Thursday, 14 May 2009

Let's paint tractors?

Yesterday I went to the Rodchenko and Popova exhibition at the Tate Modern. I thought it would be a constructive use of my time. I felt Popova's architectonic constructions worked best when they were simple, and similarly my favourite paintings by Rodchenko were the very stripped down graphics on black grounds, also his "Black on Black," which was a beautifully balanced pair of segments in glazed black on matte black. As the Constructivist movement and the Russian Revolution continued, the works seemed to become over-complicated and over-derivative, and visibly less confident.

Finally they set up a show called "5*5=25" - the first part showcasing what were to be their very last paintings, and the second part their new advertising graphics, which are now iconic (odd word, but anyway...) red and black and strident and active summing up of the era. Those are now so familiar that they are hard to see as if for the first time. There's this poignancy to all those shattered hopes and new beginnings that ended up on a frozen dead end. Already in the early twenties the new Soviet powers are messing around with private enterprise, having suffered a terrible famine.

Within a few years, the constructivists stop painting, turning to mass-produced items to make their images available as widely as possible. Rodchenko says in 1927, "When I look at the number of paintings I have painted, I sometimes wonder what I shall do with them. It would be a shame to burn them, there are over ten years of work in them. But they are as useless as a church (my emphasis). They serve no purpose whatsoever."

Other painters came along, or rather were promoted by the Stalinists. So we ended up with more paintings again, but this time socialist realism, with tender little scenes like Uncle Joe and the flowers.

This sort of thing, and its Nazi German cousins, is undoubtedly one reason why we don't have a category of Narrative History Painting with appropriate capitalisation today. One of my visitors last week mentioned this: he feels there would be a place for paintings of great events, such as a Martin Luther King speech.

I couldn't find anything along those lines. I did turn up a few portraits of MLK, such as this sensitive one from "The Painting Activist," an online gallery I'll be visiting again. No grand-scale oils of him in action, unsurprisingly, just portraits.

Narrative paintings might give a viewer a more emotional and subjective way in than the flatness and apparent objectivity of a still photo or news footage. Or maybe we cannot respond to such things in the same way today, even if we take into account that a painting is not "what really happened" and neither, on another level, is a photo.

Even with the Art and Renewal Center, their "living masters" seem mostly to be painting single individuals in fancy dress. I have some sympathy with the idea of making sure traditional painting techniques do not die, and making compendia of artists and teachers working with them available on the web, but I don't want to throw out the more thought-provoking "modern art". (And I find the ARC's adulation of Bouguereau excessive.)

Komar and Melamid did parody the grandiose Stalinist style, this one from the 1980s taking Lenin's famous question, "What is to be done?"

Since I don't share the same view of Rodchenko's simile "as useless as a church" I am going to have to consider what kind of painting I might want to do in future. I have made a small amount of painting affected by religious experiences, thoughts, and visits to locations, most recently a series responding to a trip to the Holy Land, but I don't paint religious narrative scenes or traditional icons (I know officially icons are "written" not painted, I'm not going there). I am not sure what it would mean to do so, how one would rescue it from descending into total kitsch, ironically or otherwise. I tend to focus on small details when I am being realist and representational, which is most of the time.

Chris Woods' Stations of the Cross (the soldiers are shown here, borrowed from a post on 3 Minute Theologian's blog ) work for me. I find the modern dress of the bystanders and protagonists and the oddly bright lighting and serene staging "make me think" - and view the story afresh somehow.

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