The other day, there was an announcement in the news that the oldest figurative paintings, cave paintings in Borneo, have been identified as being over 40,000 years old. We´ve been mixing color with some sort of medium and applying it to surfaces for a long time.
Someone once said something like this:
“Leonardo da Vinci was a great artist. Titian was a great painter.
Ingres was a great artist. Delacroix was a great painter.”
And the list continued right up through Rauschenberg and Johns.
What does that mean? What is the difference between a great artist and a great painter? It was a wonderful proposition, and no doubt was intended to be polemical. Maybe there isn´t really a correct answer, but somehow in debating we come to see painting and its position in art differently.
Paul Delaroche, a French painter has often been quoted as saying ‘from today, painting is dead‘. He said that after he saw one of the new daguerreotype photographs. And certainly, photography stripped painting of its mimetic purpose. Other people have occasionally repeated some version of that phrase; and then, whether it’s simply zeitgeist or a conspiracy, there seem to be a whole new spate of shows in Chelsea galleries featuring really strong painting. We’ve been at this for a long time.
Correggio, that wonderful Italian renaissance painter who was so gifted, there can be no other conclusion but that he was brought to our planet by aliens, has often been quoted, probably apocryphally, as saying, “Anch’io sono pittore” (I too am a painter!) upon seeing some works by Raphael. Even if he didn’t actually say it, the fact that someone would fabricate the sentiment is telling; for one great painter to recognize the familial connection with another within their shared media.
I’ve been gallery hopping here in Bogotá for over three years now, and I rarely see a lot of painting. (Jaime Franco and Luis Roldan have been wonderful exceptions.) There tends to be a lot more what you might call conceptual art here in Colombia. Colombia is a very different place than the US; and you might say that the differences are fundamental, going right down into the soul of the place. If a street vendor gets on the bus and says “good morning,” everyone on the bus replies, “good morning.” It’s the polite thing to do. You wouldn’t do that in New York City. The biggest difference I’ve felt in the galleries and open studios is that people have narratives about their art that they like to share. The idea of the art speaking for itself doesn’t appear to be that popular. You’ll see little narratives typed up in US galleries, too, but here it’s at another level.
Sometimes it’s great to hear the story behind a show – and I admit, I’ve gained from it. At other times, it seems gratuitous. But still, there is more often than not a strong feeling that the concept behind the art is critical. And there’s a great deal of what you’d call “conceptual art” here. And so it often comes up in conversation; what is it about the difference between painting and conceptual art?
It reminds me of the whole disegno/colore paragon that was popular during Correggio and Raphael’s time. Maybe, just maybe, the dialectic is off kilter. Perhaps there is a pattern between both of those oppositions; disegno/colore and conceptual/painting. For one, it’s obvious that a painting can often be quite conceptual, just as a work emphasizing great drawing can be glowing with color. Perhaps, the difference in both oppositions is the sense of planning versus process.
It was said that Ingres would paint his works in grisaille, and then overlay color. Obviously, that’s a pretty well-planned approach to making a painting. As opposed to Delacroix’s laying down brushstrokes, and “discovering” his image. It makes me think of architecture, in which someone wouldn’t think of constructing a house without very specific plans.
Coming from the tradition of the New York school of painting, I’ve always been submersed in the approach of working through the medium – the voice of the medium, as opposed to imposing ideas onto the medium. I like the idea of discovering the image; being surprised by it. In this, there is a connection to surrealism – the cadavre exquis. Chris Martin wrote , “We are trying to paint what we have never seen before.”
I have a feeling that “painters” have a lot to learn from the world of conceptual art – and some painters have shown that they’ve taken the lessons to heart. And that the obverse is true, too. The controversy really is only as valuable as it adds to our collective thinking.
(photo of hands in Borneo cave by Luc-Henri Fage, 1999, made available under the Creative Commons CC0 1.0 Universal Public Domain Dedication)
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