Corner of my bedroom, complete with Manet’s Execution of Emporer Maximillian and a Lichtenstien with a title I can’t find.
First up, apologies for the puns in the title, sometimes (most times) I just can’t help myself.
To me, the most powerful and beautiful art unfolds.
I mean. The pieces that I love. Or rather, one category of pictures (or whatever) that I love, have a factor in common. Multiplicity of meaning.
Don’t get me wrong, I love the potent, filthy erotic monstrousness of Francis Bacon. But I don’t come away thinking, I come away feeling. I love that feeling, and that is the other category of art i love, the stuff that makes me feel baptised in…something. Whatever it is.
But these two paintings, there’s something more ethereal in them that I love. It’s all about meaning and interpretation. It means that they excite me now, in a way that I don’t think many people understand.
I’m going to try and make you understand now. I will probably fail, but let me know what you think.
Let’s get back to unfolding. It’s a recurring feeling. It’s not like turning an origami swan, it’s more like turning an origami swan into a smaller origami swan, like a fractal.
Down the rabbit hole.
I’m going to anchor this with something more solid, like a picture of the piece we’re looking at first.
‘Although he holds his brush and palette in his hands. I know his heart is always with me!’
I discovered this piece upon moving into a house. The poster was on the wall, and it gazed over our kitchen table for the whole year. Everybody wanted to take it down, because it looks (apparently) uncannily like a friend of some of the people that lived there, and it freaked them out (aforementioned someone passed away in tragic circumstances sometime before). I insisted it stayed up, because I thought it was magical. When we moved, I took it with me, and it’s always been on one of my walls.
What is it that strikes me about it?
Well, I’ll tell you what it isn’t.
It’s not the image.
It’s not the whole ‘Pop art’ thing either. No praise of kitsch or low culture. No blowing tiny items up to a level where they become art. No celebration of the infantile or banal. No. It is none of these things.
Not for me anyway. And that’s what everybody says when they talk about Lichtenstein.
I think they miss the depth, or at least, the critics I’ve read miss it. They miss a lot.
For me, it’s the wordplay. The thought bubble, and the way that interacts with the artist, the girl trapped in the image, the viewer and society at large.
Like I say, once I start looking at it and engage my brain, it starts unfolding, until it has engulfed everything.
I still don’t have it all in my head. I still find it challenging to think how the very thing that fascinates me represents a critique or reinforcement of the male gaze. I rarely even try and explore that avenue.
Let’s look at what I’m trying to talk about here. That might help.
She (the flat static image) is pondering her relationship with the Artist, Roy Lichtenstein. She sees him, from the canvas, painting her. He is entirely focussed on his art, the creation of a beautiful meaningul object. But in true pulp style, she is in love. She senses, beneath his art, his love for her. She is in his heart, and he is pouring that heart onto the canvas, which is her.
And then my heart skips a beat, as I wonder if she’s right?
What was Lichtenstein thinking? Who is this woman (eerily like someone I’ve never met, but who has had an impact on my life)? Did he sneak a lover into one of his pictures? Or is she just an object? Is he aware of his objectification? Is she? Why does she decieve herself? Is Lichtenstein an aware tool of the patriarchy? Why does he create this woman for us, society, or me?
What is she playing on the piano?
Is the whole, together, a statement about art? Is it a parody of assumed relationships between artist and model? Is it simply a sad, mournful statement, that some people fall in love with people who could never love them back?
I always settle on melancholy, but maybe that’s just me. THe fact is that I feel like I can always break it down another layer, in ways that I can’t describe.
I do this for hours. And with each new level of discovery, I am more in love with the interplay between everything. It is the meaning that gets me, not in anyway the aesthetic appreciation. Aesthetically, I find it bland and static. Well. It’s striking, in a way, but it doesn’t excite me.
But behind the image, is something far greater.
Manet’s Execution of Maximilian – Fragmented , and with earlier (complete) versions.
Édouard Manet’s painting, perhaps requires a brief history lesson. I’d recommend a read of the article I just linked to, it’s fascinating, though I’m making a point of not re-reading it now, as that’s not really what I want to talk about. This one is perhaps more ethereal than the last, but I’ll try my best.
Basically, it’s the fragments.
The history lesson will tell you more about why it is like this. But I don’t really see the magic in the image until it’s broken up like this. Not even because of the politics behind that.
Once again, I think the critics are missing the point, at least the ones I’ve read.
I love the way the different elements are frozen in blankness. Isolated from each other. The focus (perhaps) of the piece, is entirely missing. The Emperor is nowhere to be seen, though someone who holds him is still there. The puff of smoke is all the evidence of the action. We don’t know who or what is being held, but it’s absence is telling. Like the red hatted sergeant, it is distanced, and cut off from everything. Not just his attention, fixing the barrel of his gun, not paying attention to the destruction he is supposed to be leading. He washes his hands. And he is cut off. A fine line breaks him apart from his unit.
And so we see the world, as a series of fragments. Like the old cliched story of the blind men and the elephant. The whole picture is absent, we only see tiny elements. We can’t have everything, and (if you want to take it that way) the victim is removed entirely.
Which makes it briefly about news media.
Or is it just about alienation. The way we stand aside and watch things happen. Or the way we may never see our firing squad.
I love it. I can’t explain it. But somehow it’s fragmentary nature speaks more to me than a whole painting like this could. It engages my mind and makes me challenge the very image I am gazing at. Questioning it and everyone in it. They become more relatable, because they are only one piece of the puzzle, like all of us.
I find it incredible.
One last picture, which we’ve already seen, but bears repeating.
My corner again.
So the reason I decided I wanted to go in depth into this post, and these pictures, is because of this picture. Whilst scouting around my room for my last post, I was just snapping everything I cared about, and I took this picture of my two pictures.
I saw something I had never seen before.
The way I had arranged them, meant that Manet’s Firing squad was shooting Lichtenstein’s Pianist in the heart.
Another layer started unfolding, entirely unique and other. Entirely accidental.
No authorial involvement whatsoever, and suddenly I had a new meaning created. We have the forces of oppression, fragmentary (not knowing themselves?) and male, shooting an image of femininity, totally unaware of her imminent doom. Somebody please tell her it’s not a palette and brush (false consciousness?), it’s a gun.
The oppression of the patriarchy, and the way people stand by and watch, ignoring it, whilst the oppressed are left unaware and fooled?
It’s a horribly depressing image, and incredibly infantilising to women (many of whom are aware of the bullshit that slowly tries to destroy them) and it lets the men get away with it (what’s this ignorance business all about…they are murderers, surely…all completely guilty and involved).
The stories multiply. The meaning increases, and the whole thing unfolds.
And tomorrow it will tell me a different story entirely.
Which is one thing I love about art.
All images low res photos of reproductions. Copyright definitely not mine, but I feel it’s fair use. If representatives of the copyright holders ask me to remove them, I will, but it will make me sad.