Speaking about truth and truthful representation in art, an art educational approach

(With work from Edward Weston, Gerhard Richter and Maria Magdalena Campos-Pons)

How to be truthful in art, how to assess the truth in an art medium or discipline: it is an ongoing conversation that at the very least started in antiquity, some 2500 years ago, in the social circles of Socrates. We can find evidence for this in the writings of Xenophon, Memorabilia 3:17, where Socrates speaks to the painter Parrhesios about his art and elicits him to acknowledge that a painter, who is occupied with representing the visible, can and should strive to depict feelings and character in people. The way Socrates lectures Parrhesios in this account, makes it probable that this was a rather new idea at that moment. Since then thinking and developing of ideas about the arts, about what art is, does or should strive for, has always been an endeavour of philosophers as well as of artists. One of the focal themes is about representation, especially in the visual arts, and the pursuit of questions has been done as much in verbal language as in visual means.

To truly and faithfully depict reality with painterly means, to Parrhesios this would have meant to produce an imitation of ‘what meets the eye’ in terms of colour, light and dark, textural aspects of the surface, and of measurable aspects as distance and proximity, big and small. But as Socrates cleverly brings forward, the painter is also occupied by depicting more abstract subject matter such as beauty, or but also with other, relational types of visual qualification as young or old, and with portraying emotions,  feelings and ‘moral character’[1].

Different times, different preoccupations. In the Middle Ages of Europe, Christian beliefs dominated ideas of representation with respect to the what and how. The visual reality of the world we live in could be considered just a wretched appearance veiling the real, the realm of God. Truthful renderings of reality in visual terms could therefore be given in schematic, symbolizing ways, pointing to that other, much more real reality beyond. The language of visual means thus drastically altered, to only gradually altering to more naturalistic ways again, closer to classical tradition, at the end of the European Middle Ages, and the quest for evermore sophisticated means of illusionary representation.  I refer of course to the well-known story of the Renaissance and what followed, with roughly in the Enlightenment period the centre of mass consisting of balanced and idealised scenes of behaviour, with exteriorised theatrical value, and in the Romantic period gravitational forces lying in portrayal of feeling and the inner world, of the human condition.

Why is this relevant, to us, now? While artists and philosophers were involved by thinking about what to render and with what means, and out of their practical involvement with these issues were always very aware of the propagandistic nature of visual art, the general public always seems to be in big part just subjected to the visual politics that images effect on us. Since Socrates talked to Parrhesios, since Plato warned against the corrupting powers of the arts, since followers of the Jewish-Christian-Muslim belief stems were in their different ways restricted for, withheld from or warned against pictorial pursuits, since propagandistic wars have been fought with ever more visual force by ever more reproduction means, from the fifteenth century onwards, and since the invention of photography and all the tricks and possibilities the new technical means and medium provided for playing with our sighting – we are as easily fooled and confused as our predecessors by what meets our eye and the truth effects of visual renderings that fit our truth systems.

And maybe we are even more prey to the truth effects of our visuals, since our western world is drenched in the visual, and the project of modernity, of rerooting our visions of the world in becoming aware of the human mind as central pivot point, searching for rationality and objective knowledge, exploded in its own face. With respect to the fine arts, this explosion can be described with the proliferation of the art movements of the twentieth century, with their collective programs, with each its own claim to truth and the truth of art, and the scattering of them in the thousand and more individual pursuits of artists in the post-modern. In the last century the access of the public  to art may have grown considerably, but at the same time the general public does not seem to have become more outfitted to understand what artists are involved with or how they research or develop their proposals on looking and seeing. Also, the general public is more informed about and more aware of the power of ostensible propaganda and fake news and the use of psychological manipulation strategies in commercials, but at the same time we take so much for granted and process so many visual information at high speed that there is a lot we don’t see and don’t get at all, while being prey to it. An important task of art, therefore, is to keep on delving in the abyss between what we think we see and the what and what-nots out there at the other side, asking seemingly easy questions, as Socrates did, and seamlessly bringing in new relations to other questions that take you to other perspectives, getting under your collar as a lousy flea, making you aware and see. And an important task of art critics and art educators is to lay bare these questions in particular art works, and give them a background or broader canvas by relating them to relevant other questions and historical or societal themes or pursuits and explain them in such a way that the audience gains confidence and tools to confront this art works and other art works themselves.

An interesting field for who wants to open up art to other people within the roughly sketched framework above, is to think about which art works fit the purposes of the educational effort of giving access to art and to critical thinking. I myself am invested in this, and have found art that takes up photographic realism and departs from this by mixing it with other media very rewarding. One example is the work of Edward Weston (see figure 1).  

‘Pepper no 30’ clearly shows in its photographic realism a plain bell pepper, while at the same time giving it to the viewer glossy and stylized, and so tender in its contrasts and grey tones, that the loving care and consolance the two halves of the pepper seem to give each other, play tricks upon our empathy system. The aesthetization of the bell paper seems to be born of a complete incorporation of pictorial conventions and discoveries of painting, for example the dramatic chiaroscuro effects, and bringing it to a new dimension by another medium, namely photography. The presentation moves us, as it is gets us involved with the human condition of the bell pepper on the one hand, and the human condition of the image on the other hand: the being made visible by and for the human eye.

Work of Gerhard Richter provides us with a very different view. This famous German artist has worked in different media and made diverse work in his long career, but what I want to bring in the spotlight here are his photo-paintings.  Art writer and scholar Rosemary Hawker focusses on these in her beautiful essay ‘The idiom in photography as the truth in painting’.[2] In this article she explains how Gerhard Richter manages to shed light upon the structures of visuality of the two media involved in these works. He does this by painting a photograph, but not via reproducing the seemingly transparent, unmediated vision photography constructs on its objects, but by rendering it via the effects that are usually regarded as technical defects of photographs. For example, the being out of focus of a registered object, the characteristic streaky blurring of shutter speed-errors by registering moving subjects, et cetera. Richter shows ‘the truth of the limits of representation in both media’ by doing this, as Hawkers explains.[3]  One of the examples Hawker gives, is the work ‘Two Fiats’ (see figure 2).

De bronafbeelding bekijken
Figure 2
‘Two Fiats’ (1964), Gerhard Richter
https://www.photoscala.de/2011/02/24/raetselhafte-stille/, accessed at 6-6-2020

In this painting the citation of photographic idiom is unmistakably present, striking the eye at first sight. The title of the work, ‘Two Fiats’, adds to this, by giving a specificity of information that is not at all to be seen in the image itself, as you can only imagine the horizontal stripy patches to be two speed-blurred cars and will be led to identify these as cars not so much because of the forms of the patches themselves, but because of what seems to be white centre stripes on tarmac and thereby the suggestion of a road. In the painting a photographic repertoire is therefore also suggested by the type of photograph that is represented: that of the snaphot –like, unmeddled with, documentary type, the proverbial photograph as the real and exact registration of reality.

The constructive work the viewer has to do to make sense of the image, and the average viewer will probably try to do this via asking questions about the representation itself, (‘what can I recognise, why is it so difficult to recognise the pictorial representation, what does it mean that I am obstructed to look at what should be Fiat’s?, is this about velocity?) is done exactly the other way round by Hawker in her interpretation. She offers a deconstruction via the form in the photo-paintings of Richter, and via the idea that these forms have their own grammar, their own visual language and that these are inherent to a medium and make up a discipline.

Hawker claims that the procedure Richter applies, the painting of a photograph and deliberately choosing an out of focus photo (or to even paint very detailed photographs in rich detail and then blur them with paint), results in citing photographic idiom so as to represent truth in painting and so at the same time presents ‘the truth of the limits of representation in both media, all media’.

After this, to conclude her article, she takes the argument to yet another level. I cite: ‘The truth of representation is, like Parhassios’ curtain, that all representation takes place as a staged, mediated event where curtain, paper, canvas are the transport for the idea. This greater, encompassing truth is only made evident through the rendering of photographic idiom in painting.  (…) Painting needs the supplement of the photographic idiom in order to set the contours of both media atremble and to make these “truths” visible’. [4]

With these statements I think she takes it a bridge too far. “Parhassios’ curtain” refers to the ancient story of the painters Parhassios and Zeuxis, who were both claimed to paint breathtakingly realistic. Zeuxis was reported to having fooled the birds, as they came for eating the fruits on his painting. He himself however was taken by surprise when he wanted to push away a curtain on Parrhasios’ painting to have a better view of the painted scene. While Richter’s photo-paintings surely can explained or positioned as to convey a theoretical critique on the limits of representation, and to impersonate the argument in an exemplary way, of course the limits of representation and the fact that ‘all representation takes place as a staged, mediated event’ is not only made evidentthrough the rendering of photographic idiom in painting.  As Parrhesios’ curtains can be claimed to foresee some 2500 years ago, theatre has been ‘breaking the fourth wall’ for ages, as painting also has done while using illusionistic representational measures. The idea of Hawker holds when you want to point especially at the limits of representation of photography, but of course photography’s representational limits have also been shown in other ways. What the photo-paintings of Richter bring is a metaview on both media, by waiving the representational subject. Other kinds of bringing the limits into focus the representational limits do often so via the subject. A photograph of Maria Magdalena Campos-Pons can maybe serve as an example here, see figure 3.

Figure 3
‘Identity could be a tragedy’, Maria Magdalena Campos-Pons (1995), accessed at 7-7-2020, https://www.worcesterart.org/exhibitions/past/campos.html

This is a photograph of a series that focus on the gaze of the spectator, identifying the subject in the portraits as man or woman with a brown skin colour with white paint sprinkled on; gradually fading out as the print is whitened, whitening the subject. Here leverage is provided for narratives to unfold, about categorisation, identifying and identity. While photography is being used to provide this leverage, the narrative is also slipping out of it as the portraits seem to hold and not to hold in the whitening, as the person by its contour seems to resist the forces of narrative, categorisation and photography gives up.

As educator, I think also this work brings into focus the limits of representation and shed light upon the subject of how art can speak the truth, as it brings in the language of the medium of the body and that of photography. So I would amend Hawkers conclusion about what her analysis brings us with respect to the truth of representation that I cited above as follows (I put in my alterations in italics):

‘The truth of representation is, like Parhassios’ curtain, that all representation takes place as a staged, mediated event where curtain, paper, canvas, body, object are the transport for the idea. This greater, encompassing truth is only can be made beautifully evident through the rendering of photographic idiom in painting, as Richter does in his photo-paintings.  (…) When painting needs uses the supplement of the photographic idiom in order to it can set the contours of both media atremble and to make these “truths” visible’.[5]

As a last point I’d like to bring up something else against Hawker’s claim that only the inclusion of the idiom of painting can really bring to the light the inherent limits of the medium of photography to speak the truth about representation. The photographs of Jan Dibbets, for example, are exemplary in that they foreground the surface of the photograph, thereby also showing photography is not a window giving access to reality.

[1] Xenophon, Memorabilia 3:17

[2] Rosemary Hawker, ‘The idiom in photography as the truth in painting’, The South Atlantic Quarterly 101:3 (2002) pp. 541-554

[3] Hawker, ‘The idiom’, p. 553

[4] Hawker, ‘The idiom’, p.553

[5] Hawker, ‘The idiom’, p.553


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