Wednesday, June 26, 2013

Narrative Image-Making Goes Where It Is Needed

In response to my previous, artist and mensch Richard Meyer commented on Facebook:

What I dislike about much modern art theory is this idea that each art form aspires and should aspire to some kind of purity, with a particular disdain for narrative in painting. This quote from Whistler came up in a discussion recently.... "Art should be independent of all claptrap — should stand alone, and appeal to the artistic sense of eye or ear, without confounding this with emotions entirely foreign to it, as devotion, pity, love, patriotism, and the like." I don't believe that at all.

It just so happens that I'd been percolating on some ideas related to this, so now seems like as good a time as any to set them down.

First of all, I agree with Richard. My knowledge of the history of art theory and criticism has enormous gaps, but the issue he's describing comes up in film theory as well, fairly rapidly in the short history of film: an objection to film as filmed-theater or filmed-literature, and a demand for a purity of cinematic aesthetics.

For its appeal, this argument depends on lumping together disparate things: narrative filmmaking, and the kind of turgid filming of plays and literature which had all but disappeared by 1930. The flaw in the argument is the unstated assumption that narrative is a creature of language. If anyone making this argument actually conceded this assumption explicitly, the entire case would immediately fall apart. Narrative is obviously not a creature of language. It is the offspring of reality, which generates it, and reason, which apprehends it, by whatever means reason finds handy: language, sound, picture, smell, mathematics, what-have-you. Perhaps the relation is more heavily weighted on the side of reason; the mind will seek and find cause and effect even where none exist.

Despite the transparent absurdity of the pure-aesthetic argument, for the time being it has certainly triumphed in painting. Whistler thought he could open the floodgates but keep his moody skies and fancy wallpapers. He was wrong.

Even among the figurative painters, virtually nobody is making narrative paintings. Can you think of anyone apart from Eric Fischl and David Hockney even attempting paintings with the degree of dramaturgical sophistication which we were just now finding in Rubens?

Fischl recognizes this issue and describes its application to his Krefeld Project paintings in his new memoir, which, in case you were wondering, is very good:

Krefeld Project synthesized the storytelling devices I'd been exploring throughout my career. ... I used multiple points of view and montage to produce cinematic effects. But the paintings still had to work on their own - not only as snapshots or interrelated scenes in a larger narrative, but as intense individual dramas vividly capturing the wounds and disappointments of a troubled relationship. Though I was still manipulating color, form, and gesture to create mood, conflict, and mystery, I was drawing my inspiration from outside the cloistered art world - outside painting in particular, which had long ago abandoned the dramatic narrative - and drawing on techniques from the other arts.

- Bad Boy, p. 332, Eric Fischl and Michael Stone, 2012

Eric Fischl, Krefeld Project: Sun Room Scene 1, 2002

Compare Fischl's commentary with that of movie director Hal Hartley:

I am very affected by Bresson... Sometimes it's just an emotional clarity that I sense in his films, that I try to bring to mine when I'm writing. When I'm shooting too. Bresson cuts right past everything that's superfluous and isolates an image that says exactly what it's meant to say.

In Surviving Desire, I show Jude's hand reaching across a table to almost touch Sophie's hand. My treatment of that action struck me as Bressonian. Recognizing that the gesture itself was expressive. Nothing else was needed. ... A lot of my experience over the past four or five years as a filmmaker has been in finding out what I need and what I'm going to look at it in order to tell a story. ... I always thought that this particular shot in Surviving Desire would be done in close-up or two matching singles. I thought it was their faces that were important at that moment. But it wasn't. It was their hands and nothing else.

- from Hal Hartley: Finding the Essential, an Interview by Graham Fuller, p. xiii (introduction to the Faber and Faber edition of the screenplays of Simple Men and Trust)

Surviving Desire, dir. Hal Hartley, 1993

Let me share a little secret with you. What Hartley is describing here is a total commonplace in film aesthetics. Hartley isn't special because he thinks this way. He's special because he's very good at it and he can verbalize what he's doing. But all directors can or do grasp the basic concept.

Among painters? Absolutely fuck-all nobody. It is as if the entire contemporary field had been lobotomized, with the possible exception of Fischl and mid-career Hockney. I think probably most of the older Big painters, like Rubens, had the directorial eye for staging which we are discussing.

Although this directorial eye has fled painting, it has not fled the visual arts. It has gone where it is needed, as things will tend to do. It is alive and well in other branches of the visual arts.

This is from p. 57 of Jaime Hernandez's Chester Square, volume 13 of the compiled Love and Rockets.

As you know, Jaime's work changed my life, and is never far from my mind. I have removed the words from this passage so that you can see how it was designed to be legible on a purely visual basis. Let's read it together:

Panel 1: A shapely woman walks down the deserted sidewalk of an urban neighborhood in the dead of night.

Panel 2: An old woman has fallen asleep in her chair, lit by harsh streetlamps.

Panel 3: The old woman has awakened - a sound must have disturbed her. The young woman?

Panel 4: The old woman pulls aside some curtains, revealing the younger woman at the window. The young woman's expression conveys that she is sad. She is not situationally sad. Rather, a heavy sadness has snuck up on her, a recognition of a set of conditions which has persisted for a long time now, and which has changed her without her noticing. Suddenly aware of this sadness, she has come late at night to this house in this working-class neighborhood. Therefore, the old woman is her mother.

Panel 5: The young woman has come inside. We see that she is young and beautiful and dressed in a more cosmopolitan way than her mother. She says something - an explanation? a question? a complaint? She turns her head away from her mother, wraps her arms around herself: she is trying to comfort herself and demonstrate her self-sufficiency. She is not ready yet to admit to herself why she came here. By contrast, her peasant-like mother understands and accepts her daughter's visit in the middle of the night: she holds her hands up toward her, inviting her daughter to set aside her burdens.

Panel 6: Mother comforts daughter. For all her youth, beauty, sophistication, and accomplishment, nothing could console the daughter tonight except the embrace of her mother. The daughter returns to herself in her mother's arms. She finds peace and hope, the promise of happiness, of finding a better way to live.

Six panels. No words. Visual narrative storytelling.

Not one painter living today can stage so efficient, complex, and moving a narrative. And yet Jaime Hernandez is like Hal Hartley. He is not categorically different from the vast number of artists working in his field. He is simply very good at doing something universally understood among comic book artists.

But let's go farther. There's another field where visual narrative is urgently needed, and where it is in full flower. If you, like me, live in New York City and take the subway, you will have seen some version of the following poster for the current Tyler Perry-produced movie, Peeples:

I have once again removed the text so that we can interpret this purely visually. Let me tell you what I see, and you can see if you agree. Reading left to right, there is a father (he's got a bald head and white in his beard). He is not a mean guy, but he can be stern when the situation warrants. Right now, the situation definitely warrants. He is displeased. But there is an edge of laughter to his pursed mouth. He can hardly keep himself angry. Why?

Because he's mad at his daughter, the center figure. His daughter is obviously beautiful and talented and might make much of herself. Father and daughter have a very close, loving relationship. The father is proud of her, and doesn't want to see her screwing up. For her part, she recognizes his concern, and even acknowledges its validity, but at the same time, she is not entirely convinced to obey his recommendation. Why? Because she is coming into her own, and she is going to have to begin to make her own decisions as an independent adult woman.

Which means the guy on the right can only be her love interest. And he is a comical schmuck. In the moment portrayed here, he has once again stumbled into some kind of a situation which can only have just godawful consequences for him. He knows better, but the imp of the perverse keeps him in a state of boyish fecklessness. If he wants to keep the woman, he's going to have to grow up - because she doesn't entirely disagree with her dad's evaluation of him as a loser who is not worthy of her. She's got love for him, but he could use it up, and be back out on his ass, romantically speaking.

I haven't seen Peeples, but how far off could this analysis possibly be? It's going to be something that, if not exactly like this, is very close to it. This poster is a miracle of narrative exposition using an absolute minimum of means. Just three faces, and three expressions, and a deep understanding of how human beings construct meaning from observation.

You could argue that I'm getting a lot out of this poster because I have a higher degree of visual literacy than your average New York City subway passenger. I think this misstates it. I think everyone looking at this poster gets pretty much the same things out of it. All my visual literacy buys me is the ability to understand how I'm seeing what I see and to put those mechanisms into words. But the seeing - that's universal. That's what functional visual narrative is all about. You don't need to be a specialist to receive its meaning.

So what I'm saying is that some anonymous poster designer drawing a paycheck from the marketing department at Lionsgate did a better job of achieving narrative complexity in the category of the still picture than every single fine art painter currently active.

And yet, it would be fair to argue that this is not the most awe-inspiring formal composition in the world. Three faces, bam bam bam. Let us turn our attention to last year's This is 40:

Complex deep space, jarringly narrow vertical elements, coordination of color and value, subtle balance underlying superficially unbalanced pictorial objects, organic canted distribution of items in order to achieve a feeling of naturalness. This is not a great composition, but its designer understands and makes use of all of the tools of great composition.

The scene: the bathroom of a hip but professional upper-middle-class couple. Their  hipness is clear from her ponytail and his shaggy hair, their gym-toned bodies, and the casual presence of the iPad. Their professionalism is manifested in the stripped-down bathroom decor, the muted clothes, the finicky hygiene implied by the rituals of extended tooth-brushing and face-washing. And the class is made clear by the new, faux-antique fixtures in a bathroom with a separate sub-room for the toilet.

The characters: husband and wife, married long enough to have progressed from mutual discovery, to domestic comfort, to creeping ennui.

The action: oblivious to how he might be coming across, the husband, sitting on the pot, casually addresses his wife about something he thought of in response to an article on his iPad. The wife looks up and has a moment of clarity. How did this become her life? Where's the romance, or, failing romance, the simple decorum? Suddenly, years of small annoyances have abruptly overwhelmed her defences, and an interior avalanche is starting - this very minute, it's starting - she is about to hit the ceiling and her life has got to change.

All that from a simple poster. Compositional sophistication, socioeconomic context, character, emotions, events, transformations.

This, folks, is a great movie poster. And not only is it a great movie poster, it's a great example of visual narrative storytelling. We painters have completely lost our ability to stage anything even remotely as advanced as this. Movie poster designers do it every day of the week. Why? Because it's their job to sell movies. They've got one instant to tell you whether you want to see this movie, and they had better produce an image both clear and appealing to do the job. Visual narrative has gone where it is needed, and there are few needs deeper than selling product.

Why can't painters do this anymore? That is a different, and longer, essay. There are many reasons I can see, so I'm sure there are even more that I don't see. But I think that what it boils down to is this: we have lost faith. Having lost faith, we eventually lost the internal organ tasked with visual narrative storytelling. It atrophied and became as inert as a little appendix, buried quietly in the brain.

If we decide we would like to pick up these powerful tools again, we must not only put down our cynicism and, with the most painful naivete, regain the faith, we must regrow the organ - revive the old one, or evolve a new one. It will be no easy process, nor can identifying the process determine that it is a process worth undertaking. Do we really want to make visual narratives again?

I don't know. I kind of do. It's something I'm going to keep in mind. But I am very lucky, I am prone to faith.


  1. Posing a different scenario: maybe modern painters are so familiar with the centuries of narrative painting that they choose NOT to do it, and try something different.
    Lori & I watched a Charlie's Angels last night. We were talking, not paying attention - but at this one scene, we both knew this guy was going to die a split second before his car blew up. We were hardly watching the show: but we knew when, to the second, an important plot point was going to happen.
    Okay, Charlie's Angels is lame. But the point - maybe it's not that we've lost the ability for narrative, but that we are so nauseatingly familiar with it that it seems old fashioned and fails to move us. I don't think that's because something has died in us and we need to renew our faith in an old thing - that seems counter-intuitive - and basically an exercise in drudgery. It's more just that familiarity breeds contempt. It's why narrative has been relegated to the forms you mentioned - selling movies & pop-culture.
    Part of art is to search for new forms & liberate us from our assuredness in things we just know & believe too damn well.

    1. Steve - thanks for reading! And "Charlie's Angels" is *terrible.* You're describing a moment in the category of what my friend Mac has labeled "that's your ass" moments - times when it is obvious the next thing that will happen to a character is that he's going to die.

      I see your point, but doesn't this reduce to the general argument with regard to every single thing, "It's been done, and done to death"? That is, there are no new concepts. Not even the new concepts are new. And given how much we lose when we lose narrative, almost like becoming mute, I do think it's worth rethinking having given up on it. I'm not recommending reviving the old faith; I tend to think we will have to make a new one.

      What you see as relegation to degenerate forms, I see as relegation to forms that retain the qualities painting lost - an urgent need to transmit information using the vocabulary the tools enable. They happen to be "low culture," but painting used to be too, when it was expected that it would communicate rather than express; a major issue I didn't feel like introducing into the essay.

      Anyhow, that's my thinking. Thanks for pushing against it though, you know that's how I grow.

  2. Hey Daniel, I hope you don't mind my copying my FB comment.
    Thanks for the link, Daniel, and you make a very strong expository narrative in your essay. Painters who simply say that the old narrative forms are exhausted are often working in modernist forms that are 50-100 years old and equally exhausted. The pop and conceptual artists of the 60s and 70s realized this, for better or worse, but they've been dominating the major league art world with that ever since, while ever claiming to be new. You're correct that narrative went into movies and comics. But painters need not do narrative in the same way. You mentioned Fischl, but I would add Vincent Desiderio, Daniel Lezama, F Scott Hess and probably others. (As is clear from conversations where I've expressed my own tastes, and with the multitude of personal styles, sometimes artists do what we say artists should do, but we still don't like the way they do it. One of the reasons we have to each try to do it ourselves!) But my point is that the narrative need not be clear... it can have a visual logic that resonates and feels like it must mean something, though I distinguish that from some surrealism where the juxtapositions just feel arbitrary. I think that's part of the appeal of old allegories where the meaning is unknown, at least to a layperson, but the image still feels powerful and complex. But you make the primary point that just as contemporary artists need not give up on naturalistic rendering, or painting itself, just because it's old and it's difficult, they needn't give up on the idea of narrative either.

    1. Not at all. I will simply paste my FB reply!

      Richard - Thanks for another thoughtful comment; I think the thing I would most want to explore further would be something you touch on, which I think is a real and powerful thing, which is an aesthetic phenomenon one would call sense-of-narrativeness. This is distinguished not only from mere juxtaposition, which is indeed obviously that when one looks at it, but also from actual narrative storytelling, where one can ultimately figure out what is going on in a fairly narrative way. Sense-of-narrativeness is interesting because it interacts directly with our cognitive mechanism for sensing a story, which it turns out is not based in successful decoding of a story. I would put Fischl in this category, reflecting on it further, as well as some Balthus, and some Harold Pinter plays and David Lynch scenarios...

  3. Okay: my point about familiarity breeds contempt..
    We are a moving culture. The E Type jaguar is one of my fav cars - but they had to keep making new ones - even though most all of them aren't as beautiful as the E-Type.
    Sci-fi movies of the 50's have HORRIBLE special effects. Even the first digital effects look bad now. I saw Superman - didn't like it, but the effects were state of the art. I still love Alien - but my eye will never be the same after seeing the effects in Superman - makes Alien more & more dated (and in fear of looking silly - noooo..!!). Visual things continue to evolve and our eye becomes more sophisticated (yeah that is a popcorn example - our eye becomes more sophisticated but our mind turns to mush, sure. But did grand old narrative paintings do much more?).
    Point; yes it DOES reduce the argument to "everything's been done to death". Yep, that be fact. Given that, I don't believe there is a way to make a new narrative faith. Narrative, by nature, is as old as the hills. There is no new narrative - they produce old narrative in new ways or use technology as new narrative devices. In TV & movies, they muddy characters (so we have anti-heros & morally ambiguous characters) and muddy narratives to make you think you don't know what's going on - they temporarily mystify you. Or like LOST - they wind out a huge interesting narrative that spellbinds you, but can't end it.
    I don't think narrative has been given up on - as we've said, it's our main form of entertainment. But the question is: what is art supposed to be today? Are we still placing art (morally, qualitatively) above entertainment? I know you feel the sad state of narrative art is because we've we've lost the capacity, & your thinking on this (at least in the past) is that to revive narrative art takes a kind of supreme moral trial-by-fire, and that no one today is willing to do this. I worked in design/advertising as you know. Those guys who made the good narrative movie poster - they aren't that moral! :)
    Narrative, even in Rubens, is on level with Soap Opera. They needed it back then cause they couldn't read. What made Ruben's awesome wasn't the narratives in his painting, but how he executed it. A Rubens is a great big beautifully done soap opera, painted with old-world religious wonder that let him create such beauty with light & form.
    When painters do a serious narrative painting, they mostly wind up looking constipated, hermetic. Serious narrative is taken seriously mostly nowadays where it's ok to be sincere: in the Geekdom realm.

    1. Steve -

      Point by point:

      Moving culture - aren't you among the people who is anxious about things like resource depletion and pollution and climate change and so forth? This is, it is generally believed, the material end-game of the moving culture you're describing. And I would imagine that you would advocate for a more sustainable way of living... I wouldn't, and I also wouldn't equate technological rate of change necessarily with cultural rate of change. But given that you would, and moreover that it is reasonable to guess you have an anxiety about the technological rate of change, of planned obsolescence... shouldn't there be cultural repercussions to a switch to sustainable practices? Doesn't this mean we need sustainable art as well?

      This is not actually an argument I would frame - not exactly like this - but I think it's an argument that is matched to the claims you're making in the first paragraphs. Or, conversely, if you want to seriously advance these claims, you should also seriously advance a claim in favor of styrofoam and telephones with six-month lifespans.

      "Everything's been done before": this is your summary of an idea which I think is too expensive. What I mean is, it seems informed and worldly, but it doesn't actually buy the holder anything but the pose. And it costs the holder everything they need in order to survive. I too can recognize that *much* has been done before, but I prefer my sincerity with regard to my goals. It allows me to keep trying. You're saying that narrative has been done before, therefore narrative is no longer a sincere option. But you can't fence off narrative alone; you have to include the figure, and representation itself. And in fact, you do include these. But it does not make you happy, because you were born to paint the figure and to make representational paintings. So what you get is a lot of tearing yourself apart over it. Some of this has improved your work, because you weren't complacent about your assumptions. But much of it has, I think, simply stood against your work, and I would rather see ideas be scourged than work.

      With regard to narrative in Rubens - oddly, you are making the classicist argument, that it's all this disegno and brushwork that makes him special. But I don't think this is fair to Rubens, or ever has been. I resonate with the formal qualities of paintings, but I think of psychological insight as being at least as important a quality, and likely more so; for me, that is. Not for everyone. And it is in this realm that Rubens is always getting short shrift, simply because he painted very well. But he also understood people very well. He was very good at the human drama. This is not soap opera, but tragedy. He is closer to Shakespeare than to Grey's Anatomy. And if you want to call Shakespeare soap opera too, then either the term doesn't mean anything, or you're really just saying that storytelling itself is degenerate. But that's not a position from which we can negotiate any kind of an agreement, because it seems so alien to me...

      I will agree with you that painters doing serious narrative paintings now often come off constipated and hermetic. Moreover, I will stand by the claim that serious narrative, like your beloved first-wave AbEx, does indeed take a moral effort; even if the monkeys making AbEx in a zoo with bananas and poo are not necessarily that moral either. Immoral people can adeptly use tools which require moral effort when used for their moral potential.

      And finally, your last point is well taken. I think we all have much, but not everything, to learn from the geeks.

  4. Daniel, I think one of the problems I have with your analysis of contemporary narrative in painting is your expectation that a quickly and easily read narrative scene should be the goal of a painter using narrative today. Advertising, comics, and movie posters have a need to deliver content instantly, because sales or story movement depend on it. Once the viewer gets the idea, I would argue that the image is dead. It is like an opened email, read and discarded. The initial mystery of what might be in it dissolves into the known and already experienced.

    All of your examples were also easily explained in words, and not too many words at that. I would hope that a good painting remains indescribable, that even after years of looking at it something in the image still intrigues and mystifies. The best things in painting are those things words can't convey; movement, empathy, color, form, and pure visual excitement.

    A painting has the ability to carry multiple, and utterly conflicting meanings. That is one of the great things about painting. It is not a linear progression through a story, but a presentation of all points in time at once, and with that comes the possibility of presenting elements that undermine and even totally disrupt conventional narrative. In using some conventional elements of narrative in my painting, the idea is not to quickly and easily lead the viewer to a conclusion, but to give the viewer an idea of where the narrative is going, and then open up paths for exploration of multiple possibilities. -F. Scott Hess

    1. That doesn't really present an argument for non-narrative painting, but rather an argument for retaining some ambiguity in the narrative as to leave it open to multiple, possibly conflicting explanations.

      But that's different than just being vague. It takes knowledge of narrative implications, like how a gesture frozen in time could mean two opposite things if framed in a certain way, how an expression could be contextualized differently, and so forth. So when you see it a narrative pops out at you immediately, but when you look at it again, you start to notice there are some problems with that open-and-shut case, and so forth.

      Personally I see everything as representational and potentially if not actually a narrative. Then again, most of what I do is poetry so perhaps that informs my bias.

  5. Dammit, you came across this post after all. How, out of 200 posts, is this the one everyone read?

    I appreciate your point, although I would not only argue for Jaime Hernandez as the artistic equal of anyone working in painting today, but would also like to underline that I deployed substantially the same analytic apparatus and experienced a similar emotional response in considering his work and the Rubens work in the annoyingly overlooked prior Rubens post.

    I restricted my discussion of actual living painters to Fischl and Hockney in part because they are distant painters, unlikely to read this entry and with careers sufficiently stellar to make them completely impervious to praise or condemnation from somebody in my position.

    You, on the other hand, are a near painter; you are somebody I would tend to know. If you look at the things I write about painters I would tend to know, I either write uniformly positively, or only about aspects of the work about which I have uniformly positive feelings. That's the most I think I am ethically allowed, as a working painter, to write. To criticize publicly would be unfair. If I were only a critic, it would be fair. But I'm not. I'm also in career competition, however faintly, with every one of the painters I write about. It would be wrong for me to accomplish an advantage as a painter from my work as a writer. So I only write about living sub-superstar painters when I have thoughts about their work that are both interesting (to me at least) and positive.

    Your work impresses the hell out of me, and I think you're tackling narrative in sophisticated and interesting ways. There are two things about it which ruled it outside coverage here: First, your mode of creation of narrative itself pertains only indirectly to the category of narrative I was describing in the piece. And second, my admiration of your work in this respect is not unalloyed. I still think a great deal of it, and in fact have mixed feelings about most painters whose work I like on average. But any mixed feelings at all on a topic pertinent to a possible piece of writing make the work out of bounds.

    1. Also - how *did* you come across this post?

  6. Daniel, I wasn't using my work as an example because I felt left out of your article, but because I've twice taught an MFA class on Narrative at LCAD and now understand what I do a little better! I've now given twenty hour-long lectures on the subject, so I've thought about it a lot. In most of my lectures the type of information I was looking for was exactly the kind of thing you were mentioning in both your Rubens essay and the most recent one. I wanted information that would help my students deliver content, and the majority of the slides were old master works… because they did clear narratives and invented the language. Most of the time I flipped around art historical analytics. I considered the story of a painting, then analyzed how the artist used visual elements to tell it, then extracted usable narrative methods from those lessons.

    However, I don't think a 21st century narrative painter is in the same position as old master painters, or should produce the same type of work. There was a much smaller audience then, with a much narrower world view. Christianity was a shared narrative; ethnic story lines were similar; the content of books was a shared knowledge; expectations of art were confined. Telling stories visually with clarity was expected, and the audience knew the touchstones of each story.

    Now advertising, photography, and illustration tell the clear narratives quite admirably. This leaves painting open to explore other means of presenting narrative. Some argue that narrative is dead, or a 'dead issue' as James Elkins suggested, but narrative is intrinsic to human understanding. Painting discards it at the peril of becoming irrelevant to society (and evidence of that happening is everywhere in the contemporary art world). In fact, the possibilities of narrative have a broader range than they ever have. We do not live in the same narrowly defined world that our painting forefathers did. As figurative & narrative painters, however, we do need to think about what special narrative abilities are inherent in our mode of expression.

    I would argue that the adverts you mentioned mean much less than what we painters do, but I'd also argue that Jaime Hernandez is an artist equal to any of us. But what he does in a graphic novel is fundamentally different than what we figurative painters do. That difference is temporal. You move 'through' a graphic novel, or a movie, a book, or a play. Narrative has everything to do with movement. Narrative in a graphic novel moves from panel to panel, telling a linear story, with a temporal order that is carefully coded for the viewer's enhanced understanding.

    The viewer moves 'around' in a painting, the explorative gaze going both where the artist directs it, and where the viewer wants to go. This movement is different because the whole field of vision is available at once. Time isn't just telescoped, it doesn't exist in a painting. As a painter you might depict a 'moment', but it is made timeless through its presentation. This necessitates a different way of looking. We stop trying to make linear sense of an image, and absorb it through associations of the elements. Some of the responses are directed by the artist, but others are already in the viewer's mind. This is a fertile area for contemporary narrative painters to explore.

    I gotta go. Wife says it is time to go swimming! -Scott

  7. Huh. There's lots of smart stuff up there, and I am still recovering from a shoulder op, so won't pretend to follow on from it. Just wanted to point out that there has been ongoing arguments about over here for years now - the public love him, art world hates him, on and on and on. He is said to be one of the richest painters in Britain. And, clearly, his talent is narrative.

    Also, as I think I've said to you before, I think that film, and even more the TV series, is the art form that carries narrative best these days. I think it still has a place, it can be a useful tool, but personally I'm quite happy not to provide any of those big confusing lots of people messy looking canvases Rubens and co specialised in. But that is a matter of personal taste - simple things for simple folks.

    1. I hope your shoulder heels rapidly, Jane, and you are soon back to your discus-throwing ways. I've actually seen Vettriano in bookstores here. He is indeed very good at narrative. I'm not a huge fan of his, and though I think the public overstates its case in the direction that publics tend to, I also think the art world overstates its case, just as our own does with regard to the much, much worse, but still important to think lucidly about, Robert Kinkade. I think it is wrong for the art world to consider itself too good to reflect seriously on what work speaks to people.

      Now I worry that this comes off as a harangue, as if I were telling you that *this* is the *true perspective,* but that's not what I'm doing at all. I'm just thinking with a keyboard...

      I agree with you about TV doing best with narrative now. And further that you are painting exactly the things you need to paint. Although if you ever decided to do a ten foot canvas with forty figures and two hundred cats, please post it somewhere that I can enjoy it.

  8. Well, I might get round to it someday - although getting two hundred cats in one place, sitting still, may be a challenge. As will be coming up with an interesting narrative for it!

    The shoulder op is to give me the option of doing ten foot canvases - I find it fascinating how much physical limitations affect artwork - in my case, not letting me use an easel very much constrains the size of support I have been able to use.

    Vettriano actually manages to be better in reproduction than in life, generally. But he does have talent - and he is going to have a show at the Kelvingrove, his first in a proper museum type place. Will be interesting to hear/read everyones opinions at that time. He is probably the most famous living artist in Britain and he puts a lot of "serious" artists off doing anything relating to narrative (especially involving a man and a woman). Shame, really.

    The Royal Academy this year has a room of tapestries by Greyson Perry - - who is another media fav who is keen on narrative - although not (yet) in oils. is Glasgow's best known artist and is also narrative heavy - the kind of thing I do, almost anti-narrative, is actually quite rare round my way.

  9. Have you ever read the haikus of the Japanese masters? Narrative is compacted into three tiny phrases; framed by syllabic limitations.

    A monk, traveler
    In the dense mist, goes missing
    His bright bell still rings.


    This is one reason I do not much like free-verse poetry (though it can provide the right frame for a particular mood) - it reminds me of a movie with no expected length or a book with no length-editor. It could be good, but it lacks parsimony,

    1. River - I'm having a hell of a time getting the blog to publish both of your comments. But I think your point is very good, and goes to Rodin's distinction between the photographic instant and the artistic moment. I am very much interested in the moment, and your description of the haiku-moment reads similarly to this concept to me. The density and ambiguity of meaning are longstanding interests of mine, and also are directly addressed by F. Scott Hess in constructive ways in the comments above.

      I hope all is well with you -