Jacob Willer

Jacob Willer on ways of painting after Modernism and the dream of Renaissances to come

IDEAS RARELY COME to us; usually we come to them. What we call ‘artistic inspiration’ can happen less suddenly, more gradually than we like to think. It can be a process of finding out what matters most. The meanings were already there, and always will be, however deeply they may be buried.

Common modes of artistic communication have continuously changed with the times. Education, new materials and processes, and the ethics and the fashions that are particular to every cultural moment, account for the effect. But putting style aside, a good portion of the significance in, and of, artworks, has stayed constant. When we change our clothes we do not ourselves change; and it is the same with art. Because the fundamental concerns which define our being – and of which art is our prime expression – remain.

That is how it seemed; and that is how it still seems to me. But that is not quite how it seems to those who have set – or re-set – the terms for discussion about art, now. For instance, subject-matter used to be taken for granted. But since the days of Francisco de Goya and Jacques-Louis David, the search for topical subject-matter has increasingly become the creative component in art. The artist used mostly to be an interpreter; but today he is supposed to be a conjurer of disruptive ideas and attitudes, a sort of intellectual trickster.

I regret this change for a number reasons. I cannot deny that there is such a thing as a subversive creative genius, but it is extremely rare and there is no accounting for it. If we pretend that every artist should be a Picasso – that it is their proper duty to start again from first principles, experimenting, turning art upside down and inside out, all in their own special ways – then we are left in a mess, and standards fall. 

And we lose our humility. Valuing the originality of subversive genius at the expense of all else, we disregard the way that the best art was always built upon past examples. Before, artists strove to contribute to – and to advance – the communal project that we may call the tradition. The doctrine of subversion, which motivated the avant-garde, led to an arrogant dismissal of past achievements (Picasso would never himself have dismissed such achievements; in fact he paid them honest tribute, in his own eccentric way). And arrogance is a great obstacle to refinement, because true refinement requires extraordinary diligence. The good craftsman is humble; and the good artist is no more than an exalted craftsman, for without the craft – that is, the appropriate means of communication – intellectualisations count for zero.

Refinement is also imaginative work, just of a gentler sort. Since innovation has become the main thing, I fear that interpretative talents – talents which in other times appeared so widely – of potentially diligent artists are going neglected and under-developed.

But I reserve most of my regret for the loss of the old stories. Those stories, from the Bible or mythology or folklore, provided the imaginative sustenance – the inspiration, if you like – for all artists, not just the primarily interpretative talents such as Botticelli or Poussin but also the innovatory geniuses such as Michelangelo and Caravaggio. Those stories were – are – beautiful and enlightening, and we miss them; we are poorer without them, imaginatively and morally.

I do not mean, necessarily, that we miss the direct moral lessons that they teach – and art can be uncomfortable with didacticism. The greatest moral lesson in those stories was perhaps inadvertent: knowledge of them, and belief in them, bound people together in a culture. Those stories defined a common cause.

Without them, we can only be individuals; and individualistic artists really have to be innovatory geniuses, or they are nothing. We may joke about how easy it is to make Modern Art; and it is true that a lot of Modern Art is very crude, because anything goes. But making good art in – or after – the Modern period is more difficult than ever, precisely because there are no rules. After more than two centuries of intellectual upheaval – of revolution, subversion and repudiation – we have no settled view of the world, or of ourselves, to make into art. There are no common forms because there seem to be no common values.

Since everything is supposedly up for grabs, I decided that I may just as well try to paint the old way, using the old stories for my inspiration. I paint again as if the act of representation is interpretation, rather than direct self-expression. I paint to see if what there was, still could be. What would our world look like if the centre were regained?

But I do not paint as if nothing has changed. The position of my own work in time – in our time – and in relation to the old masters of the tradition, is calculated.

Leda (Oil on Board, 507mm x 700mm, 2018)

I recently completed this painting recalling the story of Leda, who was seduced and ravaged by Zeus in the form of a swan.  The subject was often treated by the old masters – by Leonardo and Michelangelo most famously of all – because it afforded them an opportunity to paint about sex, abstractly, using the elegant and muscular lines of the bird. And the very strangeness of the story – the bestiality – allowed for comment on the animal quality of the physical act.

The old masters tended to show Leda and the swan passionately entwined. But I did not want to show that, as I do not feel that we lack for images of sex. Instead I have shown Leda as a modern woman, sunbathing on her own in a park. Just now a swan swoops down and skids across the lake; and with a glint in his eye he cranes his long neck back to look at her. I am not sure what should happen next. Perhaps that is for the viewer to decide. Leda looks out at us – she looks us straight in the eye – as if to ask what we will believe.

Beneath her bed is a big book; it could be Ovid’s Metamorphoses. So she has her own imagination too. She reclines along the canvas like so many Venetian Venuses, running her fingers through her Titian-esque auburn hair, self-consciously. She knows what she is doing. Together, might we will her back into the tradition? 

It remains to be seen whether she can really be anything more than a sunbather nowadays, even in art. But things do come back around; her red bikini may appear incongruously modern, but in the ancient mosaics at the Villa Romana del Casale, in Sicily, women also wear red bikinis.

It might seem strange to try to picture such things here and now; but to me it would also seem strange not to try. I have always wondered what the old masters would have made if they were reborn among us. Seeing what we see, how much more beauty would they be able to draw out of our world, our modern experience? Or would they be just as stumped by it as we are?

Renaissance masters often set the old stories in the streets of their home towns – in Florence, or Siena, or Bruges – and in contemporary dress. Stanley Spencer then set them again in Cookham. I want to see the same significance in the streets and parks of London. And it all makes sense, if through art we are to find our way home.

Animating London life, bringing art to it to make it appear more like home, is part of my motive. But I have always felt that art also has its own spiritual home, in Italy. It is the painters’ Holy Land, and all artistic avenues lead me back to there. Usually I paint about aesthetic disappointment in our disenchanted world; and I paint to suggest – or, vainly, to impose – some re-enchantment upon it; but Italy still seems enchanted. It seems enchanted not necessarily by the same old stories, but rather by the history of art. And perhaps that is the most important story of all, to me.

Last year I tried to sum up these thoughts and feelings, in a pictorial joke about the Italian landscape.

Italian Landscape (Oil on Claybord, 305mm x 405mm, 2017)

The painting is small in size, and similar to the preferred format of Paul Bril, the Flemish landscape master who went to Rome and showed the way for later artists such as Claude Lorraine. On a nearby hillock there is a reclining nude. Actually she is dead: she is Eurydice, bitten by the snake that is now slithering away. A little further back, the young Giotto sits under a tree and draws his flock of sheep on a rock. Cimabue approaches in a fancy red cloak, about to discover the boy’s talent. Just opposite, atop a cliff, is the gleaming Temple of Vesta at Tivoli, which has appeared in so many paintings over the centuries. Behind, a glimpse of a lake: it is Trasimeno as seen from Cortona, and as it appears in the backgrounds of Signorelli’s altarpieces.

On the very distant hills, just before the mountains, St Francis prays and receives the stigmata from the seraph. This is a story, and an image, that goes back to the very beginning of our art, as Giotto painted it on the walls at Assisi. St Francis worshipped God in nature; he saw the poetry – the proper enchantment – in everything around him, and he implored everyone to look again and give thanks for what they saw. Look again they did; and soon came the naturalistic art of the Renaissance. So I paint St Francis here, as my own little gesture of thanks – thanks for the art, most of all. For me, the image of St Francis receiving the stigmata signals no less than the spiritual birth of our artistic tradition.

I feel a hypocrite, because I have never been a religious person but I am convinced that art in its healthiest state is truly a function of religion. Art cannot, therefore, be a substitute for religion; yet I continue to make that substitution for myself.

Or perhaps it is that I get my religion second-hand, through art. Religious feeling expanded the imagination; and in turn the imaginative scope of religious art expands my feeling. It is so sad when people smirk and say that art is meant to be useless. Art always had its reasons. Beauty inspires faith. 

In the foreground of my Italian landscape I left an easel, supposing that it should belong to Corot, or to some other modern landscapist trying to follow in his footsteps by organising the view into a sequence of sensible tones on canvas. That task is daunting enough. But in the long run, what will such painting mean? Can the sentimental recording of the view alone stand as sufficient thanks – and can it in turn inspire our thanks – or does what is ancient, and timeless, now need to be re-asserted, re-explained, and deliberately glorified again? 

What role is there left for painting in our (secular) society?  It has been argued many times over the previous decades that painting is dead. That Modernism was a fight for painting’s life, and it lost. I cannot completely disagree with that verdict; however I see no reason to believe – especially now, so long after the event – that Modernism was ever painting’s only hope. 

There is no pretending that painting is in good health. But in the end painting’s vitality depends on the interest – and the stake – that we have in it. Perhaps it is now a monastic pursuit. If with my own paintings I can help to guard the flame, and suggest that there is still something precious, even sacred, in our artistic inheritance, then I am happy to dream that painting’s time will come again – that one day there will be another Renaissance. Though I do not expect it soon.

I wish that painting did not now seem to demand so much argumentation – so much talk! If only paintings could speak for themselves, as they used to, when subject-matter and, to a good extent, style, were taken for granted. I even made a painting about the anxiety that this predicament causes in me.

Self-Portrait as Dante Entering the Eighth Bolgia (Oil on Copper, 315mm x 315mm, 2017)

It is a self-portrait as Dante, entering the eighth bolgia in hell. Dante was so curious to know about the fate of the false counsellors – so worried about his own possible fate, as a disputatious intellectual – that he leaned further and further until he felt himself slipping and he had to grip the rock to save himself from falling into the pit with the damned, who are now and forever immersed in flame. Here I am, clinging on, the fires from below – from the past – reflected in my eyes.

The broken statue refers to the Palladium, the sacred image of Pallas that was stolen from Troy by Ulysses and Diomedes and which, according to Virgil, was brought to Rome by Aeneas. Ulysses appears in Dante’s poem as the great explorer, whose curiosity and determination – whose very sense of purpose – took him too far and led to his damnation. The Palladium was actually a wooden statue, but I have made it marble so that it should seem to stand more clearly for the Classical tradition. Now it is broken. This too could be the consequence of fraudulent counsel.

I used to paint more directly from observation, choosing just the little sights that pleased me – instances of quiet, everyday beauty – and I would save all my arguments for writing. But I am much more content, now that I have owned up to my concerns in paint. Before, I was constantly looking – and, too often, waiting – for inspiration; now that I have returned to the great stories of the past, inspiration is endless. The only problem is finding the time to paint all the pictures queueing up in my mind! It is such a relief, to loose oneself a little from the arbitrary diktats of Modern Art. Through the tradition, I find my liberation.

NOVEMBER 2018 Jacob Willer MONK


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