Final preparations for Magna Carta are underway across Runnymede and Egham. A stage has been erected, the plinth is waiting for the Queen, the obligatory murals and mosaics designed by school children are complete.
My exhibition is almost there as well now. The paintings were finished weeks ago but now the catalogue is printed, posters distributed and frames are finished. Up until now, I have only really written about the paintings from a general interest point of view, reflecting the fact that the audience at the festival will be primarily interested in the history and the local area rather than being out for a day of looking at art. It's time to change that and look at the project from a Fine Art perspective.
I first realised the anniversary was coming up a couple of years ago so that's when I started thinking. How could art reflect what happened 800 years ago and/or the consequences of those events? I have written here before about the difference between the verbal and the visual and was aware from day one that Magna Carta and its legacy are about words, not images. I also immediately knew traditional history painting felt inappropriate. This was such a strong assumption that I had to challenge it. Many thoughts later, I came to the conclusion that history painting has vanished from contemporary practice because it is fundamentally dishonest and its traditional myth-making function is done far better today by film and TV. So the two rules I set myself long before I knew what events would be happening and which one I would join were to avoid history painting and avoid resorting to words.
After I was in touch with the university, early discussions quickly pointed to a solution. They wanted work which celebrates the area which narrowed things down to continuing with my landscape paintings. They also told me that students were working on an app which used GPS to tell visitors more about the history of what they were looking at. This struck a chord; could I use a similar approach within the paintings? Not only would this dovetail with my host's activities but it would fulfil their brief and have the potential to be an elegant solution to the history painting problem.
History painting is a genre that rose up as a new breed of patrons started to be as important a source of commissions as the church after the Renaissance. These patrons wanted to tell stories not from the bible but from their family history. The possession of art is often a display of power, and it was realised that a compelling picture showing the deeds in history that established a family's power base and reputation could help legitimise them and advertise their status. As a result as grand houses and palaces sprung up, grand paintings which used a biased view of events (often battles) were commissioned to fill them and mythologise their owner's origins.
As the art market evolved into the 19th century the character of patrons changed again. Rich industrialists were more interested in the present than the past and the new middle class was interested in less grandiose things so the demand for history paintings reduced. This was exacerbated by the rise of books, newspapers, photography and, later, cinema - all of which could tell the same stories in more immediate, accessible and compelling ways. There was also an increasing tendency for artists to paint what they wanted and try to sell it afterwards rather than waiting for a commission and this inevitably affected the subjects of choice.
The final death of the genre was the First World War. For the first time the public could see traditional history painting alongside work done by daring modern painters who had actually served at the front and history panting's flaws were cruelly exposed for all to see. Principle among them was that it was evidently made up. Art is great at making things up, but when it deals with real events that is a problem.
To bring this back to Magna Carta, what do we actually know about events? Roughly where it was sealed, the name of the King, the names of the Barons and Bishops and everybody's coat of arms. We also know the typical clothing of the time. What don't we know? We don't know what anybody really looked like, what they were wearing, where exactly it was sealed, what the tents looked like, how big the armies/bodyguards were, what the weather was like, was it like a celebration or a tense stand off, were the hills lined with archers or with spectators, how dense were the trees on the riverbank, etc etc... In short we know a couple of bald facts. Everything else is deduction and fantasy.
I realised a solution was to take the app's approach and use it to show where the meadows are still medieval in character. Where the app concentrates on buildings, I have picked out seemingly random chunks of the landscapes. Where the app concentrates on documented history, I have tried to read the landscape and draw attention to the lumps and bumps. Why is this a solution? It allows me to be honest and paint with integrity, gives the viewers more real information than they would gain from a normal history painting, equips them to go onto the meadows and work things out for themselves and, most importantly, delegates the making up and fantasising to them. This is important for two reasons - ensuring the audience understands the details are made up and making sure the made up things are as vivid as possible. Is this a genuine replacement for history painting? As it turns out, no. Is it a real and useful alternative? To my delight, it seems to be. It is definitely worth pursuing in the future.
Since I am looking at the landscape archeologically and encouraging viewers to do the same, it seemed natural to me that the paintings should reflect this. My work has a tendency to be made in layers as it is in my indecisive nature to work with glazes and I think the act of removing paint is as important as the act of adding it. I have exaggerated this tendency in this project; some of the paintings contain no attempt to obscure the layers, methods and marks from which they are built and those that do contain what archeologists might refer to as sections and sondages - areas where the sequence of layers has been made clearly visible and areas where layers at the surface of the painting have been removed to reveal what is underneath. I am tempted to draw a conclusion from this; the making of a painting is the equivalent process as the process of building, ruining and burying an archeological site with thoughts and of the intentions of the artist having the same impact and leaving the same traces as the lives of the people who lived and worked on the site; and the process of looking at a painting can be equivalent to an archaeologist then excavating the site. The methods he would use to understand the timeline of the site and make inferences about the inhabitants are remarkably similar to the way a critic would analyse the form of the painting and infer meaning from it.
One thing that is ever present in my paintings is a sustained investigation into the mechanics of perception. I rarely mention this because I haven't yet finalised my conclusions but this project has been used to test my ideas. I'm still not going to explain now, but if you're wondering why the emphasis on detail, brush marks and sharpness varies so much within and between paintings and why I make groups of paintings instead of individual ones, the preliminary conclusions of this investigation are the core reason.
Magical Realism vs the English landscape tradition
A couple of years ago someone told me I see the landscape in a magical way and this is true. It does colour my work and, during the preparations I made for this project, my presence on all parts of the meadows at all times of day and night and in all weathers with a time-travelling state of mind meant I couldn't help but reflect on the link between spirituality and the land. This did slowly seep in to some of the paintings and there is a real contrast between the "is", the "was" and "may be" within them. While I was chasing this down and exploring methods by which I could show the present day and imply the past in the same picture, a curious thing began to emerge which places the last few paintings in particular firmly in the realm of Magical Realism.
Magical Realism is used to describe something very specific in painting - a movement in the Americas of painters interested in the uncanny and the unsettling and heavily influenced by Giorgio de Chirico. One thing led to another and this tendency was embraced by central American writers and they turned it into something rich, glittering and multi-facetted, a method of writing that was set in the real world but draws no distinction between fact and fantasy and feels no particular need to use time in the same way as most authors. The most celebrated example of the approach is Gabriel Garcia Marquez's One Hundred Years of Solitude and, although it is years since I have read it, the deeper I immersed myself in the project the book bubbled unbidden into my mind.
As I experimented with multiple focal points within a painting as a device for showing two opposing things and learning how to make them co-exist I realised I was learning how to make a simple observational painting and a fantasy painting out of the same image on the same canvas - a traffic jam disappears when the second focal point kicks in in one painting, in another a bright sunlit park plays against a dark vortex of a path which sucks the eye into a dank unknown. Another, deep in the woods, abandons focal points altogether, replacing them with a focal plane which divides and defines the picture and (thanks to the power of context) implicitly divides time.
The paintings may function in a similar way to "Hundred Years" but they look nothing like the Magical Realist painting style which helped give birth to the book. Instead, they are firmly within the English tradition of landscape painting. When you get a sense of the "Hundred Years" sensibility, it becomes evident that English painting has had its own equivalent ever since Canaletto washed up on these shores bringing Venetian fantasy with him. Look at the fine detail in his work, where his humour, fantasy and savagery come out to play. Then move on a few years and examine Turner's exploration of the sublime and the picturesque, the signifiers of past and future and his tightrope walk between reality and un-reality. Deeper into the 19th century and romantics start rebuilding the Arthurian Chivalric myths, reflected by many artists and notably by the Pre-Raphaelites. Also in the 19th century public art collections were opening; suddenly Uccello's landscapes were available to everyone with his curious mixture of realism and stylisation and the lack of distinction between fact and fantasy. This appears to have fed directly into the English modernism that emerged from the Slade in the early 20th century and is typified by Paul Nash, a man as close as this country comes to American Magical Realism. Through the 20th century and into my lifetime, Sutherland and Piper keep the direction going, moving away from Nash's geometry and back towards the English Turneresque interest in light, space and decay. I will confess that is not the most obvious timeline, that many more names could be added and that the incorporation of a quattrocento Florentine into late 19th century Britain will be controversial but I think it shows a direction and a tradition. Put it together with the Magical Realist literature and it's not a bad explanation for why the paintings look the way they do and it provides an interesting direction for the future.
PS no pictures today, as the paintings aren't being launched until tomorrow ;-)