Writing

YOUR WAITRESS TODAY IS MANET

The Visit

It turned out that I wasn’t university material despite my desire to do what was expected of me. The local art college had however offered me a place requiring only functional rather than spectacular grades to secure it for the following September. Immediately I stopped working towards my exams, for the previous three and a half years I had been plugged into a belief system which all of a sudden became irrelevant. There were a lot of things that I just didn’t need any more, there were a lot of other things that I needed to understand and quickly but as it turned out I would prove a ludicrously slow learner.

They sent me a list- a list of places to visit which were largely art galleries and museums in central London, up until then Finsbury Park and the roads surrounding Highbury stadium was the only part of London I knew with any amount of intimacy. Historical collections featured prominently within the list, back then it was my firm belief that historical art would always be superior to (let’s call it) modern art so I made the decision to visit these places first.I began with the National Gallery, at the age of eighteen I had committed my immediate future to becoming a practicing painter but had yet to set foot inside the place. To my knowledge no one that I knew had ever done so either.

There is a lot of discussion in the gallery and museum education sector about accessibility, a lot of talk about newcomers being put off by porticoes and grand entrances, how people might feel intimidated by or inferior to something which in reality belonged partly to them. How was one expected to behave? I knew I wouldn’t be touching anything but there was and still often is, an ongoing sense,  that visitors to art venues should be quietly reverential as if in some kind of cathedral to culture.  As it turned out, more through lack of directional sense than anything conscious I entered via the back entrance – an afterthought looking like the entrance to a department store in a satellite town, modestly functional and in no way off putting. It gave no hint as to what was beyond.

The first thing to strike me was the atmosphere of the place, luxuriant yet at the same time seriously dedicated to displaying works at their best – precisely as my eighteen year old self would have imagined it; silk hung walls, elaborate frames and opulent paintings. This was the exact opposite of how I had experienced the Tate Gallery two years’ previously which had been oppressively white and visually arid quarter filled with objects which at that point in time I had no means of understanding – almost a futuristic parody of what I then believed in. Instinctively I was much more at home here, a proper environment for proper art. The works that attracted my attention back then still attract my attention thirty five years later, as much as they might be static objects they are designed to provoke reaction – personal reaction; internal and unspoken. Over time as you pass by or peer into these things on a semi regular basis they become like household mirrors in which one might accidentally glimpse oneself in an unexpected way.

Back then I might have been capable of naming five artists more or less, Leonardo da Vinci, Michelangelo, Picasso, David Hockney, Dali, maybe Monet but that was more or less it. Manet certainly wasn’t one of them at that point I knew nothing about his paintings, the Salon rejections, the public humiliations, the unrecognised offspring or the amputated leg. Initially I just looked at a painting which caught my attention.

 

 

 

 

Manet

At the very beginning though the thing that confounded me was how certain parts of the picture felt utterly convincing – the hat, her head, the bustle of the place yet others were so willfully awkward in their making. Spaces were compressed, fingers were bodged and anatomy was skewed. As much as it was a picture of a place within which so much seemed to be happening it was a puzzle which almost refused to add up, different areas having their own properties and functions beyond their servitude to a sense of wholeness. As events happen around us we cannot see everything at once- we are distracted as information catches our eye by way of colour, contrast or movement. The drinks shimmer as light catches them inside their glasses; the bassist’s determined look of concentration, the poise of the dancer caught mid movement, the hand lurking beneath the table. The protagonists seem motionless while their world revolves around them. At this still centre is the waitress, the smoker and the hat. The hat and the waitress’s head show signs of being endlessly redrawn, endlessly repainted until information as if by chance lands in the right places. Her face, full of distracted movement remains subordinate to the physical substance of her head, she flicks a glance towards something unseen by us as we study her predicament. By contrast the smoker is present but is much less of a presence, his attention has also wandered – disturbed not by something external but lost somewhere within himself, within his own thoughts as he smokes and as he does so he almost begins to dissolve. His head, his cap, his hair are full of a flickering transience but his arm- that has another purpose. As his shoulder tilts into the picture his arm begins to follow suit but before it can fully do so it stops and flattens out to form a column that pushes us upwards past that disconcerting join between the hat and the female customer gazing inwards and onward towards the performer in the corner. It is clearly a pictorial device but one I didn’t notice for many years. Manet gives some hint as to where we might expect to naturally discover the smoker’s elbow but then ‘squares up’ the join changing tone to dramatise the table and its contents thus disguising his motive. That we don’t stop to question this is down to Manet’s powers of persuasion

Manet was in the habit of asking close friends to pose for his pictures, he had used professional models at one point but that was largely behind him by the late 1870s. The waitress herself was neither of these she was in fact a working waitress from the Café – Concert de Reichshoffen. Cafes such as these were transforming the social life of Paris as strict social divisions became blurred in search of a decent night out. Under Napoleon III cafes had been spied upon for signs of dissent or unrest, the singing of songs – any song was prohibited – once this had been relaxed the café concert scene expanded rapidly. Our waitress posed for three paintings in total doing much the same kind of thing in the studio as she would have done on the job. Manet wasn’t an impressionist at heart – despite a number of plein air paintings he was by and large a studio based artist fabricating a sense of reality using pencil sketches made on location, memory and painterly invention.  She attended the studio along with her boyfriend/protector who played the smoker, artists were held to be morally questionable and as such were not to be left alone with young ladies from any background. That Manet struggled greatly in painting her suggests that this was his first attempt, the subsequent two pictures seem comparatively carefree in their handling. The source of this frustration however went beyond an inability to capture his waitress. This painting has a history, as all paintings do – histories of exhibitions and ownership but this one has a distinctly different kind of pedigree.

A strip of canvas has been added, the painter didn’t go to great lengths to camouflage the join. It turns out that the two pieces of fabric haven’t even been sewn together but instead they’ve been lined- paper glued and ironed onto the back of the entire picture to support the join. In the top left where the image is thickly painted (the simplest part of the painting one might imagine) an area has been gauged out (again something that took me a number of years to notice) I then would imagine an angry Manet taking up a small palette knife and scraping out this area in utter frustration at his lack of progress but much more likely it is a botch job on the lining process with the iron accidentally causing damage to vulnerable paint.  The thickness of this area indicates that Manet has something to hide. Originally this was part of a much larger painting. In the centre towards the top a singer standing, performing to two banks of café goers either side of the marble topped table. Ambiguously sketchy she may well have been but she was undoubtedly central to the meaning of the picture – the reason for people to be there. The star of the show became the major victim of Manet’s change of direction along with the ambition within the original concept. It always struck me as odd as to why the unseen man had kept his large hat on inside the premises – Manet’s preoccupation with that large bowler hat becomes much clearer when viewing the other half of the original design. In this portion two men are wearing top hats probably demonstrating social rank and a young woman – the only person looking directly at us, wears a casually feminine variant of the hat in our portion. This mingling of the strata was new, cafes with waitresses were new and how these were represented in paint was new.

 

Manet himself had perfected a Parisian working class accent much to the amusement of his friends; his paintings however brutally factual about the alienating mundanity of ordinary lives and of ordinary life were not condescending or mocking for the sake of voyeuristic entertainment or class tourism. He saw deeper than that. The division of his large painting did not result in two smaller entirely successful paintings – both have awkwardness about them. Within each many parts are stunningly painted in ways that no other artist could pull off – both fragments indicate that there is something performative in the way that Manet paints; there is a tension between his visual language and the image that it creates. The pleasure in instinctively making with brush and paint – playing God, the picture’s subject is (as much as it is a café scene) the delivery of that image, how it might be formed to the extent that it lives and breathes without laborious overkill. The sensation without the tedium of its conveyance.

His later impressionistic works are often held to be less intense, less daring and less profoundly revolutionary than his earlier, Spanish influenced works but they directly embrace life as opposed to embracing art historical gamesmanship. These café paintings as problematic as they might be were part of an urge to create something monumental from mass experience which finally bore fruit when he completed Bar at the Folies Bergere in the year before his death. Manet’s Waitress is the picture I have stood in front of for the greatest amount of time since first encountering it in 1983. It isn’t a masterpiece but only a master could have painted it.

What was my eighteen year old self looking to find in historical painting? Epic battles, mythological scenes and togas executed with exquisite technique. I had somehow accepted the notion that art from it’s primitive origins had improved over the centuries until hitting its peak during the Renaissance and then subsequently declining leaving us with ‘modern art’ something shallow, empty and full of deceit. What the National Gallery gave me were the togas and the epic tales but also the modern, the everyday, the unremarkable transformed in paint – just paint – into something marvelously affecting. The world remade. Our world remade.

 

 

 

 

Paul Brandford  September 2018

 

 

POSTCARD FROM THE PAST

There was no art in my parent’s house. The feature wall of raw brick that divided the lounge from the dining area of our housing estate new build supported two vertical rows of decorative horse brass and a breastplate, again in brass, with cross swords running through it from behind. These items were devoid of genuine function beyond representing a certain kind of aspiration regarding the stabilisation of an identity. The estate was young; a blank slate in which the houses were more or less identical so what went on one’s feature wall counted for something.

By 1979 we’d been there eight years or so, the kids that populated the estate had gone through primary schools largely ended up at the same secondary and were on their way to choosing or sitting their O Levels. As much as they are now exam grades were a religion probably more for the parents than their offspring. The school wasn’t big on art, or to put it another way – art education, where were the jobs you could get, the career advantages, the respect? It wasn’t really a choice for those that couldn’t more of a hobby break for those that could, the art rooms had a distinctive atmosphere I remember a poster of Vermeer’s Milkmaid looming over us. It was never discussed but it hung there underlining our own technical inadequacies, year in – year out. In these rooms the art teachers flaunted their artiness but taught nothing.

The school’s single art trip was on offer to those taking the subject further – a visit to the Tate Gallery. My sister, the year above me at school, was first. She returned home with three or four postcards. I remember a portrait by Meredith Frampton depicting an elegantly poised young lady dressed simply standing next to a cello and a vase. In its way it was entirely artful but somehow in a state of remove like a porcelain statuette rather than a person and not so unlike the Lladro figurines my parents brought back from their Spanish resort holidays. The other postcards have gone from my recollection with the exception of one. This was the exact opposite of the Frampton this was a Lucian Freud.

At the age of fourteen I hadn’t seen an actual painting, any painting made by someone not in my school let alone a painting of a naked woman. My sister flashed the postcard as if it were nothing- just another souvenir from another trip underlining her unspoken and unassailable credentials as our family’s most sophisticated and most radical presence. Freud was known to begin his pictures starting from an eye and then to cautiously move outwards when satisfied with what he had made. Around this time many of his paintings were abandoned not so very far from these initial statements as if somehow he could not find his way, It seemed to me back then that her eye was the key to it all. Although not looking directly out it attracted and repelled at the same time as if what it was trying to say was somehow barbaric or disturbing.

Freud himself was there and not there. His brushes, his pot, his knife, his woman. Back then he was just a name on a postcard and not quite as memorable as the words Meredith Frampton, as much as he had created the picture I could tell that he had created the circumstances which made the picture possible. It was a peculiar thing, it was a personal thing. She – whoever she was – was a knot, a contorted knot of humanity with a leg oddly arcing out in a manner that defied anatomical expectation. The depiction of that leg as a simplified curve contradicting the intricate naturalism of the head and torso made the image memorable creating an unexpected hook beyond its anguished nakedness.

 

 

Some forty years later this picture is back in the forefront of my thoughts – I am now roughly the same age as Freud when he painted it. My sister, who was so good at everything back then, became not the shining star my parents thought they were nurturing not the artist that my art teachers praised in front of me but someone else. I became the artist and here I am looking at the same painting – my sister’s painting in many ways – on the walls of All Too Human back at the beginning at the Tate Gallery. Today I don’t just see it, I can see into it, with the experience of having looked at many, many Freuds and with the experience of having read so much about him from the poetic to the analytical, to the gossipy. Time changes you. You are no longer on the outside of someone else’s experience – you are on the inside of your own and something can be made of that.

Discounting the tiniest of depicted smears there is no paint in the picture, except for that which is on the picture – it is present and absent like Freud himself. He has not set his palette down to rest alongside his other tools. He might still be in the act of painting- meticulously stroking the picture. His brushes stroke the woman, stroke the bed or stroke the claustrophobic void so shutting us in with her and shutting us in with him.

His painter’s stool grows and stretches out towards her, instinctively one knows that she’s not a life model who might have say walked out of a Coldstream painting and into this one. She’s not simply a visual problem to be resolved – she’s a different sort of problem; something of a cornered animal, something of a tortured soul. His brushes, as yet unused, might caress with the coarse awkwardness of pig hair and his knife might scrape away the dissatisfaction of a false move but his pot has a presence beyond its function. One might clean a brush or thin down some paint but the pot is a character in the way that the other implements are not. (Freud’s later paintings have oceans of rags or moonscapes of paint encrusted walls offering some indication of how his physical processes transform the space within his pictures). But here we have his pot- in geometric conversation with her nipple, painted in tight swirls (much like her pubic hair) and both easily within the painter’s reach. Its interior is moist awaiting a brush to present itself.

Reality and unreality are at the centre of this image’s disquiet. The curving leg, the fist tightly trapped between torso and thigh, the taught forearm ending in fingers to almost become a paintbrush made flesh – as static as it is it suggests squirm, suggests discomfort, suggests Francis Bacon. She is pinned down in this sparse but theatrical space, the representation of her is both controlled and controlling – relentlessly so. The only flash of wit is found near the bottom corner as the bedspread’s tassels become an extra set of toes casually twisting around themselves and sweeps of drapery become imagined brushstrokes made by the painter’s resting utensils.

In 1978 Lucian Freud was nothing to me, his image a surprising intrusion into our turgid domesticity. In 2018 although a long way from being my favourite painting, or even my favourite painting of his this is the one thing that opened a door onto another world – a door which I chose to walk through.

Paul Brandford August 2018

 

YOU ARE HERE

 

There is far too much to look at. Too much online content, too much reality, too much mainstream media coverage. Chances are that we could easily spend most of the rest of our lives casually glancing, scrolling, liking or muting. We will have precious little time for looking or even seeing let alone reflecting upon whatever our reactions were to our experience. It comes as little surprise to me that artworks struggle for this diminished attention.

Artists either by choice or by chance have developed strategies to counter this dilemma. Paintings and drawings quite recently seem to have become less troublesome, less irritating, less demanding and more pleasingly likeable and over eager to entertain. You might ask yourself what an artwork is actually representing, what it might be about. You might ask yourself this before attempting to read the label or before getting lost in some convoluted essay about what the artist claims to be exploring through this work.  Art when created or purchased as a fashion accessory or a branding exercise becomes swallowed by that context. Works knowingly following the money provide surface not depth, simplicity rather than contradiction, sterility rather than exuberance.

Seventy years ago artists working in the aftermath of the Second World War and the shadow of the Cold War were associated with an existential imperative which to the artists chosen for this exhibition appears to be a common interest– an acknowledgement that the artwork whilst being made hangs in the balance and might end in failure or even destruction. This attitude seeped into their working arrangements, risk taking, living upon one’s instincts and the cycles of making and remaking through which a work might emerge as if purely by chance. These quirky hand made things created to their own requirements are intrinsically human, intrinsically humane.

Today we find ourselves in the midst of great uncertainty. What can now be taken as given; the value of culture, the ability of our politicians, the health of our economy, the defeat of our enemies? On our screens we view the movement of people, the uprooted, the oppressed and the opportunistic. If it can happen to them might it not one day happen to us? We see attack after attack on innocent civilians the world over.  This very real sense of unease pervades our daily lives You Are Here is not an escape but a reflection.

The majority of artists within this exhibition do not directly describe or even refer to political events but within their work in general one might detect that same dark thread of anxiety which runs through what can be seen in the world today. This is primarily an exhibition about people. These people might never have been real – summoned, instead, from an imagined past or contorted into being from a range of internet sources, others may have begun life as printed material found by chance alone.  In the studio faces are filtered, corrupted, misquoted and modified. Subjects haven’t sat for hours awaiting an acceptable likeness. What they all might have in common is that they arrived through a marriage of technology and tradition, seriousness and absurdity, technique and cackhandedness.

The artists themselves come from roughly the same generation most attending art schools in the late eighties and early nineties, sharing not only a similar set of cultural references but a certain kind of art school background where an understanding of context and process were important but an artwork’s existence as a physical and visual entity was never secondary to its function as an intellectual trigger. Collectively the works call for some kind of instinctive reaction, surfaces are there to be scratched beneath, uncomfortable truths are inadequately glossed over, masks allowed to slip. The public persona and the private self are at war with one another. Clues pieced together will not necessarily reveal an answer but might deepen the question. Something fleeting, something fugitive somehow arrested just prior to its escape or disintegration. Images unearthed, discovered, images on the cusp of being wiped out, wiped away. Time is always present on both sides of the picture. In the studio where the imagination transforms years of practice, years of wandering up blind alleys and barking up wrong trees.

 

This time is as invisible to you as the studio itself. The passage of time is also frozen within the image. Like fruit a picture germinates, matures and then rots; layer upon layer – additions and subtractions, comings and goings, collisions and near misses, changes of direction.The artist trusting in some kind of obscure understanding knows when enough is enough and stands back leaving some kind of meaning hanging there within the image– suspended just, but only just, out of reach. These artworks attempt to speak of our time and of our predicament. Why they were made in the way that they were but they might somehow hint at what we have become and what, if anything, might lie ahead.

 

 

Paul Brandford January 2018

 

List of illustrations

Jeanette Barnes – Shibuya Crossing, Tokyo 2017 168 x 232 cm

Paul Brandford – Different Bottle Same Piss 2017 244 x 366 cm

Broughton and Birnie – Swamp Life 2016 152 x 232cm

Tom Walker – The Night I Should Have Stopped 2016 85 x 118 cm

Charlotte Steel – Circle of Lust 2016/17 71 x 73 cm

Corinna Spencer – Lady Drawing 2017 21 x 15 cm

Vanessa Mitter – Unquiet Brides 2015 150 x 120 cm