Some words on the death of Lawrence Gowing
Some of Lawrence’s earliest paintings are self-portraits in the mould of Courbet – the painter as Artist. Latterly the role was deepened in its tragic aspect, the artist as Marsyas flayed. Lawrence’s gift to us, his perennial celebration of substance, richness, colour, the great blossoming of form – to use one of his own phrases – all in the name of painting, was never unattached from a sense of mortality. He had looked at death several times. His torrential energy was matched by his stoicism. When he talked about painters and painting, it was always to ruminate about a life story, the meaning of a journey, a journey in which he had a personal stake. His writing was above all imaginative, and even when it was at its most scholarly one had the feeling of being swept along in a creation of the imagination, as in a great novel. It was not a narrative of events he told, but rather a rehearsal of how his subjects had told themselves the greater narrative of painting. Lawrence talked about the art of the past as one reliving a family romance that stretched back centuries and whose unknown dénouement was anticipated with an excitement that was almost unbearable. As in any family epic, there were times when it seemed that identities became almost interchangeable: Vermeer becoming Bill Coldstream – or perhaps it was the other way round – Constable finding room at his elbow for Lawrence’s first teacher Maurice Field. Cézanne, of course, was an ideal father – and an ideal self.
It was the depth and drive of this fantasy that underwrote his lavishness, the extremity of his generosity: for if his allegiance to the family of painters led to a certain tribal generality, it also allowed for its opposite, an extreme celebration of the individual achievement. There are certain words that I will always hear in Lawrence’s voice: ‘unique’, ‘essential’, ‘unparalleled’, ‘indubitable’, ‘indispensable’, ‘extraordinary’. ‘But not every case can be as extraordinary as that,’ I once heard a baffled editor – Karl Miller – exclaim over one of Lawrence’s more ebullient texts. But that was just the point. When one has the courage to see life and death inscribed in every artist’s quest, including one’s own, distinction cannot be exaggerated.
In his 1977 essay on the late Cézanne – in my view, one of the finest of all Lawrence’s writings – he twice mentions Cézanne’s identification with Moses. I have wondered whether there was something shared here too, not perhaps with the grandeur of the leader sighting the promised land, but with the earlier Moses, reluctant at his calling, who protests: ‘Lord, but I am slow of speech and of a slow tongue.’ Not least of Lawrence’s victories was his finding of his Aaron within himself. His eloquence carried a force and a sense of wonder and illumination that one will never experience again.
I go back to the grey-brown gloom of the life room at Camberwell just after the war, the model half-asleep, part of the furniture. Lawrence bounces into the room. Suddenly the model is caught up, transported in a romance of eternal return: Danaë, Bathsheba, Victorine Meurent, Thérèse Walter ... The Glow! Lawrence insists, The Glamour! – fighting for each word. And it was as though a place were being laid for us at the family table.
Vol. 13 No. 15 · 15 August 1991
While having no quarrel with Andrew Forge on his appreciation of the writings of Robert Hughes (LRB, 27 June), I would like to take issue with his elaboration of the ‘symptoms’ of malaise, initially diagnosed by Hughes, in the contemporary art scene. His account itself shows signs of the malaise of traditional art criticism. Forge writes of the loss of some experimental art’s basis in representation (drawing skills) as the cause of its decline into ‘fashion’, suitable for the frenzied markets, rather than retaining a ‘radical’ potential in relation to the real world. It happens that I agree with his implicit aesthetic defence of abstraction, that it is somehow based in representation, although I see nothing ‘radical’ about it. However, to move from this argument to one about ‘fashion’ and markets is problematic. Despite Forge’s later dismissal of ‘sociological arguments’, the processes leading over this century to a mass market in art, and to ever more powerful waves of changing ‘fashion’, require sociological and economic analysis. They do not correlate clearly with this or any other stylistic change. Rather, it may be that aesthetic developments are themselves conditioned by the changing institutions and markets for art, not least the recent nostalgic return to figuration. But they are not somehow debased by being thus conditioned, and only a critic concerned with rejuvenating a discourse in which art is autonomous from the social would propose so.
It is to Hughes’s credit that, against the reactionary tide of some art criticism, he does not disdain to concern himself with these issues. Forge’s resort to ‘biological necessity’ in trying to understand the unique attractions of painting is unfortunate, appealing as it does to some dubious physiological, and yet transcendent, art-empathic essence.
Forge’s second main theme, after Hughes and against Benjamin’s famous thesis, is the responsibility of mechanical media (photography, TV) for the aesthetic superficiality and amnesia of the Post-Modern present. There are two sub-themes. First, under the pervasive influence of mass visual media and their ‘stupidly compelling’ realism, fine art also became obsessed with ‘information and not experience’. One could easily develop the opposite thesis: that, with the ‘pure’ informational function siphoned off to mass media, painting was finally freed from this onerous duty to engage with its own preoccupations – which were never simply or primarily representational. But both theses rest on a misapprehension, since there are no such things as ‘purely informational’ mass media: they themselves have an aesthetic dimension, different to, but as complex as, that of fine art.
More importantly, it is no good laying the blame for the aesthetic impasses of Modernist fine art on the coincidental rise of new mass media, which do not displace, nor aesthetically rival, fine art. If painting has lost its way aesthetically over the century, its ambivalent relations with other cultural developments must first be explained in terms of the aporias and crises of its own internal dynamics and periodic urge to turn outwards for ‘solutions’ – unsuccessfully, in my view.
The second sub-theme is that painters, critics and viewers are brought up on diets of slides which misrepresent and reduce the original painting, so producing an ahistorical, superficial pseudo-freedom of access to the total world history of art. We must accept the fact that slides are transformations – representations of paintings in which certain phenomenal qualities of the originals are lost. The question is what this implies. For Benjamin, it was a price worth paying. Forge’s view seems based on a view of culture as a ‘zero-sum game’: the more we have mass reproduction, the less is left for the appreciation of the artwork. How can Forge defend against Benjamin’s other major insight, sociological and aesthetic combined, that the problem with fine artworks is precisely their uniqueness in space and time; and that in a world like ours, these objects inevitably become rare commodities caught up in an ever-inflating traffic of prestigious goods? In other words, that by their very nature as objects, fine artworks become symbols of cultural stratification, so that for the majority of people the choice is not ‘slides or paintings’, but ‘postcards and slides or nothing’?
What Forge misses is the sheer phenomenological specificity and difference of fine art, of photography and, indeed, of written and verbal discourse; and of the translation and transformation inherent in any congress between them. It is not true that painting is somehow demeaned or robbed by the existence of photographic slides. Ironically, this repressed truth returns in Forge’s own appreciation of the photographs of paintings in Hughes’s ‘extremely well-illustrated’ book on Auerbach. We are faced with various forms of translation: literary, discursive, photographic. Each is ‘artificial’: and yet each has a function. Each ‘robs’ – if that is the word for not being the same as: and yet each expands the universe of the original artwork, the particular qualities of painting. Surely this is the way forward.
Goldsmiths’ College, London SE14
Vol. 13 No. 17 · 12 September 1991
Georgina Born’s letter (Letters, 15 August) does not take issue with Andrew Forge’s piece about Robert Hughes and the state of modern art. Had their paths crossed, they might have got on well. They agree on the new 20th-century mass market in art, whatever that is. They agree on the ever more powerful waves of changing fashion. But I have to say to Forge’s critique of modern fashions that before fashion there was also fashion. This can be difficult to detect in some of the comments which issue from universities and colleges on art markets and their vogues.
What particular nostalgic return to figuration is Georgina Born mentioning? I have seen more shows this summer by artists from Goldsmiths’ College, where Georgina Born teaches, than from all the other art schools in total – either new graduates or, as a friend of mine put it, ‘rehabilitated old hippies’. They share a common nostalgia for the distant revolutions of Marcel Duchamp, and though he may have been kind enough to sign the work of young admirers, he finally preferred playing chess to making art.