We are finding more reasons to pay attention to this publication each time we dig deeper into it. This artist, his art form, this writer, and the intersection of these ideas are all worth the 30-40 minutes this article grips your attention for:
I was in my teens when I first started to really look at paintings. Although I didn’t just look, I bathed in them, and I was perpetually teased by my friends for the tremendous length of time it took me to navigate an art gallery. This pleasure of looking and of being completely absorbed in painting has remained constant; whether ancient or modern, figurative or abstract, and whatever the style, I am prepared to give every work the chance to lure me in.
What is so compelling? When art was an adjunct of religion, its power was clear. But from the Renaissance on, painting, at least in the Western tradition, has preoccupied itself as intensely with secular as with overtly religious subject matter, or else with no subject at all.Yet when you are in the presence of an unequivocally great work of art, it seems to open a door to a realm of ideas and emotions not accessible through any other route. It’s a quality that goes far beyond prettiness or great skill, which on their own can numb and irritate, and it transcends the visceral excitement of paint, or the sorcery of summoning life onto canvas. Nor is it just the stories of power or desire, however literal or oblique, that binds us. There is some hankering after truth that drives us to look intently at pictures, some hunger of the spirit as much as the senses.
One way or another, I think, artists themselves have always known this. About 3-4,000 year ago, artists in Ancient Egypt began to use borders to mark off narrative scenes and decorative panels on tomb walls. The great vase-painters of Ancient Greece and the mosaicists of Ancient Rome also understood the power of the edge in transforming our relationship with an image. Rather than being continuous with our mundane world, as is sculpture for example, a framed painting, or bordered image, offers a world apart, transfigured from four down to two dimensions; a window onto an ideal space.
For those of us who love painting, this is the key to the medium’s hold over us. Be it traditional, figurative painting, or abstract; Byzantine, or cubist, and whether from the 12th century or the 21st, the core pleasure of any painting is that of moving into another world, where time is stilled and passage for the eye is swift and free. This is as true of the blue depths of a landscape by 16th century Flemish artist Joachim Patinir as it is the complexity of character, wrought in swirling oils, in a portrait by Frank Auerbach. Of course, a great deal of the experience of a painting is aesthetic and even intellectual – you enjoy the structure of forms, textures and colours and you respond to the story, or ideas, or emotions the artist is eager to communicate. You go to painting eager for a new vision of this world. But you also go very often with a hope, too, for a glimpse into another. Perhaps it is this illusion of a threshold that enables painting to so readily serve as a gateway to another psychological or even spiritual domain.
One painter who understood this potential very well was Balthus. In many ways a fantasist, with an unsettling fixation on young girls, he was compelling in his commitment to the power of painting to put us in touch with a spiritual dimension. I have always been drawn to his landscapes, with their serene nostalgia for another world, and to his quiet interiors, in which a figure often stands against or looking through a window. These paintings conjure explicitly the pleasure we gain from looking through a frame at a painted landscape, as much as the pleasure of looking at the landscape itself.
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