Monday, 4 November 2019

Late Derain: a door impercepitbly ajar (part 3)

Ever since that day, or I might even say the moment of that day in 1936, when a chance sight of one of Derain’s canvases in a gallery - three pears on a table silhouetted against a vast black background – arrested my attention and impressed me in a completely new way (it is there that for the first time I really penetrated beyond the immediate appearance of one of Derain’s paintings), ever since that moment all Derain’s canvases without exception, the best of them as well as the less good, have impressed me and compelled me to look at them for a long time and search what lay behind them… (Alberto Giacometti, letter, 1957).  

Total object, complete with missing parts…Question of degree…All I wish to suggest is that the tendency and accomplishment of this painting are fundamentally those of previous painting, straining to enlarge the statement of a compromise... (Samuel Beckett, 3 Dialogues). 



Still Life with Pears (44.) is a series of little bells ringing in sequence, as if on a butler’s wall, tinkling, tolling out some small message from upstairs. It’s also a discarded pair of disguise spectacles, with pear nose and ears attached, spoon for a moustache á la Acrimboldo. Cut pear-slice and scooping spoon-head are two perfectly split halves, white highlight winking at brown pip, microphone and receiver in a rudimentary form of material telemetry, endlessly chasing one another like the spinning cups of an anemometer. Like many works in the genre, this still life is part hokey science experiment, part conjuring trick, part schoolroom prop. The spoon-handle underlines the whole thing, just as the signature is underlined- another name for a name being one’s ‘handle’- a handle being that with which something is grasped, or understood, mediated, transfered. It exists on a plane- and advertises a presence- possibly sacred or possibly mundane. All 6 senses are brought into play, though it’s an imperfect transmission. The picture is faulty. The ellipses of the glasses are way off, yet their highlights are close enough and in the right general area to convince the screwed up eye, or the snatched or distant glance. As much as it’s a perfectly compromised representation of reality it is also a perfectly compromised representation of 17th century still life. The glasses manage to be delicate, exact, and yet totally inept at the same time. We are not sure to what extent they are ‘real’ or ‘painting-real’. Painting is the only art capable of doing exactly this; prose or poetry are always verbal approximations, working via metaphor (imagine trying to write that the shapes of observed glasses are waywardly-off), sculpture would have to literally distort them in 3 dimensions, would be too obviously 'wrong', or would register them plainly as misshaped objects; painting has the capability of rendering things more or less ‘truly’ in their appearances, as well as the capacity to waiver such verisimilitude, at will and by degree. 


Giacometti is an artist of such unrelenting seriousness that when he speaks we tend to listen. His opinion of what counts counts. So when he writes of how Derain’s pears had such an affect on him critics tend to take note. In fact, he did his friend a great favour in leaving a few breadcrumbs scattered throughout letters and memoirs (sample: ‘Derain excites me more, has given me more and taught me more, than any painter since Cezanne; to me he is the most audacious of them all.’), even if they are rarely followed with much critical gumption. His final verdict on the artist, though, captures succinctly and with a lightness of touch everything of Derain’s elusive simplicity and complexity-

…perhaps he did not intend to do much more than to capture a little of the appearances of things, the marvelous, fascinating, inscrutable appearance of everything that surrounded him.


To capture a little of the appearance of things. The crucial phrase here is a little.

The process of deciding which bits of appearances to capture, and how, is as old as painting. Derain’s absorption in art of the past was in part a preoccupation with those bits of appearances which had been captured or preserved, or which had been considered worth preserving or capturing, at a given time, with a mind towards which bits of appearances he could select as a conscious person living in the present, from moment to moment, picture to picture. 


One of the most prized works in his extensive private collection was Still life with cheesestack, bread napkin and pretzels (c.1615) (45.) by Clara Peeters- a picture which plays with the relative solidities of its own appearances, the various foodstuffs undergoing a certain re-moulding and solidifying, with cheese ‘cases’ and knotted pretzel ‘shells’ to match the decorative bowls and vessels, the lidded tankard becoming a comical sentry guarding the edible hoard of an edible palace (it’s easy to miss the red tankard’s sculpted face and metal ‘helmet’), mirrored and perhaps mocked on his opposite side by the stealthy, barely-there glasses (things apparently 'made' only of light, with the tacit acknowledgement that all the phenomena depicted in the picture are but a set of interactions with coloured light, rendered in transparent 'glazes'). In everything from its lighting to its contrivances to its metaphysics it’s consistent with Derain’s approach to still life, his latent left Bank existentialism, not to say absurdism.
Still life of the 17th century, particularly Dutch still life, seems to have haunted his visual imagination. Selections of foodstuffs, vessels, tools, utensils lit against a dark background, half-offering half-equation, wherein objects emerge with the clarity of an impossibly clear thought, as if from some theoretical space, resting on tables of the mind; or like celestial bodies seen through a telescope, carrying with them a certain notion of ‘appearances’ which can contain the real and the supernatural, the deeply secular and the deeply numinous; a notion of ‘illumination’ in all its metaphysical dimensions.

Indeed the dabbed-on white highlight is another Derain fixation. Andre Breton would later recall he ‘spoke with emotion of this white spot which some 17th century Flemish and Dutch painters used to enhance a vase, a fruit… The object I am painting, the being before me, only comes to life when I add this spot of white’. This divine spark, this tap of the fairy godmother’s wand, comes in many shapes and forms across the still lifes- sometimes it sits disruptively on top, sometimes it’s actually absent altogether, while other pictures run wild with the highlight as a kind of outline, pictures that look more like drawings on blackboards (46.-48.).




If drawings tend to be things made of dark lines on light backgrounds then painting, working from the opposite polarity, is a process of ‘bringing to light’- part of its essential nature a coaxing of appearances through light. Similarly, if the black word on the white page is something of a cypher for the exteriorization of thought, then perhaps the dark liminal void against which objects appear in still life is a metaphor for the interior mind. From blackboard to theatre, it’s shorthand for a space cerebral, propositional, potential. Derain does interesting things like move the ‘frame’ across this seemingly infinite black void-room to suddenly find a window of blue sky (49., 50.), those hinted-at light sources from the 17th century, though we suspect these could be rolled-up like cartoon roller-blinds with a summary yank. The two versions of this picture have the light coming in in opposite directions, neither of which seem to involve the window. Again the mysterious light source is off-stage, the objects lit practically by our looking. Painting makes-up its own clear and distinct ideas, its own moment to moment versions of appearances, and Derain delights in the picture to picture, gesture to gesture authority he can wield, the sheer inconsistency illusionism can get away with. 



Inconstancy and Inconsistency are the Derain preoccupation. They arguably find their most extreme expression in the condensed object world of the still lifes, the purest distillation of his art.  

The pictures revel in their own protean state. Existing side by side are passages of amorphous nothingness, dumb literalness and flickers of extraordinary illusionism. The glass in Still life with a glass of wine (c.1928) (51.) is a thing of black and white outlines filled with real liquid and penetrated by real light; Plate of fruits with a knife (c.1944-48) (52.) is a catalogue of marks, bold gradients, buttery metal, alternately springy and dried leaves; Fruits and cutlery (c.1948-1950) is brittle, blown and desolate, totally flat and insubstantial but for the amazingly scooped-out bowl, the very picture of hollow yearning (53.); Still life with pears (1939) (54.) is an oddly porky, gammon-joint of a picture, grapes and pears more like peas and cutlets, suddenly introducing a note of savoury saltiness.    





The results of the fauve years are there in these diverse works. They breathe. Marks, whether highlights, or patches of tone, of light or shade or texture, are at once descriptive, cohesive, justified- and yet they also tend to sit just a little up and off from their objects of reference. The individuated marks on the paintings hover a tad, like elements in an exploded model. Derain is something like a master cabinet maker who wants you to see the join: a) to demonstrate the beauty in the made-ness and considered-ness of the thing, and b) to see the cabinet, but also to see the cabinet and the space within differently. To open up the metaphoric potential in its nooks. All panels, doors and drawers are left with a 3mm gap of breathing space, the whole thing a bit, but only a bit, like an orrery, a bit, but only a bit, like a fine old house, the boarded-up shutters prized apart. Nothing touches, quite, in Derain’s queer estate. Each thing, rather, considers that which it is next to; the apple considers the bowl, and the bowl considers the apple; the shadows of each do the same; as do the white spots cast from the absent window. All things hover in relationships of inalienably connected distinctiveness – a fundamentally painting-paradoxical worldview.
Derain loosens the screws, physically and intellectually. Explosive and expansive in tiny ways, and in each direction, Derain’s peculiar cabinets turn something seemingly hermetic and inaccessibly refined or rarefied into something at once delighted in its own construction, something more 'open ended', subtly progressive, elegantly daring, yet still stable, still functional. On a Derain ‘cabinet’ hangs Beckett's paradoxical door, 'imperceptibly ajar'.


Life is just a bowl of cherries,
Dont take it serious, its too mysterious,
You work, you save, you worry so,
But you cant take your dough when you go, go, go…

                             - Life Is Just a Bowl of Cherries, Ray Henderson & Lew Brown

There's a cool wind blowing in the sound of happy people
At a party given for the gay and debonair
There's an organ blowing in the breeze
For the dancers hid behind the trees

But I ain't never gonna see
What’s shakin’ on the hill...

                                            -What’s Shakin’ on the Hill, Nick Lowe 


Back on that country road that probably isn’t really a road, Derain stands contemplating the appearance of the world. Like Calvino’s Mr. Palomar, trying his best to describe and to understand then moving on to the next thing, who watches waves hit the shore and believes 'as soon as he notices that the images are being repeated, he will know he has seen everything he wanted to see and he will be able to stop’. The trouble is, the images do repeat, but they are never quite the same. It’s also pretty hard to say where one image ends and the next begins. We have reached the end, have just finished dealing with Derain’s still lifes. Yet within this body of still lifes are also his ‘landscape-still-lifes’, that odd hybrid genre, scenes of abandoned picnics or baskets of fruit laid out in the countryside (55.-57.) (which recall Courbet particulary (58.)); and if we take the country road we’ll end up at the village, and in the village will be rooms, and in the rooms will be people and objects and windows, and outside the windows will be a view of the sea, and…  





And again, even within the larger, more emphatically ‘staged’ pictures where Derain rallies his multiple subjects, there is a sense that they compound rather than explain away the mysteries of the landscapes, still lifes, portraits. The Painter and his Family (c.1939) (60.) piles subject on subject, which, as with Geneviève à la pomme (1937-38) (59.) again takes place in the 17th century darkroom, rather like Derek Jarman's Wittgenstein a theatrical, allegorical, rhetorical space. Or a picture like Nude on a Sofa (62.) can contain within it callbacks to all sorts of pictures; the hair and cosmetics of the ‘heads’; the creases on the drape to the right a kind of ghost image of The Back  (64.); the pink and white fabrics recalling his frequent dual-headed flower motif (61.-63.), the lower white one becoming a kind of lapdog. Each element has a complex independent existence. Frequently his models look bored , uncomfortable or distracted (see Geneviève rolling her eyes at the apple, at her own 'painting' pose, or the broken wrist of the nude on the sofa)- 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. There is a sense that so much as he can play with the plasticity of paint, the world refuses to be captured, to let itself be known; that everything has a mysterious life of its own, even his own artform.







Derain's vast oeuvre ends up, finally, as an eloquent exploration of the almost creepy fecundity, aliveness and multiplicity of the world. One of his most charged subjects is the abandoned picnic. He picks over it like a child (or perhaps a creepy crawly, an ant?) who’s come across some artefact of human affairs beyond its understanding and has hit a wall. Detachment, mystery, melancholy, potency, pleasure, impenetrability. Whether he is painting a landscape, a coast, a face, a pear, it’s the same feeling.