Balthus was a friend, and welcomed Hélion's return to realism in the 50s. They would each live and work into the later half of the 20th century (Balthus actually made it into the 21st), survivors of a tradition stretching back in friendship and fraternity to the early days of cubism. Hélion was in many ways the heir apparent to the waywardly individual modernism of Derain, Balthus, Giacometti. Derain's compulsion toward variation upon variation, his compulsive variousness; Giacometti's sense of study, of styleless style as style; Balthus's hauntingly wavering realism of studio and room, his two grand streets...


All these artists were concerned with completeness as much as incompleteness: the possibility of recombination after cubist fragmentation. Of something more monumental, and perhaps even meaningful. Hélion worked completeness back into fragmentation. His street scenes are an attempt to make something monumental of the apparent chaos. His entire oeuvre is an attempt to join the dots between the person in the chair and the paper on the table and the city below the rooftops outside the window and you, the viewer in the gallery.  

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 


 

 

 

 

He maintained that these multiple study paintings were just that, studies. But taking them as they are it's surprising how much they hold together, and how much the 'meaning' is compounded or extended in the multiplication. How much they seem to work as works of art. A lot of this, I guess, is up to the temperament of the viewer. How much the viewer might want to listen to the artist and not the work, trust the teller not the tale. We could debate whether or not they were actually something more than mere studies for Hélion, whether they're just too well-composed to be true, or whether he just couldn't help himself– but they're there regardless. So we have to deal with them. They certainly seem to signify, to 'mean' something more than simply 'study'. Or at least, I've briefly made the case that they do. 

 

 

 

 

 


 

 

 

 

 

 

 

On the other hand, the 'study sheet' is a common enough painterly artefact– a tool more than a work, say, and one we shouldn't take to 'mean'. But when we look at Edouard Vuillard 's Carton d'études (from 1934, well past his prime by most accounts) do we a see simply a sheet of studies? Or do we see an ingeniously dumb allegory of the various painterly genres as they jostle in the world? Do we not see a Hélion-esque studio portrait in the literalist sense: the artist or dealer holding up a big turquoise canvas behind a vase of real flowers on a real table, a mirror beside him to the left, a little painting of a hauntingly receding hallway to the right, the rooms nested like the compartments in Hélion's little mobile drawer-cabinet. All these 'studies' need are a few drop-shadows and a couple of highlights on their corners and we'd have a straightforwardly coherent space. But then, we wouldn't want that. Not from Vuillard!

 When Teniers depicts the collection of Archduke Leopold Wilhelm, or A picture gallery with two men examining a seal and a red chalk drawing, and a monkey present, we're looking at the same kind of play between art and illusion, multiple and micro, flatness and depth. The same box of tricks. It's also just a more elaborate, operatic version of the windows and caricatures pinned to his chamber-piece taverns. 




 

 

 

 

 

 

 In the same way, it's hard for me to see the distinction, really, between Hélion's multi-study paintings and the endlessly recombined and recombining motifs in the more apparently substantial compositions. They seem to operate in the same area, to mean something similar: except in a more offhand, or seemingly offhand register. But perhaps this is a contemporary bias. A certain 21st century sympathy for what Raphael Rubinstein famously called 'Provisional Painting': that is, the casual, dashed-off, tentative, unfinished or self-cancelling. Work made by artists who deliberately turn away from “strong” painting for something that seems to constantly risk inconsequence or collapse



 I take such work to be, in part, a struggle with a medium that can seem too invested in permanence and virtuosity, in carefully planned-out compositions and layered meanings, in artistic authority and creative strength, in all the qualities that make the fine arts “fine.”

 

 

Hmm. These artists, Derain, Balthus, though perhaps less so Giacometti, have frequently suffered reputation-wise by being too seemingly 'fine'. Even as they explore the philosophical implications of art's 'fineness'. This they did with subtlety, and art criticism rarely has time for that. Derain especially trod a tightrope between the slapdash and the virtuoso, risking inconsequence and collapse from hell to breakfast. And Hélion met enormous resistance in his post-abstract years: penalized for his concern with 'layered meaning' which for many amounted to a bankrupt symbolism. Forgetting that he was as-concerned with the effect of depiction upon the 'meaning ' of the depicted.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Provisionality and 'authority' are not mutually exclusive. When Derain's slapdash he's a virtuoso of the slapdash. Balthus has moments of pointed provisionality (particularly in Getting Up, but also the barely-there bench below the thread-dangling Thérèse). Rubinstein puts Giacometti forward as a proto-provisional painter: but however tentative, unfinished or self-cancelling Giacometti gets, philosophically, materially, it's never casual, never dashed-off. He may constantly risk collapse– but you never sense that he's risking inconsequence. All these terms are easy to bat around. But each term is tied to an enormously complex set of ideas, specifically as they relate to painted surfaces/images, and what they might 'mean' in turn. If there's one of these qualities going on in complex art, then the opposite quality is usually in there somewhere too; pulling one another into discord here, harmony there. This push and pull is partly how and what they mean.



But what if provisionality is nothing more than a stylistic trope, rather than a matter of profound artistic conviction and philosophical reflection? I keep rereading a sentence I came across in one of Frank O’Hara’s art reviews: “It is simply a property of Bonnard’s mature work, and one of its most fragile charms, to look slightly washed-out, to look what every sophisticated person let alone artist wants to look: a little ‘down,’ a little effortless and helpless.” Could provisional painting, or at least some of it, be merely the medium on a casual Friday?



I hope it's just some of it. Or that it can be both a matter of profound artistic conviction and philosophical refection, and perhaps something a little shabby-chic. There's room for that. We're also back to what Ashbery said: careful not to talk about 'fragile' Bonnard in case we break the spell. As if fragility and strength, doubt and conviction cannot be reconciled in art. If not there then where? 

















How does one respond, as a critic, to a provisional work of art? Can one practice provisional criticism? What would this look like? Given the way that every judgment, evaluation and interpretation is subject to revision—if not total rejection—by the passage of time, isn’t every piece of criticism provisional? Maybe. But at the same time, doesn’t every critic also try to offer something that will be completely nonprovisional, i.e., durable and confident? After a long period when painting was frequently dismissed as a complacent, indulgent, narcissistic medium in contrast to other modes (conceptual art, relational esthetics, etc.) that were supposed to be more faithful to the skeptical, oppositional character of historic avant-gardes, some painters have been rediscovering doubt as an aspect of their medium, reclaiming Cézanne as an ancestor and nominating as their tutelary spirit Samuel Beckett, a writer who favored paintings where he found “no trace of one-upmanship, either in excess or deficiency. But the acceptance, as little satisfied as bitter, of all that is immaterial and paltry, as among shadows, in the shock from which a work emerges.

 

This surely, is the plot twist on which Davenport's 'single meaning' adventure ends. We want meaning to be definitive and durable but know, in out heart of hearts, that we could think differently tomorrow. They changed. We changed. We need to know why. If we believe in the search for meaning we must also reserve the right to change our minds. (Francis Picabia: Our heads are round to allow our thoughts to change course.)

 

 

 

 

 



 

 

 

 

Is provisional criticism such a bad idea? What does the dictionary say (a book that knows a thing or two about meaning): Provisional-adj.-as a temporary arrangement for the present, c.1600, from provision (n.) + -al, something that will "provide for present needs”. 

 

A temporary arrangement for the present. There are far worse definitions of painting. 

 

As for criticism, it may mean much the same thing. A criticism, perhaps, of due deference to what is literally provided, given, what is there and what is hinted at or suppressed within the physical arrangement of the work. A criticism which would emphasize the present encounter with the work while acknowledging that this is just one in a long line of encounters – each valid – and just one encounter again in an indefinite future of presents. Not a criticism which hedges its bets. Far from it. But a criticism which would include within its terms and conditions an implicit disclaimer of humility. As with Vernon Lee's merger of attention and empathy, we have to be attentive and empathetic collaborators– that's also part of the arrangement. The object has to be met half way. That's one of its terms.

 Howard Hodgkin described how in his paintings the picture is somehow hovering in mid-air between myself and the spectator so that it looks as strange or as interesting or whatever to me as it does to any other spectator. They're very physical objects paintings. Yet what we're often discussing are these spectral, hovering things that stand in front of them, which we call 'pictures'. 

We talk about resolved compositions. The truth is this resolution and reconciliation happens our end. But we have to be cautious. We have to balance the books when it comes to being active or reactive, lest we be blind, lest we blur. How do we collaborate with the work, actively, while allowing it to take the lead? 

 

 

 

 


 

 

 

In his Patterns of Intention: On the Historical Explanation of Pictures, Michael Baxandall confronts the problem of reconciling our historical distance from a work with our present experience of it. In order for the contemporary viewer to arrive at the truest sense of a picture's intended meaning, he argues that we have to work backwards: inferring artistic intentions not from artistic outcomes alone, but from the culture that surrounded a given work in the widest possible sense. History for Baxandall is a kind of corrective lens with which to signifiacntly reduce interprative distortion– in order that we might as faithfully as possibly see with what he called the 'period eye'. Understand the peiod eye and we might at least understand why works of art look the way they do. (In an earlier book, Painting and Experience in 15th Century Italy, he makes the case that a Renaissance patron/viewer's sense of pictorial proportion was intimately linked to the ability to quickly gauge the volume of a barrel, for example. I'm sure he would've done quite a number on Balthus if he'd been inclined.)

Baxandall describes the work of art as something like the result of a 'brief'. Either a literal contract set by a patron or, more metaphorically, the 'brief' set by the wider culture– the visual intelligences which the picture could've expected to meet, as much as the internal 'culture' or continuity of the art form. Perhaps the 'brief' of criticism is just as historically variable, historically conditional. Or perhaps criticism's 'brief' is set, instance by instance, by the individual work of art, with each work demanding a criticism all its own? And yet, like the steady control element in experiment, criticism must also compare and evaluate its way through multiple works. It has to have certain standards. That's its unchanging brief. And to complicate matters, surely the criticism of the day is a large part the 'brief' set by the culture on a work? The brief which Baxandall tells us is constantly changing, variable. If criticism is supposed to be a solid set of foundations, a firm vantage point from which to survey and judge the vagaries of works of art, then it is a set of strong foundations built on quicksand. They changed, We changed. We need to know why. 

In some ways criticism is to art what the law is to human affairs. Monolithic, absolute and eternal until it needs to change. Until progress forces it to change. In truth one determines the other. Each must adapt.

Baxandall writes that we can make stronger or weaker claims about a picture, but that we will always be left with the original provisionthe work of art – which remains one step ahead of even the best things we can say about it. Like a particle floating across the vitreous of the eye, disturbed by and darting away from the motion of the eyeball that's straining to see it. 

Just as any scientific study affects that which it observes, a painting seen is both compromised and completed. The painting evades meaning just as it also cannot avoid it. Baxandall suggests that we don’t actually talk about pictures, that we can’t quite get at the picture. What we do is we talk about talking about pictures: what we actually explain seems likely to be not the unmediated picture but the picture as considered under a partially interpretative description...a representation of thinking about having seen the picture. 

 

 

 

 


 

 

 

 

 Any looking is interpretation. Again, the active action of a work is to mean. Which it constantly does and also does not do. 'Meaning' is not a substance, quality or activity which we can scientifically measure, and so it's an emphatically human thing. It's linguistic, stimulative, social. Schjeldahl: I wonder, What must the people who like this be like? Anthropology. 

 Baxandall writes that his ‘inferential criticism’ is one of affirming and cheerful skepticism: that it is the impossibility of firm knowledge that gives inferential criticism its edge and point. He prefaces his incredibly strenuous historical interpretation of pictures as being not only rational but sociable. Rational and social...we may think again of Lee, objectively attentive but also empathetic. It's a gentle reminder that pictures are always things seen by people, made by people for people. And nobody's perfect.

Baxandall rightly subtitled his work as the historical explanation of pictures. But if a work of art is worth our time then it should be able to 'mean' independently of the history books. The strong work carves its own peculiar little furrow of meaning behind it, a general strain of meaning which it maintains and cultivates through the years, while weathering whatever changes in the visual consciousness. Embracing and available to whatever changes in the visual consciousness. Successful works of art work. They are not only available to 'interpretation', but actively respond to human attention and interpretation, compounding it, directing it. And it tends to be those works which have some sense of their own provisionality, which have a strong and distinctive balance between what they show, what they hint at and what they withhold, between what they show and how they show, which are the best works. Works with a capacity for ambiguity and metaphor. Works not with the strongest, clearest, most definitively assignable 'meaning': but works with the best hope of transcending their historical circumstances and continuing to 'mean' independently, dynamically, indefinitely. That will continue to provide for present needs.

 
 Perhaps we need a strong and strenuous provisional criticism equal and attentive to the strong and strenuous provisionality of works of art. To the ways in which they are each specifically 'provisional'. The many arrangements attended to by a provisional criticism might ultimately be said to affirm the humanity of the relationship between work and viewer: like truth (as Benjamin put it) bodied forth in the dance of represented ideas. 

 

 

 

 

 








But let's not wander too far into obscurantism. As Orwell wrote of his own writing where he lacked a political purpose, writing on art where we fail to attend to the material specifics of specific works tends to fall into purple passages, sentences without meaning, decorative adjectives and humbug generally. And I've indulged in more humbug here than I'd normally sanction. I hope. But then, like Davenport I'm talking about criticism, not performing it. 

 

 Note #47. He says a commentary on the paintings would reach deep into history and biography. Commentary, maybe, but not criticism. During preparations for the catalogue of his 1968 Tate retrospective, Balthus firmly insisted against the inclusion of any biographical detail. The best way to begin, he said of the introduction, is to say: "Balthus is a painter of whom nothing is known. And now let us have a look at the paintings". 

 

 In the afterword to the David Zwirner edition of A Balthus Notebook, it's said that Davenport mentions 150 individuals, roughly 30 novels and as many artworks by name, along with around 20 Greek and Roman gods. Strange then that we should have this and only fleeting references to specific Balthus paintings. And yet we emerge dazzled, with a rich sense of what Balthus is all about. What a beautifully infuriating book. 

 

I still don’t think it’s criticism though. Neither I think did Davenport. And yet note 27 has the space in 7 sentences to form a totally workable manifesto for art criticism (but manifestos are awful). In seven sentences it's about criticism as it relates to the broad, intrinsically human search for meaning and truth. And how the pictures we paint sit at their own specific adjunct to that search. 

 

Which is all great. But Davenport is hardly concerned with apparently irrelevant things like surface, touch, texture. With paint and painting essentially. The precise things which mean Balthus is not some lost writer, some missing link in the French literary imagination. Balthus the painter – not Balthus the painter of girls and cats – is really still waiting to be written about. Certainly at book-length.


 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 


 

 

 

 

It's easy to treat the paintings as a series of catalogue illustrations, bypassing their physicality. The surface vibration of the textured shirts and blouses that clothe his figures. The intensely worked, crusty-bread and sandpaper fields, the coral-reef and carpet meadows. He's a much-underrated painter of furniture. How it feels, the familiarity of it. Which is essential in creating the full effect of the figures' erotic world. The light passing through the little bottle of oil (is it oil?) in la Fenêtre, cour de Rohan (1951) is magically painted. A little treatise on painterly light as matter, on the different substances' light resistance or reflection. Light as that which materializes or, in the case of the hazy knife next to the bottle, that which dematerializes, atomizes. His touch can be powdery then oily, a kind of moment to moment negotiation between the unconventional surface play of Chardin and the substantiality of de Staël, carrying a memory of washed out frescoes across dryly rubbed expanses. 

 

 

 

 

 







 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Even without figures, pictures like la Fenêtre, cour de Rohan play out many of Balthus' compositional motifs. His subtle play with perspective and space. His habit of pulling lines slightly off the perpendicular and then slicing them with sudden diagonals. The visual feint of apparently incomplete legs, or legs which don't reach the floor (in this case we might see the darkened rightmost edge of the alcove as a stunted table leg). There's a play of form and morphology within and across Balthus' works as much as a recurring set of subjects, a cast of forms as much as a cast of characters. That morphology adds up to its own kind of 'meaning'. It's in this way that vessels and sheets on a table become a woman getting out of bed become the artist himself, opening the window to his studio or about to draw the curtains. Words can describe how these pictures visually echo one another, seem to anticipate, haunt one another. Describing only what they show, without the how, does not.



 

 


 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Painter and His Model (1981) is a moving retelling (revision?) of Balthus' life's work. A once troubling power play that has become almost sweetly familial. If we ignore the title, perhaps only the stepladder and paint/oil-can definitively indicate that we're looking at an artist and model here, and not simply a grandfather and granddaughter, say, pottering around. At the same time there's no doubt that this is a studio setup. Partly because it plays along with many conventions of the subject/sub-genre. A girl reading, or pretending to read, or pretending not to know that she's being seen. A man, usually the artist, occupied with his rectangle. There are sparsely arranged tables and chairs with still life objects conspicuously arranged on them, various fabrics and drapery to soften the geometry. All pretty standard. 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 


 

 

 

 

One distant relative is Matisse's The Painting Lesson (1919): sometimes called the painting Session, or Séance in French, from the old French seoir, 'to sit'. To the English speaking viewer reading this, the painting may become – if it wasn't already, with its crystal ball mirror and divining-rod, magic wand paintbrushes – a kind of table-tapping communion with the 'spirit of painting'. As if sitting-for or setting-up this kind of picture is a kind of ritualized invocation of Painting. Another studio-picture relation, the granddaddy of them all, is Vermeer's The Art of Painting (1666-68). Perhaps there's a little tip of the hat to that picture's chequerboard floor in Balthus's little box of biscuits or whatever it is, or even in the black plates of the slim book in the Matisse. Again: books, rectangles, model, painter. Tables and chairs, objects and drapes. 


These paintings are incredibly generic in some ways, maybe. Allegorical, definitely. But also distinct and distinctive in character and meaning. 


They each embody a certain internalization of the tradition, and at three historical junctures. The Vermeer, just at the beginning of painting's sense of itself, of the games that can be played purely within its own terms; as a hermetic language and discourse unto itself, but with allusions to an outside world (exterior light, a map, history books). The Matisse, well-past the initial modernist breakthroughs and just at the beginning of a certain drive from the 1920s onwards to somehow bring the real world back inside; an impulse which would occupy Hélion, Derain, Giacometti across the rest of the twentieth century. And then Balthus, painting towards the end of his life, a modernist of sorts who had become post-modern by plain persistence.   

 

Each of these paintings uses painted rectangles to reflect on the primary painterly paradox of three dimensions represented in two. But each of them has distinctive things to say about perspective and portioning. Each of them negotiates, actually depicts the negotiation, between inside and outside, painting and world, embodied in the image of an artist and model in the studio. What's light and perhaps playful in the highly staged Vermeer becomes partly melancholic partly mechanistic in the Matisse becomes over-familiar but also movingly familiar in the Balthus. 

 

It's a somehow anachronistic and unviable work of art. But affecting in its stubborn conviction that new things are still to be found within this relationship, this arrangement. These indoor games. (It's not something that the critic should make an evaluative judgement on perhaps, but the painting also has the very distinctive quality that the drawings and handwriting of older people have. The weird feeling of a 'period eye' that has persisted, that is unknowable. Of hands guided by mysterious forces that are not our own and which are not entirely replicable. And we don't need the date to tell us this– the cut of his jacket just somehow says this wasn't painted in the 1940s or 50s, despite the datedness.)

 

 









 

 In the Balthus, there's a subtle visual connection between her turning the page and the old man dutifully drawing the curtain. The angle of his green-sleeved arm is like that of the lighter green book/folio; the little sliver of upturned page like the little sliver of window under his elbow. As with the puppet strings Davenport imagined he could see in the Rue du Commerce, we can just about imagine these two as simple clockwork figures. When she turns the page his arm will move and the curtain will close. Or perhaps they'll each move in the opposite direction? The way her hand is poised it's like she's flipping between pages, holding her place or about to go back and double check something: just as he could be pulling the curtain forward or back. We sense a synchronized simultaneity between the two actions and reach for a causal relationship, as if perhaps the turning of the page or the pulling of the curtain determines the other. In any case, Balthus the artist has become much more embroiled in the world of the painting, subject to its conditions. The balance of power has shifted. The polarities of active and passive have been switched. Or, at least, have become less polarized, have become flattened. 

 

The window actually appears to fold like the pages of a book. He could easily be putting a canvas up, his invisible left hand supporting the base. The back of his head is curious, like a kind of bandaged Invisible Man. But then he, seen from behind, looks much more real than she does, with her medieval head. She flips between the pages of her book, he looks from room to outside world. I'm reminded here of one of the basic tenets of temporal eternalism: that the past and future are as real in time as distant objects are in space. Would I want to make a meal of the picture's play between time and space, spectator and simultaneity/relativity, the mechanical and metaphysical universe, painting's history and present, though? Probably not. These are things seen and felt in the picture, not rationalized. Even if the seeing and feeling are rationally explicable.







 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

The whole picture speaks of revelation on the one hand– of a shift in perspective, a change of view. Window. Stepladder. Book. Turning pages, opening curtains. Changing light as it falls on objects in rooms. And yet all these things are instantly collapsable. The wrenched curtain. The closed book. The fold-away stepladder with its conspicuous hinge, an inversion of the model's arm. The blank window. The little box on the table. The turned back. It's hard not to see in Painter and His Model the old man's version of Getting Up. Where that picture appeared to wrench itself between two worlds – the living and the dead, masculine and feminine, the sacred and profane –  this one is a pop-up book, a world halfway between opening-up and closing-in on itself. Like the action of a picture summarily turned around or turned away. The young model's world is expanding just as the old painter's has begun to shrink. It's a fitting envoi to the world of painted meaning.  

 

This is the 'single meaning' I would assign to the picture. A meaning which extends and is extended by our knowledge of Balthus's body of work, as that body of work relates to the wider meta-textuality and meta-morphology of the western canon. It's his final word on the arrested, eternal latency of adolescence as it might relate to the arrested, eternal latency of pictorial meaning. 

 

Derain: Art is a ladder of perpetual revelation.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

  




There's an atypical Balthus landscape from 1935 of not much at all. Titled l'Allée it's a pathway to nowhere. The longer you look at it the less the forms and space make any sense. In a way it's as awkward as many of his figures. It would be easy to make comparisons with Uccello's dark wood. But that picture presents mystery within order. The Balthus re-affirms the essential meaningless jumble of the physical world. A meaningless jumble that we can't help but believe contains within it some significance, if only we could straighten it out. See the wood for the trees.(Davenport in Objects on a Table: we would need no criticism at all if art were not radically incoherent.)

 

As with the choice – which is no choice at all – between giving ourselves up to fate and at least acting as if we have free will, if we really can't believe that works of art have one meaning only then we have to at least agree to behave is as if they do. Otherwise nothing might get said or done. We have to act as though the end is in sight. That we'll catch a glimpse of the game as we peer through Uccello's dim wood. Even though we know the game's the thing.

 

 

 

 

 


 


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 No, no--there are depths, depths! The more I go over it, the more I see in it, and the more I see in it, the more I fear. I don't know what I DON'T see--what I DON'T fear! 

- Henry James, The Turn of the Screw

 

 

 What is beautiful seems so only in relation to a specific
Life, experienced or not, channeled into some form
Steeped in the nostalgia of a collective past.
The light sinks today with an enthusiasm
I have known elsewhere, and known why
It seemed meaningful, that others felt this way
Years ago. 

-John Ashbery Self Portrait in a Convex Mirror

 

 

I hate painting. Most of the time it’s irrelevant. It doesn’t mean enough, ever, quite.

-Howard Hodgkin


 

 
Hamm: We’re not beginning to...to...mean something?  

Clov: Mean something! You and I, mean something? [Brief laugh] Ah that’s a good one! 

Hamm: I wonder. [Pause] Imagine if a rational being came back to earth, wouldn’t he be liable to get ideas into his head if he observed us long enough. [...] To think perhaps it won’t have all been for nothing...

-Samuel Beckett, Endgame

 







For more information on Balthus please listen to Balthus Bemused by Colour on Harold Budd's The White Arcades album. 


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