REVENGE - RIOT- RESTITUTION (THE PAINTINGS OF GUILLAUME BRESSON)
Rebellious subjects, enemies to peace, Profaners of this neighbour-stained steel, Will they not hear? What, ho! you men, you beasts, That quench the fire of your pernicious rage With purple fountains issuing from thy veins. William Shakespeare, Romeo and Juliet , Act I, Scene I
To choose to practice an academic and modern form of history painting that by intention is non-specific as regard an historical subject matter, might initially seem little more than a perverse contradiction. On the one hand this use of history painting alludes to a particular typological approach, while on the other it strips away the very motivation for utilising the same self-same genre or painting convention.
1. As a popular convention today history painting is an approach that has been rarely dominant in recent times, the photographic historical record as document has usually been substituted and sufficed for any former need.
2. But the creative and deliberate revivifying of an academic convention, while directing it to other purposes, is exactly what the French painter Guillaume Bresson has chosen to do in his contemporary painting practice. Bresson makes no bones about it, and he willingly proclaims and embraces a personal visual fusion of the different Baroque and the Neo-Classical tropes or references, that contribute to his pictorial and theatrically charged paintings. However, to what extent Bresson's paintings are in an original or meaningful sense 'history paintings', save that of their immediately composed sense or constructed appearance, is perhaps, in retrospect, a purely polemical and non-profitable debate for the viewer to follow. This is because Bresson's paintings do not refer (as stated) to a specific narrative histories or particular events (symbolic or otherwise) in a purely literal and/or accountable sense as history painting. But that certain aspects or conventions of history painting (in parenthesis) act as no more than a pictorial frame or shell in which the contemporary events represented are placed and/or subtlety layered. It is equally true to say that Bresson's paintings possess none of the moralised import, or slanted allegorical prejudices, common to the traditional genre of history painting as it was formerly expressed. Guillaume Bresson's paintings are not therefore intended to be specifically didactic or allegorical through their subject contents, and their différend is no more than a 'genre', or distinguishing discourse, which in a certain sense remains their singular history related content.
3. Yet to make paintings today that so openly reference such French painters as Nicolas Poussin (1594-65), Frères Le Nain (Louis, Antoine, Mathieu 1598/1610 ? 1648/77), Jacques-Louis David (1748-1845) or the Italian artist Caravaggio (Michaelangelo Merisi, 1571-1610), far from being considered retardataire, is conversely – or perhaps perversely – extremely radical within the contemporary context. Instead of developing a facile new concept-strategy or form of material expression, and then waiting for contemporary criticism or theory to build a discursive and explicatory world around it, Bresson has chosen to work through and revivify a pre-existent language and breathe new life into it. To quietly resurrect the dead as it were. Thus to a young painter like Bresson the 'academic' tradition of painting operates as if it were the found photograph of the contemporary moment, and reverses many of the photography to painting suppositions and theoretical dependencies created over the last forty years.
4. That is whereby the found photograph could only be used to generate an arbitrary point of departure for a painting, but in such a way so as to serve the needs of photography as against the painting.
5. The twentieth century's modernist hatred and diatribe directed towards so-called 'academic' (L'art pompier) painting, has now become like an over-evolved inversion of Baudelaire's 'envelope' that as a result pushed the former traditional centre to the edge.
6. But like Freud's 'return of the repressed',
7. or perhaps, better still, Nietzsche's 'eternal recurrence', a re-engagement with a traditional genre refreshes the contemporary mind as to what a painter like Bresson has been able to do with it.
8. For this young French artist it is a case of re-generating anew a language whose origins and ideas have long since been obfuscated and fallen away. Thus Bresson seeks to rekindle that which Foucault might have called a discursive discontinuity.
9. That is to say where what appears to refer to the same 'thing' in terms of history and practice, is no longer perceived, described, expressed, characterised, classified, and known in the same way from one age to another, and that these ruptured discontinuities lay on top of one another. But that far from being obsolete they are in a constant state of slippage and regeneration over protracted periods of time. To the extent that Bresson's paintings do represent a form of 'history painting', they are, as already stated, representative of the formal and compositional characteristics of the history genre. They often use multiple figures in complex configurations, and architectural settings that serve as structures to frame the images and/or events depicted. The presentation of contents often follow a frieze-like convention, reminiscent of Neo-Classical painting, as seen in such works as Jacques Louis David's 'The Intervention of the Sabine Women' (1799), or its earlier manifestation as found in Nicolas Poussin.
10. Bresson's figures are frequently placed in complex arrangements of interactivity, and in the current series compositions show actions of interactive male violence or situations of threat. The lighting systems follow an extremely dramatic chiaroscuro, and does so in a manner that explicitly pays homage to the Carravagisti tradition of painting. However, the optical sources of light in Bresson's paintings are frequently abstracted, either suggesting non-sourced pools of light or deliberately inferring an artificial lighting system, as with the use of a street lamp in the large group or riot scene, or strip lighting sources for the more cloistered individual violence of the series of car park interiors. It is common to Carravagisti painting that light is formed into either abstract pools as inferred or suggested by directed light sources outside the painting. This is clearly distinct from the Northern Baroque of someone like Rembrandt where light is usually made to be immanent, or centralised as in De La Tour's dramatic candle-lit interiors. The artist Bresson affirms that the compositions are not derived specifically from photographs, they begin with sketches (esquis) and life models placed in specific arrangements, then dressed appropriately for the subject at hand. This being the primary means of approach. Thereafter they are photographed and used as an aide memoire. Indeed, this is reminiscent of the earliest use of photography in the history genre of Paul Delaroche and Eugene Delacroix, who both validated photography or utilised photographs similarly as a compositional record.
11. However, Bresson's use of either black and white, sepia, or grisaille effects emphasises the sense of literal arrested moment (common to a photograph) that each painting possesses. In fact the compositional elements intimate the idea of drawings developed and then utilised from multiple viewpoints. This is particularly true of multi-figure fight scenes. Such an approach directly echoes the traditions of the Renaissance and the Baroque, where sometimes there were three-dimensional studies and/or modelli made from multiple viewpoints. Also they were sometimes turned around with small drawing alterations made to suggest what was called compositional varieta.
12. The studies are then translated by hand to the canvas or other support. Bresson is intimately familiar with the Beaux-Arts procedures of using life models, or drawing from cast, as he is with the Louvre tradition of copying, where he has spent much time like many previous generations of French artists. In terms of subject matter the current series of depictions represent either individual or gang violence, and while they may on the surface be reminiscent of the recent 2005-2007 riots and street violence of places like Villiers-le-bel, in France, they are far more representative of contemporary inter-gang violence and peer group bonding. In fact both the drama and theatricality of the scenes evoke a kinship with the classic gang behaviour of West Side Story. However, the Sharks and Jets T-shirts, sneakers and jeans have been replaced with contemporary garb like trainers, sweatshirts and bomber jackets. And, as with the house liveries of the Montagues and Capulets from Romeo and Juliet, on which West Side Story was based, Bresson has also placed great emphasis on clothing and the role it plays in modern clan identities of the urban space. Indeed, what we are presented with is a veritable theatre of adolescent ideas on style and consumption, and the role they play as labels of both identity and association. A particularly obvious example is a dark interior where the 'lacoste' logo on a zipped sweatshirt is highlighted by discernable precision. In the first painting the two figures are juxtaposed in the darkness, while in the second the Caucasian male appears to be choking or sadistically garrotting his Black male companion.
13. If at times the individual car park scenes are ambiguous, which is to say as either implicit of actual violence, or merely the theatre of violence common to young male behaviour and peer group bonding, is not made clear by Bresson. However, the large group confrontations, which echo the history conventions already discussed, are decidedly actions reflecting intentional extreme violence. But then it is important to remember that they are paintings and not just social commentary, and it is a specific characteristic that advances painting beyond the reality of the photograph into the 'real'. The real called the ontological (the essential and interpretable meaning) contents, as distinct from the documentary or descriptive immediacy offered by photo-journalistic photography. Thus a certain ambiguity haunts all the paintings, in the violence and rioting suggestive of French Revolutionary (Jacques-Louis David the painter of the Revolution) and Socialist Realist painting on the one hand, whereas the car park interiors hint more at mindless social violence and simple criminality on the other. No matter how contemporary some of the images appear in terms of garb and sentiment, one is constantly drawn back to historical analogies. A primary example being of the painter Bresson's own family which appear in an untitled painting casting the theme in a deliberately Caravaggesque manner. Though the rapid transmission of Caravaggio's style in the early seventeenth century makes the work equally commensurate with the same subject matter and general stylistic development found in the Frères Le Nain. In this instance the convention of the card game and/or business dealing (or such like) has been discarded in favour of a family feud or brawl. Indeed, a common theme found in early seventeenth century French Baroque painting, a subject found in the work of Georges de la Tour (1593-1652). The artist's girlfriend is seated to the left monumental and authorial, while his father stands in the white cable-knit sweater and turns away threatened by roguish grey-haired and aggressive personification of his other self (his father seen in a double nature), and one which waves a threatening blade. With his back toward the viewer Bresson depicts himself also possessing a sense of arrested pictorial moment, while similarly appearing as if he is about to spring into explosive or violent action. The only immediate aspect that submits to present day reality is the style of clothing, and just as other earlier periods of art history have cast the past in the prevailing modern dress, Bresson has also translated in this painting the idea of an historical style and pictorial language into a contemporary idiom of expression. It is, perhaps, not surprising that in France history painting has been a persistent theme running not only through the twentieth century academic tradition, but with wider contemporary considerations, that is notwithstanding its general rejection by and antagonism with modernism. The post-World War I, in the wake of its devastation and horror saw a rappel d'ordre in the early 1920s. In this instance artists like Pablo Picasso (1881-1973) and Henri Matisse (1869-1954) returned to Ingres's, and whose reinterpreted Orientalist odalisques continued as a subject matter throughout the 1920s. Indeed, Picasso's 'Guernica' (1937) is a complex form of history painting of sorts. Similarly, post-World War II, Matisse not only returned again to Ingres's odalisques in his 1950s cut outs, but a full blown Socialist Realist-tradition of David-ian revolutionary painting was adopted by the French Communist Party (part of the government until 1947). This was particularly the case with Andre Fougeron (1913-1998), whose paintings for the PCF were directly based on works by David.xiv Artists like Picasso and Édouard Pignon (1905-1993), and numerous others committed themselves to different forms of figurative realism becoming painters and historical propagandists for the PCF (Parti Communiste Français). The space between traditional academicism and realism being never fully defined. This said, Guillaume Bresson quite studiously avoids direct association and immediate identification with his subject matter, and neither does he is any meaningful sense generate specific or contrived psychological contents as ends in themselves. As suggested earlier they neither moralise, or suggest specifically allegorical contents. Though what Bresson does reveal is the continuum of the themes of brawl, riot, and battle, that are embedded within the traditions of history painting, and particularly so in France. How then do we read these images of Bresson therefore? As suggested earlier we must avoid a diachronic linearity. If we have learnt anything from postmodernism it is that there is discontinuous parallelism in which ideas pass out of sight only re-emerge again later within a new frame of discourse and meaning. This is not due to simple cause and effect, but that we live in a world of constant discursive and pictorial mutation. A Gilles Deleuze analysis ascribes this discursive mutation to 'monads' and the changing autonomies they are able to create.
14. Put simply it is constituted by the disjunctive figure (monad) and the relationship of difference with itself. Deleuze derives the contemporary analogy from Leibnitz's Baroque idea of the infinite fold, each idea as a monad of knowledge or potential knowledge (made up of space, movement, and time) remains autonomous but in a susceptible state of folding. Yet each monad offers differential states of closure or selection. Hence the world is a place of multifaceted signs in constant motion within these discursive singularities. This leads to a philosophy and aesthetics of 'becoming', and the aleatory condition whereby past is made evident in the present and the present in the past. Guillaume Bresson's use of a contemporary form of history painting is not therefore a meagre resurrection of the past, but the past he has made anew as if were 'infolded' again within the present. A modern sense of meaning is increasingly realised within this 'becoming', that is to say as part of the continuous unfolding sense of the differential real within reality.
©Mark Gisbourne Monday, 05 January 2009