'The Great Amphibium', oil on linen, 150 x 120cm, 2005
. . . Thus is man that great and true amphibium, whose nature is disposed to live not only like other creatures in divers elements, but in divided and distinguished worlds; for though there be but one to sense, there are two to reason; the one visible, the other invisible . . .
— Sir Thomas Browne
In his Critique of Judgement (sec.76) Kant stresses the importance for us of the distinction between reality and possibility. Animals, he suggests, without our capacity for symbolism and immersed in the life of the senses, can have no access to the realm of the possible; their world is entirely real. On the other hand, for a hypothetical divine intellect, the distinction between reality and possibility would be meaningless, since everything it conceives becomes real. It cannot think of a thing without, by that very thought, creating it. The distinction between reality and possibility thus only has significance for beings such as us, since we live a dual existence in which things can be either actual or possible. On the one hand, we live in the real world, the world of the senses, full of material objects and events and physical needs. On the other, we live a life of the imagination, filled with dreams, ideas and opinions.
The great theoreticians of painting have always acknowledged that however much painting may appear as a celebration of the real world, its true significance lies in the access it affords to the world of our imaginations. Painting can form a bridge between these worlds, and embody something not entirely real. Cennino Cennini said that painting called for imagination —
in order to discover things not seen, hiding themselves under the shadow of natural objects, and to fix them with the hand, presenting to plain sight what does not actually exist.
Franciscus Junius likewise demanded of the artist both ‘imitation’ and ‘phantasie’:
Imitation doth work out nothing but what shee hath seene: Phantasie on the contrary doth take in hand also what shee hath not seene; for she propoundeth unto her self unknown things with a relation to such things as are.
Joshua Reynolds, too, saw the painter as attempting to embody “what never existed but in the imagination”:
[It] subsists only in the mind; the sight never beheld it, nor has the hand expressed it: it is an idea residing in the breast of the artist, which he is always labouring to impart, and which he dies at last without imparting; but which he is yet so far able to communicate as to raise the thoughts and extend the views of the spectator.
In the traditional hierarchy of painting genres the distinction between the worlds of reality and possibility was reflected in the position of each genre. At the bottom was still life; par excellence the genre of realism, taking as its subject the material world — ‘dead nature’. Still life stood for an ideal of observational truth: the patient recording of visual facts, an objective art, an art of things. Ascending from the particular to the general, and from dead matter towards higher forms of life, action and spirit, came topography, animal painting, portraiture, genre painting, ideal landscape, and crowning the scheme, history painting. The world of history painting was an ideal world, a world not of real, but of possible things. It took as its essential subject, not history as we might understand the word today — a body of facts about the past — but sought to depict what might be called the spiritual life of humanity. The stories it illustrated were pretexts for the exploration of Gauguin’s ultimate questions:
Who are we?
Where do we come from?
Where are we going?
‘History painting’ is thus a misnomer: it should rather have been called ‘poetical’, as Reynolds recommended, where the distinction between poetry and history is drawn from Aristotle’s Poetics:
The distinction between historian and poet is not in the one writing in prose and the other in verse — you might put the work of Herodotus into verse and it would still be a species of history; it really consists in this, that the one describes the thing that has been and the other a kind of thing that might be. Hence poetry is something more philosophic and of graver import than history, since its statements are of the nature of universals, whereas those of history are singulars. By a universal statement I mean one as to what such and such a man will probably or necessarily say or do — which is the aim of poetry, though it affixes proper names to the characters; by a singular statement, one as to what, say, Alcibiades did or had done to him.
Here, ironically, it is still-life painting that comes closest to the spirit of history, by staying close to the real world, describing the thing that is, or has been.
After bestowing on the poet the realm of possible things, Aristotle then extends his domain. Since the poet’s interest is not with any possibility, but with those that are probable, he can venture impossibilities too, if these can be made to seem significant, convincing. From the point of view of the poet, a convincing impossibility is of much greater value then an insignificant or improbable actuality. Thus the highest flights of imagination are endorsed and defended.
That Aristotle felt called upon to describe and defend ‘poetic logic’ is a sign of the times in which he lived. Aristotle was a scientist, one of the finest products of a rationalistic age, but as experience shows, rationalists do not make good poets. The educated class of his day — increasingly cosmopolitan, irreligious and materialist in outlook — found it harder and harder to believe in the reality of the old gods, and harder to appreciate the old poetry, which seemed all so fabulous and unrealistic. The great age of Greek poetry was over: writers were giving up poetry for prose, and in the painting and sculpture of Aristotle’s time, too, realism was triumphant. The celebrated Zeuxis painted grapes so realistically that even birds were fooled and tried to eat them, but Aristotle thought his work lacked ethos — moral significance.
It seems that what we call the advance of civilisation turns us away from poetic wisdom and towards a more objective truth; we come to prefer actuality to possibility, the real to the imaginary. This may simply be a matter of progress, of the advance of reason. The Abbé Trublet, writing in 1754 and looking at the triumph of science and rationality in our epoch could predict that:
As reason is perfected, judgement will more and more be preferred to imagination, and, consequently, poets will be less and less appreciated. The first writers, it is said, were poets. I can well believe it: they could hardly be anything else. The last writers will be philosophers.
Others have seen this process in a more negative light, as the way in which a civilisation loses its soul to materialism, grows old and sterile. But both views agree in seeing realism as the expression of a late and disenchanted age. Diderot, discussing Chardin, could sum things up with regard to painting in 1765:
. . . This type of painting they call [realist]* should be for old men or for those who are born old. It requires study and patience, no inspiration, not much genius, hardly any poetry, plenty of technique and truth, and that is all. Now you know that the time when we apply ourselves to what is called, as custom rather than experience would have it, the quest for truth, philosophy, is precisely the time when we are going grey at the temples and would look silly trying to write a love letter. You might think about this resemblance between philosophers and [realist] painters.
'Fossil Portrait', oil on linen, 90 x 45cm, 2005
Given the talk these days of ‘the death of painting’, it is amusing to see that painting was already old in 1765. Reynolds also talked of painting as a ‘dying art’ around the same time. As they say, it’s hard to kill a bad thing. Ars longa, vita brevis. Some processes take far longer than we can imagine, but may be inevitable nonetheless. Today, as a practitioner of painting, grinding my paints and preparing my oils, I cannot escape the feeling that I am practising an old art, at odds with the ways of the modern world. Diderot’s and Reynolds’ intuitions still feel relevant to me. They knew which way the wind was blowing: it blows that way still.
There are times when a painter finds himself born into a living tradition: others have already marked the path; he merely has to follow it, perhaps take it further. He is then the agent of a collective wisdom, a zeitgeist. Once his instincts are attuned to the collective sensibility, he can produce almost spontaneously, without the need for full awareness of what he does; his art is then ‘second nature’. This is an idealisation, of course, but still useful as a point of reference.
There are other times when the cultural tradition has become fragmented, confused or tired†. Then, the aspiring painter is forced to choose a path among competing theories and practices to determine what course he will take. Native disposition will, no doubt, play a part in his direction, but to clear a path he must try and separate truth from falsehood, wisdom from foolishness: somehow, he must piece together his own notions of truth, nature, goodness and beauty. Through such weighty deliberations, whether he wishes it or not, he becomes a philosopher.
When culture fails us, nature and objective truth become vital guides and aids. Just as we need to escape to the forests and hills to refresh ourselves from a life that has become overly artificial and technocratic, so the painter must put aside his camera and books of art theory, and clarify his vision by trying to record an unmediated image with an ‘innocent’ eye. If done in good faith, the result will always communicate a truth and a beauty, but this is only a starting point, a small part of what the art can encompass.
In my own work I have tried to span the worlds of reality and possibility, to present ‘unknown things with a relation to such things as are’. I call these Philosophical Paintings not as a profession of faith in my own special wisdom, but in explicit recognition of the dilemmas and duties that all painters face today. We must reassert Horace’s claim that ‘wisdom is the starting point and source’ of all that is good in art. If we wish to use painting as a mirror of the soul, an avenue to self-knowledge or a vehicle of high culture, we must unlock the power of the symbol, and with it, the mythopoeic imagination. But no painter can do this alone: there must be willing accomplices.
In my still-life paintings I have endeavoured to embody the honesty of realism; to capture the weight and feel of the real, its peculiar intractability and its tendency to get the better of us eventually, in one way or another. We need to come to terms with reality; it is the rock on which our ideals mostly founder, but it is also our foundation, ‘where all the ladders start’, and thus is fit for celebration.
Fruit Picker, oil on linen, 120 x 90cm, 2006, private collection.
I conceive my figures as symbolic, each the embodiment of an aspect of wisdom; the reflection of something in all of us. Each one responds to Gauguin’s three questions, and manifests a truth of the heart, both as an offering and as a challenge.
I hope you find the offering acceptable, and the challenge worth meeting.
This essay was originally published in Conor Walton: Philosophical Paintings, exhibition catalogue, Jorgensen Fine Art 2006.