The series, sequences anddecisive moments
Medieval manuscripts used sequences of images to tell a story or sometimes combined various actions into a single image for conciseness and effect. They chose decisive moments, for example the Limbourge Brothers’ ‘Tres Riches Heures du Duc de Berry’. Not long after Flemish art through Robert Campin / the Master of Flémalle and Jan van Eyck depicted God’s world in great detail, the surface of objects became relevant and flowers, saints, books, jewels ad landscapes came to symbolise the content rather than traditional narrative sequences that told a story (Giotto’s frescoes in the Scrovegni Chapel, Padua).
A landscape was both a depiction of natural environments and symbolic. Move to the 1740’s and we find the Rev. William Gilpin conceiving a new method of looking at landscape as a sequence of changing pictures. The picturesque was born and a generation or two later, the Claude Glass, a darkened convex mirror, became fashionable. One viewed a scene backwards, a whole vista displayed in a small picture. It was as fashionable as an iPhone is today with its ability to take sequences of pictures of a party. The landscape, landscape gardens and landscape paintings intermingled, the dichotomy between the natural and artificial, between nature and art was softening.
Turner’s watercolour paintings culminated in the early 1840s with a series of transcendent views of Mount Rigi seen from Lake Lucerne. Turner painted the mountain at different times of day and each is characterised by a hue, The Blue Rigi, The Dark Rigi (owned by Ruskin) and The Red Rigi. Ruskin said of the series: “Turner had never made any drawings like these before and never made any like them again.” The Blue Rigi was Turner’s first attempt to record dawn just before sunrise. [i]
Monet began painting the same subject again and again under different conditions, with Haystacks, painting one for cloudy weather and one for sunny weather. He realised it was much more complicated and painted twenty-five canvases from the end of summer 1890 to the following spring.
“By focusing on the same subject through a whole series of paintings, Monet was able to concentrate on recording visual sensations themselves. The subjects did not change, but the visual sensations – due to changing conditions of light – changed constantly.” Robert Pelfrey[ii]
The Rouen Cathedral paintings, more than thirty in all, were made in 1892 and 1893 in a room he rented across the street, then reworked in his studio in 1894. The following year he selected twenty for display at his Paris dealer’s gallery. Pissarro and Cézanne among others praised the work.
Monet crops the cathedral as a surface of stone soaking up light, a paradox of rock and light. Paul Tucker gives a sense of their materiality: “Monet’s sensitivity to the natural effects he observed are just one factor that make these pictures so remarkable; the way he manipulates his medium contributes to their majesty as well. For the surfaces of these canvases are literally encrusted with paint that Monet built up layer upon layer like the masonry of the façade itself.” [iii]
“It is possible to argue as Malevich did, that the twenty paintings which Monet made in the early 1890’s of the façade of Rouen Cathedral, as seen at different times of day and under different weather conditions, were the final systematic proof that the history of painting would never be the same again. That history had henceforth to admit that every appearance could be thought of as a mutation and that visibility itself should be considered flux.” John Berger. [iv]
Here the process of painting becomes a key impulse and technique, but not even a photograph can capture the infinitude of a moment. John Berger reviewing a 2011 Monet show at the Grand Palais, Paris wrote: “In rethinking Monet I want to suggest that visitors to the exhibition see the canvases there not as records of the local and ephemeral but as vistas onto what is universal and eternal. The elsewhere, which is their obsession, is extensive rather than temporal, metaphoric rather than nostalgic.” [v]
John Ruskin took a very different approach; the stone façade is solid architecture that merges into solid sculpture (e.g. Entrance to the South Transept of Rouen Cathedral 1854). Ruskin thought beauty a moral impulse, not just dependant on perception of colour and shape. In ‘The Seven Lamps’, Ruskin describes Rouen as a “debased” Gothic cathedral, its loss of coherence and structural unity a sign of moral decay, caused by medieval architects losing sight of the truth of the spaces outlined by the tracery mouldings by paying attention to the forms of the mouldings themselves, now seen as flexible rather than stiff, which in his extreme view led to “the foul torrent of the Renaissance”. Truth was what Ruskin wanted, he saw it in the impressionism of Turner but I think he would have thought Monet went way too far in leaving out of his Rouen series any sense of the church as a moral and religious rock.
Painters were not alone in being sensitive to changing conditions of light and perception. Nearly 100 years earlier, Wordsworth described walks in the Lake District recommending routes depending on time of day, for example, early morning walks on the western side of lakes, “for the sake of the reflections upon the water, of light from the rising sun.” [vi]
In 1879, Grant Allen, a follower of Darwin, argued that plants developed brightly coloured parts when insects developed colour sense. He went further to claim that sensitive people appreciate colour and form, and (anticipating Clement Greenbur)g argued that narratives harm the quality of a painting. In ‘Evolution in Italian Art’ (1908), Allen took a quasi-scientific approach to the possible subjects available to Italian artists dependent on their environments and attacked Ruskin for wanting art to have didactic qualities. Theory and practice led to art for art’s sake – sensory pleasure a key, though in recent times, process is again emphasised and beauty, long abandoned by Modernism, sidelined.
A series underpins art as a process of discovery, recording yes, but discovering that recording is impulsive, inadequate: “When I paint my object is to show what I have found, not what I am looking for.” Pablo Picasso. [vii]
An aesthetic at its richest is ecological, makes connects and illuminates process and one’s own experiences, perceptual and conceptual. This can be time consuming. Cezanne’s anxious struggle to see the world parallels Gilpin’s. Though Cezanne’s fascination with landscape began while staying at a house his mother owned at l’Estaque, near Marseille. Cezanne’s battle with Montagne Sainte-Victoire was incremental, frustrating, slow and only ended with his death. His brushwork is there for all to see, haptic and exploratory, sometimes definitive, sometimes not.
Beginning in 1872, Pissaro tutored Cezanne in plein-air painting, advising him to lighten up his palette. In the early 1880s he made his first painting of Mont Sainte-Victoire. In 1901, he bought land on a hill north of Aix, built a studio with a large north-facing window and with clear views across to the mountain. Accommodation on the ground floor gave way to a storeroom for canvasses, he still live in an apartment in the city and walked a mile up the hill every morning.
He lived a life devoted to art often walking further up the hill to the summit for the best view of a mountain he painted more than 60 times in the last thirty years of his life. He’d start sometimes at dawn, return to Aix for lunch, then go back to paint until 5.30pm either in the studio or outside
Merleau-Ponty insists that the artist’s expressive act emerges out of the world, rather than its emerging from the private chamber of the mind. Take Cézanne painting Saint Victoire, studying the mountain . . . That he depends on the surrounding world for his vision is evident from his attitude, reflected in these words: “The landscape thinks itself in me, and I am its consciousness.” [viii]
New visions of the mountain, or of any other reality, are both possible and inevitable. Merleau-Ponty comments that for “painters the world will always be yet to be painted, even if it lasts millions of years . . . it will end without having been conquered in painting.” [ix] This idea suggests that truth cannot be resolved. Irina Costache comments, “Cezanne’s Mont Sainte-Victoire, a painting that may hold the key to “truth,” is a familiar image but hardly a simple one . . . If we were to look for the epistemological origins where are they to be found: in Cezanne’s work, (available to most of us most of the time in the form of a reproduction), in other works by him, his extensive writings, the story of his life, the multitudes of texts that have evaluated and analysed his art . . . in the original painting, or should we go as far as visiting Aix-en-Provence and see the mountain ourselves?” [x]
Instead of truth we can settle for pleasure or delight? Sculptor James Turrell works with light and space. He explains his vast vision for Roden Crater, near Flagstaff, Arizona: ‘Rather than being a journal of my seeing it’s about your seeing . . . looking at something like Cezanne’s many views of Mt. St Victoire in different light conditions and different senses that it had. For me I just like to take a picture in front of the mountain in a way you couldn’t miss it. That’s all that I can hope for but that way there’s a possibility that that same delight of seeing that happens to me will happen to you.”[xi]
Henri Cartier-Bresson thought that each scene had ‘Images a la Sauvette’ the title of his massive work with 132 black-and-white photographs and a drawing by Henri Matisse on the cover, published by Teridae in 1952 (literally ‘pictures in passing’), a ‘decisive moment’ was the English title). This is when all of the elements of the picture arrive together to tell a story of the scene in just a moment. His introductory text was written in 5 or 6 days yet proved most influential along with being an early adopter of 35 mm format, and master of the ‘street photography’ style.
Yves Bonnefoy was amazed by Cartier’s 1932 photograph of a man jumping his reflection in a pool of water behind St. Lazare station, Paris: “How was he able to recognize the analogy between the man running across the plaza and the poster in the background so quickly, how could he compose a scene out of so many fleeting elements – a scene that is as perfect in detail as it is mysterious in its totality?” [xii]
Yet Cartier’s theory of geometry and composition as being all important for creating meaning in the image I find too strong. But he was talking of street scenes, of events, of action. I am interested in sequences, of development and process of building a relationship with a landscape over an hour or five minutes – perhaps that’s the difference with the snapshot.
Photographs can use high-speed bursts of flash-light to freeze motion invisible to the eye or use a shutter speed of ten days, time for the Hubble telescope to take the Ultra Deep Field photographs of galaxies, but for me a moment is often 125th of a second. But I use a camera anywhere, so some images would qualify as a decisive moment, in a spray of sea form, almost like a haiku, and some, no doubt, as snapshots. By sequence I don’t mean Eadweard Muybridge (see earlier blog) shooting a series of images where the subject is captured in successive motion, multiple-exposures or time lapse photography (e.g. Hiroshi Sugimoto’s ‘Cabot Street Cinema, Massachusetts, 1979’ one very long exposure of a whole movie taken from the back of a cinema). My sequences occur over minutes, but some people occur over years.
For over many years Kevin Day photographed the same dead tree in Berkshire on different days, through different seasons and in different lighting conditions: “here is this wonderful old tree unchanging over the years and yet I can take hundreds of photos of it during the seasons and very few of them look the same. It is all about the change around the constant.” [xiii]
Ciaran Burke photographed a willow tree on a country lane in County Mayo each day for a year: “Each day brings different weather, a change of light, a new cloud pattern, a difference in density of cloud. Different times of day have changes in light; a golden dawn, a blue grey misty morn, a silver afternoon or pink cloud sunset. As the seasons change so will the tree, buds will burst, flowers will emerge and leaves unfold, green will cover grey, green will fade to brown, brown will fall and the grey stems will be revealed again.” [xiv]
Mark Hirsch photographed a venerable Bur Oak Tree in Wisconsin every day on his IPhone: “I would describe that Tree as I would a friend. My initial description a year ago would have been as simple as a tree in a corn field, but now I would describe it as a tree of life in its own realm.”[xv]
Then there’s the photograph that you know is part of a sequence that documents that moment when entropy is resisted to the max, Andy Goldsworthy’s work with leaves, and ice and shadows.
Susan Sontag wrote: “Images are more real than anyone could have supposed. And just because they are an unlimited resource, one that cannot be exhausted by consumerist waste, there is all the more reason to apply the conservationist remedy. If there can be a better way for the real world to include the one of images, it will require an ecology not only of real things but of images as well.” [xvi] Instead of truth and reality we can settle for pleasure or delight? No, I think there’s more.
Sontag writes, “Our irrepressible feeling that the photographic process is something magical has a genuine basis.” The same applies to dawn. Let dawn unfold, with patience, what does speed destroy? Reflection. My sequences work through attention to place and time as dawn unfolds, to anticipate and to respond to the vast scale of sky and fast motion of an Oystercatcher, the images document possibilities which the poems augment and sometimes define. The sequences allow time to flow like treacle, like the light spilling over the continent behind me. Dawn (before the sun pierces the horizon) encourages a relaxed state of wakefulness, receptive and open. The world becomes distinct when we slow attention down.
Sequences offer a sense of the dynamics of sun, moon, tides, of the energy of Gaia, of the moods of the weather and the light. I hope that my sequences of Eos are images that underline process and hope which offset momentarily Roland Barthes’ argument that art, especially photography, is at its heart about time and extinction. [xvii]
[i] In the summer of 2006 The Blue Rigi fetched a record price for a watercolour, an anonymous buyer paid £5.8 million.
[ii] Robert Pelfrey, in Art and Mass Media (Kendall/Hunt, 1996, p166.
[iii] Paul Hayes Tucker, in Claude Monet: Life and Art (Yale University Press, 1995, p155.
[iv] John Berger, ‘The Eyes of Claude Monet’ in The Sense of Sight, Pantheon, 1985, p189.
[v] John Berger, ‘The Enveloping Air: Light and Moment in Monet’, Harpers Magazine, January 2011.
[vi] Wordsworth, Guide to the Lakes (1810), OUP 1970, p98.
[vii] Pablo Picasso talking to Marius de Zayas, 1923.
[viii] Maurice Merleau-Ponty, “Cézanne’s Doubt,” Sense and Nonsense, tr. by Hubert L. and Patricia Allen Dreyfus. Northwestern University, 1964, p17.
[ix] Maurice Merleau-Ponty, The Primacy of Perception, ed. by James M. Edie. Northwestern University, 1964, p181.
[x] Irina D. Costache, “The Truth in Painting” Or in Text? The Dialogue Between Studio Art and Theory in Education, http://www.aesthetics-online.org/ideas/costache.html
[xi] interview Meridian BBC World Service, Thursday 02 November, 2000
[xii] quoted at http://www.all-art.org/history658_photography13-21.html)
[xvi] Susan Sontag, last paragraph of On Photography, New York: Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 1977.
[xvii] Roland Barthes, Camera Lucida: Reflections on Photography, New York: Hill and Wang, 1972.