Thursday, 8 July 2021

Carol Rhodes: See the World review, MAP Magazine

 

 

 

 

 

My review of Carol Rhodes: See the World can be read on MAP Magazine.

Below is a visual review (of sorts), because you can't do that in magazines.  




















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Monday, 10 May 2021

'A Certain Resolution': John Constable's Boat Building Near Flatford Mill and Guy Davenport's Balthus Note #27

 

 



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.

                                                   -Guy Davenport, A Balthus Notebook





Not done with Davenport yet, I submitted note #27 – along with an image of John Constable's Boat-Building near Flatford Mill (1815) – as the subject for the third in a series of Zoom-chats with painters Samuel O'Donnell and Jonathan Pinn.



JP-  What were you thinking about this painting Jamie? Give us a bit of an introduction.

 

JL- Yeah it’s probably best if I take a bit of backseat in terms of the Davenport side of things, as I’ve looked a lot at that. Originally the idea was we were going to talk more about that text, and about meaning, but then we all decided it might be good to talk about a specific work and try to assign some specific meaning to it, interpret it or whatever, and maybe the text could sort of just float there and we can refer to it or use it. I’d be more interested to know how people responded to it. The Davenport text seems to be quite clear about how meaning seems to function, but then it unravels into this series of ambiguities. So respond please.

 

JP- Is that the introduction, ‘respond’?

 

JL- Well in a way that’s the meta-submission this week: literally just respond, and beware all ye who attempt to respond.

 

SO- You mean there are wrong answers?

 

JL- There might be, Davenport seems to suggest there are.

 

SO-  All I’ve done with regards to the painting, I’ve not read anything about it or done any research on it, but just in a kind of mind splurge I wrote down everything I thought about it based on the one viewing. At first I thought I’d go back later and read more around it, but then I thought it might be more interesting to talk about it just from that one sitting. I was listening to the Dutch critic Hans Rookmaaker talking about reality, saying, basically, you see what you know. And we’ve talked in previous discussions about how in painting there’s a language that comes with it. A lot of people can look at paintings like this and draw a blank, just have nothing to say about it. They can maybe say what’s going on if they were forced to talk about it but there’s no frame of reference, no context, no historical lens. So yeah– a foreign language. I thought it was interesting in light of this first set of propositions, this first sentence of Davenport’s, that I must have scribbled down pages. When you have a language to talk about something like this you start to see things, you start to look into the reality of something that is probably closed to a lot of people. Maybe all this is quite obvious but it was quite refreshing from my perspective.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 



 

 

 

 

 

JP- When you look at that particular Constable and it’s so…what’s that word when it’s so not jumping out at you, it’s like a snapshot of daily life, unconsidered, a moment…

 

JL-Objective?

 

JP- Objective. But there’s an interesting bias going on there Sam, when you do have a knowledge, a language – when you look at a painting like this that isn’t obvious about what it’s wanting to say, if anything at all, and it seems so open – there’s a bias in the sense that you’re looking for or picking out your own meaning from it. And then Hidden is a word that’s quite active. It gives the sense that there’s something to be found, like there’s this trail of breadcrumbs. And you don’t know how much of that is you reading into it. Or maybe that’s the game in itself? And like you Sam I didn’t read about it, I wanted to come to it blind. But I’ve gone round several times building up ideas of what it could mean. Maybe grandiose things about rebirth…and then thinking actually, maybe that’s just a load of fluff. Maybe that’s just me inserting meaning that isn’t supposed to be there.

 

JL- Well there’re two sentences there that follow each other – a work of art is a structure of signs, each meaningful – so in a sense you could approach this painting and go, OK, so each of the things we see here is somehow meaningful. And then it says it follows that a work of art has one meaning only, which is a bit of a leap. It doesn’t necessarily follow.

 

SO- Yeah that sentence jumps out for me. It seems quite a strong claim. What’s your take on that?

 

JL- Well it’s 7 sentences, it gives the illusion of flowing quite logically, but when you pick it apart it’s full of leaps and ambiguities. The weirdest thing is, if you get to sentence 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...Long story short, I read a review of Davenport’s book which totally misread that out of context, as I did when I flipped through it trying to find that specific passage. And it’s easy to see that sentence as saying it’s arrogant to assert that a work means what you think at all. Which in context is not what he’s saying at all. So even internally it’s really easy to misread the meaning of the passage. Which is obviously pretty ironic.

 

SO- I was gonna say, you’re talking about intention, aren’t you? So on one level you could see this as quite trite. Either he’s written this and not thought about it that much, or on another level it’s really considered and he’s trying to evoke more of the tension between what a viewer brings to a work and what the artist intends. Which is ironic as he’s doing the same thing in his statement. So either he’s doing something really clever or he’s accidentally stumbled on something!

 

JL- Which is perfect, because you could say it’s the same idea with the Constable. How much should we care whether he intended it to mean whatever we think it means? I was reading William Empson’s Seven Types of Ambiguity and he makes a rare reference to visual art in the introduction, and oddly enough he talks about Constable. Round about the time there was a reprint or whatever there was a renewed interest in Constable’s oil sketches, and the idea that these were better than the finished paintings. And it comes at a part in the text where he’s talking about there being a long history of accepting that a poem might mean more than the poet intended, so he goes into the whole thing of ‘should we value these sketches for what they are or should we elevate these as the true works, the thing he actually wanted to be making?’. I know we didn’t research the painting, but it’s what’s known as one of Constable’s ‘cabinet pictures’– so a smaller finished work, not a sketch but not a major exhibition piece, it’s somewhere in between. On top of that, this painting stood out to me because there’s a lot of what you could call ‘content’ in it, perhaps. But whether we agree that that’s intentional or not perhaps we can discuss. And actually discuss what it might mean. It’s one thing for Davenport to say that certain kinds of image have a definitive meaning but another thing for pictures which are more seemingly meaning-less. 

 

 

 

 

 






 

 

 

 

 

 

SO- It’s interesting having that little tidbit of information, how that makes you understand certain things about it. Like you say, it’s this painting situated between being a study and a finished work, and there’s the whole provisional painting thing...It makes you wonder, with an artist who makes sketches in preparing for a painting, for example, is there more or less meaning in those things which to all intents and purposes for them might’ve been a way of working out simply what the finished thing might be like? I’m not super over-familiar with Constable, but as soon as I saw this one it stood out. There was something about it that felt less overwrought than what I imagine his other work to feel like. So maybe you intuit something in that, and in that sense it sits at a different level. That extra historical information only confirms that initial intuition. It’s a subliminal thing that was there anyway but it tracks with that information. Do we want to start talking about what we think it means?

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

JP- Well it seems to me that when you look at the note and Davenport’s talking about ‘one meaning only’, and there’s this ambiguity about what you ‘think’ it means, it’s like this action of getting you to start thinking. It feels like a ploy, a tactic…maybe even a wind up! To just get you into this mind-set of questioning, that questions itself. Maybe because it’s this in-between painting, somewhere between his sketches and the more, as they say, ‘chocolate box’ paintings, there is this kind of looseness to it, an openness to it which makes it readable. In the sense that it’s an enjoyable read. Like reading a book and there’s nothing going on or seemingly happening but it’s got a language to it which is flowing. I was looking at it actually and thinking, have I just always underestimated Constable? I was enjoying ‘reading’ it, y’know? My eye flying over it. There are little brushstrokes…I particularly love these builders moving bits of wood on the left hand side, and there’s one stoke for this curved plank of wood. There are parts that remind me of late Derain…There are elements of how it’s painted, like the back of the shirt, the axes, the dog, that I really enjoy. You end up getting to the end of the ‘passage’ of this painting and you’re not quite sure what’s happened. Even though it’s fairly obvious what’s ‘happening’. 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 








 

 

 

 

 

 

 

JL- Well the automatic lurch, especially these days, is to say that it’s self-reflexive. And just leave it at that. There’s a lot of that going on I think, even in the sense of the activity of the artist painting outdoors reflected in the image of the man building the little boat. There’s a reciprocal relationship there. To me, really, where it starts to be more something that has ‘meaning’ is that it’s very much like 17th century Dutch landscape painting – specifically Teniers [Teniers was Flemish]. You’ve got little still life elements, people either playing games outdoors or quite often constructing shelters or agricultural works, eking out a living. And the way the pictures are composed they’re perched between heaven and earth – these silvery skies and these very banal things going on below. And really when you look at Boat Building it’s quite a strange composition because if you take away the boat and the little trench you’ve got a romantic landscape, a generic English countryside thing. But then you’ve got this ditch with the boat that looks like it’s almost run aground or something. There’s almost the ghost of a kind of ‘after the flood’, Noah’s ark image. Constable’s not an artist we’d normally think of as involved in that kind of allegorical thing, or even metaphor really, so it’s an odd picture in a way. But it makes sense to me within that Dutch tradition, specifically those Teniers pictures under the big skies, which you could say have that what’s it all about? quality. The way it’s composed seems quite conscious– because it’s a picture with a fixed viewpoint the prow of the boat already touches the water, so there’s a kind of longing there which it’s playing with visually...And like you were saying Jon, ideas of rebirth and transformation, you’ve got the trees that have been cleared away, the land subjected to human processes. It’s very contemporary in a way, like Carol Rhodes almost, it’s just a slightly different version of that in some ways. I think it’s great!

 

 









 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 


 

 

 

 


 

 

 

 

 

JP- Can I ask, I’ve just been wrapping my brain around the figure off to the right, the girl that’s walking away. She seems like the only part of the picture that’s narratively semi-dramatic

 

SO- I think with narrative…it’s like there’s something icky about it. But it’s everything in one sense. Why do we have such an aversion to it? I found there was just so many different points of tension-

 

JP- Do you think those can be purely compositional? Like ‘I need something there going that way’?

 

JL- Well if it’s put in compositionally that’s fine, but then for us looking at it, talking about things like latency and stages of growth – the trees at different stages, the stages of the boat – the child is just another thing that confirms it-

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

SO- Someone said the person in the ditch was a boy, I read it as an older guy… There’s something light and easy about it, but at the same time everything’s pressing down on him, there’s something oppressive about it. It’s almost like he’s eating his lunch; but there’s something of a funeral in the ditch, the boat is like a coffin. There’s something skeletal about it. There are no people looking at each other and these two figures are back to back…There’s something quite innocent and playful about the child and about the attention of looking in the child – is she looking at a flower or an insect? – while in the male figure there’s something more intense and oppressive, hard labour. There’s this tension between innocence and experience. But how deep do you read into it? Even the fact he’s painting the boat and working on the boat to make it watertight, that’s painting isn’t it? The pitch brush leaning against the cauldron looks like a paintbrush leaning against a jar… there’re all these allusions going on. It’s his work, it’s his labour – it’s idyllic but it’s back breaking.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 




 

 

 

 

JP- Well you hinted at it being self-aware, a metaphor for painting–

 

JL- And this is early plein air painting, it’s at the start of going outdoors with an easel on your back being a thing besides sketching on the grand tour–

 

SO- This is what I mean, something of that historical fact – does biography play a part? It does actually do something important to the picture–

 

JL- But I feel like you get a kind of sense of that visually from it without knowing that information. Like you were saying about confirmation of things you already intuit –

 

SO- Yeah cos you know there’s gonna be a play between him adding elements to the work pictorially that weren’t necessarily there when he was looking at what was in front of him. Or maybe the figures are two snapshots of two ends of the painting session –

 

JP- Exactly, there are parts like that child to the right that I can’t imagine to be strictly factual. That’s got to be the artist taking an idea and running with it.

 

JL- Well if you were into biography and history you could run miles with the whole plein air thing. And this is from Constable’s youth, this area, so you could say it’s mixed up with childhood memories, formative experiences, etc. But I think the encouraging thing, particularly if you’re a painter, is that it seems to transmit these ideas without going ah yes, that was the thing, and the river was there and that was that. And that’s why I was drawn to this painting I think, because you don’t assume Constable was consciously designing things to mean and yet it still does. And it gives you hope in making work that’s meaningful almost by fluke.

 

 

 

 

 


 

 

 

 

JP- I was torn between whether I thought this painting was…it’s got the quality of a lament about it, and I wasn’t sure if it’s gloomy or optimistic. It’s got both. Like you say, hard labour, but life is happening, going on…

 

JL- It’s weird, it’s about preparation but it’s also as if the boat’s run aground, it’s a ruin and the land has been drained – it sits between these things just as the boat seems to sit at that median position in the picture. And it’s related to what Sam was saying about viewpoint–

 

SO- Well there’s a lot of attention in all the figures looking. On the very very far left there’s a guy planning wood, and there’s an attention in all three carpenters and in the child. The guy who’s steering the boat on the water, there’s more of a wistfulness to him just looking across the landscape. You’ve got all these characters in the foreground who are intense in their work and in their looking, and then this other boat which is actually on the water where there’s something almost leisurely about it in comparison. And then you get your symbolic ideas of looking out over the river, looking across to the other side of something, looking out over Jordan. And there’s a separation between the pastoral on one side of the river and the man-made labour and industry on the other side. So there’re all these vibrant tensions that make looking at this painting so rewarding. 

 

 

 

 

 


 

 

 

 

JL- Do you think then that we couldn’t apply Davenport’s whole thing about meaning to any old work?

 

SO- Do you mean could you bring all this meaning out of another Constable painting?

 

JL- Yeah, or if you look at a more anonymous or seemingly neutral Constable is that part of its meaning? In a sense there’s a lot going on in this painting –

 

SO- Is that then how we can decide whether something is a good work of art? How much meaning you can get from it-

 

JL- Well again we mentioned last week, Dutch 17th century painting is supposed to be somewhat more meaningless painting than had gone before, more visual less verbal, just picturing the world as it is. And yet we can still drag a lot of meaning out of that –

 

JP- Well I was gonna ask about that in relation to sentence 5, which I think is the most problematic. It follows that a work or art has one meaning only…Is it the aim of that part of the note to act as a drive? That if you act like it has one meaning then you debate it…? Because it could seem on the face of it like that sentence is so contrary to the bit at the end about the voyage of discovery and curiosity.

 

JL- Well what he’s saying is if you don’t insist that a work has a definitive findable meaning then you’re cutting yourself off from this rigorous adventure of interpretation. But it’s so easy to misread that as being what’s preventing you from freedom of interpretation…Full disclosure, me and Sam briefly discussed this a while ago and we both pretty much agreed that it was almost like living as if you have free will or just putting your hands up and letting fate take its course. It’s not viable. It seems like Davenport is almost making that claim for at least acting as if a work of art has, or going forward with the belief that a work of art has, a definitive assignable meaning. And certainly in writing extended criticism I’ve found it to be true that if you don’t believe that there’s some kind of endpoint that you’re gonna reach then what do you do? You just present a bunch of impressions and kind of leave it at that. It’s like detective work, you have to go forward with a solution in sight even though you carry with you this caveat that there is not 'one meaning only', that it’s insoluble. That the work of art will always elude you and step to one side…Which is were we arrive back at Baxandall, from week one, cos all roads lead to Baxandall.

 

SO- Please no. Yeah I guess there’s something cringe-worthy when people go on about art being all about your interpretation. And you can cringe at both things. You can cringe when someone says this is the meaning, this is it. And you can cringe when someone says well everyone has their own interpretation… But that is the process of meaning making or meaning finding anyway isn’t it? This journey that you go on between finding things that really are there while remaining open to things that you can’t see.

 

JL- I think what you said at the start, about finding confirmation in the details, I think that’s where it’s at. You look at it, you get a certain sense, a certain inkling of what it means and the more you look at it the more it presents things which just confirm that.

 

JP- I think what’s interesting behind this idea of meaning, is it asserts a sense of hierarchy of what’s important in a painting, or to a painting. That ‘meaning’ is the important thing. And I wondered where does that leave room for form or craft, or for how it’s painted? And I know you can infer meaning from that, but what Davenport’s saying seems to lean much more to layered meaning in symbolism and subjects – a structure of signs each meaningful – it doesn’t leave a lot of room in the note for how something is painted.

 

JL- Physical qualities?

 

JP- Yes.

 

JL- Well you could say that tactile or formal things, each of those is a sign which is meaningful, but as you say it does seem to privilege meaning over form… And Davenport’s a novelist, so God bless him for trying, usually they’re worse than this. You know if Julian Barnes looked at this Constable he’d go on about the little girl and how she’s on her way home for supper, or watching her daddy or something…And as much as Sam was saying narrative is something we find icky, and why are we so suspicious of it, on the other side you find people inventing things and projecting terribly. To me what this made me think of, this thing you’re saying Jon about content over form, was Susan Sontag’s Against Interpretation, where she basically says instead of a hermeneutics of art we need an erotics of art – rather than being so concerned with content that we should be more articulate when it comes to form and sensual qualities. It’s this old form content thing, where really they should be huggermugger and working in tandem, inseparable – the content is the form and the form is the content. And the great thing about the Davenport, as we’ve said, on the one hand it’s almost cheesy and banal in what it’s saying but it’s got enough room for ambiguity. You can quite easily see a nuanced approach to form and content. If you want to. He’s specific enough while vague enough that there’s room for this notion of form-as-meaning. And obviously there are works which aren’t this Constable which are more about the form–

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

JP- I wanted to say, you keep mentioning the word ‘ambiguity’, and we’re talking about this in such a way that ambiguity seems like something desirable, something that kind of enables us to have a discussion. But are we understanding the word ‘ambiguity’ or ‘ambiguous’ correctly. I mean it’s quite clear in a written, verbal sense – if you talk about poetry or whatever, it’s pretty much two distinct things at once, or several distinct ideas or meanings at one time. Whereas we’re kind of hinting at something we can almost taste but can’t see, something that we can’t put our finger on.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 




 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 


JL- Well the word ambiguity gets misused. A lot of English professors get quite annoyed at students who say something’s ambiguous because they can’t decide what it means at all, whereas, as you say, there have to be several almost certain meanings that could be there and the work seems to toggle between them. Empson’s Seven Types is a hell of a read, y’know, strap yourself in, who knows what he’s on about…and people said Empson was Mr New Criticism, anti-biography anti-intention, formal analysis, then he wrote a book saying no that’s all wrong and we can only find meaning and worth in the sense that a work fully expresses the author’s self, so nobody’s really sure what Empson really meant a lot of the time I think. Which is probably what he wanted.

 

JP- Like Davenport.

 

JL- Yeah! And you could retroactivey read Seven Types and see nothing inconsistant with that, he's always inferring things about Shakespeare's working mind or whatever...It’s interesting that Empson mentions Constable sketches, because he basically comes out at one point and says he believes that that which we call ‘poetic’ is basically that which is ambiguous, or that which contains the capacity for ambiguity. That’s basically the book. And I think what we three probably value, and I’m speaking for all of us here so you can tell me if I’m wrong, I think we all value things which have that capacity for ambiguity. Last week we were talking about the Jennifer Packer show at the Serpentine and the paintings which were heaped with praise by the reviews– but to us they didn’t seem to have the same ambiguity or poetry that other works in the show had. The press leaped on those four or five that were more straightforward whereas we valued the more ambiguous ones. And then in this Constable we can’t even decide what this central figure is doing, he could be kneeling to pray, he could be having his lunch, he could be hard at work, he could be toiling or enjoying the work, he could be preparing, he could be renovating. And what we seem to value here, intentional or not, is that ambiguity. And yet, Davenport is saying a work of art has one meaning only–

 

JP- Is that then our failure? We seem to be stopping– and going it’s ok to hold these various positions. Should we, by Davenport’s terms, be debating which of these readings is correct?

 

JL- Well the overall meaning perhaps is that ‘work’ contains within it both toil and pleasure. The toil and pleasure of painter and boat-builder, builder and sailor, painter and viewer…even that work and pleasure are a kind of prayer…And that even when the work of painter and builder are done the oarsman or the viewer still has to work a little in steering the thing. Or following the current. What we seem to be doing is finding areas of ambiguity within the picture rather than in the picture itself…structure of signs each meaningful…So if you want to pick out only the figures, you’ve got your child, your primary boat-builder, your other boat-builder, then you’ve got a cauldron, a faithful dog, then trees, sky, boat, and we can’t decide what any of them mean, but have we spoken about what we think they all add up to? If we were all gonna write a little essay about it and we were leading up to the meaning that we were gonna assign to the work overall, did we all arrive at that? Or as Jon says have we been quite content to potter around in the ambiguities and just let them simmer?


JP- This is the inherent contradiction of Davenport’s note. Because we get to that point, listing our thoughts, and trying to then draw a conclusion. But then we’re probably aware enough that there are several possibilities, and because it’s a painting and it's not a photograph of something factual things are hidden from us. Literally. The guy’s back is turned; we’re always making a guess. And in the end we realize that we can’t assert a meaning. We get to the point where we feel like we can conclude something – but we could be wrong.

 

SO- It could be about a provisional conclusion, in the sense that you could be pressed to give an answer, but there’s an agreement that we’re not under any illusion that that’s the final ‘meaning’ and it’s now closed. It’s always up for revision. And it’s almost to do with resolution – I’m thankful, Jamie, that this is a very high resolution jpeg. It’s so hard looking at pictures that are so low resolution…maybe that’s by the by–

 

JL- No it’s not by the by! I saw this in the V&A ages ago, but we’re all talking about a jpeg here really–

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 





SO- Well that’s it, but even if you were looking at the real thing you’re still talking about a certain 'resolution'. And at the end of the day this is why we’re interested in painting – it’s because it’s painted. So you could really look at what that central boat-builder is doing – but what he’s doing has been suggested by a small brushstroke, and that’s it. There’s no super high-res you can zoom into. And unless Constable’s noted somewhere what the guy is doing or he left a record of, ‘oh, he was having his lunch and it was a nice day and everyone was happy’…So you could scale back and say this is the overall meaning of the picture but as soon as you do that you loose a lot of the resolution of the things you can find in the individual constituent parts. It’s the whole whole of a thing versus the parts of a thing: does each part have to contain a meaning of the whole and vice versa? The whole ‘if you take a car apart and replace each part is it still the same car...?’

 

JL- Well that reviewer did that to the Davenport passage. He isolated the detail and ended up ‘blurring’ the meaning.

 

JP- And maybe there’s the accidental or deliberate meaning within though. To get fixated on small details…Yes each is important, and they build your inference of the meaning…but as we’ve said, we all had these ideas before we really understood them.

 

JL- I’ve found it’s always helpful to keep going back to that initial impression. Something about this made me think or feel a certain way–

 

JP- Yeah I definitely had those feelings before I looked closer. Something was already working for me.

 

JL- You could almost get rid of the dog and the cauldron and the child and all of that and the meaning is almost just in that trench with the boat. Very flat water, some trees poking into an enormous sky, which is simultaneously oppressive and hot but also dynamic and open. The boat almost looks like a felled tree. Those initial visual registers…it’s almost like the big shapes are what mean something, like there’s an inherent meaning to big bold compositional things that goes above and beyond the little details which confirm them. You could almost do a very simplified copy of this painting and I think the meaning would somehow still be there.

 

JP- Well you start thinking about what’s essential –

 

JL- Yeah cos I say that and as soon as you pull something out suddenly it starts to collapse.

 

SO- I was gonna say that Jamie, the tricky thing is you can see so many paintings like this where it feels like the landscape they’re in is just sort of incidental – it’s a scene for things to take place in rather than integral to the picture. Even then, what is the subject? Is it the man? Is it just a landscape? I don’t think I could even pinpoint what the actual subject is-

 

JL- Or the genre. It’s landscape, but ‘genre’ painting landscape –

 

SO- That’s what I mean, that’s what makes it fun, that’s what rewards the looking as well.

 

JL- I’m glad it’s rewarding!

 

JP- Well yeah it’s not what I associated with Constable that much. So when you start actually looking…I started felling like I’d underestimated a body of work here.

 

JL- The V&A book of the oil sketches is really worth tracking down…it’s almost the only book on him you need, or the best primer at least. I prefer him to Turner now. Even though Turner’s more radical, or something.

 

JP- Radical or something?

 

JL- Turner is Turner.

 

JP- It’s because Turner’s more popular is what it is.

 

JL- Yeah I’m just a hipster.

 

SO- It’s funny, in that Turner film [Mr.Turner, 2014, dr. Mike Leigh] there’s this little interaction between him and Constable and you’re meant to like Turner more than Constable –

 

JP- I’ve not seen that film! Does it hint at Constable being kind of old fashioned?

 

JL- He’s barely in it. It’s varnishing day and it’s the famous story of him working on The Opening of Waterloo Bridge (exh.1832) with all these reds on the flags and boats and everyone’s impressed, then Turner comes in and adds a dab of red to his picture to be buoy, and Constable goes ‘he’s fired a gun in here’…and Turner’s vital and passionate and Constable’s a doddering old fart, and poor old Ruskin gets a hard time as well. No one gets a good deal out of that film apart from Turner. It’s blatant propaganda for Team Turner. 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 



 

 

 

JP- I’m interested to know, because you’ve written a lot about this Jamie –

 

JL- Not the Constable– briefly, in relation to other stuff but-

 

JP- No, I mean your little essay on the Davenport note –

 

JL- Well yeah, you go ok, a work of art is like a foreign language la de dah-

 

JP- Well when I first read it I kind of got the feeling that I massively agreed with it, but then I started reading it again I felt like I totally didn’t understand it the first time.

 

JL- Well to give it its due, it’s literally just a page of the book, the ‘notebook’. And the book’s just a lot of fragments, ostensibly about Balthus but mostly about literature. Davenport was a linguist who studied under Tolkien so it all makes a lot of sense.

 

JP- How many notes are there in the book?

 

JL- Around fifty-odd, maybe.

 

JP- And how would you characterise it, how careful do the notes come across? Because we talked about whether it was clever and conscious or accidental and I’m now thinking it’s almost a little ‘saviour intellectual’, pop psychology–

 

JL- Yeah, thanks for explaining all this to us, Guy-

 

JP- Just being able to reel off something that sounds bang on– but is it? Or is it something like a poem, to be studied and poured over?

 

JL- I think it comes form a place of quite sincere belief. I think for all the ambiguity – which I think he was happy with, or was intentional – he’s a really great prose stylist and he’s called a writer’s writer, he’s one of them…I think it was careful or as careful as anything he wrote. And I genuinely think this idea is important to him. That it’s not reader response theory, it’s not death of the author…I think all of that pissed him off. And he’s saying no, actually, as much as that sounds like a big Willy Wonka chocolate factory of happy interpretation you’re actually cutting yourself off from –

 

JP- Experiencing more?

 

JL- Yeah and really trying to get somewhere.

 

JP- And spending time with something, I guess.

 

JL- And it’s almost written in such a way that careless people do misunderstand what he’s written. And I misunderstood it. I tried to find the passage once and couldn’t find it for misreading it. It didn’t seem to match what I’d remembered it as meaning.

 

SO- It almost proves the point. Like you say Jon– time, giving things enough time. You read it the first time and you agreed and you read it again and something had changed along the way. The funny thing is you can also spend almost too much time. And you start to then read into things and try to get things out of them which really aren’t there at all. Is even us, or you Jamie, writing a thesis on these seven sentences, is that going too far? You’ve thought about it too much. It’s like hyperinflation of the thing you’re looking at or the thing that you’re reading.

 

JP- Or, is it Jamie opening himself up for curiosity perception and the adventure of discovery?

 

JL- I would like to think that it was opening myself up for curiosity, perception and the adventure of discovery! In terms of spending time…basically I worked on that text about Davenport from about a month ago when Jon suggested a painting club. So it was a long time focused on each of those seven sentences…Only to then post a little plug on Instagram saying 'I’ve written this thing', with a little screenshot of Davenport’s seven sentences, and I thought ‘oh if someone sees that they’ll think it’s so stupid’. It seems so self explanatory. A work of art, like a foreign language, is closed to us until we learn how to read it. Sure.

 

JP- You just go, ‘yeah, of course’–

 

JL- You’d say, ‘why would anyone think this is the most interesting thing they’ve ever read on art’? But you do almost have to spend the time, to almost risk misreading it. Where did you trip up Jon, where did you start saying 'hang on a minute'?

 

JP- It was actually the word ‘hidden’. I read it and thought, yeah, of course, then I started looking at the painting and I went back to re-read it and the word started to build this meaning that I thought I hadn’t read in it the first time.

 

JL- Sentence 3 is also weird – there is also the illusion that it is concealed – what does that mean?

 

JP- Well that’s what I’m saying, it rolls off the tongue so comfortably and it ends on these big words, curiosity, perception, adventure, you end on this triumphant note. But there’re all these words at the beginning, concealed, hidden, illusion. When you read it again you almost misunderstand it. Because it feels like you understood it the first time you think oh, I’m not sure if I do understand it.

 

JL- Well it’s like a big joke, how do you talk about meaning?

 

JP- Well yeah, and then it brings this whole notion of self doubt into interpretation. Is it what I think it means? Is that correct? Or is that in itself a kind of correct pathway?

 

JL- And 6 is very stern– you better not be wrong because that’s bad.

 

JP- It’s so certain! But I find the one meaning only so intimidating. That’s so sure! To the point of which you feel inferior.

 

SO- To try and get under it a bit, is it like he’s saying there’s a pure, unadulterated meaning. That meaning seems to be concealed, so it’s arrogant to assert it. So there’s a way of reconciling the words. But I don’t know what that means though. What is it to say that a work of art has one meaning only? There also seems to be meaning in the process of thinking through things that are seemingly contradictory. I mean there’s something I find quite unsatisfying about the death of the author, that there’s no way of getting to the work.

 

JP- I like what you said about it giving you a sense of purpose. To carry on investigating rather than just giving up and saying it’s irrelevant. What I like about it is it gives an idea of working in good faith. Sartre talked about good and bad faith, that acting in bad faith is to deny your own freedom, to act inauthentically by acting according to the conventions of society or to adopt values that aren’t necessarily your own, and it feels like this is asking you to go forward and act in good faith as a viewer of art or of painting –

 

JL- I don’t know about a viewer; it seems more about critics–

 

JP- This is directed at a critic?

 

JL- Well he says for an ‘explicator’…I think maybe partly what you resented, Jon, was Davenport riding roughshod over your subjective freedom of response?

 

JP- Well I found it difficult at first because it put me in a position…but I think that’s probably a positive thing overall.

 

JL- On the other hand we’ve talked about him being quite careful, but one minute he’s saying ‘a work of art’, in almost every sentence he refers to a work of art, until he says ‘for an explicator to blur an artist’s meaning’ – so there’s a slight shift between talking about a work and then talking about an artist. He’s weirdly reintroducing the artist as someone to be defended, and it seems like something more to do with intention. And saying that, Constable would probably be spinning in his grave saying no, it’s nothing to do with Noah’s ark or childhood…And that’s fine, I don’t care, the painting’s there and that’s what we’re talking about.

 

JP- Well we’d all probably agree on not being too concerned with the artist’s intention as priority.

 

SO- Do you think that’s him reacting to or dissatisfied with the way things were going at the time in terms of interpretation of works of art? At the end of the day we can agree that it can be really difficult to get at what the artist was intending: but there’s still going to be something the artist was intending, to some degree. Even if all Constable was interested in was depicting a scene because there was just something in him that liked it. He wasn’t trying to say anything about death and rebirth, or about industry during his time…but he would at least have had an intention. But maybe just because we recognise that it doesn’t mean we should throw the whole process away.

 

JL- I think in some sense we have to remember that the book is about Balthus. Who, if you want to talk about intention and what was going on in the artist’s head…basically it’s the whole ‘was Balthus a pervert or not?’ thing. So it’s impossible to read that sentence in that book without it somehow being some kind of implicit defence or acknowledgement of that.

 

JP- To be blind to his achievement is talking more about the critic’s role and I think maybe at the time but especially now there is the ‘celebrity’ of the critic, of the critic writing about themselves – maybe it’s a kind of deliberate diminishing of the ‘explicator’s’ or the critic’s voice?

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 



 

 

 


 

 

 

JL- Can’t he just say ‘critic’? You know, ‘Guardian explicator’…Again it’s interesting that it’s Balthus. I picked up a book on him with an introduction written by his son. And it’s him saying, basically, that critics are laughable and stupid. And Balthus Jr contradicts himself terribly in that intro. He’ll say critics these days are too preoccupied with form and silly compositional things which are incidental, and then he’ll say they’re too preoccupied with biography or self expression. Balthus himself was very anti-biography, he wanted the intro the the Tate retrospective in the 60s to read 'Balthus is an artist about whom nothing is known, now let's have a look at the paintings'...and then at the end of Davenport’s book he says a true understanding of the paintings would involve diving deep into biography! Throughout the book Davenport is incredibly self contradictory as well, and doesn’t follow his own rules. He barely talks about the paintings, barely any pictorial analysis. Lots of chat about literature. And you could argue that’s a blurring, and a blindness, a betrayal. Maybe not a betrayal, but he certainly doesn’t practice what he preaches. And he even quotes Balthus’ son from this weird introduction defending his old dad, saying there’s no creepy interest in adolescent girls and we should treat them as images of timeless beauty or something. It’s a deeply unhelpful introduction he wrote for that catalogue. He’s more all over the place than Davenport, that’s for sure. But we’re not talking about Balthus. Did you refer to the text while looking at the Constable though?

 

JP- I went between them. I mean you handily provided a pdf with them both on there so there was an implication that you do that! But as I read the text and looked at the painting I kept feeling like there was a kind of trick there – like I know the note wasn’t written in any way to refer to that painting, but there was the feeling that there was a kind of Easter-egg there…

 

JL- There’s also the temptation – with the whole ‘the illusion that the meaning is concealed’ thing – to say that the work is partly about how it relates to meaning, the concealment or quality of meaning. That the work is about meaning itself. But I think there’s some truth in that. And the more you read the Balthus book the more this idea of ‘latency’ comes up. And then you look at the Constable: there’s a child, a boat under construction, the landscape is changing and has these cordoned stations, and the boat is suspended – visually – so it’s very tempting to say that it’s somehow about meaning and latency or about revelation and how that relates to painted images and how painted images relate to our place in the world and our understanding of the world.

 

SO- That’s this thing about resolution again isn’t it? It almost becomes banal – to go so broad, it’s almost like you’re not really saying much. But it kind of is at the same time.

 

JP- And also, if one were to say too much, is it that narrative starts to happen, or it’s too on the nose?

 

JL- These are all big dangers with big cartoon warning signs on the road of criticism, I guess. And I would agree that it’s banal if you end up back at ‘well it’s about everything’. And it’s very easy if you’re analyzing a picture to just arrive at the end and realize ah, it’s about the art of painting…So the thing I take from Davenport is yes, works of art each have their own very specific meanings and you’ve got to not betray that –

 

JP- Well I go back and to me that’s the most problematic part, that there is one meaning only. It kind of gives a weird priority or hierarchy– where is that one meaning? But maybe these separate tied meanings all play a part and maybe there isn’t one overriding meaning and maybe the search for it is in error. We certainly don’t know that Constable was sitting there thinking 'I want all this to tie together'.

 

JL- Well he was chasing it as much as we are–

 

JP- Well he was probably just playing around with colour and ideas.

 

JL- But I would maintain that what Davenport is saying is that ‘meaning’ is always round the next river-bend, or over the hill. It’s continually emergent, but we have to act as if we can get there.

 

JP- Yes but I think the biggest problem with the note is this sense of ‘one meaning’ that it gives. Or what it insinuates about one meaning being the meaning. I think we’re all drawing our own conclusions and not fully agreeing with Davenport’s note…I mean do you fully agree with it?

 

JL- I would have to know what he’s saying to know whether I agree with it.

 

JP- Exactly!

 

JL- If you want to know my position on it there’re nineteen thousand words on my blog–

 

JP- ‘A great read’.

 

JL- A five-minute read.

 

SO- That’s a good plug.

 

JP- You’ll get another click on your site.

 

JL- I did say please don’t read it first, because I really wanted other people’s thoughts and responses. And I think we all had a similar experience reading Davenport, we all kind of went yeah, that sounds about right, and then steadily started to doubt everything.

 

JP- Well I think doubt is such an interesting part of this discussion about meaning. It’s a really individual journey and then you start discussing it and you start realizing we are putting our own thoughts into it, or our own biases maybe.

 

JL- That’s why I ended up writing nineteen thousand words on it…Basically I had a bunch of things I wanted to write about at some point – like Teniers’ landscapes and taverns, Giacometti and models in rooms, Hélion study sheets, Kitaj and meaning, Vernon Lee – and basically I found that they all fit into this discussion. Or they were the discussion. Everything I gave the Davenport text was just sort of reflected back at me. So like Sam said at the very start, you see what you know. I only stopped writing because it was at a ridiculous length. Otherwise my blog just becomes the Guy Davenport Balthus note 27 blog.

 

 

 

 

 









 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

SO- Well that’s the thing about the note, even to the extent that we’re questioning what does he really mean? What’s his intention? The note itself, even though it makes this definite statement which is nicely nestled in the middle of the whole thing, has created this ambiguity by the end. To whatever end. While being really quite pointed in the middle, with this statement which is seemingly very contentious to us, everything around it is at the same time opening itself up for further exploration. And that’s the joy of going through this meaning-making process. And I wonder almost…one meaning only, we take that to have a kind of authoritarian stamp, but I wonder if it’s more about meaning as that process of hierarchy you mentioned Jon. Because in a way meaning is always based on ‘I value this over this’... And we will value certain works of art over others.

 

JP- Well you mentioned how some of the meanings we’re assigning to this painting are becoming quite broad or over familiar. Are we not judging work on these meanings? Does the work live or die by its association with certain meanings? Or do we value or evaluate a work by the quality of its meaning?

 

JL- That would be a shame wouldn’t it.

 

JP- Or originality of meaning.

 

JL- It’s also part of it isn’t it?

 

JP- It’s intrinsic. But at the same time, just because a work’s got the same meaning as lots of other paintings, does it demean it? Or do we judge how this work ‘tells’ the meaning better than that? I’m interested in that idea of the material of the meaning –

 

JL- I think I use that exact phrase in the text –

 

JP- Well there’s something there, it’s like dark matter – there’s something about meaning that we can’t quite figure out, there’s a quality to it that exists but we can’t see it–

 

JL- We don’t value clear communication in art. That’s abhorrent in a sense, we hate that. We love playing complex games with it. But those games can also be very mechanical –

 

JP- And cold. It makes me think of something that isn’t enjoyable.

 

JL- But then again you’ve got someone like Duchamp for whom meaning is almost erotic, with a strange sensual quality. But something like this painting we seem to appreciate because it’s not clear communication and it’s not nested meaning, it’s not overtly symbolist – but that these things are possible within it. And it’s also to do with, as Sam said, the relationship between parts and wholes: that the parts reinforce the whole and the whole reinforces the parts, and it begins to be more like an organism or a brain–

 

JP- It’s got this scenic quality – in the sense of matte painting, back of a theatre type thing – you can imagine the objects like the axe, they feel like very strategically placed props. Which appear quite comfortably even though they should probably feel quite jarring in how they’re very consciously placed. I guess I want to steer the discussion into how the picture feels–

 

JL- Well you could go into how painting deals with objects’ and persons’ position in the world. Because painting is a made thing with an arbitrary frame, with things put in a certain place very deliberately by hand, you have to start to consider how our experience of the world is put together. Which is quite unique to painting. Poetry doesn’t quite do that, it can’t quite show how things are positioned to each other simultaneously in that specific way.

 

JP- But I think this thing of time is important – I think that is quite unique to painting. as something that is lived with and returned to and revisited. Could you use this Davenport note to talk about another art form?

 

JL- Yes.

 

JP – It’s not painting specific?

 

JL- I don’t think so.

 

SO- No cos I could just as easily use this note side by side with a film. Or a novel. I think it applies to works of art in the broadest sense. But it is very handy when you’re dealing with painting.

 

JL- Yes because I think painting has a hard time with meaning. Not that it finds it difficult to mean, but it has a trickier time reconciling that with not being crap or naff. Film, for example, has a less hard job doing that maybe-

 

JP- As does the viewer.

 

SO- But it’s the painting as an individual object within a body of work as well. Cos you might get a director like Kubrick who’s only got a set amount of films and that’s what you’ve got to work with. Whereas you might have a painter and there’re hundreds of their pictures. And you can look at a painter that’s mostly crap and then they’ve got these occasional works that do something like what this painting is doing, where it opens up into this completely different thing, so much so it almost feels like it’s unrelated from the rest of what they’re doing. Like working on this Stubbs film [Jamie and Sam are working on a video essay on the work of George Stubbs], there’s a lot of that with him. Thinking, 'is there even something here at all'? It’d be interesting now to look more intensely at Constable in light of this painting.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 




 

 

 

JL- Well his most famous, most reproduced painting is The Hay Wain (1821) and yeah, you could say there’re similar things going on there with roads, life going on, the wheel in the water like a water-wheel, the house and all the rest of it. So there’s similar thematic content there – though this boat-building one seems more gripping I think because it’s more unconventional in composition, if not materially. I find it more strange this very low level thing with the trench, like the picture’s excavating a more conventional landscape–

 

JP- Browsing through Constable, his other works seem…there’s something quite passive about them. It’s like the sky is overcast, there’s no drama in the skies –

 

JL- Really?!

 

JP- Yeah they’re not so atmospheric.

 

JL-That’s so interesting cos he’s famously Mr Sky – the sky studies, and the Salisbury Cathedral that the bishop said ‘all good but repaint that horrible brooding sky it’s too alarming’ – so it’s weird you find them uninspiring…

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

SO- Even just a cursory look at his finished paintings…This is where the form and materiality really come into play in terms of how successful it is even getting to the meaning; cos you look at the finished one’s everything’s just–

 

JP- It’s turned up to 10?

 

SO- It is, and so it’s just completely different. There’s not as much left for us to just fill in, even in regards to the meaning. It’s like the painting closes down even though there’s more detail. But maybe it’s a different experience looking at them in person. I get the idea you could make a painting and it’s very interesting in its materiality because it’s so intense, I completely get that…Maybe this is just more my taste of what I actually like in painting.

 

JP- And certainly for us, we’re pulled in by something because of our taste. And then we start searching more for meaning. And the more we find the more we enjoy. And the more meaning we find, and the better the discussion, the better the painting becomes. In a kind of quantity over quality thing…! The more we can pull out of it, somehow that reads as a richer painting. It’s partly the form and partly our own biases that bring us into championing the painting.

 

JL- Yeah cos this isn’t a massively celebrated Constable. Which seems crazy to me.

 

SO- It’s mind-blowing this painting.

 

JL- Yes it is! But what you were saying about ‘can we apply the Davenport note to other art forms’ and what does it do when we apply it to painting, it’s almost like it’s a small advocacy of the complexity of painting. Which I feel we still have a hard time getting the unconverted on board with. Even curators and people who write exhibition catalogues, even artists. It’s this whole blind to the achievement thing – so as much as it’s talking about one meaning only, it’s also implicitly saying that great painting is as complex and layered as a great novel. But there’s an infinite deferral when people talk about works of art…even professionals can’t really be bothered getting into that complexity. Or it’s taken for granted. Even by Davenport.

 

JP- Well maybe – if you look at sentences 5 and 6 – is it because we’re afraid to get into it?

 

JL- Well we’re afraid of finding that one meaning and getting it wrong, but we’re not afraid enough of blurring or betraying. In every one of these chats we’ve had I’ve used this example that even someone as celebrated as Chardin is still not celebrated enough or for the right reasons; that he’s still actually underrated, that his ‘achievement’ or what’s great about him is still not really being talked about. Or the most you get is Michael fried talking about absorption and theatricality, and it’s quite rarefied and chained to a theory, it’s his own high horse that he’s on.

 

SO- To come back to the first thing we talked about, which is language, it’s almost like you need a certain ‘language’ to do this thing. Maybe as a novelist Davenport himself doesn’t feel like he’s qualified enough to actually go into the visual analysis and maybe it’s only very rare creatures like Merlin [James] who are both competent enough and recognize the value of it. Even for myself, you can look at a painting, particularly if it’s a painting you don’t know much about or a painter you don’t know very well, and there’s almost a shying away from visual analysis. Because to carry out that analysis, it’s like sticking your neck out. Because you’re not just talking about subjective things, you’re talking about things that exist in the painting or not. And you’re talking about making an argument, which seems like quite a dangerous territory almost. And I wonder if people just back away from it. Cos I know I would back away from it, if pressed to give a talk or a lecture on this or that.

 

JL- But it’s crazy that paid professionals and experts also back away from it. Sabine Rewald ­– international Balthus expert – has a lecture she gave at the New York School on YouTube where she says they’re really gonna get to the bottom of Balthus…But then just talks about meeting his models and how they died, and how the room in one of the paintings is still the same and she visited it…For two hours. And then it’s ‘thank you, questions?’.

 

JP- This is something we brought up before. But then Davenport’s also advocating that people just say something. The way he’s encouraging discussion there’s a weird negative push for people to say something, even if he’s talking about betrayal and blurring and ‘one meaning only’.

 

JL- He’s asking you to dare to really go for it?

 

JP- Yeah.

 

JL- But you also wouldn’t want to be a BBC presenter standing in front of it saying ‘this, is a painting about…’in that kind of really cheesy, trite way –

 

SO- Well it’s a way of talking about it. Because we’ve talked a lot about the meaning of this painting – but we haven’t, I hope, talked about it in that way.

 

JL- Perhaps at the end I might. I can feel it coming on.

 

 

 

 

 




 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

SO- Well maybe we should finish this conversation with us each giving our definitive ‘it’s a painting about…’

 

JP- Put our necks on the line.

 

JL- Do you know what it’s about…? It’s about boat building near Flatford Mill. 

 

JP- He’s nailed it. It’s undeniable.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 



 










 

 

 

 

 

 

 

JL- Saying that, one of the reasons I love this painting is that the ‘one meaning only’ constantly eludes me. There are paintings I love where I’m quite confident sticking my neck out and saying this is what I think it means for x y and z reasons. But this Constable just loops round. Originally I wrote about it in relation to the Danish artist Christoffer Wilhelm Eckersberg, who has three really good paintings…which is an exaggeration but it’s kind of true. The three good ones seem to somehow be about intelligence and the mind, loops of intelligence, paintings as artificial intelligence. They seem like little philosophical illustrations but full of ambiguity. And one of them is a boat-building painting, so I talked about this Constable as a kind of looser version of that. And without even being able to very easily point out why, it seemed to relate to the mind somehow, as a vessel or a network...emptiness and contents...

 

 SO- What are the other two good paintings?

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 


 

 

 

JL- There’s one of a sailor and his lady standing under a lamppost on a wall, which looks almost like a ‘why did the sailor cross the road’ kind of thing, or like a mathematical problem, and in fact it’s based on a series of instructional etchings on perspective that Eckersberg published. So it’s a painting that’s retained that instruction manual quality but seems to loop round on itself in interesting ways. It looks a bit like two mechanical figures on a clock. Then the other one’s a crowd of people running past a doorway as seen from a dark interior…But am I alone in thinking this Constable somehow feels like it has something to do with looping intelligence or the mind?

 

JP- Well I was going along the route of birth, rebirth, and cycles…so it’s similar.

 

JL- I think what it was, was in the Eckersberg – which is portrait format – the boat is on stilts and there’re no sails, just this scooped out boat below a very big sky, one vessel looking up at another…It reminded me of a phrase in Fernando Pessoa’s The Book of Disquiet – ‘a well looking up at the sky’, or ‘one well looking up at another’ [We are two abysses – a well staring at the sky.]… And that goes back to to those Dutch pictures with the big skies. We’re all under this big silvery firmament going what’s it all about! And there's stuff there to do with finish, resolution, irresolvable yearning...

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 


 

 

 

 




 

 

 

 

 

 

SO- Yeah I think if I was pressed to pinpoint the kind of summation of what I was thinking about the Constable without letting what’s already been said taint it, I think I’d lean towards something to do with transience and transition. Like you say Jon you got life, death, rebirth…you’ve got that famous Turner, The Fighting Temeraire, tugged to her last berth to be broken up (1838), the old boat tugged away by the new, a transition between the handmade craft and industry and bigger ideas of the passage of time.

 

JP- I mean it’s hard to really disagree with either of you in asserting my point of view. We’ve already said rebirth and the cyclical nature of the subjects, the boat emerging from cleared trees, the parts recombined into the whole, and then the boat in the river being quite clearly a stage by stage evolution… So I agree with what you guys say, but it’s for me a lot more about life lived. I take something more from it of living a life. Beginnings, endings and returning… I feel like these ideas of a well looking up, and of transience and transition are kind of almost galactic-sized ideas, they’re almost overwhelming. But when I look at this painting it feels more down to earth. And there’s a human, lived in, ‘empty chair’ kind of experience.

 

JL- Well it’s also very much about the touch of wood and grass and the earth at the bottom of the trench–

 

JP- Yeah the impact of the boat on the earth, it’s like the impact of life – that’s more what I would draw from it.

 

SO- I agree, I think it’s important to emphasize that because it’s what makes some of the more grandiose, heady ideas actually work and make you feel involved in them. And it’s more emotional because it’s grounded in this mundane experience.

 

JP- That’s what I feel about painting in general. Talking about these big ideas, but it’s just bits of material stretched over bits of wood. It’s so simple, so basic and achievable. The nature of painting feels quite human to me. And the physical aspects of the object feel so human and full of frailty, if you’ve got dog ears or bits of paint on the side. There’s something so imperfect about it.

 

JL- To me that’s what this painting is about. You’ve got me and Sam being quite highfalutin maybe and you saying it’s about that boat on that ground – the way the boat is lodged between those two, it’s a very slight elevation above our normal everyday traversal of the terrain in the same way that the painting is. Constable, if you want to go into the biography, he wrote about how he held these things dear; moss on posts and the sound of water on old walls, and I think those more human things you were talking about Jon are probably more what made Constable come alive. But I think why this is such a unique painting is the mess, in a way. It’s an ideal landscape but with tools strewn around the place, and it looks like the ground’s been scooped up and sculpted into the shape of the boat, which it has been in the paint…So yeah, I’d say the painting is lodged between the three funny ideas we’ve had about what it might mean.

 

JP- We’ll say I won though right?

 

SO- Well this is the thing, there isn’t one single meaning, it’s all of these things, but they’re just kind of nestled in each other. And none of the things we’ve just said are competing. They embellish one another. And by summing it up in one meaning or emphasizing one thing you neglect other aspects which are very important. And when those other aspects are emphasized it only makes the overall thing more complex and meaningful. And maybe in that sense there’s the idea of a single meaning – it’s just that that meaning is far more rhizomatic or multifaceted.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

JL- The cheapo response would be, well, the painting is the meaning. It is what it is. And you’re back at square one.  But it’s also true! It resides in the thing itself. And it’s very tempting to say ah yes, the boat is a sarcophagus or it’s a skull or it’s a metaphor for the frame…I’ve always wanted to write about this painting but haven’t for these very reasons.

 

JP- But I think it’s a really good pick for this chat.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

JL- Well the other thing to say is shouldn’t conversations like this be going on regularly in academic situations? And Merlin [James] has written about that, the whole why is there no art criticism?, and why are there no tutorials discussing a work where you have your professor and a group of students and today we’re going to interrogate this painting for two hours…It’s very strange that that doesn’t happen.

 

JP- I agree.

 

JL- Heaven forbid we assign some meaning or complexity to a painting. Well that’s a downer to end on. On a more positive note, I feel like I’ve preached the good word where Constable’s concerned-

 

JP- Yeah you’ve got a convert in me.

 







 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

JL- And I’d urge you to track down the little V&A book. It shows the oil sketches out of their frames but without cropped edges, so you get a sense of the object. And maybe their original utilitarian nature. But that also raises the whole problem of how much we should get carried away by the pinholes and the frayed edges and the seams – or maybe we should? Maybe that’s part of it and that’s fine-

 

JP- But I’m always a bit wary of people getting into those things for the wrong reasons. Painting fetishists. Like you, I love the backs of paintings with labels and signatures and crossed out dates on them-

 

JL- Yeah the whole symmetry asymmetry with cursive or cursory text thing –

 

JP- Yeah and I’m into that and it is interesting, but is it fetishization? Some people get into painting because of the materials, the qualities of oil paint. Like, you like cheap acrylics Jamie, which is good because-

 

JL- It saves money.

 

JP- But it’s that or being lazy and just getting away with a nice oil brushstroke, and letting the material do the work. 

 

 

 

 

 

 


 

 

 

 







 

 

 

 

 

 

 




 

 

 

 

JL- Well even before that, with Constable they’re often on oddly shaped boards and supports, and it’s part of the thing Empson’s talking about at the time, ‘should we value these for what they are or as remnants of a process, or is it fine to say these are great works of art that exceed his finished pieces?’. And where does that stop, how do we engage with them? Obviously the V&A have gone oh, they look really contemporary if we don’t crop the rough edges.

 

JP- I don’t mean to sound skeptical about them I’m just fearful of fetishizing them myself.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 




 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

JL- The other thing to be careful of is...you don’t want to go down the route of, well, these are his real work, this is what he really wanted to be doing and he betrayed himself in the 'finished' work. Because that’s not true.

 

SO- Do you think we could’ve extracted as much meaning from a contemporary painting? is there something about older painting that you can go further into?

 

JP- I think you could. Maybe that’s more a question about the quality of a work in itself. I think there’s contemporary work by artists we like where there’s the same complexity going on for sure.

 

SO- I just wondered, even if you were to take a contemporary work by an artist you already think is brilliant – is it that there’s just more that’s ‘latent’ in older art?

 

JL- Well a lot of people might've said that a Constable would’ve been far harder to find complex meaning in than a contemporary work. Certainly pseudo-conceptual contemporary painting or expanded painting, but is that stuff actually more one-note?

 

JP- Well there’s only one way to find out…

 

JL- I wonder if Davenport will hang over these chats like a benign spirit…

 

SO- He could be one of those sound effect buttons, ‘NOTE TWENTY SEVEN…’

 

JL- If anyone asks you what you do or what you think about art just say note 27. Davenport. 

 

 

 

 

 

 







 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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All perceiving is also thinking, all reasoning is also intuition, all observation is also invention.

- Rudolf Arnheim, Art and Visual perception: A Psychology of the Creative Eye

 

 

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