Category Archives: Starting (four essays)

Starting (4) Summary

 Jan Gossaert, Portrait of a Man, 1530 – 32, J Paul Getty Center, LA

The Love of Less

Between 1530 and 1532, Jan Gossaert (also known as Mabuse) painted a sober, half-length portrait of an elaborately dressed man. The sitter, his identity long forgotten, was later identified by art historians as Francesco de los Cobos y Molina, secretary and chief financial advisor to the Holy Roman Emperor Charles V (1500 – 58), whose kingdom extended across Europe and overseas into Spanish America. De los Cobos is shown tightly framed against an unrevealing backdrop of drapery and bare wall. And he has been described in publicity material produced by the J Paul Getty museum in Los Angeles, where the painting is currently on view, as “looking warily out at the viewer”. So on several levels, it’s an image with a strong sense of reticence and a somewhat secretive air.

But within this atmosphere of constraint three areas of visual complexity ask to be noticed, and unraveled. First, at top right, in the painting’s background, just above the sitter’s left shoulder, is a large yet compact knot of gathered fabric where the drapery has been pulled back to reveal, as noted, nothing but a bare portion of wall and a hint, perhaps, of door or window jamb. (In Hans Holbein the Younger’s almost contemporaneous painting, The Ambassadors of 1533 now housed in London’s National Gallery, the set-up is somewhat similar. In this double portrait of powerful men created for the court of Henry VIII of England, Holbein’s full-length figures are also placed against a ground of green drapery. But here the drapery is somewhat disarranged to reveal not only a minuscule portion of wall to the far left but also a glimpse of otherwise well-hidden crucifix, one of several overtly religious elements intervening into what would otherwise be a homage to worldly knowledge and power.)

Second (returning to the Gossaert), lower down and left of centre, a layering of emblems and symbols, part of the sitter’s clothing, draws the eye: a red cross emblazoned on his doublet, and a pendant, a bejeweled scallop shell, overlaying it. Both of these, we learn, were emblems of the chivalric Order of Santiago, Saint James the Greater, which aided scholars in the identification of the portrait.

Thirdly, and finally, at bottom left, there is the complicated node of the sitter’s hands. To my eyes, it is a fleshy analogue to that ‘clutch’ of fabric, already described, behind him. Forming the most active portion of this otherwise near static image, these hands at once gesture towards the viewer’s space or world, and seem to both grasp and proffer what appears to be a well-used, folded, leather-bound object.


Vade Mecum, early 15c

Vade Mecum and the Aesthetics of Less

This object is a vade mecum, structurally similar to the early fifteenth-century example shown here in its unfolded state. Literally meaning “go with me”, these were in effect early modern forms of mobile information technology containing summaries of the important facts and details — associated with certain professions or topics of expertise, for instance. They were portable checklists that could be quickly and easily consulted, so that an appropriate, rapid response could be made, a possibility that was greatly assisted by the vade mecum’s aesthetics, notably its pared down graphics and layout. For as is immediately apparent in the example pictured here, we see what we might, today, call a concept map where not only the nature but also the format of the information being communicated are crucial. What’s given is a web-like flow of data that presents itself as comprehensive and cohesive (thus memorable — the brain responds to strong patterns or ‘Gestalts’) but not necessarily as complete. For visually, the many blank spaces leave room for further, perhaps even divergent, detailing should this become appropriate. As such, the vade mecum functions both as a retainer of existing knowledge and, being at once structurally taut and open-ended, as a potential springboard for further thought. Or, changing metaphors, a kind of temporal hinge between past, present, and possible future ways in which knowledge might unfold. Which brings me to my next point about the relationship between the containing/enabling aesthetics of the vade mecum and of the summary more generally, and of the summary’s power to motivate.

Jonathan Ford, Public Intellectuals and the financial crisis', Prospect, January 2010

Activating Crisis

Properly speaking, motivation is a force that needs to be regenerated on an ongoing basis. But there are specific times and places — as well as objects (the vade mecum for instance) — that stand out as being particularly culturally empowered to do this. Take, for instance, the usual start-up rituals that recur within the public domain each New Year, on television and in the press: the publication of reviews and surveys of the previous twelve months (top-tens, best and worst, over- and under-rated, and most promising), of predictions, and resolutions.

One such appeared in the January 2010 issue of Prospect magazine: Jonathan Ford’s two-page, caricatured (by Brain Gable), survey-cum-listing ‘Public intellectuals and the financial crisis’. Of particular interest here was not only that it attempted to compress and evaluate a particular time period. It also, of course, attempted to survey a situation of ongoing, global crisis and present a variety of possible, productive responses to it: “The financial crisis has destroyed both wealth and received wisdom” — Fords’ opening lines. “The idea that prices are always right and markets self-correct is fatally challenged,” he continued.  “Even Alan Greenspan [Chairman of the Federal Reserve of the USA from 1987 – 2006] admits the ‘whole’ intellectual edifice’ of the efficient market hypothesis collapsed in the summer of 2008. The financial establishment is in a state of deep confusion… But this is not a bad thing, for it has opened up new ways of thinking about markets, institutions and the all-important cause of financial reform.”

And of course this position, that a state of collapse or ruin can be a generator of important new perspectives, is a powerful one. In fact, this is often precisely how the most remarkable developments in learning take place — not by continuing to build neat edifices on already existing foundations, brick upon customized brick, but by grappling with the realization that certain knowledge-contexts or circumstances have changed, once-familiar intellectual landmarks have disappeared, and bearings have (temporarily) been lost. What is valuable about Ford’s survey is that it has quite a lot of reveal about the particular kinds of intellectual work that are involved in transforming such initially de-motivating situations, in which it is not clear what to think or do next, into ones that are highly energizing and motivational.

In the Prospect project, crisis was activated by seeking out and listening to what were considered to be the “unfamiliar voices” that had come to prominence within it, and assessing who had been the most influential. And, here, as Ford put it, “Our criteria were simple. Anyone who had made an impact on policy with their ideas, or who had changed the ‘public conversation’ was a candidate.”

When Less is More

The word ‘summary’ when used as an adjective applies to decisions or actions that have been performed speedily and without formality. It is frequently taken to suggest a lack of care or rigour that is often (and often accurately) also associated with what’s commonly called our sound-bite and snap shot culture. But the best summaries, though short and quick to read, are not necessarily quick to compile. Perhaps it was to underline this fact that, in the report section of ‘Public intellectuals and the financial crisis’, Ford set out the practical procedures that had been involved in the summary’s creation: “Prospect assembled a panel of experts to draw up a list… and then to decide on the most important… The panel sifted hundreds of names, with an unavoidable bias towards Britain and the US, but felt that the most important contributions had been in financial reform — those trying to work out what to do next… We considered… and gradually whittled the names down to a shortlist…” In a separate section, he also named those who’d been involved.

Once choices had been made, four different approaches to summarization were used to publish the results. At the top right of Ford’s double-page spread was a top-three section with one-sentence biography-cum-summaries of the individuals and achievements deemed to be the most important. Below, even shorter and pithier biographies of the remaining top twenty-five were listed alphabetically in three columns. To the left, Ford contextualized and elaborated on the accomplishments of the top three in the form of a one-page report, paying particular attention to the “clear winner,” American economist, agitator and blogger, Simon Johnson. And finally, but most visually arresting — though never overly referenced in the article itself —  there were Gable’s caricatures of selected individuals, ten altogether, including the top three: Johnson, Avinash Persaud, and Adair Turner.

So, both the selection and the documentation processes were collaborative and carefully considered, with the visual and aesthetic dimensions of the summary also playing a crucial role. Particularly the drawings, not only because they punctuated and helped choreograph the layout, making a fraught topic visually appealing, but also because they compressed a good deal of extra-textual information about the individuals portrayed (both factual and emotive), increasing the richness of what was being conveyed overall. Take Gable’s picture of Johnson, for instance. Described in Ford’s text as “leading the argument against overmighty banking”, Gable portrays him, crumple-suited, facing us in the classic victory pose of the mountaineer who has reached the summit of some mountain — but his expression is sardonic since there is no mountain, only a pile of beige rubble at his feet, the remains of a collapsed financial district, with a discarded ‘citygroup’ sign propped against its base. As with the article overall, then, here too is a lesson in the fine art of insightful brevity. (For a strong sense of the very active and revisionary decision-making involved in Gable’s image-making see the short video of Gable at work on the website of the Toronto newspaper for which Gable regularly works, the Globe and Mail.)

Heart Knowledge

Most in the top-twentyfive list, of course, including the top three, were financiers or financial analysts of one kind of another. What was valued here was not only their proven willingness to face hard facts, and the quality of their intellectual or strategic interventions, but also their willingness to be proactive in standing up and speaking out. Also noted in this respect was the power of a particular form of contemporary communication, the specialist blog, in which expertise is generally combined with a strong sense of personal perspective and passion. Johnson’s “must-read” blog was mentioned. So was that of “legendarily gloomy, normally correct financial analyst” Nouriel Roubini, a commentator “whose blogs alone can move markets.” Significantly, though, a representative from the arts — just one — was also included in the list of most influential: “Lucy Prebble: 28-year-old British author of Enron, the best play yet on irrational exuberance.”

Prebble’s Enron, produced by Rupert Goold, is a highly stylized, piece. Remarkably, it is a musical, in which song, dance, symbol and the strategies of caricature are used to distil key histories and highlight key drivers related to the financial crisis (greed and vanity — but chillingly also desire to continuously innovate).

Lucy Prebble/Rupert Goold Enron

Thus, its success is also that of shifting the language in which the Enron and other financial crises are more generally understood. In fact, in terms of its structure and aesthetics — yes, there is a clear, overall narrative, but it is broken down into a list-like sequence of key elements — it partakes the type of layout, logic, and sense of appeal that also characterizes Ford’s Prospect article. As one of Enron’s reviewers, Michael Billington in the Guardian, put it: “It could all be dry as dust. But the pulse and vigour of play and production stem from their ability to make complex financial ideas manifest. Everything is made visually apprehensible. Thus the complicity of market analysts in Enron’s over-evaluation is captured by turning them into a close-harmony troupe. The Lehman Brothers become Siamese twins locked into a single suit. Best of all is the scene where Fastow explains his system for funneling Enron’s debts into shadow companies. Even financial innocents can follow this as Fastow shows boxes encasing ever smaller boxes lit by a flickering red light symbolizing the basic investment. This is capitalism exposed as con-trick and illusion.” Importantly, what this strong sense of the aesthetic and symbolic also did (and this is feature of the arts more generally) was assign an important role to the power of emotion and sensation. In this case, far from distract or produce relief from the pertinent issues, the play’s emotive power isolated and highlighted them, making them unavoidable. It also injected a damning narrative with motivational energy that could be taken up and directed towards change.

Which brings me back to the broader question, raised earlier, about the nature of learning. Specifically, now, about the impact on any learning venture of emotion, particularly Higher Education consultant Phil Race identifies as the greatest motivator: what he calls ‘wanting to’. Writing about his ‘Wanting, Doing, Feedback, Digesting’ model of learning (with digesting and also feedback having strong affinities with the kinds of activities related to surveying, summarizing and reviewing), he explained that “The best way I’ve so far found to describe [it] is as ‘ripples on the pond’, with each of the four processes in dynamic interaction with the rest. Probably the best way of thinking about the driving force of the ripples,” he continues, “is with ‘wanting’ at the centre of things, providing the energy for the ripples to spread.“ Note here too, that part of the challenge for Race in coming up with this model was, again, the challenge of creating a vivid and easy to understand summary of a complex process.

Phil race, Ripple Model of Learning

And so, to end. If the first essay in this series on the topic of starting [Starting (1) – Studio] was about creating a physical working space, this one is about creating its equivalent particularly in the realm of feeling and attitude, an effort in which the energies of the visual, the dramatic, and the aesthetic as manifested, particularly, in processes of nuanced summarization are crucial.

Starting (3)

[Is coming – I jumped ahead to Starting 4]

Starting (2) Slacker

Or, rather, Starting (2)

The account of Nauman’s starting-out as an artist [Starting (1)] was about the way in which he first actively created the conditions in which this work could begin.  The tale here is a counter-narrative about the effects of denial-based inactivity and inattention, thus about missing the moment, and missing the point. The provocation is a nineteenth-century narrative painting recently on show at the Royal Academy of Arts in London. The painting? The Favourites of the Emperor Honorius of 1883 by J. W. Waterhouse, Waterhouse of Tate Britain’s The Lady of Shalott fame, a work which, based on postcard sales, is said to be one the gallery’s most popular paintings.Waterhouse The Favourites of the Emperor Honorius 1883

Fateful

Between 27 June and 13 September 2009, the Royal Academy hosted a touring retrospective (JW Waterhouse: The Modern Pre-Raphaelite) which enabled the otherwise widely dispersed work of this artist to be seen collectively for the first time. Waterhouse was a Victorian painter of historical, literary and mythological themes. As is well known, and as was clear from this showing of his work, the themes of gender, and particularly the seductive power of the femme fatale, were characteristically important to him (Consulting the Oracle, 1884; The Magic Circle, 1886; Mariamne, 1887, Circe Offering the Cup to Ulysses, 1891, and so on). But what became apparent, in addition, was the way in which a certain temporal theme also played a consistently central role: that of the simultaneous anticipation-and-aftermath of a pivotal, fateful, or decisive moment.

Take The Lady of Shalott of 1888, for instance. This was his earliest depiction of Tennyson’s tower-entrapped heroine, a figure loosely based on Elaine of Astolat who, in Arthurian legend, dies of unrequited love for the knight, Lancelot. Her story not only parallels, and is a metaphor for the fate and fall of King Arthur’s mythical kingdom but is also, often, regarded as a reflection on artistic activity and the relationship between artist and society. Waterhouse paints her here, having at last escaped the tower in which a curse of unknown origin had kept her captured, and where she had been forbidden to view the world except indirectly, in a mirror. Driven to escape, despite the curse, by boredom and impatience (“I am half sick of shadows”) as well as by her desire for Lancelot, Waterhouse shows her sitting alone in a boat strewn with the mirror-view-inspired tapestries she had woven over those long years. Entranced by fate, she is about to be swept downstream to Camelot, whose towers are visible in the background. But the moment that is upon her is not only that of the freedom she has just won. In fulfillment of the curse, it is also already that of her imminent death. The decisive moment, in other words, is depicted, or rather un-depicted, as about to happen, and as having already happened in the non-recoverable past, in the tower, when she decided that enough was enough.

Missing the Moment

But to my mind, Waterhouse’s work is most psychologically astute, and disturbing, when it portrays the decisive moment at precisely the moment in which it is being missed. In Ariadne of 1898, for instance, another mythological heroine is shown at the precise moment when, unbeknownst to her, her life has already been forever altered. Ariadne, the daughter of King Minos of Crete, is famed for having provided her lover, the Athenian hero Theseus, with the means to defeat the monstrous Minotaur and escape his labyrinth. The scene here, much painted by artists, shows Ariadne, sometime after this event, resting on the island of Naxos while en route to Greece with the victorious Theseus. In Waterhouse’s version she fills the foreground of the painting, stretched out, arms behind her head, in the abandonment of peaceful sleep. What she doesn’t know is that she has already been differently abandoned by Theseus who sails quietly away in the background. (The painting also shows what, according to some versions of the myth, is about to come: Ariadne sleeps with two spotted panthers at her feet, animals sacred to Dionysus, whom she will later marry.)

In Ariadne, the missed encounter with the decisive moment is melancholic and Ariadne herself, though here asleep, is (like the Lady of Shalott) a woman of decision, action, and endeavour. But in an early work by Waterhouse, namely The Favourites of the Emperor Honorius, the decisive moment at issue, altogether more chilling, is shown as being missed due to a passivity of character that has degenerated into a studied dereliction not only of duty but, arguably, also of properly directed love.

Decisive Moments

The “decisive moment” is an expression most commonly associated with photography, not painting — although Koral Ward’s recent book Augenblick: The Concept of the ‘Decisive Moment’ in 19th- and 20th-Century Western Philosophy discusses this concept more broadly. It’s particularly associated with the twentieth-century French photographer Henri Cartier-Bresson, the so-called father of modern photojournalism and one of the founding members of the cooperative picture-marketing agency Magnum. It was the English-language title of his 1952 book Images à la Sauvette (which translates either as ‘images on the run’ or ‘stolen images’), a collection of one hundred and twenty-six startling pictures taken around the world during the preceding twenty years or so. The Decisive Moment was also the title of what would be the Louvre’s first exhibition of photographs, Cartier-Bresson’s 1955 exhibition held in the Pavilion de Marsan.

He was not the originator of this expression though. He derived the concept from the writing of the seventeenth-century French churchman and political agitator Cardinal de Retz — “There is nothing in this world that does not have a decisive moment” — alluding to it in his introductory essay to Images à la Sauvette to describe the photographer’s “simultaneous recognition, in a fraction of a second, of the significance of an event as well as the precise organization of forms which gives that event its proper expression.” A few years later, in a 1957 interview for the Washington Post, he re-described this moment as a “creative fraction of a second when you are taking a photograph. Your eye must see a composition or an expression that life itself offers you, and you must know with intuition when to click the camera.” If that moment is missed, he said in interview, it is gone forever.

For Cartier-Bresson, then, this non-repeatable, decisive moment is a flash of powerful compositional-and-conceptual coherence that is given to the eye, suddenly, in the midst of a particular context. It is a brief moment when life in the here-and-now seems to offer itself to be photographed. But this doesn’t require the photographer to be passive. On the contrary, Cartier-Bresson spoke in terms of the photographer’s eye/view-finder actively needing to seek this moment out. He often compared this activity to another with which he was familiar: hunting.

It is also worth saying that in the 1957 interview, it was on the basis of, as he saw it, photography’s unique capacity to capture this decisive moment that he distinguished it from painting — a distinction with which several painters might in certain respects disagree. Paul Cézanne, to name but one. After all, he described his process of painting — the landscape, for instance — as a much slower but equally alert and receptive process of seeking out a ‘motif’, a particular perception of compositional and conceptual fullness,  that he too felt was given to him. And might it not have been Cartier-Bresson’s own training as a painter early on in life that, in turn, trained his eye and mind to be so compositionally attuned? In fact, perhaps it was in (tacit?) recognition of a certain perceptual bond, after all, between painting and photography that the dust-jackets of both the French- and English-language editions of Cartier-Bresson’s 1952 book were graced not with one of his own photographs, but with the work of a painter, Henri Matisse, whom he had photographed in 1945. Matisse’s design was a colour work in which a group of disconnected yet perfectly balanced natural forms, cut-outs by the look of them, surround a schematic bird — a dove, perhaps, holding a frond of leaves in its beak, reminiscent of the well-known biblical symbol of fresh hope and promised new beginnings after the Great Flood.

Cartier Bresson, Matisse, 1945

Matisse Design for Cartier-Bresson's Decisive Moment

Missing the Point

Waterhouse’s The Favourites, however, is about the approach of a definitive end.  As with The Lady of Shalott, it concerns the demise of a person. In this case it is Flavius Honorius, pictured in the foreground, off-centre, to the left, who was Roman Emperor in the West from 393 to 423 AD (the year of his death). It is also, simultaneously, about the decline and fall of an Empire — the Roman Empire — a history with which Victorian Britain, itself an imperial nation, was morbidly fascinated. This decline was regarded by many to have been largely inaugurated, or at least helped along by Honorius’s indecisive, negligent leadership. This weakness and negligence were all the worse since the period of his reign was one in which much of his territory, including Rome itself, was being overrun and pillaged by invading tribes.

The Favourites was created early on in Waterhouse’s career, and reflects the interest he had during that period in Roman history and archaeology. It is skillfully designed, setting up a number of narrative and compositional contrasts that also divide and disturb our viewing if it. For in the first instance, and with Honorius positioned to the side, the painting’s strong, deeply perspectival structure pulls our attention directly towards the background of the work, to the Emperor’s clustering advisers, white-robed, and sycophantic, and, beyond them, to the far wall of the throne room where part of a stone statue on a pedestal may be seen. This statue has been identified as a then-recent archaeological find, a representation of the first Roman Emperor, the great Augustus, excavated at Prima Porta near Rome, in 1865.

On the other hand, though, the curve of bowing advisors, and the orientation of their eyes, return us to the figure of the Emperor in the foreground, who, rather than attend to the affairs of state and rather than defend the people for whom he is responsible, is shown slumped on his throne, engrossed in feeding his pet birds. These are the ‘favourites’ of the painting’s title, an indication — as pointed out in the exhibition catalogue — that an important literary source for Waterhouse’s painting was not only Edward Gibbon’s The History of the Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire (1776-1788) but also the novelist Wilkie Collins’ more recent Antonia; or, the Fall of Rome of 1850 (another instance in which the history of city’s downfall is recounted, and made vivid, through the life and experiences of an individual). Interestingly, the longer one looks at Waterhouses’s study of misdirected royal concentration, the more apparent it is that the space as a whole is also off kilter, with carpets, hangings, and curtains all subtly askew.

Contrasts

In Waterhouse’s painting, as noted, the slouched figure of Honorius in the foreground is contrasted with the upright, military demeanor of his imperial forerunner in the background. But the exhibition itself sets up further contrasts and comparisons between passivity and activity, between missing the moment, and missing the mark on the one hand, and capturing it, on the other. For instance, the contrast between Honorius as an embodiment of sloth and Waterhouse, the artist, as an epitome of productivity, is amplified by the fact that two preparatory studies for this painting were included in the show. These revealed aspects of the artist’s working processes, including the immense organisational labour, the trial and error, and the attention to the details of pose, gesture, setting, and spatiality, that went into the final construction of The Favourites so that precisely the dynamics just described might be achieved. And indeed, this hard work was rewarded. The finished piece, a large and ambitious oil painting on canvas (it measures 117 x 202 cm) was not only exhibited at the Royal Academy in 1883, but also purchased the same year by the Art Gallery of South Australia, Adelaide. It was the first of Waterhouse’s paintings to be bought by a municipal gallery.
Also worth mentioning, finally, is a further contrast, again set up by the exhibition’s curation and design, between those who attend, and those who don’t. This contrast, however, was focused on, and drew sudden attention to the activities of the exhibition’s visitors. For unexpectedly, half-way through the display, and visible through the entrance into the exhibition’s third room where it seemed to fill the visible space, an enormously enlarged fragment of an engraving was to be found, showing Victorian gallery-goers in a space just as crowed as the one we were in. But unlike us, who, that day, were quietly and attentively studying the works on display, those pictured were clearly indulging in the talkative, inattentive frivolities of a private view. The detail was in fact taken from the central portion of an engraving after William Powell Frith’s painting Private View at the Royal Academy, 1881.

Having made that point, though, it should be added that there are, arguably, certain kinds of inattention that are vital as points of intellectual, and protagonistic, departure — the topic of my next entry in which I reflect on my colleague Irit Rogoff’s 1998 essay ‘How to Dress for an Exhibition’. And her ‘Looking Away – Participations in Visual Culture’, published a year later.

The account of Nauman’s starting-out as an artist [Starting (1)] was about the way in which he first actively created the conditions in which this work could begin.  The tale here is a counter-narrative about the effects of denial-based inactivity and inattention, thus about missing the moment, and missing the point. The provocation is a nineteenth-century narrative painting recently on show at the Royal Academy of Arts in London. The painting? The Favourites of the Emperor Honorius of 1883 by J. W. Waterhouse, Waterhouse of Tate Britain’s The Lady of Shalott fame, a work which, based on postcard sales, is said to be one the gallery’s most popular paintings.

Fateful

Between 27 June and 13 September 2009, the Royal Academy hosted a touring retrospective (JW Waterhouse: The Modern Pre-Raphaelite) which enabled the otherwise widely dispersed work of this artist to be seen collectively for the first time. Waterhouse was a Victorian painter of historical, literary and mythological themes. As is well known, and as was clear from this showing of his work, the themes of gender, and particularly the seductive power of the femme fatale, were characteristically important to him (Consulting the Oracle, 1884; The Magic Circle, 1886; Mariamne, 1887, Circe Offering the Cup to Ulysses, 1891, and so on). But what became apparent, in addition, was the way in which a certain temporal theme also played a consistently central role: that of the simultaneous anticipation-and-aftermath of a pivotal, fateful, or decisive moment.

Take The Lady of Shalott of 1888, for instance. This was his earliest depiction of Tennyson’s tower-entrapped heroine, a figure loosely based on Elaine of Astolat who, in Arthurian legend, dies of unrequited love for the knight, Lancelot. Her story not only parallels, and is a metaphor for the fate and fall of King Arthur’s mythical kingdom but is also, often, regarded as a reflection on artistic activity and the relationship between artist and society. Waterhouse paints her here, having at last escaped the tower in which a curse of unknown origin had kept her captured, and where she had been forbidden to view the world except indirectly, in a mirror. Driven to escape, despite the curse, by boredom and impatience (“I am half sick of shadows”) as well as by her desire for Lancelot, he shows her sitting alone in a boat strewn with the mirror-view-inspired tapestries she had woven over those long years. Entranced by fate, she is about to be swept downstream to Camelot, whose towers are visible in the background. But the moment that is upon her is not only that of the freedom she has just won. In fulfillment of the curse, it is also already that of her imminent death. The decisive moment, in other words, is depicted, or rather un-depicted, as about to happen, and as having already happened in the non-recoverable past, in the tower, when she decided that enough was enough.

Missing the Moment

But to my mind, Waterhouse’s work is most psychologically astute, and disturbing, when it portrays the decisive moment at precisely the moment in which it is being missed. In Ariadne of 1898, for instance, another mythological heroine is shown at the precise moment when, unbeknownst to her, her life has already been forever altered. Ariadne, the daughter of King Minos of Crete, is famed for having provided her lover, the Athenian hero Theseus, with the means to defeat the monstrous Minotaur and escape his labyrinth. The scene here, much painted by artists, shows Ariadne, sometime after this event, resting on the island of Naxos while en route to Greece with the victorious Theseus. In Waterhouse’s version she fills the foreground of the painting, stretched out, arms behind her head, in the abandonment of peaceful sleep. What she doesn’t know is that she has already been differently abandoned by Theseus who sails quietly away in the background. (The painting also shows what, according to some versions of the myth, is about to come: Ariadne sleeps with two spotted panthers at her feet, animals sacred to Dionysus, whom she will later marry.)

In Ariadne, the missed encounter with the decisive moment is melancholic and Ariadne herself, though here asleep, is (like the Lady of Shalott) a woman of decision, action, and endeavour. But in an early work by Waterhouse, namely The Favourites of the Emperor Honorius, the decisive moment at issue, altogether more chilling, is shown as being missed due to a passivity of character that has degenerated into a studied dereliction of not only of duty but, arguably, of properly directed love.

Decisive Moments

The “decisive moment” is an expression most commonly associated with photography, not painting — although Koral Ward’s recent book Augenblick: The Concept of the ‘Decisive Moment’ in 19th- and 20th-Century Western Philosophy discusses this concept more broadly. It’s particularly associated with the twentieth-century French photographer Henri Cartier-Bresson, the so-called father of modern photojournalism and one of the founding members of the cooperative picture-marketing agency Magnum. It was the English-language title of his 1952 book Images à la Sauvette (which translates either as ‘images on the run’ or ‘stolen images’), a collection of one hundred and twenty-six startling pictures taken around the world during the preceding twenty years or so The Decisive Moment was also the title of what would be the Louvre’s first exhibition of photographs, Cartier-Bresson’s 1955 exhibition held in the Pavilion de Marsan.

He was not the originator of this expression though. He derived the concept from the writing of the seventeenth-century French churchman and political agitator Cardinal de Retz — “There is nothing in this world that does not have a decisive moment” — alluding to it in his introductory essay to Images à la Sauvette to describe the photographer’s “simultaneous recognition, in a fraction of a second, of the significance of an event as well as the precise organization of forms which gives that event its proper expression.” A few years later, in a 1957 interview for the Washington Post, he re-described this moment as a “creative fraction of a second when you are taking a photograph. Your eye must see a composition or an expression that life itself offers you, and you must know with intuition when to click the camera.” If that moment is missed, he said in interview, it is gone forever.

For Cartier-Bresson, then, this non-repeatable, decisive moment is a flash of powerful compositional-and-conceptual coherence that is given to the eye, suddenly, in the midst of a particular context. It is a brief moment when life in the here-and-now seems to offer itself to be photographed. But this doesn’t require the photographer to be passive. On the contrary, Cartier-Bresson spoke in terms of the photographer’s eye/view-finder actively needing to seek this moment out. He often compared his activity in this regard to another with which he was familiar: hunting.

It is also worth saying that in the 1957 interview, it was on the basis of, as he saw it, photography’s unique capacity to capture this decisive moment that he distinguished it from painting — a distinction with which several painters might in certain respects disagree. Paul Cézanne, to name but one. After all, he described his process of painting — the landscape, for instance — as a much slower but equally alert and receptive process of seeking out a ‘motif’, a particular perception of compositional and conceptual fullness,  that he too felt was given to him. And might it not have been Cartier-Bresson’s own training as a painter early on in life that, in turn, trained his eye and mind to be so compositionally attuned? In fact, perhaps it was in (tacit?) recognition of a certain perceptual bond, after all, between painting and photography that the dust-jackets of both the French- and English-language editions of Cartier-Bresson’s 1952 book were graced not with one of his own photographs, but with the work of a painter, Henri Matisse, whom Cartier-Bresson had photographed in 1945. Matisse’s design was a colour work in which a group of disconnected yet perfectly balanced natural forms, cut-outs by the look of them, surround a schematic bird — a dove, perhaps, holding a frond of leaves in its beak, reminiscent of the well-known biblical symbol of fresh hope and promised new beginnings after the Great Flood.

Missing the Point

Waterhouse’s The Favourites, however, is about the approach of a definitive end.  As with The Lady of Shalott, it concerns the demise of a person, Flavius Honorius, pictured in the foreground, off-centre, to the left, who was Roman Emperor in the West from 393 to 423 AD (the year of his death). It is also, simultaneously, about the decline and fall of an Empire — the Roman Empire — a history with which Victorian Britain, itself an imperial nation, was morbidly fascinated. This decline was regarded by many to have been largely inaugurated, or at least helped along by Honorius’s indecisive, negligent leadership. This weakness and negligence were all the worse since the period of his reign was one in which much of his territory, including Rome itself, was being overrun and pillaged by invading tribes.

The Favourites was created early on in Waterhouse’s career, and reflects the interest he had during that period in Roman history and archaeology. It is skillfully designed, setting up a number of narrative and compositional contrasts that also divide and disturb our viewing if it. For in the first instance, and with Honorius positioned to the side, the painting’s strong, deeply perspectival structure pulls our attention directly towards the background of the work, to the Emperor’s clustering advisors, white-robed, and sycophantic, and, beyond them, to the far wall of the throne room where part of a stone statue on a pedestal may be seen. This statue has been identified as a then-recent archaeological find, a representation of the first Roman Emperor, the great Augustus, excavated at Prima Porta near Rome, in 1865.

On the other hand, though, the curve of bowing advisors, and the orientation of their eyes, return us to the figure of the Emperor in the foreground, who, rather than attend to the affairs of state and rather than defend the people for whom he is responsible, is shown slumped on his throne, engrossed in feeding his pet birds. These are the ‘favourites’ of the painting’s title, an indication — as pointed out in the exhibition catalogue — that an important literary source for Waterhouse’s painting was not only Edward Gibbon’s The History of the Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire (1776-1788) but also the novelist Wilkie Collins’ more recent Antonia; or, the Fall of Rome of 1850 (another instance in which the history of city’s downfall is recounted, and made vivid, through the life and experiences of an individual). Interestingly, the longer one looks at Waterhouses’s study of misdirected royal concentration, the more apparent it is that the space as a whole is also off kilter, with carpets, hangings, and curtains all subtly askew.

Contrasts

In Waterhouse’s painting, as noted, the slouched figure of Honorius in the foreground is contrasted with the upright, military demeanor of his imperial forerunner in the background. But the exhibition itself sets up further contrasts and comparisons between passivity and activity, between missing the moment, and missing the mark on the one hand, and capturing it, on the other. For instance, the contrast between Honorius as an embodiment of sloth and Waterhouse, the artist, as an epitome of productivity, is emphasized by the fact that two preparatory studies for this painting were included in the show. These revealed aspects of the artist’s working processes, including the immense organisational labour, the trial and error, and the attention to the details of pose, gesture, and spatiality, that went into the final construction of The Favourites so that precisely the dynamics just described might be achieved. And indeed, this hard work was rewarded. The finished piece, a large and ambitious oil painting on canvas (it measures 117 x 202 cm) was not only exhibited at the Royal Academy in 1883, but also purchased the same year by the Art Gallery of South Australia, Adelaide. It was the first of Waterhouse’s paintings to be bought by a municipal gallery.

Also worth mentioning, finally, is a further contrast, again set up by the exhibition’s curation and design, between those who attend, and those who don’t. This contrast, however, was focused on, and drew sudden attention to the activities of the exhibition’s visitors. For unexpectedly, half-way through the display, and visible through the entrance into the exhibition’s third room where it seemed to fill the visible space, an enormously enlarged fragment of an engraving was to be found, showing Victorian gallery-goers in a space just as crowed as the one we were in. But unlike us, who, that day, were quietly and attentively studying the works on display, those pictured were clearly indulging in the talkative, inattentive frivolities of a private view. The detail was in fact taken from the central portion of an engraving after William Powell Frith’s painting Private View at the Royal Academy, 1881.

Having made that point, though, it should be added that there are, arguably, certain kinds of inattention that are vital as points of intellectual, and protagonistic, departure — the topic of my next entry in which I reflect on my colleague Irit Rogoff’s 1998 essay ‘How to Dress for an Exhibition’. And her ‘Looking Away – Participations in Visual Culture’, published a year later.

Starting (1) Studio

A much-circulated story about the American video and performance artist Bruce Nauman has to do with how he got started.

Bruce Nauman, Self-Portrait as Fountain, 1966/7, colour photograph, 50 x 60.4 cm

It was 1966. Having moved to San Francisco after graduation from Davis (he’d been offered some part-time work, teaching at the San Francisco Art Institute), his first step was to get a studio  because — so he reasoned  — that’s what an artist does, and has. This studio was a broken-down shop front still bearing broken-down signs of its former use, signs like ‘California Grocery’, ‘Enjoy Coca Cola’, and ‘Candy’. A photograph by Jack Fulton taken at around that time shows an equally dishevelled, check-shirted Nauman standing in the sunshine, leaning against its dusty entrance-way.

“I had a studio” he told an interviewer in 1971. “I was working [i.e. teaching] very little… and I didn’t know what to do with all that time. I think that’s when I did the first casts of my body and the name parts and things like that. There was nothing in the studio because I didn’t have much money for materials. So I was forced to examine myself, and what I was doing there.”

What You Got

A striking aspect of Nauman’s ethos as an artist becomes apparent from those words of his: the power of starting where you are, with what you happen to have to hand. In Nauman’s case, at first sight, this wasn’t much: at its most basic, a more or less empty room and a lot of unassigned time, but also his own body, the capacity to reflect — to think — and the capacity to record. And here I don’t just mean photographically (see his portfolio Eleven Color Photographs, 1966-67/1970, which includes such works as Coffee Spilled because the Cup was too Hot and his well-known Self-Portrait as a Fountain) but also via such other means as making those body casts (his misleadingly titled Wax Impressions of the Knees of Five Famous Artists, for instance, a panel made from fibreglass and polyester resin incorporating casts of his own knee). In other words, look at what he was able to do with those simple, interacting elements and capacities; the many permutations through which he was able to push them.

Professionalism

But perhaps the most important characteristic of Nauman’s ethos was his professionalism. Perhaps also the most surprising, at first sight, given his consistently innovative, whimsical and anarchic art-making. What I mean is this. He didn’t begin with a fantastically original idea or with a flash of inspiration. He started with a workspace and not too much else, and he kept turning up there, noticing and thinking, until something started to happen. That is, until ways of operating as an artist in that space began to emerge. The body casts, as he said, and the photographs. And, provoked to a degree by a neon beer sign still in the window of his studio, a series of new works in that medium, Neon Templates of the Left Half of My Body Taken at Ten-Inch Intervals, 1966, being one of the earlier San Francisco pieces.

Shifting perspective somewhat, this is precisely the point that the best-selling author Steven Pressfield makes in his non-fiction book The War of Art from 2002. In a short section called ‘A Professional,’ Pressfield focuses on the novelist and playwright Somerset Maugham’s approach to writing:

“Someone once asked Somerset Maugham if he wrote on a schedule or only when struck by inspiration. ‘I write only when inspiration strikes,’ he replied. “Fortunately it strikes every morning at nine o’clock sharp.’”

“That’s a pro,” Pressfield continues, “… Maugham reckoned… that by performing the mundane physical act of sitting down and starting to work, he set in motion a mysterious but infallible sequence of events that would produce inspiration, as surely as if the goddess had synchronized her watch with his. He knew if he built it, she would come.”

And so

The workspace, then, as that which comes first, and the work. The studio, literally, or the study — but also the act of studying. (The other thing Nauman did in his studio was read a lot. He studied the work of others and got inspired by it. Early on, he liked the work of Picasso and de Kooning. And Man Ray’s eclectic, and as Nauman saw it, productively inconsistent image-making was crucial for the evolution of his own work processes.) The physical and the metaphorical spaces of learning as starting-points, then, including, by extension, those of the university.

I will probably be writing about, or around, the topic of starting for a while. In my next post, certainly, I’d like to begin with what is to my mind a chilling shadow scenario to the ones I’ve just discussed, portrayed in a painting in the Royal Academy’s just-ended J. W. Waterhouse show.