Le Dormeur Téméraire, 1928
Above is, nominally, a painting. It certainly consists of coloured pigments applied to a canvas. But, really, it is a painting for people who don't like art. What is marginally curious about it is that it amounts to a collection of bland Freudian symbols painted blandly, symbols that have meaning only in context, removed from context—it is both ugly and defiantly meaningless. It is painting as text—a very dull text, without Magritte's usual puns. Why would anyone paint an image like that? A smile is brought to my lips, for the very fact of the question.
L'Assassin Menacé, 1926
Now this one is just as ugly, but much more interesting. Its ugliness, which is quite typical of the artist's work, is here transformed into a reflective surface, a contempt for 'painterliness'. You can read on the internet myriad accounts of the narrative represented here, taken from one of the Fantômas films, but there's not much point doing so. Its implication of narrative, I think, benefits from the complete implausibility, and even meaninglessness, of that narrative. There is simultaneously a realism—no floating bowlers or giant tubas—and an unrealism, a vacuity of detail or roughness, a purely stereotyped figuration. The blank rebuttal of this image I find almost heartbreaking. Go on, it says—interpret me. See? You can't. But you could reduce the image to a description, an ekphrasis, pretty well. Tom Stoppard, my old nemesis, did a play of it.
Absorbingly inhuman is the desire to paint such meticulous anti-paintings as these. I do not derive a scintilla of pleasure from them. The minute I saw L'Assassin I wanted to write an epic, as if there were some sort of potency lurking in the recesses of its cold blandness. I ended up with a fragmentary epyllion. These paintings will have to take the place of my first exposure to art, aged 8—one of Chagall's green fiddlers at the Philadelphia Museum of Art—which I have forgotten, nevertheless the episode lives on in the family memory.
It may be an awakening to the algidity of this material that prompted my drift away from modernist art—towards the warmer climes of the Renaissance, so intricately real, and so sumptuously unreal. Those were paintings as paintings, not paintings as statements. Did the avant-garde ruin art, make it something else? Since 1872, or whenever you would have it, painting became a quest, a progress towards, an ecdysis of constraints. It became a game of permutations; the above are two such permutations, the passage of a form into obscurity. In those paintings are an early legitimation of Warhol, of the architecture of a modern university campus—the mystery of surfaces.
I fear something has been lost in the hunt for freedom. Perhaps this is why these deadened tableaux, a reckless sleeper and an assassin threatened, continue to fascinate me, as symptoms, or omens, complacent and threatening, of what has since come to pass.