Ah, here we go again; the human condition.
Bloody stupid, wonderful, awful humans.
I really did hate them for a while there, but it turns out a non-anthropocentric, object oriented worldview is pretty tricky to maintain and possibly a little dull.
I mean, I do really love rocks and waves and things. I really respect them. Maybe a rock does have some kind of consciousness, but, y’know, I’ve yet to hear one crack a joke.
Humans, however, now we’re funny.
In fact, not just funny, but absurd.
Camus nailed it: “absurd is the confrontation of the irrational world and the wild longing for clarity whose call echoes in the human heart”.
I love that.
We’re both noble and ridiculous, irrepressibly searching in the face of futility.
When Sisyphus realises he exists only within a cruel joke, he doesn’t stop pushing; he rolls with it and laughs along. He doesn’t have a choice of course, but you do.
But it’s laughter, or suicide, so... take your pick.
Good humour is our saving grace. It’s a sign of intelligence, of self-awareness and humility.
It’s also a great levelling force.
All structures of power and authority are contingent on an absolute denial of their own absurdity. There’s a reason monarchs claimed their power was God-given; not merely a human fiction.
Of course once people realise that God is also a human fiction, the rulers have a trickier task to justify their power and must come up with something more convincing. Their best illusion so far is Democracy (the God that shirks the blame) and The Economy (the Beast that must be fed).
The satirist uses humour to pull away the curtain, pointing out the emperor with no clothes and drawing a funny cartoon in tomorrow’s paper.
The problem nowadays is that losing their robes doesn’t seem to denude their power. Some of our current politicians are already so farcical that they seem to resist parody, or rather, like a cunning martial artist, they absorb the attacks and turn them to their own benefit.
When the King starts playing Jester we get bad jokes and bad rule.
If the rich man curries favour by sharing a joke with the poor, but keeps his money and power safely locked up, this is bad, deceitful humour.
The satirist channels a general feeling of misanthropic anger in the rightful direction (usually upwards). Critical of capitalism and - after a revealing visit to Russia - disillusioned with communism, George Grosz said, in 1924: “I no longer hate people indiscriminately... I hate their bad institutions and those in power who defend these institutions”.
Despite this (and despite my great admiration for his work) his worldview does not seem to show much redemptive goodness; he doesn’t seem able to move beyond satire by balancing bitterness with love for the powerless.
Max Beckmann, on the other hand, arrived at a more mature vision; both biting and warm, and ultimately, transcendent. He said, in a 1918 essay:
“the only course of action that might give some purpose to our superfluous and selfish existence [is] that we give people a picture of their fate. And we can do that only if we love humanity. Actually it’s stupid to love humanity, nothing but a heap of egoism (and we are part of it too). But I love it anyway. I love its meanness, its banality, its dullness, its cheap contentment, and its oh-so- very-rare heroism. But in spite of this, every single person is a unique event, as if he had just fallen from Orion”.
Recently I have, like Beckmann, been hugely inspired by Breugel, a truly humane painter. He combines humour and profundity, the mythic and the quotidian on an equal footing. He depicts the joys and pitfalls of peasant life with empathy, believability and a fondness which avoids any hint of patronisation.
These humble folk may be drunken, or lascivious, or foolish at times, but they’re not evil, just human; flawed, but basically good. This remains true until they are caught up in the horror of war or religious doctrine; the larger forces that upset and eclipse common decency. However, even in his darkest visions there is an attention paid to the individual which suggests at least the possibility of a return to personal autonomy.
Breugel presents humanity at all levels of scale: the individual with her immediate concerns and connections is couched within a community, part of the larger social mass, which relates to the landscape through architecture and agriculture, and further, to nature in its cosmic sense.
The massing of figures not only summons an image of society, it’s enormously fun and creative. One figure suggests another, two figures suggest a relationship, a third creates tension, and so on. Glances and gestures keep the eye zipping around from one to another, interpreting relational motivations, passions, accusations, desires, anxieties.
Crammed together, built atop one another, figures in a crowd don’t exist as monumental forms placed in a three dimensional space like a piece on a chess board; instead they overlap and intertwine, creating confusion and ambiguity. Noticing this provided me with a much-needed liberation from my own tendency for perspectival literalism, pushing me towards really dealing with pictorial space, perhaps for the first time.
By painting from a small cropped detail sketched from Breugel’s ‘The Wine of St. Martin’s Day’, I found the talisman which would inspire a new approach and body of work. When figures fill the picture our perspective becomes uncertain (are we looking down, or across?) and the airiness of space is almost entirely squeezed out, remaining only in little pockets between forms.
An arm or a head can emerge from the mass at any point and doesn’t have to fit ‘properly’ onto a body in naturalistic posture, instead, it emerges for the sake of the composition.
Freedom from nature!
Speaking of Beckmann’s triptych masterpieces, Timothy Hyman explains that “it is the crowding that is essential, to the point of absurdity, and out of which anything might take shape”. Crowding allows not only discontinuities of space and scale, but of temporality and content. A painting doesn’t have to illustrate one moment, seen from one point in space, it can be a riotous simultaneity of ideas, mythic fragments, sensualities, unleashed from the unconscious. Beckmann’s magnificence is his ability to balance order and chaos, realism and fantasy, classical poise with violent abandon, solidity of form with linear design.
Looking to break the hold of the illusionistic, perspectival picture space - the picture plane as window to a world beyond - I was inspired by Hans Belting’s suggestion (via Julian Bell) of the mashrabiyya, the Islamic lattice window, which scrambles the visual field; the world visible only as glimpses between lines of pattern. However, while the mashrabiyya “tames the gaze and purifies it of all sensuous external
images”, I sought the opposite; to encourage the viewer’s eye to rove hungrily across suggestive, plastic forms.
I realised that in Beckmann’s work, akin to a stained glass window, it is the black outlines that create an overall pattern and a strong sense of design, whilst leaving form remarkably intact, and even intensified. So, making these paintings I was mindful of outlines connecting, forming a lattice across the whole surface, hopefully creating a tension from edge to edge, corner to corner.
Holding these formal ideas in mind, I launched into a series of paintings with unplanned content; I trusted that whatever these figures are up to, whoever they are, they will always end up expressing my worldview: both silly and serious, switching from social satire to my most personal feelings.
The crowd is many, but they are all also me.
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