Friday 29 May 2020

Distantly Related: 'Fieldwork' at 42 Carlton Place (review)

 'The main thing wrong with painting is that it is a rectangular plane placed flat against the determines and limits the arrangement of whatever is inside it'. 

That was how Donald Judd described the limitations of painting in 1965. 

The works in 'Fieldwork' all operate within these limits, and within many others; and if they are defined by them, then they are incisively, expansively, contrarily so. Individually and specifically so. Collectively so.

Within their many rectangles fall many (almost inevitable) shapes, and shapes of thought. Window-shaped, frame-shaped, shop-front, sail-boat, basket-shaped; building-shaped, room-shaped. Yet defiantly non-rectilinear forms and thoughts fall there too; spheres, handwriting, people, jagged triangles, amorphous marks and gestures, water, wind, skin, hair. But even these are understood within the rectangle. Partly for practical reasons. But partly because, by this point in time, painting has come to understand its countless subjects as things simultaneously defined-by and evading a never-ending series of ever-expanding, ever-contracting 'frames'. 

This is not my review, which can be read on The Drouth.


Tuesday 12 May 2020

Artificial Intelligence: Christoffer Wilhelm Eckersberg

La Forge:        Data, what are you doing?
Data:               I am painting.
La Forge:        I can see that. How long have you been at this?
Data:              I have created twenty three individual illustrations in the past six hours, twenty seven minutes. I believe you    
                       could say I have been inspired. 
                                        - Star Trek: The Next Generation, 'Birthright'  part 1, Brannon Braga

Ben must return to the ship at twelve noon, but has arranged to say goodbye to Judy. He has also promised to stop by his friend Bill’s. It takes Ben thirty minutes to walk from Bill’s to the harbor, and ten minutes to get to Bill’s from Judy’s. If Ben arrives at Judy’s at ten past eleven, how long do they have to say goodbye? 


Christoffer Wilhelm Eckersberg’s A Sailor Taking Leave of His Girl (1840) [1.] is a strange picture lit by the blank sun of a maths problem. The feel is hermetic, propositional, like the space of a sum or a joke suddenly visualized, like the kind of road a chicken might cross, or the provisional bar three men might walk into. Or a picture from a jigsaw or a spot the difference puzzle; it feels like something is missing, or like there could be a second version where the figures’ bandanas have swapped colour, as if her basket has lost its apples, or the sky’s lost a passing cloud to this missing twin. For a detailed picture it's strangely empty of detail. Maybe it’s a ditty or a limerick. Or a clue in a detective story. Or a picture from an ad campaign that’s lost all its copy. A pub sign? Something with limited capacity for expression or elaboration in any case. Large expanses of emptiness are common enough in ‘mysterious’ paintings, but there’s an impossibly frontal, centred framing of the blankness here, as if leaving space for…something?

In a way, it’s absolutely appropriate that this picture was chosen for the cover-image on the recent Eckersberg monograph (a typographer’s dream, the painting could have been composed with InDesign), while the book itself has barely a hundred words to say on it. In dust-jacket form, it somehow suddenly makes sense.

But the picture does contain elements of ambiguity. Painted shadows act as autonomous characters, the figures’ shadow becoming a composite, either an image of their reconciliation, their fleeting union/reunion, or something more threatening; the lamp seems to scuffle with its own shadow, spinning around and either dancing with it or almost throttling it, an elastic area of looping shapes in the otherwise sedate composition. The sailor-man smiles, but this could equally be a scene of struggle, spurned advances, the woman hemmed-in visually by the post on the wall at the edge of the frame. She’s ran out of space and out of time, whatever the situation, reached the end of her enclosure. For a picture with a lot of blank, generalized space, each element is cropped with little room to breathe. The sky is a postage stamp, the strong horizontal of the wall curtailed by the portrait format, the lamp pushed-up against the post. The trees - which are given a relatively generous portion - are equally fenced-off. Even the viewer crowds her: we’re already crossing the street, the cropped pavement suggesting little distance. The eye becomes just as trapped, caught in the web of pictorial elements, or circling the loop of hands and shadows at the centre- playing out her dilemma optically. The 'characters' waltz mechanically, like figures that emerge on the hour from clocks in town squares.

Eckersberg presents a world of limited options. The figures are like Westworld automatons, background characters programmed to repeat their parting routine. Or: they are like people as seen by such automatons. People repeating their various circuits, their coded behaviours. Pictorial behaviours, even. 



If they look like characters from an illustration/demonstration, that’s because they partly are. Eckersberg studied under Jacques-Louis David for a time, but it was works like Gerard de Lairesse’s The Great Book of Painting (1707) [ 4.] and Erdmann Hummel’s Free Perspective Primarily for Painters and Architects (1824) that seem to have really caught his imagination. They inspired him to publish his own Forsøg til en Veiledning i Anvendelse af Perspektivlæren for unge Malere (An Attempt at a Guide to the Use of Perspective for Young Painters) (1833) and “Linearperspektiven, anvendt paa Malerkunsten (The Linear Perspective Used in the Art of Painting) (1841): containing a series of instructional etchings perhaps more beautiful and haunting than the majority of his paintings. Rather than simply set exercises with rudimentary buildings, trees and figures, they present fully realized environments, a rolling backdrop of walls, ladders, barrels and lampposts, all of them lit like sundials or geometry models. The Sailor and his Girl seem to have started out as one of these perspective studies [5.], and many of them take place in the same virtual world, a endless stretch of wall and cobbles punctuated by lamp posts.  



The etchings make the paintings’ lines of construction explicit, but they also make clearer Eckersberg's pictorial sensibilities, reveal his true artistic sensibility, such as it is. The Garden Wall [2., 7., 8.] might as well be a kind of extended signature, the man up the ladder carefully adding a letter 'E' to the post, leaning on a mahl stick, leaving a neat monogram on a tidy universe. The ladder itself is an image of construction, or construction-as-revelation, illumination (only he can see over the garden wall), propped and propping. He's signing it because he built the wall, constructed the image, made the world. Made the world sensible. Even the lamp is a kind of 'civilizing' of light, a rationalization. There's perhaps a chain of association between this, the sunlight, the picture-as-light-box; a feeling that what we're looking at is sort of deep picture code, deep painting code; like he's ran picture-making through a prism. In another image the figure is ascending the ladder to fill the lamp with oil, to maintain the world's visibility. These tools of perspective, of picturing, Eckersberg suggests, are not just handy tools, but are philosophical anchors: weights and measures to be used in grasping the holographic procession of the visible world. A world, he concedes in this rare candid moment, which is unavoidably imprinted with his own self.

Like Adolphe Monticelli's A painter at work on a house wall (1875) [ 9.], the painter literally creates the world, the world is him, the picture is signature.




Hmmel’s book on perspective had arrived at the Danish Academy library in December of 1830, around the same time Eckersberg moved away from history painting to scenes of everyday life, a confluence of high rationality and the hum-drum of street bustle, which can descend into calamity at a moment's notice. Langebro, Copenhagen, in the Moonlight with Running Figures (1836) [10.] was painted around this time, while the almost folk-art View Though a Doorway of Running Figures (1845) [11.] completes something of a circle with this and the almost objective works from early in his career (pictures like A Courtyard in Rome (1814) [12.]).




There’s a weird back and fourth across Eckersberg’s oeuvre. Pictures from the Grand Tour seen from oddly objective viewpoints (recalling the contemporary sketches of Thomas Jones, who was in Rome around the same time, though it's unlikely Eckersberg would've been exposed to Jones's private studies), carried out simultaneously with Neo-classical history scenes, their relatively objective realism returning intermittently alongside stilted religious and mythological subjects, scenes of harbor-side wasteground alongside conventional marine battles. His portraits and nudes fluctuate between blankness and adoration, analytic realism and idealization; the nudes depicted frankly as models one minute, then given copy-paste Arcadian landscape or plush interior backgrounds the next. There’s also a large body of simulation-like landscapes, marked by a recurring sequences of fences, posts and arches that reign the world in, populated with stock figures that finally emigrate to the strange storybook world of the genre scenes.   



For all their frequent coldness and calculation there’s a moving sense of an intelligence trying to assess the best and most truthful nature of picture-making, the best of all possible artificial worlds. The paintings are either elaborate constructions, almost absurdly orchestrated, or practically randomized attempts at accuracy, veracity, honesty [13.]. There’s a mix of intelligence and naiveté, a refusal to give-in to a certain manner or loose expression; he wants to get it right. But he treads softly even in asserting rightness. The result is a kind of impersonal anonymity (and humility, for all the that the pictures represent a problematically self-satisfied, entitled, Euro-centric universe).


View from the Lime-kilns in Copenhagen (1825) [14.] is a typical Eckersbergian paradox. On the one hand a functional depiction of a functional space, it also gets caught up in the play of ships, posts, and sandy scrub, which becomes a kind of formalized, geometric analogue of the motion of the waves: a clockwork ocean that becomes like the wheel of a music box or a pianola roll (there are times where Eckersberg’s pictures look like they were programed by such a device, ‘Painter-Pictures’), a sequence of horizontals and verticals complete with diagonal winder; like a fairground amusement, it feels as if the post could be cranked to make the waves and sailboats move to and fro. For all their apparent certainties in perspective and societal-pictorial organization, the paintings betray a subtle anxiety about the knowability and unknowability of the world, sitting on the fence between the mechanical and the phantasmagorial universe. 

Eckersberg’s pictures often draw comparisons with Kant. But without getting into all that in any kind of reductive way, paintings like View from the Lime-kilns muse on the limits of the knowable world on their own terms- looking out at the ocean as the ships disappear on the horizon. 




Part of what's interesting about Eckersberg is that he's so hard to classify. The painter who, through his influence at the Academy, brought plein air painting to Denmark, who introduced daylight life-classes, who brought internationalist practices to isolationist, Golden Age Danish painting while remaining still somewhat closeted within it; who became a bore to his students, preaching the gospel of perspective, sending them off to look at nature while handing them a steel ruler on the way out. His paintings can seem utterly dated, even for when they were made, but can equally appear to stand outside of time. Possibly because dated. A radical within his context, in a way it's his conservatism that makes him interesting, and perhaps aligns him with some surprising counterparts. 

A little dose of conservatism in the right measure can be its own kind of radicalism, after all. In that, Eckersberg's a little like the late Stephen Mckenna: an artist similarly hard to pin down. McKenna is somehow 'academic' whilst being utterly non-acedemic, studied without being stuffy, intellectual without being reductively 'theoretical', his pictures like the work of a Sunday painter who read classics at Oxford (the truth is they were made by a Sunday classicist who studied painting). They wear their deep knowledge of the European tradition on one sleeve, and, if not quite their heart, at least a kind of obstinate determination to remain complex and smart and delighted on the other. They are about being in rooms and parks and cities, but they are also about the ruins and follies of civilization, the melancholy of the cultural memory-bank, part children's book illustration, part postmodern pastiche. Ridiculously pretentious, but equally totally disabused and present, giddy on the world. A determined naivete meets and matches an equally determined sophistication. Emphatically cultured and cosmopolitan (Eckersberg was pretty parochial by comparison), they are equally happy to defy good sense and good taste (before his death, McKenna designed his own retrospective as a perverse salon hang, a last gesture of fogyish cool). Cultivation and civilization are held up as ideas, though always with a question mark in the corner. Measuring ideals against instances, the pictures explore what it means, emotionally, psychologically, to be the heirs of a classical tradition living in an imperfect word with a strong sense of what it should or could be [18.-24.]








Like the majority of Eckerberg's pictures they lean toward the impersonal, the anonymous, the simulated. They are equally caught up in the play between the idea of the thing and its appearance. Where they might be said to diverge is the extent to which McKenna is invested in ambiguity; but also, really, in love. Or at least, where they place and how they express that love, what we might call their humanity. Eckersberg was certainly 'in love' with the world, laying on his back for hours up on the academy roof, gazing up at the sky so that he could better understand the movement of clouds. But it's a scientist's love of the world, perhaps, where metaphor and poetry don't quite have a place. Which is not to say that metaphor and poetry aren't present: they're often just clunky if they are, or speak loudly by their absence, or by their clunkiness. Or they're there as a concession to what pictures are generally like- if pictures are things that generally contain elements of ambiguity. Or they're weird, rogue elements, like the shadow and the lamp in A Sailor, or the way the gate in Mariahvile in the garden at Sanderumgaard (1806) [16.] looks like a portal to a parallel, sunny world, to Oz's yellow brick road; meaningless in themselves but crucial to how we react to the pictures, that contribute to their compelling strangeness. 

Certain rules, generic or pictorial conventions or simple mathematical organizational principles, seem to be making decisions for him. As if his hands are tied. (When his pictures become compelling it's often, as in A Sailor, because this pictorial inevitability resounds off the thematic inevitability). It's hard to tell how much ambiguity is encouraged, how much of it he tolerated, or how much he simply didn't intend. It's also hard to tell what he put into the pictures because he thought it should be there: in the landscapes particularly, with their pergolas and paths and lawns, and their rowing-boats and their ducks and swans, it's as if an A.I. thought to itself what do people like, what would they like to see in this picture?. What would a person find pleasing? With Eckersberg it's like they're pictures of someone else's Arcadia, not his.



Ironically the landscapes' sense of supreme understanding, of nature tamed and a world in harmony, cannot help but be seem disconcertingly perfect. They are often ridiculously idyllic, like pictures from decorative tea trays or table-ware. Like McKenna, he often returns to the image of the park or the formal garden- a hybrid of the natural and the artificial, an imported Arcadia- of the picture-as-park. A playpark where things can be uprooted, transplanted, choreographed.   



Nearly all Eckersberg's pictures of residential or public landscaping have an ornamental pot or sun dial dropped in to catch the light, rendered impossibly clearly and often partnered with a human counterpart. As with the lamp-post and the Sailor, they're thrown into visual relationships, the inanimate objects somehow endowed with a sense of intelligence, or at least consciousness, greater than that of the humans. They seem to watch over the figures. In Summer Light in Sanderumgaard (1806) [28.] the crouching woman becomes a kind of sundial herself [29.], while the stroller in Source Hut in Sanderumgaard Garden is eyed by the building as he passes by, as oblivious as the drifting cloud above [31.]. (Eckersberg might be said to break away from conventional pathetic fallacy, wherein it's typically nature that's endowed with human feeling, instead finding an 'aliveness' in things like objects, buildings and ships which outweighs that of the figures). Lamp-posts particularly are placed as onlookers- in View from the Three Crowns Fort (1836) [17.] the lamp takes the place of an observer on the lookout point altogether. They are in some ways substitutes for Eckersberg himself, these silent sentinels, almost like he subconsciously aimed to be a kind of impassive lamp or sun dial, receiving and recording and perhaps even projecting, but passing no judgement. He seems to have at least felt some kind of affinity with them.




The early painting View of Møns Klint and the Sommerspiret (1809) [32.] plays out this drama of observation and passivity, the woman turning away from the precipice, the young man imploring her to look, the old man sitting watching, an analogue of the picture-viewer. But the older Eckersberg would probably dispense with the elderly figure on the right. The bench would be enough. Remove him and the feel is consistent with late Eckersberg (there's an instructive watercolour that already suggests as much [33.], dispensing with the figures altogether, the backcloth doing the actors' job for them). The Sailor and His Girl are a late career re-capitulation of this image. They're both images of fenced off nature, containment, and an imploring gesture towards the unknown; the man trying to make her see, to impose his vision; to take possession of the image/narrative, to master his environment/relationships. In Eckersberg, the attitude of the picture is the attitude towards picturing, is the attitude towards humanity, is the attitude towards the world. And it's not without its problems. Perhaps revisiting this harmless scene about man's mastery over the sublime he saw within it the romantic dynamic of possession and control. It's little wonder that in both pictures she doesn't want to look.

Many of these early pictures seem like attempts to establish a coherent position on picturing as allied to his notions of perspective and construction, of 'mechanical perspectives', mediated perspectives. Figures that later become sundials and lampposts look through telescopes [35.], or compare the map to the terrain [34.]- implicitly questioning the relation of picture to world.






The figures themselves are often more decoration than anything, of the same order as the mechanical ducks and swans set to do laps of his ponds. It's a stone's throw from artificial environments to artificial beings in any case, and the 'people' sent in to enjoy the environment can equally look like they were sent in to maintain it, like they're tending the illusion. It goes back to the clockwork nature of the Sailor and his Girl, lights on but pretty hard to tell if anyone's home. Staffage figures seen up-close.


Eckersberg's figures are generic, even among themselves. And that genericism is only compounded in the later genre scenes, where generic crowds of generic people walk or run down generic streets to or from some unidentified, generic calamity [39.]. It's often said that these pictures are about the mystery of what's happening off-screen, why the figures are running. But I don't think that's quite it, so much as they're about the mystery of why we, the looker-picturer, aren't.

They're somewhat like misplaced allegories, or emblems that have lost their text; the people of indeterminate age and class, in a functional, multicoloured uniform; the thematic content somewhat about fate, the 'incident', or disruption versus the onward march of daily life; a change in the weather, or single-mindedness, or cross-purposes. But only inasmuch as pictures can generally be about these things. They're close to similar pictures of McKenna's [37., 40., 41.], people in procession, or ascension, or at toil, or at loggerheads; inasmuch as people are generally to be found participating, getting along or not getting along in such ways. They remain medium-cool. Specifics of personality or situation are effaced, patterns of behavior reduced to cooperation or collision. Motives remain either base or unfathomably complex. Unsure which. 





It's a reduction of human affairs to plot rather than story: and so their ghost-subject is story. They might partly be said to be about 'narrative', its comforts and lies another handy construction to go along with lampposts and linear perspective. In a roundabout way they have something to express about 'humanity', because they pretty much dispense with it, or at the very least treat it as something of a remote concept, some unknown quantity. And knowingly or not, they critique the notion of 'genre' generally, and 'genre painting' specifically: 'genre''s compartmentalizing of the world an anathema to Eckersberg's objectivity, but at the same time reflective of his affinity for 'constructs' and systems. Their folksy, storybook qualities prod at the notion of storytelling, narration, commentary and comment. For all that they're close to allegory they are reluctant to coerce the world into allegorical shapes. It's something of a cliche now, particularly since the invention of photography, that the picturer cannot both picture and participate, or that picturing is its own compromised participation. But Eckersberg seems to have come to terms with his decision to sit-out pictorial 'participation' in these later works, to withhold judgement and to remain on the sidelines while the world walks past his door. To that end, Figures Running is one of his most revealing images, the world a play of light and colour across a screen. And also a thing he made up.

Eckersberg's pictorial ambivalences perhaps share less with McKenna (a skeptical believer when it comes to grand narratives) and more with the eccentric works of Louis Michel Eilshemius, another sophisticated naif. His War (1917) [42.] is a great picture on murder because it reduces the subject to blunt facts: man shoots man, he dies. The birds fly off, but not out of any moral indignation, not due to any rupture in nature: the gun made a noise. It's neither a picture of victory nor of tragedy. It's overtly comical in a way that Eckersberg never is, but, details of handling and style aside, it's not unthinkable that he might have produced a very similar treatment of the subject. It's common criticism that his religious, historical and mythological pictures are crushingly, comically inert, but in many ways that's the point of his art. Melodrama or flair would only distort the facts. And, crucially, would seem overly keen to push a certain 'meaning'. Things and actions in the Eckersbergian universe have a compromised capacity to mean, or to be made to mean. And again, in the their roundabout way, they end up being about our relationship with meaning. Perhaps even the hermeneutic or ethical void left by rationalist secularism. Intentionally or not, they posit the idea of meaning and meaninglessness.




It's not all doom and gloom. For all they submit their pictorial/personal agency to cold arithmetic there's a hint of deadpan comedy to them. Particularly the ones with the frontal, full-figure framing: very quickly established by silent cinema as the best format for physical comedy, as it allows not only the maximum amount of figure and a good amount of its environment, but because it also presents the human comedy as framed by an orderly universe, individual calamity framed by societal structure. It places disaster in context. The disruptive figure either wanders into the frame, upsetting the apple cart, oblivious to the chaos left in their wake, or the frame follows them towards their impending miss-hap. 

As much as they are emblems of order and understanding, Eckersberg's figures up ladders are also primed and ready for slapstick (though the Sailor also looks like he might break into song). There's a Keystone Cops quality to his running figures, all stampeding in the same direction [46.] (having sacrificed their individual agency to the collective will). Eilshemius's War is very close in sensibility to Chaplin's The Gold Rush (1926) [44.] or Buster Keaton's The General (1927) [43.]. You can practically hear the piano.



Crucially though, Eilshemius is much more various in handling, tone, emotional range and pitch, even. War is one thing, but then there's a picture like American Tragedy: Revenge [47.]a little arms-flailing melodramatic yes, but there's nothing quite so arch in the mood or mark-making. There's something of an attempt at real pathos, or at least the notion of pathos. It's hard to judge.  

Eilshemius is a little more like, say, Derain, in that he's alive to the effects of micro-adjustments in handling and pitch, composition, the possibilities within subject and variation, mining the picture data-bank. For Eckersberg, it's as if there's only one real way of representing a scene, which is the best and most truthful of all possible ways, with any traces of 'touch' on the surface erased for the sake of clarity. But then again, this is to be insensitive towards the re-emergence of certain motifs throughout his career, correspondences in subject and form that zip from period to period. As if he's methodically trying to distill some essential version of a 'picture', a 'painting', or the most appropriate compromise between realism and picture-ness, between painting and world.




With their painted-on frames and decorative borders, Eilshemius's pictures are much more explicitly about construction and artifice, vantage and viewpoint. More explicit, but not inconsistent with Eckersberg's preoccupations. Eilshemius's figures are also (like Eckersberg's) more often than not cyphers rather than 'people'; his attitude to them similarly ambivalent. He famously said a true landscape is incomplete without a naked lady, but painted just as many with as without. And when they're there, they're hardly more than the idea of a naked woman, the idea of naked women in pictures.






 Eilshemius's Spaniard Dreams [55.] is startlingly close to one of Eckersberg's instruction manual drawings, Southern Courtyard with Farmer, Vineyard and Colonnade (1838/40) [56.]: the rakish stance of the figures, both leaning in the sunlight, decorative creepers hanging over each wall. Obviously the style of dress would've been more immediate to Eckersberg's everyday world, more dressing-up box to Eilshemius. But there's still a 'stock-ness' to him, he's still something of an archetypal 'worker' figure, in all senses of the word, a functional, rank and file painterly 'type'. A painting drone. He's really there to interact with the barrel, in the same way that Eishemius's more buccaneering character is there to interact with frame, signature and floral decoration. He's leaning there partly to investigate dash and flourish against the functional wall and simplistic frame. It goes practically without saying that the picture is also a none too distant cousin of the Sailor and his Girl, the 'Sailor' with his jaunty hat and ribbon another programmatically 'colourful' character, ripped from the same staffage album.



Running Spaniard Dreams through Google's reverse image-search, the closest image results are early 20th century greetings cards [57.], the closest search term 'picture frame'. Which is pretty good for an algorithm, and pretty representative of artificial intelligences' succinct approach to criticism. Encountering Eilshemius's curious mix of genericism, literal-mindedness and dogged specificity it seems to recognize something of itself. 

Run Eckersberg's drawing through, and the suggested search term is 'visual arts': but the images are overwhelmingly architectural studies [58.]. The system seems to know it can discount the decorative figure, or lump him in with the rest of the structures, seems to want to express that it's a work of art closer to technical information. This is a facile exercise, sure, but it's hard not to see even the workings of this relatively simple algorithm as something like a gesture of mechanical interpretation. A bare bones critique, minimal text and a series of illustrations. Between the two an interpretation. More importantly, and more convincingly, it's hard not to see in it parallels with how Eilshemius and Eckersberg work through the sundry pictorial options available to them; which is not altogether 'personal' or 'expressive' in the conventional sense. Intuitive perhaps. But also deeply aware of convention, category, of an existing painterly software. The wildly off-the-charts Eilshemius, self proclaimed 'Transcendant Eagle of Art, Mightiest All Round Man, Supreme Womanologist and Marksman, Wonder of the Worlds, Etcetera', went as far as to publish a pamphlet, Some New Discoveries! In SCIENCE and ART (1932), in which he recommends several picture-making strategies which circumvent the need for authorial intention, invention or expression (along with handy tips for full movement of the bowels, among other things) [59., 60.]. But it's important to note this as probably something of a self-parody (for all the gaucheness, Eilshemius owed his facility to conventional training), and that neither of these artists take a totally arbitrary approach to image and composition, as in the work of Gerhard Richter for example. They certainly never negate composition, in its broadest sense. For all their impersonal qualities they're devout believers in pictorial construction. They're always reaching for something.





Eckersberg, really, is a bit like a precocious AI obsessively making paintings. All three artists- Eckersberg, McKenna, Eilshemius- are, in their way (perhaps we might say Eckersberg aspires to be a kind of unbiased, pictorial-intelligence). Competent and clumsy, by turns, synthetic, strangely impersonal or hard to fathom, hard to quite get a firm hold on (all of them somehow finding something of a 'common denominator' in the 'naive' art of Camille Bombois [61.]). Seeing the poetry in the proposition, the melancholy in mathematics. Slightly stuck, after a while, on the degree to which the world is like pictures or pictures are like the world; perhaps concluding, on further reflection and to varying degree, that it might be wise to treat pictures as pictures and world as world, though the two may occasionally pass the time of day, tip the hat. 


Of course what real digital 'painting generators' do is regurgitate amorphous bits and pieces of existing images, generalized indications of form and light as learned from the picture data fed through. No program has really managed to make a resolved original composition of its own. But there's a way in which Eckersberg's pictures look like what might happen if an AI fully learned the mechanics of perspective, composition, colour, lighting, if it read up on pictorial symbolism and meaning, genre, picture code, and managed, despite itself, to produce occasional images hard to shake. Hard to shake and indelible because they self-reflexively self-echo these notions. 

We might assume that if an AI sat down to make a drawing or set itself up with easel and palette that it would be something of a slave to reality. Or it would be something of a slave to assimilated visual history. Or it would make some form of concession and compromise between the two. Or it would be hamstrung by the sheer range of contradictory approaches available to it. We might wonder where it would begin to - by hand - reproduce reality two-dimensionally. What reality? How much and which parts of it? From what perspective and to what end? The AI is, by definition, a thinking thing, not an objective lens. And so there would be a subjectivity revealed in even its most purposeful attempt at impersonal accuracy. (Conscious and self-conscious thought allows us to see perceptively, if not clearly.) On the other hand, the AI is supposed to be representative of thought freed of history and prejudice, uncoloured and unclouded, and so reluctant to suddenly use the history of visual representation as a crutch.    

In this predicament perhaps the AI decides to say what the hell and begins the picture anyway, groping and stumbling forward. And maybe it even decides to make the picture in some way about its predicament. And maybe it decides to try and see if it can't find a subject or a way of framing that subject so that the predicament becomes a way of understanding and engaging with the world generally. It might decide to include the window-frame as well as the view. The fence and the field. It might consider mediation generally, or remoteness, or isolation, or adoration, or interiority vs exteriority, or something simple like scale, or light, or any other number of things while it's at it. 

Fighting fire with fire, it tackles consciousness with consciousness. Painting consciousness. We imagine the AI to be so doggedly tied to reality or to convention that the pictorial results of its endeavour would be inert, dull, lifeless. But would the self-reflexivity of form and content, observation and invention in painting be a stranger to the Artificial Intelligence? Or would it not delight in a feedback loop so like the structure of its own mind? 


Self-reflexivity and metaphor are an odd prospect in Eckersberg. On the one hand he rejects meaning to some degree, rejects metaphor, but it's still there. And when it is, it's in the form of visual metaphors for or distant metonymns of perception and construction, art and artifice, which we see time and again. His intelligence is emphatically a pictorial intelligence, he sees pictures as intelligences.

He returns frequently to the image of a courtyard, (sometimes agricultural, sometimes more like a set of stables, sometimes adjacent to a botanical garden or a vineyard) when dreaming up his perspective studies, a kind of architectonic crucible set up for the interaction of various pictorial elements. It presents an eloquent expression of his approach to picturing, with its confluence of construction, work, nature; within the courtyard, which is a kind of frame, are people tending, carrying, mending, sharing the burden of their (picture) environment. In the perimeter walls open gates and apertures, through which we see the same figure carrying out the same task from a alternate perspectives; effectively the same man hammering a nail in the wall from the left and the right, from near and far. Looking for all the world like he's putting a picture up [62.].

The courtyard, the frame, the picturing-brain, becomes a propositional space, with a series of trapdoors and shutters opened and shut at will, reshaped and shifting in structure at will, but still bound by certain laws and rules. It's continued existence as a stable space, a stable visual economy, depends on certain codes and contracts, certain agreements of construction and cooperation; between picturer and world, between picture and viewer. The back and fourth keeps them running.



They also get caught in recursive loops. Figures nearly meet their doubles [64.], steps leading to nothingness could easily lead back to the same location [ 63.], the eye follows shadows away from and back toward the objects casting them [65.]; in the case of the man about to climb up his ladder, he is trapped in place while the eye completes the circle of lamp, ladder, ground, figure [66.]; the ladder and its shadow like two escalators moving in opposite directions. They are pictures of visual intelligence playing snakes and ladders with itself. The man eternally caught about to go up the ladder to refill the lamp a feedback loop, keeping the illusion running in the dark. It's maybe not about this in any kind of blatant way, but it's in the feel of the thing. And it's certainly not any kind of on the nose, Escher-esque optical illusion, but really a kind of 'instruction': not just on the technical construction of pictures, but a pedagogical expression of their inherent mystery. The like-but-un-likeness of world and picture.






The courtyard was a frequent subject for Pieter de Hooch and his followers, going right back to the origins of Dutch 'genre' painting; a place where paintings started to articulate themselves beyond prescriptive theological or moralistic themes, found their own meanings in windows and doors, paving and sky, in work and play. Where painting stumbled toward finding meaning within its own form.  

The streets of Eckersbarg's later genre scenes are an adapted version of his courtyard, with their network of openings and enclosures, comings and goings. It's a shame these haunting 'courtyard' drawings were never promoted to oil in the same manner as the Sailor and His Girl, though ghosts of them can be glimpsed in paintings throughout his career. Even in early works, which make real locations seem like cryptic puzzle-pictures [70., 71.], or focus on details that seem like hidden portents but are on a hiding to nothing [72., 73.].





Pictures like these point at a kind of painterly-picurely mysteriousness. As if some clue or key tucked away in the detail could unlock some revelation, transforming the scene. (Paintings in fiction are fixated on the idea of the artist hiding secrets in their work. Because artists generally make paintings to help solve murders, or take revenge, or critique the Masons, or locate the Holy Grail, I guess). They can also lean so far into convention that they end up being singular and striking again (we're told by the most basic of art instruction-manuals that trees can be used to frame a landscape, but Eckersberg's are so blatant as to be almost parodic). In many ways Eckersberg's pictures are a lot like what happens when film and TV art-directors have to come up with 'fictional' paintings (see the bonus feature at the end of this text). This is partly due to his anachronistic qualities. He doesn't quite look right for any particular period, really, in the way that folk art or thrift store painting can also look totally dated and wildly contemporary, or in the jarring way film-prop paintings refuse to come across with the right sense of ingrained history and time. Some of Eckersberg's pictures might as well be background set-decor. Some key plot-points.

And if painting is a great cinematic shorthand for mystery or ambiguity, it's also a great shorthand for the problems of humanity-designation in fiction's dealings with AI. With its confluence of memory, perception and invention, expression, it's not surprising that it's through painting that Star Trek's Mr. Data wants to learn humanity, that it's art which the machine finds so fascinating. Painting forces the AI to engage with truth and lies, is a practical exercise in lying convincingly, authoritatively, communicatively.


I'm not sure how much of the complexity I find in Eckerberg is actually there, or even conscious, or how much of it is just the accident of an artificial picture-mind, artificial-mindedness. But it's not without precedent. In a totally different way, and on a totally different level, there's a similar approach to communication, consciousness and complexity in late Poussin.  

Specifically his late masterpiece Blind Orion Searching for the Rising Sun (1658) [74.]. I won't go into the full complexity of the picture, the relationships between the figures, how it illustrates, embodies and elaborates on the original mythological scenario it's derived from- that could fill a book. I'll just point at the triangle Poussin establishes between the blind giant, his head in the clouds, the pointing figure on his back, leading the way, and the tiny lighthouse in the distance (which, visually, he almost 'touches'). It's a complex, interweaving system of metaphors and connections. I can only begin to talk about the way the giant Orion is himself like an inverted lighthouse, a body 'piloted' by the seeing 'intelligence' up top, a kind of Cartesian mind-body split; the way it speaks of lighthouses as things which communicate, send out signals, warnings and greetings; the way it talks of perspective and vantage, distance and apprehension; about our blindly walking into fate. Fittingly, the analogy drawn between sight and guidance, mechanized intelligence and communication, seeing and illumination, in the lighthouse is made explicit in Stephen McKenna's homage to Blind Orion [75.], where the lighthouse becomes more like a lamppost- and so completes something of a circle with Eckersberg. All these things are latent in the Danish artist's work, and are partly why we might find it interesting- but are more skillfully and perhaps knowingly deployed by Poussin. 


Eckersberg is at his best when presenting an image as some kind of model-of-mind. Exceptional pictures in this respect are the two versions of A Corvette in Dry Dock. Nyholm. Began as an unfinished study in 1828 [76.], by the late 1840's-50's he'd began to pick up images he'd left behind, returning to the image of a boat under construction over 20 years later in a more complete version of 1851: this time giving it a portrait format, leaving the empty sky above, implicating and emphasizing the lack of sails [77.] the boat dreaming of the wind. And yes, these pictures are demonstrations of his skill, the detail and structure he loves. But Eckersberg spent a lifetime doing detailed ship paintings- none of them are as ruminative as these. 

Both are (for him) revealing pictures about completion and incompletion, the job half-done (his diary logs the second version as also incomplete due to his worsening eyesight, and it's probably the last thing he painted); or the folly of grand ventures; or the precariousness of structure; or even the stage-managing of pictures, their half-open, one face to the world qualities, with all the planks and rigging usually hidden by his high degree of finish. Perhaps rummaging through old studies late in life he questioned his own unfailing adherence to 'finish'. And while the later picture would never have been intentionally left in an unacceptable state of partial completion (by Eckersberg's standards), it's at the very least a kind of admission or testimony on his ideas about pictures as things which should be watertight, yes, but things also with the potential, sometimes the merest hint of the potential, to drift.





The fastidiousness of the 1851 version, considered by Eckersberg an abandoned picture, is at once totally synthetic and hermetic when compared to the freedom of Constable's Boat-Building near Flatford Mill (1815) [78.] painted almost 40 years earlier. But each in their way finds an equivalence between boat building and pictorial-cognitive exploration and construction. Paintings as vessels of exploration. Of sailboats/pictures as bridges towards an altered understanding of the world, a change of perspective, but also things which can be loaded with freight, which can seemingly defy or bend the laws of physics. There's a sense in the Constable particularly of a continual re-making, a clearing of the decks, limbering up, testing, refining; which for Constable has more to do with a sense of air, wind. For him, the oarsman/helmsman/painter must be alive to the motion of wind, water and weather, must be limber of mind and wrist (like Constable, Eckersbarg also made cloud studies, but these avoid any overt drama).

Still, the boat picture is the closest thing in Eckerberg's art to a truly poetic, layered metaphor, a kind of envoi. It's in the way the cup of the hollow boat stares up at the emptiness of the sky; and the way the boat is mirrored in the puddle-deep water, which is able to 'carry' its image; the way the sea seems so near and so far; and the way the boat is suspended between the three.



Boats are a metaphor for consciousness among all the artists dealt with here. In Eilshemius's The Dream (1918) [79.], he practically claims it as a kind of alter-ego, the sailboat a kind of monogram that matches his signature, while it's also less than a massive jump from Eckersberg's matchstick-model boat to certain pictures of McKenna's play-mat world [80.-82.] (even down to the high-saturation in chromatics and detail), which extend the ship metaphor to harbour and city: the neural-infrastructural network of construction and connection, a kind of social-pictorial limbic system not unlike the wider network we catch glimpses of in Eckersberg's streets.  



The last remaining 'mind' metaphor of Eckersberg's, after we've looked at his lampposts, his streets, his courtyard, his ships, is the 'interior'. 

He didn't paint many, really, and when he does it's not really the subject, at least not overtly (though there are a few illuminating window studies  [83.]). The best- his Running Figures - could barely even be called an 'interior'. But it's indelibly about interiority. Its consciousness is 'room-consciousness'.


For Eckersberg, the interior is something like the projection-room/perception room of the mind. A kind of propositional ante-chamber to the world. Ready to accept objects brought indoors, or to cast open its shutters and windows. But, like Edward Hopper, he tends not to focus on reflections, prefers to do away with glass and bring inside and outside closer together. 

He's actually quite close to Hopper in a lot of ways. In his complex relationship with picturing and anonymity, in the problems they can both have depicting realistic 'figures' within environments. It's often said that Hopper's people are stiff, awkwardly pasted-in, their faces in-turn floating on top of their heads. But unlike Eckersberg I think that's partly the point. That we've become irrevocably divorced from nature, from our surroundings and from each other. Partly also that 'people' are just inherently of a different visual 'energy' and substance to the static world (and the static world of pictures), and that faces are just as remote from bodies as bodies are from buildings, chairs, mountains.

And in some ways Hopper is just as much an alien/AI encountering the world. There's almost a confusion in A Room in Brooklyn (1932) [84.]  between whether he should treat the figure in the dress and on the chair any differently from the flowers in the vase on the cloth on the table; whether the lighthouse standing sentinel in The Lighthouse at Two Lights  (1929) [85.] has anything more than a limited capacity to signify, or is capable of anything more than his capacity for communication; whether it 'sees' as well as projects, whether it's as sentient as it can momentarily look; Whether the Sun in an Empty Room (1963) [86.] has any meaning whatsoever, whether the light or he himself (us, ourselves) have any real 'presence' in the 'empty' room. Whether either are registered by it.

Constantly, he measures the animate against the inanimate and finds each trading places, or momentarily of the same condition. 




Hopper's Office in a Small City (1953) [87.] is also in some ways a 'modern' version of Poussin's Blind Orion. It's less like an office and more like the eye department of a giant head, the office worker at the helm of a ship or a giant robot, just as Orion is almost 'piloted' by the seeing figure on his shoulder; as if they're up in the crow's nest. They are images highly conscious of the mind/vision split, of the consciousness that 'sees' the world being located somewhere deep 'behind', as if in another room.


Like Poussin, Hopper is, really, a 'better' artist than Eckersberg. More consistent, more communicative in his questioning of communication. Which is not the same thing as saying he's uninteresting, period, or incapable of making compelling pictures.

Just as art about art becomes reductive if that's all it's about, or as art which earnestly and facelessly reproduces the world is equally prone to insignificance, to zero communicability, Eckersberg, when he fails, is either too blandly and indeterminately objective, or is too synthetically exacting, perfecting. Poussin and Hopper, in very different ways, are exacting, perfecting- but they know when and where to stop, where to leave things running ( though they sometimes also produced pictures too reductively illustrational). The Eckersbergs that work, or that most work, bring his idiosyncrasies and contradictions together as functioning picture-intelligences which are able to keep turning independently of him.      

Of course we don't know exactly why these particular people are running. Or rather, we don't know what caused them to run. But, by painting's sly-boots trickery, they continue to run, indefinitely; getting nowhere, constantly happening.

The picture also runs on the fact that it doesn't quite make sense. The policeman looks like he's on stilts, what with the way the black line of his leg continues to that of the boy's (as does a portly older man's, himself a kind of lone Tweedle-Dum or Tweedle-Dee). Two men in pale trousers look like they could be tied together in a three-legged race. The woman in the doorway looks gigantic, particularly when the figure closest to her is the small boy. For someone so hung-up on perspective as Eckersberg the space feels too shallow, and that's in spite of countless depth-generating devices (the double-doors, the chequered tiles).

The picture seems to in some way be about the impossibility of painting's stasis. That we never ever experience the world like this. Certainly not people running like this. That stasis is the one flaw painting- particularly Eckersberg's painting- cannot overcome. Like the woman accosted by the sailor, like the ship without its sails, these people are suspended. Practically in purgatory. The play of the world is held dear, is lovingly framed. But it's tempered by the prospect of blankness, and by blankness becoming blindness. The prospect of an imperfect world of imperfect people doing imperfect things is preferable to no world at all. And so the real threat in the picture is not whatever incidental calamity the people are running from: but the possibility that the heavy doors might close, leaving darkness.

But if someone asks me what Emblemata really are? I will reply to him, that they are mute images, and nevertheless speaking: insignificant matters, and none the less of importance: ridiculous things, and nonetheless not without wisdom...

 -Jacob Cats, Voor-reden over de Proteus, of Minne-beelden, verandert in sinne-beelden.



Paintings in Films

Since we're in lockdown.

The more successful uses of paintings in cinema tend to be close to Eckersberg, in that they explore the painting's artificiality, the gap between world and image. Perhaps the best is Fritz Lang's The Woman in the Window (1944) [88.], in which the main character practically falls through this gap. His attention caught by a portrait in a darkened window, he's startled to see the reflection of the sitter standing on the street behind him. For a fateful moment they exist in the same space. What follows is a doomy meditation on the perils of confusing art and life. The perils of trying to get them to align, to exist in the same dimension. It's not a showy sequence, but its an incisive tumbling of windows, frames and reflections; the porous and/or impregnable barriers between world and image.


Visually closer to Eckersberg, oddly, is the cheap motel print in the Coen's Barton Fink (1991) [89.], even down to the octagonal frame- not a format Eckerberg used, as far as I know, but he did experiment with circular and oval peephole formats for erotic scenes. In Female Nude. Florentine (1840) [   .] the woman becomes more emphatically like a picture, the painting a picture of a picture, more than a seen person. And for all it's a peep hole picture, she's obviously 'posed' rather than caught off-guard.



It's also a bit like Felix Vallotton in its 'flat' eroticism [90.]. Vallotton can be quite similar to Eckersberg generally, in flatness and mood, his figures entangled in graphic shadows. But his is a more strained 'mysteriousness', more demonstrative, or an embarrassing lifelessness [92.], a lack of substance. Backgrounds you could stub a toe on. 

Barton Fink is a screen writer determined to write something 'real'. He shoots his mouth off about the strictures of empty formalism and commercialism that are holding him back, but is so cut off from reality as to be incapable of recognizing it. At the end of the film he finds himself on a beach, with a woman before him exactly like the figure in the hotel room painting. 'Are you in pictures?', he asks. 'Don't be silly', she replies.

She might not be. But he is.




Tellingly the painting in Barton Fink is a picture in a room. A hotel room.

A picture in a room is much more charged than, say, a picture in a gallery; much more a kind of token of the outside world. Much more about interiority. About the 'life of the mind', the room as an extension or analogue of the mind. Like the room in Fink, the 'hotel room' in 2001: A Space Odyssey has no windows. Paintings take the place of windows. Are a comfort and consolation for the stranded astronaut. And for once, the composite, generic, anachronistic qualities of movie prop paintings become diagetic qualities rather than qualities we should ignore: they are, it's implied within the context of the narrative, alien or artificial approximations. The props themselves are composites of various real-world Rococo paintings, most identifiably Francois Boucher's La Tendre Pastorale (two versions, 1730 and 1734) [95., 96.] and Charles-Dominique-Joseph Eisen's later derrivative work Berger et Bergère [94.]. Pictures with an inherent, meaningless genericism in the first place, thrice removed. It's a slightly worrying reminder that the world is clogged with such pictures - meaningless hodge-podges, 'mysterious' because ultimately either totally, limply generic, or skilled but vacuous diversion, or decoration. If Eckersberg is to be defended, its against these charges; and with the defense that his apparent 'emptiness' is a sustained and thoroughly explored pictorial concern.

Of course 2001 has its own things to say about linear perspective, the classical and the baroque, artifical intelligence, limited communication etc., but that's another story.




More recently, I suspect the anachronism of the paintings in Céline Sciamma’s Portrait of a Lady On Fire (2019) is a somewhat intentional part of the film's alternative feminist history. Their anachronism makes them 'pop' out. These are paintings, within the film, which are somewhat forbidden, which cannot be. Or which contain secrets that can't be spoken, things that can't be 'seen', or which are too progressive.

The film continues the noble tradition of movie paintings being a bit off. The brushwork more like Manet by way of Sargent, and so much later-looking than the film's 1770 setting; a little too angular and graphic, the colours a bit too shallow, the hand a bit too free. It's closer to contemporary painters like Michaël Borremans [97.], or Michael Fullerton, or even Elizabeth Peyton. Ironically, for a movie about the relation between sitter, painter, picture, about the tensions between formalizing and 'capturing' a likeness, an aliveness, the paintings used were done from photographs. It shows.


Conversely the film's cinematography does a great job of organically synthesizing elements of lighting and composition from Friedrich, Courbet, Ingres etc. So it must have been something of a conscious decision on the part of the director, when there's such an eye for detail elsewhere. Tellingly the non-portrait pictures are closer to the period; touches of Joseph Wright of Derby, Salon anonymity, Henry Fuseli (which are touches we also find in Eilshemius). The picture of Orpheus Eurydice (that evergreen movie reference about the nature of images) shown at the Salon is a lot like Eckersberg's achingly polite, literal-minded mythology scenes. 

Hélène Delmaire, the artist who made the paintings for Portrait of a Lady, gained much more attention than faceless prop-people generally recieve (the works even had a gallery showing [98]). But it's still painting as directed and dictated. For pictures that had to come across as very personal they were made at a remove; just as the film contrasts the notion of 'commission' and constriction, formality and secret love. 

Many of Eckersberg's portraits sit uneasily between realism and idealism. But there are occasional flashes of a frightening contemporaneity behind his period trappings. Most striking is The Model Maddalena (1815) [99.]. Eckersberg met Maddalena on his trip to Rome; she became his model and is suspected to have been his mistress. He held onto the picture for the rest of his life. Stifled by her frilly costuming, she looks out from under it, looking like she wants to rip it off, escape; the pattern on her dress like little micro-repetitions of the picture itself, reflecting Eckersberg's fascination for mechanical serialism, but also her compromised state trapped somewhere between decoration and adoration. 




Of course 'real' paintings also play a part in movies. As points of visual reference, yes, but also as either major or minor plot points, thematic grace notes. Joanna Hogg's The Souvenir (2019) takes its title from a Fragonard painting which features briefly in the narrative [101.] (once on a visit to the Wallace collection, then in reproduction).

Based on a scene from Rousseau's Julie, Fragonard's The Souvenir loops around itself elliptically; the 'S' she is carving just as much a suspended figure of eight, or an 'F' for Fragonard (it mirrors his signature carved on the stone bench), just as the contrived tree curls back around the image itself, as if it might be swallowed up by it. It's an ambivalent emblem of either taking charge, taking ownership, or giving one's self, losing oneself, to a particular idealized version of reality. She's partly sealing herself within the shrinking universe of her love. Either way she's determined to hold onto it. She's already become a formalized profile, like a keepsake or a silhouette from a locket. The letter she is carving is as much a symbol of fidelity as the lapdog, but fidelity also in the sense of accuracy, honesty; how 'loyal' or honest is she being to herself? Is this something of a betrayal? How much can this small gesture be freighted with? What does such a tiny abstraction have to do with real life? (Hogg's film teases out these ambiguities through its own narrative, exploring the painful payoffs between art and honesty via a doomed relationship).

Again we find compromised expression and constraint. Of expression as confinement. To express is to trap or to lose something.


Fragonard's picture is another iteration of Eckersberg's man up the ladder, or hammering the nail in the wall of the courtyard. Monticelli's painter painting the house. But it's also a harmless bit of fluff. Perhaps it says a lot about how much we can read into pictures, and how easily they can disappear into themselves. Content going round in circles.

Eckersberg shares so many of the qualities of 'movie' paintings real and made-up. I think its a strong part of their character, their self-effacing character. Their problematic relationship with expression. What prop-makers are up to when they're making paintings has less to do with making art and much more to do with making pictures. We are taught to look for expression in paintings, and find it troubling when there seems to be a total lack of it. Which is not automatically 'art', but it can be.