The following text was written in the fall of 2020 for Saul Myers class, Aesthetics and Critical Theory. I intend to one day revisit it incorprating some of his feedback.

The Archival Image

Paintings compress time. Like a bug enclosed in amber, the subjective experience of an artist is encapsulated in a painting, reinvigorated with the fresh gaze of each new viewer. In looking at paintings we can see what our ancestors cherished, feared,or admired. We may even see the spirited faces of the dead, which otherwise have long since settled into dust. It's all there, somehow, suspended on the substrate. Painting's ability to traverse time has historically been celebrated, in one of his treatises on art, Leonardo da Vinci acknowledges this aspect of painting when comparing it to music, writing,

But painting prevails over music and dominates it, because it does not die as soon as it is created, as does unfortunate music. Thus it remains in being and shows you as alive what is in fact only a surface. O marvelous science ! You preserve the ephemeral beauties of mortals and give them a greater permanence than have the works of nature, which continually undergo change until they reach their expected old age. (1)

Of course, Leonardo wrote this before modern recording devices which now allow songs to be stored and replayed seemingly ad infinitum. Paintings can be recorded as well, but the material presence of painting which had historically allowed it to outlast music tends to resist recordings. Relief, texture, scale, color, reflectivity, etc. are all material complexities of painting that demand a direct phenomenological expression. Furthermore, the material components of painting may not be as permanent as Leonardo believed. Oil paint was relatively new when Leonardo wrote this. Through time we have come to realize that oil paint is very much transient. While no painting medium defies permanence, oil paints, by far the most common medium of western painting, are exceptionally susceptible to discoloration and oxidation. (2) Paintings are made up of materials that are “the works of nature,” and therefore can truly have no greater permanence than nature. In something of a contradiction to his earlier statement Leonardo goes on to write on the relationship between painting and sculpture,

The sculptor says that his art is more noble than painting because it is more enduring, having less to fear from humidity, fire, heat, and cold. One must reply to him, that this does not confer nobility on sculpture, because the capacity to last comes from the material and not from the artist. (3)

The artist, the artwork, and the materials can all be thought to have quasi-independent lives. A painting's value is dependent on the orchestration of it’s materials, but the materials of a painting have very little value outside of the context of the painting. For example, Leonardo da Vinci's Salvator Mundi recently sold for $450.3 million but if a fragment of that painting was to flake off, the worth of the flake would not be valued in proportion to its size relative to the whole of the artwork, in fact it may very well be worthless, not art, but oil, and pigment, essentially dirt. Still, a painting without materials has no way of generating meaning. Whatever value a painting has must be embedded in its materials and their specific orchestration, and yet, as soon as those materials fall out of the frame of the painting, their meaning is no longer legible. On the other hand, the value of a painting tends to increase after its maker has passed.

It is true that in most artworks hanging in museums that the artist has died, and not long after, the original audience of the painting has perished. While many paintings may seem to have outlast both their audience and maker, the paintings we see today are truly the paintings of today—not yesterday. Paintings are in a constant state of flux. While the paintings we see in museums have avoided the binary passage from life to death that their maker’s have undergone, they are in no way immune to the gradual drive into nature that pervades all that is man, and is made of man. Or, as Plato wrote, apparently referencing the ideas of Herculites, “Nothing ever is, everything is becoming"; "All things are in motion like streams"; "All things are passing, and nothing abides"; (4)

A painting can be thought to be in constant change, moving from the legible order of human meaning making, to the largely incomprehensible realm of nature. Paintings wane and wax under different atmospheric conditions. The layers begin to shrink and subsequently separate, resulting in a matrix of cracks over the surface. Old, yellowing layers of varnish are chemically removed from paintings and replaced with new layers by conservators. Scratched or dented passages of paint are replaced with fresh pigment. It is not just the artwork’s ground that is revealed when looking through a painting’s craquelure, but, through the gradual cracking of a painting's surface, comes the unsettling of a painting's illusion, and with it, the ineffability of existence proves pervasive.

Historically western art has placed a high premium on both likeness and illusion. These qualities were achieved through skillful manipulation of the medium, which largely sought to make the medium itself, the materials, invisible. A famous story from Pliny the Elder’s Naturalis Historia tells how two greek artists, Zeuxis and Parrhasius, staged a contest to determine the greatest artist. Zeuxis unveiled his still life painting, which depicted grapes rendered with such accuracy that birds flew down from the sky to eat them. Zeuxis then asked Parrhasius to pull back the curtain covering his painting, to which Parrhasiu revealed that the curtain itself was a painted illusion. (5) These artists lived in the 4th century B.C.E. While naturalistic painting was partially abandoned during the Dark Ages, through most of the history of western art, from the Greeks all the way until modernism, paintings were dependent upon illusions for their pathos, and the need for illusion is one of the driving qualities for innovation. (6) In T.J Clark’s The Painting of Modern Life he writes on how modernist painters looked back at these painterly illusions, and more precisely, where the illusions begin to fail,

Certain painters in the seventeenth century, for example, had failed to hide the gaps and perplexities inherent in their own procedures, but for those traces of paradox in perception--those markers in the picture of where the illusion almost ended--only served to make the likeness, where it was achieved, the more compelling, because it was seen to exist in the face of its opposite, chaos. (7)

While Clark’s excerpt seems to be referring to the moments in which a painter's technique betrays their illusion, I assert that a painting's aging process also works against it's illusion. Over a painting’s lifetime it gradually privileges chaos in favor of illusion, and while this can serve to make the illusion more compelling, It may also foreground chaos, and may make it all the more compelling.

Clark writes of chaos as opposed to likeness or illusion. While this dichotomy strikes true, it is far from thorough. The same duality could be viewed through many lenses: yin and yang, matter and form, Apollonian and Dionysian. For now, I'll use the terms order and material. In a painting we can understand the will of the artist as order and the paint and substrate as materials. Through the process of painting, materials become ordered and, in a successful painting, a meaningful and legible gestalt is presented to us. Different paintings privilege order and materials to various degrees, and any one painting can be thought to exist on a scale between the two. An abstract expressionist painting may lean towards material, while a renaissance painting may lean towards order. This conception may be an oversimplification, part of Painting's richness is the dynamic quality between order and material across the whole of its surface. I assert that both order and material must be present to some degree for any painting to be legible. From our current point of view as a contemporary audience, premodern painting leans heavily towards order, however, the transience of these artworks makes us aware of their material component.

The ordering of materials is the major creative act of a painting, but it is only a small portion of a larger act of transformation. After an oil painting is complete other actors will inevitably play out on the painting potentially resulting in oxidation, discoloration, cracking, or flaking. The signs of transience that take hold of a painting are a very specific tell of the materials in an artwork. While Jackson Pollock's use of chance, gravity, and the fluid-quality of paint make us aware of the natural world, they do so in a way very different from the cracks in a renaissance painting. In part, this has to do with the defiance of illusion that takes place in the aging renaissance painting, but also in that these cracks reveal a specific truth of materials, and of the natural world. (the pollock painting also operates with illusionistic space, but that illusion likely wouldn't be as affected by the aging process as a more traditional painting) These cracks index time and the transience of all things; Herculites quality of always becoming and never abiding, or something of Nietzsche’s dionysian.

While not a perfect parallel, much of Nietzsche’s conception of the apollonian and dionysian mirror my terms order and material, and through his writing a greater understanding of the transient painting can be gleaned.

Dionysian art also wants to convince us of the eternal delight in existence. But we must seek this delight, not in appearances, but behind them. We must recognize how everything which comes into being must be ready for a painful destruction. (8)

The transience of painting—the gradual fissuring that discloses what lies behind the surface—suggests eternity. If there is one thing true of all paintings it is that they will not last. When strolling through the museum one may see a multitude of images, depicting fancy illusions of all variety, but these paintings are tied together through the ubiquitous craquelure corrupting their surfaces. Whether this thing, the eternal primordial mother, that demands the destruction of all other things is chaotic or ordered itself is uncertain. If it is ordered, its grand architecture is beyond legible to us. Despite our efforts to give shape and form to our experiences, to bend the multitudes of reality into something static, the primordial mother demands inexpression. The ineffable will not be effable, the river will not be seized.

In our final thoughts, let us turn specifically to the works of Albert Pinkham Ryder, and his painting Moonlight Marine. The works of Albert Pinkham Ryder are an interesting case of the transient painting. While the paintings aren't that old, due to the experimental techniques employed by Ryder, they have fractured rather significantly. Yet, the paintings almost appear designed with this fracturing in mind. The Cobweb-like structures of craculuture echo the contorted cloud forms, or rustling waves that are his trademarks. In Moonlight Marine it is not difficult to see the scrawling cracks as an expression of ocean wind, as if the breath of the world heaves through the canvas. Bill Jenson writes on Ryder that the spirit resounds in his work, not the spirit of the artist himself or his ego. Still the painting’s are clearly not strictly works of nature, they are artworks aftertall, artificially composed through the intellect. The subject, two ships at sea, may be illuminated through a quote from Schopenhauer which also happens to appear in Nietzsche's writing,

Just as the boatman sits in his small boat, trusting his frail craft in a stormy sea that is boundless in every direction, rising and falling with the howling, mountainous waves, so in the midst of a world full of suffering and misery the individual man calmly sits, supported by and trusting the principium individuationis [....]

The painting, depicting a voyage at sea, is also a voyage through time. Will the voyagers weather the storm? Most likely not, just as the painting will inevitably fall apart, so will all ships sink. But for a minute, perhaps a long one, ships will sail against the storm. And when they do collapse into that black sea, back into that primordial oneness, the world that destroys ships will be birthing something else.